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A quiet morning in America

I pour myself another cup of coffee: two scoops into the Aeropress, a gentle pour of boiling water, a quick stir. I leave the plastic stirrer in the tube like a tombstone while the water percolates through the grounds.

Quiet mornings are hard to come by.

I had a conversation with someone recently whose entire family had contracted Covid. I found out like this: sorry if my voice goes, he said. I have Covid. I was helping him out with his work by answering some questions, but I quickly told him that he needed to rest. Give yourself the space to recover, I told him. I guess my Dad told me the wrong thing, he said.

I’ve been living in California for eleven years, and I’ve been an American citizen since I was born. There are still moments that make me wonder about the place I moved to. Some of the things that leave me wondering whether I’ll ever feel really at home here are relatively small - someone working through sickness instead of taking care of themselves, for example. And some are big.

While I was watching Ukraine win Eurovision, an 18 year old opened fire at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, murdering ten people. He live-streamed his attack on Twitch after publishing an 180-page manifesto in which he described himself as a white supremacist and an anti-Semite. He discussed replacement theory, and chose the location of his attack by researching the area with the highest percentage of Black people within driving distance. It’s a hate crime, fueled by hate speech. It was also the country’s one hundred and ninety-eighth mass shooting in 2022, on the one hundred and thirty-third day of the year.

I put on some toast and consider whether I’ll go for a walk or read my book. I just started The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel as part of a book group, and I’m also rereading Radical Candor. Outside, trees slowly sway against an unbroken blue sky.

Last week, CO2 levels exceeded 420ppm for the first time in recorded human history. I’m still thinking about a conversation where someone complained to me about having to take the bus. I routinely speak to people who believe public transport is outdated compared to road or air travel. The Cato institute says wanting to move people onto high-speed rail is “like wanting to be the world leader in electric typewriters, rotary telephones, or steam locomotives—all technologies that once seemed revolutionary but are functionally obsolete today.” It’s estimated that two-thirds of the world’s population will live under water scarcity by 2025.

I shop for wall sconces for the new house in Philly: something modern that will create enough light in the living room to offset the darkness of the walls. The walls themselves will have to be repainted white at some point, of course. But for now, there has to be something to brighten up the room.

We have too many 9-to-5-ers, someone told me about their startup a few months ago. You’ve got to hustle. I want to see people working evenings and weekends. Strangely, he was having trouble with getting people to stay motivated and complete their work.

The banality of the unkindness gets under your skin after a while. The first year, commuters stepping over homeless people seemed jarring and horrifying. By year five, it was inevitably part of life: there but not there. Someone once told me I was wrong to buy a Street Sheet from a vendor because it was begging. I make a point of carrying money to give to people who ask for it, but sometimes I forget to top it up.

A culture that is busy maintaining the base level of its hierarchy of needs has little time to spend worrying about other people. The through line between the mass shootings and the psychotic work culture and the disregard for climate and the disdain for the impoverished is a lack of regard for community. In America, we’re not all in this together, we’re all in this as individuals. Everyone is out for themselves. It’s not even about social safety nets or other legislation: those things are symptoms of a deeper distrust that seeps between people. It’s a society that has not been set up to be happy together: it is designed to leave you wanting to be rich alone.

I order some middle eastern food on DoorDash. The driver, on average, will make $15.74 per hour, which is far below the poverty line in the San Francisco Bay Area. DoorDash will take between 10-25% of my order from the independently-run restaurant, whose profit margin is often less than that. The order will likely come in plastic.

I take a sip from my coffee and wait.

 

Update: while I was writing this, there was another mass shooting at the Laguna Woods retirement community in Southern California. It does not and will not stop.

 

Mother's Day

It’s American mother’s day.

They say nothing prepares you for losing a parent. Theoretically, I should have been prepared: ten years of pulmonary fibrosis, a double lung transplant, a rollercoaster of ups and downs that took me away from my life in Scotland and made me a part-time carer. From 2011 to 2021, her journey was my journey. Still, her loss ripped a hole from me. I’ve wondered if it was so profound because of that extra time; I’ll never know. Thankfully, I have nothing to compare it to.

I’m pretty good at putting on the appearance of holding it together. At best, it’s a sort of mask, but a magical one that only I know I’m wearing. I’m still not sure I know what grief is, exactly, and maybe it’s different for everyone: my flavor is a feeling of being untethered, like I’ve found myself in a parallel universe where everything is wrong. There’s no way back; no leap home. The only way through is forwards, and I resent it.

By far the worst part is the expectation of coping. Because I’m wearing that magical mask, I look more or less like an adult human being who is getting through his day. But because I’m untethered, because I feel this new distance between me and the world, I’ve been operating without a rudder. I’ve been alternately numb and in pain, and looking for things to make me feel anything else. I’ve been deeply unhappy with my life - all of it - but it’s hard to figure out what to change, or how, when a bomb won’t stop going off. I’d hoped to have time and space to breathe this year, a way to regroup, but there’s less than I’d hoped.

People expect men to cope; to be stoic; to just get on with it. And I am. But I want to disappear. I had this giant loss, and the world has carried on regardless, and I’m expected to carry on with it. I resent that. It’s driven a wedge between me and everything. Above all, it feels incredibly lonely.

I know my father and my sister feel their own versions of this, too, and I’ve been spending a lot of time with them. Family is powerful at a time like this. We understand each other.

