Swim gear

I seem have a real talent for losing swim gear. In the past year I’ve lost two pairs of goggles by dropping them in the surf, one set of fins by leaving them behind in the locker room, a pair of sandals left behind in the locker room, and countless little bottles of body wash. Plus I’ve nearly lost swim trunks, towels, and other things that have turned up in lost & found. Is this an unusual skill, or just part of the swimming life? I have no idea.


crossposted from Facebook
August 19, 2016 at 08:31AM

Swim gear

Four takeaways from the bankruptcy auction of Gawker Media

Note: I published this first on my newsletter. Please subscribe if you’d like to stay in touch with tech and media analysis like this every few weeks!

Univision is acquiring Gawker Media for $135 million, news reports confirmed this week, beating out Ziff Davis in an auction for the media company’s assets.

Nick Denton founded Gawker in 2002, after selling an early news aggregation site he started, Moreover, and before that a social networking forum, First Tuesday. Those two sales gave him the stake he needed to create a media company of his own: A nice development for a former reporter.

What he understood, early on, was how well-suited the blog format could be to a modern news site. Denton was smart enough to pursue a portfolio strategy, rather than try to be all things to all people: Each site had its focus and its audience. Gizmodo became the go-to site for aggressively sourced and intelligently explained gadget news. Gawker.com took off as a gossipy take on New York media and assorted celebrities.  Valleywag was the on-again, off-again Gawker-style gossip rag for Silicon Valley. Other sites, like Kotaku, Lifehacker, and Jalopnik, pursued their own verticals. In each case, Denton tended to hire independent-minded editors, give them a lot of autonomy, and let them burn themselves out in a frenzy of furious blogging. Turnover was high but many of the early Gawker writers and editors went on to terrific careers in more traditional media, or in more stable startups.

Denton also brought a distinctly British tabloid sensibility to his media company. Some of the things Gawker did, like paying sources for access to juicy stories (like the iPhone 4), are considered distasteful by professional journalists in the U.S. Other things Gawker did, like outing people’s sexuality or publishing their private sex tapes, are considered beyond the pale by almost everyone. But Gawker’s M.O. was consistent: If someone famous was doing it, it was news, and therefore worth posting.

It’s that latter part that got Gawker, and Denton, in trouble. After publishing a Hulk Hogan sex video, the pro wrestling star sued the company, eventually winning a $140 million judgment. It turned out along the way that Hogan’s lawsuit was funded by Peter Thiel, the billionaire cofounder of PayPal, who had been outed by Valleywag writer Owen Thomas in 2007.

Univision’s offer is coincidentally almost exactly equal to that $140M judgment, but that’s just happenstance. Because Gawker filed for bankruptcy, the money from the transaction will remain in escrow until all appeals and adjustments to the award have been settled. Secured creditors will get their money first, and then Hogan will get his payout. Plus, other legal actions (also funded by Thiel) are still pending. Univision is buying this company knowing that it may have to shell out more cash to settle its legal bills, and presumably it’s well prepared. (Update: Jason Calacanis tells me that Univision is buying Gawker’s assets but is probably shielded from the lawsuits, thanks to the bankruptcy. I appreciate the clarification.)

Meanwhile, it emerged that Denton was not just savvy about setting up the journalistic structure of his company: He has also been very smart about its financial structure. Through a series of holding companies he’s managed to transfer a good part of Gawker’s profits offshore, to the Cayman Islands and to Hungary, and he and his family have already extracted some of that money, probably caching it in places where it will be inaccessible to the U.S. courts. Surely he will take a big financial hit, but chances are good that he’ll still be rich when the shouting is over and the sweepers are cleaning up the mess.

In full disclosure: I know Denton a little bit and I like him. In person he’s warm, intelligent, and funny. I interviewed for a job running Valleywag many years ago but wound up going to work at Wired instead (luckily I think).

There are many potential takeaways from all this, but I will focus on just a few.

One, Gawker Media’s websites haven’t been destroyed. Arguably, they’re in a better position than ever, as they are now owned by a giant media corporation with the ability to support them and defend them. They might get a little more circumspect now that they have a legal department overseeing things. But they’ll also be paired with Univision’s other properties, like Fusion, which is smart but has struggled to find an audience. That should be good for both sides.

