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Working at the intersection of technology, media, and democracy.
He / him.

benwerd

benwerd

benwerd

ben@benwerd.com

 

I get people asking to place articles on my blog for money all the time. I always ignore because I figure they're automated messages. But what if I said "yes"? What would it take for a public blog to support a modest full-time income?

 

Snippets in Superhuman are great but I almost just sent a Ruby on Rails takehome project to someone who wanted me to invest in his startup.

 

I had a few days off last week to pack up some stuff; this weekend was my mother's birthday, which we celebrated well; last night I managed a rare eight hours of sleep.

Hello, new week. Bring it on.

 

Happy Easter to everyone who celebrates. As a godless heathen, someone had to remind me it was a thing this morning, and now I plan to find some chocolate eggs.

 

Reading, watching, playing, using: March, 2021

This is my monthly roundup of the media I consumed and found interesting. Here's my list for March, 2021: a month where, at least in the United States, mass vaccination started to present the light at the end of the tunnel for the pandemic.

Books

The Death of Vivek Oji, by Akwaeke Emezi. Beautiful and sad; a tale of someone trying to be themselves in a context that won’t allow it, and of love and allyship becoming their own kinds of oppression. Despite the tragedy at the heart of the novel, it resonates with triumphant humanism, too. Emotional and sonorous and just about perfect.

Something That May Shock and Discredit You, by Daniel M. Lavery . A very personal book; powerful in a way that sneaks up on you with seemingly-banal interludes that add up to a meaningful whole. I’ve been a fan of his ever since The Toast, but this is something else entirely.

The Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson. It starts with a catastrophe - an extrapolation of climate change and the very dark places it might lead us - but then takes us on an exploration of how we might deal with it. It’s an informed celebration of invention, resolve, and the human spirit. If I have a criticism, it’s that it sometimes is far too utopian and engages in technological determinism, but what a change that makes. I’ve even forgiven its extensive passages on decentralized social networking (something I know a thing or two about) and blockchain, the wrongness of which casts doubt on the technical robustness of other climate solutions presented. This is hard economic science fiction, and yet, a very human book.

The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett. A near-perfect novel about identity and how the stories we tell about ourselves both define and disguise us. Modern, nuanced, and rich in a way that lingers long afterwards.

Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, by Cathy Park Hong. A challenging, complicated book that provides a much-needed perspective via the author’s Asian American experience. I was drawn in by the first half, and again by the deservedly angry final essay. The rest of the second half is dedicated to her experiences as an artist, which are not always likable. But why should they be? She doesn’t owe anybody anything, and her honesty is a gift that deserves attention.

Notable Articles

Business

Imagine Your Flexible Office Work Future. "The C-Suite has had “flexibility” for years. If companies don’t expand it to other workers, they’ll find jobs elsewhere."

The End of Indie. "Unfortunately, as we’ve sought to lean more aggressively into scaling our investments and ideas behind an “Indie Economy” we’ve not found that same level of enthusiasm from the institutional LP market."

Four-Day Work Week Gains Popularity Around the World. "So last spring the company told everyone to sign off around lunchtime every Friday to ease into the weekend. The experiment was so successful—sales, employee engagement, and client satisfaction all rose—that in January, Awin decided to go a step further, rolling out a four-day week for the entire company with no cuts in salaries or benefits. “We firmly believe that happy, engaged, and well-balanced employees produce much better work,” says Chief Executive Officer Adam Ross. They “find ways to work smarter, and they’re just as productive.”" Honestly, what's the downside?

An alternative to competition. “And all we have to do is get enough customers to make our business work. That's it. That's how we stay alive. Not by taking marketshare away from anyone, not by siphoning off users, not by spending gobs of cash to convince people to switch. We simply have our own economics to worry about, and if we get that right, we're golden.” I like this way of thinking.

What Ended Indie. The discussion of GAAP accounting here - and in particular its shortcomings - is very familiar to me.

For Creators, Everything Is for Sale. “A rash of new start-ups are making it easier for digital creators to monetize every aspect of their life — down to what they eat, who they hang out with and who they respond to on TikTok.” It’s like an episode of Black Mirror.

In a First, Uber Agrees to Classify British Drivers as ‘Workers’. “Uber said it would reclassify more than 70,000 drivers in Britain as workers who will receive a minimum wage, vacation pay and access to a pension plan.” Everywhere, please.

The Personal Finance and Investment Advice Fallacy. “The personal finance circuit and the hustle economy are some of the most public acts of cruelty in capitalism. It exists to kick people when they’re down - telling those who are suffering because inherent unfairness of capitalism (where so much is based on where you are born, when you were born and whom you are born to) that it’s their fault, and that the reason they’re doing badly is because they haven’t taken the right advice or done the right thing.”

