Author: Brendan

My most meaningful work of 2021

Last year, in cooperation with many of my friends on a private social network, I took an idea from neighborhood organizations here in Chicago and started a small online-only mutual aid fund. Over twelve months, we distributed more than seven thousand dollars from some friends to others, mostly in increments of $100 USD. I want to be clear that everyone involved in that system was of equal importance to its operation: people have to identify and articulate their need for help in order for donations to have a place to go, and both asking and donating take courage and labor. A number of the people involved made requests at one point and donations at another, which I think illustrates how important the fluidity of a mutual aid project can be. Here are the steps we took to get it running.

  1. In the fall of 2020 I started a new PayPal account, connecting it to a small, otherwise-unused free checking account I had signed up for when I arrived in Chicago so I could use local ATMs.
    • The login email address was the incoming-mail address for a mailing list I created with Mailman. While having a mailing list was good, I wouldn’t actually recommend taking this particular step–it became a headache. Instead, it would have been better to get a free email account and set that account to automatically forward messages to everyone who wanted to help with admin.
  2. For a few months, we kept the idea of the fund quiet. I would put a little money in the PayPal account each time I got paid, and others on the admin team did the same. By January, we started reaching out in private to friends in our networks who had mentioned feeling squeezed financially, and made our first couple of disbursements. We chose $100 as our standard disbursement arbitrarily, but it’s worked out okay: it’s a round number, easy to remember, both significant enough to be helpful and relatively easy to raise.
  3. We set up the account’s paypal.me vanity URL with both “send” and “request” buttons, which made it easy for anyone who knew about the fund to interact with it, including people in countries outside the US.
  4. My friend Vanessa spent months working on a quilt and kindly offered it as a prize for donations. This was when we started telling more friends (still only by word of mouth) about the fund, and offered up to five raffle tickets per person at $5 each. Many friends gave more than $25 just because they were glad to offer it, and the days leading up to the raffle became the most significant week for donations all year. But it also spread word that the fund existed, so we got a number of requests that week too, allowing for the redistribution of most of the donated money quickly.
  5. To keep track of our numbers, we set up a simple check-register-style shared spreadsheet with one column for date/time, one for the admin making the entry, one for credits, one for debits, one for the updated account balance, and one for an MD5 hash of the name of the donor or requester. Several of us, with strong mutual trust, shared the password for the PayPal account. (I was glad to have that trust, since it was still technically linked to my bank account. No money entered or left the bank, though; we only worked out of the PayPal balance.)
    • The reason for those hashed names was to protect privacy to some degree while still keeping an eye out for weird patterns, since many people who interacted with the fund were more than one degree of separation from the admin team. No such patterns emerged, I believe thanks the network of social trust already in place.
  6. Once in a while, one of the admins would mention the fund and note whether it had some unused cash or was tapped out, which tended to produce a small bump in requests or donations. As soon as there was enough money in the account to fulfill an outstanding request, we did so, without asking for justification or calculating who requested how often. When someone asked for more than the standard $100, we would try to fulfill it if the balance was high enough and there were no other outstanding requests; otherwise, we would cancel the initial request and send $100 in its place.
  7. By glad coincidence, our number of donations and requests balanced out very well, and at the end of the year there was a balance of $30 left in the account.

I sincerely don’t know if we were operating within the PayPal terms of service, so I’m not advising you to replicate the steps above yourself, but I think I can say that the flow of money was small enough that we didn’t seem to attract any scrutiny. There are a number of consumer fake-bank services in the PayPal space now, of course, but the single memorable URL endpoint and the ability to transfer money across borders were useful features. In future, we’re hoping to shift the account to a cheap corporate entity and let an accountant figure out any potential tax situations, but this setup worked well enough to prove the concept.

I want to emphasize again that a crucial factor in the operation of this plan, perhaps only second to people’s willingness to ask and to give, was the existing network of trust among interconnected small groups of friends. The fund is a tech solution to a social problem, but it would be no solution at all without people’s strong and meaningful ties to one another. Once my friends and my friends’ friends had done the work of building those bonds, all we needed was free tools, grace, and will. No blockchain ledger, no web3, no crypto, no “trustless” transactions. All of our transactions were made firmly on a foundation of trust. Even here in the Shrieking Twenties, when a million people are poised to jump down your throat insisting that mathematically-provable Beanie Babies are the infinite solution to all human problems, ordinary friends can still cobble things like this together out of the Web We Lost. It isn’t all lost yet.

“I can’t help but wonder how rich our lives could be if we focused a little more on creating conditions that enable all humans to exercise their creativity as much as we would like robots to be able to.”