Update August 18: Well, Gawker.com itself is shutting down. Apparently Univision wants nothing to do with it. But the other sites live on.

Two, a great media brand and a great media business are not the same thing. Gawker did pretty well, with $200 million in revenue and $59 million in profit from 2010 to 2015, according to the Fortune report. Nice, and enough to support Denton’s New York lifestyle. Still, compared to the tech companies it writes about, $12 million in profit a year is not that big of a deal. Compare that to its traffic, which is verifiably terrific. (Denton has always made a practice of publishing traffic numbers openly.) What this sale does is separate a great brand from a decent business, and (with luck) will install that brand inside a larger, more capable business. Other media brands might want to take note.

Three, Denton used every trick in the mogul’s book: Overseas holding companies, a portfolio strategy, strategic bankruptcy. Although he did it on a smaller scale than, say, Rupert Murdoch or Donald Trump, he played the game well. I daresay that is one of the reasons Gawker survived as long as it did.

Four, Thiel’s vengeful funding of a lawsuit against Gawker worries all of us who publish things online. What if someone is offended by what we write? What if that someone is a billionaire who decides to try and sue us out of business? This is a scary proposition, and I don’t want to make light of it. But it’s probably not a harbinger of things to come. It’s telling that Mother Jones has faced a similar situation, and won, thanks to the solidity of its reporting and the tenacity of its lawyers. It’s probably hard to mount a very convincing defense of publishing someone’s sex tapes; publishing a detailed, factual account of what it’s like to work inside a for-profit prison is much more defensible in U.S. libel law. That said, if you want to publish things that might attract controversy like this, buy libel insurance.


Univision is buying Gawker Media for $135 million

Can Tech’s Tattle Tycoon Trump Thiel?

Four takeaways from the bankruptcy auction of Gawker Media

Better yet, Ledecky!

So the 9 year old, who loves to wear soccer jerseys with the names and numbers of his heroes (Ronaldo, Neymar) said this morning he wanted a Team USA Olympics swim cap that said Phelps on it. “Or better yet, Ledecky!” he added. Definitely Ledecky, he said later, because she wins by larger amounts.

Do swimmers do that? Are such things available?

As it turns out, the answers are: No, and yes. Swimmers don’t typically sport swim caps with names other than their own.

The Dude is undeterred: He still wants to wear the swim caps of his heroes.

Better yet, Ledecky!

Recapturing the dream of open social media

It’s hard to imagine now, but the web once meant far more than Google and Facebook. In the early days, there was an explosion of optimism and experimentation as people embraced blogging, mostly via a range of sometimes half-baked open standards that let them publish, share, and communicate with each other. In the days before widespread publishing tools were available, blogging could be janky, it was complex, and sometimes it didn’t work at all. But it was unrestricted, and you owned your own words.

Blogging tools like Blogger and WordPress eventually simplified things a lot. But Facebook took things even further, putting all of the publishing minutia in the background and simplifying the interface. Facebook made it all about sharing and staying in touch with your friends, which as it turns out is all that 99% of people really cared about. You no longer had to worry about setting up a website, figuring out RSS, trying to build lists of links to your friends’ blogs (assuming they even had blogs), and more. You just typed what you were thinking about, maybe uploaded a photo or pasted in a URL, and you were done.

That proved such a compelling proposition that most people abandoned (or never even discovered) the open web. As a result, most of us spend hours per day online, but we never venture beyond sites controlled by a few big media companies. Facebook gets an enormous amount of that time, with the average user spending 50 minutes per day on the site.

The problem is you no longer have much control over what happens to your words — or what you see. Good luck trying to find that really eloquent post you wrote (or your friend wrote) sometime last year: Facebook’s search tools are terrible. If Facebook wants to use your face to promote its service to other people, it can and will. (And frequently does, with website widgets that show people the faces of friends who have “liked” a particular site.) If Facebook decides that you ought to be interested in overnight oats because its algorithm sees that many of your friends are talking about it, that’s what you’re going to see at the top of your feed, like it or not.

With that in mind, many people are starting to think about how they can reclaim ownership of their social experiences, including the words and photos that they share and the news and updates they see. Two interesting posts from very smart people came out yesterday that are relevant to this question.

