A meta-proposal for Twitter’s bluesky project

My first-ever submission to SSRN was a success! Recently, I’ve gotten an email every day telling me that A meta-proposal for Twitter’s bluesky project is on the top-ten downloads for a ton of journals.

Officially I’m a co-author in the top 10 downloads in a bunch of SSRN topics

Namely: CompSciRN Subject Matter eJournals, CompSciRN: Other Web Technology (Topic), Computer Science Research Network, InfoSciRN Subject Matter eJournals, InfoSciRN: Information Architecture (Topic), InfoSciRN: Web Design & Development (Sub-Topic), Information & Library Science Research Network, Libraries & Information Technology eJournal and Web Technology eJournal.

This is a little less impressive than it sounds. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Here’s the story:

How did this all happen?

As a Berkman fellow, the main thing one seems to do is go to recurring meetings for a range of working groups. Jad Esber, one of my esteemed colleagues, got the idea and invitation to give a proposal to Twitter on their Bluesky project. He rounded up a bunch of us, and together we spent 5-6 meetings going over parts of what he called a “meta-proposal” — our guide on how to review the other different proposals coming in.

Jad is a wonderful person, and I learned some project management tips just from being part of this process. Getting a fair-sized collection of people to agree on a document, quickly, is difficult! As far as I remember, he did it like so:

  • The first meeting is to scope out different ideas people have about what they want to say.
  • Jad then writes excellent notes and combines ideas into a manageable number of topics.
  • Each meeting after this includes just the subset of the original crew who feel like they have something to contribute.
  • Jad, who has taken good notes throughout these meetings, polishes them up a bit, then turns it into a paper.

It was easy! It was so nice. And I got to work with people I really enjoy, including but not limited to Crystal Lee or Tom Zick

What the paper argues

The paper contains a bunch of ideas and warnings for a hypothetical new, decentralized social network. There are three big pillars: discover & curation, moderation, and business model. It’s quite short, so I recommend you just read all of it — it is barely 5 pages long.

I do care quite a bit about integrity issues (people often call them issues of “moderation”, which is wrong! More on this in a different post later). So I wanted to highlight this a bit.

Sidenote — what is integrity? Shorthand it to “hate speech, harassment, misinformation and other harms”, or “the problems of social media that come from users doing bad things to other users”.

Regarding curation: The most subtle proposal in here is around identifying the “idea neighborhoods” that someone might be hanging out in. (The paper calls them echo chambers). Why? Because “neighborhoods” are an important building block in identifying and fighting targeted harassment. If you know which neighborhood someone normally spends time in, you can be appropriately skeptical of them in times of stress. You can see a basic version of this in action on Reddit: if a certain post in /r/TwoXChromosomes gets a spike in harassing comments, it was pretty easy to block people who recently posted or commented in /r/mensrights.

(This is also fleshed out a bit in the moderation section as well)

On moderation: I’m tempted to block quote the whole thing. It’s all so clear, important, and succinct. And the key ideas to me are in the “friction” section, which is only 3 paragraphs. Summarizing it would take just as long as quoting. Okay, I can’t help myself. Here’s the section on friction (and a little preamble).

The role of moderation isn’t just restricting bad words or racist content. In designing the protocol and reviewing proposals, the conversation around moderation should center around restricting harassment & harm.

In considering the topic, the conversation should be framed under macro norms which are universal to the protocol; meso norms that are shared across certain clients of the protocol; and micro norms that are specific to a specific client.


It is well documented that our current systems that rely on the virality of user-generated content end up amplifying harmful content – and there is only so much that moderation efforts we tack on can do to mitigate this. In reviewing BlueSky proposals, we must engage with the question of virality and amplification and whether the protocol design avoids this.

Among the beauties and challenges of free flowing online space is the lack of physical boundaries. Traversing “geographies” by jumping from one conversation to another presents no restrictions. However, from a bad actor perspective, this presents an opportunity to scale harassment efforts and disrupt many events at once. Bluesky is an opportunity to “bring in more physics”, designing in friction on the protocol-level as a proactive way to avoid downstream moderation issues. Without getting into the complex issue of identity, increasing the cost of creating a new account, including introducing a monetary cost to start a new account, might be effective.

Enabling users to see which “neighborhood” other users are coming from could help users identify a provocateur and take action themselves. In addition to helping avoid brigading, ways of visibly ‘tagging’ users could help identify “sock-puppet accounts” and make bots easily identifiable. However, visibly tagging users could present the risk of short-circuiting judgments, and so the system should also present opportunities to identify any cross-cutting cleavages – for example by highlighting shared interests between users.

I’d say I couldn’t put it better myself, but, uh, there’s a reason for that. (That is, I feel a lot of ownership of it).


A theory of money

Have you heard the parable of the island?

A bloody conqueror invades an island. He forces everyone to mine for iron (the iron is irrelevant. They could be mining for dirt clods for all we care here. The point is that they do work).

At first, his army physically forces everyone into the mines in the morning, and lets them out in the afternoon, confiscating all their iron. That’s really exhausting. For the army, that is. They don’t really care about the islanders.

Then, they switch to taking a fixed amount of iron from people as they leave the mine. It’s much easier than searching them, and has more benefits. No more overseers making sure people are working down there. No more squinting and guessing about people’s ability to product — if someone doesn’t have enough iron, they are caged and beaten until their fellow islander ponies up the iron to free them. Things are now easier (for the army).

This is still very hard, though. How to keep track of who paid up and who didn’t? The army writes out receipts as people unload their iron as they leave the mine. Every week, the army sweeps through the island and makes everyone show their receipts to prove that they’re up to date with their iron duties. The vast majority of soldiers are freed up from guarding the mine entrance.

Parsing through receipts, manning a mine opening, that’s all still too hard. So now the army just has a depot in the middle of the town. Trade your iron for receipts. But the receipts are different. They no longer bother with writing dates or words on the receipts. Receipts are just little plastic tokens. Every week, the army sweeps through and collects 10 tokens from every islander. As long as you have the tokens, they don’t care where you got it from.

Eventually, the army gets even lazier. They sweep through every year instead of every week. They don’t bother manning many “iron for token” booths. They set up one, and let islanders set up smaller booths and do their dirty work for them. As they get lazier, they get softer. They set up a “coconuts for tokens” booth (because occupying an island is hard work, and their supplies are running low), and a “give us a massage for tokens” booth. Life is good.

