Listen Up! Latest Podcast Appearances

I had a busy run of talking to invisible people the last few weeks, and several episodes have dropped:

  • The Committed (Ian Schray, Rob Griffiths, Kirk McElhearn): We talked security, Apple Pay, and Windows 10.
  • Systematic (Brett Terpstra): Brett asked me about my work and how I report, and we compared notes on how we approach tasks. We also talked cryptocurrency and a kid-derived currency.

In the next few weeks, you'll find me in an episode each of:

  • The Internet History Podcast: I talk with host Brian McCullough about myths of Amazon that are perpetuated even when Amazon itself denies them, my examination of the New York Times article detailing a culture that appears to thrive on conflict, and whether journalism is better off now than before the 2001 dotcom crash. (Link coming August 31.)
  • Cool Tools: Kevin Kelly and Mark Frauenfelder host this show in which a guest brings some of her or his favorite tools of any kind: farm, software, and more. I'm an upcoming guest, and I'll add the link when it's up.

You can also hear me every week as the host of the Macworld Podcast, which is approaching episode 500! (I was the guest on episode #1 way back in the far past, too.)

Interview Advice for Those New to Reporting

My dear friend Swoozy has started out on her writing career, and was preparing to interview someone for a focused piece related to sex education. She asked for my advice, and I wound up writing up a fair amount for someone who wasn't trained in being a journalist, but has good instincts for representing someone else accurately.

I just kept adding to this and structuring it, and thought it was worth sharing, as I couldn't find anything that was quite as focused on how to interview people for a written article (print or online). Most of the advice is a basis for podcasting and in-person interviews, too. I've now published it at Medium, where you can chip in with comments or advice.

You Never Know the Workings of Other People's Relationships (and Why Should You?)

The Ashley Madison data breach is a debacle for a site that advertised itself as a place for people who broke promises. But I've been watching the response from a range of people—those I know well, acquaintances, random folks on Twitter, opinion writers, bloggers, news coverage, etc.—and there's a lot of sniggering and moralizing going on.

You can never know what the inside of a relationship looks like unless you're one of the people involved. Further, it's none of your business, either. If you think otherwise, I'd like to understand why.

In countries in which eras existed or still do in which religious strictures bind people up, then marriage or similar institutions are enforced by the state. Some American states still have adultery laws on the books, although it's extremely likely none would pass a constitutional challenge today, given the privacy rights in the bedroom established by the Supreme Court.

In America, marriage is an institution that may be a sacrament of or endorsed by a religion, but it's also (or some an increasing number, solely) a legal structure for the state, which is often defended as a way to ensure stability, safety, and security for children and clarity about property ownership. This, in a time in which an increasing number of people born in America never get married and have kids or get married and choose to not have children. (Immigration remains an engine of population growth for the U.S., and a vital one when you look at what's happening in Japan.)

So the response to Ashley Madison disturbs me whenever it borders on judgment and prurience. Where public officials, members of the military, or public moralists are involved, one can argue there's a case for examination and exposure. Some could have been blackmailed (hard to do so now that the information is out there in searchable form); some could have privately traded information, money, or favors for sex; and those who decry a decaying morality while participating in acts they condemn and often try to get legislation enacted about have to deal with the consequences of hypocrisy.

That's a very, very small percentage of the many millions of accounts created.

Not everyone using Ashley Madison was married or in committed relationships (or ever did more than window shop). Of those who were, not all were lying to their partners or breaking promises. Polyamory is more widely practiced than a lot of people know or would like to admit: it's the open acceptance and even encouragement of people in romantic relationships to be non-exclusive. It manifests in many forms, like sets of two or multiple people all involved with each other. There's monogamish, which is maybe a subcategory of polyamory or maybe just a less-formal but honest acceptance of sex (but not relationships) outside a partnership. There can be a primary relationship for two people who have other partners, or a lot of more complicated arrangements.

I talked about polyamory with Sarah Mirk, author of Sex from Scratch: Making Your Own Relationship Rules, for an article and podcast at Boing Boing a year ago. In the book, she looks into being poly and many other kinds of relationships people form in a society in which old dogma has been stripped off, and people are trying to be true to themselves and others—hence the "scratch" part.

