Mad, Beautiful Ideas

The migration on many users to Mastadon has done two very interesting things. It has reminded many of those of us who came online in the 90s (or earlier via BBSes) of what smaller communities driven by organic connection. And it's shown a lot of people a glimpse at what the Internet used to be.

And I'm certainly not saying all of what the Internet was, was good. Though, in most respects, the Internet is simply more of what it was. That includes the edge lord awfulness, but it also includes the connections, and the opportunities for people to explore the things they're passionate about. As the Internet has grown in scale, that's come with both the good and the bad, and as most of us have started spending more time on the Internet, that good and bad tends to bleed more and more into the rest of the world.

Of course, as part of that bleed through, the bad has become much more visible, and the external effects of the bad have become much, much worse.

I've believed for years now, at least since 2016, probably sooner, that large, every-use platforms like Twitter and Facebook, have proven to be an overall net-bad for Society. Which is not to say that they did not have value. Many of us found each other on these platforms. I've seen people create incredible opportunities for themselves and others on these platforms. However, just as these platforms have created wonderful opportunities, they have also created gateways for people to get drawn onto horrible paths, and because these Platforms have been focused on casting as broad a net as possible for every topic, they have become impossible to moderate in any meaningful way, especially where things fall into apparent edge cases.

Take the Genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar. Facebook was simply unprepared to perform moderation tasks in Burmese, and as a result let huge quantities of Hate Speech proliferate on their platform. Of course, even if they had hired the moderators, they may have chosen to take no action, seemingly willing to sacrifice a minority population to keep access to the market.

Consider that Twitter let Donald Trump violate their policies for years, only taking action once his words had clearly incited a violent mob to attack Congress, and erect a gallows on the steps of the US State House. Simply because they were trying to avoid the appearance of anti-Conservative bias, despite the fact that reality and decency are both clearly biased against the power structures of modern conservative movements.

Different communities simply have different standards. And while, on the extreme this manifests in the Nazi Bar Problem, things don't even need to get that extreme for the idea of a single, federated universe of servers to make sense. The Mastadon instance that I am on limited federation with the largest, by far, Mastadon instance on the Fediverse due to concerns about lax moderation. The Admin's justification for this was reasonable, and while I have not had any negative experiences that made me feel it was warranted, I am also of a demographic that is at limited risk of those experiences. However, that decision has significantly negatively impacted my experience of the Fediverse. I see many replies to people for whom I have to dig to find what they're replying to. Hashtag search is basically non-existent for that instance for me. A huge amount of context and content is buried because of a difference of opinion in Moderation styles.

Which is, ultimately, one of the big strengths of the Fediverse. You choose the standards that you want by the instances you sign up for, and the interaction between moderators of various instances. Today, the Fediverse remains 'default open' for new instances, and while I hope that it remains so, I expect it won't.

My expectation is that as the Fediverse continues to grow and evolve, it will instead become not a single Fediverse, but a collection of galaxies of instances with limited interaction between one another, depending on moderation. Certainly, one of these Galaxies will be the biggest, and a lot of people will likely have accounts across different Galaxies.

Mastadon is ultimately trying to replicate Twitter as a Broadcast platform. I think it's going to continue to grow for a while, because it's what people are used to and it's still small enough to feel like Twitter used to. But I ultimately don't think that Broadcast-focused Social Media is where we're likely to land in the long term. I certainly hope not.

With the rise of the Fediverse driven by Elon Musk's continued efforts to make Twitter unpleasant for the majority of people, it has been interesting and exciting to see increased interest in forms of Social Media outside the corporate hegemony dominated by Twitter and Facebook over the last decade.

Truthfully, for a lot of us who had been on Twitter pre-2012 or so, Mastadon, with it's user-curated stream of content, feels more like a return to something that was lost instead of something new. There is an excitement about Mastadon, it's underlying protocol ActivityPub, and the collection of inter-operable apps and servers that make up what we're now calling the Fediverse.

And I'm glad for it. The Fediverse has just generally felt better than Twitter had in a long time. Interactions are purer. There is no constant looking for any individual or topic that is simply going to dominate much of the Fediverse for any given day. It's richer for it. Rich enough, people are starting to already declare that the Fediverse marking the end of the Twitters and Metas of the world.

And maybe they're right, but it's going to take a lot of work to make it so. The original forms on the Web were all Federated. Blogs, Webrings, Email, Finger, Gopher, you name it. All federated by design. It took work for, as Cory Docotorow puts it, the Internet to become five websites full of links to the other four.

