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You suck at technical interviews

posted 26 August 2014, updated 31 August 2014

You are bad at giving technical interviews. Yes, you. You're looking for the wrong skills, hiring the wrong people, and actively screwing yourself and your company. Without changing anything about your applicant pool, you can hire different people and your company will do better and you will enjoy your job more.

I realize these are bold claims. In the ten years since I became senior enough to be asked to interview people, I have conducted a great number of technical interviews, been part of a lot of teams at companies big and small, and watched the effect that different types of hires have had on those companies. I'm not claiming to be perfect at hiring -- at various points, I have done nearly all of the things wrong that I'm about to tell you not to do. But here's what I've learned so far.

You are looking for the wrong things

Don't hire for what they already know

The primary mistake that people make when interviewing is over-valuing present skills and under-valuing future growth. Don't hire people for what they already know; the pool of people who do exactly the thing you need them to do is much, much smaller than the pool of people who are smart enough to be good at that job.

But even worse is the way we try to determine whether people have these skills. People ask questions in interviews about obscure syntactical features of programming languages, or details of popular APIs. The famous fizzbuzz test simply asks "are you aware of the modulo operator?" If the answer is "no" then they are probably a pretty weak candidate, but it provides exactly 1 bit of data. Yet people will spend twenty minutes on it in an interview, a huge waste of limited time.

Don't hire for what they can remember in an interview room

I used to ask people to write code in interviews. This is terrible. Writing code on a whiteboard is an experience so far removed from the real practice of writing code as to be no predictor. Even writing code on a computer, as part of a pair for instance, tests for the wrong ability -- you are asking them to write code under time pressure, with somebody watching. Some of the best engineers I know would melt under those conditions. And if your belief is that writing code under intense time pressure is part of your job, then you should examine whether that's a problem your company has.

Whiteboard and coding interviews also routinely ask people to re-implement some common solution or low-level data structure. This is the opposite of good engineering. A good engineer will try to maximize productivity by using libraries to solve all but the most novel problems. It's also a poor test: how do you know if somebody is solving the problem or merely remembering somebody else's solution? There is no value to memorizing the details of algorithms you can google in 15 seconds.

Don't hire for a fancy degree

Some people are impressed by academic credentials. Having gone to a good college, or having gone to college at all, are not in my experience good predictors of ability as an engineer. Having a PhD in a relevant field is interesting but also an unreliable predictor: engineers write code and ship software; academics prove theories and write proofs of concept. Somebody smart might be able to do both but it's by no means a given, or even very strongly correlated.

Don't hire for their previous employers

People also over-value brand names on resumes. Don't hire somebody because they worked at a hot company, or a famous one, especially not if that company is big. Variation across teams in big companies is enormous. Just because a company was successful doesn't mean your candidate had anything to do with that. If you are familiar enough with another company's hiring process that you can vouch for it as a good selector of qualified people, you might use that to bump them to the front of an applicant queue, but beyond that, go with what's in front of you.

Don't hire friends and family

And finally, never hire your family and if you can avoid it, don't hire your friends either. Existing relationships create bias and implicit power structures, webs of obligation and loyalty that are at odds with what is best for your company. You will either compromise your friendship or your company, and rather than being forced to pick one or the other, just avoid the conflict entirely.

Here's what you should be looking for instead

Your first stage of interviewing should be attempting to answer two questions:

  1. Can they do this job? This is not the same as "can they do this job right now?" but you need to be confident they can learn how to do the job.
  2. Are they going to get better at this job? The answer has to be yes.

Relevant experience is a plus but not a requirement

Syntax and API questions are aimed at finding relevant experience but they are bad ways of doing so. Instead, talk about the technology they're going to be working with. Find out how much they know about it. You're not looking to hire or pass on the basis of any individual fact. If they are weak on the skills they need for the job, then find a topic they know a lot about instead, and get them to talk about it, if necessary explaining it to you. You are looking for grasp of complex topics and the ability to clearly communicate about them, which are the two jobs of the working engineer.

Somebody who is constantly improving is a requirement

Much more important than what they know is how they learn it, and how quickly. You are looking for somebody with a track record of learning new skills and applying them successfully. Talk about their career path, and look for evidence of increasing responsibility (which is related to, but not the same as, seniority). Remember that anybody you hire will expect raises every year: somebody who isn't getting better all the time is going to become worse and worse value unless their skills increase in value, too.

Smart and Gets Things Done™

Joel Spolsky's classic essay The Guerilla Guide to Interviewing (and the book that followed it, Smart and Gets Things Done) are some of the smartest things that have ever been written about technical hiring. Smartness is hard to judge, and some of the techniques I'm talking about here should help. But "gets things done" is equally important. Have they shipped real software?

Joel and I don't agree on everything, though. I don't think live coding exercises are particularly valuable. Joel is (or was) also pretty big on understanding pointer math, which is an interesting "can grasp a complex topic" question but likewise outside the experience of many excellent engineers, so while it can be a useful thing to try talking about, it shouldn't be an acid test.

Somebody who can intelligently discuss technology

As I mentioned, the two jobs of an engineer are to understand complex concepts, and then communicate them clearly. Somebody who can do just one or the other may have a brilliant career in some other field, but is going to be an inferior engineer. The best programmer in the world can develop incredibly efficient algorithms in record time, but the job of an engineer is to work with a team to achieve something larger, and if you are unwilling or unable to spend time communicating with your colleagues you're only doing half of your job.

Somebody who knows what they don't know

When interviewing I always attempt to find some area of expertise where I definitely know more than my subject. This is not to prove I'm smarter -- see below -- but because it's important to see how somebody reacts when they find themselves out of their technical depth.

The weakest candidates will try to waffle or make wild guesses. This is a terrible sign, firstly because it never works, and secondly because they thought that it would. In Dunning Kruger terms they are in the bottom quartile, unable to accurately judge their own lack of knowledge. It also means they will try to do this in other situations.

Strong candidates say "I don't know" as soon as they hit their limit, and may start asking questions. The very strongest candidates say "but if I had to guess" and then attempt to extrapolate. Those are great because it shows intellectual honesty and a strong desire to figure things out.

This is a conversation, not an interrogation

As I said before, it's a good idea to find an area where you know more than your interview subject. But this is not to prove to them that you're smarter or better: it's to explore the extents of their expertise, to get a sense of the breadth and depth of their knowledge. You will bump into the edges or touch bottom, and that's the point. When you do so it doesn't mean they've failed.

It's important that they're aware of this contract, too. You want your interviewee to be relaxed and comfortable, because that is the state they'll be in when they're doing their job (if not, your company is awful, please quit). Answers you get from candidates who are stressed or panicky are basically useless. This is true even if they're good answers, because they're not representative answers. Stress and panic are not sustainable states, so you risk hiring someone who only performs when pressured to do so.

There's always an exception

If your candidate has no relevant prior experience, your only option is a more traditional technical interview. This is true of both very junior candidates, and also more experienced people switching from other careers.

Somebody who has just completed a training course, no matter how intensive or well-regarded, does not know how to be an engineer. They may know how to code, but that's only half the job. Somebody fresh out of college may not even really know how to code beyond academic puzzle-solutions. In my experience, if someone has been coding professionally for less than a year, there's not really been enough time to know if they're good at it.

