My teleconf setup

Several friends have asked about my camera/videoconferencing setup, so some notes on that.

Picture from my desktop camera. Lighting isn’t quite as even as I’d like (and as always in stills, my smile is goofy) but you can see the background blur clearly.

Why?

I’ve joked that for lawyers, a good videoconferencing setup is now like a good suit—sort of pointless but nevertheless can help make a good impression in a field where impressions, for better and for worse, matter.

I picked up the new book “Presenting Virtually” from Duarte and it starts with something that’s pretty basic, but also not always obvious—you can’t control networks, and often don’t control what presentation software you’re using. What you do control is your hardware, so make that the best you can.

Camera

I bought a Canon 77D to take baby pictures and… it was in a closet when the pandemic hit. I use it with a 24mm pancake lens. Canon provides a driver that lets you use the camera as a webcam.

Given the cost, I’m not sure this makes sense for most people to do unless they already have a compatible Canon laying around. But if you do have a supported one it works great!

As an alternative, friends speak very highly of this new Dell camera.

Light

I cheat by having good natural light in my office and then supplementing it, rather than having to blast light all over to make up for the gap. This means my light was cheap; the primary criteria was being able to change the color (from a bright white to yellow-ish) so that things looked right.

The exact model I got is no longer available, but is basically similar to this one.

Pro tip for new-ish home workers: if you have two rooms, one dark and one bright, make your bedroom dark and cramped and your office big and light. The previous residents of our place made the reverse choice and I don’t understand it at all.

Microphone

I have a Blue Yeti mic. I’m not sure I’d recommend it for most people. The audio quality is very good, but positioning it over a desk is finicky. (I use these for both my camera and mic, and they work once you get them set up, but they’re a pain.) In addition, it has a headphone jack—which is fine except it insists on reporting to the operating system that it is live even when it has nothing plugged in, so I frequently have to say “no, bad zoom, use the speakers that are actually speakers”.

If I were doing it over again, I’d get something designed more specifically for the home office use case. A friend swears by their Jabra 510, and this new thing from Logitech looks pretty interesting.

What I’m not doing (at least not yet)

I’m sorely tempted to get a teleprompter, but Stephen has mostly convinced me not to. In my experience, at this time, the bar is pretty low—having a good camera and light really does make things noticeably better for people on the other end, even if your eye contact isn’t perfect while doing a slide deck. So you can get a lot of bang for a lot less effort than Stephen spent. Still, tempting some days :)

Hope this is helpful!

Notes on histories: the European nation-state, the Lakota, and Athens

I have been doing a variety of history reading of late, but have not had time to properly synthesize them. They keep coming up in conversation, though, so I wanted to write down some bullet points I could refer to. I hope they are interesting and/or provocative in a good way to someone.

Resemblance to the history of open source was rarely why I read these books. (In fact at least one was read deliberately to get away from open source thinking.) And yet the parallels — around power, mindshare, “territory”, autonomy, empowerment, innovation—keep coming back to me. I leave conclusions, for the most part, for now, to the reader.

Final disclaimer: in the interest of finally publishing a damn thing (I read Ober years ago!), this post will necessarily condense and butcher thousands of pages of scholarship. Please read with that in mind — errors and oversights are almost certainly mine and not the fault of the original authors.

The Sovereign State and Its Competitors, Hendrik Spruyt

This book attempts to understand how Europe got from feudalism to the modern nation-state. It’s explicitly an argument against a view of history where nation-states were inevitable, instead trying to show that there were other possible paths during the late Middle Ages. (The book is very Euro-centric without acknowledging that, which is a shame since I think the book would be well-complemented by an analysis of how European nation-states interacted in colonial settings with non-nation-states, about which more later.)

The core argument goes something like this:

  • what is feudalism anyway? at some level, it means “no entity has a monopoly on power in a territory”, because feudal lords, the church, tribal-like kinship relationships, etc., all overlap and interact in complicated ways.
  • you get out of feudalism, and into nation-states by:
  • punctuated-equilibrium-style evolution: a major shock to existing system (in Spruyt’s analysis, massive economic growth starting in c. 1000) which creates new power centers (bourgeoisie and new cities), which destabilizes feudalism and …
  • creates a diverse set of post-feudal options: wealthy, powerful city-states in Italy; leagues of cities in Germany; something like the modern nation-state in France. (It is this diversity which Spruyt says a lot of historians ignore, and certainly which American high-school history completely ignores.) But…
  • that situation (with a lot of different, competing options) is unstable even if each individual solution makes sense for that place/time (i.e., “city-states were stable in/good for Italy” and “city-states were not stable in/fit for Europe” can both be very true), so then…
  • competition and conscious self-selection leaves you with modern nation-states on top, for a variety of reasons, including simply that nation states prefer negotiating with other nation-states; i.e., hard for France to make treaties with a loose coalition (league) of cities, so it partners with (and therefore empowers) other units like it.