Those plastic tokens are money. They have value because they’re needed to pay for those yearly sweeps. Those sweeps are taxes. The army is the state. The islanders are us. We’ve just invented money, feudalism, the state, and the transition to capitalism. Ta-dah!

(I didn’t come up with this parable. I am sure I read a version of it before. I can’t find it through casual searching, though, so I’m repeating it from memory for posterity)


Moving off monopolist internet

As Tom Slee puts it in No One Makes You Shop At Walmart, (and I think either Zephyr Teachout or David Dayen, or both, explain in their recent books), it’s not true that your individual interactions with monopolists matter. As a consumer, staying away from monopolists is a losing strategy. The point is democratic policymaking, not impotent boycotts. There’s a reason they’re monopolists, after all.

That said, I’m trying to slowly wean myself off the predatory internet.

Here’s my short-term plan:

  1. Set up my own domain (
  2. Set up many email addresses, each for a different way of using email. For instance: for reading newsletters, shopping@ for commerce, hello@ for correspondence, etc
  3. Set up an old-school blog (hello!)
  4. Every time I write something particularly good on FB, rewrite it slightly nicer on the blog
  5. I’ve carved out some writing explicitly for a substack: yenta!
  6. So far, my email addresses auto-forward to gmail
  7. One of these days, I’ll set up a NAS to hold all my files instead of dropbox.


  • Email: After a few years, I think I’ll be able to have straightened out these tangled threads enough to take more decisive action in sunsetting or sharply limiting my old email accounts. Before then, I hope to wean off the gmail UX for a separate inbox.
  • Files: Fingers crossed, the NAS will solve all my problems.
  • Writing: I’ve already started yenta, and will likely spin up another newsletter focused on technology & politics. (Name tbd — I’m currently leaning towards “Civil Integrity”.) I’ll opportunistically cross-post some juicy bits from the newsletter to this blog, but presumably be three different spaces.
  • Social networks: If all goes well, my friends will start getting used to corresponding via blog posts, comments, and email. I doubt that’ll happen. Instead, I’m slowly weaning myself towards Twitter + one other social network to be chosen. Clubhouse? I’ll hold my fire and try to have a lively Signal presence instead.

There are also ways that surveillance and monopolist technologies entwine themselves in your life, even when you’re not actively using them. Here’s my plan:

  • Web browsing: Firefox, firefox container tabs, firefox facebook container(!!), u-block origin, and privacy badger.
  • Reading online things: Firefox better web with Scroll. Email newsletters. Nuzzel.
  • Infra: Soon I’ll get a VPN (mozilla-branded?). I hear pi-holes are good? Looking for suggestions.
  • Maps: Apple maps for now. Don’t sign into google maps.
  • Tracking: Facebook only via a web browser. View it via safari on the iphone.
  • Chat / Video: Signal and Jitsi for now. Soon I’ll use a friend’s self-hosted Jitsi instead.

So that’s the plan right now. In short — set up a few things now, mostly dual-tracked. Patiently give myself years to mature into them, and as my use of them deepens (and others follow along) start leaning on them more heavily.

I’d ask what your plan is, and I am interested. But, in the end, the real change has to come from public policy. Don’t get too seduced by individualistic theories of social change.

PS – Don’t forget that I do (and you can) use A Few Weird Tricks to make your Twitter and Facebook experience much more pleasant. (You can even get rid of ads without an ad blocker!).


The December 2020 Mixtape

Every month, I make Sarah a playlist of songs she might particularly want to hear. Here is a link to this month’s mixtape.

(Where’s November, you ask? November’s mixtape was literally just Age of Adz by Sufjan) (Isn’t it already 2021, you ask? Okay, I’m behind, sorry!)

This month’s playlist is focused on helping Sarah concentrate. To that end, it features some less-lyrical music, timeless warm post-folky music (like Timber Timbre), and songs in hebrew.

Here it is. And, because proprietary services are bad, let’s export to text:

The December 2020 playlist:

  • Holemabier by The Arcadian Wild,
  • Redolent by WMD,
  • Ísjaki by Sigur Rós,
  • Alberto Balsalm by Aphex Twin,
  • Nowhere Near by Yo La Tengo,
  • Everything Goes My Way by Metronomy,
  • For the Time Being by Erlend Øye; La Comitiva,
  • Roygbiv by Boards of Canada,
  • Adon Olam (Master of the World) by Moshav,
  • Aoede by Mashrou’ Leila,
  • Fire Flies by Gorillaz,
  • Demon Host by Timber Timbre,
  • He Would Have Laughed by Deerhunter,
  • פרגולה by Eviatar Banai,
  • Myth by Beach House,
  • Wolf Like Me by Lera Lynn; Shovels & Rope,
  • Rain Clouds by The Arcadian Wild

(As always, thank you for making “get the plain text of a playlist” so much less painful)

As always, you can find all the playlists by going here.


Stand with GME or the Nazis will

(Written by a friend who wishes to remain anonymous)

I’m here to talk about what’s going to happen to the 8.5M members of WSB (this is a huge number– larger than the population of NYC!) and how we could be dealing with a second wave of Americans getting red-pilled if we, the Online Left, don’t step in and start engaging with these folks. However this ends, it’s going to be an emotional experience for everyone involved. Armageddon will either be a slaughter where millions of retail investors gambled money they couldn’t afford to lose and went broke or they’ll hit the jackpot. Armageddon will trigger a tremendous amount of in-group loyalty no matter how this goes. And afterward, the story of what happened and why will start to come together. 

One way or another, there are going to be 8.5M people who will experience a life-changing moment (THAT WE ALL KNOW IS COMING) and will be incredibly susceptible to persuasive communication.

Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson are both covering this situation favorably to WSB– they’re buying goodwill right now. They’re going to be among the people who were there for them early on. That means that they’ve already won an audience with this group. They’ll help shape the post-GME narrative. In all likelihood, they’ll weave a story that ties Wall Street Corruption to the Biden Administration, the college-educated elite, and probably (sotto voice) the Jews too.

That’s where you come in. Right now you have the ability to express support for this very weird form of populist collective action. You can start to earn your seat at the table for whatever happens after Armageddon in helping to shape the story and the worldview of everyone involved. It may not be exactly the revolution that any of us want, but we do share a common enemy and this is a very rare opportunity where we know a big shock is coming. 