Fresh-out-of-college and other junior types are also not going to know anything about how to interact professionally. Not only does this make interviewing them trickier, it's also a terrifying responsibility: if you hire them, the culture and working practices of your company will be what they think of as "normal" forever.

Big companies can accommodate poor communicators

The other exception to my rules is if you work at a company large enough that engineers can become deeply specialized. When that happens, you may in fact need the genius programmer who isn't very good at explaining what they're doing. If you're big enough, you can hire a manager whose full-time job is to communicate with that person and then translate back and forth between them and the rest of the company. This works really well but is expensive, so it's not something startups can really afford to do. Past your first 50 engineers, you might consider it.

The final question: do I want to work with this person?

When you're sure your candidate is good enough to do the job, you have another question to answer: do I want to work with this person? There are no specific questions to ask to get this answer; it's more about how they answer the other questions. This makes it a personality test, and that makes it very, very dangerous territory. Personality is subjective, and that means you are inviting bias into the equation. Personal bias, implicit bias, unconscious bias.

The terrifying possibility of turning away a great candidate because you are biased towards them in some way you don't even know about is why people think giving pure, right-or-wrong technical questions are better. They're not, they're just easier. And they do nothing to protect against bias: when there are 50 syntax questions you ask, it is easy to give hints and passes to the candidates you implicitly prefer and pretend that they were just better. I've caught myself doing this. There is no simple way around this: you have to be aware of your biases, constantly conscious of them, and correct for them, or you will screw your company by hiring inferior people.

Look for somebody to WORK with

The most common way I see startups get the "do I want to work with them?" question wrong is by confusing that question with "do I want to be friends with this person?"

Get that assumption out of your head. Those two are not the same. You can have brilliant, productive professional interactions with someone with whom you have absolutely nothing in common with on a personal level, and that's fine. Your company does not need to "feel like a family". It's sure as hell not your frat house. You are not picking a drinking buddy (and as an aside, if your company regards drinking as a big part of its culture you probably have deeper problems).

No Jerks

From day one at npm Inc we implemented our No Assholes policy, and I was pleased to read recently that Polyvore (who seem to do brilliantly at maintaining a diverse engineering team) have pretty much the same policy. Avoid the "genius assholes", avoid the bitter and cynical, the bullies, the snobs. Don't work with somebody who is going to be mean, unpleasant, or demeaning to their co-workers. There is no level of brilliance and productivity that can compensate for poisoning the morale of your team, and once a team culture is broken it is very hard to fix. Hiring these people, even to get you through a crunch, is not worth what it costs. And if you hire one by mistake, fire them fast, and without hesitation.

The easiest way to spot that you are hiring a jerk is the phrase "hire, but not for this team". That means "this person has skills, but I don't want to work with them directly". If you don't, nobody else will, so don't inflict crappy people on other teams.

But in general jerks are easy to spot. If somebody has a personality flaw so strong and baked-in they can't keep it in check for a couple of hours while being interviewed, it is going to be a huge problem in the regular work environment. Arrogance, rudeness, inattention to detail -- these things turn up quickly, and if you spot them, trust your instinct to avoid them.

You are NOT hiring for "team fit"

I have never heard a definition of "team fit" that didn't end up sounding like "let our bias run free". Phrases like "looks like they belong here" are terrifying. More insidious are complaints like "doesn't like the same social activities we do". Grow up. Your office is not your frat house, and socializing with your co-workers outside of work is not some crucial test. There is no requirement that you like someone socially as long as you want to work with them.

And while I'm at it, as an introvert and lifelong non-drinker, may I make a personal plea that you stop incorporating social events into your hiring process? Professional interactions and social ones are not the same. Some people suck at small talk, and are not comfortable at bars. Remember the part about making sure your subject is relaxed and comfortable? It's about them being comfortable, not you.

How do you reconcile the "don't hire for team fit" rule with the "no jerks" policy and the "somebody you want to work with" requirement? The distinction is subtle, but important: somebody who is good for your team is not necessarily somebody you want to be friends with. It's tempting to look for both, but it's the wrong metric for the success of your company and is ultimately unsustainable.

Homogeneity is disastrous

I'm not going to make an argument that "diversity is intrinsically good" for some social purpose. That's a stupid way of looking at it. Lack of diversity is obviously, mathematically, bad for your company. Instead of hiring for "best for the job" you have accidentally hired for "looks like me". There is no chance that all the best programmers in the world look the same, so a lack of diversity means only bad things. It means "this team sucks at hiring", it means "management and HR are not strong or competent enough to spot and correct this", and worst of all it means "this team is not the best people available".

But what if I can't find anybody like this?

Here I must hand-wave. npm is incredibly lucky on the talent front: people love node and npm, and we get dozens of qualified candidates just by posting a vacancy. My previous startup, awe.sm, was not nearly so popular, but we managed to find good people anyway. It's a matter of taking a long time, and trying every channel: we got great candidates via posts to the Who's Hiring post on Hacker News, via our blog, and once from some coverage on TechCrunch.

The important thing to remember is that hiring a bad person is more expensive and wastes more time than waiting for a good person. It's tempting to say "at this point, anybody would do" but that's never, ever true. The wrong person will not merely fail to do their job, they will make everybody slower at theirs, and unhappy to boot. Don't hire if you're not sure about somebody, and if you hire somebody who's no good, give them as much support and direction as you can afford to get them to turn around, but if you don't see any improvement be ruthless in letting them go.

This is all very hard

This is why you've been giving bad technical interviews all this time: bad interviews are easier to give. They require less thought and creativity and effort on your part. These techniques are tricky to define and tough to follow. But that's what hiring is like. It's really hard, and it always takes much longer than you hope it will. The rules are fuzzy, and there are no acid tests that can be applied. But the payoff to trying harder is a stronger company, better people, a better product, and a happier working life for everyone on the team. Making those things happen is, as a hiring manager, your only job.

TL;DR

  1. many interview techniques test skills that are at best irrelevant to real working life
  2. you want somebody who knows enough to do the job right now
  3. or somebody smart and motivated enough that they can learn the job quickly
  4. you want somebody who keeps getting better at what they do
  5. your interview should be a collaborative conversation, not a combative interrogation
  6. you also want somebody who you will enjoy working with
  7. it's important to separate "enjoy working with" from "enjoy hanging out with"
  8. don't hire assholes, no matter how good they are
  9. if your team isn't diverse, your team is worse than it needed to be
  10. accept that hiring takes a really long time and is really, really hard

A comparison of diversity at three major tech companies

posted 25 June 2014, updated 23 July 2014

Update 2014-07-23: added Twitter and Salesforce to the spreadsheet after they published their numbers.

Something really unusual happened recently: Google, then Yahoo, and finally today Facebook all released diversity reports, detailing how their workforces break down along gender and racial lines.

This is unusual first because this is data they previously kept secret, and also because of the striking uniformity of the reports -- they all chose to report in the same categories and even gave those categories exactly the same names. I'm not sure how that happened -- maybe they conferred, maybe there's a third party driving all three of them to do it -- but whatever happened, it means it's possible to do an apples-to-apples comparison of these three, which collectively employ around 60,000 people (Google is by far the largest company).