(I talk a bit in the article and more in the podcast about the particulars of being polyamorous, something I don't keep a secret, but like anything related to personal and sexual identity, it's not something I, you know, put on a business card. It involves a lot of honesty and self-reflection, and it doesn't seem easier or harder than monogamy. There's a lot more scheduling involved.)

But even those who lied: that's a matter for them and their partners, and at the extreme case, anyone else who relied on them to keep that promise. Some religious congregations and other groups do practice a public morality, and if a member privately breaks it, that member agreed to chastisement. That's a very small portion of all people who are part of that commitment, though.

You could argue that someone lying to a partner means they could lie to other people about anything. But romantic relationships are special, from how they change our brains to legal structures surrounding marriage or co-domiciling. If you read some of the many anonymous and some credited stories about people who used Ashley Madison, it goes far beyond "cheaters."

Glenn Greenwald, best known as a national-security reporter who helped Edward Snowden disseminate some of the information he obtained while working at the NSA, has written very kindly and subtly about the topic. In a piece today, he published an email from a woman in a loveless, sexless marriage, whose husband is dying from cancer and despairing. I like what this other Glenn wrote:

As I argued last week, even for the most simplistic, worst-case-scenario, cartoon-villain depictions of the Ashley Madison user — a spouse who selfishly seeks hedonistic pleasure with indifference toward his or her own marital vows and by deceiving the spouse — that’s nobody’s business other than those who are parties to that marriage or, perhaps, their family members and close friends.

I try not to judge anyone in life, except those people who are cruel or amoral, and misuse their power or time to inflict harm on others. I stay away from them if they're merely bad; shine a light on them as much as I am able when they target people.

Nearing 50, I know many people who have had relationships outside a committed relationship in all sorts of combinations, many times betraying their partner. Some people are hedonists, of course, but every person I know, the reason was pain not a pursuit of unbridled lust. There was something they couldn't give to their partner, get from their partner, or say to them—they were sad, empty, and depressed, and a connection with another person (or more than one) helped them get through life. It allowed them often to avoid admitting something to themselves. Some of my absolute dearest friends across my life have been on either side of this (or in some cases, both partners were); I love them, I accept them, I help when asked to be part of them getting to a place where they are happy with themselves.

That's not a knock on their partner or partners: it's not a criticism when someone finds something missing in themselves. When you're lucky, all the people in a relationship recognize when things have gone wrong and admit it on the path to resolving it. The exceptions is perhaps in the remote case in which a partner is torturing the other person emotionally. In which case, that person should leave that relationship if they can, and that's not always possible for financial, geographic, family, or other reasons. (I'm not even getting into physical abuse or intentional emotional abuse, which is a whole other category of not judging the person who is being abused.)

Rather, we are complicated people, and it's unclear whether monogamy is the right answer for most people or not, or at least not all the time or with the same other person forever. Look, the not-really-a-secret secret in America is that most people in relationships either once ever all the way up to daily "cheat"—somewhere from 25 to 75 percent, depending on the study, the gender, how a question is asked, and even the definition of cheating (does it have to be physically in person? does webcam sex count? how about an emotional relationship with no physical contact?).

I make no assumptions about you, the person reading this. Statistically, if you were, are, or ever find yourself in a committed relationship with one or more other people, you might or are very likely to be inside the scope of many people using Ashley Madison. And I would ask you if you forgive yourself or needed to, and whether you would accept the judgement of other were they to find out?

I suspect the Ashley Madison breach reveals the empathy of the person discussing it, as well as their life experience. For me, people's relationships are never my business, and all I know is what they choose to tell me.

It's a Big Book

I've just released The Magazine: The Complete Archives. It's the entire set of nearly 300 articles that were commissioned for The Magazine during its 28-month run, mostly under my editorship, and largely under my ownership. You can get the ebook edition (which comes as a set in EPUB, PDF, and MOBI) for $25. It's 1,800 pages in PDF!

