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Working at the intersection of technology, media, and democracy.
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Reading, watching, playing, using: August 2020

This is my monthly roundup of the tech and media I consumed and found interesting. Here's my list for August.

Books

Educated, by Tara Westover. I realized about halfway through that the abuse that seems to ahave punctuated Westover's life were not going to stop. This is a brave story, although her unwillingness to condemn the church or the core of her family's beliefs leave us to join some of the dots ourselves.

Streaming

Nice White Parents. A limited run podcast by the studio behind Serial, about the relationship between wealthy white parents and the public schools they claim to support. Eye-opening.

Mrs America. The story of the Equal Rights Amendment, rendered as a gripping, human story. There's no doubt that the feminist pro-ERA characters are in the right, but it's worth reading Gloria Steinem and Eleanor Smeal's critical editorial about the series. It's certainly true that the financial forces backing the Stop ERA movement are underplayed.

Lovecraft Country. Just spectacular. I'm only two episodes in, but I was hooked from the first minute.

Arlo Parks. I've become absolutely addicted to her music. Perfect for long walks and late nights by myself.

Notable Articles

Black Lives Matter

Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation. John Lewis wrote an editorial to be published upon his death. If you click through to just one article in this post, please make it this one.

Pollution Is Killing Black Americans. This Community Fought Back. "Black communities like Grays Ferry shoulder a disproportionate burden of the nation’s pollution — from foul water in Flint, Mich., to dangerous chemicals that have poisoned a corridor of Louisiana known as Cancer Alley — which scientists and policymakers have known for decades."

Louisiana Supreme Court upholds Black man's life sentence for stealing hedge clippers more than 20 years ago. "A Black Louisiana man will spend the rest of his life in prison for stealing hedge clippers, after the Louisiana Supreme Court denied his request to have his sentence overturned last week." Only one judge - the only Black person on the court - dissented, pointing out that the sentence was grossly disproportionate to the crime.

Black troops were welcome in Britain, but Jim Crow wasn’t: the race riot of one night in June 1943. "The town did not share the US Army’s segregationist attitudes. According to the author Anthony Burgess, who spent time in Bamber Bridge during the war, when US military authorities demanded that the town’s pubs impose a colour bar, the landlords responded with signs that read: “Black Troops Only”."

Revisiting an American Town Where Black People Weren’t Welcome After Dark. I'm ashamed to say that sundown towns were new to me as a concept.

‘Were your grandparents slaves?’ On the very white-dominated world of venture funding.

The Pandemic

Children May Carry Coronavirus at High Levels, Study Finds. "Infected children have at least as much of the coronavirus in their noses and throats as infected adults, according to the research. Indeed, children younger than age 5 may host up to 100 times as much of the virus in the upper respiratory tract as adults, the authors found."

A Covid Patient Goes Home After a Rare Double Lung Transplant. "The surgery is considered a desperate measure reserved for people with fatal, irreversible lung damage. Doctors do not want to remove a person’s lungs if there is any chance they will heal." I'm writing this from my parents' house, where I'm supporting my mother in the aftermath of her double lung transplant. You don't want one. Please, please, please wear a mask.

How the Pandemic Defeated America. "Since the pandemic began, I have spoken with more than 100 experts in a variety of fields. I’ve learned that almost everything that went wrong with America’s response to the pandemic was predictable and preventable. A sluggish response by a government denuded of expertise allowed the coronavirus to gain a foothold." They need to go.

In A Twist On Loyalty Programs, Emirates Is Promising Travelers A Free Funeral If Infected With Covid. Innovative.

We thought it was just a respiratory virus. UCSF's report shows damage to the heart, gut, skin and more. The virus may weaponize our own immune systems against us.

Secret Gyms And The Economics Of Prohibition. "What Evelyn uncovered can only be described as a speakeasy gym. You know, illegal, hush hush, like the underground bars during the Prohibition era. These underground gyms appear to be popping up everywhere, from LA to New Jersey."

Trump's America

The cost of becoming a U.S. citizen just went up drastically. And asylum is no longer free. "The Trump administration announced on Friday an exorbitant increase in fees for some of the most common immigration procedures, including an 81% increase in the cost of U.S. citizenship for naturalization. It will also now charge asylum-seekers, which is an unprecedented move."

How the Media Could Get the Election Story Wrong. We shouldn't expect an election night this year. It'll take weeks, and there's a real possibility the election will stretch until January. But the media is set up for a big announcement.