ESGs, sustainable investing are not as green as touted, investor says. “The financial services industry is duping the American public with its pro-environment, sustainable investing practices. This multitrillion dollar arena of socially conscious investing is being presented as something it's not. In essence, Wall Street is greenwashing the economic system and, in the process, creating a deadly distraction. I should know; I was at the heart of it.”

Green investing is a fraud. “Take "Environmental, Social, and Governance" (ESG) funds, pitched as a way to save for retirement without annihilating the planet you're planning to retire on. These were once so promising that they panicked the finance sector, so much so that the world's carbon barons convinced Trump to propose a law making it illegal to direct your investment dollars into an ESG.” Instead, ESG funds were gutted of their impact and are now largely marketing concerns.

Culture

Beeple sold an NFT for $69 million. Just, ugh.

The internet didn’t kill counterculture—you just won’t find it on Instagram. "Taken from the title of Chinese sci-fi writer Liu Cixin’s 2008 book, “the dark forest” region of the web is becoming increasingly important as a space of online communication for users of all ages and political persuasions. In part, this is because it is less sociologically stressful than the clearnet zone, where one is subject to peer, employer, and state exposure. It also now includes Discord servers, paid newsletters (e.g., Substack), encrypted group messaging (via Telegram, etc.), gaming communities, podcasts, and other off-clearnet message board forums and social media."

You’re probably using the wrong dictionary. “A book where you can enter “sport” and end up with “a diversion of the field” — this is in fact the opposite of what I’d known a dictionary to be. This is a book that transmutes plain words into language that’s finer and more vivid and sometimes more rare. No wonder McPhee wrote with it by his side. No wonder he looked up words he knew, versus words he didn’t, in a ratio of “at least ninety-nine to one.””

Media

Journalism is a public service. So why doesn’t it represent the public?. "All of this is to say, getting into a four-year university depends largely on generational wealth, which a myriad of immigrant households and historically marginalized racial minorities are still struggling to build. Those on the unlucky side of the gap see disadvantages compound from the start. I come from a family that lived below the poverty line, and that likely helped me earn a full scholarship to Boston University. This stroke of luck has changed my life, but it’s important to acknowledge that the hurdles don’t end there."

America is learning to rebalance its news diet post-Trump. "Nearly halfway through President Biden's first 100 days, data shows that Americans are learning to wean themselves off of news — and especially politics."

Nearly Half of Digital Subscribers Are ‘Zombies,’ Medill Analysis Finds. “Spiegel found that 49% of digital subscribers didn’t go to the websites they had paid for even once a month, putting them in a category known in news-industry slang as “zombies.” Concern is growing about this problem because even though the living dead may still pay for local news, they seem like a weak foundation to build a future on.” It makes me wonder why they subscribe; I suspect it’s closer to why people donate to charity than because they want to be constantly engaged with the content.

Here's why Substack's scam worked so well. “For all we know, every single one of Substack’s top newsletters is supported by money from Substack. Until Substack reveals who exactly is on its payroll, its promises that anyone can make money on a newsletter are tainted.”

AAJA Guidance on Atlanta Shootings. “We urge newsrooms to cover the shootings in the context of the current rise in attacks on Asian Americans. These shootings have come during a time of increasing attacks on the AAPI community, and heightened fear among AAPI communities across the country.”

Politics

Women in Congress on the Capitol riot: 23 lawmakers on what happened to them during the insurrection. "As the events of the deadly riot are examined in the impeachment trial, here is what almost two dozen lawmakers told The 19th about January 6, in their own words." Really harrowing.

Science

A Cephalopod Has Passed a Cognitive Test Designed For Human Children. Cuttlefish can pass the marshmallow test. Can you?

Facial recognition technology can expose political orientation from naturalistic facial images. "Accuracy remained high (69%) even when controlling for age, gender, and ethnicity. Given the widespread use of facial recognition, our findings have critical implications for the protection of privacy and civil liberties." Kind of terrifying.

Study: Preservative Used in Pop-Tarts and Hundreds of Popular Foods May Harm the Immune System. "A food preservative used to prolong the shelf life of Pop-Tarts, Rice Krispies Treats, Cheez-Its and almost 1,250 other popular processed foods may harm the immune system, according to a new peer-reviewed study by Environmental Working Group." And: "Recently published research has also found a link between high levels of PFAS in the blood and the severity of Covid-19."

