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Another way to give

This week I dropped off 13 phones at the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund. I saw Executive Director Peter Goldberg speak at the NYC Tech Solidarity meeting in February and he went over the story of Kalief Browder.

Peter talked about the amazing effects that bail has on guilt. If you can post bail, you are magically less likely to plead guilty to charges and to go to jail. Heck, if I can help people magically not commit crimes by helping them get bail, that seems like a great way to reduce crime!

Peter said they ( and all non-profits) have surprising needs that nerds with good jobs wouldn’t expect. They need laptops, desktops, phones.

In the BCBF’s case, loaning someone a phone means they have a vastly higher chance of not missing their court date. It allows the bail fund to communicate with their clients and make sure everything works out.

I went to my help desk and CTO, and talked with them about old phones available for donations – we cycle through new equipment and have lots of “loaners” or used phones – more than we reasonably need. Just by asking and working with the help desk team to wipe old phones we managed to get phones that we’d just pay someone to recycle for us into the hands of folks who can fight for a fair trial.

Not bad, and not much work to do a hell of a lot of good. If you want to give them a few bucks to do this good work, you can also donate to the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund online. Let me know if you do!

Taking a break from Orbital

My hack-night project for a long time was Orbital Feed Reader. I’ve been slacking on it a lot recently. Especially after the election, I feel like I need to find things to work on that have a more direct impact on people that I can help.

I worked on a project called Donate the Difference  – it wasn’t as successful as I wanted it to be, though it did raise $25K for some charities. I learned a lot, and I’ll write some of that up here later. But it made it clear to me that I need to work on projects that make a bigger difference than a feed reader plugin.

I’m not certain what that is yet, but if you were hankering for updates to Orbital, that’s why they haven’t been coming. It’s open source, and I’m happy to take pull requests or turn it over if someone wants to do more with it. I just don’t want to lead folks on.

Ten Things I Want My Children To Learn From 9/11

Ten Things I Want My Children To Learn From 9/11 via  Popehat.

The headings are good, but the explanations are better.  Good to read or re-read on this day.

  1. Ordinary People Are Capable Of Extraordinary Things.
  2. Evil Exists.
  3. Good Exists.
  4. It’s Best To Define Yourself By Your Reaction To Events, Not By The Events Themselves.
  5. A Thing Is Not the Same As Our Reaction To A Thing.
  6. Beware of How People Use Great And Terrible Things And Events.
  7. Fear, Anger, and Apathy Are Perilous.
  8. Understanding Is Not The Same As Justifying.
  9. People Are Not Abstractions.“Each person who died on 9/11 represented an entire world ending.”
  10. There is Nothing New Under the Sun.

In Egypt, a small lesson

lasers dazzling a government helicopter during egyptian protests against mosri
I remember when Egypt elected the Muslim Brotherhood to power. Many Americans were very unhappy, they had been hoping for a more liberal government. Some advocated intervention to keep the Muslim Brotherhood out of power.

Right now, Egyptians are tossing Mosri out of power. If Americans had intervened, we would see a reaction against that. You have to respect the autonomy of a democratic process to let people find their own way.

go read

From this Gizmodo’s How a lone coder cloned google reader.

Go Read is a web-based RSS reader.It is designed to be as useful as Google Reader.

When you built your house on sand and then you find your house collapsed, it doesn’t seem so smart to rebuild your house on sand, but taller. So I just wonder about writing your google reader clone in a language designed by google and hosting it on a hosting platform run by google, where the only way to sign in is to use google.

A tale of two championships

In 1995 I was a junior in high school and I thought that competitive policy debate was the most important thing in the world. I was pretty good at this competitive adrenaline rush sport – a new thing for me. It’s a pairs sport – two people per side. That was also new – I’d never worked in a team. My old partner/mentor had burned out on the sport – he was brilliant but he was done with it. I was partnered up with a new kid, this long haired goofus with the largest pants in the world. His name was Mike 1.


We did pretty damn well as a team and ended up getting to the final round of the state championships, paired off against another team from our same high school. We argued our hearts out, but by the end of the debate it was apparent to both teams that our buddies Nick and Hunter had beaten us.

Debate is a funny sport, because judges can do whatever they want. This time the judges voted for us — and they were wrong, but we ended up with embarrassed smiles, accepting the trophy. It was an awkward bus ride home. Our friends were pissed.

The next year, Mike and I are working really well together – we trusted each other more and respected each other more. He and I are winning lots of tournaments, and we head into the state championships with a great record. We make it to finals and see our friends Nick and Hunter again in that final round.

Mike and I wanted to be good people. It had always bothered us that our championship wasn’t real, that we’d gotten the trophy out of luck, that we didn’t deserve it. We talked each other into the idea of throwing the round. We’d compete hard until the end and then I’d drop something in my final speech so that they could win.