The thing is, Mastadon isn't the first attempt to make a Federated Twitter. In 2008, shortly after Twitter took off after SxSW 2007, the first Open Source Federated Twitter clone, Laconica, got decently big for a while (and astonishingly, is still around as GnuSocial). ActivityPub and Mastadon do have some pretty strong architectural benefits, but the challenges we face in making the Web federated again is, as it always has been, social, not technical.

One of the things that was a bit of a dirty secret outside of Silicon Valley for a long time was that the organic growth that various platforms touted, largely wasn't. Teams of people would pay media personalities and businesses to use their platforms in order to get it into the public eye. I saw this happen on several occasions with Hangouts On Air as a means to promote conversational livestreams (think video podcast liveshows) back in 2011. Twitter becoming a staple of 24 Hour News Networks, I'm confident there was a Business Development person behind the start of that.

There are, of course, more subtle ways that platforms grow. Facebook started out as Ivy League only, then anyone with a .edu email, well before opening up to the public. The sense of exclusivity driving early growth was really effective in establishing in the platform, but beyond early phase adopters, organic growth quickly slows. And commerical platforms need growth. Commercial platforms with a ridiculous wad of VC cash can spend a lot to help drive that growth. Even if they're bad businesses, like Twitter.

Which is one of the things that Mastadon and the Fediverse have going for them in this moment that the previous alternatives don't. The Fediverse is, by and large aggressively against VC. And technically, the structure supports it. I know many people who are running their own small Mastadon instances with which to interact with the rest of the Fediverse, and it's reasonably cost effective. I know of a multitude of medium sized instances who's users are, thus far, happy to throw in a bit to keep the lights on their servers.

The Fediverse's current desire to grow without VCs is probably it's greatest strength. Without the need for the hypergrowth investors need to get the cash exits they demand, the Fediverse has a chance, though potentially a slim one, to grow the way that we, the users desire, instead of chasing profitability. It's even possible people can build sustainable businesses on the Fediverse, though doing so while maintaining the trust of the people will be it's own challenge.

There are limits to the adoption though. I think a lot of the crop of Fediverse migrants that have moved over in the last few months tend to think that Mastadon can reach the scale that Twitter once had. While I am among those who left Twitter, I don't think that line of thinking is reasonable. I think the trend we've had the last decade or so toward monolithic social experiences has ultimately been short-sighted, that while there is value to these broadcast platforms, what would actually benefit us more in the long term are small, focused, communities. And I intend to explore those ideas more soon.

Twenty years ago today, terrorists affiliated with al Qaeda hijacked four commercial jetliners in US airspace, crashing two of them into the World Trade Center towers in New York City, and one into the Pentagon. You know this, though. For over the last week, people have been talking about it a lot.

In my Senior year of High School, I had a teacher tell our class about his experience sitting in class in that same building back in 1963 and having the Principal come over the PA at the school to inform everyone about Kennedy's assassination in Dallas. He said that he had always remembered that day, that moment. That it was burned into his memory, even 38 years later. At the time, I never expected to have such an experience.

Months later, I did.

I remember that morning like no other morning in my life. I was in College in Bozeman, MT. I had an 8am class, and it was one of the rare times I was up early enough for breakfast. I remember walking toward the dining hall on the cool September morning, and saying hello to another resident of my building making his way back. "Someone just flew a plane into the World Trade Center," he said. I remember screwing up my face, snorting a bit, finding that possibility incomprehensible.

Sure enough all the TVs in the dining hall were tuned to CNN, and on the screen was the Twin Towers, both with smoke pouring from their center, and it was clear from the news coverage that no one knew what was going on. So I sat, watching a building I'd literally stood upon two months earlier burn, and confused went to class, where we only talked about the news. By the time we were done, the university had canceled all classes for the next few days.

The rest of the next few days isn't so clear. For hours no one knew anything, but the news was absolutely glued to what little we could know. As an 18-year old male who had recently had to send in my Selective Service card, the question and prospect of the Draft was absolutely in the back of mine, and many of my friend's minds.

We had been attacked. We didn't know yet by whom. We didn't know what might be coming next. The possibility of war loomed, people were scared, and our government clearly didn't have any answers.

What I never expected was that almost everything about our national response would prove to be a clear indication that al Qaeda had struck a perfect blow against our National Identity and way of life. They won. And two decades on, they still have.

