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.

How I use Facebook

I’ve been using facebook (the product) for over 12 years. It’s been my rolodex, my event planner, my post office, my blog, and even my diary.

In the past, Facebook was wonderful. So many of my friends were there. I *lived* there. Then all the ads, the pages spam, etc overwhelmed it. Seemed like I was awash in a flood of crap. News articles, ads, posts in groups I didn’t care about, etc.

So I put a stop to all of it. Now, Facebook feels a lot like the close community of friends that it once was. Here’s how I did it:

  1. Once, I spent the evening on a search and destroy mission. Every time I saw an ad, I clicked (…), then “I don’t like this ad”. It took maybe 200 instances, but in the end, the Facebook feed algorithm realized that there was extremely low predicted benefit to showing me an ad, and a (projected) higher expected harm of me using Facebook less if I saw one. So now I don’t see ads.
  2. Un-like every page you follow. Every single one.
  3. Unfollow all but the most important groups to you. Maybe keep 2-4 that you actively want to participate in.
  4. Sometimes, usually once a month, ads will come back. Hiding the first 2-5 of them you see will keep them away for another month.
  5. Follow (don’t like!) a few pages that you absolutely want to follow. For me, it’s some webcomics, a friend of mine running for Congress, and a magazine.
  6. Any time you see a post from a group that is awful, snooze it.
  7. If you snooze a group 3 times, unfollow them.
  8. When it is someone’s birthday, I try to send them a messenger message (or better yet, text or email). I absolutely won’t post on their wall. Posts are batched together in one big blob. I want my birthday wishes to stand out.

Lastly — don’t log into FB on your laptop while you’re working. Physically log out. If you’re gonna use it, use it on a phone or iPad to make it physically obvious to your brain that you’re not doing work.


Where to donate

Please give between 18 to 180 dollars a month to the Movement Voter Project (if you are able).

MVP directs money to some of the best community organizations in the country, in a way that will have great effects on this election, but also build long-term institutional capacity for years to come.

It’s good for America. It’s good for reducing suffering. And it’s good for the soul.

Things have been bad, for a long time. And they’re rapidly getting worse. The police state, the deaths, the callous looting of the country, the abuse of power both in politics and in corporations. At the same time, we have a strong antidote that has worked throughout human history: people power.

People power is a funny old thing. Many people say they want it. It’s hard to actually come by. America was supposedly the land of free because of “the art of association“, the tendency of people to form groups as easily as breathing.

People power can beat money power via elections, and that’s very important. People power can also do other things. It can build connections between neighbors. It can organize relief to the poor People power can build a union of workers holding their employer ethically accountable. People power can topple unjust regimes.

Speaking of unjust regimes — an election is happening soon.

The Movement Voter Project is the best way to both build short-term and longer-term political power for people who are not fans of the conservative movement and Trumpism.

The staff of MVP has made partnerships with quality community organizations around the country. Then they take 100% of our donations, and disperse them to those organizations. The money is meant to go to building organizational capacity, especially to registering new voters.

Why is voter registration such a big deal? Well, imagine a particular town in a swing presidential state. There’s also a key house race happening there. The state senate might switch control between parties, and tipping point senate district covers the town, too. Any marginal straight-ticket voter becomes very valuable! Whereas any marginal ad might convince an existing voter to switch votes in one race, but not all.

So, that’s the plan. Find key races and geographies. Find the community organizations covering those places. Give them money to do good work. You have an outsized short-term electoral impact, and also, crucially, help grow an organization that will outlast one election. That organization will be pushing for legislation in 2021, or organizing tenant unions, or who knows what else?

Giving money on the regular (weekly, monthly) is also important. Consistent money can be budgeted and planned for. Recurring donations mean that organizations can invest in longer-term projects. Big spikes in donations, on the other hand, can (almost by definition) only be used for one-off projects.

The founders and staff of movement voter project are really nice, good, people. They’ve been running this since at least 2016 (with the motto of “let’s move money in elections away from ads and towards organizing”). In a few states I can name, MVP has become one of the top 3 funders of important, I can’t believe that they have funding problems, oh shit, I’m glad someone is filling in the gap, organizations.

Unlike many foundations, MVP doesn’t throw a ton of paperwork at its grantees. It builds relationships of trust, it asks for some minimal verification that the money is going to the right projects, but mostly, it tries not to burden its grantees with an expensive and useless need for reports.

You can donate to the MVP fund (they take no cut of the money — they’re separately funded to pay their staff), or look on their website to browse their directory of partners and donate to them directly.

This feels much more strategic than donating to campaigns (which I also do some of). Campaigns, even if brilliant, by definition end after election day. I want to build something longer-lasting. Campaigns try to optimize votes for one candidate — I want to optimize voters over many candidates. Campaigns are not accountable to anyone — community organizations are accountable to their members.

We aren’t just facing a life-or-death moment for a form of american democracy vis a vis the presidency. This election is also special because the state houses of 2021 will determine gerrymandering for the next 10 years (this is tied to the census). Gains made right now will persist for 10 years — and we need to win those races.