I would love to see a similar analysis for the history of various corporate forms or industries. I’ve seen it suggested, for example, that the combination of the telegraph and the railroad made multi-jurisdiction limited-liability corporations the dominant form in the US, but there was nearly simultaneously a huge explosion in experimentation around cooperatives—should we complicate the “telegraphs → big companies” narrative in the same way Spruyt is attempting to complicate it here for the transition from feudal society to nation-states?

The mapping to open source is probably pretty obvious: internet-enabled development (and then internet-enabled distribution) delivered a shock to the existing software business ecosystem; for a time we had a flourishing of institutional/organizational forms. There is certainly a narrative (perhaps correct? perhaps not?) that we are settling into a new equilibrium with a smaller number of forms. What might this history tell us about where we’re going (and what questions we should ask about the narrative of where we’re going?)

Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, Pekka Hämäläinen

US history books rarely show Native American tribes as entities with agency—the world acts on them, but not vice-versa. This book aims to be an antidote to that, showing over a course of roughly 200 years how the Lakota acted, learned, and changed in response to the world around them (including, but definitely not limited to, the US).

I definitely did not read this with the intent of “oh, this will make me think about open source”; I figured it was about as far away as I could get, and yet as I read I couldn’t help but think about parallels.

I think it’s important to be clear: by drawing parallels here I definitely don’t want to suggest that changes in open source are in any way morally/ethically comparable to genocide; if (free?)/open source culture vanished altogether tomorrow that would be a genuine tragedy, but an extremely minor tragedy compared to the very deliberate genocide that occurred occurred in North America.

But it’s hard not to see parallels in the gradual encirclement and disruption of one culture by another very different culture. Some other thoughts:

  • In one of the many ways in which the book thoughtfully gives the Lakota agency, the author writes of that “[t]hey had welcomed America’s merchandize but not its paternal embrace; they had accepted the Americans as traders and potential allies, but not as their sovereigns. They had, in other words, refused to be ‘discovered’ by [Lewis and Clark]”.
  • Just like in Spruyt’s Sovereign State, much is made of the simply different notions of “territory” between the nation-state and its competitors; in this case, between the Lakota whose governing style the book describes as “ranging widely but ruling lightly… a malleable, forever transmuting regime”, with little attention to borders or even ultimately to control, and the Americans who “were content with a cartographic proof of.. sovereignty”, needing (and imputing power to) lines on a map.
  • Technology is a small but significant undercurrent in the book: first guns, then horses, then ultimately the railroad. The first of these two were enthusiastically adopted by the Lakota, and indeed powered much of their imperial expansion in the 1800s. But they could not adopt the railroad in the same way. Nor was writing, though he does say that “[a] key element of Lakotas’ diplomatic prowess was the fact that they had so many literate allies who interpreted and explained [American] documents for them.”
  • “Contemporary Americans saw the Powder River country as an Indigenous retreat, an insular world intentionally cut off from the rapidly expanding American empire of cities, railroads, settlers, farms, ranches, and capitalism—a perception that has dominated outsider views of the Lakotas ever since. In reality, the Powder River country under the Lakota rule was a safe and dynamic cosmopolitan world of its own where transnational commercial circuits converged, where Indians enjoyed many comforts and advantages of the industrial age, and where new ideas about being in the world were constantly debated. Lakotas knew full well that they lived in a transitional period of innovation, quickening change, and questioning of old conventions. But contrary to the tired old stereotype of obstinate, tradition-bound Indians, they embraced this radical regeneration of their world.”

Additional selected Kindle highlights from my read are here.

Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens, Josiah Ober

Ober is a data-driven classicist, focused on Athens and how it fit into the broader milieu of classical Greece. In my distant recollection, this book (or perhaps often just my takeaway from it) argues that:

  • Since you have literally a thousand Greek city states, you’re running a real experiment you can draw real conclusions from. And Athens, in a real material sense (backed by a variety of interesting data sets) “won” this experiment. (This has some parallels to Spruyt, arguing that in essence there was a flourishing of alternatives and then a winnowing.)
  • This greatness was in large part predicated on Athen’s ability as a democracy (relative to its neighbors, at any rate) to create and synthesize effective knowledge. In other words, it was better at being a government specifically because it was a democracy, using “local”/small-group/individual knowledge to make itself more effective.
  • Athens then ultimately failed (after nearly 200 years) in part because neighboring oligarchic governments took its good ideas, and re-implemented them. (This issue is also explored in Ober’s Rise and Fall of Classical Greece.)

