Some personal news

I'm now a journalism student at City College!

Before I get into that, yes, this means I am not at Hustle anymore. I was going to wait to announce this publicly online until after the news already leaked, but surprisingly, it hasn't yet, as far as I can tell. (Which is surprising, because the last time they downsized, it was reported in a few places.) In any case, I hope Hustle continues to succeed, and I had a great time there, but that time ended about a month ago.

Anyway, I found myself without a job and needed to decide what to do next. Being a software engineer has been really rewarding for me, but I decided to take advantage of this moment to try and explore journalism, which is something I've been curious about for a little while. This might seem like a strange jump, going from tech to journalism, but there are a few reasons I was drawn to it.

For one thing, I've been really interested in hearing journalists talk about journalism, which they seem to be doing a lot lately. I've paid a lot more attention to political news, since Trump got elected, as I'm sure many of us have. It seems like he says something shocking or horrifying every day, and it's been eye-opening to see how it gets covered. How to report on this government seems to be a huge and important challenge, so the critiques of how political reporters are doing that, are really timely right now. I would recommend Strikethrough, Citations Needed, and Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press in particular.

The election of Trump also led me to think about other types of power, besides that of elections. Immediately after the 2016 election, I started asking, "What the hell? How could this happen? What can I do?" and a lot of the answers I found, in places like Tech Workers Coalition and the Democratic Socialists of America, had to do with the power of ordinary people, not voting (or at least, not just voting) but organizing, in their communities, and particularly in their workplaces. I had already been a little bit involved in worker organizing at Google, but ratcheted it up a little bit in my last year or two there. Even though Google sometimes feels like a very small community where information can travel quickly, it seemed to travel a lot more quickly when there was a reputable news outlet talking about it. Drawing attention to an issue externally was very often the best way to draw attention to it internally. And it was harder for senior executives to pretend an issue was being raised by just a handful of disgruntled Googlers whose concerns don't really represent any mainstream population, when the same concerns were raised in an article that was being shared widely. So even as I was increasingly aware of the power of workers, especially when they are unionized or otherwise organized, I also became more aware of the power of good reporting to effect change by revealing what was happening. Especially for issues at companies like Google, where the technical details can be hard to follow and the company tends to be very secretive.

I also got to attend a couple of free workshops in the last few years, one about journalism from Tim Redmond at 48 Hills, and one about freedom of information requests from Freddy Martinez at Lucy Parsons Labs. Both of them went into some detail on tools that reporters can use to investigate stories, and even though I wasn't really thinking about pursuing journalism in any serious way, at the time, I thought that type of work sounded like a lot of fun.

Then, in the last few weeks as I've been thinking about this, I got in touch with several journalists, and when I told them I was thinking about getting into their field, they were overwhelmingly encouraging and helpful. I know that news outlets are financially struggling these days, so I kind of expected people to be a lot more defensive or gatekeeper-y, but I'm glad they weren't. So to anyone that I chatted with about this, thank you! And to anyone I didn't, sorry! This has been kind of sudden, and I haven't had a chance to contact everyone yet.

Finally, I know it's hard to believe, but the 2016 election did bring some good things, and one of them was Proposition W, which made City College free for San Francisco residents. Since I voted for it, I feel like I might as well take advantage of it, right?

Anyway, I will probably be primarily focused on class assignments for the next few months, but feel free to send me ideas for blog posts, stories, etc. and maybe I can write them up on here.


Are BART's fare enforcement efforts totally misguided? and other questions SF Gate didn't ask

Today the SF Gate has an article on fare evasion on BART, not so different from similar stories you've probably seen recently. The highlights are always about the same: Fare evasion is a massive problem, riders who pay resent those who don't, BART is trying to make up the money they've lost, but it's really difficult. Every time I hear this, I get a little more skeptical of this narrative, although it never seems to change much. Since the Gate started their headline with a question, I thought it would be fun to list some of the questions on my mind, that they didn't ask, and try to answer a few of them.

You say you saw 56 people skip paying in 1 hour. How many did you see who did pay?

This is perhaps my biggest issue with this reporting, and similar stories I've seen about BART fare evasion. They will often include numbers from BART officials, about how much fare evasion is costing the agency. In this case, it's "up to $25 million" which sounds like a lot, but doesn't mean much without a little more context. For one thing, the actual estimate is somewhere between $15 million and $25 million, but SF Gate (like the SF Chronicle article they got that number from) focuses on the higher end of that range. More importantly, the total revenue from fares in FY 2019 was about $485 million, so that $25 million represents only 5% of passengers.

If we assume that BART's $25 million estimate is correct, and that the hour when SF Gate was watching was representative, then over 1,100 people walked through the gates and did pay their fare, during that same hour, which makes the stat of 56 people seem a lot less significant by comparison.