How mRNA Technology Could Change the World. "For decades, researchers have struggled to design a workable vaccine for HIV, and many observers considered this field a dead end. But a new paper argues that these repeated failures forced HIV-vaccine researchers to spend a lot of time and money on strange and unproven vaccine techniques—such as synthetic mRNA and the viral-vector technology that powers the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Nearly 90 percent of COVID-19 vaccines that made it to clinical trials used technology that “could be traced back to prototypes tested in HIV vaccine trials,” Jeffrey E. Harris, the economist at MIT who authored the paper, wrote."

Stanford Scientists Reverse Engineer Moderna Vaccine, Post Code on Github. “We didn't reverse engineer the vaccine. We posted the putative sequence of two synthetic RNA molecules that have become sufficiently prevalent in the general environment of medicine and human biology in 2021.”

Society

How to have better arguments online. Not just online: “When we’re in an argument with someone, we should be thinking about how they can change their mind and look good – maintain or even enhance their face – at the same time. Often this is very hard to do in the moment of the dispute itself, when opinion and face are bound even more tightly together than they are before or after (the writer Rachel Cusk defines an argument as “an emergency of self-definition”). However, by showing that we have listened to and respected our interlocutor’s point of view, we make it more likely that they will come around at some later point. If and when they do, we should avoid scolding them for not agreeing with us all along.”

New study finds not knowing how to flirt is the main reason behind "involuntary singlehood". "Among the participants who indicated that they were involuntarily single, the most important factor by far was their lack of flirting skills. Following this factor, in decreasing order, were skills in perceiving signals of interest, “mating effort,” and choosiness. These last three factors were all relatively similar in their degree of impact."

Harry and Meghan: The union of two great houses, the Windsors and the Celebrities, is complete. “Having a monarchy next door is a little like having a neighbour who’s really into clowns and has daubed their house with clown murals, displays clown dolls in each window and has an insatiable desire to hear about and discuss clown-related news stories. More specifically, for the Irish, it’s like having a neighbour who’s really into clowns and, also, your grandfather was murdered by a clown.”

Private Schools Are Indefensible. I agree with the headline. They simply shouldn’t exist. This is an excellent piece that dives into some reasons why.

What the Pandemic Is Doing to Our Brains. “The pandemic is still too young to have yielded rigorous, peer-reviewed studies about its effects on cognitive function. But the brain scientists I spoke with told me they can extrapolate based on earlier work about trauma, boredom, stress, and inactivity, all of which do a host of very bad things to a mammal’s brain.”

Hospitals Hide Pricing Data From Search Results. Hospitals have to list pricing by law - but they explicitly add noindex, nofollow tags to pricing pages so they can't be searched and discovered. Seems like an opportunity for someone to build an open dataset.

Evanston, Illinois, becomes first U.S. city to pay reparations to Black residents. "The Chicago suburb’s City Council voted 8-1 to distribute $400,000 to eligible black households. Each qualifying household would receive $25,000 for home repairs or down payments on property."

Technology

Clubhouse Harassment, and Tech's Move from Enthusiast to Industrial Press. “I believe that a lot of the people in tech who are having this vacuous, oafish discussion of the media has as “haters” are actually just mad that they can’t say or do what they want and that every action they have isn’t the most important thing in the world.”

Google will end behavioral targeting, profile-building in its ad products. "Google helped create and grow the digital ad ecosystem that relied on tracking and targeting ads to people across the web. Now, up against pressure from regulators around data privacy and antitrust, Google will stop enabling cross-site tracking and targeting of individuals outside its own properties such as in inventory it sells through its Google AdX display and video ad exchange." Big changes are coming.

The SOC2 Starting Seven. "Here’s how we’ll try to help: with Seven Things you can do now that will simplify SOC2 for you down the road while making your life, or at least your security posture, materially better in the immediacy." File under "things I wish I'd read a year ago".

Lying to the ghost in the machine. “The point I'd like to make is that ready-trained NNs like GPT-3 or CLIP are often tailored as the basis of specific recognizer applications and then may end up deployed in public situations, much as shitty internet-of-things gizmos usually run on an elderly, unpatched ARM linux kernel with an old version of OpenSSH and busybox installed, and hard-wired root login credentials. This is the future of security holes in our internet-connected appliances: metaphorically, cameras that you can fool by slapping a sticker labelled "THIS IS NOT THE DROID YOU ARE LOOKING FOR" on the front of the droid the camera is in fact looking for.”

T-Mobile to Step Up Ad Targeting of Cellphone Customers. 'Wireless carrier tells subscribers it could share their masked browsing, app data and online activity with advertisers unless they opt out." As a previously-happy T-Mobile customer, I'm outraged by this.

