Since (finally) graduating from college in March and spending much of April on a couch recuperating, I spent the latter three quarters of 2016 doing a lot of writing, both for money (from Mattermark and other clients) and for pleasure (i.e. in my personal blog, in The Missive and my newsletter).
A look back at 2016
Here’s a rundown of some of the statistics:
73 articles and posts in 7 different publications (including my two blogs)
31 editions of my weekly(ish) newsletter, which I launched in May.
113,704 words published publicly… which doesn’t include the embarrassing number of half-done drafts I’ve got stowed away or the words cut by my long-suffering editors.
Scattered thoughts on the election and what to do next.
In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, we learned who our new president is going to be. I did not vote for him, and like many I am very concerned by the prospect of his presidency.
Yesterday, I spent most of the day on the couch or in bed, sleeping off the previous night, which consisted of several glasses of wine at a friend’s “election night party” and a very late-night binge of bad news and hot takes.
I went to bed at 4:30 AM on Wednesday. I am not proud of this.
Today, Thursday, I am now well-rested and recovered from the initial shock of the event, and it has been weird. Here’s what’s on my mind.
There is this phrase in French, “L’appel du vide.” It translates to “the call of the void.”
An example: Have you ever taken a walk along a cliff, overlooking the majestic view such a high vantage point gives you, peered over the lip and hear a little voice suggest, “Jump!” You’ll shudder and feel ill-at-ease. You wonder whether this constitutes “suicidal thoughts or actions” and whether you should tell your doctor about it the next time you see them.
The call of the void is a somewhat antique phrase for what psychologists today call “intrusive thoughts.” Think of them as brief lapses of conscious control, a moment when the chain of thought jumps the derailleur.
The key fact about intrusive thoughts is that, like swamp gas, they bubble to the surface, make their odious presence known, and then drift away. You cope with them by letting them pass. By virtue of their sudden appearance and shocking quality, the little voice is easily ignorable.
His election was not an answer to the call of the void. It was not as if almost 60 million Americans took a stroll along the proverbial cliff and heard a little voice suggest, “Trump!”
Instead of answering to a sudden impulse, it’s clear that much of his following was drawn ineluctably into the his campaign and ultimate election, as if by a siren’s song, weeks and months ago. Wave upon wave of red flags were ignored like bumpy reefs on a course of dead reckoning headlong toward shore. Instead of the warm embrace of the siren, though, supporters are attracted by a simplistic image of safety, to a time before, in their eyes, America fell from greatness.
I feel as though there is nothing more I can add to the discourse in these respects. No amount of personal anecdote is going to change the course of history, much less rise above the din.
It seems as though stories about LGBT friends who are now uncertain about their rights, family members with “pre-existing conditions” that might inhibit their access to healthcare in a post-ACA era, people on the south side of Chicago fearing expanded police power, or sisters and female cousins who may lose control over what they do with their bodies will fall on deaf ears.
Khizr Khan and Alicia Machado’s stories didn’t move the needle.
Nor will more recursive analysis of the deep grievances that fueled the president-elect’s rise to power. The generalities about what motivate different segments of our population — white working class, black women, soccer moms, Latinos, etc. — now feel like tired and insufficient stereotypes from a recently bygone era.
No one story will affect anything, really. And, the darker and more cynical side of me is painfully aware that the people in my orbit who can be most negatively affected by a new regime fit snugly into the very stereotypes I am so desperate to avoid contributing to.
So again, I feel as though there’s nothing constructive I can contribute to the discussion of why things played out the way they did, or who might be affected.
What I can contribute to is the discussion of how to go on from here.
Hold their feet to the fire. Even for people like me who treat politics like sports, it can be exhausting to keep up with everything. But now more than ever it’s important to remain informed about what’s going on, so your voice can be heard. Here are some of the basics.
Holding your elected officials accountable means consuming a diverse media diet and breaking out of your personal filter bubble. Actively seek out a range of sources about the issues you care about, and be sure to include those voices that don’t agree with yours lest you become as partisan and narrowly-informed as the people you disagree with.
Vote in every election. I didn’t vote in 2008 or 2012, the first general elections I was eligible for. I am one of those people who believe that your vote doesn’t matter, and in the presidential race that’s pretty much true unless you live in a swing state. But down-ballot races matter, and in those smaller races your vote has more leverage.
And remember The President ≠ The Government. In America, we live at the intersection of federal, state and local governments, as well as special-purpose governments like school boards, water reclamation districts, and the like.
There is no monolithic entity controlling it all, so chances are you can actually pinpoint the few people in that one government office that support that policy you disagree with. They have email addresses, fax numbers and physical mailboxes that have to be checked. The attention paid to your complaint is proportional to the amount of effort you put into it: physical letters are worth a thousand angry tweets.