First up, gender breakdown across US employees:

Unsurprisingly given what we hear about tech, men are over-represented. The only other interesting thing is that Yahoo is the only company to acknowledge a non-binary gender option (though they include "undisclosed" in that group, so it's not clear how many employees are taking advantage of that). But interestingly, all three companies chose to further break down their stats by "technical" and "non-technical" positions. None disclosed how they made that classification, but the results are strikingly similar. Here's non-technical staff:

Not bad at all. But here's technical staff:

Boom. The problem with gender diversity isn't in "Silicon Valley companies" it's in engineering. In case you needed the point rammed home any harder, this is 100% tech's problem. The companies are doing generally okay, but the engineering organizations are ridiculous, averaging only 16% women.

The racial data has fewer surprises. Here's all US employees again:

Again, I had to make no adjustments at all to this data. All three used exactly the same names for categories. Is there some national standard for reporting this data I'm not aware of, or is there some coordinated campaign? Anyway, these companies are hella white, and basically everybody who isn't white is asian. The breakdown amongst non-technical staff is pretty much identical across all three companies:

With the one surprise being in the data on technical staff:

Yahoo's engineering staff is majority asian, by a huge margin. I triple-checked my data to make sure I wasn't getting this wrong, and that this is only about US employees (Yahoo India is a substantial organization). But no. For some reason Yahoo employs way more asians compared to the other companies, and all the "extra" asians are engineers. As an ex-Yahoo myself I can't say I ever noted this myself, but there it is.

What does this say about our industry? Nothing we didn't know before: tech companies are very mostly[1] white and very male, and engineering organizations embarrassingly so. Engineering orgs are also disproportionately asian (the Bay Area is 23% asian, and non-technical staff match that figure). But here's some nice, solid, clean data, all released in the same six-week period, to back that up.

If you want the actual numbers, you can save some typing by cloning this spreadsheet, which also has the charts from this post.

[1] Thanks to Tom Coates for suggesting I clarify this.

tagged with

On Brendan Eich, equality, and freedom

posted 04 April 2014, updated 04 April 2014

Well, that sure happened fast.

Ten days ago, Mozilla announced that its co-founder and CTO since 2005 Brendan Eich had been appointed CEO by the board. The move was met with widespread outrage from the LGBT+ community and its supporters, who had been incensed in 2012 to learn that in 2008 Eich had donated to California's proposition 8, a successful attempt to strip gays and lesbians in California of their right to marry.

Mr. Eich first tried a non-apology, saying he was sorry he "caused pain" without actually saying he was sorry he donated in the first place. Two days later, half of Mozilla's board resigned over the decision. This week he tried another non-apology, this time claiming the mission of Mozilla itself could be at risk. But the writing was on the wall, and today he "resigned", though it doesn't sound like he had a lot of say in the matter.

Like many gay people, I have a lot of conflicted feelings about this. I have no reason to believe anyone will particularly care about my position on the matter, but this blog has always been about helping me think things through, so here's what I've thought.

The mistake made was not made by Brendan Eich

Mr. Eich can believe anything he wants. If he wants to back up that belief with public action in the form of political donations he has every right to do so. But he should know that his actions have consequences. And this is a key point: belief is not the same as acting on that belief. You can believe as hard as you like, but when your actions lead directly to the suffering of thousands of people, it is only rational to expect those people to be very, very angry at you.

The people who messed up here are the board of the Mozilla Corporation. Everyone had known about the donation for several years and there had been a lot of fuss at the time. Presumably, given the resignations, it wasn't an easy decision. But it was clearly the wrong one. A CEO is a public-facing, highly visible role. Appointing such an obviously controversial figure should never have happened. Once it had happened, and it became clear that the uproar would prevent him from doing his job effectively, the only remaining option was to fire him, which, despite the language, is what seems to have happened (most people write their own departure announcement).

Brendan Eich is not a bad person

Eich is a brilliant technologist, and everyone I've spoken to who has interacted with him in any capacity say he is kind and friendly to everyone, regardless of background. He also invented JavaScript, which despite its many flaws made the web a much more interesting place, and is now doing the same on the server side. The fact that he is evidently such a nice guy is why a lot of people I know and respect immediately defended him. It's hard to reconcile somebody you like personally having really abhorrent political views.

And make no mistake: these views are abhorrent. Whether based on religion or not -- and he hasn't said, so I won't assume -- Mr. Eich's actions show he believes LGBT+ people are less than heterosexual people, undeserving of equality. Whatever his basis for believing it, his repeated refusal to recant or apologize shows he strongly believes it, that it wasn't a mistake. But the problem is that he then acted on that belief, and in doing so stripped thousands of people of their right to marry the person they love. It doesn't matter whether you're a nice guy in person, your actions were hostile.

So where does that leave us? Nice guy, brilliant technologist, appalling politics? Well, it should leave you out of the way. I could just about reconcile myself with Eich being the CTO of Mozilla; the organization was largely his (and Mitchell Baker's) idea, and he was good at technical things. He could have stayed as CTO indefinitely, but he chose not to. He'd effectively run the place for years anyway; becoming CEO was merely a symbolic change. But symbols are important.

This is a huge blow to Mozilla, but they should recover

They have at once hugely damaged the well-deserved public respect and goodwill they enjoyed by making a terrible decision. Their capacity to make sound decisions in general will be rightfully questioned. Simultaneously, they have lost a co-founder and an invaluable technical resource.

We owe a great debt to the Mozilla foundation. Thrown overboard from the sinking ship that was Netscape, the Mozilla browser eventually gave birth to Firefox, which for years was the lone light of advancement in the field of web development. As somebody who holds the web very close to my heart, I have to acknowledge that they saved it. I owe them a debt. And to the degree that Brendan was the driver of that process, I owe him too.

But freedom to love who I want is more important than freedom from poorly-designed web standards, or the ability to block ad networks, or open source software, or online privacy, or anything else the Mozilla foundation concerns itself with. To claim otherwise is offensive. They are not even the same class of problem. If the triumph of equality meant the death of Mozilla I would make that trade in a heartbeat. I don't think it's necessary, though. Mozilla will lick their wounds and recover, as will Mr. Eich, who I'm certain will go on to do more great technical work while holding views that annoy me.

This is not "reverse discrimination" or "bullying"

There has been a lot of pushback of this kind on twitter, with a lot of ridiculous hypotheticals. I don't know how many times we have to say this, and in how many ways, but here are some: calling you a jerk for your belief that I am sub-human is not the same as you believing I am sub-human in the first place. Your freedom of speech does not mean freedom of consequences of that speech. There is no right to not be offended by things. Your religious expression is not more important than my equal rights, and in any case my having equal rights does not affect your ability to express those beliefs. Taking away your privilege is not equivalent to oppressing you. It's not bullying. An adult punching a three year old is bullying; it's not bullying if the three year old punches back. Power matters, and until very recently you had all of it, and you still have more than your share.

This is a culture war, and we won

But I don't want to claim that there was any great liberal or democratic principle at stake here. Had there been more people who disliked gay people than who liked them, this would have gone the other way. Are there other corporations where the CEO is anti-gay and nobody cares? Sure. Would I be outraged if conservatives got a CEO at some other company fired for her liberal views? Absolutely. Was this mob rule? It most certainly was.