We had a great time making The Magazine, and I didn't want it to disappear without a trace. So I raised funds in a Kickstarter earlier this year to fund production of this complete collection and create a pot of money to seed another publication, Old & New, that's more modest in its ambition.

Old & New will not be an app. It will not rely on Apple's shifting priorities. It will be web based, but also delivered as an ebook (once it builds up steam). It will be presold a year in advance once the audience is there to commit to a year at a time. It will use existing software and infrastructure; I plan to not build a single unique bit of code for it, if I can help it.

I'm trying to build something good, low-key, sustainable, and interesting. It'll be a great next experiment.

That Simpsons Bit Wasn't a Joke

I always thought the bit where Mr. Burns briefly turns off the power plant to spite a strike among his workers was a joke ("Last Exit to Springfield"; script). You know, he and Smithers go through an array of high-security doors, including a facial recognition system that literally recognizes the shape of his face. Then they wind up in the control room, which has a faulty screen door and a dog has wandered in.

"Oh, for God's sake! (slams door shut) Good bye, Springfield. From Hell's heart, I stab at thee!"

"Oh, for God's sake! (slams door shut) Good bye, Springfield. From Hell's heart, I stab at thee!"

This has always been a favorite scene of mine, but in reading John McPhee's 1980 book The Curve of Binding Energy, about a former nuclear-bomb designing genius' concern about the ease of bomb making, I came across this amazing passage (in image) from a report by the Atomic Energy Commission—an agency since dissolved and its function moved elsewhere—about spot inspections of some private outfits handling nuclear fuel:

Now I'm wondering if the writers of this episode, Jay Kogen and Wallace Wolodarsky, read the book?!

The episode also has the great dialog:

Who is it?



Hired Goons.

(opening door) Hired Goons?

The goons grab Homer roughly and take him away.

How Air Conditioning Works

On the occasion three years ago of the 110th anniversary of the recognized invention of the modern form of air conditioning, I wrote this little historical/modern explainer about how heat-exchange and air-conditioning systems work for the Economist. Yes, the terrible title, "It's the Humidity," is all mine.

But I was trying to explain to Rex, age 8, this morning how air conditioning worked. I tried a bunch of explanations and metaphors, but this one stuck.

Imagine you have a pool that's 90°F. There is an endless line of swimmers who have a natural resting temperature of 60°F waiting to jump in. Each time one jumps in, they warm up to the pool temperature, and the pool, by necessity, gives up some of its energy to each swimmer, becoming cooler. The swimmer is then shot out through a chute, the friction of which warms them up even more. They stand in front of fan that cools them back to 60°F. Then they get back in the pool.

This is more or less it. A heat-exchange system has a coolant that has a low boiling point, so it's easy to manipulate it to absorb heat and shift from a liquid to a gas and vice versa, as well as varying pressure in gaseous and liquid states. The idea is that a fan takes in hot air, runs it across coils that absorb the heat, cooling the air, while circulating the heated coolant to an outside radiator or with a fan that helps vent the heat outside.

As with most things related to temperature change, it's a funny thing. Is "cold air" something real or is it reducing the temperature of air in its vicinity?


A New Economy Discovered in My Own House: Derrick Dollars

Derrick dollars in production.

As a business reporter, I’m always looking for unique economic angles in the new economy. Recently, while walking through my house, I encountered a new economy worker producing a form of scrip for an economy I was unaware of, denominated in Derrick dollars. Here’s the interview, published with the subject’s consent.

Glenn: Who makes Derrick dollars?

Rex (age 8): Any valid Derrick dollar worker. You need a membership card to create valid Derrick dollars.

G: What is Derrick’s role in Derrick dollars?

R: First in command. There are commands. The reason people make Derrick dollars for him is to get higher in command. By the time I finish all of these I am absolutely certain he will rank me second in command

G: What do you get for being higher in command?

R: It means if Derrick is not at school, if you are second in command, you are in charge. If you’re lower rank, you’re trying to be higher, because a lot of people have to be out of school for you to be in charge.

G: Is there any limit to the number of Derrick dollars that can be created?