As the news has gotten worse, I’ve spent more and more time worrying. But worrying doesn’t feel healthy. In part, I’ve been feeling a disconnect between So, instead, I’m increasing my monthly giving to MVP.

So — donating to MVP:

  • Good For America
  • Good For Reducing Suffering
  • Good For The Soul

Please consider hefty donations, monthly, to Movement Voter Project You can think of it as doing me a birthday favor, if you like.


I’m a Berkman Klein Fellow

Well, looks like the secret is out. I’ve achieved my childhood dream of being a Berkman fellow! Gosh. I’ll be starting in September.

They asked me for a blurb explaining what I’ll be doing:

Sahar Massachi’s work straddles social movements and the tech industry. He recently left the Facebook civic integrity team after almost 4 years at the company. He is researching the political economy of tech giants, the structure of the modern advertising industry, design principles for better social media, and generally how to nurture the good parts of the internet while reforming the bad. 

That’s a set of big topics. And I’m still getting my head wrapped around them. But, maybe for my own understanding, I’ll take a stab at sketching out a little bit about how I’m thinking about it.

(Disclaimer: I’m just brainstorming! This is a form of thinking out loud. I have a lot of other things bouncing around in the old brain that I haven’t written down, and I expect I’ll learn things to change my mind on at least a few of these topics. Think of this as a little first-draft sneak peak teaser-trailer of a thing, a year before the movie airs, when the script hasn’t even finished being written, not the thing in itself)

If we think of large internet corporations as new para-governmental actors, can we study and interact with them as if they were indeed states?

And I do think they are quasi-states. Maybe somewhat like an executive branch fused with a court. There’s a need for “scalable” decisionmaking. Precedent matters. People inside argue using evidence but also inter-departmental bureaucratic warfare.

As the task of governing has grown, we as a society have evolved appendages to interact with agencies, legislatures, courts, etc. That looks like think tanks, lobbying, briefs amici.

Okay, so how do, say, think tanks wield power? What’s their secret? In part, they do free labor. A modern congresswoman has only a few staff, most of them dedicated to processing the increasingly overwhelming stream of feedback from her constituents. Think tanks (and lobbyists) do work she doesn’t have staff capacity to do: think deeply about legislation, get in the weeds of things, give intelligence about how different organized political groups feel, and turn her broad principles into actionable legislation.

So, what would a think tank aimed at a social media giant look like? Well, the comparison isn’t straightforward — Twitter, for example, certainly isn’t dealing with a staff of 10. But if you look at any particular team, they tend to be pretty small groups working on logical chunks of big projects. And with all the pressures and politics of working in a company, lots of work that people *wish* they could pursue isn’t being done.

Enter a think tank. Perhaps it could take on those projects that staff wish they could do.

Design principles for better social media (and democracy)

Right now, the dominant response by social media companies seems to be to rely solely on an army of content moderation “cops” to enforce “Facebook law” or “Youtube law”, perhaps armed with more sophisticated detection systems to help them find “bad guys” to arrest.

Imagine, however, changing the design of these apps to make bad behaviour less easy to do. Maybe by incorporating limits on actions that could be harmful (say, limiting the number of Facebook pages that an account could start per week, or limiting the number of subreddits a person could post a link to in the same time window). Maybe by adding friction to actions that might be abusive, in proportion to how certain the system is that it is indeed abusive. Maybe something else.

Imagine if, armed with these ideas (and quantitative and qualitative research to back them), a think tank could interact with both the high level decisionmakers, and the frontline engineers, designers, and software engineers of a company. Often, it’s those frontline workers who have a lot of autonomy to try things. Why not give them ideas of things to try?

The structure of the modern advertising industry

It’s pretty clear to me that advertising has evolved so much that the distinction between “online”, “mobile”, and “terrestrial” television doesn’t exist as much as it used to. For example, when your television sends home data about the ads you watch, do we use the conceptual bucket of “online advertising” or “old fashioned tv ads”?

For reasons, advertising-as-surveillance seems to have grown with the internet and entwined with it, but also be busting free into “meatspace”. And this advertising means surveillance. I’m particularly sensitive to surveillance because of my jewish anti-fascist, anti-police-state commitments.

So, online (and increasingly offline) advertising means surveillance. But online advertising also has market power problems. Political advertising, in particular, has democracy problems.

I want to look at the union of all those things. Because it’s all important, and I think only seeing through of those lenses tends to give people an incorrect view of the situation.

Political Economy of Tech Giants

Here’s something I’m struggling with: am I doing a project on social media giants and democracy? Or about tech platform giants in particular? (In other words, do I care about Amazon and Uber and so on?)

I’m not sure.

I do feel strongly that we should bring a political economy frame to understanding the actions of big tech. Let’s bring concepts like power mapping from politics to understand the actions of, say, Facebook. There’s already lots of journalism pointing out how it, for example, is strategically giving ground / giving gifts to the US political right.

There are also frames from history that we can use to understand what is happening. For example the “studio system” for Hollywood, and the DOJ consent decrees that ended them, could be used as a model for thinking about the distinction between production and consumption in *social* media. Let’s think about agrarian populism and The Grange. Standard Oil. So on!