David Weinberger wrote about how web founder Tim Berners-Lee has a plan called Solid (for Social Linked Data) that lets people do many of the things they currently rely on Facebook for, except in a way that lets them retain control.

With Solid, you store your data in “pods” (personal online data stores) that are hosted wherever you would like. But Solid isn’t just a storage system: It lets other applications ask for data. If Solid authenticates the apps and — importantly — if you’ve given permission for them to access that data, Solid delivers it.

That way, if you wanted to move your social profile from one network to another, you could do so, without having to rebuild all of your friendship connections, profile info, cute profile photos, etc. It would give you portability and choice, and put you back in control of your own online identity.

Separately, Anil Dash posted about the lost infrastructure of social media — the many standards that used to comprise the “blogoverse.”

The core capabilities in the early era of blogging acted as open features for any site, and helped popularize social media itself, regardless of what site the content appeared on. But many of these open features have either disappeared or exist only in proprietary versions on closed platforms today, which means they only work between sites that use the same tools to publish.

Dash goes on to list and describe a vast number of features that have withered away or disappeared with the advent of corporate social media. I think it’s a useful survey because it shows what was lost. In many cases, it’s very clear why Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and the like won out: Because they were much easier to use and more reliable for what people really cared about. But his overview is also a good roadmap for what today’s developers might want to address — if they were interested in building open social networking platforms.

Top photo credit: No limits via photopin (license)

Recapturing the dream of open social media

What I learned in college

I was one of those students who did very well in high school and college, and then, once I graduated, immediately regretted all that diligence.

I knew right away that I should have maybe taken it easier, taken myself less seriously, and been more open to things outside my immediate field of vision. For a long time, my memory of Williams was tinged with frustration and regret.

So when I went to my college reunion a bit more than a month ago, it was a surprisingly emotional experience.

Apart from the predictable emotionalism of seeing old friends, walking around the still-familiar Williams campus, and trying to get my children to understand some fraction of what going to college might actually mean, there was also the surprising feeling of coming to some kind of peace, at last, with what my education left out.

I had spent much of the considerable time since graduation trying to figure out what it was, exactly, that I took from my education–or more specifically, what was worthwhile enough to hang onto. For too long my conclusion was “not much.” I fell early and hard for a particular kind of critical theory that was popular at the time but now seems impossibly dated. (Note: Not this kind of socially useful, Marx-influenced normative critical theory, but the more Derrida-influenced kind of textual analysis. But no more on that: I’m boring you.)

I learned within a few months of graduation that I was unable to represent the main points of what I had studied convincingly in a discussion with anyone who hadn’t already been fully trained in the language of that theory. When you can’t explain something to an outsider, that’s generally a sign that either you don’t understand it, or it’s bullshit, as I would go on to learn as a tech journalist.

In retrospect, I felt like my enthusiasm for this kind of theory, which was of course stoked by a particularly charismatic professor who was its major exponent on campus, blotted out a more balanced kind of liberal education that would have included, say, a broad appreciation of literature, history, and art. I realized I’d spent way too much time trying to impress various teachers. Because I often succeeded at that, it was easy to overlook what I wasn’t doing, which was learning something useful or new. And because those teachers were generally the arrogant asshole type, they never bothered to correct me or guide me toward a more balanced sort of education.

In short, when I graduated I knew a lot of useless theory but had an embarrassingly narrow knowledge of literature, history, or actual people.

I suppose I also had a lingering sense of disappointment that my education hadn’t exactly launched me into a life of responsibility and privilege. One of the unstated benefits of attending a college like Williams is the entrĂ©e it gives you into the upper class: the lawyers, executives, and investors who wield so much power in our country. But I never quite knew how to take advantage of that, and was never really comfortable with trying to cash in on that privilege, either. Other classmates went into law school or Wall Street and did very well for themselves, while I spurned all that. Result: Instead of marrying up or talking my way into a lucrative career, I made the decision to become a journalist and remained firmly in the middle class ever after. File under: Missed opportunities.