I do wish I still had my original notes from reading this a decade or so ago; both it and Rise and Fall are deep and rich books that stirred my political theory bones in a great way.

Governing Values-Centered Tech Non-Profits; or, The Route Not Taken by FSF

A few weeks ago, I interviewed my friend Katherine Maher on leading a non-profit under some of the biggest challenges an org can face: accusations of assault by leadership, and a growing gap between mission and reality on the ground.

We did the interview at the Free Software Foundation’s Libre Planet conference. We chose that forum because I was hopeful that the FSF’s staff, board, and membership might want to learn about how other orgs had risen to challenges like those faced by FSF after Richard Stallman’s departure in 2019. I, like many others in this space, have a soft spot for the FSF and want it to succeed. And the fact my talk was accepted gave me further hope.

Unfortunately, the next day it was announced at the same conference that Stallman would rejoin the FSF board. This made clear that the existing board tolerated Stallman’s terrible behavior towards others, and endorsed his failed leadership—a classic case of non-profit founder syndrome.

While the board’s action made the talk less timely, much of the talk is still, hopefully, relevant to any value-centered tech non-profit that is grappling with executive misbehavior and/or simply keeping up with a changing tech world. As a result, I’ve decided to present here some excerpts from our interview. They have been lightly edited, emphasized, and contextualized. The full transcript is here.

Sunlight Foundation: harassment, culture, and leadership

In the first part of our conversation, we spoke about Katherine’s tenure on the board of the Sunlight Foundation. Shortly after she joined, Huffington Post reported on bullying, harassment, and rape accusations against a key member of Sunlight’s leadership team.

[I had] worked for a long time with the Sunlight Foundation and very much valued what they’d given to the transparency and open data open government world. I … ended up on a board that was meant to help the organization reinvent what its future would be.

I think I was on the board for probably no more than three months, when an article landed in the Huffington Post that went back 10 years looking at … a culture of exclusion and harassment, but also … credible [accusations] of sexual assault.

And so as a board … we realized very quickly that there was no possible path forward without really looking at our past, where we had come from, what that had done in terms of the culture of the institution, but also the culture of the broader open government space.

Katherine

Practical impacts of harassment

Sunlight’s board saw immediately that an org cannot effectively grapple with a global, ethical technological future if the org’s leadership cannot grapple with its own culture of harassment. Some of the pragmatic reasons for this included:

The [Huffington Post] article detailed a culture of heavy drinking and harassment, intimidation.

What does that mean for an organization that is attempting to do work in sort of a progressive space of open government and transparency? How do you square those values from an institutional mission standpoint? That’s one [pragmatic] question.

Another question is, as an organization that’s trying to hire, what does this mean for your employer brand? How can you even be an organization that’s competitive [for hiring] if you’ve got this culture out there on the books?

And then the third pragmatic question is … [w]hat does this mean for like our funding, our funders, and the relationships that we have with other partner institutions who may want to use the tools?

Katherine

FSF suffers from similar pragmatic problems—problems that absolutely can’t be separated from the founder’s inability to treat all people as full human beings worthy of his respect. (Both of the tweets below lead to detailed threads from former FSF employees.)

Since the announcement of Stallman’s return, all top leadership of the organization have resigned, and former employees have detailed how the FSF staff has (for over a decade) had to deal with Richard’s unpleasant behavior, leading to morale problems, turnover, and even unionization explicitly to deal with RMS.

And as for funding, compare the 2018 sponsor list with the current, much shorter sponsor list.

So it seems undeniable: building a horrible culture has pragmatic impacts on an org’s ability to espouse its values.

Values and harassment

Of course, a values-centered organization should be willing to anger sponsors if it is important for their values. But at Sunlight, it was also clear that dealing with the culture of harassment was relevant to their values, and the new board had to ask hard questions about that:

The values questions, which … are just as important, were… what does this mean to be an organization that focuses on transparency in an environment in which we’ve not been transparent about our past?

What does it mean to be an institution that [has] progressive values in the sense of inclusion, a recognition that participation is critically important? … Is everyone able to participate? How can we square that with the institution that are meant to be?