Ma saw good in everyone and was able to cut through bullshit with a word. I can hear her say “oh for goodness sake” and tell me what I just need to go and do to give myself that space. I’m even doing some of them - I’ll write more about work in particular before too long - but there’s so much that feels askew.

My parents taught me to have wide horizons and not to be bound by the norms of the mainstream. It was an important lesson, but also one that ruined me for a “normal” life: I haven’t had a normal career, and I wouldn’t feel satisfied living in the same place forever. There are so many adventures to be had out in the world, both figurative and literal. We only get to live once, and life is fleeting. You’ve just got to go for it. Live big. Nothing is really that scary.

And maybe that’s the lesson. If everything feels wrong, if everything is askew, I need to spend the time to figure it out and forge a life that works for me. My worst tendency is to erode my own boundaries to make other people happy: self-destruction in kindness’s clothing. She was always worried about that, and I should have paid more attention.

I miss her. The usual platitude is that she’s right here, in me. But that’s only true if I live up to her; if I live up to myself. I’ve got to be my own tether and find my own happiness; build a life where there is no mask.

If your mother is still with you, I hope you can find a way to hug her and hold her close. If not today, then soon.

She was never really into Mother’s Day. It was a Hallmark holiday to her. But it feels like a good time to say that I miss her, and I miss everything she meant to me. And I’m still figuring out what happens next.

 

Along for the Ride

I got to see Along for the Ride, the Netflix film based on Sarah Dessen’s novel of the same name. It was written and directed by Sofia Alvarez, who previously wrote the adaptation of To All the Boys I’ve Loved before. I’m not the target audience, but I loved it: breezy, fun, and awash with a kind of teenage nostalgia I’m here for all day.

But I also have to disclose this: Sarah is my cousin. She babysat me, and I got to see her career bloom. She’s inspiring to me as a human being first, and a writer second.

Writing, as I’ve mentioned here from time to time, is my first love. If I could figure out how to do that as a living, I would; I got into technology as a way to tell stories, not because I’m particularly excited by the discrete logic and how the components fit together. Programming is a means to an end. Every project I’ve started has been about storytelling of some kind.

Sarah’s been kind enough to share some writing tips along the way. The biggest one is something I’ve been bad at: just write. I’ve entered writing competitions and have published stories, but it’s always taken a surprising amount of effort for me to give myself permission to take it seriously. I think that’s because it’s something I want to do for myself, rather than something other people want me to do. Given the choice between nurturing my own needs and making someone else happy, I’ll usually pick the latter. In other words, I don’t take it seriously because I don’t take myself seriously.

So I’m in awe of people like Sarah who have the drive to make it happen. She’s a very talented writer who has built up a dedicated audience of people who love her work. Creating that work is hard: a novel is not a small undertaking, and building a story with emotional resonance that keeps the reader turning the page is a rare skill.

There’s a whole generation of predominantly women who have grown up with her books now. People have tattoos. That’s amazing.

At around the sixteen minute mark in the movie, Sarah leaves the Clementine’s boutique: a tiny cameo that I know she was nervous about. The girls say, “thank you, Sarah”. It’s a sweet moment if you know to look for it.

Every so often, Sarah will ask me how my writing is coming along. I don’t claim to have anything approaching her takent or dedication, but before too long, I hope to give her an answer that makes me proud. Thank you, Sarah.

 

Roe and work

We’re living through a notable period of history. This week’s Supreme Court leak is a lot: an early opinion by a noted constitutional originalist on the court which indicates that Roe v Wade will be overturned.

For people with a uterus in particular, this decision carries much emotional weight. It’s an emotive topic that speaks directly to their agency over their own bodies, after two long years of a global pandemic that disproportionately affected women and people of color, set against a backdrop of rising nationalism and discrimination. Injustice against tragedy against injustice.

It’s been a lot, yet many businesses want those same people to leave politics at the door, seeing these discussions as an inconvenient distraction that could divide offices and undermine performance. It’s a lot to ask for, and belies a position rooted in privilege: an obliviousness to how heavy this issue is, and how much of an effect the discussion necessarily has. If you feel like you’re being subjugated, the ask to ignore that subjugation for eight hours a day in support of someone else’s profits is offensive. Doubly so when those who profit are not subject to the same restrictions.

Those situations are discriminatory to people from vulnerable communities and harmful to almost everyone. If injustice must be compartmentalized away, the only possible outcome is a reinforcement of the status quo.

It’s important to make space for team members who need to take care of themselves; to reflect; to care. It’s important to feel like you can bring your whole self to work, and to feel like work is a safe place to be. It’s important to have the time and space to process in order to progress. A workplace that doesn’t make these allowances will always create psychological friction. In a world where every knowledge worker is working from their own space, letting their workplace into their homes, that’s even more important.

While the leak has been confirmed as real, it’s not necessarily a reflection of the final Supreme Court decision. As of writing this today, abortion is still legal. But that’s not the point: it’s the simple fact of the conversation that, for many, is an assault. And enforcing a denial of that fact is an assault again.

 

Reading, watching, playing, using: April, 2022

This is my monthly roundup of the books, articles, and streaming media I found interesting. Here's my list for April, 2022.

