My Opinion

On Faith In Humanity

“How do we know they are not terrorists?” the woman at the gym asked. We were discussing an acquaintance wanting to open her basement suite to a family of Syrian refugees. “We know they are not,” I answered as a man sitting nearby shook his head. “They are not terrorists; they are running away from terror,” I clarified. “People are not terrorists.”

I wonder how she feels today. I wonder if, come Monday when I meet her again, she will walk up to me and say “See? We can’t know if they are terrorists. Look what happened in Paris!” Or she might sit there making small talk while thinking the same thoughts: “We can’t trust them. They might be terrorists.”

Here’s the thing: We can’t know whether someone who comes to our country is a terrorist or not, just like we can’t know if our neighbor who has lived in the same house all their life, is a terrorist. It is quite possible that among the millions of men, women, and children fleeing from war, terror, and oppression in Syria and Iraq, there are terrorists. It is equally possible that among those same desperate people, we will find the person who cures breast cancer, invents the next iPhone, or finds a solution to the pervasive conflicts in the Middle East. And while it is possible that among these millions of refugees, there may be a few with bad intentions, we cannot turn them all away. Modern society is built on tolerance. It is what we teach our children. We don’t judge an entire group based on the actions of a few individuals.

How do we know they are not terrorists, whomever “they” are in our minds? We take it on statistics and on faith in human decency. For every terrorist, there are millions of people who abhor terror and want nothing more than for terror to disappear from their lives. And every person we welcome into our lives and treat like a human being is a person that will stand up to terror and let compassion and love for all humans lead the way.

To the woman at the gym I want to say this: “Rather than ask yourself how you know they are not terrorists, ask yourself how you know they are not the people who will stop the terrorists.”

Photo: Heart shaped lock on Pont des Arts in Paris by the author. Original on Flickr.

My Opinion

One of Us: The Book You Need To Read

One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in NorwayNever before have I had such a visceral sensation of my faith in humanity draining from my body as it did about three quarters of the way through Åsne Seierstad’s One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway. The previous day I watched my better half deep in our couch, her face covered in tears, forcing herself through the same section of the book that more than any other has changed me. In a section of the book covering over 100 pages, Seierstad recounts minute-by-minute in gruesome detail, the worst act of terrorism enacted on Norwegian soil since World War II. This attack left 77 people dead, most of them youth shot point-blank by a white right-wing terrorist. The story, of a confused man on a mission of terror, of young people cut down with bullets for believing in a fair and just world, and of a thousand things going wrong at the same time with the worst possible outcome, is equal parts terrifying and enraging. And out of the fear, anger, and sadness caused by reading it is a powerful sense of purpose in community: We must never let this happen again.

More than a document of terror, One of Us is a reflection of us: the society we’ve built, how we see and treat our fellow human beings, and how hatred and alienation, left unchecked, can lead people to do unspeakable things. One of Us is the story nobody wants to hear that everyone needs to be told.

Terror, by any other name…

In the years since that fateful day in 2011, I’ve resigned to the reality that outside Norway and Europe, these terror attacks and its perpetrator will be forever referred to as the “Oslo bombing” and “Utøya shootings,” perpetrated by a “mass shooter” or “lone gunman.” The terrorist ABB (whose name I will not dignify by using) does not fit the current understanding of the word “terrorist,” at least not in the eyes of North Americans. He is an “ethnic Norwegian” with blue eyes, blonde hair, and pink skin. A christian with right-wing conservative political views, he was the very essence of all that is considered “not a terrorist.” Except he built a bomb, blew up the government quarters, and shot 100 people, most of them several times, at close range, while dressed as a police officer, to start a war and protect Europe from a “Muslim invasion”. Had he been of any other ethnicity, any other faith, or hailed from any other nationality, “terrorist” would be the first word out of everyone’s mouth.

And it was, on the 22nd of July, 2011 when news first broke. I was at home in Vancouver, Canada, about to go to the gym, when my phone started pinging with updates from Norway about an explosion. Several of my friends worked in the government quarter and I spent the next hour trying to get a hold of them when Tweets started appearing from Utøya about shots being fired. At that time, all the major news networks were speculating about Al Quaeda’s involvement, but when it became clear that people were being killed on Utøya, it was equally clear that this was not Al Quaeda.

I spent the following hours on Twitter explaining to anyone who would listen that this must be a right-wing extremist group – that Utøya is a sanctuary for the Norwegian Labor Party’s youth movement. I was shouted down by countless Tweets who were later deleted, told I “knew nothing” about Norway, that terrorism is always perpetrated by Muslims, that this was “inevitable” and “fitting” because of Norway’s “naive” attitude toward Palestine and the Muslim world. When news broke hours later that the perpetrator was indeed a white ethnic Norwegian, the word used in the media changed from “terrorist” to “lone gunman” and everyone began grasping at familiar straws, about mental illness, coercion, sudden psychosis. The cognitive dissonance of being confronted with one of “us” being a terrorist was simply too strong. Meanwhile, in Norway the perpetrator was charged with terrorism and eventually convicted.