There are over 500,000 elected officials in the USA, almost one in 400 people. The president is just one person. If you don’t like what they’re doing, then vote them out. But it’s incumbent on you to actually make your voice heard.
Don’t make rash conclusions. Although I haven’t taken a course in journalism, I find myself writing a lot of things for public consumption, and I hold many journalistic best practices dear.
To echo the sentiments of Brooke Gladstone, the host of WYNC’s “On The Media” and a contributor to The Washington Post, when reporting it is extremely important to focus only on what is actually happening, rather than what might or could happen. It’s my belief that that advice is applicable to leading life day-to-day.
The fact of the matter is that, right now, we don’t know what a Trump presidency will look like. I have my serious doubts about his ability to be a good president, but for now I’m not willing to entertain the idea that he’s the second coming of Hitler.
It might be my college-educated, upper-middle class, straight, white, able-bodied, unmarried, childless cis-male privilege talking, but I feel such comparisons are needlessly hyperbolic and that fleeing the country now smacks of a degree of cowardice I don’t feel comfortable calling out in person.
At least for now, the images of sprawling internment camps for “Illegals,” Pence-mandated conversion therapy for gay kids, and other horrors are just as farcical as the “FEMA camps” Alex Jones and his ilk have been blathering about for years now.
The right has been terrified that Obama would send in “jackbooted thugs” to take away our constitutional rights, and nothing happened. Now that the tables have turned, it’s no surprise that the left is entertaining its own dark fantasies about what could be. But until sales of jackboot polish start to rise, it seems like there is much ado about nothing.
Giving into those fears by leaving or giving up is to answer the call of the void.
Finally, as hard as it may be, it’s vitally important to give the other side the benefit of the doubt. I spoke with my mom today and she said something that stuck with me: “Now I feel like how the Republicans must have felt for the past eight years. [By January,] I won’t have a president that reflects my vision for the country.”
This election taught me that there is a huge empathy gap between the right and the left. I really don’t know what makes some Republicans tick, and I’m sure there are things I believe that are unconscionable to those on the other side of the aisle.
As someone who works in the tech sector, which has only exploded in cultural relevance and economic prosperity over the past quarter century, it’s all too easy for me to ignore the plight of those who work in fields that are on the decline.
For example: I catch myself more and more saying that humans will be “abstracted away” from certain types of work, like in some cold algebraic trick, by machines. I maintain that that is still a net positive to society, but it’s a very acute loss to a certain part of the population, and something needs to be done to ameliorate the economic pain they will suffer before it gets worse.
But it goes beyond token concern for those who are facing hard times now or in the future. Learning more about how “the other side” thinks, what they worry about, what motivates them, and what they want from government will help prevent the kind of blind divisiveness that seems to pervade public discourse. And it might help to cure the statistical myopia that caused this election to be such a shock.
Iam trying very hard to follow Obama’s suggestion to give the incoming president a chance, to be “open minded.” I’m doing my best to stay positive, and for all of our sakes I am sincerely hoping to be surprised by President Trump. (It still feels weird to say it.)
Nietzsche has this saying, “if you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back into you.” The prospect of President Trump may seem scary to a lot of people, myself included, but there’s nothing I can do to change the situation today. There’s another election in two years, and another presidential election two years after that.
Just how much damage can he do in four years?
On second thought… it’s best not to answer that. That’s the void calling.
Update: Well, my post has been up for 4 hours and then this happens. It’s going to be a long four years…
This past week, Apple announced a number of things at a special event in San Francisco. Among them was the latest iPhone model which, controversially, did away with the 3.5 mm headphone jack. Company claims that this omission was “courageous” were met with sneers and jeers from the peanut gallery and media cognoscenti alike.Continue reading “Of Apple & Courage”
The Wall Street Journal published an article shining a light on Andreessen Horowitz, the vaunted VC firm that seemingly came out of nowhere in 2009 to become one of the most prestigious venture firms in Silicon Valley. The article indicates that a few of a16z’s funds are not performing as well as their age-matched peers.
The visualization I made for that piece is one of the coolest I’ve made during my time freelancing for Mattermark. (See featured image above.) An explanation of how to interpret this network visualization can be found in the piece on Mattermark’s blog. But that’s not what this post is for.
One of my editors asked me to share some information about how I created the visualization and more about social network theory and analysis in general. Rather than letting my list of resources lie forgotten in a direct messages channel on Slack, I decided to expand and share it here for other people to benefit from. Continue reading “Dive Into Network Theory: Some Resources for The Curious”
One of the biggest stories to hit the Bitcoin space in months was the theft of 119,756 BTC (valued at ~$70 million USD) from Bitfinex this week. For those that aren’t familiar with the story, a great re-cap was published on CoinDesk within 24 hours of the break-in. (Obviously, if you’re reading this far into the future, the public’s understanding of the hack has likely changed.)