And what do we do to think about justice and redress for (primarily the women) who are subjected to this culture[?]

Katherine

Unlike Sunlight, FSF is not about transparency, per se, but RMS at his best has always been very strong about how freedom had to be for everyone. FSF is an inherently political project! One can’t advocate for the rights of everyone if, simultaneously, one treats staff disposably and women as objects to be licked without their consent, and half the population (women) responds by actively avoiding the leadership of the “movement”.

So, in this situation, what is a board to do? In Sunlight’s case:

[Myself and fellow board member Zoe Reiter] decided that this was a no brainer, we had to do an external investigation.

The challenges of doing this… were pretty tough. [W]e reached out to everyone who’d been involved with the organization we also put not just as employees but also trying to find people who’ve been involved in transparency camps and other sorts of initiatives that Sunlight had had run.

We put out calls for participation on our blog; we hired a third party legal firm to do investigation and interviews with people who had been affected.

We were very open in the way that we thought about who should be included in that—not just employees, but anyone who had something that they wanted to raise. That produced a report that we then published to the general public, really trying to account for some of the things that have been found.

Katherine

The report Katherine mentions is available in two parts (results, recommendations) and is quite short (nine pages total).

While most of the report is quite specific to the Sunlight Foundation’s specific situation, the FSF board should particularly have read page 3 of the recommendations: “Instituting Board Governance Best Practices”. Among other recommendations relevant to many tech non-profits (not just FSF!), the report says Sunlight should “institute term limits” and “commit to a concerted effort to recruit new members to grow the Board and its capacity”.

Who can investigate a culture? When?

Katherine noted that self-scrutiny is not just something for large orgs:

[W]hen we published this report, part of what we were hoping for was that … we wanted other organizations to be able to approach this in similar challenges with a little bit of a blueprint for how one might do it. Particularly small orgs.

There were four of us on the board. Sunlight is a small organization—15 people. The idea that an even smaller organizations don’t have the resources to do it was something that we wanted to stand against and say, actually, this is something that every and all organizations should be able to take on regardless of the resources available to them.

Katherine

It’s also important to note that the need for critical self scrutiny is not something that “expires” if not undertaken immediately—communities are larger, and longer-lived, than the relevant staff or boards, so even if the moment seems to be in the relatively distant past, an investigation can still be valuable for rebuilding organizational trust and effectiveness.

[D]espite the fact that this was 10 years ago, and none of us were on the board at this particular time, there is an accounting that we owe to the people who are part of this community, to the people who are our stakeholders in this work, to the people who use our tools, to the people who advocated, who donated, who went on to have careers who were shaped by this experience.

And I don’t just mean, folks who were in the space still—I mean, folks who were driven out of the space because of the experiences they had. There was an accountability that we owed. And I think it is important that we grappled with that, even if it was sort of an imperfect outcome.

Katherine

Winding down Sunlight

As part of the conclusion of the report on culture and harassment, it was recommended that the Sunlight board “chart a new course forward” by developing a “comprehensive strategic plan”. As part of that effort, the board eventually decided to shut the organization down—not because of harassment, but because in many ways the organization had been so successful that it had outlived its purpose.

In Katherine’s words:

[T]he lesson isn’t that we shut down because there was a sexual assault allegation, and we investigated it. Absolutely not!

The lesson is that we shut down because as we went through this process of interrogating where we were, as an organization, and the culture that was part of the organization, there was a question of what would be required for us to shift the organization into a more inclusive space? And the answer is a lot of that work had already been done by the staff that were there…

But the other piece of it was, does it work? Does the world need a Sunlight right now? And the answer, I think, in in large part was not to do the same things that Sunlight had been doing. …

The organization spawned an entire community of practitioners that have gone on to do really great work in other spaces. And we felt as though that sort of national-level governmental transparency through tech wasn’t necessarily needed in the same way as it had been 15 years prior. And that’s okay, that’s a good thing.

Katherine

We were careful to say at Libre Planet that I don’t think FSF needs to shut down because of RMS’s terrible behavior. But the reaction of many, many people to “RMS is back on the FSF board” is “who cares, FSF has been irrelevant for decades”.

That should be of great concern to the board. As I sometimes put it—free licenses have taken over the world, and despite that the overwhelming consensus is that open won and (as RMS himself would say) free lost. This undeniable fact reflects very badly on the organization whose nominal job it is to promote freedom. So it’s absolutely the case that shutting down FSF, and finding homes for its most important projects in organizations that do not suffer from deep governance issues, should be an option the current board and membership consider.