A bipartisan group secretly gathered to game out a contested Trump-Biden election. It wasn’t pretty. Unless Biden has a landslide victory - which, to be honest, he probably won't - there may be violence on the streets and a political stalemate. In a year that's been plenty nasty already, we shouldn't expect this to go anything close to well.

With their visas in limbo, journalists at Voice of America worry that they’ll be thrown out of America. "VOA has long employed journalists who are citizens of other countries because they offer specific knowledge and expertise, including fluency in English and one or more of the 47 languages in which VOA broadcasts. In addition to their language skills, they are steeped in the history, culture and recent politics of the countries they report on, and they often have hard-to-replace sources and contacts among dissident communities." And now their visas are in jeopardy and they worry about having to leave - some to oppressive regimes.

The Truth Is Paywalled But The Lies Are Free. Some of the best journalism in the country is paywalled, offered up to a limited, wealthy audience, but disinformation is available to all. The effects of this disparity of information may be profound. (I like patronage models like The Guardian's.)

Trump Might Try to Postpone the Election. That’s Unconstitutional. I just have no way to gauge if this is something that is actually going to happen or if we're all just engaging in hyperbole. Reality just seems so spongey at this point. Maybe both?

The myth of unemployment benefits depressing work. "If anything, research to date suggests the federal benefit supplement has boosted macroeconomic activity and, therefore, likely supported hiring. That’s because these benefits have supported consumer spending, which in turn helps retailers, landlords and other businesses keep workers on their own payrolls." Benefits are not some drag on productivity. They boost the economy and help people in real need.

As election looms, a network of mysterious ‘pink slime’ local news outlets nearly triples in size. "The run-up to the 2020 November elections in the US has produced new networks of shadowy, politically backed “local news websites” designed to promote partisan talking points and collect user data. In December 2019, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism reported on an intricately linked network of 450 sites purporting to be local or business news publications. New research from the Tow Center shows the size of that network has increased almost threefold over the course of 2020, to over 1,200 sites."

What ARGs Can Teach Us About QAnon. "QAnon is not an ARG. It’s a dangerous conspiracy theory, and there are lots of ways of understanding conspiracy theories without ARGs. But QAnon pushes the same buttons that ARGs do, whether by intention or by coincidence. In both cases, “do your research” leads curious onlookers to a cornucopia of brain-tingling information. In other words, maybe QAnon is… fun?" Also see Dan Hon's excellent deep-dive exploration of this idea.

Ronald Reagan Wasn’t the Good Guy President Anti-Trump Republicans Want You to Believe In. Ronald Reagan was a terrible President. I love that this is just the latest in a series of really high quality explorations in Teen Vogue.

The Unraveling of America. Wade Davis in Rolling Stone on the situation we find ourselves in. Not just the proximal one, but the existential situation that's been building for decades.

'Christianity Will Have Power'. "Evangelicals did not support Mr. Trump in spite of who he is. They supported him because of who he is, and because of who they are. He is their protector, the bully who is on their side, the one who offered safety amid their fears that their country as they know it, and their place in it, is changing, and changing quickly. White straight married couples with children who go to church regularly are no longer the American mainstream. An entire way of life, one in which their values were dominant, could be headed for extinction. And Mr. Trump offered to restore them to power, as though they have not been in power all along."

Noam Chomsky wants you to vote for Joe Biden and then haunt his dreams. Sold.

U.S. Government Contractor Embedded Software in Apps to Track Phones. "A small U.S. company with ties to the U.S. defense and intelligence communities has embedded its software in numerous mobile apps, allowing it to track the movements of hundreds of millions of mobile phones world-wide, according to interviews and documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal."

Postal Service warns 46 states their voters could be disenfranchised by delayed mail-in ballots. "Anticipating an avalanche of absentee ballots, the U.S. Postal Service recently sent detailed letters to 46 states and D.C. warning that it cannot guarantee all ballots cast by mail for the November election will arrive in time to be counted — adding another layer of uncertainty ahead of the high-stakes presidential contest."

Society and Culture

How a Cheese Goes Extinct. "There are countless ways for a cheese to disappear. Some, like Holbrook’s, die with their makers. Others fall out of favor because they’re simply not good: one extinct Suffolk cheese, “stony-hard” because it was made only with skimmed milk, was so notoriously bad that, in 1825, the Hampshire Chronicle reported that one ship’s cargo of grindstones was eaten by rats while the neighboring haul of Suffolk cheese escaped untouched."

The Global God Divide. I'm on Team Godless. But 44% of Americans say you need to believe in God to be moral.