Millions of regular people are starting to learn all about the machinery of the finance industry for the first time. They can understand the problems that stem from our financial markets through the lens of a right-wing nationalist worldview or they can understand these problems through the lens of a left-wing global solidarity worldview. So what are some specific actions that we can all take:

  • Reddit:
    • Familiarize yourself with the dialect of WSB and the GME holders. The memes are fantastic, the language and emoji are easy and specific, and we really need to not seem like a bunch of outsiders briganding their subreddit.
    • Join WSB and start engaging. You won’t be able to post for 3 months, but you can upvote good left-wing takes and downvote right-wing nonsense into oblivion. If you find right-wing provocateurs trying to steer people down the wrong path, identify them, share their username, and collectively follow and downvote them. 
    • Elsewhere on reddit, start saying favorable things about WSB and re-contextualize the collective action as a left-wing populist uprising. It’s not Occupy, but it’s close enough that we can tell a story that rhymes Occupy. 
  • Twitter: 
    • Ask hard questions to centrist intellectuals (both left and right of center) who are down on WSB. What do they think they know that all these folks don’t? Why are they cheering for them to fail? Are they really so thirsty for likes from other elites that they’re trying to get in on the ground floor of the schadenfreude?
    • Re-contextualize news articles about WSB as being a populist movement rooted in solidarity. This is the story of people banding together in collective action, holding and buying despite tremendous pressure and disinformation to say “fuck you” to the rich. That is a winning message and is likely to lead people to Gramsci instead of Dugin. 
  • Facebook
    • Facebook is full of lower-information folks than twitter, so they’re going to have less context. This means that you’re painting with a blank canvass and can tell whatever story you want. That story is about how this is a tactical evolution of Occupy. The global movement against unmitigated corporate greed got a new tool– a bunch of memelords taking down hedge funds that get too greedy. People will think this is awesome and it will help cement the idea for low information folks that WSB is a left-wing movement.

Most importantly, don’t let good be the perfect be the enemy of the good. This is a rare moment where millions of hearts and minds hang in the balance. They can either join us in a fight for global justice or they’ll be taken in by right wing fanatics and they’ll be an obstacle to our liberation. This means compromising on our rhetoric in ways that allows us to lift up stuff that’s mostly good if somewhat objectionable.


Some facts about Wednesday

Just so we’re clear:

Oh, and also:

Wednesday was much more violent than you think it was.

Consider this: the people live-streaming were idiots. They broadcasted themselves breaking the law. Many other people were not idiots. They were armed militias, equipped to the nines, often with (ex?) military members.

Those people — the competent, scary ones — were the ones planning on actually killing members of Congress. They had guns. And they didn’t livestream.

The stuff you saw was from the clowns. It’s skewing your perception. Think about what wasn’t broadcast.


How to quit your “impact” job and not feel guilty.

I’ve put out another edition of the Yenta Newsletter. Take a look here. For posterity, I’m going to extract one piece of the newsletter — an advice column — and flesh it out a bit here.

For a few years now, I’ve been joking that my hobby is “marxist career advice”. I’ve spent many hours-long conversations with people asking for help with figuring out their life, and my basic orientation involves ideas like “yes, all labor is exploitation, but you still need a job” and “alienated labor is a true crime of capitalism. I shake my fist at it. Now let’s talk about your resume”.

I’ve thought about turning it into some sort of cultural artifact. A set of essays, a book, a podcast, etc. For now, I’ll try something more juicy — an advice column.

(It would be remiss of me not to point out that the incomparable Existential Comics did a fun take or two on this subject. That’s where the header image comes from, and the comic below as well. I love EC and encourage you to read everything they’ve ever written. Their twitter feed is dank as well.)

By Existential Comics:

Recently, I ran into someone who a question squarely in my wheelhouse. It’s a sign. So, now please enjoy the inaugural issue of “Marxist Career Advice”.

I’m thinking of quitting my very cool progressive political job. It is an important job, but the working conditions aren’t great. People are overworked, underpaid, and everything is chaotic.

I come from poverty. I’ve continued to struggle with poverty and housing-insecurity through my adult life. My current employer makes a big deal out out of below-nonprofit-range salaries as a sign that we are deeply committed to the movement. I feel guilty about wanting to spend a few years making a higher salary – which I want to do so I can build up a savings net and allow myself more opportunities to join progressive fights in the future.

I want to do the right thing. I don’t want to feel guilty. How should I think about this?

Conflicted in Carolina

First off, conflicted — I’m sorry that’s happening to you. There is indeed a frustrating pattern where people who consider themselves on the left, pro-worker, pro-equality, etc end up becoming the worst bosses. That’s wrong. You deserve respect, fair treatment, and psychological safety at work, just as much as anyone else does. My buddy Ned Resnikoff wrote a seminal piece on this in Jacobin in 2013: When The Union Is The Boss. You might enjoy it.

You’ve expressed guilt about the idea of leaving the movement, let’s say. Let’s interrogate that! There’s a term for a thing where membership is tied to your employment: an industry. If you take the logic that “you can’t be in the movement unless you’re hired to do so” to its logical conclusion, you’ll end up with a political strategy of hiring 51% of the country in a progressive nonprofit. That’s obviously not going to work.

When I was considering the same question a while ago, I came to a few realizations:

  • If I stay in the professional left, and give up the training, socialization, resume, and money I’d get from going into industry, I don’t think I’d be thanked. Instead, people might implicitly think of me as not good enough to get a “real” tech job.
  • If I stay in the professional left, it’d be very hard for me to get a tech job where there’d be more than 3 people in the department. Little opportunity for growth, or focus.
  • If I go work in industry, and then come back, I’d be seen as having magic startup/SF pixie dust. People would trip over themselves to hire me.
  • If I work in industry, I would not be seen as speaking for my employer. I could be as radical or frank as I want. Whereas when I work for the professional left, I have to be careful of not pissing off potential future partners, clients, bosses, etc. In other words, I need to be insulated enough from professional blowback to frankly call out some vendors or groups are actively harming the cause.
  • If I leave for industry, I’ll be replaced in my current professional left job by someone who is roughly as talented as I am. They will do the work. And even, to be generous to myself, let’s say they are $30,000/year less productive than I am — depriving this one organization of 30k/year of productivity is a small price to pay for my happiness. (And who knows, this job might be an actual step up / dream for the person replacing me, as opposed to the noble sacrifice it is for me right now)

All those predictions turned out to be true, to some extent.