The attack brought to light a lot of questions about the security of Bitcoin exchanges and online wallets. As I’ve previously written, a lot of these questions arise from the tension between the trust one necessarily places in third parties to secure users’ Bitcoin holdings and the notion that Bitcoin, as a system, is built around the principle of trustless-ness. In light of the repeated failures of trusted third parties to maintain security, it’s likely that there will be more scrutiny of Bitcoin wallet providers and renewed interest in self-managed Bitcoin security.
Note: This is the unedited version of an interview I gave to PCM, a payments industry trade journal produced by Payments & Cards Network. It is reprinted here with permission from the editor.
In the interview I give a broad overview of the history of VR/AR and the unique challenges and opportunities presented by the medium to the payments industry today. The edited version of this interview can be found on their website, and a mirror can be found here.
This piece was originally shared in my weekly newsletter. If you haven’t subscribed yet, you can do so here.
PCM: There seems to be a lot of interest in virtual reality these days. How long has the technology been around, and why is there so much interest now?
Me: First of all, I think that you’re definitely right about VR being a big trend right now. There are a lot of really interesting technical developments that helped to facilitate this current wave of VR interest, but it’s important to remember that VR is not a brand new idea.
Take, for example, the head-mounted display which modifies the image that’s projected into your eyes based on where your head is in space. That technology has been around in some form or another since at least the early 1960s. Controllers that fit your hand like a glove have been around for a similarly long time, but a lot of these early experiments were confined to academic research and some corporate research and development labs.
In the 1980s and 1990s there were several attempts made to commercialize VR technology, primarily by the video game industry, but it’s my understanding that those first attempts were fairly crude: lots of blocky, pixelated graphics and some significant lag in head tracking, which made users nauseous. All of this took away from the immersive experience that VR enthusiasts sought. The history of VR hardware is really interesting, but that’s kind of outside the scope of this conversation, so I’m sorry for digressing here.
Today, though, both hardware and software have gotten to the point where that kind of immersive experience is achievable. The high end PC gaming industry really drove a lot of technical progress in graphics processing chips. Both computer and mobile phone producers have developed and adopted displays with extraordinarily fine resolution, so whatever is being displayed looks very smooth. And, we could probably thank the smartphone industry for the huge variety of inexpensive gyroscopes, sensors and other components that allow for head tracking, tilt detection and other features. All these components have been appropriated and remixed by the VR industry today.
This is a long-winded way of saying that VR is the convergence of a lot of technical progress that’s come down to a price point that’s accessible to a lot of people now.
Discussing the risks and challenges of trust in the Bitcoin ecosystem.
Note: In light of the security breach at Hong Kong-based Bitcoin exchange Bitfinex, in which 119,756 BTC valued at approximately $70 million USD were stolen, I decided to share an excerpt from my undergraduate thesis. My thesis was about economic, social and computational centralization that was catalyzed by the Chinese Bitcoin community, and I may share other parts of it here at some point. It is copied verbatim from what I submitted to my supervising professor, so there may be allusions to prior sections of the paper that aren’t present in this post. I did my best to avoid the dry language of academic writing.
Trust, Centralization And Other Risks With Bitcoin
As I alluded to in the section about embeddedness, Granovetter helped to cement in the social science literature the role trust and social connections play in the formation of economic relationships. In somewhat simplified terms, the theory suggests that actors in an economic system will preferentially create economic relationships with actors they trust.
This creates an interesting theoretical and rhetorical tension with the fundamental concepts of Bitcoin. It is easy to think of trust as a prerequisite for “safe” economic interaction, but trust also carries its own set of risks. Trust is also a prerequisite for trickery and subterfuge. It’s out of this atmosphere of mistrust that central elements of Bitcoin’s technical architecture emerged. The programmatic way in which new currency enters the Bitcoin system reflects Satoshi Nakamoto’s mistrust of central banks and their ability to will economic value into and out of existence. The decentralized nature of transaction verification eliminates the need for a centralized, trusted third party to act as a clearinghouse for transactions. The fact that transactions are pseudonymous means that bitcoins can be treated as an electronic version of cash, which in conventional currency systems is used to facilitate fast, anonymous transactions. Nakamoto states in the opening paragraphs of the original Bitcoin paper that the irreversible nature of a Bitcoin transaction means that merchants don’t have to trust that customers will not maliciously dispute or “charge back” transactions, like they can do with credit cards.