Who failed to pay? Locals, or tourists? What else can we find out about them?

It would be hard to know exactly without interviewing everyone, and of course that might skew the results, since people are presumably less likely to squeeze through the closed gate if they think they're going to be interrogated afterward. But even based on the video, they could make some rough estimates, which could drive BART policy.

For example, if many of the evaders are commuters, BART could work with employers to provide discounted BART passes to their employees (which might have the nice side effect of getting a few more out of their cars). If they're tourists, maybe clearer signage and more staff at the SFO and Coliseum stations would help.

Are people failing to pay out of laziness, or to save money, or some other reason?

If they can't afford the standard BART fares, maybe they'd be eligible for the low-income discount that was approved last month, and would be more likely to pay if that option were publicized more widely. Or perhaps they find it too difficult to reload their clipper card, because the machines in the stations are all in use, or are broken. (If you've ever tried to reload using a credit card, did it work on the first try? I didn't think so.) If that's the case, making it easier to reload clipper cards online, or at locations besides BART stations, could make a big difference.

In general, BART reporting seems to focus on what BART is doing, rather than on the motivations of the riders who are skipping paying. If we heard more from the people actually riding BART (who, by the way, are usually paying for it indirectly through sales taxes, even if they don't always pay their fare), we might come up with solutions that focusing more on what riders can do, rather than criminalizing them and punishing them for what they shouldn't do.

What do BART employees think?

This is probably my favorite part of the article:

"Oh no, I'm not going in there," a passenger with a bike told the station agent. "I just saw a guy get chopped in the head."
The agent let him through the swinging side gate.
My first thought was, did the agent ask him to tap his card first, or did they just let him through, implicitly condoning his not paying the fare? More generally, what do station agents, BART drivers, janitors, engineers, and other workers, think about fare evasion? Those fares are part of the money that comes into the system so they can get paid, so maybe they'd want to work to increase the number of people paying. But on the other hand, maybe they care more about making the system being convenient and comfortable for riders, and consider the financial questions to be someone else's problem. I hope the next article about BART fares includes interviews some of these workers. We might get a very different take from the people on the ground doing the work to keep the system running, than we do from the BART board and senior leadership.

Is more police and more enforcement the only solution?

As I alluded to earlier, BART's solutions tend to lean more on criminalizing people, punishing them for not paying, rather than encouraging them to pay. More fare checkers, more police, taller and scarier gates, and even signs threatening people with fines simply for asking their fellow riders for spare change. What if they went in the complete opposite direction? Try taking out the gates entirely at some stations, and just make the tap targets easy to find (like at Caltrain stations). Even if the only enforcement is the honor system, would the 95% to 97% of riders who pay their fares now, still pay? If so, there's got to be a way to make up the difference without further criminalizing people and making BART feel more and more heavily guarded and policed.


The Two Googles

Copied from a twitter thread with some minor edits. Opinions are my own, not those of my employer.

There are two Googles. The real-life one which is a massive for-profit company (which does some awesome things, treats it employees well, is very progressive in many ways, etc. But: it's still a massive for-profit corporation.) And then there's the imaginary Google that a lot of Googlers and Google users have in their mind. The imaginary Google is probably different for everyone, but think of like, if the EFF wrote a lot more code? Or, imagine if every engineer at Google was a huge believer in Net Neutrality and the Free Software philosophy and the power of technology to make society fairer. More importantly, imagine if decisions at Google were made democratically by those people, rather than by the executive team. Now you have some idea what Imaginary Google looks like. (Also there are zero neo-nazis at Imaginary Google. None at all. It's great.)

Anyway, here's the tricky part. A lot of us (including me, not sure if I made that clear on Twitter), in a weird way which is hard to describe, kinda believe we're working at Imaginary Google. Is that because A Few Years Ago Google was slightly closer to Imaginary Google than today's IRL Google? Or does it just seem that way because we look at the past with rose-tinted glasses? Hard to say. I bring it up because it's a useful framing for certain issues if you're hoping to get Google to change its position on something. The specific example that prompted me to write this was the revelation that Google is a donor to the Federalist Society which I don't know much about but I gather that it's not what you'd call a progressive organization. If you follow news about Google, you can probably think of other examples where Google has taken actions to remind you that it's not the idealistic Imaginary Google you sometimes think it is. Anyway, what I mean about "framing" is that once you remind yourself about the two Googles, your response to Google doing something that seems shocking isn't, "How could we possibly being doing this? This isn't what Google stands for!" but instead, "This is what Google stands for. Our actions are clear. But, let's change that please. Let's not take this position."


Polkadot Postcards

Remember that Kickstarter I helped kickstart, Polkadot ____? Well, they reached their funding goal about a month later, and I recently got my reward: Postcards and a button!

Woohoo! Looking forward to the book.