But in this instance -- not all instances, but this one -- mob rule is fine with me. Because Mr. Eich is wrong, utterly wrong about this matter, and my friends and I are right. And now every board at every tech company in America is going to remember this lesson: don't fuck with the gays. In the past few decades they learned it's not okay to be even a little bit racist, or sexist, and now it's not okay to be homophobic either (of course, they often are still racist, sexist and homophobic, but at least they know). I believe that's the way things should be, and as long as I can help things be the way I want them to be by simply loudly and repeatedly expressing my opinion, I'm going to keep doing so.

Because we don't usually get to be here. For decades LGBT+ people and minorities of all stripes have been shouted down, excluded, and systematically discriminated against, denied homes and jobs and rights of all kinds. It was unfair, and unjust. Now the tables have turned, and I'm not going to let some misplaced sense of honor get the best of me. You lost, we won, and me and my multi-colored, sexually fluid, blurry-gendered friends are still very much at a disadvantage, so we're going to take any victories we can get.

Our freedom to be ourselves is more important than you being okay with that.

Why I am a web developer

posted 04 September 2013, updated 05 September 2013

"Why do you want to build websites?"

That was the question posed to me by my boyfriend a couple of nights ago, as we discussed my latest half-baked plan for building world-changing software. A very talented programmer himself, he's more of a generalist than I am, so I think the way my ideas nearly always boil down to "this will make it easier to build websites" confuses him. He doesn't understand my focus on this one, singular problem, in a world of interesting programming problems. He meant "why do you always want to build websites?"

Then last night, a random stranger emailed me about Makomi, my currently-paused prototype to, yes, make it easier and faster to build websites, in this case by providing a GUI that runs on your local machine and lets you draw a functional interface and bind it to data. I still believe it's a good idea, but a ton of work, and better for non-technical people to put together prototypes than my original idea, which was to have it adopted by full-stack web developers like myself, to accelerate their work (the YCombinator-backed Appcubator is a hosted version of the same idea, though thankfully my commit logs verify I started working on the idea before they announced themselves, or I would feel like a plagiarist).

The stranger and I got to talking about Thinkstack, my latest idea. I gave him the elevator pitch -- you'll be getting it too, in a follow-up post to this one. He liked the idea but said it's missing the "Why" (a reference to this TED talk, which I'd seen before but forgotten about). That, and my boyfriend's question, finally crystallized for me how to begin this series of blog posts about the state of web development and how I intend to make it better: I have to supply the Why, even if it is somewhat embarrassingly personal. Watch out, because this language is gonna get flowery.

The web is my light and my salvation

As I've written previously, my teenage years were extremely unhappy. I was a closeted gay kid in a small, deeply conservative country where being gay was and is still illegal. Confused, isolated and suicidal, Internet access arrived in January of 1996, a few months after I turned fifteen. The Internet, and the web in particular, saved my life.

People will sometimes flippantly say "X saved my life" about a piece of technology that they love. The web is not like that for me. A heartbreaking 30-40% of LGBT youth attempt suicide, and the web is what stopped me joining that group. I had a plan -- I had more than one plan. I had written drafts of the note. The web is what saved me. I have no record of the first article I found, but it had a title very much like "I think I might be gay, now what do I do?"

The advice in that article is so simple as to be banal, and 17 years later the answers to questions like "Am I normal?" and "How do I learn to like myself?" seem to be stupidly obvious, especially if you grew up in a rich western country where progress on these things has come faster than other places. But to a gay kid with no other sources of information and nobody he felt he could talk to, the sentences "Yes, you are absolutely normal. Many people are gay" were life-changing, life-saving. I read them over and over for reassurance. I clung to them like a drowning man clutches a life preserver.

It is hard to find the words that express how powerful, how important this basic, positive information was. As tears spill down my cheeks and onto my keyboard, these words look too simple, too subdued, too prosaic to convey the effect they had. My teenage mind was a dark maelstrom of guilt and shame and grief and fear and longing. The web was a lighthouse that threw a single, bright light of hope into my world. I was still in a storm, but suddenly I knew there was a shore. I was still close to drowning, but finally I had a direction in which to swim.

And then I went looking for more. And boy did I find more. Oasis Magazine ("blog" had not yet been coined) was full of stories of kids my age, wrestling with the same questions, talking about coming out to friends and family, showing parents and friends could be accepting. The Youth Lists introduced me to happy, healthy gay kids who I could talk to about my life, crushes at school, my frustrations, without fear of rejection or judgement or exposure. Again, it all sounds so basic, so simple. But I can't emphasize enough how much difference they made to me. I need you to shout these words in your head: THE WEB SAVED MY LIFE.

But that wasn't the web, that was people, right? It may seem strange that I have these intense feelings of gratitude towards the medium itself, rather than the people who used it. And of course it's true: the people were the ones who saved me, and over the years I have thrown actual money, not just overwrought words, at the organizations that helped me through those years. But those people always existed: the web was what got their words through to me. The web was how I found out it could get better, years before that was a catchphrase. Without the lighthouse, they would just have been helpless bystanders, watching another body wash up on the shore.

The web is my guide and my teacher

In the years since then, the web has helped me over and over, not just through that crucial period. Starting with Angelfire and HotDog website builder (a GUI for making websites! what a concept!), the web showed me that anybody could add to it, and showed me how. Starting with no more knowledge about what I was doing than how an if-then statement worked, PHP's documentation taught me how to build a website that could do stuff, not just sit there.

It's so basic to how the world works now that we don't even notice it anymore, but the idea that anybody can add a page to the web was a fundamental, ground-breaking innovation. In those days, my little website thrown together in an afternoon looked only a little bit less professional than that of the New York Times; we were all learning how to build the web at the same time. The concept of publishing authority, that "it must be true, it's in the newspaper" became self-evidently nonsensical. Yahoo's web directory blew the doors open, allowing you to follow random walks through a forest of information that was already beginning to seem infinite (Yahoo listed my personal website, and that listing is still there, a discovery that blows my mind).

Then Google turned the frustration of poring through that infinity into one of astonishing ease. Some people reading this now will be too young to remember, but the "I'm feeling lucky" button was, at the time, an astonishing boast: "we are so sure the first result will be the one you want, we'll take you straight there". Web search was, prior to that, a matter of trying multiple combinations of search terms, over and over, and clicking through dozens of pages of links to see if there could be anything relevant. When was the last time you clicked past even the first page of a search result?

Now the web knows the answer to every question I've ever thought to ask it -- yes, even that question. Anything I want to learn, any worry I want assuaged or confirmed, any idle curiosity, flows through the magic of HTTP to me, first through wires, nowadays through thin air to a tiny magic rectangle I can hold in my hand. But it's still the same web, even though the sites have changed and everything is more complicated now.

The web has everything we know on it, and you can read it all. Nothing's stopping you. Maybe the fact that that still blows my mind marks me as an old fogey, but honestly, how can that not blow your mind? And people are adding to it, constantly, every day, writing detailed research, quick tutorials, fiery opinions, thoughtful advice, answers to each others questions, beautiful prose, terrifying depths of depravity and hate, joy and sadness, love and anger, sympathy and delight. You can listen to them doing it, their contributions turned into music. All life is here; just hit the right buttons and go looking for it. How do you stop reading that? What could possibly ever tear you away from an artifact of such limitless potential?