Indian Matchmaking Exposes the Easy Acceptance of Caste. "The pervasiveness of caste in Indian communities, even beyond the ambit of arranged marriages, has dangerous consequences for those of us born into “lower” castes."

Lilly Wachowski finally confirms that, yes, The Matrix is an allegory for the trans experience. I think this is super-cool.

Lorenzo Wilson Milam, Guru of Community Radio, Is Dead at 86. What an inspiring human being.

Bat Boy Lives! An Oral History of Weekly World News. I used to delight in seeing Weekly World News headlines when I traveled to the US. This history was fascinating to me.

‘Bel-Air’: Drama Series Take On ‘The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air’ From Morgan Cooper & Westbrook Studios Heats Up Streaming Marketplace. I cannot overstate how amazing this is.

To the future occupants of my office at the MIT Media Lab. "He was very happy to hear from the current resident of our office, and explained that it should be no problem to get the window up and running. I’d need to set up a dedicated Linux box and download some Python to control the climate logic, but it shouldn’t be that hard to debug. He was willing to help."

Dead plots. Charles Stross on plots no longer available to authors in 2020.

Living in Switzerland ruined me for America and its lousy work culture. I'm a Swiss citizen. Sometimes I think I just might make the jump ... But a lot of what's listed here are things I recognize from Scotland, too.

“This Plane Is Not Going to Land in Cairo”: Saudi Prince Sultan Boarded a Flight in Paris. Then, He Disappeared. Surreal, and evil.

Technology

Women Are Leading Latin America’s Fintech Revolution. "Including women entrepreneurs equally could boost the global economy by $5 trillion, and companies with women founders generate 2.5x more revenue for every dollar invested than male-led companies. They also have higher stock prices and a 35 percent higher return on investment."

TikTok and the Law: A Primer (In Case You Need to Explain Things to Your Teenager). Ageism aside, this is a pretty good primer on the legal issues behind the forced TikTok sale.

TikTok and Microsoft’s Clock. "If Microsoft is able to buy the service and users of just the countries listed, how are they going to separate them from the rest of TikTok? Understatement: this sounds extremely complicated. How long will it take to do that? Weeks? Months? Will it operate as-is until that’s completed?"

Ad Industry Launches New Organization, Will Push Google And Apple On Tracking. Pfffft. Good luck with that. Doc Searls, who I hugely respect, wrote a great post on the subject, too.

Can Killing Cookies Save Journalism? "Instead, the company found that ads served to users who opted out of cookies were bringing in as much or more money as ads served to users who opted in. The results were so strong that as of January 2020, NPO simply got rid of advertising cookies altogether. And rather than decline, its digital revenue is dramatically up, even after the economic shock of the coronavirus pandemic."

The Need for Speed, 23 Years Later. "The internet is faster, but websites aren't". Instead of embracing speed, we've layered our pages with more and more cruft.

The UX of LEGO Interface Panels. An exploration of UX ideas using LEGO as a cipher. Sure, why not. (It's delightful.)

Scientists rename human genes to stop Microsoft Excel from misreading them as dates. Oops.

Facebook Fired An Employee Who Collected Evidence Of Right-Wing Pages Getting Preferential Treatment. "Individuals that spoke out about the apparent special treatment of right-wing pages have also faced consequences. In one case, a senior Facebook engineer collected multiple instances of conservative figures receiving unique help from Facebook employees, including those on the policy team, to remove fact-checks on their content. His July post was removed because it violated the company’s “respectful communication policy.”" Inexcusable stuff.

Facebook algorithm found to 'actively promote' Holocaust denial. "Last Wednesday Facebook announced it was banning conspiracy theories about Jewish people “controlling the world”. However, it has been unwilling to categorise Holocaust denial as a form of hate speech, a stance that [the Institute for Strategic Dialogue] describe as a “conceptual blind spot”." Understating it somewhat, I would say.

To Head Off Regulators, Google Makes Certain Words Taboo. A surely losing battle to ensure that internal communications revealed during discovery don't suggest monopoly control.

Design Docs at Google. Here heard second hand, but worth studying.

Judge Agrees to End Paramount Consent Decrees. Netflix and its cousins are now free to run movie theater chains.

Google's secret home security superpower: Your smart speaker with its always-on mics. Either super-cool or super-creepy, or maybe creepy-super-cool. Google Home has the ability to listen to your smoke alarm, or for broken glass, and then tell you about it.

tech brain. "what is tech brain? there are lots of things to point to, but if i had to come up with a thesis it would be that tech brain is a sort of constant willful reductionism: an addiction to easy answers combined with a wholesale cultural resistance to any kind of complexity."