Books

Kleptopia: How Dirty Money Is Conquering the World, by Tom Burgis. Fascinating but also narrow: in this true life tale of global kleptocracy, all the players in the west are amoral at worst, while the real thieves are in the former Soviet Union. Still, there’s a lot to learn from the author’s research, and enough here to embarrass the banks and moneymen who made it all possible.

Notable Articles

Business

Rise of women in tech leadership. “Women in tech are gaining ground as the technology industry—or at least its largest players—makes slow but steady progress in shrinking its gender gap, and women in tech leadership are making the fastest advances.” Lots of work still to do, but good!

LinkedIn’s ‘career break’ feature can help normalize resume gaps. “LinkedIn users can classify their time away from paid work as one of 13 “types” of career breaks — including bereavement, career transition, caregiving, full-time parenting and health and well-being — and add details about what led to the career break and what they’ve done during the break.” I think this is good?

The Things We Did Not Do While Reaching $2M ARR. “A list of things tech startups usually go through that we did not.”

The Rise of the Triple Peak Day. “Findings from Microsoft and its researchers suggest that the 9-to-5 workday is fading in an age of remote and hybrid work and more flexible hours. That pattern was first spotted early in the pandemic, when Microsoft Teams chats outside the typical workday increased more than in any other time segment, particularly between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m.” This is not okay.

Returning To The Office Is Creating The Great Reckoning. “Despite the endless pablum about “leadership” in business, those who lead - bosses, managers, and so on - by and large are not the ones doing the work, to the point that many of them have only the most tangential understanding of the tasks they’re demanding other people complete.”

Amazon Workers on Staten Island Vote to Unionize. “The win on Staten Island could herald a new era for labor unions in the United States, which saw the portion of workers in unions drop last year to 10.3 percent, the lowest rate in decades, despite widespread labor shortages and pockets of successful labor activity.”

Covid

75% of US children have now had COVID, up from 44% due to omicron. “About a third of all children in the country were newly infected during the omicron wave. Together, the data showcase just how poorly the country has done at shielding children—including those not yet eligible for vaccination—from the pandemic virus.”

Crypto

On anti-crypto toxicity. “If you feel the urge to “cyberbully” someone in crypto, direct it at the powerful players behind crypto projects that are actively taking advantage of the vulnerable. Or, just as reasonably, direct it at the powerful tech executives, venture capitalists, elected representatives, and lobbyists who have contributed to the untenable situation we find ourselves in.”

Gwyneth Paltrow, Mila Kunis are pushing women to invest in NFTs. “But they’re also buying into an unpredictable market that some theorize has already peaked. Most NFTs don’t sell and only a small group of people are responsible for the vast quantity of NFT trading, said Mason Nystrom, an analyst for Messari Capital.”

Culture

Donald Glover Interviews Donald Glover. “I mean farming everything. Talent, ideas, moments. You ever heard of Bauhaus?”

the html review. “The html review is an annual journal of literature made to exist on the web.”

Star Trek: Picard to Reunite Next Generation Cast for Season 3. Let’s be real: I will watch the hell out of this.

Return to Monkey Island. A new sequel from Ron Gilbert, following canonically from Monkey Island 2? Sign. Me. Up.

I would like to be paid like a plumber. “I explained this to Kurt but I thought I’d better reiterate it here. I do not want and will not take a royalty on any record I record. No points. Period. I think paying a royalty to a producer or engineer is ethically indefensible. The band write the songs. The band play the music. It’s the band’s fans who buy the records. The band is responsible for whether it’s a great record or a horrible record. Royalties belong to the band.” Steve Albini makes his pitch to Nirvana to help make In Utero.

Media

The L.A. Riots Were 30 Years Ago. I’m Still Trying to Understand Them. “But my editor, who was white, removed all references to King’s race from the story’s opening paragraphs.”

From the Arab Spring to Russian censorship: a decade of internet blackouts and repression. “Over the last six months, Rest of World spoke to more than 70 technologists, telecomms experts, activists, and journalists from around the world to track how governments’ control over the internet has grown and evolved during the past decade. Their testimony shows that the free, open, global internet is under severe threat.”

Let’s make journalism work for those not born into an elite class. ““Most news coverage isn’t created with people experiencing poverty in mind,” Heather Bryant, a journalist and founder of Project Facet, has said. That is frequently made clear when outlets want to run sensitive and authentic stories concerning class.”

White newspaper, Black city. “After years of sluggish progress, there’s something to be said about how journalists are growing more willing to publicly air the dirty laundry of their own publications in the name of making them better. While new journalism organizations are radically redefining what it means to reflect the communities they serve, it’s unclear if older institutions can truly reckon with their failures.”

How Silicon Valley is helping Putin and other tyrants win the information war. ““The power that Facebook has is scary. The way it is using it is even scarier,” a Russian journalist, who did not want to be named due to security concerns, told me. Her account was suspended after she was reported to Facebook by numerous accounts accusing her of violating community standards.”

Bitch Comes to a Close. Just a complete bummer.

BBC Staff Exodus: Women of Color Exhausted from Fighting Broken System. “At least 15 women of color have left the BBC in the last year saying they are “exhausted” from fighting a system that “is not systemically built to support anyone who is different,” a Variety investigation has uncovered.”

Politics

Supreme Court Denies Equal Rights To Puerto Ricans — Again. ““Equal treatment of citizens should not be left to the vagaries of the political process,” Sotomayor wrote. “Because residents of Puerto Rico do not have voting representation in Congress, they cannot rely on their elected representatives to remedy the punishing disparities suffered by citizen residents of Puerto Rico under Congress’ unequal treatment.””