The Story of Us

When I finished the book I turned to Angela and said “I’m not sure it was a good idea to read this. I kind of regret it.” She had finished a few days earlier and responded “I think it’s made me a better person.” A few days later, I knew what she was talking about.

Coming out of the haze left by the intensity and brutal reality of what I had read, I felt my thoughts realigning. In a subtle way, it had guided my confused and frustrated thoughts about this event into a clearer understanding of not only what happened, but why, and to whom.

You see, One of Us is not only a book about the terrorist and his actions. It’s a book about the people he attacked, about the lives of those he affected, about the society he grew up in, about multiculturalism, hope, fear, loneliness, togetherness, love, and hate. Seierstad has done meticulous work piecing together the story of ABB from birth, through his radicalization, the attacks, the trial, and his current existence as a prisoner of the state with no hope of freedom. But she spends just as much time telling the stories of some of his victims, their rise through the political youth organization, their hopes and dreams, their tumultuous journey through the teenage years, and in one case, the all too common experience of being a refugee trying to fit in with a new culture.

Reading their stories, you become close to the people. They cease being abstractions tied to headlines from a country far away, turning instead into human beings. It is said we should not speak of the people who commit heinous acts of violence and terrorism but instead of their victims. Seierstad rides this line masterfully, and does so with sensitivity and care. They are not merely characters in a larger story. They are real people, with real lives, and they are just like you and me.

Perspective and acceptance

The book sparked many long discussions about the event. “What is so alarming to think about” Angela said, “is that this guy is the same age as you, from the same place. And had you not moved to Canada, you might have been there, right in the middle of everything.” This is true, and it makes it all the more real for us.

I spent much of my youth in and around Oslo, I walked through the government quarters on a regular basis, and aspired to work there some day just like several of my friends do today. I visited Utøya several times, I know people who went to school with the terrorist, one of the lead characters in the book lived a few kilometers from my parents house and went to my high school. Earlier this year, Angela and I visited the government quarter, where 5 years later the devastation from the bomb is still clearly visible.
This is where the challenge lies, for Seierstad and the book. To an international, and especially a North American audience, Norway is a mythical place of oil, socialism, lutefisk, and polar bears. It’s a weird place nobody visits and few can pin on a map without help, which only shows up in the media when something extraordinary happens. Norway and its culture is so foreign to North Americans that many passages in the book will seem absurd or otherworldly. Like the fact that the terrorist was offered a cup of coffee only minutes after being arrested. Or that police are not armed. Or that his mother was interviewed and released in short order. Or that he now serves a life sentence of 21 years in prison (to be extended indefinitely). To me, this all makes sense, but without the context of being Norwegian, or even European, I wonder if readers will find this too difficult to identify with and too hard to accept.

When I was first introduced to the book, it was through a similar feeling of bewilderment, described by a professor at the University of Oslo and friend of my brother. “It is ununfathomable,” he said, “just how badly prepared we were for this. Like the story of the boat. My Lord, the boat. What incompetence!”

In the aftermath of the attacks, questions were asked about why the police took so long to respond to the event, and why even after arriving at the shores of the lake that surrounds the island, it took an eternity for the police to apprehend the terrorist. This has become one of the centerpieces of Seierstad’s account, and it is the reason for the tears of frustration and incredulity felt by most readers. This is also the only place in the book where Seierstad’s otherwise expertly objective perspective falters and you see glimpses of her personal feelings. Like everyone else, she is incredulous, furious even. Because Norway was unprepared for this, and the police response (or lack thereof) played a large part in increasing the numbers of victims. As you read it, know that those questions you ask yourself, of how reports of an armed man walking away from a bomb and shootings at a summer camp can be ignored by 911 dispatchers, were and are asked by us all. And know that things have changed. But be equally aware that one reason the response took so long was the fact that this terrorist did not fit the expectation. Norway was unprepared for terror, but it was especially unprepared for terror from within.

So, before you pick up the book (and you should), prepare yourself. Norway is a small country with a far more relaxed attitude toward threats, real or imagined. It is perfectly normal for children to walk to school by themselves in the 1st grade, go on trips unsupervised by adults, and join political organizations that end up taking them away from school before they are 18. Education, even post-secondary education, in Norway is state funded and provided to everyone, and very few students drop out of high school. The politicians in Norway are just regular people with regular jobs. You see them walking on the street, going to movies, even shopping at the local store. Violent crime is exceptionally rare, and the criminal justice system is based on rehabilitation and restitution rather than punishment. It is a nation of builders and cooperators: Norwegians are trained to have “Dugnadsånd” or “dugnads spirit” (‘dugnad’ being an untranslatable word that means something like “coming together to do work for the betterment of the community without renumeration or reward”), and are a welcoming people who strive to see the best in everyone. But even in this seemingly idyllic utopia, there are strong undertones of discontent. One of the more popular political parties has been running on a platform of fear and hatred toward “foreigners” and stokes the fires of cultural purity and anti-islamism whenever they have the chance. And many Norwegians feel the government is too much of a nanny state and takes too much of their money.