“This, to me, is the definition of a desert island film: a foundational text, a perennial source of comfort, a go-to reference that lives, in the parlance of today’s youth and the adults who want to be like them, rent-free in one’s brain.”

This is a content warning.

Last year I wrote about an Ars Technica article that appealed to technical experts for help perfecting every last possible system involved in emulating the Super Nintendo. I think it’s clear from that post that I felt a certain envy of the sense of purpose conveyed by its author, byuu, who also went by Near and by Dave. But I remember thinking, too, that their saying “I’m getting older, and I won’t be around forever” was a little surprising to read from someone deeply invested in a video game system from the 1990s. I’m getting older too, but not quite to the point of hurrying to put a capstone on my legacy yet.

Near was indeed not much older than me, but they meant what they said. This week, after years of organized and escalating cruelty directed at them and at their loved ones, they took their own life.

The purpose of a system is what it does. The purpose of the internet is in part to publish and distribute a unique and valuable life’s work. The purpose of the internet is also, in part, to torture people until they die. Sometimes it works.

Everybody I talked to in the course of reporting this story said some variation on “I hope Isabel is okay.” And she is. Sort of. In the months I’ve spent emailing Isabel Fall, she’s revealed herself to be witty and thoughtful and sardonic and wounded and angry and maybe a little paranoid. But who wouldn’t be all of those things? Yet I’m emailing with a ghost who exists only in this one email chain. The person who might have been Isabel has given up on actually building a life and career as Isabel Fall. And that is a kind of death.

Emily VanDerWerff, whose writing I have long enjoyed, has a piece of extraordinary nuance, precision and grace there. I’m grateful that Kat nudged me to read it. If you haven’t read it already, I would take it as a personal favor if you do.

Monster Pulse

I’ve been a fan of Magnolia Porter Siddell for a long time. Today she posted the last page of Monster Pulse, making it one of the only webcomics I have ever seen tell a cohesive, consistent, and conclusively satisfying story via the steady mechanism of Monday-Wednesday-Friday updates over the course of years. Ten years! That’s an extraordinary achievement, even apart from the sheer wonder and grace of her storytelling, and I think it’s one of the great success stories of the medium in the 2010s. Porter Siddell pursued evolution and risk in her art, stayed true to her inspirations while exploring far beyond their boundaries, and never let her readers down. I can’t wait to buy the print editions all over again. Re-read Monster Pulse!

Toward Translucency

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Last week I did something I’ve been putting off for six years: I went back through this entire blog, one page at at time, and locked away a few hundred of its two thousand entries. Most of those, but not all, were from the very early days of this millennium, when I still regularly listened to dialup noise before I could put a text file through a transfer protocol to publish things here. Some friends and I would eventually guess a few things right about the future of the internet. But I did not anticipate the future of Brendan. That’s in part because I didn’t know who Brendan was.

Reading through my public diary in full, for the first time in a long time, the feeling that emerged for me was… well, a bit less chagrin and resentment than has been there in the past. (Therapy!) In the past that feeling has obscured the text, preventing me from looking clearly at my own writing. What I saw this time was that through years of trying on different voices, whether projecting unearned assurance or closely imitating people whose assurance I envied, I was aching for an identity I had not found.

A lot of the things I would end up wincing at were attempts to write out ideas I didn’t even really support, just to practice thinking through them—things I then left to stand in the record while I moved on inside my own head. Many more were attempts to summon a Brendan who could achieve validation and love from the internet, the validation and love he didn’t know how to show himself, if he just put the right words in the right order. The blunt term for both cases, I think, is “sophistry.” But I’ve done enough excoriation over that. What I saw this time was that I had a lot of years of stumbling to do before I stubbed my toe on something that looked like self-knowledge. Starting to unearth it took years beyond that.

I think at least once a week, if not once a day, about the Web we lost. Right now I’m having complex and tangled feelings about the Web in which I started this thing. It was gentler, in some ways, than the milieu in which I’m writing this now—one where the idea of sudden attention makes me feel more fear than excitement. It was also exclusionary. The only reason I was able to start writing here, half my life ago, was my place at the pinnacle of privilege. That privilege has also extended me tremendous benefit of the doubt from all the people who have read this stuff and still decided to be my friends. I don’t plan to take either for granted anymore.

Deprecating a moment of pique I typed out about someone I dated for two weeks, which I then left on the whole internet for anyone in the world to read for twenty years, is not going to hide the search, the work, or the ache to figure out who I was. I’m not trying to polish my image here, or make it appear that I never held opinions I now reject. (I did! Lots of them! They might still be on the Wayback Machine!) What I’m trying to do instead is forgive the old Brendan for all the things he left for future Brendan to regret. And forgiveness means letting some of those things go to rest.