He got Facebook hooked on AI. Now he can't fix its misinformation addiction. “I began video-calling Quiñonero regularly. I also spoke to Facebook executives, current and former employees, industry peers, and external experts. Many spoke on condition of anonymity because they’d signed nondisclosure agreements or feared retaliation. I wanted to know: What was Quiñonero’s team doing to rein in the hate and lies on its platform?” Surprise, surprise: that’s not what Facebook wanted to talk about.

The Mobile Performance Inequality Gap, 2021. “Whatever progress runtimes and networks have made in the past half-decade, browsers are stubbornly situated in the devices carried by real-world users, and the single most important thing to understand about the landscape of devices your sites will run on is that they are not new phones.”

One Year in the IndieWeb. I'm pretty much an indieweb zealot. These experiences are fair and representative of the community, it seems to me.

The Dao of DAOs. “After a contentious debate, the Ethereum core team, led by Vitalik Buterin, released a hard fork of the Ethereum blockchain. It was essentially a new version in which everything was the same, except in the forked version, the heist never happened.” A very telling paragraph. How decentralized is it, really, if the core team can vanish away transactions, regardless of the reason? (Hint: every blockchain can do this.)

In 2020, Two Thirds of Google Searches Ended Without a Click. Fuel for Google being more of a publisher than a referrer these days.

The End of AMP. “If you’re currently using AMP, you’ll be able to get rid of that monstrosity in May, and if you aren’t, you’ll now be competing for search positions previously unavailable to you. For publishers, it is a win-win.” FINALLY.

 

Still out here for the open, counter-cultural web. Figuring out how I can be most helpful.

 

They weren’t sure if my immunosuppressed mother would develop antibodies after receiving the vaccine, so they’ve been testing her. Today they found out she did. Such great news for her, for us, and for everyone with a suppressed immune system.

 

Overall, my career has involved a lot less flat food and Lego than Douglas Coupland led me to believe.

 

Chag sameach to everyone who celebrates!

 

Equitable community software

Today Richard Stallman announced that he has been reinstated as a board member of the Free Software Foundation with the antagonistic comment:

“Some of you will be happy about this and some of you will be disappointed. … In any case, that's how it is and I'm not planning to resign a second time.”

RMS originally stepped down after defending the late Marvin Minsky, an AI pioneer accused of assaulting an underage girl trafficked by Jeffrey Epstein. Epstein’s victims, RMS alleged, were likely “entirely willing”, and sex with a minor should not be considered rape. In the most generous possible interpretation, he was utterly clueless in a way that caused harm to women both inside and outside the movement, and to the free software movement itself.

His reinstatement was not announced on official Free Software Foundation channels, but rather informally in a talk given by RMS himself. He has since reappeared on the board page of the FSF website.

It’s a colossal own goal for the figurehead organization of the free software movement - and more so, for the movement itself, which in many corners still holds the Foundation and its work in high regard. It’s a clear example of how considering software as if it sits in a vacuum - outside of the social context in which it is run and built - can perpetuate harms, regardless of the intentions of its participants. It’s also yet another reason for women to walk away from the movement.

Software development communities often talk about running through rough consensus and running code. But who is consensus achieved between, and who is the code run for the benefit of? Traditional free and open source software models don’t consider this. The result is infamously hard to use interfaces and opaque documentation, as well as hostile, monocultural communities.

We need to move from a source-code-centric model for free software, to a community-centric model that shares ownership of both the software and the process used to build the software with everyone involved, from (yes) the coders and designers, to the people the software is being built for, to research subjects and the communities touched by it.

A world where software is enshrined to, and co-owned by, its community is not one where socially-oblivious developers making apologies for child rape could be venerated. It’s also one where design, documentation, and community care become equally important to the software itself, overcoming one of free software’s most longstanding issues. The benefits are real, and only extend the principles of openness inherent to the movement. After all, a software community that does not welcome anyone other than affluent, white men cannot be genuinely considered “free”.

This commitment to distributed equity requires both an extension of contributor covenants and free software licenses. Together, these legal frameworks need to provide co-operative-inspired processes for sharing ownership - a sort of “partner with community” to sit alongside the emerging exit to community idea. It goes beyond the mechanics of how source code is contributed and shared to define how the product and community are defined, designed, and governed. It’s a promise to distribute equity as widely as possible throughout the whole community.

You can’t separate the software from the community that built it. Therefore, true openness must dictate how that community is formed and run. We are what we choose to tolerate; in the same way that free software communities do not tolerate proprietary lock-in, they should not tolerate exclusionary social practices that lock people out.

RMS shouldn’t have been reinstated. It’s a disappointment, to put it mildly. But it’s also a line in the sand for the entire movement, and an opportunity - finally - to build something really new.