And if we were to break up, say, Alphabet, how would we do it? What parts become public utilities? Which parts are broken up? Where do we promote competition? Is it possible to legislate such fast-moving things as open standards?

My past at Facebook

I used to work at Facebook. I spent almost four years there. I feel a responsibility to explain it better to the world. The bad stuff, sure, but also just the plain facts. I have a lot of respect for Alex Stamos, and I feel a certain kinship with him. Misinformed, or bad critiques of Facebook bother me. The topic is too important to get wrong.

We want contradictory things from Facebook — censor more to protect democracy / censor less to protect free speech and democracy. Protect people’s data / don’t be a walled garden. Protect us from governments via encryption / protect us from foreign election meddling by snooping on messages. Build real communities of friends / puncture people’s filter bubbles.

These all come from different, valid concerns. Each of those demands comes from an analysis of a real harm. But the proposed solutions often clash.

If we can catalog all these harms, and understand them at the same time, can we come up with proposed solutions that don’t solve one problem at the expense of another?

Wrapping up

Now that I’ve written these sketches out, I’m feeling excited! But I’m feeling that perhaps I have too many ideas at once.

Is starting a think tank too ambitious? Is the idea sound? How does one get funding to start such a thing?

Lastly, a note about heroes. I’m a fan of Louis Brandeis. He was so interesting! He was a hero on the left, but eschewed the standard methods (organizing the poor, agitation, mass politics) that come with those politics. Instead, he was creative. He organized his people — the upper middle class. A public intellectual, he wrote the book about problems with banks and then turned that into a government agency. He enlisted his friends and fellow lawyers to fight bigness in the cloak of monopoly.

Brandeis attributed much of his success to understanding, to a minute level, the workings of business or system, so that he could figure out how to fix it (business), or best regulate it (system). We could all learn from his example.

In the end, in tackling these big questions, I want to keep asking: “What would Louis Brandeis do?”


Where is your line?

“How bad does it have to get?”

Here’s a conversation I’d like to have with my friends and family, and that I wish I had a few years ago:

I think that rule by Republicans will lead to a police state. I’m saying that Trump is a disaster for democracy. And I know it sounds like partisan hyperbole, but also I think it’s real.

Maybe you think I’m wholly wrong, and are voting R. Maybe you think it won’t be that bad, and you’re voting D, but not donating, volunteering, and generally throwing yourself into the struggle.

That’s okay. Just please do this exercise with me: where is your line? What’s the thing that, if it happens, is proof that things are really really bad?

Not just evidence. Proof. How bad does it have to be, so that’s we’re undoubtedly in the Bad Place? What sort of things, exactly, would happen that would spur you to action?

Make it as preposterous as you like.

Maybe Trump announces he’s shutting down elections. Death squads wandering around and killing leftists, then being pardoned.

Or maybe: secret police grabbing people off the street and throwing them into unmarked vans.

Or maybe: “undesirables” being arrested and thrown into concentration camps, where they start dying.

Let it be whatever outlandish thing you like, that you think might never come to pass. Just be honest with yourself. And then, write down what you would do if that day arrived.

Would you change your vote? Would you start volunteering with a political group? Would you give up your savings and plow it into donations? Would you spend 20-30 hours a week doing whatever it took to fight back?

Whatever it is, just please, write it down. Keep it safe. Check it once in a while: are we there yet?

I hope that time never comes to pass. Maybe it won’t this presidency, but during the next R presidency. But if it ever does — remember that you made this commitment. Remember, because the human mind has a marvelous ability to make the abnormal, normal.

(And, for some people, that breaking point might have been hit already, without you realizing).

I haven’t hit my breaking point yet. I still watch television at night, when I could be making phone calls. The other day, I spent way too much money for a hot water heater, when I could have put it to better use. But I can see it on the horizon. That time isn’t so preposterously far away, any more.

If that breaking point comes, I hope I push the button and go all-in. I hope that when your breaking point comes, you change your vote. Or, (to a different audience) you execute on your plan to fight back.

Wherever you are in the spectrum, whatever that action might be: I hope you take it. Because when we shrug at the previously indefensible, we lose a part of our soul.


You don’t need to quit your job to work for the movement. (But if you want to, you have options)

In response to the social upheaval and, frankly, news all around us, I’ve sensed a new spirit from my friends and acquaintances; a sense of renewed interest in Joining The Movement. Often, that translates into “I should I get a job doing Good”. I’m not so sure about that.

The latest edition of YENTA, my matchmaking newsletter, has just come out. The following is lightly adapted from a section of it.

I don’t believe that your job determines your politics. You don’t need to have a job working for a certain special nonprofit organization to be part of a movement. A thing that determines membership due to employment isn’t a movement — it’s an industry.

We need passionate, capable people to be committed leaders of membership driven organizations. It’s important for all of us to show up, consistently, over time, with a local group building power. And the consistency is much more important than choosing the “right” one.

If “doing massive good for the world” only happened by people who were paid to do it, that means that we’d only win when, what? Over half the country worked for tax-deductible charity organizations? That’s unworkable.