Twitter launches new API as it tries to make amends with third-party developers. Once bitten ... but I really appreciate this new, non-advertising-centric direction.

RFC 8890: The Internet is for End Users. "As the Internet increasingly mediates essential functions in societies, it has unavoidably become profoundly political; it has helped people overthrow governments, revolutionize social orders, swing elections, control populations, collect data about individuals, and reveal secrets. It has created wealth for some individuals and companies while destroying that of others. All of this raises the question: For whom do we go through the pain of gathering rough consensus and writing running code?"

A Kenosha Militia Facebook Event Asking Attendees To Bring Weapons Was Reported 455 Times. Moderators Said It Didn’t Violate Any Rules. "In a companywide meeting on Thursday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that a militia page advocating for followers to bring weapons to an upcoming protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, remained on the platform because of “an operational mistake.”" People are dead.

 

It’s time to rethink the App Store

The App Store is a problem.

As bought into the Apple ecosystem as I am - to be clear, its devices and operating systems are by far the best I've ever used - the way it polices its software ecosystem has become a barrier to innovation.

I don't really care about Fortnight, and I'm on the fence about whether allowing effectively another App Store inside an App Store is a good idea. But removing a developer's ability to publish anything on a platform, regardless of whether it breaks the rules or not, seems like a big problem to me. And the rules around payments are worse.

If your app uses in-app payments of any kind, Apple takes a 30% cut. These payments can only be for virtual goods: you'll notice that if you take a Lyft ride or order a pizza, you'll be redirected to either enter your credit card or use Apple Pay for payment. (Apple takes a 0.15% cut of Apple Pay payments, regardless of the card you use.) The trick is that you can't use this latter method of payment if you could have used in-app payments: if you ask for a credit card for a digital good, but still allow the user to pay in-app, Apple still wants its 30%.

This is unequivocally digital rent-seeking. There's literally no reason for Apple to do this, except to bolster the estimated $50B it made last year from the App store. It's one major reason why it's the most valuable company in the world, with a $2.13 trillion market cap as of Friday.

It's a gatekeeper rather than a driver of innovation. As Francisco Tolmasky pointed out, Apple's App Store rules wouldn't have allowed for the invention of the web browser. There are likely many other inventions that would have been amazing on mobile and tablet devices that will never see the light of day because they fall afoul of some rule or other.

Similarly, it's been disheartening to see these rules start to bleed over into macOS. That OS contains a technology - literally called Gatekeeper - that prevents apps from running unless they're associated with an authorized developer ID. By default, the latest version will only open apps that have been notarized by Apple, which involves some extra software-driven checks in XCode. The only way to run an app that doesn't at least have a developer ID is to open up system preferences and reassure Gatekeeper that it's all going to be okay, on an individual basis - but macOS deliberately doesn't make it clear that you can do this.

Getting a developer ID costs a flat $99 a year. This heavily excludes developers from less wealthy regions of the world, as well as open source projects. And I strongly suspect that the rules will tighten up again - either formally or through interface changes - in the next version of macOS.

These are our devices; we bought them. We should be able to run the software we want on them. Anything else is heavily disempowering at best, and a barrier to trade and innovation at worst. And developers like Epic are experiencing firsthand where the chips fall.

 

I'm hiring

I'm looking for an entrepreneurial front-end engineer to help with our work at ForUsAll. Our mission is to help all Americans build a brighter financial future, a click at a time.

We heavily use React, Redux, and supporting packages like Storybook, Jest, and Styled Components. We're beginning to use more Node and Puppeteer, too.

Most importantly, you're a great communicator with a product mindset. We're a small team that uses human-centered processes to make product decisions - something you would be heavily involved in.

This is one of the most diverse engineering teams I've ever worked with, and people from all contexts and backgrounds are encouraged to get in touch. Your school or degree (including whether you have one) will not be evaluated, but you do have to be resident in the US and be legally permitted to work here.

If you have questions or want to get in touch, email me at my ForUsAll address: ben.werdmuller@forusall.com.

 

My daily writing process

I've been writing at least a post a day during my short social media hiatus. Although I'm a little bit worried about flooding the folks who subscribe via email - it's occurred to me to limit the mailing list to a couple of days a week and send as a digest - I find it meditative. I tend to write first thing in the morning, right after reading through my feeds in Reeder. I compose on my iPad in markdown using iA Writer and then copy to my site using its "copy as HTML" function. iA Writer uses micropub, so theoretically I could publish directly, but I like the opportunity to read over the piece in context before I push the button.