Older women voters will likely play a big role in the midterm elections. ““Women over 50+ may not only be the decision makers in their households, they may also be the decision makers of the midterm elections,” Margie Omero, principal at GBAO, a public opinion research firm, said in a statement accompanying the poll results.”

Science

Alzheimer’s May Be Caused by Cell Phones, Scientists Say. “According to a press release on the research, most scientists agree that Alzheimer’s is caused by excess calcium buildup in the brain. And pulsed electronically generated electromagnetic fields (EMFs) emitted from cell phones, the study says, may be causing or worsening that calcium buildup.”

Reversing hearing loss with regenerative therapy. “In Frequency’s first clinical study, the company saw statistically significant improvements in speech perception in some participants after a single injection, with some responses lasting nearly two years.”

Society

Brooklyn Public Library Launches Campaign Against State Book Bans. “The Books UnBanned campaign provides youth ages 13 to 21 with online access to banned books.” Just superb.

Black principals receive leadership training, support through new initiatives. “Studies link Black principals, especially women, to better academic performance. New initiatives aim to train and support them.”

Stop matching lone female Ukraine refugees with single men, UK told. “The UN refugee agency has called on the UK government to intervene to stop single British men from being matched up with lone Ukrainian women seeking refuge from war because of fears of sexual exploitation.” Gross.

Ketanji Brown Jackson confirmed: How she will change the Supreme Court. “The Senate on Thursday voted 53-47 to confirm Jackson’s historic nomination to the nation’s highest court. Though Jackson will not change the court’s conservative majority, she will change the court. Her presence is set to create the first all-women liberal wing of the court, whose dissenting opinions are expected to outline their vision for a more just country and possibly influence future Supreme Court rulings.”

Oklahoma’s legislature approves total abortion ban. “This June, the Supreme Court is expected to rule on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a case that examines the constitutionality of a 15-week abortion ban. Many observers believe the court, which has a large conservative majority, will use that case to overturn Roe v. Wade, allowing states to restrict access to the procedure as much as they wish.”

Technology

As Western social media apps leave Russia, Snap’s Zenly hangs on. “If you’re a restaurant chain, you’re either selling Subway sandwiches in Russia or not. You’re either selling a Rolls-Royce or not. It’s not as straightforward for the tech platforms.”

Applied for Student Aid Online? Facebook Saw You. “For millions of prospective college students, applying online for federal financial aid has also meant sharing personal data with Facebook, unbeknownst to them or their parents, The Markup has learned. This information has included first and last names, email addresses, and zip codes.”

Some Thoughts On Twitter. “I continue to believe that a single person owning one of the most important communications protocols of the internet is a bad idea, but maybe it can be a bridge to something better.”

Web scraping is legal, US appeals court reaffirms. “In its ruling, the Supreme Court narrowed what constitutes a violation of the CFAA as those who gain unauthorized access to a computer system — rather than a broader interpretation of exceeding existing authorization, which the court argued could have attached criminal penalties to “a breathtaking amount of commonplace computer activity.””

Jeff Bezos is worth $160bn – yet Congress might bail out his space company. “Who will, overall, be benefiting from space exploration? Will it be a handful of billionaires or will it be the people of our country and all of humanity?”

Lyft asked if this driver needed help. He was already dying. “Lyft says it’s worked hard to develop security features to keep drivers safe. In addition to the texts the company sends, Lyft also has 24/7 safety teams and partners with ADT, so drivers can use the Lyft app to contact the security company and get emergency services sent to their location. But Philpotts’ story is a case study not only in how those safety features fail in real life-and-death situations, but also in how Lyft itself fails the families of drivers who are hurt or killed on the job.”

Planting Undetectable Backdoors in Machine Learning Models. “Given the computational cost and technical expertise required to train machine learning models, users may delegate the task of learning to a service provider. We show how a malicious learner can plant an undetectable backdoor into a classifier. On the surface, such a backdoored classifier behaves normally, but in reality, the learner maintains a mechanism for changing the classification of any input, with only a slight perturbation.”

Ukraine using ClearviewAI facial recognition to identify Russian war dead. “In another conversation, a stranger sent a message to a Russian mother saying her son was dead, alongside a photo showing a man’s body in the dirt — face grimacing and mouth agape. The recipient responded with disbelief, saying it wasn’t him, before the sender passed along another photo showing a gloved hand holding the man’s military documents.” Grim.

A Web Renaissance. “So if we have the tech, then why hasn’t it happened already? The biggest thing that may be missing is just awareness of the modern web’s potential. Unlike the Facebooks and Googles of the world, the open, creative web doesn’t have a billion-dollar budget for promoting itself. Years of control from the tech titans has resulted in the conventional wisdom that somehow the web isn’t “enough”, that you have to tie yourself to proprietary platforms if you want to build a big brand or a big business.”

Pipedream Malware: Feds Uncover 'Swiss Army Knife' for Industrial System Hacking. “On Wednesday, the Department of Energy, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, the NSA, and the FBI jointly released an advisory about a new hacker toolset potentially capable of meddling with a wide range of industrial control system equipment.”