R: No, you’re trying to create as many as possible to go up higher in rank.

G: That would cause inflation. Each dollar would seem to be worth less if you create more of them.

R: Not really.

G: What can you use Derrick dollars for?

R: To buy anything that’s being sold for Derrick dollars.

G: What is being sold for Derrick dollars?

R: Dudeize cards, paper crafts, chompies (they’re those things that can chomp on things).

G: What are Dudeize cards?

R: They’re cards that have Dudeize members names on them, and pictures on them.

G: Who are Dudeize members?

R: Members of the Dudeize soccer team. It is a soccer team at school.

G: So you can create as many Derrick dollars as you want?

R: That’s true, but there is a limit to how many Derrick dollars members can spend from the Derrick dollars members they make. They have to turn all their Derrick dollars in. They get a paycheck from Derrick.

G: Derrick is the central bank?

R: He’s the first in command.

G: Does he ever destroy Derrick dollars?

R: Sometimes he says they are too big or too small. But that doesn’t matter to me, because I just put them in his desk and afterwards he doesn’t notice.

G: People are making Derrick dollars, giving Derrick the Derrick dollars, Derrick chooses how much to pay his workers in Derrick dollars, and the only thing Derrick dollars buy are paper crafts?

R: True, people are making Derrick dollars and giving them to Derrick. But anything that is going to be sold for Derrick dollars — most commonly they are paper crafts — but anything that is being sold for Derrick dollars can be paid for with Derrick dollars.

G: Who is making things for purchase with Derrick dollars?

R: Robert, the Dudeize team, and a lot of other people.

G: So you make Derrick dollars for rank?

R: Second in command gets the highest paycheck. You get the paycheck each day depending on how many you turn it. If you turn in 10 and you’re fourth in command, you get one for your paycheck; if you make 10 and you’re second in command, you get five in your check.

G: Is this a stable system?

R: As I said before, you do need a Derrick dollars membership to produce valid Derrick dollars.

G: How do you get Derrick dollars membership?

R: You just have to sign up on the Derrick dollars sign up sheet.

G: Does he turn anybody down?

R: No, unless they’ve been known to be opposed to Derrick dollars.

G: Why would someone opposed to Derrick dollars sign up?

R: To spy on Derrick.

Over the Air, PVR, with a Rube Goldberg on Top

I can watch live and recorded TV on my Apple TV! It's very simple.

I installed an Ethernet-connected TV tuner from SiliconDust called HDHomeRun. It's plugged into a digital TV antenna on our roof. Then I use Elgato's eyeTV software on a Mac on the network to schedule and record over-the-air (OTA) programming.

That Mac is downstairs; our TV is upstairs. When I want to watch TV, I just:

The bizarre thing is this whole sequence works.

Giant towers broadcast digital signals that we capture a time slice of and convert into another digital format which are stored on a drive and then streamed over a Wi-Fi network to a mobile device that pushes it over Wi-Fi to tiny box that's connected to an HDTV.

It's as easy as 1, 2, 3…4, 5, 6, 7…8, 9, uh, 10, 11.

The Soylents of the Lambs

Durable, long-lived, dehydrated full-meal replacement products have a significant place in the future of human life on this planet as war and global climate change produce huge migrations and displacements. The problem of potable water is hard enough, and will become more challenging as wet regions dry out or become arid for parts of a year. But it's possible to sanitize water for drinking and convert sea water to fresh. It's a technological challenge, but it's not physically impossible, and some parts of it have been solved.

Getting sufficient quantities of food to the right places on the globe at the right time that is pest-resistant, stable, nutritious, and not foul is vastly harder. While there are many variants in the world today, most relief projects and ongoing aid to refugee camps involves food components, like beans, often requiring some preparation, and which may be deficient for a minimal healthy sustenance diet.

What if there were a product that required just potable water and little else, which could be used to feed tens or even hundreds of millions of people in a pinch? That would be palatable, nutritious, lightweight relative to calories for transportation, and non-perishable over long periods?

And what if highly compensated people were dying to eat it? That's Soylent and its ilk.