Why coming out still matters

If you're a part of the gay blogosphere/tweetosphere/tumblrosphere, you already know by now that Anderson Cooper has acknowledged he is gay, in an email to Daily Beast reporter Andrew Sullivan. Before sharing the email itself, Sullivan admits that it's really not a big deal. So many celebrities have come out in the last few years that it's, as he says, kind of a "non-event" now. But in Anderson Cooper's email, he explains eloquently why the act of coming out is still a big deal, not just for him, but for all of us:
I’ve also been reminded recently that while as a society we are moving toward greater inclusion and equality for all people, the tide of history only advances when people make themselves fully visible. There continue to be far too many incidences of bullying of young people, as well as discrimination and violence against people of all ages, based on their sexual orientation, and I believe there is value in making clear where I stand.
Nothing changes people's minds about gay people in quite the same way as seeing more gay people out there in the world, among their own friends, family, and coworkers, and in the public eye. The next time Mitt Romney or someone else says something about the gays, maybe people will think of Anderson Cooper, rather than thinking of an abstract and weird group of people they'll never know and can't relate to at all.

Of course, this is also a big deal for him personally. If you've never had to "come out" about something, whether it's your sexual orientation, gender identity, or some aspect of your past that you had previously kept hidden, you might not relate to this, but coming out feels like such a huge weight off your shoulders, like being weirdly trapped and then suddenly free of that trap. Maybe you already knew, maybe everyone already knew. But to actually come out and say it publicly is still a big deal for him. So I'm happy for him as well, not just for the effect this will have on the rest of the gay community.


Top 9 reasons to ride Metro in Los Angeles

This post has been in my drafts folder for months. Time to get it finished up and actually post it. My top 9 reasons to ride Metro in L.A.:

9. People in Los Angeles are sort of shocked when you arrive somewhere and they ask if you were able to find parking easily, and you tell them you took a bus. "You took a what? You can do that? Really?!"

8. Most of the train stations have interesting art in them, totally different in each one. I think if I was an artist, I'd rather have people see my art every day on the way to work, rather than going to a museum, staring at it for a few minutes, pretending to "get it" and then going home.

7. This one's sort of obvious: Gas is expensive. Metro tickets are cheap.

6. No matter where you're going, finding a parking spot in LA is always terrible.

5. Paying for that parking spot? Also usually terrible.

4. When you don't have to focus on driving, you can actually do other things while you're en route. Check email, play games, let your mind go blank.

3. If you want to go to bars or other alcohol-based venues, you don't need a designated driver. I get so nervous when people say they only drank a "little bit" so they're "totally fine to drive," don't you?

2. You can take the Silver Line or the 550 and be in the carpool lane on the 110, even when you're by yourself. I like carpool lanes.

1. While a train or bus is slowing down or speeding up, you can lean against the inertial forces and pretend you're doing that Smooth Criminal lean. Until you fall over and then you're not so smooth.

Kickstarter is not an investment

In case you haven't heard of it, there's this great site called Kickstarter. If you have an idea for a documentary, video game, or other product you're trying to get off the ground, you can post it on Kickstarter, detailing the process you're going to go through, what you need money for, etc. Then anyone who likes your idea can donate as much as they want. In return, they usually get a copy of the product (if it's something easily copy-able like a video game) or some other little trinket from the creator. For example, I donated to the "Polkadot" book series a few months ago.

Kickstarter, and sites like it, have come up in conversation a few times with people I know. And there is a sense from some people that it's a "scam" because you don't get any real return on your investment. Call me crazy, but I think there's something nice about a donation where you don't expect anything back. You just do it because you believe in the thing you're donating to. Not that you necessarily believe it will become massively profitable, and you want a cut of those profits, but maybe you just believe the world will be a slightly better place if that product exists than if it doesn't. It's a donation, not an investment. And there's something kind of nice about that, don't you think?



This week marks my six month anniversary (0.5th anniversary?) at Google. I feel like I should have something inspiring to say about that. Mostly I feel like I know enough to know that there's a ton I don't know. In other words, I feel like I'm still so new that I don't have anything particularly awe-inspiring to say yet. But I'll piece together some scattered thoughts as best I can.

I can say it's awesome to be working at a company where so much information is shared with employees, and where we always try do the right thing. Not necessarily what's best for Google in the short term, but what's best for our users and for the internet. It's awesome to work at a company that has a sense of humor. It's awesome how much energy goes into improving the tools that Googlers use every day, which makes us happier and more productive. Some of those tools are also used by people outside of Google, and it's awesome that Google makes a lot of them open to the world. It's awesome to work on a product that's used by a zillion people every day. It's awesome to have people tell me they're die-hard fans of that other product, because it makes me feel like I'm a warrior in some sort of epic battle (even though I'm not).

I don't know what else to say right now. Ask me again in another six months.