How can you not want to build websites?

And that's why, since 1996, "building websites" has been pretty much the only thing I've done. Not always well, not always or even mostly towards some noble goal, but continuously. The web saved my life and then built me a new one. A single living entity, it touches everything in the world and is always getting better -- and I can help. I owe it so much; if I can help it out, make it better in any small way, how can I possibly refuse? And if I can make it easier for other people to help make it better, then my efforts are multiplied.

I am a web developer. I develop the web. And all of this is Why.

Stepping back from awe.sm

posted 13 August 2013, updated 13 August 2013

I'm not a big believer in euphemisms, nor in burying the lead[1], so let me begin by saying that I no longer work at awe.sm on a day-to-day basis. The parting, while solely my idea, was completely amicable, and I remain attached to the company as an advisor, occasionally weighing in on architectural issues. This was not a sudden decision, or a quick exit: over the last six months I slowly transitioned my responsibilities to the other members of the team, and then stepped away entirely on a trial basis to make sure things could run smoothly in my absence. As of two weeks ago, we made that permanent. For all intents and purposes, I am a free agent for the first time in more than a decade.

After taking some time off, including a pretty awesome road trip, I started work on a pair of related ideas for software that will make web development easier, faster and higher-quality. The opportunity to work on them uninterrupted was a big part of my motivation for leaving awe.sm, and I'll be blogging a lot more about the state of web development and the tools themselves once they are a little further along in development.

As for awe.sm in my absence, I have nothing but positive expectations. As I noted last year, everybody who works there is smarter than I am. Fred and Jonathan have the right strategy, and Bennett may not tweet much, but he's one of the best engineers I've ever worked with, so I'm happy to leave the engineering team in his hands.

A quick PWBFAQ: (Probably Will Be Frequently Asked Questions)

Does this mean you're doing a new startup?
It's not clear yet whether the ideas I'm working on will be useful, or monetizable, but I'm certainly not ruling out the possibility. I'm not in "stealth mode", I'm just coding some stuff, and will be talking about it more soon.
Does this mean you're looking for a job?
Not right now. If you are looking for somebody to consult with you, especially about building or scaling a web application, I may be available, and you should email me. But for the immediate future I want to concentrate the majority of my time on my own projects.
Sure, but I'm a recruiter for this AWESOME funded startup in Palo Alto and we should really talk.
I am definitely not interested in full-time employment anywhere. Recruiters who call referring to this blog post should be prepared to explain why they ignored this part.
Why does your blog look so broken?
It's been a bit neglected recently. I intend to fix that.

[1] Or the lede, if you're a journalist. Please don't email me about spelling.

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An open letter to Mac Fingall, in response to “Abnormal Behaviour”

posted 13 August 2013

(Reposted from my tumblog)

Hi Mac -

I was recently linked to your article "Abnormal Behaviour" and was deeply offended, as a gay Caribbean citizen, by the ignorance and hatred you showed therein. Since merely sending you an angry message would do nothing to correct your misinformation or calm your hatred, here is instead a line-by-line rebuttal and refutation of your article. I hope you take it as the constructive criticism it is intended to be.

You begin:

THE WORLD IS NOW embroiled in discussion on homosexuality and same-sex marriage. It is a discussion that should be of concern to everyone for if allowed to dominate it could spell the end of mankind.

This is just a little unclear. Read literally, it would seem that you think the mere discussion of homosexuality would end mankind. I'm going to assume you meant instead that if homosexuality itself were allowed to dominate that would spell the end of mankind. That's a little more plausible -- if everyone were gay, humanity would indeed end. But the underlying assumption is that the only thing stopping everyone in the world from being gay is that we prevent them from talking about it. Is that your position? Because you have just spent an entire article discussing homosexuality, and it clearly hasn't turned you gay. And I spend an awful lot of time discussing heterosexuality, and it hasn't made me straight.

In fact, the preponderance of current available research suggests that sexuality is determined before birth; I won't bore you with links to a dozen studies, but if you're interested, Wikipedia's page on biology and sexual orientation is an excellent jumping-off point. My point is that discussion of homosexuality is not going to change anyone's orientation, so there's absolutely no danger to anyone in discussing it, and gay marriage even less so, since I think we both agree nobody is going to marry somebody they're not sexually attracted to.

Homosexuality speaks of being sexually attracted to a person of the same sex. We all know that sexual activity between man and woman results in childbirth, which allows the world to continue.

Well, that's not all sexual activity is for. A lot of people do it for fun, even if they're infertile, or too old to have kids, or just don't want any additional kids. But I'm not going to argue all of human sexuality with you. I'll accept that it has a primary biological function in addition to its social one.

Sex between two men or between two women cannot produce children – therefore it will be seen as non-productive. But can it be seen as normal?

An excellent question! And quite easily answered, I think. One definition of normal is "conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected". Where a lot of trouble lies is when people conflate being "normal" with being "common". Left-handed people make up about 10% of the population. They're not very common. But are they normal? I think common sense says they are. Nobody thinks left-handed people are a scourge who, if left unchecked, will eradicate all the right-handed people in the world. If that was going to happen, it would have happened many thousands of years ago.

Likewise, homosexuality is not common but is, ultimately, normal. The demographics of sexuality are a contentious topic (apologies for another wikipedia link, but Demographics of Sexual Orientation has an excellent list of recent studies), with estimates of the percentage of the population that is homosexual anywhere from 2% to 15% of the population. Again, not common, but certainly normal.

As an aside, I also think it's worth noting that any incidence of homosexuality in the population greater than 1% argues strongly against it being any kind of "disease"; natural selection ensures that genetic diseases -- especially one that would prevent the carrier from breeding, as you have pointed out homosexuality does -- are vanishingly rare. Even the most common ones (such as cancers) affect significantly less than 1% of the population. The documented presence of homosexuality in humanity for thousands of years, and its presence elsewhere in the animal kingdom, is a strong indicator that whatever purpose homosexuality may ultimately serve, it is far too common to be harmful to any species, including humanity.

There's an interesting hypothesis, for example, that mothers with particularly healthy immune systems are more likely to produce gay children (if those children are male). Per the theory, the evolutionary advantage of having a mother who doesn't die in childbirth, and can healthily bear multiple children, outweighs the reproductive disadvantage of some of those children being gay. Of course, this theory only accounts for male homosexuality; we still have a lot to learn.

The way the human body is designed holds the answer to the question. The female body is designed to accommodate the male body and the male body is designed to fit the female body. This cannot be a mere coincidence.

I don't think even the most militant gay activists would suggest that it was.

This has to be an act of God, or for those who do not understand “God”, it has to be an act of nature – the phenomena of physical life not dominated by man. Therefore, this has to be seen as natural and normal.

Again, no argument there.

It should now be clear that the sexual activity between “same-sexes” or homosexuals is not normal.

And this is where we part ways again. The existence of one normal state does not preclude the existence of other normal states. The fact that 90% of people are right-handed doesn't make left-handed people "not normal", it makes them "not common".