The Engineer's Food

I have a problem with what I define as an "engineering" mindset, though more precisely it's a mindset found most commonly among engineers—not all engineers engage in this way of thinking, whether they make software, products, or buildings. But I believe a mind that navigates to that sort of work also accepts approximation and reductionism gradually, because it is necessary. One has to break tasks down into solvable pieces to construct a new whole. This is extolled in all fields of engineering.

The trouble comes when reductionism comes without research—when a problem is approached de novo even when there is an enormous amount of information available about outcomes already. Nobody would build an edifice without using formulas that allow calculation of load, but many, many people will build a nursing-staff scheduling system without looking at how the system was previously handled and talking to those who use it. Existing users and and existing systems outside of mathematics and physics are seen as impediments to producing something more efficient than what it replaces.

I wrote about this in regards to Yahoo's new logo two years ago. Marissa Mayer seemingly ignored everything that has been learned about legibility over thousands of years, type design over hundreds of years, and human perception over decades of lab work to create a terrible logo.

Soylent strikes me the same way. Rather than do the tedious work of looking at past meal replacements and supplements, interviewing people in the field, and performing clinical tests, its developer, Rob Rhinehart, studied nutrition textbooks and read the FDA and other web sites, and "compiled a list of thirty-five nutrients required for survival," according to a 2014 New Yorker story. He ordered powders and pills and mixed them up.

He experimented on himself, decided the results were remarkable, crowdfunded turning it into a real product, raised a small fortune, and then went after venture capital. Soylent's brash claim that it could replace food (or at least some meals each day) became a statement of fact.

The New Yorker noted in 2014:

Walter Willett, the chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, said that it would be unwise to miss out on [phytochemicals]. “It’s a little bit presumptuous to think that we actually know everything that goes into an optimally healthy diet,” he told me. You can live without plant chemicals. “But you may not live maximally, and you may not have optimal function. We’re concerned about much more than just surviving.”

Soylent waved this concern off, and many competitors have since entered the market. The stuff is generally in scarce supply.

I've been skeptical and negative on Twitter to the extent that people ask me why I have a beef (or rice starch?) with Soylent or the concept. I don't. In fact, I want Soylent and its category to succeed wildly.

Food security

If they truly crack the code, they have the potential to improve global nutrition—whether it's a child in a refugee camp, a college student who would otherwise eat ramen and experience a form of affluenza malnutrition in the developed world, high-income programmers who are tired of food prep for some or all meals, or elderly with limited palates, digestion, and funds.

These meal replacements could achieve this without the usual problem of moving people up the food chain. Improvements in diets often include eating meat and other foods that have a disproportionate impact on the environment—better calories and more calories often mean a more intensive and worse use of the land to achieve them.

As insect-based proteins and algae-derived nutrients reach a commercial scale and are accepted, the efficiency of food production will increase enormously. Consumers in developed countries with middle-class incomes may reject them. Those who live in constant hunger or with constant food insecurity may embrace something that gives them enough quality calories to have the energy and fortitude to thrive. The developed world pretends that social programs provide enough food to those in want, when that's a patent falsehood we use to let us sleep at night. In developing countries, there's much less fooling about it.

No, my trouble with Soylent isn't its aim, but its journey. I want to see short-term and long-term independent clinical testing of results to validate the hype being generated. A sample size of one (the founder) or a few hundred (loyal adherents) or even thousands of happy customers isn't enough. This is a food experiment, not a food product yet. Rigorous testing and feedback will help shape these efforts into something real and beneficial—and profitable.

Some formulations by other companies are countering the reductionist approach of nutritional components by using real foods. Ambronite seems to be the leading practitioner. But at $9 per day for about 2,000 calories from Soylent, Ambronite's equivalent isn't competitive at $40 (four 500-calorie servings). I expect something closer in the middle in terms of non-reductionist ingredients (with the aforementioned algae and insect proteins as part of it) but at a lower price than Soylent outside developed countries will be a hit.

I don't criticize meal replacements being developed now. I criticize hype that may harm the health of those who buy into it until they're perfected.