How to rise to the moment (not via employment):

A little while ago, I asked on Facebook:

Let’s say a friend came up to you and said: “I’m fired up about the moment. I want to donate money. Where do I put it?”

What would you tell them? And why?

The responses were fascinating, and covered quite a range of ideas and organizations.

Here was my take:

  • *Where* you donate matters less than that you make it a recurring *monthly* donation.
  • Donations are nice. Dues-paying membership is better.
  • Join a group for which you can have an ongoing relationship. Donate monthly dues that you have some democratic control over where they are disbursed.
  • Show up monthly to a local organization. Again, *which* matters less than that you are consistently showing up.

This was about convincing people that there are other, arguably more effective models of making social change than targeted, large, one-off donations. The logic holds up, I think, when applied to advising someone thinking of making drastic career moves: both donations and membership are helpful too.

If you have the desire and capacity to switch jobs into The Movement, that’s great! I’m enthusiastic, supportive, and would love to help. But that’s not the only way to do big things.

Member-driven organizations that wield power locally are so important! And they’re often starving for driven, nice, non-flaky, members. And, often, money. Find them, be useful, be consistent. That, by itself, would be big.

If I were advising myself about groups to check out, I’d suggest a range of organizations that feel meaningful to me. But they’re tied to things like: being jewish, or being in boston, or knowing people who have run these organizations. So a thing that feels perfectly attractive to me, might be less attractive to others.

That said, here are picks that resonate for me:

  • Color of Change: They’re trying to become the new mainstream, and that’s great. Not trying to be the most radical, but if they successfully redefine “moderate” to be what they’re advocating for (what was perhaps considered radical 10 years ago), then the whole ecosystem takes a big step to the left.
  • Bail Funds: Especially as the police unjustly imprison people, this is a way to free them. And, on the appointed date, the money rolls over and can be used for another person! It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
  • Bend the Arc: As a jew, I believe in doing my organizing *jewishly*. And Bend the Arc is a great way to do good anti-white supremacy work while keeping it grounded and accountable to me and my community
  • Working Families Party: Long-term power building.
  • Ujima: Local, Boston, radical, but also thinking about money, power, and shifting resources
  • Movement Voter Project: Strategic! Timely! Power building. Electoral / advocacy / legislative.

But again, I think the *choice* is a bit of a red herring. Showing up, consistently, over time, with both effort and money, is much more important.

All that being said, I am aware of quite a few fascinating roles to work for social justice (or adjacent) causes directly. It turns out that, this time, quite a few of them are for people with tech skills. But not all of them!

Note also — for a few different reasons, I’m going to conflate “social justice” with “progressive” and even “aligned with Democrats”. I realize that those are different terms, etc. And in a time where we are fighting police brutality, in a moment kicked off by the killing of a black man, talking about jobs in, say, Democratic politics doesn’t quite line up. There’s a larger conversation to be had about that. For now, I can only give you suggestions and tips that are informed by my experiences and network. And they are with more of the broad spectrum of left organizations than the specific slice dealing with policing, prison abolition, racial justice police brutality, etc. I do believe that working for left-aligned organizations makes the world a better place, though some organizations have different theories of change than others.

How to find a job that matches your values

Let’s say that you decide you want to leave your corporate job and go Do Good Things With Your Time. Great! Our jobs are usually over 50% of our waking life — doing something you believe in can be really nice.

So, how do you go about that?

Here are some resources:

Conceptually, what you are trying to do here could be described as a career switch to a whole new industry. This industry has a lot of different subgroups: a local racial justice group might have little day-to-day similarity to or interaction with anonline-first campaigning organization, or to a massive name-brand NGO. That’s real. At the same time, these groups exist in an industry that’s different than “the corporate world”, or the “government world”. There is history, best practices, culture, etc, that might be new and different to you.

And, crucially, “the progressive industry”, while intertwined with social movement organizations, is its own thing. There are office politics, and bad bosses. There are weird (un)ethical practices, and culture that might confuse or alarm you. Your personal poltiical activity will always be fair game to link to your employer, which can constrain your freedom of action. It’s not a utopia, by any means.

The progressive industry is also a place to do big, meaningful work, in a decisive and strategic way. There is professionalism, and coworkers that won’t flake in the way that a neighbor-volunteer will. Working for a mission-aligned organization can be really healthy and good for the soul. It’s different and refreshing.

So! What does this mean for you?

  • While there are exceptions, don’t think you can jump in and immediately apply your prior experience to this new role. Be a bit humble.
  • You *might* have to take a more entry-level position than you wanted. Sometimes, but not always, that’s for good reason.
  • Don’t be afraid to treat job conversations as negotiations. You still will have a boss. You still likely need to put boundaries on your work and stand up for yourself.
  • Once you get in, don’t be afraid to unionize!
  • Treat this with the professionalism, and care, (informational interviews, network-building, etc) that you’d make for other big job switches.

I hope I didn’t scare you off! Working in mission-driven organizations can be wonderful, and good for the soul. And all the above, of course, is just one man’s opinion.


On “founders”.

I’ve co-founded two startups. One in mobile apps for social organizing, the other in fintech.

^ That’s technically true, but actually kind of misleading.