And that’s what we did. We threw the match.

We felt really good about it – we’d done the right thing, a selfless thing. Then one of us made the incredibly stupid move of telling Nick and Hunter that we had done this right thing, this selfless thing – for them. Because, y’know, it’s what was right and we were on their side and y’know, fair’s fair.

I’ll never forget the look on Nick’s face. The disgust and revulsion.

I learned a big lesson.

If you are doing something for people, they should generally have a say in it. They know what’s right for them. Nick and Hunter would never have wanted us to throw the match. They wanted to beat us. So we should have given them that chance.

I just threw out all my old trophies. Just took pictures and tossed out all this useless crap that had been sitting in a box. I’d thrown out the tops long ago and just kept the bases, but now who needs even those. I can’t remember what most of those tournaments were about, can’t remember the stories we told so enthusiastically on the bus rides home. But when I saw those two I remembered one important lesson.

  1. He now wears tighter pants and shirts and went on to be an ER doctor  (back)

Darrick’s Geothermal Adventure

Darrick is a buddy from up in Rochester. He’s doing something which is the heart and soul of blogging. He’s taking a minor adventure from his life, and chronicling it for the people who care:

I’d like to take a week or two to blog about our experience with researching, and deciding to go with geothermal, and show the process of installing the system. I’ll be posting the numbers that I came up with which showed why geothermal made sense in our case.

There’s two kinds of folks who care – there’s me and the rest of his friends. We want to know what’s happening in Darrick’s life. We care what Darrick is doing because he is our buddy and we bond with people by knowing and talking about our lives. That’s the ambient communication that bonds people over time, and something the internet is good at enabling for folks who don’t live in close proximity anymore.

The other audience is people who are looking for info on geothermal. Darrick talks about how he chose a contractor for his project and how he calculated the payback on geothermal. Darrick’s way of breaking down the numbers is very useful.

According to all of the estimates our calculated payback time was about 5-7 years, with an annual savings of about 60-70% our existing heating cost. This was assuming that heating oil prices continued to rise, the heat load calculations were accurate, electricity prices continued to increase at the historical rate, and the historical weather patterns continued. These calculations assumed that I was replacing an existing heating system, which I wasn’t. None of the calculations used the cost of borrowing the money, and the cost of repairing the lawn after the job was completed. After adding in these additional factors, and removing the replacement cost of existing heater I came up with a more accurate payback time of about 9-10 years. This was still a worthwhile payback as we were planning on living in this house for at least 20 years. After 25 years it was estimated we will have saved about $100k (assuming oil prices continue to rise). Considering these savings, and the addition of air conditioning to our house, geothermal seemed like a great investment!

Here is giving other people the factors he considered and the way he justified the decision. That’s useful and it’s good for people who he might never even meet. This is the great sort of thing that delicious revealed back when it first started. Lots of people aggregating things just for themselves produces a resource that is greater than the sum of its tiny little parts. Like a nation, or a blogosphere, or a person, or a mind…

The Fist, and how to deal with it.

I have been proud for some time that I knew Lydia McDonald back when she was a total goofball, before she became the sort of person who writes a thoughtful, well-considered response to the violence in Norway. Here’s one of the nut sentences:

Would you not rather suffer the pain of the innocent than wonder if something you have said or done stole enough joy from another human being that they passed the pain onward until it found you again?
It is that culture that mocks love and empathy and praises violence in whatever form, from unkind words to machismo to enslavement to war, that allows for the construction of human monsters at all.

There’s more, and you really should read the whole thing, now.
When you get punched, and I speak from a long history of inspiring violence in others, most people focus in on the fist. “I just got punched! What the hell? Why did they hit me?” The key question is not the fist, but what to do about it. Are you going to wrap yourself up in a fight or are you going to get out of it?

Lydia’s response, and mine, is that we can dissolve the fist before it ever reaches our nose. This doesn’t always work – but neither does anything else.

Project Idea: Conscience

This is just a sketch of an idea. Help me fill it out.

The elevator pitch

An angel on her shoulder

What if you could have an angel on your shoulder that helped you make purchases that reflected your values? We’d all like to vote with our dollars, but complicated corporate structures and global supply chains have made it difficult to keep track of who is doing what.
Continue reading Project Idea: Conscience

Volunteer Your Computer to Keep Privacy Possible

The good folks over at Wild Bee have an excellent article about how you can use your computer to help the world while you sleep. Lotsa people run SETI@home – I think it is because of the screensaver. Instead of a looking for aliens, you could help political dissidents in repressive regimes, protect anonymous whistleblowers, and even protect our intelligence agents overseas. Install TOR and volunteer your computer for global privacy.