As I mentioned on Monday, I've been writing more fiction, which has mostly meant fleshing out a book in Scrivener. I've also been submitting some short stories for publication - my rejection-proof skin has been thickening steadily - and taking part in a few competitions. My round one piece for the NYC Midnight flash fiction challenge placed first in its group. To be honest, I needed the encouragement - and tonight I'll move on to round two with my head held high.

I have an iPad Pro with a magic keyboard case, which is strictly for creative work. My work accounts are nowhere to be seen, and notifications are switched off across the board. You can't develop software on an iPad - at least, not really - and I don't use it for coding projects. It's just for writing and drawing. While the OS is locked down to the extent that Apple may be legally forced to open it up sometime soon, I find it makes for a pretty good distraction-free environment. It's one of the best gadget purchases I've ever made. (Who would have thought I'd be so bought into the Apple ecosystem a decade ago? Not me.)

But even more importantly, cultivating the space to write and reflect has been an important habit for me. Like regular exercise and eating well, it sets me up for the rest of the day. In a world where we're expected to be always on and instantly reactive, some nearly-offline slow thinking time has proven to be a very good thing indeed. Getting that in first, over a cup of coffee while the morning is still quiet, has been lovely.

 

The tech industry is culpable for Trump

Kevin Roose has written an alarming wakeup call in the New York Times:

Pro-Trump political influencers have spent years building a well-oiled media machine that swarms around every major news story, creating a torrent of viral commentary that reliably drowns out both the mainstream media and the liberal opposition.

While election polls typically place Democrats ahead, they were flat out wrong in 2016, in large part because of the Trump campaign's ability to dominate social media. Facebook is the joint monarch of the social media landscape with YouTube; while engagement on the former is dominated by conservative content, Trump's ads about Biden's cognitive decline have enjoyed pride of place on the latter.

Trump is a danger to the country, to democracy, and to the stability of the world. (This statement would have seemed like out-there hyperbole four years ago, but, well, please feel free to take a look back at what has happened since.) Despite this, and despite commentary from pollsters and business executives, it's not at all a given that he will lose the election.

If he does win another four years, the tech industry will not be blameless. Our focus on engagement over community, and our promotion of targeted advertising over contextual ads and other business models, has paved the way for this new kind of authoritarianism. Microtargeting of political messages on social media is theoretically simply a new frontier in political messaging; in reality it has allowed disinformation to be disseminated at scale. The irony is that this kind of behavioral advertising isn't even that lucrative for most businesses; the harms vastly outweigh the benefits.

This is not a rhetorical discussion. We have concentration camps on our borders, an uptick in hate crimes, and a prevalence of xenophobic, nationalist, and anti-science policies. The climate crisis is being ignored even as our country burns. And we are all responsible.

 

So much for housing equality

While the pandemic certainly accelerated it, the housing crisis in America has been, in large part, the result of interest rates being held at zero for years.

I'm far from an economist, but here's my attempt to explain the process:

Low interest rates encourage speculation. It's essentially Santa Claus for investors: loans become incredibly cheap, so they have more net cashflow to deploy on riskier investments in order to pursue higher returns.

They have a similar effect on the stock market: deliberate changes to interest rates, rather than any kind of natural effect, are one of the main reasons the market has risen steadily for the last few decades. Of course, this stock market performance mostly benefits wealthier people, who then have more capital to deploy on riskier investments.

Finally, it's worth mentioning that low interest rates drive higher inflation, reducing the value of the dollar and therefore the real value of the national debt.

In this environment of increased speculation, investors put more money into housing, and prices are driven up. This is great news for people who already own their own home, who also feel the Santa Claus effect. They receive enormous cash windfalls when they sell their homes, and they can get those low-interest loans using their inflated home values as collateral. But it's an absolute disaster for everyone else.

As home prices are driven up, it becomes harder and harder for people who aren't already on the ladder to buy in. This is more pronounced in some communities than others: historical racial disparities mean that people of color are much less likely to own their own home and see the benefit of this appreciation. Across ethnicities, most younger generations can't afford to buy a home, and those that do generally get help from parents already on the property ladder.

As more people rent, multi-family homes become more valuable investments, which encourages more speculation, and creates more value for people who already have wealth. And so the cycle continues.

Unfortunately, Bloomberg suggests that the interest rate may again be held at zero for five or more years. If this happens, we can expect home prices to continue to rise, and this raging inequality to deepen.