Actually, the work I’ve done in other jobs is arguably much more important and interesting. Those startups I mentioned didn’t become wildly successful. But it sounds much cooler to “found” a thing than to “join as an employee”.

There was a time when I knew a lot of people who founded their own nonprofits. When I dug in deeper, though, I realized that they were the only employees of those nonprofits, and all their income came from one source — a larger nonprofit. So what exactly distinguished them from an employee, only paid in prestige instead of healthcare?

At this point, when I meet someone in SF with the title of “founder and CEO”, I immediately translate that into “sole employee, good chance they have no customers, I bet their startup dies in a months.”

That’s often not fair to them — but it feels more accurate than “oh my gosh, founder and CEO! So fancy! Swoon”

Now there’s a paper out about that phenomenon: Towards an Untrepreneurial Economy? The Entrepreneurship Industry and the Rise of the Veblenian Entrepreneur. It even cites my favorite economic philosopher, Thornstein Veblen. Can’t wait to read it.

Until then, here’s a small piece of career advice I’ve given people for the last 10 years — if you can, don’t be afraid to found companies. Expect you’ll fail. Failure is often desirable — it means you don’t have to commit years of your life to this thing any more. But our culture weirdly values being a “founder” of a thing that barely existed, even over being an amazing worker that saved a company from destruction.

Given that, are we so surprised that people take that advice?


The system lacks legitimacy

Some thoughts rattling around in my little brain:

We face a crisis of elite impunity in this country. This isn’t new. Chris Hayes laid it out unsparingly in his excellent 2012 book, Twilight of the Elites. (Don’t want to read the whole thing? Freddie DeBoer had an excellent essay and critique that is arguably better than the book he was reviewing)

We face a crisis of elite impunity inside big companies. Even tech companies. Andy Rubin. Joel Kaplan. Golden parachutes.

Even in the last few months, we saw how corporations can fleece their customers during good times (they’re a monopoloy, what are you going to do), and then get bailouts in bad times. And don’t get me started on the lies that corporations tell to get mergers approved, or “economic development” funding or tax credits, or the post-2008 wave of legal immunity for fraud. Again, just read Twilight of the Elites.

We also face a crisis of impunity for our elites even in new, supposedly fair places, like social media.

These are related.

A cable news host’s facebook page will get better treatment than a normal person would. If their traffic goes down, they will complain to someone who will try to find out why, and fix it. If, say, the President lies on the platform, the platform will shy away from enforcing its own rules.

Epstein was a great encapsulation of elite impunity. He had so many accomplices! So many powerful friends. So many connections. And now — no followup.

Trump is a great symptom of this epidemic of white-collar lawnessness. In a world that prosecuted him for mob connections in the 80’s and 90’s, he would not be president.

Cops have also had impunity for a long time. Lately, they’re ratcheting up that impunity. Shooting journalists on live television is relatively new and a dangerous escalation. If they get away with it, we are one step closer to the police state.

Protests are happening because, in part, the lack of accountability for anyone in power who does things that are wrong.

Even the Iraq war cheerleaders are still literally the same people in the media, and those who dissented were fired.

All this was predicted.

I’m old enough to remember blogs, and civil liberties groups yelling about:

  • Sending military surplus gear to police departments.
  • Militarization of police post Miami
  • LRAD cannons being bought years ago
  • Surveillance of activists
  • Qualified immunity for police brutality
  • “Occupation corrupts, and the tactics used in Iraq will come home to us”
  • Even during Occupy, we said: “If they do this brutality to us, they’ll do it to you”.

It’s important to acknowledge that it was predicted. Predicted by leftists specifically, and also the free-internet, Edward-Snowden-is-good, crowd. Too often, the online civil liberties people and the left don’t see themselves on the same side.

This isn’t the first time that police in america have killed people on camera, beaten up bystanders, attacked the press. This isn’t the first time that they’ve attacked a peaceful march, unprovoked, and then blamed the violence they themselves instigated on “rioters”.

I want to be very clear about that. The model is now: people nonviolently march. Police march in and attack them. All is confusion and teargas. The news covers it as “protests get violent”. This was true before 2020. Luckily, it seems like more people are realizing it.

It is so important not to shame people for figuring it out now, rather than earlier. Convincing people is the main strategic goal of most political activity.

But convincing doesn’t happen without work. My twitter feed is full of videos of cops doing horrible things to unarmed, nonviolent people. The biggest Facebook pages are pushing out stories about evil looters and rioters. Even as television news hosts are being arrested or *literally shot at* on live TV, the dominant narrative is about riots, clashes, and violence. This is a great example of how the ownership of the mass media (corporate, conservative) matters much more than the views of labor (people who were just attacked by police) in how they slant coverage.

We’ve seen a ratcheting up of police terror. We’re seeing a ratcheting up of propaganda by the republican party. Now US Senators are calling for the military to shoot american citizens for the crime of believing in anarchism. Being “anti-fascist” is now … terrorism? It’s all bluster, and legally unenforceable. Until, of course, it isn’t.

The Erdoganization of the US continues. We should be excited that people are still willing to brave the streets, even though it means facing death by coronavirus and death by cop.