The information security community has this saying, “Trust, but verify”. Well, why risk trusting when verification becomes trivially easy? The highly transparent nature of the central blockchain ledger removes the necessity to trust that a transaction occurred; verifying is as simple as using a blockchain explorer to look up the transaction-id or either Bitcoin address involved in the transaction. The fact that Bitcoin’s codebase has been open source effectively since day one of its existence means that any sufficiently knowledgeable person can audit the code to verify that there are no hidden back doors or other features that could facilitate malfeasance.
In these ways, Bitcoin’s architecture is anti-trust or “trustless”. In a very direct way, the very reasons that users cite for “trusting” Bitcoin stem from the trustless design of the protocol. If the trustless nature of Bitcoin is maintained by a decentralized network of miners and service providers, then it holds that that trustless-ness is corroded when the system becomes more centralized. So, the common narrative that Bitcoin is some pure, apolitical, trustless medium of exchange is at least severely flawed if not outright false. The economic and social centralization of Bitcoin has created a system that is rife with trust issues. Continue reading “The Risk Of Trusting In A Trustless System”
Today marks the close of the first quarter since I started my weekly newsletter. For those reading this who don’t know what I’m talking about, let me explain: every week I send out an email that contains links to things I’ve written and found online. Usual topics include tech news and commentary, coverage of the venture capital industry and the occasional set of links to articles, podcasts and other stuff I found interesting that week.
Maintaining this newsletter pushes me to seek out more interesting information and to improve my skills as a short-form writer and “curator”. And it has allowed me, in some tangential way, to maintain a connection to friends and mentors I don’t get the opportunity to see or speak with that often. I’ve received a lot of positive feedback from friends and strangers, and I plan to continue publishing this weekly newsletter for some time to come.
You don’t have to work for a tech company or be a professional designer to be able to intuit some things about mobile and web design. Over the past several years, designers have eschewed patterns and interface components inspired by the real world (a design trend known as skeuomorphic design). Lots of bloggers covered this shift, which kicked off somewhere around 2012, but for a good re-cap, you might want to check out John Gruber’s post on the subject.
There is a lot of internal corporate politics around this shift, primarily focused on the conflict between Apple executives in the wake of Steve Jobs’s death. Jony Ive won, and former iOS head Scott Forstall, who so loved the Corinthian leather pattern and pool table felt patterns that used to adorn several iOS apps, did not. Apparently, in the wake of his departure from Apple, Forstall threw his hat into the ring of Broadway musical production, so I guess it all worked out for him.
So-called “flat design” was in, but it was not all Apple’s doing. Lest we forget, though, that Microsoft’s Metro design language was one of the first to embody the characteristics of flat design in user interfaces on both desktop and mobile devices.
Twitter’s Bootstrap front-end framework, despite some relatively gaudy gradients in initial releases, eventually flattened out into the simple, bright aesthetic we’re used to today. Like, with Bootstrap in particular, its style is so monolithic that it’s become the subject of parody (NSFW language warning). Bootstrap definitely did its part to make flat design the aesthetic standard throughout the contemporary commercial web.
But now that brings us to today. On one end of the spectrum is the revival of 1990s-style websites as part of the Web Brutalism movement to the spare aesthetics of Medium and its content platform peers on the other.
For those who want to learn more, I made a small and rather incomplete list of readings and resources on the subject of web design and trends therein. Consider it a small jumping off point.
Whatever happened to the web page?
In a long answer to the question, “Whither the Webpage?” for The Awl, JSTOR Daily producer Charles Thaxton follows up his review of the recent “web brutalism” commentary with an incisive and delicious set of points: “As the investor class pivots toward video, the web actually stands a decent chance of becoming more disjointed and oddball and ecumenical in its design, and in turn more spontaneous or creative in its spirit […] But! It also stands to replicate the worst aspects of television: passivity, mediocrity, a plurality of superficial choice with the same indistinguishable affect. Not to mention new sorts of vacuity and horror specific to a post-platform age. I don’t know a lot about virtual reality, but I’m told to prepare myself not for ads but for ‘branded experiences.’”
A (now somewhat dated) corollary to the first one
Awl co-editor John Herrman explores the varying shades of blue used throughout modern social networking sites in his 2014 piece, “Internet, Why So Blue?”
“Complexion Reduction” is not a skincare treatment, it’s the post-Flat design paradigm du jour
Michael Horton, a UI and UX designer based in NYC, recently discussed a brand new trend in mobile design, “Complexion Reduction” in a post on Medium. The defining characteristics of Complexion Reduction, according to Horton, are:
Bigger, bolder headlines;
Simpler more universal icons;
Extraction of color.
His post includes many screenshots to prove his point and a delightfully ironic guide to CR design at the bottom. It also includes this observation on the new trend: “[Your] iPhone home screen will soon become nothing more than a colorful mosaic of bright portals transporting you to Pleasantville.”