Police Records Show Women Are Being Stalked With Apple AirTags Across the Country. “Of the 150 total police reports mentioning AirTags, in 50 cases women called the police because they started getting notifications that their whereabouts were being tracked by an AirTag they didn’t own. Of those, 25 could identify a man in their lives—ex-partners, husbands, bosses—who they strongly suspected planted the AirTags on their cars in order to follow and harass them. Those women reported that current and former intimate partners—the most likely people to harm women overall—are using AirTags to stalk and harass them.”

 

My first gig

Hunter Walk asked people about their first concert.

My first was Tears For Fears, for a friend’s 13th birthday. It was just me and him. I wasn’t that into the band, and I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I loved it.

Perhaps more notably, the support band was a local group who had just changed its name to Radiohead. I remember that the singer, Thom Yorke, was very deadpan and reserved. Later, I’d see him around town a lot, always looking incredibly dour behind a pair of sunglasses while he went shopping or had a picnic with his family.

I love live music, but I haven’t felt safe to go during the pandemic. Even more recently, I’ve given up tickets to see Wet Leg and Dadi Freyr because I just didn’t want to risk it, despite being excited to see them live.

A couple of gigs that stand out to me:

I was glad I got to see Johnny Clegg on his final tour. Clegg formed the first interracial rock band in South Africa, which was illegal under the country’s apartheid rules, and told stories of their run-ins with the law as well as about the activists of the time.

I’ve seen Ani DiFranco fifteen times or so. I love the kinetic energy she brings live, and her politics - both about the world and about gender and identity - speak loudly to me.

I got to see Seasick Steve at the smallest stage at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in Golden Gate Park. He didn’t have a following in the US, so it was just a handful of us on the grass; intimate in the way great shows can be. And then he brought out John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin to play guitar with him.

And it was a treat to hear my sister’s band, Django Moves to Portland, for the first time after decades of hearing her play her songs acoustically. Her songs have always stood on their own, but the full band transformed them into something else.

How about you? What was your first concert? Which gigs have been notable for you?

 

Mastodon and the future of Twitter

Amidst all this talk about the future of Twitter pending a still-theoretical Elon Musk acquisition, some people have been asking whether there’s a viable alternative they could move to immediately.

Inevitably, some of the obvious decentralized projects have been suggested. The most notable is Mastodon, a federated social network that might as well be a full Twitter clone, albeit based on the ActivityPub standard.

I have nothing against Mastodon. I’ve been using it for years, alongside my other social networks. The community there is a little nerdier, and certainly quieter. Twitter is where the action is; Mastodon has so far been for the handful of enthusiasts who want to experiment with federation. Even among them, a hefty percentage simply syndicate content from their Twitter accounts.

Since the Elon Musk news broke, Mastodon founder Eugen Rochko reports that the network has grown by 84,579 users. That’s great, but hardly a drop in the bucket when you consider Twitter’s 330 million monthly active users. It’s possible we’re at the beginning of a larger move, but it’s more likely that these users represent a spike in new sign-ups that will settle down to something closer to their usual level.

Although it’s a decentralized network with no corporate owner, Mastodon is fundamentally no better than Twitter from an end user perspective. In some ways, it’s a little bit worse: the username scheme is necessarily more complicated and harder to understand, there aren’t any anti-harassment protections for vulnerable communities, and the news feed is less likely to immediately show you content you’re interested in. That’s if you even get that far: you’ve got to pick a home server and one of multiple client apps.

Again: I’m not knocking Mastodon (or any decentralized project). It’s an important step towards a web that is not under the corporate control of a handful of companies.

What I am knocking is the design approach of emulating Twitter. While Twitter has tweets, Mastodon has toots; while Twitter has a 280 character limit, Mastodon has 500. The two networks have fundamentally the same content and interaction models, with what amount to slightly different settings. I say tweet, you say toot: let’s call the whole thing off.

“Twitter, but decentralized” is an example of a solution to a problem that has been defined in technical or ideological terms, but doesn’t come from a direct user need. As ideological proponents of decentralization, we might want the user to need federated Twitter, we might think they need it, but without a deep understanding of the users, all we’re doing is projecting our hopes and dreams onto them. Is their need decentralized Twitter, is it a network where they can connect to breaking news but also feel safe from abuse, or is it something else entirely?

The only true approach is to go back to a well-defined, core group of users, and learn from them holistically. Instead of making a problem to solve from whole cloth, we should start with the real-life points of view of a number of real people. (Not market segments; not invented personas; real-life humans who are representative of who you want the users to be.)

[Name], a [description], needs a way to [verb] in order to [surprising insight].

These POVs can only be arrived at through getting to know those people - and are the first step in a long human-centered design process that must encompass not just the product being made, but the structure of the organization that makes it. You can make a decentralized tool, but if the underlying organization is a C-Corp that could be bought by a billionaire, the effectiveness of your solution to a problem created by another C-Corp that was bought by a billionaire is limited. And if you want to build a platform where diverse, vulnerable communities feel safe, you’d better give them a say in running it.

We are never absolved from doing the hard work of deeply working with real people in order to serve them. A technology-first approach never wins. When 86% of Americans get their news via the internet, and when the platforms providing that news are owned by a very small handful of commercial companies and an even smaller gaggle of rich men, this isn’t a problem we get to half-ass.

Whether he ultimately does or not, the idea of Musk owning Twitter is a problem. The solution is not “Twitter but decentralized”, or a protocol, or an open standard, although it might potentially incorporate any of those things. The solution is something new that more deeply serves its target users better than they have been served before. The technology is secondary to the need, always.