Like all countries, Norway is complicated. But it is real, and to truly understand this book, you have to accept that life there in the northern part of Europe is fundamentally different from North America.

Once you’ve read the book, you should go on the web and look up some of the central characters. You’ll discover photos and videos of many of the victims and see what Utøya and the surrounding area is like. There is even video of the island only hours before the attack when former prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland held a speech about multiculturalism, women’s rights, and the welfare state – all the things the terrorist wanted to destroy. Seeing the photos and watching the videos will make it all more real. Just be warned, there are many photos you’ll find on the web that you’ll wish you never saw.

What we can learn

Like I said earlier, more than anything else, this book is about us, the people who share this earth today. It’s about how our lives intertwine, how our society evolves, how walls and borders are broken down and rebuilt, and how our society is working to redefine itself in an ever more globalized world.

In a subtle but important way, it is also the story of the internet. And this is where I want to end this article. Seierstad makes a valiant effort to explain why the terrorist did what he did, but in the end only he will know. Though he is not clinically insane, his world view is so fundamentally distorted that it is hard for anyone who does not share his particular understanding of the world to comprehend his actions as anything other than insanity. Yet while reading this well documented account, it becomes impossible to ignore the reality that this was a premeditated act of political terrorism, planned and executed to enact lasting change in the structures of our society. He was not crazy. We need to dig further.

As someone who works on and with the web on a daily basis, it is this part of the story I find most chilling. ABB was self-radicalized on the internet. Through blogs, message boards, chats, and other tools, he slowly sank into one of the many echo chambers of hatred and extremism that thrive just below the surface of our common information source. After the attacks, I spent some time researching his sources and realized that while ABB may be the only person so far to have moved from ideas to violent actions, there are thousands, maybe millions of people on the web who agree with him. I like to say that the web is a veneer of amazing ideas covering an endless abyss of the worst of human nature. Follow ABB down the rabbit hole and you’ll realize the biggest threat to modern society is not religious fundamentalists from far away lands, but right-wing anti-government extremists from your own neighborhood. And unlike the “foreign threats” the news media falls over themselves talking about all day long, few talk of the seething hatred that is reaching a boiling point right in our midst – against feminists, against muslims, against atheists and socialists and women and trans people and gays and aboriginals and anyone who is not “just like us”. The biggest threat we face today is complacency about the hatred online. And the worst terror attack on western soil since 9/11 was committed by one of us.

Events My Opinion

Why Codes of Conduct Matter

“We have a few things we need to take care of first, and then we’re going to dive right into our presentations.”

It is 9:55am on a Wednesday morning, and Steve Fisher is midway through his opening remarks for the inaugural Design and Content Conference. On the screen behind him, a picture of a red t-shirt with the word “STAFF” printed in large white caps and an emergency phone number is prominently displayed.

“A big deal here is safety. We want you all to feel safe and included in this. We have a code of conduct that everybody that’s here had to agree to to attend. In case you didn’t read that, you should probably go to the website and read it at some point, but if I could sum it up, it’s that we all need to take care of each other; we need to feel safe. Inclusion is important. So regardless of age, race, gender, anything, everyone should feel welcome. Just as a way of us agreeing to that, could we give another round of applause?”

The applause is loud and heartfelt. There are cheers. From the back of the room I see heads nodding, people turning to each other in conversation.

My Opinion WordPress

On Trust and Opacity

Yesterday Tom McFarlin published an important article titled The WordPress Community (A Comedy of Drama, Ego, Oligarchies, and More). If you work with WordPress or the WordPress community, it is mandatory reading and worth some serious reflection. Tom shines a light on some of the darker parts of flat-structure communities and asks poignant questions about communication, language, and leadership among other things. There is a lot to latch onto here and I have no doubt there are many articles being written in response as I type this out.

Here I want to focus in on a small part of this conversation and contribute my own perspective on something I think lies at the heart of much of the conflict Tom addresses: Trust and Opacity.

The Customizer and the Pyre

In WordPress, like any grassroots political organization, the level of conflict and partisan strife increases with its size and power. WordPress is now so big and powerful that I’m surprised we’re not starting to see breakout groups and organized factions trying to exert their will on the overall project. This is likely due to the spirit of Open Source, and we should count ourselves lucky that it has not happened. Yet.

