Bullshit Technology


Following on from my last post about “disruptive” tech firms, this excellent Jen Sorensen cartoon was published on The Nib (click <– for full strip).

Bullshit Technology

Uber is running out of road

I’m deeply cynical about so-called disruptive businesses: the AirBnbs, the Deliveroos, the Ubers. I don’t think there’s anything particularly admirable about using VC money to undercut and destroy the competition or trying to evade the regulations designed to protect the people who use the service or the people who do the work. But I was still surprised by this piece on Uber, which makes it clear that the firm is even worse, and in even worse shape, than I thought it was.

Uber was never going to be profitable. Never. It lured drivers and riders into cars by subsidizing rides with billions and billions of dollars from the Saudi royal family, keeping up the con-artist’s ever-shifting patter about how all of this would some day stand on its own.

According to Cory Doctorow, Uber is “a dazzle op that keeps new money flowing in, convincing people that a pile of shit this big must have a pony beneath it.” But there is no pony.

Doctorow has written about Uber before.

From the start, Uber’s “blitzscaling” strategy involved breaking local taxi laws (incurring potentially unlimited civil liability) while losing (lots of) money on every ride. They flushed billions and billions and billions of dollars down the drain.

But they had billions to burn.

Bullshit LGBTQ+ Media Technology

Stick your rainbow

I wrote a piece for T3 about Pride Month and the way some tech firms’ support for the LGBT+ community doesn’t go beyond putting a rainbow on their social media logo.

Earlier this year, a damning study by GLAAD confirmed what marginalised people already know: every single major social networking platform is “categorically unsafe” for LGBT+ people. But hey! They’ve put a rainbow on their logo!

If tech firms really mean it, we need them to do more than post platitudes. We need them to make their platforms safe for marginalised people by actually enforcing their policies against harassment and hate speech. We need them to stop financially supporting anti-LGBT+ politicians in order to get tax breaks. We need them to donate to LGBT+ organisations and advocacy groups who can make a practical difference in the lives of the people who’ve been affected negatively.

But most of all, they need to hire and promote LGBT+ people – particularly people who are also marginalised by race, class, disability or gender. Good decision-making will only come from people who really understand the problems, and who understand the positive and negative impacts of their decisions.

But if you think the tech world is bad, they’ve got nothing on the Tories. Today the Government Equalities Office and the Conservative party have posted their scheduled Pride tweets despite being demonstrably anti-LGBT+. It’s particularly galling to see the GEO claiming credit for equal marriage in Northern Ireland, something the Conservatives and their DUP allies fought tooth and nail.

As I wrote in my piece:

it’s a hollow, selfish gesture: the aim isn’t to help LGBT+ people, but to burnish the corporate image. Telling the world that you agree LGBT+ people exist means nothing when LGBT+ people’s rights, healthcare and safety are under unprecedented attack worldwide.

And it means even less when you’re the ones doing the attacking.


Doing it for the kids

My son and daughter go to different schools but right now they’re getting their education in the same location: my home. They’re both learning remotely, joining their classmates and teachers on Microsoft Teams and using things like my phone to take pictures of their work and upload it to the school.

What’s really striking about this is how much work the teachers have put into it, how patient they are with the kids and how brilliantly they’re using the technology. Not all heroes wear capes.

Media Technology

Adam Banks RIP

Sad news today: Adam Banks has died. Adam was the guiding light of MacUser magazine, one of the UK’s very best magazines, and while I never worked for him I was a great admirer not just of his magazine but of the love his contributors clearly had for him. He and I were friends on social media where I often shared his incisive and insightful takes on technology, on publishing and on trying to be a good human. He was one of the good guys and he’ll be missed.

My friend, former MacUser contributor Craig Grannell, has written more about Adam here.

Hell in a handcart Technology

Facebook: fighting fascism is bad for business

There’s a damning section in this NYT piece about Facebook’s ongoing refusal to deal with misinformation and hate speech.