I don’t know your full situation, of course. And so I can’t tell you what to do. But I hope you take these points in mind. (And, while it’s important context, your current and past poverty and housing insecurity aren’t the determining factor here. You don’t need that as a “get out of guilt jail free” card. Because you should be out of guilt jail even if you had a comfortable middle class background. Does that make sense?)

Lastly, this: when we try to unionize workers at McDonalds, we don’t attack them for how terrible their employer is. We see them, accurately, as partially victims — victims that deserve a higher minimum wage, dignity and respect at work, and a union. So, too, when you work for BigCorp, you are not your boss. You are not deciding to use Congolese slave labor, etc. You’re a worker, who needs a job somewhere. A worker who deserves respect, dignity, solidarity — and a union.

Hope that helps.

(Do you have a career advice question? Ask us at


Birthdays for adults that don’t suck (during a pandemic)

Adult birthdays are hard. There isn’t necessarily a built-in community of fellow students around. Even letting people *know* that it’s your birthday takes effort. The pandemic, of course, has made it worse. So, just as I’m on the lookout for better ways to have adult friendships, or date during a pandemic, I’m trying to think about how to birthdays.

There are three examples of how it went really well that I’d like to share and report back.

#1: Surprise voicemail

For my birthday this July, Sarah did a really nice thing. She set up an answering machine on Google Voice. Then she asked my friends around the world to call in and leave a 3-minute birthday message.

On July 26th, Sarah and I strolled to a nice picnic breakfast. Then, and also again over the course of the day, she played back the messages, a few at a time. It was one of the best birthdays of all time. I felt so happy, and loved, and it was a delight to hear from friends old and new. Close friends and distant acquaintances I was frankly surprised to hear from.

Try it!

#2: Playlist + Slideshow

For Sarah’s birthday, I knew I had to match her. But copying exactly seemed impolite. What to do? After a week of dithering, I figured it out.

I make Sarah a mixtape every month. This time, I’d ask all her friends to contribute music to a birthday playlist just for her. Ontop of that, I’d ask them all to send photos and notes to compile into a slideshow.

Figuring out how to ask people to do 3 different things was tricky. Eventually I settled on using one Airtable form and distributing one link. Worked like a charm.

Here’s the slideshow combining the notes, the songs, and the photos. It came out really well!

And here is the playlist. Or, if you prefer text:

  • Lionel Richie – Hello
  • Cascada – Everytime We Touch
  • Club Drosselmeyer – Ginger Snaps *(This isn’t on Spotify)
  • They Might Be Giants – Birdhouse in Your Soul
  • The New Seekers – Free To Be…You And Me
  • Peter, Paul and Mary – Puff, the Magic Dragon – 2004 Remaster
  • Yola – Walk Through Fire
  • Yola – Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
  • Yola – Rock Me Gently
  • Allan Sherman – Shake Hands With Your Uncle Max
  • Na Palapalai – Ke Anu O Waimea
  • Brigitte Bardot – Une histoire de plage
  • Brigitte Bardot – La madrague
  • Tanis – Ce N’est Pas Moi
  • Mazowsze – Dwa serduszka
  • Elton John – Skyline Pigeon
  • Stephen Sondheim – Company
  • Marvin Gaye; Tammi Terrell – Ain’t No Mountain High Enough
  • Rozzi – Best Friend Song – Lemon Ice Mix
  • Lake Street Dive – You Go Down Smooth
  • Laura Marling – Fortune
  • Stevie Wonder – I Wish
  • Vince Staples; Richie Kohan – Home
  • The Neville Brothers – Sister Rosa – Live From Wolfgang’s Vault
  • 100 gecs; Charli XCX; Rico Nasty; Kero Kero Bonito – ringtone (Remix) [feat. Charli XCX, Rico Nasty, Kero Kero Bonito]
  • Carly Rae Jepsen – Cut To The Feeling
  • Nina Simone – Love Me or Leave Me – 2013 Remastered Version
  • Edo Lee – Black Coffee
  • Trevor Hall – Everything I Need
  • Chromeo – Clorox Wipe
  • Silver Jews – People
  • Journey – Don’t Stop Believin’
  • The B-52’s – Love Shack
  • Matthew Thiessen & The Earthquakes – Forest
  • The Civil Wars – 20 Years
  • A Taste Of Honey – Boogie Oogie Oogie – Remastered

#3: A murder mystery on GatherTown

I hate zoom. And google meet. And the culture of meeting more than 3 people on a video chat structured as a set of boxes. Conversations need to be small! And breakout groups need to be fluid and user-controlled.

That’s why I’m so excited about two different platforms that try to solve it — and spacial chat. And, just the other day, my friend Giselle used gathertown to run a successful murder mystery party!

The day started out a bit normal – a brunch hangout of just a few (~5) of us friends from college. Then, in the evening, we all created avatars and moved around in! The scene was an 80’s themed prom. We each had roles in a murder mystery. Despite the mystery instructions being written years ago (and therefore assuming we wouldn’t be quarantining), gathertown made it all possible!

Try a murder mystery (or just some version of spacial chat or gather town) for your next birthday. You’ll be so much happier than an awkward 20-person zoom room.

The over-arching secret is the wingman

All these case studies had one common success factor: the wingman. These days, you need someone spending their time reminding your friends that the birthday is coming up, and then also directing them to The Plan.

And there does need to be a plan. Gone are the days where we can just spontaneously hoist someone on our shoulders and go to the nearest pub. Instead, the wingman (the planner) needs to lay out an idea, find friends, drive them to the link, etc.

For me, it was Sarah. For Sarah, it was me. For Giselle, it was our mutual friend Anna. For couples, it seems pretty easy to figure out who the wingman is.

But for single people? I don’t know. Must be tough.

Guess that’s one more reason I want to help people find love in my spare time.


Consult the room full of people in your head

Some time ago, on a flight across the country, I decided to listen — I mean really listen — to a full album by the band Cloud Cult. This was new for me. I grew up listening to classical music, and in doing so, I fear I trained myself to ignore the lyrics of songs almost completely. So paying attention to actual words is quite hard.