Which brings us to the second, more optimistic topic: how did Wikimedia react to a changing world? It wasn’t by shutting down! Instead, it was by building on what was already successful to make sure they were meeting their values—an option that is also still very much available to FSF.

Wikimedia: rethinking mission in a changing world

Wikimedia’s vision is simple: “A world in which every single human can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.” And yet, in Katherine’s telling, it was obvious that there was still a gap between the vision, the state of the world, and how the movement was executing.

We turned 15 in 2016 … and I was struck by the fact that when I joined the Wikimedia Foundation, in 2014, we had been building from a point of our founding, but we were not building toward something.

So we were building away from a established sort of identity … a free encyclopedia that anyone can edit; a grounding in what it means to be a part of open culture and free and libre software culture; an understanding that … But I didn’t know where we were going.

We had gotten really good at building an encyclopedia—imperfect! there’s much more to do!—but we knew that we were building an encyclopedia, and yet … to what end?

Because “a free world in which every single human being can share in the sum of all knowledge”—there’s a lot more than an encyclopedia there. And there’s all sorts of questions:

About what does “share” mean?

And what does the distribution of knowledge mean?

And what does “all knowledge” mean?

And who are all these people—“every single human being”? Because we’ve got like a billion and a half devices visiting our sites every month. But even if we’re generous, and say, that’s a billion people, that is not the entirety of the world’s population.

Katherine

As we discussed during parts of the talk not excerpted here, usage by a billion people is not failure! And yet, it is not “every single human being”, and so WMF’s leadership decided to think strategically about that gap.

FSF’s leadership could be doing something similar—celebrating that GPL is one of the most widely-used legal documents in human history, while grappling with the reality that the preamble to the GPL is widely unheeded; celebrating that essentially every human with an internet connection interacts with GPL-licensed software (Linux) every day, while wrestling deeply with the fact that they’re not free in the way the organization hopes.

Some of the blame for that does in fact lie with capitalism and particular capitalists, but the leadership of the FSF must also reflect on their role in those failures if the organization is to effectively advance their mission in the 2020s and beyond.

Self-awareness for a successful, but incomplete, movement

With these big questions in mind, WMF embarked on a large project to create a roadmap, called the 2030 Strategy. (We talked extensively about “why 2030”, which I thought was interesting, but won’t quote here.)

WMF could have talked only to existing Wikimedians about this, but instead (consistent with their values) went more broadly, working along four different tracks. Katherine talked about the tracks in this part of our conversation:

We ran one that was a research track that was looking at where babies are born—demographics I mentioned earlier [e.g., expected massive population growth in Africa—omitted from this blog post but talked about in the full transcript.]

[Another] was who are our most experienced contributors, and what did they have to say about our projects? What do they know? What’s the historic understanding of our intention, our values, the core of who we are, what is it that motivates people to join this project, what makes our culture essential and important in the world?

Then, who are the people who are our external stakeholders, who maybe are not contributors in the sense of contributors to the code or contributors to the projects of content, but are the folks in the broader open tech world? Who are folks in the broad open culture world? Who are people who are in the education space? You know, stakeholders like that? “What’s the future of free knowledge” is what we basically asked them.

And then we went to folks that we had never met before. And we said, “Why don’t you use Wikipedia? What do you think of it? Why would it be valuable to you? Oh, you’ve never even heard of it. That’s so interesting. Tell us more about what you think of when you think of knowledge.” And we spent a lot of time thinking about what these… new readers need out of a project like Wikipedia. If you have no sort of structural construct for an encyclopedia, maybe there’s something entirely different that you need out of a project for free knowledge that has nothing to do with a reference—an archaic reference—to bound books on a bookshelf.

Katherine

This approach, which focused not just on the existing community but on data, partners, and non-participants, has been extensively documented at 2030.wikimedia.org, and can serve as a model for any organization seeking to re-orient itself during a period of change—even if you don’t have the same resources as Wikimedia does.

Unfortunately, this is almost exactly the opposite of the approach FSF has taken. FSF has become almost infamously insulated from the broader tech community, in large part because of RMS’s terrible behavior towards others. (The list of conference organizers who regret allowing him to attend their events is very long.) Nevertheless, given its important role in the overall movement’s history, I suspect that good faith efforts to do this sort of multi-faceted outreach and research could work—if done after RMS is genuinely at arms-length.