 

Self-interview

This post is inspired by Donald Glover’s mildly unhinged interview with himself, which allowed him to answer questions that he would never otherwise be asked. I’m not sure that’s why I’m doing it, but it’s a different form for an entry, so let’s try it.

Let’s start here. How are you today?

That’s one of those questions where it’s not clear if the asker wants the real answer or a kind of nominal “doing okay, how about yourself”. I find myself falling into the latter, which seems to be habit I’ve picked up while I’ve been living in the States. I used to answer more honestly. Now I’m mostly always “okay”.

How am I actually doing? There’s a lot going on in my life, and in the world. I think a lot of us are struggling. I seem to have found a way to neatly compartmentalize, and I’m doing as good as any time over the last few years. I’d like to be doing better; specifically, I’d like life to be less complicated. But I’m getting through it.

What are you thinking about?

How I show up. Like I said, there’s a lot happening in the world: the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, climate change, and the rise of modern nationalism (which I’m seeing more and more as a useful tool by people who stand to profit from us continuing to not tackle climate change). And there’s a ton happening in my own life, too; I’d hoped a little bit that I would have a quiet year after losing Ma last year, but that doesn’t seem to be on the cards.

So the question against the backdrop of all of that is: how do I show up? Not just how can I be a part of the solution rather than the problem or an amoral bystander, which I’d very much like, but also, how can I show up for the people around me? How can I show up for myself?

My mission for the work I do has long been to build projects with the potential to create a more equal and informed world. It’s how I make decisions about what to work on: if it doesn’t hit that core idea, I’m not interested. (Or if it deviates from that direction, I lose interest.) I’d rather take a pay cut and work on something driven by this mission than work for a lot of money on something that isn’t. I don’t have grand delusions about this: my friends are fond of telling me that I don’t need to save the world myself, and I couldn’t even if I wanted to. I just want to help make it better.

A lot of people work to simply make a living, or to build wealth for their family. How do those ideas fit into your worldview? Where’s the line for you?

I don’t begrudge anyone else’s mission or way of working (unless it’s actively harmful). My mission doesn’t have to be yours. There are a lot of people who really struggle to make ends meet, or are trying to escape generational poverty, and don’t have the luxury of making these kinds of ideological decisions. I particularly don’t begrudge that.

But here’s the thing. I didn’t grow up with a ton of money. We lived in a tiny, water-damaged house on a busy road, on a block between a petrol station and a notoriously violent pub. It turned out there was a brothel a few doors down from us. When I tell people I grew up in Oxford they tend to imagine dreaming spires and 16th century buildings, but my reality was a little more down-to-earth. My parents rebuilt that house themselves with very little money. I don’t want to say that it was terrible - it was home in a meaningful way - but it certainly wasn’t perfect.

My parents had been activists in Berkeley. My dad is one of the youngest concentration camp survivors (of a Japanese-run camp in Indonesia). He moved to the US when he was 18, and was drafted very quickly. When he came out, he protested the war in Vietnam. My mother went to court to protect tenant rights and helped fight for affirmative action. She used to talk about when she was radicalized.

So I also don’t buy that you can’t make moral decisions or be ideologically-focused when you’re poor. Some of the world’s most effective activists have been workers in poverty.

I’m not living in poverty. My parents made sure there was a computer in the house, and insisted on it being one that could be easily programmed (instead of, say, a games console). My mother taught me to code. Because of that, and because of my free University of Edinburgh education, I’ve made myself a decent career. So I’ve got no excuse. Showing up, for me, means standing up for what you believe in.

You don’t want to sit in a big tech company and collect your RSUs?

I do not.

I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t built Elgg. I didn’t understand money at all when I built it, but I sort of lucked into a career off the back of it. Before that I’d built a satirical website that consistently got millions of pageviews a day over a period of years, and I hadn’t figured out how to make a decent living from it. But Elgg helped push me forward.

It also made me aware of what was possible. Oxfam used Elgg to help train aid workers. Non-profits in the global south used Elgg to share resources. I accidentally made something that people found quite useful and made a fairly big impact, as one developer in a team of two. Honestly - and I know this is ego speaking here - that’s a great feeling.

The thing with a lot of those big companies is that they have detrimental effects. That RSU money was potentially earned through surveillance capitalism, or through deals with ICE and the military. I’m not eager to contribute to systems of oppression. I also think that any centralized system, if it succeeds, eventually becomes a tool for oppression.

You sound a bit holier-than-thou.

I recognize that. I’m often accused of virtue signaling. And maybe that’s a fair criticism, although I don’t think it’s the crime other people seem to think it is.

Despite everything, I’m still bought into the utopian vision of the internet. I joined because I saw the potential to communicate with people who were different to me and build community. I’m still motivated by that.

Conversely, there’s the Wall Street version of the internet where everyone’s out to make a lot of money as quickly as possible. I don’t like that version; I don’t like the people, I don’t like the mindset, and I don’t think it’s good for either the internet or the world. When so many startups fail, it starts to look like a get-rich-quick scheme centered on building monopolies that only people from wealthy backgrounds are truly able to participate in. It’s such an anti-pattern. Extrapolated to its conclusion, it’s a sort of highly-refined global oligarchy.

You’ve participated in a few startups yourself, though, right?