A fun personality test

Sarah and I were taking a stroll tonight, when we came up with a lighthearted but also insightful way to categorize our friends. Here it is.

Knowledge, Skills, Insight, Wisdom. These are different kinds of intelligence. You can understand some people by figuring which of these four they value the most.

Let’s imagine someone named Steven. Steven lives in SF. He is a hacker and loves building things. He has a book club, and handpicks the people who he invites. He might value skills, then knowledge, then insight, then wisdom.

Let’s imagine someone else named Ingrid. Ingrid is an academic with a side hustle of being a columnist for a publication that sees itself as the next Slate. She writes hot takes and also avidly consumes advice columns. Ingrid values insight by far. Then wisdom, knowledge, and lastly skills.

Steven might not really understand Ingrid. Or vice versa. They’re both smart! They both are intellectual, even. But they value different things.

So, what are these axes? Let’s go deeper.

  • Skills: The obvious one. Doing things.
  • Knowledge: Being a collector, almost aesthete, of facts. This could be metadata or non-traditional facts too.
  • Insight: Being able to understand situations and systems. An analytic understand of models of how everything functions
  • Wisdom: The sense of what’s important now. Intuition. Knowing the real question that is being asked when someone asks for advice.

Wisdom is the trickiest to define, so let’s give an example:

Someone with high insight, but low wisdom, would be able to explain office politics amazingly well, but not be able to actually thrive in the system.

Someone with high wisdom, but low insight, would be able to do the local more-or-less optima in each situation they found themselves in, but maybe wouldn’t bother thinking about the question in the first place.

Thinking about different kinds of leftist is a useful illustrative example.

Leftists with high insight would be able to explain capitalism, various smaller systems (prison industrial complex? city politics) and explain what’s happening and how it fits to bigger ideas.

Leftists with high wisdom would be the nice ones. They mediate a lot. They have good gut feelings about which people to talk to, about what. (This is the hardest to put my finger on.)

Leftists with high knowledge know every organization, know the heads of organizations. Know all about what happened in the october revolution. Have read Capital.

Leftists with high skills can actually organize.

Values vs Identity

Here’s the catch, though! What you have is not always what you value.

For example: I really value wisdom. I seek advice from elders, peers, strangers, etc. I constantly worry that I’m doing the risky or wrong thing, and respect people who have that ineffable aura of having life figured out.

I value it, but I think it’s clear that I have more insight than wisdom. That’s why I get into trouble sometimes in social or political situations.

Similarly, I am high skilled. I can code, data crunch, write, political campaign, email blast, social butterfly, etc. But I value knowledge more. That’s why I read history books for fun, collect JustSeeds posters, and my arduino kit is still unopened.

Understand relationships, not just people

It’s great to use this as a tool for understanding people, but perhaps it’s even more useful to think about how this relates to people’s relationships with *each other*.

Are two people not getting along? Maybe one just doesn’t value the sort of intelligence the other has. Maybe it’s the opposite, and they’re feeling threatened. Imagine a person who highly values knowledge, but feels like they have very little. They might have a weird relationship with a very knowledge-heavy person. Etc.

It also covers relationships with the self. I can think of a few people who have healthy self esteem off the top of my head. All of them seem to value the sort of intelligence that they seem strongest in.

Where to go from here

It’s a fun game to think of people in your life, and then rank them. What do they value most and least? What do they have most and least?

Once you’ve done so, compare notes with them. Does their self-assesment match up to what you thought?

On that subject, what is your self-assessment? What do you value? What are your actual attributes?

Here’s a caveat: this isn’t meant to be a unified theory of all personalities. Some people value, say, Charisma! Or loyalty. There are tons of different qualities. But it does serve as a useful map for understanding a certain type of people.

Does that make sense? Questions? Thank you for listening to my Ted Talk.


Louis D. Brandeis Legacy Fund

I love Brandeis, I love its mission. I want to help it become the best version of what it is and what it was meant to be.

I also love Louis Brandeis, the greatest american jew. He pioneered so many things: from reining in the banks to the institution of a law review to pro bono legal work to, weirdly, management consulting. A brilliant person.

And now it’s a little bit more official.

Thanks to the legendary Jules Bernstein, I’ve been added as a member of the 5-person advisory committee for the Louis D. Brandeis Legacy Fund. Think of it as a sort of donor-advised fund (de-facto, not de-jure) that operates inside Brandeis University, and funds the sort of things that it wants to see more of: social justice!

I’m honored to be asked by him to join.


Find me on the What Origin Podcast

I’m very pleased to share that I was recently interviewed on the What Origin podcast. What Origin is a podcast about creativity (in the sense of creation). It was so fun! I think I did a great job.

We talked about stuff like:

  • Creating communities vs projects vs clubs
  • How does community get built? How can you structure it?
  • How do companies build community?
  • What is a company? What does working for one feel like?
  • What happens when they lie to you?
  • Don’t fall in love with a company — they can’t love you back.
  • Do people need a boss? Do they need structure?
  • The process of deprogramming yourself / leaving workism.
  • Grief.
  • The boss. Thinking a lot about making the boss happy is bad for the soul.
  • How do you learn to be free? (Spoiler: the humanities!)