Cloud Cult was on my mind. kept telling me that they were one of my favorite bands (by number of plays), but I couldn’t tell you much about them, or their music. I had just finished listening to Krista Tipett interviewing their lead for On Being. Clearly they were more important than the silly band with weird songs that I thought they were. So I closed my eyes, queued up a new (to me) album, and simply paid attention.

And then … woah. This song hit me like a bag of bricks.

“There’s a room full of people in your head, and every single one of them claims your name.”

There’s a party going on in your head, yes, but also parties. A parliament. And this parliament is composed of factions, each led by a different personality.

This rhymes with a concept from Jay Smooth. The Little Hater. The little hater is the voice in your head, trashing everything you do. The little hater is the leader of opposition in the parliament of you. (Never the majority leader, because then that’d mean he’d have to take responsibility for actions).

Eventually, the plane landed. The album ended. Tears crossed my cheeks. I staggered out of the airport and met my partner. I had a decision to make — should I leave my job? What sort of thing could I do next?

If there was a parliament full of personalities in my head, we decided, maybe what I needed to do was build a coalition of the personalities I wanted to embody, and do what they wanted.

We walked to a park, and I sat down on a rock, facing a pond. I decided that there were a few values/personalities to embody:

  • The one who believes they will not fail
  • The one who is an artist, unconcerned with material things
  • The one who wants to always be on the side of good
  • The one who weighs the options and coolly does the “correct” thing

For each, I embodied them, the way an actor would, or an avatar. My posture changed. My voice changed. And each personality graded different courses of action, gave advice, etc.

The last one was perhaps the most interesting. I originally thought of it as “the person who worries” or “the person who wants to make sure I’m safe”. But a trick I learned (from Gayle Karen Young at StartingBloc) was to take these personalities and add the modifier “mature”. What does the “mature worrier” look like? To me, it was a sort of Ari Emmanuel character. Brisk, even brusque. Weighing risk and reward. Hardheaded and ambitious, calculating and cool. And his take on the situation frankly surprised me.

That’s the day I realized I needed to leave Facebook (thought it took a while longer to pull the trigger). And that’s how I try to make decisions going forward.

Anyway, the point of this all was originally to suggest you listen to Cloud Cult. Cloud Cult is great! And while Room Full of People In Your Head is a great song, I’d have to say it’s not even their best. This is. Relatedly, Jay Smooth and Gayle Young are american treasures. Find Jay here. And Gayle is here.


The 2020 review of video games

This was the year that I took a self-conscious break from work and finally made good on my years-long threat to play video games. I haven’t spent as much time on a console since I was a teenager. It was nice, a good way to reconnect with the concept of “it’s okay to use time in ways that are not productive.”

But, in order to be a little bit productive, allow me to introduce Sahar Massachi’s 2020 video game review. These aren’t games that came out in 2020, necessarily, just games that I first encountered this year. (Skyrim, while having soaked up a lot of my time, sadly doesn’t qualify). All games are on the Switch.

Top Prize: Return of the Obra Dinn

The soundtrack alone vaults it to stardom

Quite possibly the best work of the last 5 or 10 years, this masterpiece is more like an immersive, fun, work of art that happens to be a video game.

Even people who dislike video games can love this game. The music is so good that I listen to it for fun. The puzzles are exactly the right amount of challenging, and the procedure for validating your guesses is ingenious. this is the sort of game that your girlfriend iwht no hand-eye coordination can play, that your whole family can join in as you play on the couch.

A+. Shows what building a game for love, rather than profit, can achieve.

Notable runner-up: West of Loathing

Real 90s kids might remember Kingdom of Loathing, the php-based browser game (still running strong!). West of Loathing is its stellar spin-off.

Set in a satirical “western” setting, the plot veers into goblin genocide, freaky aliens, the culture of SF, and evil necromantic beings.

“Funny games” are, as a rule, awful. (A Bard’s Tale being the paradigmatic example). West of Loathing is the exception to the rule. Witty and erudite, this combination puzzle game / point and click adventure / basic tactics RPG will draw in jaded gamers and vigilant non-gamers alike.

This, along with Obra Dinn, was the only game I could gleefully play with Sarah — together, at the same time, playing the same character, switching off holding the controller. Given her lack of video game skills (she attributes this to “lack of mario” growing up), that’s a big deal!

Bait and Switch Award: Fire Emblem Three Houses

I am currently playing Fire Emblem. Not at this minute of course, since I’m typing this. But I was playing Fire Emblem right before this, and I’ll play Fire Emblem right after it. I spent over twelve hours playing it every day this weekend.

The game bills itself as a sort of hogwarts-inspired plot: there is a school for fighting/magic/leaders of the continent. And you’re a teacher heading one of the houses! Plus, some battles. And yes, all that is there. What they don’t tell you: the game is also a lightweight dating sim.

Your units have “support” with each other — and as a teacher, you’re meant to help them get closer to each other personally (so that they can fight harder together in battle). As a player, you’re constantly watching cutscenes of your students awkwardly flirt, argue, and teach each other to cook. It often feels more like you are watching an interactive, schizophrenetic movie, than playing a game.

But there’s a twist — your students (and coworkers, boss, dad, and some miscellaneous children) also want to build relationships with *you*. And, for pretty much everyone of the opposite gender (and some of the same gender), “building relationships” feels a lot like flirting. In fact, often, it precisely is. After all, the game wants you to end up marrying one of these people.

I was playing a woman character, and so most of the romantic prospects were men. Mostly students. This felt wrong in a few ways. First, and most importantly, why does the game have you flirt with students? Unethical! But also — I don’t really find joy flirting with men who, again, are my students. So any time a heartfelt moment with one arrived, I’d tense up, afraid of them turning their eyes towards me. Even though most encounters were objectively sweet, and the flirting actually was at a minimum (and kept towards the end of the game, where everyone is 5 years older and has graduated), the whole situation kept me on edge because I was worried the unwanted attention *could happen at any time*.

I imagine this sort of experience vaguely (though with a lot of caveats) feels like the same sort of thing that actual women deal with in real life. (Again, with lots of qualifiers, not least being “the magnitude is different and no switch game substitutes for real experience etc etc).


Nostalgia award: Katamari Damacy

Katamari. What a joy. What a soundtrack. What a reminder of mid-aughts madcap madness, and a gameplay that still has yet to be matched. Katamari combines the simple joy of tidying up with the simple joy of world domination via giant ball magnet thing.