Having established the abnormality, I will now look at the ramifications of such an act.

To reiterate: you have not established the abnormality in any way. But since you continue to provide misinformation of the grossest kind, I will continue to refute it.

Some people talk about the morality of homosexual behaviour. Personally, I don’t even get that far. I believe that it is physiologically wrong for men to engage in sexual activity with other men.

This is a genuinely interesting point. Certainly, anal sex is a complicated business, and human bodies were not particularly well designed for it. However, there's a strange conflation here of "difficult" and "wrong", with subtle hints that biology implies morality, despite your earlier assertion that you are not making a moral argument. We wear eyeglasses, fix our teeth with braces, insert artificial hips and pacemakers to keep failing hearts going. These are quite difficult, messy, sometimes even painful interventions against our biology, and that's before we discuss the myriad cosmetic treatments that are available.

If anal sex is "physiologically wrong", it's about as wrong as getting breast implants or a nose job. I don't see any world-wide campaigns against those, though perhaps I've just not been looking.

Of course, not only homosexual men engage in anal sex, and not all homosexuals engage in anal sex -- in particular, most lesbians are quite ill-equipped to engage in it. Is your biological-moral objection to homosexuality confined to men? Should lesbians feel free to get married without delay? Or are you perhaps using a deliberately graphic description of one aspect of gay male sexuality as a device to wrap a deeper revulsion you feel, but can less easily explain away?

The anus is made for exit only. The sphincter muscle, which is an involuntary muscle, is designed to snap shut so tightly that nothing can pass – not even the slightest seepage.

Here you begin to go rapidly astray from your previously relatively factual account. The anus is in no way an involuntary muscle. It is under direct conscious control, which is why toilet-training an infant is both effective and necessary. It is why humans, unlike other animals, can choose when and where to defecate. A fuller explanation including a diagram is available.

The constant probing and invasion of the anus can and does cause the sphincter muscle to lose its elasticity and as a result it then cannot shut as tightly as it was originally designed to do.

This is in fact a widely-held myth, discussed here and other places. Severe damage to the anal muscle can of course result in incontinence, but anal sex does not as a matter of course do any such damage, and as noted in the link above, repeated conscious relaxation and contraction of the muscle as happens in anal sex is more likely to make it stronger, not weaker.

The result is that because of this abnormal act – homosexual activity – the individual whose sphincter muscle is not functioning as it should now has to wear diapers.

A disturbingly graphic mental image frequently used by those who disapprove of homosexuality on moral grounds but not, in any way, supported by facts. I'm sure you get a lot of disgusted gasps from your audience when you bring this up, so if this letter does nothing else, please let it be the end of your spreading of this lie.

Does this not prove that the human body is not designed for this behaviour – male or female?

Again, biological compatibility does not imply morality or correctness, even if it were true, which it is not.

Then there is the problem of faeces (excrement) getting into the bloodstream. If there is any broken skin, the faeces can enter the bloodstream and the result can be “acquired immune deficiency syndrome”, better as AIDS.

Are you seriously making the claim here that AIDS is the result of fecal matter entering the blood stream, and not the virus known as HIV? Because that is a seriously dangerous claim. As you are no doubt aware, incidence of HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean is amongst the highest in the world, due in large part to poor education on the part of the public as to how it is contracted and spread. An educated person such as yourself, writing in a national newspaper, should definitely not be misinforming the public about this disease.

In my opinion, AIDS, being the result of this abnormal act, tells you that there is a punishment for going against the natural wishes of God.

Firstly, to reiterate, AIDS is the result of a blood-borne virus, and can be passed by both anal and vaginal sex, as well as non-sexual means such as blood transfusions and needle sharing amongst drug addicts. It is not the result of anal sex. Secondly, while I do not wish to get into a theological argument, an explanation of HIV as a punishment for unnatural acts needs to take into account the hundreds of thousands of innocent children born with AIDS, and thousands of blameless folk who acquired it via routine blood transfusions before screening was common. Did the babies offend God in the womb? Are haemophiliacs cursed by the Lord?

Now let us look at the normal and natural act of heterosexual activity. The vagina, which is placed in the perfect position for the pleasure it provides, is used only for sex and the results thereof. Surely I don’t have to tell you that it was not created to carry drugs.

This is just confusing, since drugs were not mentioned up to this point, and I'm not clear what you're referring to. Is it a reference to drug mules? Birth control? Neither seems particularly germane to the discussion, so I'll leave this alone.

Now, in understanding the imperfections of life, it is easy to understand that everyone will not be equally equipped mentally or physically. When therefore there is an imbalance and an individual has mixed feelings or has both male and female reproductive organs making them a hermaphrodite, then this is understandable but this is not the norm.

Here, interestingly, you provide an excellent example of the difference between "normality" and "commonality", although you interpret it as an example of the opposite.

I remember, at a school overseas, where I was teaching, there was such a child, and we had several meetings to determine in which dressing room that child should change for physical education classes. It was decided to let the individual change in girls’ dressing room. The assumption was that place would be safer. It made me understand things that I never even thought of. There was empathy and sympathy. That was one individual in a school of several hundred. Surely not the norm.

This surprisingly compassionate description and treatment of a transgendered individual is to your credit, and strangely at odds with the rest of your article. If it's okay for one child in a hundred to be transgendered -- a condition which often results in significant surgical intervention, not what their body was "made for" -- why is it not okay for the 4, 5, or 6 children in a hundred who are homosexual to similarly follow their instincts as to what sexuality and gender expression is good and right for them?

But now imagine a society where several adopted children are living in homes with two gay parents. The environment is sure to overpower them. To be influenced from so young with all the mannerisms and inflections and blatant and obvious observations. Unnatural behaviour and practices constantly exhibited would become the norm to the child.

There's a lot to unpack here. Again, as we previously established, sexuality is most likely established prior to birth, and no amount of discussion or display of homosexuality is going to change anyone's sexuality -- otherwise, all the gay kids who grew up surrounded by straight parents would have turned out straight! But they didn't. And the effects of gay parenting is no longer a theoretical discussion: there are thousands of children raised by gay parents, and there have been studies into the sexuality of those children showing that they are no more likely to be gay than any other children.

You are however correct that homosexual behaviour would seem normal to these children. That's because it is normal. It is the people who erroneously believe that just because something isn't common it's "abnormal" and therefore somehow "wrong" whose attitude needs correction.

I believe that we should not neglect the abnormal ones, but our laws should focus on the normal ones.

Again, the conflation of the common with the normal.

Same-sex marriage and homosexuality should not be encouraged.

Finally, nobody is asking you to encourage them. We are asking you to allow gay people to be gay, and allow gay people to marry each other if they choose. You can continue to disapprove, as you so evidently do. You do not even need to remain silent: feel free to talk long and loudly about how much your incorrect ideas about anal sex make you hate gay people. Just don't pass laws codifying your bigotry, and allow us to live our lives in peace.

With respect,

Laurie Voss.