Updating values, while staying true to the original mission

The Wikimedia strategy process led to a vision that extended and updated, rather than radically changed, Wikimedia’s strategic direction:

By 2030, Wikimedia will become the essential infrastructure of the ecosystem of free knowledge, and anyone who shares our vision will be able to join us.

Wikipedia

In particular, the focus was around two pillars, which were explicitly additive to the traditional “encyclopedic” activities:

Knowledge equity, which is really around thinking about who’s been excluded and how we bring them in, and what are the structural barriers that enable that exclusion or created that exclusion, rather than just saying “we’re open and everyone can join us”. And how do we break down those barriers?

And knowledge as a service, which is without thinking about, yes, the technical components of what a service oriented architecture is, but how do we make knowledge useful beyond just being a website?

Katherine

I specifically asked Katherine about how Wikimedia was adding to the original vision and mission because I think it’s important to understand that a healthy community can build on its past successes without obliterating or ignoring what has come before. Many in the GNU and FSF communities seem to worry that moving past RMS somehow means abandoning software freedom, which should not be the case. If anything, this should be an opportunity to re-commit to software freedom—in a way that is relevant and actionable given the state of the software industry in 2021.

A healthy community should be able to handle that discussion! And if the GNU and FSF communities cannot, it’s important for the FSF board to investigate why that is the case.

Checklists for values-centered tech boards

Finally, at two points in the conversation, we went into what questions an organization might ask itself that I think are deeply pertinent for not just the FSF but virtually any non-profit, tech or otherwise. I loved this part of the discussion because one could almost split it out into a checklist that any board member could use.

The first set of questions came in response to a question I asked about Wikidata, which did not exist 10 years ago but is now central to the strategic vision of knowledge infrastructure. I asked if Wikidata had been almost been “forced on” the movement by changes in the outside world, to which Katherine said:

Wikipedia … is a constant work in progress. And so our mission should be a constant work in progress too.

How do we align against a north star of our values—of what change we’re trying to effect in the world—while adapting our tactics, our structures, our governance, to the changing realities of the world?

And also continuously auditing ourselves to say, when we started, who, you know, was this serving a certain cohort? Does the model of serving that cohort still help us advance our vision today?

Do we need to structurally change ourselves in order to think about what comes next for our future? That’s an incredibly important thing, and also saying, maybe that thing that we started out doing, maybe there’s innovation out there in the world, maybe there are new opportunities that we can embrace, that will enable us to expand the impact that we have on the world, while also being able to stay true to our mission and ourselves.

Katherine

And to close the conversation, I asked how one aligns the pragmatic and organizational values as a non-profit. Katherine responded that governance was central, with again a great set of questions all board members should ask themselves:

[Y]ou have to ask yourself, like, where does power sit on your board? Do you have a regenerative board that turns over so that you don’t have the same people there for decades?

Do you ensure that funders don’t have outsize weight on your board? I really dislike the practice of having funders on the board, I think it can be incredibly harmful, because it tends to perpetuate funder incentives, rather than, you know, mission incentives.

Do you think thoughtfully about the balance of power within those boards? And are there … clear bylaws and practices that enable healthy transitions, both in terms of sustaining institutional knowledge—so you want people who are around for a certain period of time, balanced against fresh perspective.

[W]hat are the structural safeguards you put in place to ensure that your board is both representative of your core community, but also the communities you seek to serve?

And then how do you interrogate on I think, a three year cycle? … So every three years we … are meant to go through a process of saying “what have we done in the past three, does this align?” and then on an annual basis, saying “how did we do against that three year plan?” So if I know in 15 years, we’re meant to be the essential infrastructure free knowledge, well what do we need to clean up in our house today to make sure we can actually get there?

And some of that stuff can be really basic. Like, do you have a functioning HR system? Do you have employee handbooks that protect your people? … Do you have a way of auditing your performance with your core audience or core stakeholders so that you know that the work of your institution is actually serving the mission?

And when you do that on an annual basis, you’re checking in with yourself on a three year basis, you’re saying this is like the next set of priorities. And it’s always in relation to that that higher vision. So I think every nonprofit can do that. Every size. Every scale.

Katherine

The hard path ahead

The values that the FSF espouses are important and world-changing. And with the success of the GPL in the late 1990s, the FSF had a window of opportunity to become an ACLU of the internet, defending human rights in all their forms. Instead, under Stallman’s leadership, the organization has become estranged and isolated from the rest of the (flourishing!) digital liberties movement, and even from the rest of the software movement it was critical in creating.

