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

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ben@benwerd.com

 

I'm offering free startup feedback sessions

As Director of Investments at Matter Ventures, I evaluated thousands of startups, saw hundreds of pitches, invested in 24 ventures, and supported 75. Additionally, I've founded two startups (both exited), was the first employee at two more, have raised money, and have advised many more beyond the Matter universe.

I'd love to help you.

I'm offering 30 minute feedback sessions. To get started, click here to book.

I'll ask you to pitch me your startup for 5-10 minutes. I'll ask questions and then offer advice (which, of course, you can take or leave - what you do with feedback is up to you).

 

Four Questions

Thanks to everyone who responded after my previous post about recording life on the ground. Lots of people had ideas about which questions would be useful to ask on an ongoing basis about life under quarantine; lots of people also told me that 10 questions was far too many.

Most people were circling around the same questions, so I've decided to make these my core. And then there will be optional questions that you might choose to add onto any day's report.

The core questions:

1. What did you do today? Purely tactical: what did the day look like? It might seem obvious to us right now, as we're in the moment, but once the pandemic passes it likely won't. It'll also most probably differ from country to country.

2. What did you enjoy? This and the next question could have been condensed into "how are you feeling?", but the more direct prompt is more likely to elicit more specific answers. It's also a prompt to remember what has been good about the day; in difficult times, there's an importance to that.

3. What did you find difficult? Again, it's worth being specific. These two questions were inspired by Arne Rubinstein's GOLDEN framework - thanks to Erik Visser for forwarding it to me.

4. What has changed? This is deliberately ambiguous. Perhaps it's something big, like a policy change or a government reshuffle. Perhaps it's something small, like a change in personal routine to find healthier ways to adapt. But change is a constant, and it's worth recording the delta between one day and the next.

And then, the stretch questions:

5. What are you grateful for? A suggestion from Nick Doty. Maintaining a gratitude practice yields all sorts of benefits, but it can be more beneficial if you do it on a longer timescale - weekly, not daily. So it's an optional question here.

6. Which changes do you want to keep? A suggestion from Sonia Virdi. Not all of the changes are bad - for example, more flexible work from home policies, a stronger social safety net for some workers, and cleaner air. What is worth holding onto?

7. What are you scared of? It's not always productive to give voice to our fears, but sometimes they need to be written down.

8. What has stayed the same? A suggestion from Ben Seymour. Not everything is in flux. Some things are constants, but everyone's constants are different. What are they for you?

9. When did you last laugh? A suggestion from Edith Speller. Think back to the last time you laughed - it was probaby in an intimate moment that says a lot about your life and your current situation. Where you find humor and light tells a whole story.

I'm still interested in feedback - you can always email me at ben@benwerd.com. My new commitment is to get a prototype up and running by next week. (Of course, if you're a blogger, you can get started with posting your answers to these questions without any extra tools.) Look for an update on Tuesday, April 21st.

 

Photo by Grianghraf on Unsplash

 

Recording life on the ground

I'm more and more convinced that we all need to tell this story. Covid-19 landed in a world that was succumbing to nationalist leaders who enjoy bending the truth to suit their own narratives. The story of this global pandemic can't be left to them to tell. It also can't be left to the rich and powerful, or to brands. It needs to be a shared patchwork that we all contribute to.

I believe the indieweb has a part to play here. If it's at all possible, everyone should be writing on their own site, and backing up to a place they control. It should all be saved in the Internet Archive, and maybe on IPFS, and anywhere else you can think of. If one site filters stories out because advertisers don't want to be associated with coronavirus, or blips out because it went out of business, it shouldn't take the stories about this unprecedented period of history with it.

If you're wondering how and where to blog and share your story, I wrote this guide last year.

But of course, not everyone is equipped to write their own narrative. Writing is a muscle; I don't claim to have developed it perfectly, but I think I find it easier to get to a published post than many people. I've been wondering how to help people to share their perspectives without making it hard.