The company had surveyed users about whether certain posts they had seen were “good for the world” or “bad for the world.” They found that high-reach posts — posts seen by many users — were more likely to be considered “bad for the world,” a finding that some employees said alarmed them.

So the team trained a machine-learning algorithm to predict posts that users would consider “bad for the world” and demote them in news feeds. In early tests, the new algorithm successfully reduced the visibility of objectionable content. But it also lowered the number of times users opened Facebook, an internal metric known as “sessions” that executives monitor closely.

“The results were good except that it led to a decrease in sessions, which motivated us to try a different approach,” according to a summary of the results, which was posted to Facebook’s internal network and reviewed by The Times.

Facebook chose to use a weaker algorithm.

While that left more objectionable posts in users’ feeds, it did not reduce their sessions or time spent.

The problem has never been that Facebook can’t police hate speech and dangerous misinformation. It’s that it won’t. Big tech is increasingly looking like Big Tobacco, profiting from a product it knows is doing great damage.

LGBTQ+ Technology

An overdue apology

The history of computing has its shameful parts. For example, you’ve probably read about how Alan Turing, the father of modern computing, was persecuted, lost his job and was ultimately driven to suicide for being gay. But you might not know about Lynn Conway, a hugely significant figure in modern computing who’s life was destroyed by IBM purely because she was trans.

IBM has now apologised some 52 years later.

Jeremy Alicandri, writing for Forbes:

when IBM’s Corporate Medical Director learned of her plans in 1968, he alerted CEO Thomas J. Watson, Jr., who fired Conway to avoid the public embarrassment of employing a transwoman.

The termination turned Conway’s life upside down. The loss of income and looming inability to support her family shattered their plans for a quiet divorce with visitation rights. To worsen matters, California’s Social Services threatened her with a restraining order if she ever attempted to see her children.

Imagine having your life destroyed because the CEO was embarrassed to have you working for him. Sadly those attitudes, while rarer, still exist today.

It’s a sad irony that Conway’s work helped lead to the development of the very devices that bigots use to abuse other trans people today. Whatever you’re reading this on, Conway was part of the path that led to its creation.

“. . . Among [Conway’s] many foundational contributions to computer architecture are the scalable digital design rules she invented for srilicon chip design and the ARPANET e-commerce infrastructure she developed for rapid chip prototyping – thereby launching a paradigmatic revolution in microchip design and manufacturing . . .,” explains John L. Anderson, President of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE).

The article is well worth a read. Conway’s story is both horrific and inspiring.

Bullshit Media Technology


In response to the news that US writer Jeffrey Toobin has been suspended from his job for masturbating during a video meeting, Dr Jennifer Gunter pointed out on Twitter that “masturbating while on a work zoom/call is a choice. If Toobin was on mute he was still listening/watching the other participants and that’s still disgusting and violating. If the urge is so great, end the call. He knew that.”

There is some confusion over the precise circumstances: it’s been suggested that the writer was simultaneously having phone sex while taking part in the meeting, or that he was having phone sex during an interval between calls and accidentally rejoined the meeting too early. But whatever the explanation, his colleagues saw something they shouldn’t because he was doing something he shouldn’t have been doing.

As you’d expect, many women who’ve experienced sexual harassment have opinions on this. And I’ve already seen some of those women having to limit their Twitter accounts because of a backlash against the completely uncontroversial statement that you shouldn’t be masturbating at work or during video calls with people from work. I’ve been on social media for decades so I know I shouldn’t be surprised, but I’m seeing people – and of course, they’re men people – saying that there’s nothing wrong with having a surreptitious wank while talking to or listening to your colleagues. The only crime is getting caught.

I’ve written previously about the word “himpathy”, used by Kate Manne to describe the sympathy that’s extended to men rather than to their victims. That appears to be at play here, even though exhibitionism and masturbation are both well-known forms of sexual harassment.