However, there are clear signs of fracture within the community, exemplified by the furious anger directed toward the Customizer and the team that works on it.

Long story short, the Customizer (which moves many of the theme customizing features into a preview panel for direct experimentation and application) has always been controversial because it does not fit every use case. For the release of WordPress 4.3, the Customizer will be extended to include the Menu Editor (and here it’s important to note that the original Menu Editor view will remain in the admin panel). This inclusion has caused a vocal and often aggressive response that at times devolves into personal attacks on named contributors in the project.

There are people in the WordPress community who hate the Customizer with a passion, and they want to have it their way: Burn the Customizer. With Fire.

The common argument can be paraphrased thus:

“I/my clients don’t use the Customizer. Its inclusion goes against what I/my clients need and therefore has no place in WordPress.”

When work continues unabated in spite of this opposition, the objectors feel like their concerns are being ignored by whomever is calling the shots, they get angry, and sometimes lash out. This is neither new nor surprising. But it is disappointing, especially when it devolves to personal attacks, or even worse, sexist remarks and verbal assaults. These things do not a healthy community make.

On Trust

Underlying the vitriolic assaults on the Customizer lies a lack of trust; in contributors; in leadership; in the community. To many, even those involved in WordPress contribution, it can appear as if there is a hidden “inner circle” of leadership in the community – a WordPress Illuminati if you will – that calls the shots. And to some, that imagined group may appear to be running an agenda that goes counter to their interests:

“I don’t use the Customizer. Its inclusion goes against what I need and therefore has no place in WordPress. Even so, someone has decided it must be there in spite of my objections. Clearly there is an imbalance of power here. My voice does not seem to matter.”

What we have here is a classic case of mistrust. When questions are asked about the expansion of the customizer, the answers are forthcoming (again, paraphrasing here):

  • User testing and research shows that the Customizer is better understood by the average user.
  • The Customizer provides a better user experience.
  • Users appreciate the ability to see their changes in real time in the real site before publishing it live.
  • Users often voice frustrations when having to switch back and forth between back- and front-end and experiment with things like menu ordering on their live site.
  • Etc.

The response to such statements are questions like “Who are these users?” or “Who did these tests?” or “That doesn’t fit with my experience.” or “I don’t care. It is not what my clients want.”

Again, this is about trust. When presented with valid (if unsubstantiated) reasons, many opposed to the idea of the Customizer (or any other controversial feature, like auto-updates of plugins) have trouble trusting those that who make the decisions.

“Who are these people, and who gave them the power to decide what’s best for me and my clients?”

This is a problem, and it is one that every grassroots political organization has to face at some point. People want their way. And when they don’t get their way, even if they are in a minority position, they will fight tooth and nail to impose their will on the rest of the organization. Sometimes that is a good thing. Most of the time it is a problem.

On Opacity

Much of this distrust stems from the relative opacity of meritocracies. On the face of it, meritocracies are as open and transparent as is possible, but in reality they are only open and transparent if you are actually taking part and observing the day-to-day goings on.

I spend most of my time working with and researching WordPress, and even I can’t speak with much authority about how a release lead is picked or who the next core contributor will be. I can make an educated guess: Release leads are picked from core contributors based on skill, availability, and willingness to take on the responsibility. Core contributors are promoted based on the quality of their previous contributions. In other words, a meritocracy.

But who picks the Release lead? And who promotes core contributors? That is a question left unanswered, and I think this is where the idea of this mythical “leadership group” stems from.

Like a cascading waterfall, the transparency of meritocracies is made opaque by the volume and force of information that runs through it.

From the outside it appears there is a group that is in charge of WordPress. It is not listed anywhere, it is not elected, it is not given a mandate, it just is. And when a controversial decision is made (like adding the Menu editor into the Customizer), it is easy to imagine a group of evil faced conspirational dictators sitting around a table discussing how to screw the community over by moving everything into the Customizer.

Which is total nonsense.

I know some of these people, and some better than others. I’ve observed their work, observed their interactions with the community, observed their dedication to the project and their relentless pursuit of making WordPress better for all who use it. What I’ve found is that the people who sit atop of our meritocratic pyramid are humble, dedicated, and fiercely passionate about what they do. They also think far ahead – as in far ahead – to what is coming down the pipe in the next several years. They have my trust because I see my thoughts about WordPress and its future in theirs. But that’s just me. I can also see how someone who disagrees with them would feel like their project was being run by a dispassionate group of dictators who hand down decrees like the emperors of times past.

Trust and Transparency – Leadership and Vision

I mentioned grassroots political organizations earlier, and I firmly believe that WordPress is a grassroots political organization in all but name. But that’s not the topic of my current argument.

Regardless of how you define it, the WordPress community can learn a lot from grassroots political organizations. Like I said, the problems we are facing are not unique, and they have been solved before.