This will also have a profound (and deserved) effect on cities like San Francisco. In a world where remote working is not just accepted but required, and millennial workers can't afford to buy homes in these regions, they're going to find their way to more affordable markets very quickly. People on my team have asked me about the possibility of leaving the San Francisco area, and I'm sure this is a story that's rapidly repeating across the industry. It's impossible to drive through a residential area in San Francisco and not see multiple U-Haul trucks. The historic exodus will continue.

I've got skin in this game. I'm 41 years old and don't own my home. It's beyond time that I had a place of my own - but the Bay Area is looking like a worse and worse place to settle. I want to live in a diverse, progressive community where people across multiple industries and lifestyles can afford to live. That's going to be somewhere much cheaper.

I had hoped that we'd see some housing price depreciation, but it looks like policies will go the other way, regardless of who is the President next year. We've all got to prepare accordingly.

 

Expanding the definition of accredited investors

In the US, you normally have to be an accredited investor to invest in private companies like startups. In practice, this has meant that you've needed to earn $200K a year for the last two years running, or have a net worth of at least a million dollars excluding the value of your home. It's not quite as simple as this: some crowdfunding has been allowed for a while, and if a startup is raising under a million dollars, it could include non-accredited investors under some circumstances. Nonetheless, the effective rule has been: only rich people can buy into startups.

The SEC announced an expansion to that definition today. As an alternative to being rich, you can also be considered to be accredited if you've achieved Series 7, 65, or 82 certification. These exam-based certifications respectively qualify you to sell securities, provide general investment advice, or transact securities on behalf of clients.

Taking a Series 65 exam costs $175. It wouldn't surprise me if investment platforms started subsidizing that price in order to make it easier for individuals to invest in startups, making back the total from a cut in investment proceeds.

Of course, investing in startups is eye-wateringly risky, and nobody should ever invest more money than they can comfortably lose. Nonetheless, for many investors from less high net worth backgrounds, the barrier to getting into the market has been lowered. Particularly for women founders and founders from communities of color, this may be a good thing. (Increased speculation, on the other hand, may not be.)

 

Doing no harm

I used to have a simple ethical stance that influenced my career choices: I wouldn't work for a defense or arms company, and I wouldn't work for a bank.

In both cases, the idea was that I didn't want my work to result in someone's death. For defense or weapons, the connection to death is obvious. For banks, my argument was that traditional banking institutions work in a predatory way that actively harms people in poverty, worsening their situation at best, and exploiting it at worst.

While I stand by both lines, this stance is a little too simple. What about challenger banks, for example? Particularly those which seek to upend the status quo and provide real help for people who need it? What about other technology companies that provide essential technology platforms that are used to profile immigrants or activists? What about companies that further - or simply choose to ignore - gaping racial disparities?

My computer science degree taught me many things. I learned how to diagram finite state automata like nobody's business; I've got a pretty good handle on how to analyze the cost effectiveness of an algorithm; I got my head around Prolog, C, Java, and XSLT. While I believe we learned about ethical considerations around artificial intelligence - the trolley problem, for example - I don't recall being taught about the ethics of our own actions.

Over the last few years, it's become a more accepted idea that software is the reflection of the people who build it: engineering, product, and business decisions are all made by humans who use their own value systems and understanding of their ethical context. Omidyar Network's Ethical OS is one response to this challenge, allowing organizations to make better decisions as they build products. The Center for Humane Technology has, to its credit, also been refining its approach to advocating for ethics, having launched amidst some deserved criticism. These endeavors, as well as the work of inclusion-minded organizations like Code2040, Women Who Code, Techqueria, Trans*H4ck and others, represent a great deal of progress. Of course, there's significantly more progress that still needs to be made.

But there are relatively few resources centered around making ethical decisions as an individual. How might you choose your next job in an ethical way? What kind of work should an engineer - or a product manager, designer, marketer, etc - feel comfortable doing? What are the codes of ethics we should live by and look for among our peers?

Ethics is, of course, a widespread area of study, and there are plenty of endeavors outside of tech to figure out how to apply them. Santa Clara University's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics hosts a framework for considering ethical decisions that is probably a good starting point. But I've found very little that dives specifically into the ethical challenges for individuals posed by building software on the internet. Not only do you need a framework for asking the right questions, which the Markkula Center's work helps provide, but you need to have the insight and knowledge to truly understand the implications of your work.

A few years ago, Chelsea Manning attended the New York demo day for Matter, the values-based accelerator where I was Director of Investments. She was on the board for Rewire, a startup that was attempting to build an easy-to-use encrypted email solution for journalists and activists. We had worked hard to select teams that we believed had the potential to make the world more informed, inclusive, and empathetic. Chelsea is very smart indeed, and doesn't hold her opinions back; I was eager to get her feedback on the teams.