CNN, back in 2017:

As shocking allegations of egregious sexual misconduct continue to emerge, one form of harassment has become a recurring theme.

It isn’t a physical assault, and it doesn’t necessarily involve men using sexual language. Instead, a powerful man masturbates in front of unwilling women made to witness the act.

Gunter linked to this piece, by Lili Loofbourow: The Myth of the Male Bumbler. It’s about the way some people rush to excuse men for doing inexcusable things.

Male bumblers are an epidemic.

These men are, should you not recognize the type, wide-eyed and perennially confused. What’s the difference, the male bumbler wonders, between a friendly conversation with a coworker and rubbing one’s penis in front of one? Between grooming a 14-year-old at her custody hearing and asking her out?

The world baffles the bumbler. He’s astonished to discover that he had power over anyone at all, let alone that he was perceived as using it. What power? he says. Who, me?

It’s an act, of course. The men who claim to be baffled about what is and isn’t acceptable in the workplace, as if there’s no difference between complimenting a female colleague’s new hairdo and making her watch you masturbate into a plant pot, know exactly where the line is. They just don’t think the rules should apply to them.

There’s a reason for this plague of know-nothings: The bumbler’s perpetual amazement exonerates him. Incompetence is less damaging than malice. And men — particularly powerful men — use that loophole like corporations use off-shore accounts. The bumbler takes one of our culture’s most muscular myths — that men are clueless — and weaponizes it into an alibi.

Allow me to make a controversial proposition: Men are every bit as sneaky and calculating and venomous as women are widely suspected to be. And the bumbler — the very figure that shelters them from this ugly truth — is the best and hardest proof.

Breaking that alibi means dissecting that myth. The line on men has been that they’re the only gender qualified to hold important jobs and too incompetent to be responsible for their conduct.

…If you’ve noticed a tendency to treat girls — like the 14-year-old whom now-Senate candidate Roy Moore allegedly picked up at her custody hearing — as knowing adults and men in their 30s — like Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos and Donald Trump, Jr. — as erring youngsters, large sons and “coffee boys,” this is why.

Loofbourow continues:

This is how the culture attempts to normalize this stuff: by minimizing the damage to women and the agency of men.

…Economists have long and lazily attributed the exodus of women in various industries to their decision to bear children, but now this giant explanatory iceberg is floating up — this absolutely gigantic, widely denied story about how women are routinely driven from their industries because their male colleagues need to be free to use their professional power to indulge their sexual urges.

Books Technology

One writing app to rule them all

There’s been a fun discussion on Twitter about the various kinds of writers, how they organise their workflow and what apps they use. This image has made a lot of us laugh.

Journalist workflow alignment text

The last option, “write directly into the CMS”, is listed under Chaotic Evil. And it is. If you’re a working writer and you have any choice, and I know not everybody does, don’t write directly into a content management system.

There are several reasons for that. The first and most important one is that if the CMS crashes, or something on your computer crashes, you may need to start all over again and you don’t have a backup. Whereas if like me you write first and then copy it to the CMS, a crash is only a minor irritation.

I had a conversation once with a younger colleague who clearly thought I was daft for writing locally and then going into the CMS. Just do it directly, he said, before the CMS crashed and wiped out his day’s work.

The risk of that happening is particularly important if, like me, you’re paid by the word. If you have to write the same article twice because the CMS crashed, you’ve effectively cut your hourly rate in half. With so much freelance writing barely making minimum wage in the first place, that’s potentially disastrous. Many of us are barely paid enough to write a piece once, never mind twice.

It also has an opportunity cost. For the financial reasons I’ve just mentioned freelancing these days is often about achieving a certain volume of work to pay the rent. That means your days are often very packed. There’s very little wiggle room there, so if you get your work done and then have to do it again that can have a knock-on effect on the rest of the day. It might mean not hitting your next deadline, or having to cancel social plans so that you can.