This is not the way it had to be, nor the way it must be in the future. I hope our talk, and the resources I link to here, can help FSF and other value-centered tech non-profits grow and succeed in a world that badly needs them.

Surviving 2020 on Twitter

I’m a political junkie, perhaps in some ways more now than ever. And yet, I’m posting very little about the 2020 election on Twitter. An old friend with similar political compulsions asked how I’m doing it. The answer is ironically too long for Twitter, so here goes.

Reduced my Twitter political inputs

Step 1 was to simply reduce the amount of political stuff that I see when I go to Twitter. I see all kinds of other wonderful stuff instead! What I did:

  • Unsubscribe from all ‘news’ feeds on twitter—@nytimes, @cnn, etc. I use other mechanisms (email, actually visiting a website) to get them daily at most. More generally, I aggressively turn off all news notifications on my phone. If the missiles launch and I need to hug my loved ones, someone will text me.
  • Unsubscribe from people I don’t know personally. For me, that’s basically all celebrites (except Lin-Manuel) but if that sounds too aggressive, you can Marie Kondo your follows with the help of the Tokimeki Unfollow tool. Two (small) exceptions for me:
    • Have they taught me something I didn’t know, because they’re giving me diverse perspectives not in my personal network? That can be troubling/non-joyful, but still valuable.
    • Have they given me opportunities for real-world action that you can’t get in some other way? For me, this is primarily local organizations — several San Francisco bike, transit, and YIMBY activists. (I find this to almost never be the case from national media, because the opportunities for practical action are too limited.)
  • Turn off pure retweets with the Turn Off Retweets tool. In my experience, pure retweets are highly likely to be more angry/emotional, and less informative. Yes, there was some FOMO here. I got over it very quickly. If it is important, I see it eventually.
  • Mute (aka filter) political words aggressively. Here are Twitter’s instructions. My word list: all the primary candidate’s names; Trump; President; debate. I’m sure I’ll add more.

(optional) Replace with better news sources

I still feel the need for a lot of politics news. I subscribe to them via non-Twitter mechanisms. This is local as much as possible, or in some cases national news for very specific needs. For example, I still very much feel the need to understand global warming, so that I can target my giving in that space, so I read heated.world and the Washington Post’s Energy 202.

I use Feedbin to subscribe to newsletters (and yes, some RSS feeds still) so that they stay out of my email inbox. (Most of the same ‘aggressively unsubscribe’ applies to my email inbox too…)

(hard, but helpful) come to terms with the world as it is, and act in that framework

At some point in the past few years, I accepted that I’m going to have a baseline level of anger about the state of the world, and that I have to focus on what I can change and let go of what I can’t. (Twitter anger is the latter.) So what can I change? Where is my anger productive?

I’ve found that doing things offline—for me, mostly giving money—really helps. In particular, giving to causes that seek systemic (usually, that means political/government) change like 350.org and local activist groups, and giving a lot, and regularly. This, frankly, makes it a lot easier for me to ignore anger online — each new tweet is not likely to make me be more angry, or give more, because I’m already basically giving what I can. Being confident about that really reduced my FOMO when I started filtering aggressively.

I hear from non-parents/non-startup-founders that physical-world activism (door-knocking, phone banking, local gov meeting-attending, etc.) can be great in this way too but sadly I can’t confirm :(

(I also want to acknowledge that, in the current state of the world, ‘letting go’ gets harder the less privilege you have. I have no great response to that, except to say that I empathize and am trying to fight for you where and how I can.)

Improving my outputs

Having done all that, here’s how I try to improve the Twitter environment for others:

  • If I must RT or otherwise share politics news, I only quote tweet. I try to add useful context. What can I add that others can’t? If I can’t add something, if I’m just amplifying anger, I try to shut up instead.
  • If I must be angry, I’ve tried to follow a rule that I only express that offline if I am also telling other people who are angry how to constructively address the problem. I don’t just say “I’m so mad about global warming”, say “I’m mad about global warming, here’s what I’m doing to help fix it, you can too“. If I don’t have a ‘here’s what I’m doing’ to add to it … I go back to ‘figure out what I can do’.

This isn’t perfect

Twitter has made me a literally better person, because it has exposed me to viewpoints I don’t have in my daily life that have made me more empathetic to others. It has changed my politics, making me vastly more open to systemic critiques of US center-left politics. So I’m reluctant to say ‘use it less, particularly for politics’. But I feel like it’s the only way to stay sane in 2020.