I have. I’ve even started two!

I love the act and feeling of building something new, and I love supporting people who do it. My first startup was kind of founded out of spite, to show the naysayers that it would work. My second one was more because I saw a need and wanted to try again. (If there’s ever a third one, it’ll be closer to that reasoning.)

I was never trying to make a billion dollar company: I was trying to build something and make it sustainable. With the benefit of hindsight, I think Elgg could have been a foundation from day one (it is one now), and Known could have been part of some kind of non-profit. The VC model has its place, but it wasn’t well-suited to either project. I’m super-grateful to the investors for both, though; I was able to spend a few extra years doing work I loved.

In truth, I think I was always trying to find my ideal working environment. I didn’t want to be working for a traditional company, and I found a lot of workplaces either too aggressive or not empathetic enough. I don’t want to feel like I’m hustling or competing with the people I’m working with; I want to feel like we’re collaborating together as an inclusive community of three-dimensional people aligned around a common mission in an emotionally safe environment.

Can startups be mission-driven in the way you need them to be?

I waver on this. Maybe? Unless you’re very lucky, you’ll eventually come to a point in your startup’s life where you’ll need to make a choice between upholding your values and making a bunch of money. Particularly when you’re responsible for peoples’ salaries, the ethics of that situation can be complicated. Do you have the right to risk peoples’ jobs and livelihoods for upholding an ideal? Do you have the right to risk an investor’s return, given the deal you made with them?

On the other hand, what if that ideal was what brought them to the startup in the first place? Then the arithmatic changes. If the team, the investors, and the founders are fully-aligned and incentivized, there’s a chance it can be mission driven. But I think the alignment is much clearer if we’re dealing with a non-profit: the investors are now grant-makers and people who donate, and nobody’s expecting to walk away with a 30X financial return.

The best startups are intentionally building the future. Definitions of the future vary wildly. Do you want to build a future of centralized wealth and privatization, or one that is equitable and distributed? The answer dictates the approach.

Weren’t you a venture capitalist?

I was, for eighteen months or so, and it was one of the best jobs of my career. Matter had funded Known, and when I went to Medium I continued to be an active part of the community. When Corey Ford asked if I’d want to come back and be part of the team, I hesitated because I didn’t know if I’d be able to do the job well. But I didn’t think anyone was going to ask me again, and particularly not for a mission-driven accelerator, so I made the jump.

The Matter team were all wonderful people, and I’m still really good friends with all of them. The Matter portfolio, similarly so: because I was a member of both sides of the community, I got to know just about everyone on an equal level.

Matter’s mission was similar to mine: to support startups with the potential to create a more informed, inclusive, and empathetic society. I worked very long and very hard, and loved every second of it.

It was sometimes a tricky proposition, because from a purely financial standpoint, the deal wasn’t competitive ($50,000 for 7%). But it came with five months of in-person training, a bunch of introductions, and a solid community of support. I was taught design thinking, and then taught it to the portfolio, which has been helpful every day in my career since.

Between the money and the mission, the program often attracted startups that weren’t natural fits for VC, and I wish we’d had space to experiment more with the model. Some portfolio companies began to push the envelope with revenue-based investment, and the Zebra movement was co-founded by a member of the Matter community. But more could have been done, which I think would have better served the projects.

Still, the LPs were all media companies (KQED, PRX, the Knight Foundation, the New York Times were all among them) and Matter was very far from predatory. I’m proud of the work I did there, and particularly of the people I got the chance to support and work with.

One day, I’d really like to work on something similar again: a human-centered accelerator for mission-driven projects, inspired by the Matter curriculum. Maybe even with the same colleagues. But I’d think about a very different, more mission-aligned model for funding.

Is that even possible?

Who knows, but why not try? We used to heavily quote Clay Shirky’s blog post on reviving the failing newspaper industry, which sadly is now offline. “Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for lots and lots of experiments.”

This isn’t a thing for now, but it might be a thing for later.

First, I want to do good work where I am, I want to concentrate on supporting my family, and I want to write a book.

A book? Why?

I got an interesting piece of anonymous feedback when I attempted NaNoWriMo last year: that nobody needs another piece of writing and that I should focus on work that matters. And I get it, I really do. But this one’s for me. I’m writing because I want to. I’m seeing it through because I want to.

I got into computers because you could use them to tell new, interesting kinds of stories. I got into the internet because you could more effectively tell yours, and learn about other people. Writing is my first love. I want to give it the breathing space it deserves.

Last year would have been the year, but losing Ma span me off in a different direction, as losing a parent does. This year won’t be the year either, but not because I won’t be working on it. I’ll take my time, and it’ll fit in between all the other things, but I’ll do it.

And in the meantime, yes, there’s work to do.

Speaking of: it’s time to turn my attention to something else. Thanks for the chat.

Thank you. It’s been interesting. But I might not do this again for a while.

 

Elon, Twitter, and the future of social media

While I don’t think the guy who runs racist factories is necessarily the right person to buy a prominent social media company in order to “save democracy”, he’s right about one thing: if Twitter is to truly be a public square, the algorithm needs to be open sourced.

Over the years, there’s been a lot of chat about algorithms: how they’re designed to keep you on social media sites by filtering your feed for the kind of content that you want to see and interact with, rather than just showing you the reverse chronological list of all content you’ve subscribed to. It’s the mechanism that causes Facebook Pages to have to pay to have their posts actually reach their communities; it creates filter bubbles; it exacerbates power laws that help people with large communities reach even more people.