Over on Twitter, one person suggested around 10 questions that people could answer on a regular basis, and maybe upload a photo to go along with it. I like that idea a lot.

So here's what I'm thinking: I'll do the heavy lifting of building a platform that asks those questions. If you have a website that supports micropub, it'll post them on your own site for posterity. If you have a WordPress site, it'll use the REST API to do that, too. But those things are optional. You'll also just be able to post to the website and keep your answers there - and know that they'll be shared to the Internet Archive, IPFS, and some other redundant backups. The content will be made available under a license that will allow the entire archive of stories to be downloaded.

Aside from building this platform, which is my job, the only thing remaining is: what should the questions be? I have my own opinions, but I'd love to hear yours. You can always write to me at ben@benwerd.com.

I'll commit to providing an update on this project by this time next week. Look for an update on Tuesday, April 14.

 

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

 

Past history is not an indicator of future possibilities

Everything changed in the blink of an eye.

I remember when I experienced my first earthquake. I was standing in a house in Berkeley, all white plaster over wooden walls, and it was like a wave suddenly passed through it. In an instant, the walls flexed and curved like butter. My reassuring knowledge that walls were always fixed and solid were gone forever, replaced with a new understanding of the world. Walls are solid until they're not.

Our reality is solid, until it's not.

We're told that we'll be quarantined until May. Based on the numbers we're seeing and the trajectory of the covid-19 infection graph, I don't expect us to be out of the woods until late summer at the earliest. I also expect there to be a second wave of infections as we segue back towards winter. It'll be interesting to see what happens with respect to the November elections in particular.

And when this is finally, mercifully over - because there's widespread, continuous testing, or a vaccine, or both - the world will never be the same again.

There's a carefully-written legal disclaimer that you'll find anywhere you're asked to make an investment: "past success does not guarantee future performance". It's another way of saying "the conditions we live under tomorrow are not guaranteed to be the same as today's". An investor who assumes that the market will continue to grow indefinitely is doomed to failure. A human being that assumes that life will always be the same may find themselves in a similar boat.

There are life changes I've procrastinated on making. I'm sure we all have some. It's really easy to procrastinate if you think your window of opportunity will be open forever; you can do it tomorrow, and then when tomorrow comes, you push it off again. There's always tomorrow. Except, there isn't. It turns out there comes a day when it isn't possible anymore, and you can never be really sure when that day will come, or why. I didn't have "global pandemic" on my bingo card, but here we are.

I don't know what life will look like once the quarantine clears. We'll be in the midst of a recession, for sure, with millions of people out of work and in need of help. We'll also have ramped up warrantless surveillance, which will be hard to roll back. We can respond by creating a world with fewer freedoms, or a free world where we finally choose to help vulnerable people in need. Unfortunately, we will likely all feel the sting of missing friends and family.

Whatever the world looks like, it'll be important to remember that our window of reality is impermanent. It'll feel like the new normal will go on forever, but the next changes are sure to follow. Having an eye on the future but living in the present feels like the right strategy to me. Happiness isn't necessarily the only goal; I think it's also about building a life that is resilient to the sorts of storms we're all living through. But if you're not happy, if you don't feel fulfilled, then something needs to change. Don't wait.

Or at least, that's the advice I'm giving myself.

 

Reading, watching, playing, using: March 2020

Here's the media I consumed and found interesting in March. We're all deep in the global pandemic, so I've decided to exclude covid-19 related media for this month - which means this list is a lot shorter, because I've basically been mainlining the news.

Apps

Houseparty. There may be serious issues with its privacy policy, so I'm not sure how long I'll continue to use it for. But it's been a lovely way to catch up with friends, often halfway across the globe. Also, my sister and I have been using it to play trivia games. It passes the time.

iA Writer. Not new to me, but I've started using it heavily. I sent a short story to a publisher, and I'm working on a few more. Its minimalist interface works well for me. (Even though it's a markdown editor, I don't use it to write markdown at all.)