Can’t wait for you all to hear it.

Based on this experience, I’m open to being a guest on more podcasts! Tell your friends!

The process of doing it was really fun, too. Getting a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes of how audio editing works, etc.

Thanks so much to Gavin Knight for having me on and showing me the ropes. You can check out other interviews he did, like with Mek about the Open Library or about the invention of the slinky. A gracious person and a pleasure to get to know him.

Anyway, it turned out really well. If you like what I tend to talk about, I bet you’ll get a kick out of it. Let me know what you think. Listen here.


The May 2020 Mixtape

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

This month, I made Sarah a mixtape of “iconic songs by iconic bands”. No searching for great music from obscure-to-me artists. Just a list of songs that are purely delightful and have stood the test of time.

Here it is. Or, if you prefer text:

The May 2020 Sarah Mixtape

Everyone Hides by Wilco
Chicago by Sufjan Stevens
Your Rocky Spine by Great Lake Swimmers
Bodysnatchers by Radiohead
Montezuma by Fleet Foxes
No Sleep Till Brooklyn by Beastie Boys
Piazza, New York Catcher by Belle & Sebastian
Hercules Theme by Hercules & Love Affair
Thinkin Bout You by Frank Ocean
Fineshrine by Purity Ring
Black Sheep by Metric
Someone Great by LCD Soundsystem
Brianstorm by Arctic Monkeys
Your Hand In Mine by Explosions In The Sky
No One Said It Would Be Easy by Cloud Cult
Comfy In Nautica by Panda Bear
Brennisteinn by Sigur Rós
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart by Wilco


Introducing: Now

In writing letters to old friends, I’ve found it a little hard to get a sense of “how are they doing these days?”. Skimming Facebook doesn’t seem to be great way to figure that out, for a few obvious reasons. I ask them, of course, but that too often tends to get a 2-3 sentence answer about their last few weeks, instead of the more fully considered sense of who they are and what they’re about.

I can’t blame them, though. In telling the story of my life, who I am these days, etc, I can get similarly tongue-tied. Luckily, Derek Sivers has a solution: the now page.

So — I wrote up what I’m up to these days. (And, as a treat, what I was up to back in the day).

I’ll update it as my life changes. Here’s the snapshot of what it says today, May 15th, 2020:

Last year, I moved to Somerville, MA, to live with Sarah. It was hard, because I had to leave my wonderful friends in San Francisco. I miss my roommates, in particular, even still. By December, after a long deliberation, I decided to leave Facebook.

In what has become a lovely tradition, I’m taking months of unpaid vacation after leaving a stressful job. Before the latest plague, I had been going to cafes, reading magazines, auditing some classes, and meeting old friends and new. I’ve started getting closer to the Jews of Color, Mizrahi, Sephardic Caucus of a local jewish social justice organization, and thinking more about the feeling of being a brown jew.

Now, I’ve been even more focused on a few projects. Matchmaking (of many kinds), thinking, running a book club, and more. Join me!

It’s not all labor, though! I’m taking longer walks. Playing games alone and with friends. Bridge, Hanabi, and Dominion are my favorites to play together.

Speaking of friends, I’ve started my correspondence habit again. Emailing, but also writing longhand letters. Tell me your address and you might get a surprise note in the mail.

Hope you like it.



Here’s a quick, biased history of my adult life.

I’ve been writing a lot of letters to old friends lately. That’s necessitated a lot of “here’s what I’ve been up to since we last talked” conversation. It could be useful to have that in one place: linkable, searchable, updateable. See also: Now.

In 2011, I graduated college. I loved both the undergraduate experience, and Brandeis University specifically, so I didn’t want to leave. I stayed an extra year to pick up a master’s degree in computer science. I did it in a strange way: taking an intense course in app development and game design in the summer, auditing courses in the fall, and finishing my degree in 2012.

Between graduation and the start of the program, however, I went on an epic road trip with Sarah, James, Rek, and Zuzana.

Occupy Wall Street kicked off in 2011, and I happened to be in DC for a few conferences in late September/early October. I stayed an extra two weeks and had a small role in founding Occupy K Street.

In 2012, I graduated my master’s degree. I was building lots of apps for fun, and asked Rootscamp if I could make them an unofficial app for the conference. That turned official, and then into a contract, and later into an “apps for organizing” startup with Adam Hughes, Chris Stathis, and Alice Chuang.

We moved our headquarters to Connecticut, and learned a lot in an incubator, before winding it down.

In 2013, Aaron died. I got angry, and moved to Springfield, Missouri to join Zack Exley at the Wikimedia Fundraising team. I built the infrastructure for the A/B testing team better refine how Wikipedia asks you for money, some stats to figure out when to stop a test, and an internal web app to view the results. I moved back to Rochester, NY, then Manhattan.

My time in Springfield was important. It was so different than my life up till then! I was in a truly christian-dominated space. There were more “jews for jesus” (read: Christian) synagogues there than actual jewish places of worship (there was only 1, and you needed a friend with a car to take you). I learned a lot about life in truly christian-dominated spaces, made a bunch of friends I’d normally never meet, and met people of very different lives than mine. I think about my time there a lot.