The one thing they still need to fix is so obvious that I’m dumbfounded it hasn’t happened — the game needs an “infinite mode”, where you can roll around to your hearts content with (and this is crucial) no deadline!

Friendship award: Divinity Original Sin: 2

Online coop is weirdly difficult on the switch. The Escapists 2 hasn’t thought through coop move very well. Smash Brothers doesn’t allow online *coop*, only battles against your friends, not with them vs an AI. Streets of Rogue flat out breaks when trying coop. Diablo 3 pulls it off technically, but has such atrocious plot and setting that spending time on it is an insult to anyone paying attention. Pokemon’s coop abilities are a joke. All fail — except Divinity 2.

It’s a marvel that they pulled off this game on a console that is technically a mid-2017 era smartphone in a new form factor. It’s amazing that one can play the spiritual successor to Baldur’s gate on what is essentially a game boy — and do it with a friend hundreds of miles away. Bravo!

Skinner Box Award: Hades

So many pixels have been spread extolling Hades that I’ll keep it brief. It’s reinvented the roguelike genre. It can be a replacement for knitting while talking to friends on the phone, and a challenging full-attention adventure if needed. The story drips out in tiny enough drips to last forever, and large enough drips to keep you interested.

It’s a technological marvel — civilization has come one step closer to the Skinner box. Well done.

Hot Takes

Zelda Breath of the Wild is fine but repetitive. Each zone is the same — find the shrines, do some easy puzzles, fight some bad guys (who respawn soon anyways, so why even bother?)

Cuphead is fun for about 10 minutes before the wonder at the jazzy sound and old-timey graphics fades and you’re left with a derivative (and too difficult) platformer.

Animal Crossing is boring and it’s my understanding that everyone (rightly) gave up on it two weeks in.

Remember how I said that (Loathing excepted) every game that tries to be funny is an abysmal waste of time? The Adventures of Bertram Fiddle is a great example of what doing it badly looks like. (Sorry, creators of the game! I know you worked hard on it, I apologize that I didn’t like it. I did try.)

Undertale is a nice work of art. It continually show you established patterns of a game — then violates different “rules” or norms that you didn’t even realize existed. It’s clearly special. It’s also art more than a game. I wouldn’t call it fun. But it is interesting.


A right-libertarian case for breaking up Facebook

So, this is fun. Over the weekend, I was the featured guest on a libertarian radio show — A Free Solution, by Kevin Wilson and Larry Sharpe. We talked about breaking up Facebook, tech monopolies, surveillance, and content moderation policy. I made the best libertarian case I could for trust busting. Cited Hayek, the presidential election of 1912, and other things.

We had a wide ranging conversation. Some thumbnail ideas include:

  • Trust busting is the limited government alternative to extensive regulation.
  • Facebook is right now meddling in every election. They can’t help it, because the very fact of an algorithmic news feed (and recommended groups, and decisions where to put election integrity resources) means meddling happens trillions of times per day.
  • True patriots don’t stand for unelected dictators like Mark Zuckerberg deciding out of noblesse oblige to deign to try to protect them from foreign meddling in democracy.
  • “Facebook Jail” as worse than the DMV. A giant kafkaesque bureacracy that gets things wrong and has no scope for appeal!
  • Is Facebook biased against conservatives? I heard that it’s a very liberal company. The answer may surprise you!
  • The ad-driven internet builds a surveillance society that is horrifying. Even if you’re okay with Walmart sending targeted ads to you, remember that all that data is also being sold to the NSA (and Chinese, Russian, etc agencies).

Kevin and I go back to around 2012, when I was living in Rochester as an adult. I met his then-girlfriend, now-wife, when she was working for Metro Justice. I wrote People-Powered Rochester in the MJ offices, sitting right next to her!

Even back then, Kevin and I got along. I think we bonded over the Restore the Fourth protests of 2013 and 2014. He’s always struck me as a real, principled libertarian. I’ve asked him for the hot takes on LP politics, and what the Trump era exposed about the libertarian movement. (While he’s a fan of Justin Amash, he definitely agrees with this famous Thomas Massie take). I donated to his run for congress in 2020, and urged my friends and family to vote for him. (The only LP candidate I have ever backed, to my knowledge).

So, it was a friendly interview. I really enjoyed it! Kevin was a gracious host. The format of the interview (radio show, with predefined slots of time) was a little frustrating — as soon as I felt we were ready to get deep into a topic, we’d start over. And the pacing felt rather fast. But it was fun, and I think I did a good job representing the ideas.

You can listen to the show here.

(This should be an embed)

And the bonus (runoff) conversation that continued after the show officially ended:

(This should be an embed)

I really enjoyed it! It was a fun intellectual exercise and a free-flowing conversation. Thank you to Kevin for having me on. Highlight of my week.

(And I think I’m really good at it. Got a podcast or radio show? Have me as a guest!)


We need new, defiant holidays

(Co-written with a friend who wishes to remain anonymous)

Remember Jeffrey Epstein? A child rapist who built up a conspiracy of blackmail and exploitation that ensnared elites of many countries, parties, and industries. For a while, his empire — and his accomplices — were the most important story in the world. Then he died, and suddenly no one was talking about him any more. Not just in the media — our friends, normal people, etc, just collectively stopped discussing it. His collaborators (some named!) are still out there, free.


We need practices to remember things, otherwise they’ll fall out of thoughts. This is true for learning and retaining facts in a tactical way (with spaced repetition, anki methods, etc), and also true for remembering big, inconvenient truths in a strategic way.

It is particularly important to remember things that reflect the culture of elite impunity all around us. How the powerful break the law and get away with it over and over again.

Here are some examples:

  • The Great Recession was not only caused by fraud, it was accelerated by fraud. Not only did the banksters get off the hook legally — the banks (and corporations as random as McDonalds) got bailed out. Post-crisis, corporations and banks were even bigger and more monopolistic.
  • Epstein, and how his collaborators (powerful, named people!) are still at large.
  • Edward Snowden revealed massive, illegal, and scary expansions of the police state. Elite politicians of both parties (with some infuriating examples and noble exceptions) condemned him as a leaker at best and traitor (or spy) at worst.
  • The Panama Papers revealed how pretty much all the rich people in one hemisphere were breaking the law to hide their money from taxation. The person who revealed it all was killed by a hit squad.
  • And, of course, Aaron Swartz was killed by a combination of MIT, Eric Holder, Carmen Ortiz, and Steven Heymann.