Our problems with trust and opacity are both symptoms of the very essence of what makes WordPress (and Open Source) great: Flat-structure meritocracies. At some undefined point, the machine grows so large that it becomes hard for anyone to see what is going on unless they dedicate all their time to this pursuit. As a result, those who find themselves in lower levels of the meritocratic pyramid start feeling disenfranchised and ignored by those higher up and they eventually start rocking the structure and consider moving their blocks elsewhere.

The way this is solved in grassroots political organizations is through the introduction of clear leadership structures and a clearly defined vision and path forwards. This is a colossal project that causes conflict and controversy, but the result is always the same: A structured democratic system that actually works.

Can this be done in an Open Source project like WordPress? Impossible to say; it has never been tried on anything this scale. Is it a good idea to try? I’m not sure.

What I do know is if we pretend everything is OK and brush the problems under the carpet, conflicts will fester and grow until they cause a major split.

So what do we do? I have two preliminary suggestions:

  1. Make the leadership of the WordPress project public record. The immediate response to this suggestion will be “but there is no leadership”. Seriously. That is not true and we all know it. Meritocratic leadership is still leadership. By explicitly listing the current Release Lead, core contributors, and most importantly other people with decision making power, people can clearly see who is in charge and where to direct questions.
  2. Create a public long-term vision for WordPress. This one is going to be a real challenge. The vision of WordPress currently is too vague and haphazard. There is a lot of ground to cover between “democratize publishing” and “80/20 rule”. Is WordPress primarily for the average user or for enterprise? What is the goal of WordPress once we reach 25% market share? Who should drive the bus? Where do we go from here? Should WordPress be a leader in web standards and accessibility? Should we get involved in the W3C? A community of our size needs direction. Otherwise everyone will go their own way and people will be left flailing or feeling like they are not being heard.

These are my thoughts. Take them at face value from someone who has experience working with grassroots and political organizations. There are solutions here. They may not be mine, they may not be yours, but if we work together we can find them, and our community will be better for them. The only thing we can’t do is pretend everything is OK and tighten down our blinders.

Epilogue: The Customizer is a Good Thing. Accept it and Move On!

For completeness, I should voice my opinion on the Customizer controversy:

The arguments for the permanent inclusion of the Customizer are, from my experience, valid and in line with the independent research I’ve done on the matter. The average WordPress user benefits greatly from the ability to preview their theme changes before taking them live. The inclusion of the Menu Editor in the Customizer will be a massive improvement to the WordPress User Experience and will take frustration away from millions of users. 

Yes, there are edge cases (typically large business and enterprise installations) where the Customizer is not ideal, but because WordPress is Free Open Source Software, an enterprise site is worth no more than a blog nobody ever visits to the project itself. All sites are created equal. So even though the need of an enterprise site to not have the Customizer seems to carry more weight than the need for millions of bloggers to have it, in reality it is the bloggers that matter. WordPress is powerful because of the millions of people who use it to throw their thoughts, feelings, hopes, and desires onto the web with abandon. The big business that chooses WordPress to back their online publications is the exception that proves the rule.

My Opinion WordCamp

It is time to rename the “Happiness Bar”

tldr: The “Happiness Bar” needs a new name. I’ll start the brain storming here:

  • Help Desk
  • Help Bar
  • Admin Bar
  • WordPress Help
  • Q&A Desk
  • Support Desk
  • Support Bar
  • Service Bar
  • Oracle Bar

I’ve been a volunteer at the Happiness Bar of close to 10 WordCamps in the last 5 years. The experience of interacting with and helping others working with WordPress has been educational, entertaining, and often enlightening. There is no better place to see first hand the incredible diversity of our community and to experience WordPress through the eyes of other users.

Even so the Number One takeaway from my Happiness Bar stints is this:

“Happiness Bar” is a name nobody understands.

Unless you have volunteered to stand behind the desk at a Happiness Bar in the past or you are a WordCamp organizer there is little chance you know what a “Happiness Bar” is, so let me introduce you to the concept:

The Happiness Bar is a desk at a WordCamp (or other WordPress-centric conference or event) staffed by volunteer WordPress experts where you can ask questions and get help with WordPress. The name “Happiness Bar” probably comes from the thought that getting help and finding solutions to your problems will make you happy.

The problem, which is pretty obvious, is that the name “Happiness Bar” says nothing about what is being provided.

The most important task of giving a service a name is to ensure the name communicates what the service does to the uninitiated. And while a help desk may induce happiness, that is not the function of the help desk. The help desk is there to provide help. The name “Happiness Bar” is more befitting a bar where they hand out cotton candy, hugs, or free jokes.