In Rochester, I made friends with local, erudite anarchist communists. I made friends with Metro Justice, Rochester Red and Black, and started a little blog called People Powered Rochester.

In 2014, I moved to Oakland to take care of Joshua Kahn’s geckos. For a couple, glorious weeks, I lived with Jay Carmona, Becca Rast, and Jonathan Matthew Smucker. It was amazing. Then I moved in with Bhavik Lathia, also in Oakland, also wonderful.

I went on many dates, and eventually wound up my time at Wikipedia (The ED was leaving, Zack was leaving, and my project felt complete). I started mentoring heavily at Startingbloc. I was confused: why, if I had done all those cool things, did I feel so unfulfilled?

I spent about 8 months traveling around the country, trying out different lives like you try on a hat, doing different projects for 2 weeks 2 months. (Touring hackerspaces around the country, housing justice organizing, cofounding a startup, helping run Zephyr Teachout’s gubernatorial race, hanging out with the homeless, tumblr diaries, a romance back in Rochester, living with Charles Lenchner for a bit, some online campaigning, etc).

In 2015, I decided it was time for a job again. I joined a 100-person startup as their first Data Scientist. I moved to Brooklyn with Lydia Bowers, and then Manhattan / Murray Hill in a studio, 5 minutes from work.

My sister Shelly moved to New York for a fancy job on Broadway, and so she lived with me for a while. It was really nice. We never could agree on what to watch on television, so we compromised on old favorites from childhood like Winnie the Pooh.

I went on lots of dates. James Cersonsky stopped by quite often. I left the startup. I romanced a brilliant artist. I spent 6 months thinking about what I wanted from life, how society worked, mentored even harder at StartingBloc, wrote some code for Bernie, and enjoyed life. I even got an acting reel! Facebook gave me a call — and I decided I’d work there next: but not until I took a few more months off.

In 2016, I moved to Palo Alto. I had some time before starting work, so I spent a lot of time helping friends get jobs. I moved into a hacker house that was kind of a scam, but made great connections with my housemates. I biked to work (for 45 minutes each way!) every day via a state park. Later in the year, I moved to San Francisco. I reconnected with Elise Liu, and made friends with Adam Reis and Mek Karpeles.

I started work. I was scared at first, but by the end of the year I found my confidence. It was a fun, innocent time. Yes, came into the company determined to remember that it was an “it” or a “they”, not a “we” or an “us”. At the same time, here I was, working at a respected company with amazing perks and a sense of optimism.

Trump won the election. The mood was black. I founded Oh Damn, Now What to be an organization for tech-ish friends of mine to radicalize and organize.

In 2017, I moved into what became Serapeum with Mek, Drew Winget, and Jessy Diamondman. It changed my life. Oh Damn Now What turned into a book club, and lived on for most of the year. I got closer to Bend the Arc and became a Jeremiah Fellow. I hired Sasha Silberberg as my dating coach. I moved to the civic team at Facebook.

The Civic team was amazing. A little island of essentially a mission-driven nonprofit within a larger corporate structure. We had an amazing culture and did pro-social, fun work like registering more voters than anyone else in america, and building tools to help people look up and contact their elected officials. Then Cambridge Analytica hit, and we spun up a team to tackle election integrity. We built the first ever tools for that, in the Alabama special election. That’s where I met George Berry, got close to Monica Lee, Bogdan State, and other amazing friends.

At the very end of 2017, Sarah and I kicked off our romance at a Hannukah party at her parent’s house in Rochester. (We were both visiting from different coasts). I started rock climbing with my roommates and loved it.

In 2018, Serapeum moved to a new house. Jessy left us, and we gained Ariel Liu. I switched from data engineering to software engineering at work. Our team and scope ballooned in size.

With James Barnes and other friends, we built the first and second election integrity war rooms to monitor and protect the US midterms and Brazilian presidential election. It was intense.

Sarah and I became a solid item by February. She stayed with me over the summer, and I visited her in Philly as often as I could. Serapeum moved again to a new, more permanent home — 24th street.

In 2019, I made some moves. I started working closely with Matt Wilde. I decided to move to greater Boston to live with Sarah, who was going to start the Climenko Fellowship at Harvard Law. For a little while, my sister Talie lived with me at Serapeum while Mek and Ariel temporarily moved to Atlanta.

I moved to Somerville. I started working on Presto. It was amazing to work on a heavy-duty, infrastructural piece of open source software.

The news got worse. I left Facebook. It was a hard decision.

In 2020, I learned how to recover from workism and get back in touch with what I wanted from life. That project went well, but was cut short by the need to dive into the 2020 election. I became the engineering lead for OpenLabs, and, among other things, helped build the engineering infrastructure for notably cheaper, faster, and more accurate poling and A/B testing for the election. Then we shared the results of that polling and testing generously.

In other news: Covid happened. Sarah and I stayed happy together. I started writing more. I started my time at Berkman.

Now it’s 2021. You can see what I’m up to lately here, on my now page.