Lemmings. A mobile remake of one of my favorite games. It's really good!

Streaming

Dark Waters. A gripping, beautifully-acted true story that cuts to the core of American capitalism: Dupont's efforts to hide its brazen chemical pollution.

Just Mercy. It starts a little too slow and by-the-numbers, but by the end, this story about the founding of the Equal Justice Initiative is undeniably powerful. Sometimes the unnuanced racism of the Alabama officials seems otherworldly, and that's exactly the point. There's so much work still to do.

Tiger King. Yes, I've been watching this, just like everyone else with a Netflix subscription. It's exactly the rapid descent into insanity this quarantine demanded.

Devs. Slow but deeply interesting. It reminds me a little of the excellent first season of Mr Robot. I'm not sure where it's going to go, but I'm a huge Alex Garland fan, and I'll follow him anywhere.

Notable Articles

Politics

The Man Behind Trump’s Facebook Juggernaut. "Before Parscale worked for the campaign, he was a digital marketer in San Antonio with no political experience. Referring to his work for Trump in 2016, he has said, “I was thrown into the Super Bowl, never played a game, and won.”"

Syrian Children Freeze to Death. Bombs Rain Down. And ‘Nobody Cares.’ "The Syrian government’s assault on a rebel-held province has created one of the worst humanitarian emergencies of a brutal nine-year war."

Sexism is Probably One Reason Why Elizabeth Warren Didn't Do Better. Infuriating.

Media & Society

Nine out of 10 people found to be biased against women. "Despite progress in closing the equality gap, 91% of men and 86% of women hold at least one bias against women in relation to politics, economics, education, violence or reproductive rights."

How Living Abroad Helps You Develop a Clearer Sense of Self. Co-signed.

A Photographer’s Parents Wave Farewell. A photographer captured her parents waving goodbye, every visit from 1991. The result is beautiful and heartbreaking.

Are You an Anti-Influencer? "Some people have a knack for buying products that flop, supporting political candidates who lose and moving to neighborhoods that fail to thrive."

Escape Pod 723: How Did it Feel to be Eaten? I really loved this science fiction short story. (I've also been enjoying the Nature Futures archive.)

A quick trip to the library, and suddenly, all is right with the world. Libraries are one of the wonders of the modern world. We can't let them fade away.

Technology

Funding for female founders increased in 2019—but only to 2.7%. "In 2019, investment juggernaut SoftBank poured at least $5 billion into the imploding co-working company. That's about $1.5 billion more than the total VC investment in all female-founded companies combined during the same period."

The History of the URL. A fairly technical history of one of the building blocks of the modern internet.

Apple benefits from forced Uighur labor at its iPhone supplier factories in China, according to an explosive new report. Your iPhone (and mine) might be made using concentration camp labor.

The untold origin story of eBay that I lived, and the times that could have killed it. The untold story of one of the internet's most famous successes.

 

Covid-19 retirement plan emergency benefits

If you're in the US, have a 401k, and were adversely affected by the pandemic, there are financial options available to you. (I'm working very hard right now to build tools to support these options.)

Jeff Schulte, our CEO at ForUsAll, breaks them down in a blog post. I hope it's useful to you.

 

Socialism as a Service

I've often remarked that the extravagent benefits often enjoyed by workers at Silicon Valley companies are roughly equivalent to what everyone receives in a social democracy. Full healthcare benefits? Check. Commuter benefits for people who need them? Check. Childcare? Check. Etc. People need those benefits, but they've mostly been the preserve of the wealthy - despite them being perfectly possible for everyone.

Similarly, the response to Covid-19 in the US has been equivalent to how many social democracies operate as a matter of course. Decent unemployment insurance, stronger support for the homeless, an eradication of the predatory bail system, and so on - these are things that we've needed to do for years. That they're now happening in the midst of a global pandemic only demonstrates that the barriers to doing so were always illusory.