We expanded our domestic surveillance state with the formation of the Department of Homeland Security and passage of the USA PATRIOT Act. We chose to engage in a costly and ultimately futile war in Afghanistan and another in Iraq, both of which collapsed those nations into a state even less stable than they had been in 2001. We continue to subject ourselves to unnecessary and intrusive security theater from an organization that has stopped precisely zero terrorists or hijackings since it's inception. We sell our police military hardware that they use to subjugate their local populations.

Don't get me wrong, the forces that were active in the US that have led us to the deep dysfunction we are operating in today have been active for more than the twenty years since 9/11. But those attacks accelerated all of the most dangerous trends in our national zeitgeist, and at the time, to so many of us, it seemed reasonable. We'd been attacked. We were scared. We didn't know what else to do.

I have to believe that we can change things. That the world can be made better than we've made it the last two decades. That we can rise above our fear, and undo all of the damage we've inflicted to ourselves, giving al Qaeda far more than they could ever have hoped for. I have to believe that, because the challenges that were laid out in front of us back on September 11, 2001 have only become more dire and more difficult, and our actions have only created new problems.

I have to believe it can be better, but I can not deny the magnitude of the challenge ahead.

As a person who has recently begun the process of moving to New Hampshire, I was incredibly excited to see that the House has recently had introduced a bill to allow for the hobby distillation of liquor, a hobby that I have recently become very interested in taking on. Hobby Brewing and Winemaking have been legal in New Hampshire for years (1998 for Beer, 2013 for Wine). There is no time like now to restore to New Hampshire residents a right that has been enjoyed by Americans for the first century and a half of our history, and also stand to reap the economic benefits of the Hobbyist to Professional pipeline.

For instance, in 1998, New Hampshire had 8 Active licensees for Beverage Manufacturing from the Liquor Commission according to the State License Verification search. By 2021, that number is 55. While not all of those are local hobbyists who chose to go pro, the path from Hobbyist to Craft Brewer is well documented in the beer world. Some Craft Distillers are being open about their illicit hobbyist pasts. It stands to reason that at least some of the 17 Licensed Distillers active today in New Hampshire also learned their craft as hobbyists in technical violation of State law. Isn't it better for New Hampshire to provide potential entrepreneurs to freedom to learn a craft that may lead to a new business, more employment, and increased tax revenue for the state?

Distillation is also a distinctly American Craft. George Washington was known to have been operating a Distillery producing nearly 11,000 gallons of Whiskey in 1799. Buffalo Trace's current Distillery has been in continuous operation in Kentucky for over two centuries. The Backwoods Moonshiners made notorious during Prohibition were people simply continuing the traditions of their communities since Distillation was introduced to this Continent by the settlers, caught by the winds of social change that did not last, but who's impacts have continued to criminalize activities that Americans had engaged in for hundreds of years.

There are, of course, common arguments against legalizing this hobby.

There remains the fact that hobby distillation remains illegal Federally. However, efforts have been starting since 2015 to legalize this at the federal level, which has had strong bipartisan support, and that support is likely to continue to grow. Plus, the growing legalization of Cannabis driven by the States nationwide has not only shown that the States can lead on these issues, and the House is currently considering de-scheduling Cannabis federally.

Many will point to risks and dangers of the hobby, such as the risk of fire from alcohol fumes or the risk of permanent physical damage from the methanol produced. I do not seek to minimize the existence of these risks, but they are easily mitigated, and if clubs and hobbyists can freely share their information without fear of reprisals from the State, than it becomes far more likely that people looking to start the hobby will be taught what they need to know to avoid these risks. We already allow so many hobbies to exist that carry significant risks. A woodworking lathe operating normally is far more dangerous than a properly functioning still, yet no reasonable person would suggest that woodworking hobbyists should be legally prevented from pursuing their hobby.

Finally, some will suggest that home distillation could undermine the growing Craft Distillation industry in New Hampshire. While I have already spoken to the Hobbyist to Professional pipeline previously, and also how New Hampshire has seen significant growth in Breweries in the decades since legalizing Home Brewing, there are other figures that are worth considering to this point.