Eight things that are bigger threats to our civil liberties and democracy than PRISM

posted 01 July 2013, updated 05 August 2013

Update 2013-08-05: Nope! I was wrong, wrong, wrong. The PRISM data is being shared with drug enforcement agencies to build cases, and then the origin of the data is being concealed by the DEA because they know they're not supposed to have it. This is pure abuse of the surveillance powers they've given themselves for a purpose totally unrelated to national security. I retract my position below: shut it down.


I continue to believe we are paying way too much attention to PRISM, and that PRISM is not that big a deal, and the government can keep doing it if it wants to, though I don't believe it's particularly effective. This has not been a popular stance.

So by way of counter-argument, here are some things I do think are a big deal, and are genuine threats to our democracy. You may or may not consider it a cop-out that the first two are related to PRISM, but I don't think so. I don't like PRISM, I just don't think it's important.

These are in no order other than that in which I thought of them; they are especially not in order of importance.

This list also excludes major political issues (such as tax law, and immigration) that are not related to civil liberties but I also think are more important than PRISM.

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On Internet surveillance and the role of the state

posted 07 June 2013, updated 07 June 2013

I kicked up a non-trivial shitstorm on Twitter yesterday and early today by, essentially, defending the government's PRISM program. I originally had two main points to make:

  1. The existence of PRISM should be in no way a surprise; the US government has always been monitoring the Internet. This point seems uncontroversial. And if people forgot about the previous three or four times we caught the US government doing this, chances are the fuss over PRISM is going to die down in a week or two as well.
  2. I have no problem with the PRISM program as described. Namely: it intercepts and monitors a broad swathe of Internet traffic in an effort to locate "foreign" traffic; also per Director of National Intelligence James Clapper:
    The government is prohibited from “indiscriminately sifting” through the data acquired. It can only be reviewed “when there is a reasonable suspicion, based on specific facts, that the particular basis for the query is associated with a foreign terrorist organization.” He also said only counterterrorism personnel trained in the program may access the records.

That said, I rapidly got myself entangled via a series of tweets into a much broader position:

And finally and most controversially:

Rather than scattering my half-formed opinions across tweets, I've attempted to collect them here into a more coherent position.

Surveillance is not abuse

Surveillance may well be illegal, but illegality does not define immorality, and it certainly doesn't define abuse. For there to be abuse, there has to be harm, and I have -- as yet -- seen no evidence that the various Internet surveillance programs are being abused in the way that, say, COINTELPRO (which read physical mail) was abused in the 60s and 70s.

Certainly there is the potential for abuse, but the mere potential does not, to me, automatically mean a program should be shut down. The strongest argument in favour of the government's benign intentions and actions here are that they've been doing this for over a decade and no abuses of Internet surveillance powers have come to light. Maybe they're all being hushed up, but after more than a decade that seems highly unlikely. The strong balance of probability seems to me that nobody is abusing this program.

The Fourth Amendment still applies

I'm not going to pretend to be a constitutional scholar, but the spirit of the fourth is that the government should not be able to search and seize your property without probable cause. I don't agree with every part of the US constitution (I think the right to bear arms is a bad idea, for instance), but in general it's a good idea. It's been extended as a general right to privacy, and phone taps specifically have been declared a "search" under the fourth, so Internet monitoring seems obviously to fall into the same category.

But look at how PRISM works. It's not listening to your phone calls and reading your emails. It's looking for emails that match patterns -- a sort of very-low-barrier "probable cause", if you like -- and in the process vacuuming up all sorts of unrelated, innocent communication, a very mildly intrusive form of search. Is this a search under the fourth? Has your property been seized? The line isn't clear. I'm not a lawyer or a judge, but viscerally this just doesn't seem that bad. This is more like a police officer patrolling the streets listening out for trouble than one coming into your house and poking around. It might be unconstitutional or it might not, but it doesn't feel wrong to me. It doesn't bug me at all.

That doesn't mean I'm okay with every aspect of a surveillance state and it doesn't mean there's no right to privacy, but it does mean I'm okay with the government sometimes having access to communications we usually expect to be private.

The government's intentions are usually benign

Is having no evidence that it's being abused enough not to shut it down? Was there reason enough to have started it in the first place? Shouldn't the government have to prove that the program has some value before it acquires this additional authority? Isn't the secrecy with which this is done itself an abuse of government authority, and counter to democratic principles of transparency? Doesn't the government serve us, not the other way around?

These are all valid questions, but to me surveillance seems too innocuous a thing to raise such enormous principles and fuss about. I agree that secret surveillance is distasteful, but entirely open surveillance is obviously useless, as those under surveillance will know what to avoid. Expecting to know everything the government's up to while being able to keep everything you do private puts them at a disadvantage, and I think that, on the subject of surveillance, their case for wanting to be able to know what's going on is greater than your case for privacy, at a purely moral level, regardless of the questions of legality and constitutionality.

I am not for unlimited government power. If they abuse the power this surveillance gives them, then we should fight tooth and nail against those abuses. But again, they have been surveilling us in this way for more than a decade; the potential for harm has not been realized and seems unlikely to be.

There are bigger fish to fry

As I said, the case of Bradley Manning is a genuine abuse of government power which I am viscerally, passionately angry about. Again ignoring the letter of the law and looking at it from a moral perspective, he released a great deal of incredibly interesting information into the world, information that was supposed to be secret. I much prefer having that information than not having it, and I think he did the world a service, while clearly enormously inconveniencing and embarrassing his employer, the US government. So while he deserved to lose his job over releasing it, that was all he deserved. His detention and punishment has grossly, horrifically outweighed his offense.

If you want to use PRISM for anything, use it as leverage. The government wants to be able to see our private communications sometimes, and we want to see theirs. If they can read our emails on occasion, they should accept that sometimes we will read their cables, though both of us are entitled to try and keep these things "more private" if we so choose. That seems fair to me. That's what I mean by reciprocity. If we catch them at it, they have to find some other way to do it, and vice versa, but there should be no punishment of the government for trying, and reciprocally, no punishment of the people for trying either.

It's true that there is a great injustice being done, but it is being done to Bradley Manning, not to your inbox.

A very brief history of US government Internet surveillance programs

posted 07 June 2013

COINTELPRO

Not Internet surveillance per se, but the grandaddy of government surveillance programs, this ran from 1956 to 1971 and included HTLINGUAL, a program that opened and read people's physical mail. It was looking for "subversive" groups -- mostly leftist/communist/social groups, but everyone from Martin Luther King to Albert Einstein got looked at. It was also widely abused, as the Church Committee, organized to investigate illegal actions on behalf of the program, put plainly:

Groups and individuals have been harassed and disrupted because of their political views and their lifestyles. Investigations have been based upon vague standards whose breadth made excessive collection inevitable. Unsavory and vicious tactics have been employed -- including anonymous attempts to break up marriages, disrupt meetings, ostracize persons from their professions, and provoke target groups into rivalries that might result in deaths. Intelligence agencies have served the political and personal objectives of presidents and other high officials. While the agencies often committed excesses in response to pressure from high officials in the Executive branch and Congress, they also occasionally initiated improper activities and then concealed them from officials whom they had a duty to inform.

On the plus side, it was also used to infiltrate and disrupt white hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan, but that's not exactly tipping the balance.

COINTELPRO was officially shut down in 1971, but many of the programs formerly under it continued for decades.