We can add more to this list, of course. Bush and friends knowingly lied to get us into a war, illegally spied on pretty much every US citizen, and then congress gave everyone involved retroactive immunity without even an investigation. COINTELPRO happened. The architect of Iran/Contra is a fox news hero. Everything regard how black people are treated in america. Enron did a sort of 2008 crisis but for energy. Eugene Debs was jailed for opposing WWI. Etc.

How can we remember this? How can we make sure that our children remember this, and keep the rage fostered in their hearts? Not just the rage, but the story. The names, the addresses. The people responsible, and the system that let them get away with it.

We can remember things

Hm… If only there was a model of a way that we could institutionalize memory. Oh wait! There is!

Holidays are a technology humans have developed to fulfill certain purposes. The purpose of a holiday is to transmit, across centuries, the significance of an event and the takeaways from it. Holidays are a way you make sure that you never forget.

How can we make sure that our children remember this, and keep the rage fostered in their hearts?

You could make an argument (though it’d be a pretty poor one) that a religion is at its core, spaced repetition of ideas at the cadence of days, months, and years. And a holiday is the main tool to do so.

Any community can do this, however; just maintain your principles through spaced repetition of stories, so there are opportunities for adults to consistently hone their attention for similar processes happening in the news or the trends in their social environment.

Holidays are for memories: The Jewish Experience

One of us (Sahar) is jewish. The other isn’t. <Anonymous collaborator>’s experience with observing jewish traditions has been enlightening. In his words:

Look at the resilience of the jewish people despite oppression, millenia of diaspora, etc. They maintain a cultural core through memory. While every religion has this, Judaism is an interesting example because it’s an example of how a community defined itself, in part, by remembering its enemies. (I’m particularly inspired by Alain de Botton’s book, Religion for Atheists.)

I find that as an “American”, whatever that means, my friends and neighbors easily forget who our enemies are, and how to defend ourselves against them. Sometimes these enemies are circumstances, or systems, or classes of people.

Sometimes, however, these enemies are individuals. With names. And addresses.

Take Ghislaine Maxwell. She should be crucified in Times Square. In a just world, we would find the people who collaborated with Jeffrey Epstein in every way. We should name them, and, if we can’t legally destroy them, we can at least remember.

I find that as an “American”, whatever that means, my friends and neighbors easily forget who our enemies are, and how to defend ourselves against them.

Jewish holidays are good at remembering enemies. They’re also good at being trans-generational. There’s a ramp-up of participation over the course of someone’s upbringing. Let’s take the example of Purim:

A child might engage with Purim by laughing at the idea of eating cookies called “haman’s ears”. They might listen for his name during the ritualistic reading of the story of Purim, so that they find the opportunity to boo loudly and play with their noisemakers. As they age, however, they will engage more and more with the actual story, such that hopefully by teenagedom, they can be alert to parallels to bilious kings, evil government officials, incitement and antisemitism, in their environment today.

We can learn from this!

A proposal: holidays to remember modern-day evildoers

As we covered earlier, there are moments in our lifetime of colossal elite impunity and abuse of power. Abuse, that is, that has still gone unaddressed. What if we created holidays to remember them?

We could use tools from the toolbox of successful jewish days of remembrance. Food. Games. Ritual. The oral recitation of text.

Here’s an example idea for a to-be-titled “Financial Crash and Bailout Remembrance Day”

For food:

Just as banksters chopped up subprime mortgages and, using CDOs, called them AAA bonds, so too we will chop up sausages, mix them up, put them in bowls, and then eat them. But not before we solemnly point to the bowls of sausage and say in unison: “This is a steak”

Just as the banksters stole from actual people with fraudulent documents, and then later stole from the public with bailouts, so too shall the children of the household be able to eat anything they want on this day. Any child can write some words on a piece of paper, saying a variation of “this is mine now,” and handing it to their elders in exchange for their food. (The older the child, the more complex the sentence/paragraph should be)

For games:

Just as the financial crash was fueled by an elaborate game of handing toxic debt to unwitting participants by a game of hot potato, let us remember by way of a game modeled on musical chairs. Let the rules include mechanics like: participants can stay in the game by taking “high-interest loans”, or: participants can agree to “bail out everyone”, but one arbitrary participant gets orders of magnitude more points than others each time a bailout happens.

Let us remember that Principal + Interest is greater than the Principal.

For ritual:

Just as lives and livelihoods were senselessly lost, so too shall we waste things that are precious to us. Let there be a layered cake. Let all make the cake together. Let it be decorated and nice. No one gets to eat the cake, at any time. All they can do is take slices and throw them at each other (or in the garbage).

For recitation of text:

Let there be a spoken-out-loud reading of key texts. These texts should explain the crash, and point fingers at those people and institutions responsible. These might include: the repeal of Glass–Steagall during the Clinton administration. The heads of major banks. Mitch McConnell. Hank Paulson. Larry Summers. 

Exact texts TBD

Conclusion, caveats, and next steps:

This is, of course, just an example.

We could have come up with other ones. Say, “Epstein International Ring of Blackmail and child rape” day, or “Every rich person is breaking tax law in Panama” day.

We can also come up with different and better rituals, or choose the texts. These sorts of details are important, and we’d love to collaborate with you on them. But the proposal is just meant to sketch out the concept.

We also aren’t aiming to be perfectly clear or accurate about the causes and evils of the 2008 crash in this proposal. More informed people would have a lot to add. Again, this is an example meant to spur discussion.

Lastly, in addition to jewish ritual, we were partially inspired by Aaron Swartz Day, in case it wasn’t clear.

Intrigued? Let’s make this happen for real.

Update: Now this is a slideshow


The September 2020 Mixtape

Every month, I make Sarah a playlist of songs she might particularly want to hear.

I’m running a little behind, so I just finished September’s a few days ago. It has a gorgeous picture of her (at an outdoors wedding we were honored to attend!) and features a mix of new-to-her songs by artists we know, and a few new-to-me songs from bands I found recently in my travels.