Another key consideration for freelance writers is that if you don’t have a local copy of your work, a problem with the CMS or the closure of that particular publication can mean you end up without any copies of anything you’ve done. In recent months several publications I’ve written for have closed down, but everything I’ve written for them is right here on my Mac.

Last but not least, if you work for multiple clients the likelihood that they’ll all use the same platforms and software is very small. Even individual departments of the same company use different things, so for example today I’m doing work for a publisher that uses a CMS but for a department that uses Google Docs instead. In a typical week I’ll write for a half dozen different clients, none of whom have the same submission requirements.

For me at, least, the solution is to use the same writing app for everything. I write almost everything in Ulysses, which then enables me to copy and paste into CMSes, export to Word format, PDF or rich text, paste formatted copy into email… you get the idea.

There are many apps that do what Ulysses do; I just happen to like the way Ulysses does it.

The benefits of doing everything in Ulysses is that the actual writing process never changes. There are no different CMSes to learn, no different interfaces to remember, no apps to relearn. The app I’m writing in always looks the same, works the same, uses the same keyboard shortcuts, displays the same fonts.

That matters because it means I waste exactly zero time trying to remember how anything works. 100% of my writing time is spent writing. When I’m finished I can then export the document in whatever format the client wants.

It also means I have an archive of everything I write for absolutely everybody, and that archive is all stored in the most widely supported format of all: plain text.

That’s because Ulysses enables me to use a writing language called Markdown, which is plain text with a few additional tags for things like links and formatting.

Here’s an example of how that looks when I’m working.

I press the hash key for a title, press it twice for a subtitle, type numbers at the beginning of lines for a numbered list and so on.

Plain text means the system requirements are tiny, performance is blazingly fast and I can search my entire archive instantly. I can also synchronise that entire archive with my phone, iPad and laptop so I’ve always got access to all of it.

CMSes are useful things, I know. But if you’re freelancing for lots of different people I think it’s worth taking the extra time – and it isn’t much extra time – to do everything in your favourite text editor first and then put it into the appropriate format or publishing platform. It’s a lesson I’ve learnt the hard way. I hope you don’t learn it the same way.


Return to sender

When you move home, you probably arrange to have your postal mail forwarded. It’s worth doing the same if you change your name and your email address. For a while, you’ll arrange for messages sent to your old address to be redirected to your correct one.

How long is a while? For me, three years: I think that’s a long enough grace period for people to process my name change.

Since I’ve stopped getting messages sent to my dead email address, there’s been a massive decrease in the amount of spam I get. I don’t mean unsolicited ads trying to sell snake oil or sex vitamins (although that’s reduced too). I mean badly targeted – or rather, completely untargeted – emails from PR companies.

Most PR companies I deal with are lovely. But many of the ones I don’t deal with are hopeless, and they are the ones who keep sending things to my old email address. They don’t know who I am, what I cover, what sectors I write about or what country I’m in. But that’s not going to stop them from emailing me multiple times.

They start their messages with “Dear Paul,” even though I am not and have never been called Paul, and then invite me to an exclusive telephone briefing about a new vending machine somewhere in Idaho that will vend magic underpants for fish. They will often send the same message from several different people who work for the same PR firm, and all of those people will then send follow-up emails to check I got the first lot of messages.

I try to be nice. I really do. So if I have time, I’ll reply and say “hey, I’m sorry but I think your contact details are out of date and this isn’t a subject or product category I cover. Your best bet is to find the title(s) you want to get coverage in and email the section editors directly”.

To which they always reply: “Can you let me know the email addresses of those editors, please?”

Sure! I keep a Rolodex of Editors Likely To Give A Fuck About Underpants For Fish right here on my desk!

So it’s nice to see that abate a bit. Right now the only PR messages I’m getting are from firms who know my name, who know what I cover and whose products are relevant to the titles I write for. It won’t stay like that for long, but for now I’m enjoying the peace.