But back on campus for the reunion, and looking wistfully at the beautiful new library, I realized finally that a few lasting fragments of my education still stuck with me:

A deep curiosity about things in the world seems basic to the way I think and live, along with an unwillingness to take obvious answers for granted. More to the point, I have a sense that most of what we take for granted is probably concealing something. I’m easily annoyed by people who are not curious about what lies behind appearances.

I have a conviction that I can talk with anyone about anything, and that reasonable people can have spirited, informed discussions, learn from one another, and maybe even learn simply by being forced to defend their thinking. I probably err on the side of politeness and conflict avoidance. But I do think it’s worthwhile to talk with those who disagree with you.

I learned how to really listen, and to show people that you are listening, by focusing on what they’re saying and mirroring and responding to them. This education didn’t come from a classroom, but from a student-led peer counseling program I was part of. Active listening is probably my most useful life skill, personally and professionally. Simply paying attention counts for a lot.

Finally, I absorbed some sense of responsibility toward the world. For those to whom much is given, much is required, as the Jesuit fathers hammered into me in high school. Even though I didn’t wind up on the winning side of the Silicon Valley lottery, I’m grateful for the life I have been able to live here at the epicenter of the tech revolution. I could only have led a career like this one with the habits of thinking and learning that I got at Williams.

If I had advice for a younger version of myself, though, it would be this: Grades aren’t everything. Forget the independent study on Hegel (ffs) and skip the senior thesis. Leave time to read things you are interested in, just because they are fun. Don’t drink quite so much. Take Art History 101 and 102. And take up running: Those hill trails are beautiful.

What I learned in college


  1. Assistant proofreader
  2. Paperboy
  3. Babysitter
  4. Roadside weed whacker crew
  5. Sandwich cook/pizza maker/pizza delivery guy
  6. Door-to-door political canvasser
  7. Photocopy machine operator

All of these by the time I was 20, I think. The assistant proofreader job was my first paying gig, helping my dad proof the galleys of his book. I had to read the original manuscript, making sure to pronounce each punctuation mark: open quote Like this comma close quote while my dad checked the galley against what I was reading.

The paper route I got when I was about twelve, after seeing a neighbor’s home computer — a TRS-80, the first personal computer I’d ever seen — and learning that it was actually within the realm of possibility for ordinary humans to own their own computers. In short order I was able to land a delivery route in my neighborhood, for the local afternoon paper, and held that gig for about a year, which enabled me to save up about $1,200. That was still maybe $300 short of what I needed to buy the Apple ][+ I wanted, but my dad loaned me the difference and we got the computer. That’s where I learned to program, got motivated to learn algebra, perfected my typing skills, and fell in love with the possibilities of technology to transform the way we think and live, an obsession that I’ve held onto more or less continually since.

Number 4 was a summer job with the Ohio Department of Transportation, during the summer before my freshman year of college, secured with the help of a politically well-connected friend and neighbor. It paid well, and the guy in charge of our teenage crew — an ODOT lifer named Eddie who was probably within a couple years of retirement and just didn’t give a shit any more — liked to take extra-long morning, lunch, and afternoon breaks, preferably parking the truck in the shade of a tree and napping. Drivers would sometimes yell at us out their windows as they drove by, justifiably irate at the waste of their tax dollars.

Numbers 5-7 were all jobs I held during a year I took off in the middle of my college career. The pizza job was a particular high point — maybe the most fun I’d had at a paying gig I would have for another decade and a half, until I got a job at Mobile PC in 2003. It was an unusually good combination of a great working crew, fun times after shifts were over, and a job where I actually got into the “flow” of doing my job and the hours just flew by. Plus, there’s honor in making a good sandwich or a good pizza.

I was a terrible door to door canvasser. That job lasted about 3 months. After that, it was a relief to sit in the hospital’s basement copy shop, running off hundreds of copies of various executive presentations or research reports for six hours a day.