When we’re talking about algorithms on Twitter, though, the subtext is around the work the company has done on harassment and abuse. Accounts that regularly post hate speech are kicked off the platform, keeping vulnerable communities safer and making interactions on the site less toxic for everybody. To some (hint: their demographics are usually not the ones targeted for violence by these kinds of accounts) these are simply “differences of opinion”. That’s the kind of content that would be reinstated in a world with an open source algorithm. Don’t want nationalists on your feed? Use an algorithm that hides them.

And sure, maybe. The web as a whole works a bit like that, after all: if you’re not a white nationalist, don’t visit Stormfront or Truth Social. Those sites exist as niche underbellies where disaffected racists can spew their hatred without being disturbed by the rest of us. When that content crosses the line into illegality - at least, the content that’s observable, which is likely the tip of the iceberg - theoretically the police get involved. (The police themselves have a white supremacy problem, hence the theoretically.)

But speech isn’t simply speech. Speech has the power to organize, to rally, to build movements and cause both great positive change and great harm. Free speech maximalists like to quote Brandeis’s principle that the way to counter harmful speech is with more, positive speech. But past a certain point, once speech has brought together movements and those movements have taken to the streets, the way to counter it has been with armies and force. Long before that point, it’s doxxed activists, invited pipe bomb attacks at abortion clinics, and led to a man firing an AR-15 rifle in a family pizza joint. Racism and violence are not harmless differences of opinion; they are a cancer.

The First Amendment restricts the government’s power to limit speech and assembly. However, tweets are stored on Twitter; they’re entirely in the domain of a private company. Private companies have the right to make rules about what happens on their systems, at least until they become a common carrier. The content that is restricted on Twitter is not restricted in America; other sites exist where it can be posted. That those sites are markedly less popular - and that most hosting providers want to avoid any association with them, as is their right - says a lot about where American hearts generally really lie. When Twitter imposed stronger content moderation, the site began to grow faster.

Musk’s call for open algorithms is not unproblematic, for the reasons I’ve described. But if that’s what he really wants, the solution is a fully-decentralized protocol for social media: one that, like the web, isn’t owned by anybody, so there’s no central organization that can made decisions about allowable content or how the algorithm works. Everyone will be able to choose their own algorithm. It just won’t quite go how he, or other members of the nationalist-aligned, think it will.

As a web user, you probably use a web browser every day. There are tens or even hundreds to choose from, but you probably have never considered using Puffin or Redcore. Most likely, you’ve heard of three or four: Chrome, Firefox, Microsoft Edge (which you might think of as Internet Explorer, even though they’re not the same), and Safari. You might not even know that Edge and Chrome have the same browser engine.

If social media becomes fully decentralized, there will be a handful of “social media browsers” (we’ll probably know them by another name) that people will ultimately used. They’ll compete on providing the friendliest experience and the least toxic environment. If there are other browsers that cater specifically to the nationalist experience, it’s likely that the mainstream browsers will refuse to peer, blocking access to them outright. This has already happened: most Mastodon instances refused to peer with Gab. For its part, Google removes listings to comply with local law, for example to remove Nazi sites in Germany.

That’s not to say that open sourcing is a bad thing: it’s a great thing. That choice between algorithms, the customization of how you receive content, would be a major boon for consumers. Making social media more like the web is a win for everyone.

But there’s no world where nationalists get what they want. If Twitter turns down the dial on its content moderation, the community becomes more toxic and turns more people away. A nationalist-friendly alternative will never become mainstream, as Gab, Truth Social, Minds, etc, have already shown us. If the community turns en masse to a decentralized, open source alternative, any broadly successful entry point to that network will need to incorporate a friendly experience that includes community protections.

Because what they want is for their ideology to be mainstream, and for their words to be heard as loudly as possible. In a world where most Americans support diversity - and where diversity is part of the fundamental DNA of the nation - that message is only going to spread so far. In America, you have the right to free speech, but you do not have the right to be heard. For that, your message actually has to resonate.

Elon is right to want to open source, but he’s wrong about the implications. The world is moving in a more inclusive, more compassionate direction, and there’s no going back. Nationalism and traditionalism are firmly party of the 20th century, and that is becoming an increasingly long time ago.

 

A tattoo is for life

As part of the ongoing mid-life crisis that brought me electric blue hair and a new car, I’ve been thinking about getting a tattoo. Of course, if I’m going to mark my body, I’d like it to be the most meaningful (and potentially the nerdiest) image possible.

I have parameters. Given my family history, and the history of the twentieth century, I’d rather not use any kind of barcode, QR code (can you imagine?), or identifier. I also don’t really want words or any kind of quote. I thought about a waveform of my mother’s voice, but honestly, I don’t think she would have approved, and it feels a little like the 21st century equivalent of drawing “mom” in a heart. I qualify for a semicolon tattoo, but I don’t want one of those either.

Maybe an and gate? A symbol representing Earthseed’s God is change? A TARDIS? It all feels very stereotypical.

Maybe I’m just too fickle. It seems so permanent, and the me I am now is not the same person I’ll be in two, five, twenty years. On the other hand, I like the idea of marking life like rings in a tree.

Do you have a tattoo? Is it meaningful to you? What did you get?

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