Here it is. Or, if you prefer text:

The September 2020 Sarah Mixtape

  • Heart Is A Drum by Beck
  • Tangled up in Blue by Bob Dylan
  • One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer by John Lee Hooker
  • אדם בתוך עצמו by Shalom Hanoch
  • Nànnuflày by Tinariwen
  • Cherry by J.J. Cale
  • Snooza by Säkert!
  • י’א 2 by Tuna
  • Harfe Nagofteh by omid
  • Katamari On The Rocks by GameChops, dj-Jo
  • Je veux te voir by Yelle
  • Angels by The xx
  • Eat, Sleep, Wake (Nothing But You) by Bombay Bicycle Club
  • Dry the Rain by The Beta Band
  • Preservation by Wu-Tang Clan, Del The Funky Homosapien, Aesop Rock
  • Let’s Go Crazy by Prince
  • L’maancha by Eitan Katz
  • Lost Cause by Beck

(Thank you for making “get the plain text of a playlist” so much less painful)

As always, you can find all the playlists by going here.


One Weird Trick for a better society

Someone asked me to submit a 1-minute video outlining a bold policy idea that could conceivably be pitched to the incoming Biden administration.

Here’s the text of my submission:

I’m here with a proposal that involves no new legislation. No need for the Senate. It’s just this: enforce the laws on the books. Specifically those to do with white collar crime.

Giant bank monopolies a problem? Well maybe don’t let them get away with massive mortgage fraud in the late aughts.

Facebook, Youtube, and Amazon destroying your society? Well, maybe enforce the Sherman Antitrust Act (a criminal, not civil statute!) and at the very least stop them from buying new companies.

Worried about decline in trust in elites? Then maybe don’t let Epstein walk around free for years. And maybe follow up on the leads rather than dropping the public case against him as soon as he died.

Are the rich getting richer? Maybe allow the IRS to audit them.

Do you perhaps have an epidemic of mistrust of institutions in your society? Perhaps one rotting the very core of democracy? Maybe leading to authoritarian strongmen taking power? Restore that trust by fighting white collar crime, and showing that the system works.


Post-Election donation postmortem

In early October, my friend Lyla, my Sarah, and I set up a fundraiser for the election. Our goal? To decide where Lyla should donate $34,000 towards the election, and then get our friends to match with another $34,000.

Here’s the fundraiser:

We succeeded in our goal. In fact, we raised $84,123 to the following recipients:

(Note that the advice from where to donate was heavily followed, plus a heavy dose of swing senate races).

So, how did we do?

Well, none of these senate candidates won. So, that doesn’t feel great. Here is the postmortem I sent to our donors:

– We accurately predicted that Joe Biden had enough money and didn’t need more.

– We accurately predicted that the senate races were much more competitive / R-leaning than people thought.

– Our candidates lost. Pretty much all competitive candidates lost up and down the ballot. (Except Biden)

– This doesn’t feel great.

– If I were to do it all over again, I think I’d more dramatically push long-term base building organization, rather than campaigns. If nothing else, after election day, we would feel better.

– And we should feel good! We raised $36.901.75 for organizations that are sticking around for the long term. That’s a big chunk of money.

– That said, these two Georgia races are incredibly important. If we win them, that could have huge long-term consequences, due to the laws they could pass in the Senate.

– All in all, I’m proud of us.

A few days late, that still seems right. And it makes me redouble my faith in long-term base building over short-term electioneering.

Here’s the full initial pitch. It’s an interesting artifact of how I think about politics. Maybe you’ll find it interesting too.

Can you donate thousands of dollars, right now, to the election? If so, please do. 

I just donated thousands of dollars more. Sarah did 3k. Lyla donated 17,000 dollars, and another 17,000 as soon as her credit card allows her to. I want you to do so as well. 

Why? The chips are down and we need to do what we can so that we don't say that we didn't do all we could. And I don't want a dissonance between my intellectual understanding of the stakes and my actions. 

Maybe you're like me. Maybe you have money lying around, or have a great job (SF people, I'm looking at you!). Maybe you've been waiting for this nudge. 

We are trying to raise 68,000 dollars in the next few days. We're already at $23,980. If you have the means, this is a great strategic place for it all to go. 

Happy to answer questions or talk about it. 

Though any money towards the election is good, I think you share with me a desire to be strategic. So here's my thinking: 
1. Joe Biden cannot be a failed president. That means taking the senate. 
2. If Trump wins, we absolutely need a D senate or very bad things happen
3. Every ten years, gerrymandering happens. Guess when the next time is? (Hint -- very soon)
4. Joe Biden has enough money. 
5. This late in the race, ads are sadly one of the few things that can scale up quickly. We might prefer organizers etc, but they needed to be hired a year ago -- now is too late. 
6. Campaigns get cheap TV ad rates -- market price (for any other organization, like a PAC or Super PAC) is about twice as high
7. All senate seats have the same power. Therefore, focus on the places with the highest utility for your dollar. Those are small, cheap states with less-prominent races that could still swing. 

A. Donate directly to senate races. 
B. Donate to Maine, Iowa, South Carolina, Montana, Alaska. 

1. Not enough people are paying attention to the state legislative races that will determine control of gerrymandering, and therefore political power for a decade. 
2. (You may remember that Republicans swept in 2010. This led to incredibly strong gerrymandering that has lead to minority rule for years)
3. The lower the level of race, the higher the marginal utility of your dollar, and the lower attention and money they're getting. 

A. Donate to flip state legislatures
B. I propose Sister District, but I'm open to a better organization

1. Spending money on ads makes me sad. Why? Because while ads work, they only work for one race. They don't help the next guy get elected, they don't help other races in the same place. They're short-term effective but long-term wasteful. 
2. Spending money on people power makes me happy. Why? Because people-power is more wholesome. But also people-power can exist after the election. Less short-term impact, much higher long term impact. (In terms of changing voting behavior)
3. Some places matter more than others. Imagine voting in a swing state vs voting in a swing state that has a senate race, a house race, and a state assembly race all on your ballot. 
4. Already-existing community groups, that have been around for a while, have the proven ability to get people involved for the long term. And can scale people-power capacity much more easily than campaigns. 

A. Donate to the Movement Voter Project, a kind of "fund" that disburses 100% of the money to community organizations. 

This is a blend of hard-headed strategic moves, and putting my money towards organizations that share my values. You might disagree. That's fine -- doing something matters much more than procrastinating by trying to find the "best" thing to do. If you choose some other organization or candidate — wonderful!

I hope you join me, if you can. Thank you.