Talking to WordCamp attendees and asking them what the “Happiness Bar” is I’ve gotten every answer but the correct one:

“Is it where they hand out swag?”
“It’s a place where they give you life advice?”
“It’s a desk where they have life/business/happiness coaches?”
“You go there to get a massage?”
“Do they give away candy?”

When I co-organized WordCamp Vancouver I refused to have a Happiness Bar because I already knew the name was misleading and nobody would use the service. Nobody even noticed. Having staffed Happiness Bars in different cities before and since just validated my suspicions: Calling the Help Desk the “Happiness Bar” is a surefire way of confusing the audience enough that those who could actually use the help won’t ever find it.

I think historically the name makes a bit of sense, but that is irrelevant. The use of the name today is an anachronism at best and self-defeating at worst. What is meant to be cute, fun, and non-conventional, is in reality confusing, non-explanatory, and misleading. When WordCamp attendees are looking for help and can’t find it even when they are standing directly in front of a huge sign saying “Happiness Bar!” any marketer would tell you there is something off about the branding. That happens. All the time. At Every. Single. WordCamp. Old-timers like me know what the “Happiness Bar” is. The rest of the attendees think it’s a place where they hand out swag. Or candy. Or massages. Or some unknown substance that provides happiness.

I think we should have a Happiness  Bar that hands out swag, candy, massages, and free hugs. But if we are going to continue offering WordPress help at WordCamps we need to give the help desk a befitting name. My vote is “Admin Bar”, but that’s just me.

My Opinion

My Connected Device is Listening

My Android phones have been listening to me for years. I have no doubt about this. When I started talking about something absurd late last year – “can you use hand lotion to condition a leather chair” – and then decided to look it up on my phone, the first suggestion google makes upon entering “Can you use” was “Can you use hand lotion to condition leather products”. And that’s just one example.

People call me paranoid for saying this, but I’m not. I just understand (or at least pretend I understand) what’s going on inside our connected devices.

Speech Recognition in the Cloud

If you have an Android phone with the Google+ Launcher applied, try this: Turn it on and just say “OK, Google”. This automatically opens the voice to text search box where you can talk to the device and get it to do things like a search or send an email or whatever. I’m sure the Fruit Company phone can do the same thing. And the one from Macrohard. It’s amazingly unamazing in a world where rapid technological advancement has made us jaded.

What’s actually happening here is really quite amazing: The phone is constantly listening for specific voice queues, and when they are triggered it starts doing stuff. It gets even more impressive when you start dictating. You can actually see the phone guessing and correcting itself in real time as it does to make sure it gets everything exactly right. And watching this happen it’s clear there is a lot of contextual semantic processing going on out there in the cloud.

What we have here is the dream of speech recognition come true in the cloud. And now that we have it people are (and should be?) terrified.

Your Samsung TV is Eavesdropping on Your Private Conversations

Earlier this week the tech media and everyone else suddenly got very interested in connected devices and their listening capabilities. In the Terms of Service for Samsung’s Smart TVs a line was discovered that said:

Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party

The reporting was quickly followed by a statement from Samsung saying:

If a consumer consents and uses the voice recognition feature, voice data is provided to a third party during a requested voice command search. At that time, the voice data is sent to a server, which searches for the requested content then returns the desired content to the TV

George Orwell fans with better memories than me immediately caught on to the striking similarities from the book 1984:

And the world burned for days.

The Clash of Dreams and Reality

What we have here is a clash of dreams and reality. In our dreams we want to be able to talk to our devices and have them do our bidding. In Star Trek they had the Universal Translator. You can now get much the same feature by downloading the Google Translate app on your smartphone. Try it. It’s absolutely mind blowing. But for this technology to work we can’t just rely on our phones or computers or TVs. Language is complex and can’t be simplified to algorithms that can run on our local devices. For this technology to work we need the Cloud. And that means literally recording and sending your conversations over the web to a server that then parses the data, gleans the meaning of it, and acts according to your instructions.

In short, when you talk to your device your device needs to actually understand what you are saying. Which is why your Samsung Smart TV and your cell phone and probably your computer and any other connected device in your house is in fact listening to you all the time

The Question Isn’t If You are Being Recorded, But Who Listens

Most people will find this revelation rather unsettling, but the reality is this is not new. It’s been going on for years. And it’s a direct response to what we as consumers have been asking for.

The bigger question is who’s listening. The device and service companies are pretty much unanimous in saying they are not recording and not listening. The recordings are purely for the computers. And in a way it is probably believable (unless you are talking about that website that wants to sell your face on a book. They are totally listening). I don’t actually fear the companies (much), but I do question their encryption algorithms.

Post-Snowden we have confirmation of what many of us have known all along: If you put it on the Internet the US intelligence system will be listening in. So does this mean that someone is sitting in a bunker somewhere in the US (or elsewhere) listening to our conversations while we watch TV, or eat dinner, or chat with our phones within reach? Not unlikely.