It was a shock to me when she explained which technologies could be used for surveillance, which could be used for weapons, and so on. The teams were absolutely not building technology for those use cases, but at the hands of the wrong investors or acquirers, they could be used to cause harm. She was right. While we had invested in some genuinely incredible people, I realized I hadn't done enough to discuss the implications of the work the teams were doing and ensure that it was impossible for them to cause harm in the wrong hands. Intention is not enough. I consider this to be one of the most important conversations of my life.

A similar conversation might be enlightening for engineers who build facial recognition software that is used by ICE to scan DMV records to build a corpus of data that can be used to track immigrants. Or those who build modern payday loans that plunge low income people into debt traps. Or machine learning algorithms that predict "high risk renters", locking in historic racial disparities. Or engineers who find themselves agreeing with James Damore's outrageous Google memo. And we need to be having these conversations more openly, so that we can improve understanding and share knowledge and insights that will help everyone in the industry make better decisions.

Ethical challenges are subjective and non-deterministic, and it's difficult to build a hard and fast framework that encompasses them - which is a hard pill to swallow for engineers, who are used to living in a deterministic universe built out of discrete logic and testable outcomes. My "don't build weapons, don't work for a bank" rules simply don't cut it. It's tempting to reduce my stance to a pat motto like "do no harm", but like its obvious cousin "do no evil", too much wiggle room is left for work that could have less than positive implications.

There's no alternative to assessing each opportunity on its own terms and asking the right ethical questions, although we can help each other by making those assessments public and learning from each other. We need to be doing that for everything we assess, from job opportunities to business models to technology architectures. Technology is not amoral; neither is business. And we all have a responsibility to do the right thing.

 

Open source tools for activists

We're in the mist of what may be the largest civil rights movement in US history. In Belarus, inspiring protests are bringing down the authoritarian Aleksandr Lukashenko. Around the world, authoritarians and nationalists are being met with a rise in democratic political protests.

The US government has sometimes not lived up to its declared values in the face of protests. From COINTELPRO to the PRISM revelations, it is clear that it has often treated political protest as a threat, and turned to surveillance and infiltration in order to undermine it. A Nixon administration official admitted that the war on drugs was started to undermine the antiwar and civil rights movements.

We are, unfortunately, not as democratic as we might hope to be. And the situation is unlikely to have improved in the current era. In a world where it's not a given that the President will step down if he loses the election, domestic activists need a toolbox at their disposal that will keep them safe as they exercise their Constitutional rights. Around the world, activists fighting for equality and democracy need the same.

Unfortunately, the Bridgefy app that was widely used in the Hong Kong protests has been shown to be a privacy nightmare: easy to take down, compromise, and deanonymize. Choosing the wrong tool can have consequences. So what's safe?

Open source software allows anyone to view and share the source code. It can be audited by anyone who wants to verify that it is seucre and fit for purpose. The result is applications that are more trustworthy.

Here are a few auditable, open source tools that I believe activists can rely on.

Signal

Easy to use and end-to-end encrypted, Signal is recommended by both Edward Snowden and security guru Bruce Schneier. It behaves like a slick instant messaging app you might download from Google or Facebook, but you know your messages are end-to-end encrypted.

I use Signal every day to communicate with people all over the world. It just works.

It's worth saying that while the Signal protocol is also used to secure WhatsApp messages, it is technically possible for messages saved on that app to be shared with Facebook, its corporate parent. They can also be technically shared with governments and law enforcement.

Element

While Signal is best at one-to-one communication, Element is a bit like an open source, end-to-end encrypted Slack. Based on the decentralized Matrix network, which can theoretically support an infinite number of different apps, it combines a commercial quality user experience with fully open source code, a decentralized back-end, and end-to-end encryption.

Like Slack, it can be extended using bots and integrations. For example, an upload to a  SecureDrop endpoint could notify an Element channel (or a channel on any other Matrix-powered app). In the same way Slack can be turned into a notification center for commerical teams, Element or Matrix can be used to be an activist group's control center. And it runs behind Tor.

SecureDrop

Created by Aaron Swartz and currently managed by the Freedom of the Press Foundation, SecureDrop allows any organization to securely and anonymously accept documents.

Organizations like The New York Times, the anti-corruption NGO Global Witness, and the Center for Public Integrity run SecureDrop instances on their own infrastructure to maintain the safety and anonymity of whistleblowers. Any organization can do the same.