Complying with Creative Commons license attribution requirements in slides and powerpoint

When I was at Mozilla and WMF, I frequently got asked how to give proper credit when using Creative Commons-licensed images in slideshows. I got the question again last week, and am working on slides right now, so here’s a quick guide.

The basics

First, a quick refresher. To comply with Creative Commons (CC) attribution requirements, you need to provide four things in a “reasonable” manner:

  1. the title of the work (if there is one);
  2. the author (might be an internet username);
  3. the source (where you got it); and
  4. the license (including version).

CC helpfully condenses those to “TASL“. An example:

“Larry Lessig giving #ccsummit2011 keynote” by David Kindler is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Creating this information has traditionally been a pain, but this one were generated with one click by the great new “copy credit as text” button in the CC search beta!

Once you’ve created an appropriate credit line, the question, then, is what is a “reasonable” way to put it into a slide deck? There are a few options.

The maximalist option

An obvious option is to put the credit information on every slide, like the lower right hand corner here:

From “‘Program and Engagement Coordination’ – A reflective process management to take movement conferences to the next level“, by Cornelius Kibelka, under CC BY 4.0.

This has some benefits:

  • Clearly complies with the license.
  • Regularly reminds the audience that the images are available and reusable.
  • If you reorganize the slides, the credit stays with the image.

Things that aren’t so great:

  • Distracts from your message.
  • Very difficult to read, so not very useful to the audience, or motivating for the author.

What Lessig does

To keep the focus on his content, Creative Commons founder Lessig puts all his attributions on a single slide at the end of each talk. (This is consistent with his famous “Lessig method” — large, bold images and very few words.) You can see an example just before the end of a talk he gave in 2013. Note that Lessig does not give an oral explanation of what is on the slide, or mention of the license, since they are shown during applause.

My own slides do something similar:

I give more detail by providing links, and note that all images are specifically CC BY-SA 3.0 unless otherwise noted.

So what’s good/bad about this approach? Good:

  • Doesn’t distract from your message as a speaker (which is the reason you’re speaking, after all!)
  • Complies with the license, since it is “reasonable” for the slide medium.

Bad:

  • Doesn’t give the authors much recognition.
  • Only weakly informs the audience that that the images are available and reusable (since it is at the end and nearly unreadable).
  • If you reorder your slides, or copy and paste into a different deck, you also have to remember to reorder/reuse your attribution slide.

Improving recognition and utility

Given those drawbacks, here are two things you can consider doing to improve on Lessig’s approach.

Fix utility with a clear link to downloadable information

Consider adding a slide at the end, before the full attribution slide, that provides a download link and mentions the license — something like “download slides, and get links and licenses for images, at lu.is/talks“. If you leave that slide up during Q&A, and the URL is short and memorable, the audience can easily find the licensing information later when it is useful to them.

Recognize authors with a thank-you slide

The small type and quick flash of a long attribution slide may be legally compliant, but it does not help give authors the recognition they often want. So consider adding a “thank you” slide with just the names of authors, and a prominent CC logo, without any titles and licensing information. It will make the authors happy, especially if any of them are in the audience!

Public licenses and data: So what to do instead?

I just explained why open and copyleft licensing, which work fairly well in the software context, might not be legally workable, or practically a good idea, around data. So what to do instead? tl;dr: say no to licenses, say yes to norms.

Day 43-Sharing” by A. David Holloway, under CC BY 2.0.

Continue reading “Public licenses and data: So what to do instead?”

Copyleft, attribution, and data: other considerations

Public licenses for databases don’t work well. Before going into solutions to that problem, though, I wanted to talk briefly about some things that are important to consider when thinking about solutions: real-world examples of the problems; a common, but bad, solution; and a discussion of the motivations behind public licenses.

Bullfrog map unavailable“, by Peter Desmets, under CC BY 3.0 unported

Continue reading “Copyleft, attribution, and data: other considerations”

Copyleft and data: databases as poor subject

tl;dr: Open licensing works when you strike a healthy balance between obligations and reuse. Data, and how it is used, is different from software in ways that change that balance, making reasonable compromises in software (like attribution) suddenly become insanely difficult barriers.
Continue reading “Copyleft and data: databases as poor subject”

Copyleft and data: database law as (poor) platform

tl;dr: Databases are a very poor fit for any licensing scheme, like copyleft, that (1) is intended to encourage use by the entire world but also (2) wants to place requirements on that use. This is because of broken legal systems and the way data is used. Projects considering copyleft, or even mere attribution, for data, should consider other approaches instead.

Continue reading “Copyleft and data: database law as (poor) platform”