Somewhere George Orwell is shaking his head in shame while dictating his next novel through his phone.

My Opinion

The Spirit of Flickr and the Problem of Intent

I’m trying something new here: Audio versions of my essays. So, if you want to listen to me read this essay rather than read it, hit the play button below and let me know what you think about this idea!

Over the weekend a conversation has started over the move by photo sharing site Flickr to start selling canvas and other prints of photos published under various Creative Commons (CC) licenses with attribution but in some cases without financial benefit to the artist. The story started at Wall Street Journal, got picked up and went viral with Dazed, and gained further traction when authoritative figures like Jeffrey Zeldman chimed in.

I’m not going to argue the legalities of this issue. As has been stipulated by pretty much everyone who has spoken about it, Flickr – and by ownership Yahoo! – are well within their rights to do what they are doing from a legal standpoint. If you publish content under the CC-BY license you are explicitly granting anyone the rights to republish that content in any way including commercially (under which selling for money would fall) without reimbursing the original creator as long as they provide proper attribution to the same creator. By contrast the CC-BY-NC license grants anyone the right to republish that content under the same guidelines only for noncommercial purposes. If they wish to publish it for commercial purposes (including sale) they must be granted a separate individual license from the creator. (There is a lot more to Creative Commons and I urge you to educate yourself about this type of license, but that’s the gist of this particular story.)

My Opinion

#YesAllWomen: This Is Not About You

Dear Random Man of the Internet. If you are feeling marginalized, targeted, oppressed, or objectified by the #YesAllWomen hashtag that has been trending on Twitter since the Isla Vista murders last week, here is a dose of reality. This is not about you. And you need to listen.

This morning I tweeted the following:

#YesAllWomen encourages empathy in a debate clouded by cognitive dissonance. Listen and learn.”

And you immediately responded:

“No it doesn’t. It indicts men. Exploits tragedy where mentally ill man who hated all humanity killed 3 men. All to advance an agenda.”

This seems a common sentiment and it is a validation of my original tweet: The cognitive dissonance felt when confronted with the reality of how our society treats women causes men to feel like victims of unjust treatment – a role reversal they immediately speak up about. Which is exactly what women are doing with the #YesAllWomen tag. You are right, Random Man from the Internet, there is an agenda here: Women want to be treated like human beings, not objects. And whether you feel you are part of the problem or part of the solution it is your obligation to check your ego and privilege at the door, hear them out, and see the world from their perspective. Your feelings on the matter are not relevant here. This is not about you.

Empathy and the Shared Experience

When a person shares their human experience with us and gives us a glimpse of what the world is like from their perspective, we are privileged to listen. Our ability as humans to share in the experience of others, to empathise, and to adjust our world-view and our behaviour accordingly is what makes us a social species. It is part of what makes us who we are.

When the experience shared is one of fear, frustration, anguish, and pain, we are obliged to listen and to give our support. #YesAllWomen is that; on a scale we have never seen before.

#YesAllWomen is the collective sharing of the human experience from the majority of the human race: Those that identify as female. It is a glimpse of what the world is like for a group that is marginalized, targeted, oppressed, objectified, and sexualized by the very society they are a part of. And when they speak up, we owe it to them to shut up and listen, take their message to heart, stand with them, and take a long hard look at ourselves.

#YesAllWomen: It’s Not About You, It’s About Us

#YesAllWomen is not about you: It’s about us. We can’t continue down a path that forces half of us to live in fear, constantly looking over their shoulders, and knowing that no matter how hard they work, they will be judged on their gender before they get judged on their merits.

#YesAllWomen is not an indictment of you as a person, nor of all men or any other group. It is an indictment of a society and societal norms that are as anachronistic as they are morally wrong. It is a demand that all voices be heard and that we put our cognitive dissonance aside. Look beyond yourself and help shine a light on systemic injustices imposed on our fellow human beings.

Listen and Learn

To all the women out there, yes, all women. Please keep talking. We are listening and we stand with you.

Take an hour out of your day to read the ever expanding #YesAllWomen tag. Take a few steps in her shoes and realize it is not about you. It is about humanity.


My Opinion

Tools of the Trade, 2014 edition

Every once in a while people ask me what tools I use so I figured I’d share an incomplete list to give you a peek at what happens on my computers on a daily basis.

When reading this list keep in mind tools for developers are about as personal a choice as what colour underwear you prefer or which super hero is the best so as I present my setup there is about a 110% guarantee everyone will disagree. Which is one of the many reasons I love what I do. Opinion, passion, personality, all combined into one big mess.

Anyways. Here we go.