Driving down from the Altamont Pass, the highway curves through a long, shallow, descending valley on its way down to the flats of the San Joaquin Valley. Wind turbines on either side, and the occasional cow. Karen noticed the hills rising up from us on the left side were covered in dark green trees, while the hills rising up on the right were grassy, tawny, and treeless. Looking up side valleys we could see what was going on: The left slopes were north-facing and thus moister, the right-hand slopes were facing south and got more sun, and so were drier. West and east-facing slopes were a mix, but it was clear that if you walked around a hill from north to south, you would pass out of trees and brush into open grassland, and that this would happen on hill after hill. Having driven this way dozens of times, we both remarked on how surprising it was we had never before noticed such a fundamental feature of the landscape.

morning fog
noticing the tiny habits
that make a marriage



Floating on the American River with the 15 year old and the 9 year old, who seem so caught up in their own internal narratives that at times they barely notice the river, the flocks of ducks crisscrossing it, the geese flying overhead, the distant blue heron standing on a snag, the dragonflies, the swallows, the shimmering of light and shade on the surface of the water. Try to teach them to paddle and they are strangely recalcitrant, doing things their own perverse way: Seated in the very bottom of the raft and reaching over its big yellow pontoon, for instance, or with both feet dangling off the side while swishing the water in front, or flailing at the water and splashing it up.

The 9 year old insists he’s a confident enough swimmer to float alongside the raft without a life jacket, despite my warnings that he still gets nervous in water that’s over his head. “No I don’t,” he says, contrary to all fact. “I can do it, Dad.” So I let him go over the side, and immediately there’s panic on his face as he realizes his feet can’t touch bottom. He seizes onto the side of the raft and throws an arm over, holding on like a Titanic survivor in the North Sea. Meanwhile I’m trying to get the 15 year old to sit up enough for her paddling to be effective, so we can get the raft in to the shore before we float past our landing. I dig hard with my paddle, she gets a few effective strokes in, and the 9 year old assists by paddling with his free arm in the water, and somehow we all stumble out of the water onto solid ground together.

I realize that there’s nothing you can teach anyone unless they are ready to learn, and to be ready to learn you need a certain degree of humility and curiosity. I’m concerned now that all our attempts to teach them the basics may have been for naught: How to brush their teeth, boil an egg, make a peanut butter sandwich, find a bus downtown, ask where the bathroom is. Not to mention how to paddle a raft, pitch a tent, find a constellation, review a book, create an invoice, or write a poem. If you want to learn new things, you have to get out of your own head enough to be able to hear someone else’s voice, to have some curiosity about the world around you. Given that it took me until I was maybe 35 to start realizing this, I just hope they have enough luck to survive their first 15 or 20 years after they leave home.

a mile downriver—
the mallard
still following us


Motivation and inspiration

It’s been almost exactly a year since I left a salaried job and went independent. This is now the third time I’ve been an independent entrepreneur (not counting the times I’ve launched publications or products within existing corporations), and each time I’ve taken a different approach:

1999: seed-funded startup with one cofounder, attempted to raise venture capital (and failed)

2000-2003: solo business operator, primarily working as a freelance writer but with some contract editing jobs, stopped when I joined a new magazine

2015-present: Sole cofounder of a content agency, working primarily as a solo writer/editor to start but more and more with partners and contractors as the business has been growing.

There is a lot of literature on how to be an entrepreneur, how to think entrepreneurially, and how to create and run a business. There are also plenty of places you can read about the advantages of working as an independent contractor, with the flexibility to set your own schedule and take clients (or not) as you see fit.

But the most striking thing for me is the need — and opportunity — to discover your own motivation. Why do you get up in the morning and get to work? What is your purpose? Why are you doing this particular thing and not that other thing?

When you are creating a new business you have to ask yourself these questions every single day.

By contrast, when you work at a job, you could go weeks, months, or years without ever having to think about what truly motivates you. There is always a task to do, always someone to tell you what needs to be done, always some thing (or twelve) that needs your attention.

There is a level of reassurance to that: You always know what you need to do. But sooner or later, I think everyone who wants to live a meaningful life needs to face the question of purpose. What inspires you? What keeps you going? What do you really most need to be doing, right at this moment, and why?

So the entrepreneurial path is much less comfortable. Some days it’s not certain what is most important, or why. Occasionally it is hard to find that motivation. Some days are all confusion and self-doubt. But other days it’s incredibly fulfilling and life affirming, to be doing what you love and to be working toward a purpose that you feel good about.

And ultimately, being an entrepreneur forces you to find your own purpose. That, for me, has been the most valuable thing about the past year.

Motivation and inspiration