I'm Head of Engineering at a startup that provides 401(k) retirement benefits. Our mission is to help everyone build a stronger financial future - and in particular to support people who are on lower incomes, working for the vast majority of American businesses. My personal opinion is that I would prefer to see a fair pension system; 401(k)s have some fundamental flaws that adversely affect both the financial markets and individual employees. In some ways, they're a forcing function to keep workers in their jobs. But it's highly unlikely that we'll see a public pension system, so building an equitable, accessible 401(k) platform is the pragmatic thing to do - it will provide a benefit to many people that fills a gap where government has fallen short.

There are many places in American society where government should provide benefits or safety nets but isn't. It's a more libertarian, individualistic society; community care is far less a part of the culture. One can debate the merits of that (I think you know where I stand), but there are ways startups and other organizations can fill in the gaps.

For example: what would it take to disrupt the health insurance market? Yes, we need to continue fighting for Medicare for All, and hopefully we'll get it soon, but let's assume that we continue to have an obstructionist in power. Forget the current system and its inefficient brutality: what would a genuinely better alternative look like?

What would it take to disrupt unemployment insurance? Or disability benefits? How can a startup empower people to own their own homes in a non-predatory way?

I believe that government should be solving these problems. I believe in a social contract and that we all need to take care of each other as a community. But while that dynamic has so badly failed in America, how can mission-driven businesses undermine and disrupt the worst tendencies of American capitalism so that it once again works for ordinary people? What do real businesses that empower ordinary people look like? If we can't embrace real social democracy in the way most developed countries do, how can we offer Socialism as a Service?

 

Onwards

Yesterday, while going for a walk, I saw someone dressed in bin liners torn to form a kind of full-body plastic balaclava. Underneath, she was wearing a mask and sunglasses. She wore gloves so that she had virtually no exposed skin. As we passed by each other on the street, over six feet between us, she looked at me nervously.

"That," I thought to myself, "is a really good idea." 2020 is wild.

Today Bandcamp is forgoeing its share of revenue from all sales. (Its usual fee is 15%.) Independent artists are struggling in the current climate, so it's a great time to buy music from them. This post will have links to some of my favorites.

To begin with, I love Ariel Wang's EP Cat Faze. Moontide is a hauntingly beautiful song.

People continue to go outside. Couples are out walking together; people are exercising; families are walking their dogs, who all seem to be living their best lives. People are traveling to help each other. Everyone is practicing social distancing, but nonetheless, the streets are full of the best parts of humanity. What's missing is the rush of people on their way to and from work. The bustle of commuters and the stench of evening cars.

I wonder how all of this is going to remake how we work. I'm very anxious for the people who have lost their jobs; so many that the government doesn't want to release the official figures. There's talk of 20% unemployment, up from 3.5%. All those people need jobs; many of them may find themselves hired for remote work in place of their in-person positions.

But I don't know how realistic that is on a broad scale. I've got the privilege of a knowledge worker job: all I need is a laptop and an internet connection. Not every job can be converted in this way. We need our in-person workers. While there is probably going to be some kind of transformation, what we really need is a support package.

Gaelynn Lea's album Learning How to Stay is gorgeous. Her Tiny Desk Concert is worth watching, too, if you've never seen it.

It's been interesting to see reforms people have been fighting to see for years suddenly enacted. Non-violent offenders are being released from prison pre-trial; empty hotels and motels are being used to house the homeless; Republicans are proposing a universal basic income. Dogs and cats living together; mass hysteria. I love it. I don't love the context, at all, but I love that we've demonstrated that all these things are possible.

People are likely to fall through the cracks. I've been wondering about sex workers, which is a vulnerable population that nobody really talks about at times like these. How are they staying safe and well? I don't think they exactly have a benefits package to draw on. Do they have to continue working and risk exposure for both themselves and their clients? Do they go online and stream?

Meanwhile, Gamestop has self-classified as an essential service and told its employees to continue to come to work. Gaming is not essential. Companies like this need to face serious legal penalties - and we all need to boycott them. Luckily, for gamers, many better options are available.