Accessibility My Opinion WordPress

The accessibility-ready Tag Should Be Required for All WordPress Themes

When was the last time you tried navigating your WordPress site using only the keyboard? Chances are you never have, and if you do you are likely to have a sub-optimal experience at best. The alarming reality is only a handful of WordPress themes (and thus WordPress-powered sites) meet basic accessibility guidelines. This is not OK. I’m issuing a challenge to the WordPress community:

Accessibility should be a requirement for all WordPress themes.

My Opinion

The 99 Habits of Highly Successful, Motivated, Efficient, Charismatic, Happy People

Do viral list articles on the web leave you feeling like you’re not measuring up? Like everyone is more successful, motivated, efficient, charismatic, and happy because they do things differently? Fret not my friend. I have the cure to all that ails your self-doubting soul: The definitive list of the 99 Habits of Highly Successful, Motivated, Efficient, Charismatic, Happy People.

Adopt these habits and your life and self-image will change dramatically for the better:

  1. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  2. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  3. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  4. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  5. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  6. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  7. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  8. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  9. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  10. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  11. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  12. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  13. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  14. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  15. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  16. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  17. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  18. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  19. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  20. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  21. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  22. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  23. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  24. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  25. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  26. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  27. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  28. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  29. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  30. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  31. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  32. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  33. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  34. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  35. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  36. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  37. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  38. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  39. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  40. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  41. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  42. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  43. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  44. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  45. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  46. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  47. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  48. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  49. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  50. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  51. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  52. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  53. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  54. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  55. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  56. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  57. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  58. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  59. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  60. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  61. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  62. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  63. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  64. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  65. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  66. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  67. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  68. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  69. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  70. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  71. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  72. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  73. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  74. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  75. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  76. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  77. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  78. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  79. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  80. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  81. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  82. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  83. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  84. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  85. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  86. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  87. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  88. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  89. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  90. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  91. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  92. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  93. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  94. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  95. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  96. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  97. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  98. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  99. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.

In conclusion: Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.

My Opinion


Last November web design luminary Frank Chimero published a talk – turned – article about web design and user experience called “What Screens Want“. It’s a compelling and thought provoking piece on how we think of screens as design surfaces and how we need to break from the confines and rigid frames of traditional print design to reach the full potential of screen-targeted design and give screens what they want. If you work with screens and especially if you work under the broad umbrella called “web design” you’d be well served to read the article and use it as a starting point to reevaluate how you think of screens.

Sitting in my couch last night I felt compelled to take out my Moleskine and a pencil and sketch out what was directly in front of me. If you’re a regular follower of this site you may have noticed I’ve started hand illustrating my articles. This is a feeble effort on my part to rediscover the skill of drawing, something I like most others pretty much abandoned after secondary school. But the drawing you see above is is not nor was it ever meant to be an illustration for an article. It was more than anything the physical manifestation of a sudden realization I had about what screens actually want.

Screens want attention.

From my vantage point I had four live screens: A TV (out of frame), my old laptop (left), my smartphone (on top) and my new laptop (right). All on, all displaying different information, all screaming for my attention. Though this is not a normal scenario for me (I usually only have one laptop in front of me at a time) it made me realize my exposure to screens is bordering on permanence. When I wake up in the morning I check my phone for emails. When I eat breakfast I watch news on TV. When I work I stare at a screen. When I’m done work I read up on articles and interact with social connections through one of several screens. Then for some relaxation in the evening I watch TV or a movie, again on a screen.

The crazy thing is that it doesn’t end there: In my car there is a screen telling me if it’s currently using electric or gasoline power. Most bars and restaurants have screens showing some sort of sporting event. At the mall there are screens running ads. There are screens on the backs of every seat on most planes. The supermarket cashier has been replaced by a screen. I touch a screen to buy a ticket to use public transit, a screen tells me what classes are currently available at the gym, there is even a tiny screen inside the viewfinder of my camera.

The screens that surround us are attention vampires. When a screen is within your field of vision you can’t help but let your eyes drift towards it, even when what it displays is irrelevant or uninteresting to you. And once it has your attention it feeds off your focus, draining you. Their bold colors, quick movements, and hyper-realism trigger something in the primitive parts of our brains that make us pay attention.

As a web designer I am relying on this effect and I’ve learned to exploit it. I know how to make something appear on a screen in such a way that you just have to look at it. And I know that others are far better at it than I am. So good they can make you look at a screen and not notice what is happening around you in real life. So good they can make you believe in their reality and doubt your own experience. So good they can alter our perceptions of ourselves, of others, of our world.

When I was a kid my parents limited me to one hour of TV per day. “Watching too much TV makes you a fool” my mom would say. And she was right. TV does make you stupid unless you are very careful about what you watch and ask a lot of critical questions. But it’s not just the TV any more. All these other screens, there to give us information and enlighten us, have the same ability to make us dumb and disinterested and desensitized through information overload.

So maybe in addition to asking  what screens want we should also ask “what do we want from screens”.