IPFS

The InterPlanetary File System is a censorship-resistant way to publish content on the internet without having to rely on a central provider. When used with the Tor Browser, it's anonymous, too.

IPFS's distributed architecture allows content to be published without easily being removed. Content is hosted by other IPFS users. Unlike the web, there's no central DNS registry, so domains can't be pulled down. And content at one IPFS location can easily be forked and copied to another.

A growing number of end-user IPFS apps are available.

Tor Browser

Tor is the most secure way to browse the web. It blocks trackers and prevents browser fingerprinting: the process by which tracking networks can identify you by your browser configuration alone, whether you have cookies enabled or not.

Most importantly, though, it uses the Tor network, which is designed to anonymize your internet traffic. (TOR stands for The Onion Router, and its anonymous architecture is built in layers, like an onion.) There are lots of sites that only exist on the network, and these "dark web" nodes aren't as rife with criminality as reports suggest. DuckDuckGo operates a Tor node; so does everything from Medium to Facebook. In every case, it's to establish greater security for users around the world.

Tor allowed protesters in the Arab Spring to escape censorship or retaliation, and is used to bypass China's Great Firewall. It can do the same for today's protesters. Chrome and Firefox users in free countries can download the Snowflake plugin to help host layers of the Tor network without implicating yourself.

Bitmask

Bitmask is a cross-platform VPN built specifically for activists. Most people use a VPN to create a secure connection to protected infrastructure: for example, to access production servers. Some commercial VPNs are designed to allow people to access streaming services in other countries. In both cases, anti-surveillance isn't the goal; they tend to have centralized architectures where traffic travels through servers monitored and controlled by a single company.

Conversely, Bitmask gives you access to multiple networks designed to circumvent surveillance and network monitoring. Its parent, the LEAP Encryption Access Project, wants to provide high quality encryption to everyone. (The Trump administration has considered banning end-to-end encryption.)

What else?

This list is a starting point: I'd love to hear about other software you think should be included. If you're aware of an open source, easy to use, cross-device encrypted email solution, I would particularly like to know - mostly so I can switch to it immediately.

 

Photo by Teemu Paananen on Unsplash

 

Another day in Hellsville

I've decided to take a short hiatus from social media - which, really, is a hiatus from learning about the world in staccato, where each dopamine hit brings a payload of horror. I want to be informed, but I want to be informed on my schedule.

I'm writing this update from Santa Rosa, which sits nestled between two raging fires. The smoke hangs thickly in the air, turning the sky red. This year seems to ratchet up month by month, the pressure slowly increasing, as if to dare us to cry that we've had enough.

Here is what my day in the pandemic looked like:

I brought an air purifier to an elderly friend in Berkeley. Then I brought a second air purifier to my sister in Richmond, who is disabled with chronic pain and spends most of her day in bed. I drove myself through the orange haze to be with my parents. My mother is weaker than she's probably ever been. She can barely walk. I made dinner for them both, and washed up, and gave her a ginger hug in bed and told her I hoped tomorrow would be a better day.

It's a lot.

I'm finding it really difficult to work on extracurricular coding in this context, so I've given up. Known is chugging along without me, which is lovely to see, and it turns out that my Life on the Ground questions don't need a software platform to empower people to share their stories. I work with code and software in my day job, and that turns out to be more than enough.

Instead, I'm writing a book. Finally. It's a pandemic cliché, I'm fully aware of it, but it's also something I've been called towards for decades. I've decided to approach it with the seriousness I would any software project: I'm learning new skills and researching the best approaches. It's not a whim - but it's also liberating to work on something that doesn't need to be a business. More than anything, it's something that's mine: an escape, a place to channel all the things I'm feeling, and something to work on that doesn't need to be about productivity. It can just be. Not a venture novel; a lifestyle novel.

There are silver linings to this pandemic. Remote work means I can support my parents without having to consider the impact on my job. I've found the mental and actual space to write. Not going into an office means I haven't been eating trash from the neighborhood for lunch, and I've been able to use some of the extra time to exercise. I'm healthier than I've been in years.

I just wish we weren't in the midst of an epidemic, and that California wasn't on fire, and that we had a compassionate government, and that police weren't murdering Black people, and that my mother wasn't dying.

Some of these things will change. The epidemic will end. The fires will be put out, and we will eventually enact laws to deal with the climate crisis. The government will leave office, and potentially go to jail. The police will be defunded and remade.

As for the last thing on the list? All I can do is be here, do my best, try and remember to take care of myself, and hope.