Sapphire Lung's Chamber Slime is offbeat and full of life. They're worth seeing live, but if you can't, this album is the next best thing.

In some ways, I'm eating healthier and living a better lifestyle than I did when we weren't under quarantine. I've been eating a lot of beet and lentil soups; I've been taking solid exercise after work; I'm starting to drop and do push-ups between meetings. I used to do this a long time ago, and worked up to 150 push-ups a day. I'm nowhere near that number now, but maybe I can get there again?

But I miss hanging out with friends. I held a Zoom happy hour and posted it opportunistically on Facebook; the mix of people who turned up was a lovely cross-section of my life, and I was delighted to be able to introduce people to each other. Based on that, I'm sure I'll hold more. Life was so different less than a month ago. And it will be different again.

I realized last night that I was scared of getting the virus. Yes, I don't want to pass it on, but I'm genuinely afraid of contracting it myself. It's not to be messed with, and in a world where I had it and doctors had to choose between respirating me and saving someone else, I would want them to pick the other person. I don't want to live with the idea that my life was chosen over someone else's. Those are the decisions being made in many places right now. And at the same time, I don't want to go.

Thomas Truax builds his own instruments and plays incredible, avant-garde music. I'd love to see him collaborate with Sapphire Lung. His Bandcamp subscription supports him in lieu of live gigs.

 

Dispatches from a shelter in place

How are you holding up? Do you need something? Let me know.

The Bay Area is like a zombie movie. Particularly at around 8am, when the smells and sounds of commuter traffic should dominate, the quiet feels supernatural. Was I whisked away in the dead of night? Is this the Upside-Down?

For some reason, construction continues unabated. I feel bad for those workers, although they're far apart from each other, so I imagine the risk of infection is minimal. I also worry about the supermarket cashiers, the kitchen staff, the food delivery people, and above all, our medical and emergency workers. Although we're under a shelter in place order, venturing outside is not banned, and going for a walk is sometimes a good idea; every time I do, I see few people, but at least one ambulance.

I've started to feel a pain in my chest when I cough, as if I can feel my lungs, but I'm almost certain it's psychosomatic. My anxiety is getting the better of me, despite my best intentions, so it's almost certainly that. Nonetheless, I'm trying to be careful.

Work continues unabated. We actually might be more productive, which suggests some uncomfortable truths about our open office layout and the number of ad hoc meetings. I've been going through videoconferencing solutions like shampoo brands: Hangouts is choppy, and GoToMeeting is annoying to use. I put my own money down for a paid Zoom account, which is by far the best. Ideologically, I'd love to use an open source, peer to peer web-based product like Jitsi, but in our real world situation, they unfortunately haven't held up. I'm sure they'll get there.

18% of American workers have lost their jobs or had their hours slashed during this crisis. I feel very privileged to not be one of them, and I want to help where I can.

I've really appreciated texting with friends, some of whom I haven't heard from in a while. I've been appreciating the photos of peoples' lockdown spots, and of people making their own fun. There are dolphins in the Venice canals. Southern California has unimaginably good air right now. If you squint, there are silver linings.

I want to stay healthy. I want to stay happy. I'm finding small ways to exercise, and to keep myself finding beauty in small things. It helps - a lot - to know that my family and friends are out there. The internet is, right now, a very clear force for good. We're all connected. All one world. All getting through this together.

PS: my matching fundraiser for Doctors Without Borders is up to $908. Please consider joining us if you have the means. I'll double your money for the first $1,000 in donations.

 

A small way to help

I'm raising money for Doctors Without Borders, which is on the front lines of the fight against Covid-19 in vulnerable communities. I'll match the first $1,000 in donations, so your money is worth twice as much. The money is directly received by the organization (which gets four out of four stars from Charity Navigator).

For what it's worth, the first people to donate $50 or more will also have a 1,000 word short story dedicated to them.

Donate here.