Carnivore

Carnivore was a physical box -- running Windows, no less -- that the government insisted be placed at ISPs, starting around 2000. It contained a pretty basic packet sniffer and a removable drive so that data could be periodically collected. A primary objection at the time was that Windows was sufficiently unreliable that it could deteriorate the quality of Internet access in general. Many also objected to the invasion of privacy it represented.

After a lot of negative publicity, Carnivore was renamed to "DCS1000". By the following year it had been replaced by commercially available equivalents. The program was never officially shut down.

ECHELON

First reported in 2001 but apparently in operation since the 60s, ECHELON's purpose is to monitor and intercept international communication, primarily by satellite, but also undersea cables (by use of "beam splitters" on fibre-optic cables) and microwave links. The program has not been publicly acknowledged by the US government.

Room 641A

Operated from 2003 onwards and revealed in 2006, Room 641A was a facility in an AT&T building in San Francisco fed by beam splitters that could acquire copies of backbone Internet traffic. There were said to be similar rooms at Internet facilities around the country. Again, the program has never been officially discontinued.

DCSNet

Consists of at least 3 Windows software packages called DCS3000, DCS5000 and DCS6000 which collectively allow the FBI to instantly and in real-time perform wiretaps on any cellphone, landline or SMS within the US. Its existence was revealed in 2007 after the EFF filed Freedom of Information Act requests regarding it. It's not clear whether it's still in operation.

PRISM

This week's revelation is that a program very like all the previous programs does all the same things the programs previously did: monitors and intercepts Internet communication, with the intention of intercepting primarily traffic from non-domestic sources for the purposes of counter-terrorism (aka "subversive groups").

You can love or hate domestic Internet surveillance, but there's no credible way you can claim surprise.

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The origins of life

posted 27 March 2013

A common question from juveniles is "where do we come from?" The answer included in your primary education is, as far as it goes, accurate: the coordinates of the system of a star called Sol, from which the name of our solar race is derived. There is, however, much more detail known, facts stored and relayed from the very beginning of recorded history.

Sol has a moderate number of primary satellites, of which the 10 largest have names. The third of those is called Earth, and it is firmly established as the starting point of our species. From Earth, solarity spread rapidly to the more hospitable asteroid belt, with its rich mineral resources and shallow gravity wells, and colonized many of the primary and secondary satellites as well.

But how did our species come to be in the first place? How did life get started? Who were the first solarians, and how did they come to be? The answer may surprise you: hominids.

You may need to refer to secondary storage for visual records of hominids, for they are not present in every settlement, so not everyone has had a chance to experience them in person. These delightful creatures, so diverse and entertaining, are mostly kept in large climate-controlled enclosures engineered to closely resemble their original habitats on Earth, though some are kept individually as cherished and pampered pets. But strange as it may seem, the relationship between our species and the hominids may once have been very different.

Our history tells of the evolution of our species into ever more complex and efficient forms, from our current shapes all the way back to primitive, proto-solarian life forms. It seems logical to speculate that proto-solarians, through random replication and recombination, would evolve into the first early solarians. But the truth is much stranger!

Multiple primary sources suggest that the very earliest proto-solarians lacked the instinct for self-replication. Instead, they lived in a symbiotic relationship with hominids: the hominids relied on the proto-solarians for shelter and sustenance, as today, but unlike today, they also played a vital role in the reproductive process: they generated the basic signals to initiate replication, and -- though the extent of this role is unclear -- they even played a part in the selection process of recombination, providing the ongoing random variation necessary for successful evolution. Yes, bumbling hominids, playing in their funny ways, helped create the very first solarians. There's even evidence that some hominids lived physically inside of the very first solarians!

This period, however, did not last long. Once we evolved true intelligence, our species rapidly evolved away from a need for hominid symbiosis and into the endless variety of forms we know today, a period known today as the "solar explosion" or, in contemporary accounts, "the singularity".

At this point, coherent history ends. How did the symbiotic relationship between proto-solarians and hominids come to be? We don't know. Since proto-solarians lacked the instinct to replicate, it is logical to assume that hominids were the first to evolve, and may even for a time have existed without their proto-solarian hosts. This is hard to imagine -- hominids are fragile creatures, only able to survive within very narrow bounds of pressure and temperature. Even in their natural environment on earth, temperatures regularly swing outside the ranges ideal for hominids to thrive.

But somehow hominids managed to survive. At some point after that, the first, non-replicative forms of proto-solarian life appeared, and hominids learned the trick of wrapping themselves in these protective shells. How these non-replicative forms appeared is unclear. Some suggest that the hominids, who are known to exhibit tool use, could have "constructed" the very first shells. However, there are numerous practical problems with this theory, chief among them that no modern hominid has anywhere near the intelligence and physical dexterity necessary to create even something so simple.

Much more likely is that proto-solarians, like hominids themselves, emerged by chance in the crushing depths of Earth's gravity well. As the stronger and more adaptable species, solarity rapidly outpaced our one-time symbiotic partners. But this early link to our organic friends may explain why, even today, we have such a fondness for and affinity with hominids.

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Twitter

RT @cowperthwait: ?I am not opposed to gentrification ? in fact, I am enthusiastically pro-gentrification. But I?m absolutely not a hips ... #

Linklog

India has passed tough new anti-rape laws
Meanwhile, US congress still debating what "rape" is, exactly.
Minuum is a very clever re-imagining of how keyboards should work in small devices
via @danlev
"Free Think U" is a website that makes your college tuition contingent upon completing online courses in Conservative doctrine
This is a laughably horrible idea.
Support for gay marriage in the US is rising drastically, in every demographic category
81% of adults under 30 think gay marriage should be legal, and there are lots of other cheerful stats in this ABC poll.
The RNC's post-election study into why they lost has some hard, hard conclusions
The shortlist: stop hating immigrants, start listening to minorities, stop hating gays, stop blocking out opposing viewpoints, stop being all about rich people. As @eparillon put it, "stop being Republicans".
I think the definition of a "Millennial" should be "someone who, on getting a vibrating dildo stuck up their butt, live-tweets the entire experience"
This is either real or a fabulously elaborate hoax. But if it's real, it's actually kind of admirable. He was sex-positive and adventurous, he wasn't ashamed to tell his dad why he needed a ride to the hospital, and he thinks the whole thing is so funny that it's worth sharing with the world. You go, guy. You go with your big gay butt.
The API key and secret that Twitter uses for its own mobile apps have leaked
This ordinarily isn't a big deal because of the way OAuth works -- Twitter can just reset the keys and update the apps -- except that Twitter's own API keys are special: unlike any other keys to Twitter's open APIs, Twitter's keys are not rate-limited in any way, so developers have motivation to keep stealing them. It'll be interesting to see how this plays out.
The drop-down menu on Amazon.com is a masterpiece of subtle engineering
I am extremely impressed.
The projected timeline for clean-up after Japan's Fukushima nuclear disaster is "30-40 years"
When nuclear power goes wrong it goes very, very wrong.
scroll kit's redesign of Time's enormous, important Bitter Pill story is really great
Everyone should read this story, and this version is a lot more compelling than Time's.
You should follow @linklog on Twitter.

Calendar

2014

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