New Zealand is one of the only Western nations that has legalized Home Distillation on a broad scale. As a result, it's cultural similarity to the US makes it a reasonable comparison for considering how this may impact the growth of the Liquor industry in the US. Per numbers from the World Health Organization's data book on Annual Revenues from Alcohol Excise Tax for both the US and New Zealand, and cross referencing it with the Population Numbers from the WHO from those same years, we can see the following data:

New Zealand United States
Year Excise Tax (Total) Population Tax per Capita Excise Tax (Total) Population Tax per Capita
1994 $378.3M 3,623,279 $125.29 $7,000M 259,523,192 $26.97
2011 $553.6M 4,418,678 $104.41 $9,200M 311,584,047 $29.53

So in the time since New Zealand legalized home distillation, it's seen it's tax revenues per resident increase by nearly 20%, while the US has only seen about a ~10% increase. Hobbyists love whatever it is they are crafting. In the Craft Beer space we've seen that Hobbyists tend to buy more, and more expensive, Beers, as they explore the hobby. It stands to reason that we would see the same pattern with Home Distillers. Just as with Home Brewing, it stands to reason that Home Distillation is not something that people will engage in expecting it to save money, but because they want to explore the world of liquor.

I sincerely hope that New Hampshire will choose to lead the United States on this issue, and that my legislators will co-sponsor this bill and bring a hobby already enjoyed by a great many Americans out of the dark.

I profited on the Coronavirus Pandemic today.

That wasn't my intent at the outset, but it was what happened as I decided to sell a low-cap stock I picked up months ago that was surging on the back of the COVID-19 Pandemic. I strongly suspect the stock still had plenty of room to keep growing, and certainly when I bought in, I intended to hold the stock for the long term. However, the more I learned about the fundamentals of the company in question, the less good I felt about owning even a relatively small stake in their success.

The company in question? Waitr Holdings.

They are a local restaurant food deliver service, in the same space as UberEats or DoorDash. The seem to differ primarily through a focus on smaller markets than either of their over-capitalized competitors, and I decided to invest early this year as a customer of the company who felt, from what I'd seen, that they were partnering with local restaurants in many markets around the country, and I'd been using the service rarely, but consistently for several years. I felt that their low stock price was more a signal of a bad investor pumping and dumping them into the IPO, and as a publicly traded company they were being held to different standards than their tightly-held competitors.

That was all true, but as I started learning more about the fundamentals of Waitr's relationship with the restaurants, I found myself not wanting to be a shareholder. I'm not even sure I'll continue to be a customer.

Ranjan Roy recently published a post about DoorDash, and how they were bringing delivery to a pizzaria that had never contracted with DoorDash, and in doing, were causing customers to be upset due to poor service, that this restaurant wasn't even offering. He goes on to discuss the incredible quantity of money that DoorDash loses every quarter, as they scramble to reach scale.

This article was the thing that pushed me over the edge. I knew Waitr was losing money, though I had believed they had a way to profitability. I also firmly believe that Waitr has not, and under current leadership, will not, engage in the kind of "trial run" shenanigans that DoorDash was engaged in, but the reminder of how fundamental the problems in this space were was enough to spur me to action.

However, I'd already decided to sell, even before the article, because it was becoming increasingly clear that Waitr's path to profitability was not built on partnership with the Restaurants they work with, but rather via a parasitic relationship that, long term, was only going to harm the restaurants.

In January, Waitr issued their second round of fee increases on restaurants within 6 months. Barely enough time for owners to adjust to the previous terms.

What were these new terms? 30% of the gross of every transaction run through the restaurant. Plus $0.30 + 3.01% of each transaction in credit card handling fees. They've gotten a lot of flak over the credit card handling, but those rates are similar (though slightly higher) than what Square, a company that specializes in payments, takes for e-commerce, though it is probably quite a bit higher than what most restaurants pay for their own in-store fees. Credit Card processing on the Internet is riskier (more fraud), so the processors charge more.

But that 30%? That's a truly bad number. If that's the number Waitr needs for profitability, they don't deserve to exist. The average Restaurant in the US only has a profit margin of 3-5%. Most retail operations sit closer to 12-15% on average. Almost every restaurant is basically constantly on the edge. And that's with us subsidizing their employees wages.

I suspect there are people out there trying to build Food Delivery businesses built on flat fees, which would be more fair to Restaurants. However, with Restaurants frequently raising their in-app prices in an effort to break even, and consumers increasingly catching on to this practice, I no longer think that the industry has legs at all. Not to mention that without dedicated delivery infrastructure, most restaurants just aren't set up to deliver on quality the food they ultimately deliver.

It also ruins the dining experience of many restaurants. These restaurants often have to set aside parts of their dining areas for delivery drivers to loiter while they wait for food to be packaged. This costs them tables in those spaces, but the loitering drivers also tie up waitstaff or the host station, making the dining in experience less valuable and desirable.

If you care about restaurants, order from them directly. These delivery services aren't getting these restaurants more exposure. They're leeching off the restaurant's already thin margins, and this will only end with fewer restaurants.