Hopefully the Last Update to the Drupal Fiasco

The following blog post won’t make sense unless you followed the contentious process of Larry Garfield being exiled by Drupal’s community leadership. A substantial portion of the community itself found that decision appalling, so there was a lot of backlash. Followed by counter-backlash. Then counter-counter-backlash.

I wrote two articles about the events as they were unfolding, back in early 2017, and you can catch up on the broad outlines by reading them:

As for primary documents, I recommend Larry Garfield’s five blog posts about his side of events:

And of course the two blog posts from the Drupal Association:

You’re also welcome to dig up the copious Medium, Twitter, and Reddit conversations.

At the center of the conflict — although the Drupal Association danced around saying so outright — was Larry Garfield’s former Gorean partner. She was going by the name Ayelet at the time, and it’s also the name she asked me to use when writing about her. Garfield and Ayelet had a Gor-style Master/slave relationship, a twist on the common BDSM arrangement.

Another twist: Ayelet was, and continues to be, nonverbal by choice. She also suffers from intense social anxiety. According to Ayelet and her partners, these symptoms are manifestations of her acute autism. Ayelet was in her early thirties during her relationship with Garfield.

Garfield brought Ayelet to a Drupal event, and people were confused and concerned by how they related to each other. Ayelet was perceived as oddly standoffish — to be fair, she is — and people didn’t like that Garfield told her what to eat. In general, people interpreted their interpersonal dynamic as authoritarian. The worry was that Ayelet was being abused in some shape or form.

Larry Garfield told me:

The article implies that my telling ayelet what to eat was an M/s thing. While that is a common attribute of M/s relationships, in her case it was because of her autism. She dislikes making small, inconsequential decisions where there’s no clear right/wrong answer (what to eat, what shirt to wear, which roll to take from a bread basket, etc.), so we got into the habit of me selecting that for her. She would lock-up in analysis paralysis if I didn’t. (Larger decisions with a stronger deciding factor she was able to make; she’s a vegetarian even though I am not, for instance, and I never pushed her to change that.)

The Drupal Association got wind of this, along with sundry documentation of Garfield’s interest in Gor. It’s worth noting that Gor is a controversial flavor of kink, and enthusiasts’ commitment can range from casual hobby to complete personal philosophy. On the continuum, Garfield appears to be closer to the latter, although he has disavowed the misogynistic aspects of Gor.

As you may have gathered from the preceding paragraphs, I’ve spoken to Ayelet, as well as her current partner, and the therapist she worked with while she was living with Garfield. In an extraordinary display of transparency, Ayelet and her current partner obtained all the notes that her then-therapist took when she was a patient, and shared them with me.

She also authorized the therapist to speak with me, so I could ask him questions. I verified his identity and contacted him independently. He requested that I not use his name because he doesn’t want to be professionally associated with the whole drama. At this point I’m just going to quote directly from the therapist’s email to me, just cutting out Ayelet’s legal name:

I am the therapist that worked with [redacted] aka Ayelet aka [redacted]. At the request of [redacted], Larry Garfield participated in sessions. At no point in our sessions did I communicate with Ayelet without Larry Garfield.

During the duration of our work together, I did not see any physical signs of abuse. No abuse was reported to me by [redacted] or by Larry. If there was any abuse going on, I was not aware of it. In my observations of [redacted] and Larry were operating in a fully consenting relationship between two adults both able of making independent decisions with regards to each person’s well-being. It was not apparent that either [redacted] or Larry were a threat or danger to one another.

He added, “At no time in the course of the treatment did I feel I need to activate a duty to warn. In fact, the records reflect accurately my experience with [Ayelet] and Larry as best I can recall.” What the records reflect is a profoundly emotionally troubled woman, who struggles with interacting with others, but is strongly bonded to her partner. My own interpretation is that Garfield acted as caretaker as much as romantic counterpart (as does Ayelet’s current partner).

The therapist’s statement, along with having reviewed his copious notes, leads me to personally feel about 95% sure that Ayelet’s relationship with Garfield was unorthodox, certainly, but not abusive or otherwise unethical.

But there’s that one complication he mentioned: “At no point in our sessions did I communicate with Ayelet without Larry Garfield.”

Gathering the information for this update was difficult because of Ayelet’s communication limitations. I don’t blame her for that — disabilities are what they are — but it does make me uncomfortable from a reportorial perspective. Along with being nonverbal, Ayelet doesn’t like to have her thoughts recorded permanently, regardless of the medium. She requested that I not quote her directly at all, only paraphrase her thoughts.

We were only able to speak with her current partner present. They flew out to San Francisco for this purpose, and we met at a hotel on September 22nd. She typed on a computer to me, and also used American Sign Language with her partner, which he translated. She did correct him at times, and she showed me the computer directly, without always showing it to him too.

The most in-depth communication I got from Ayelet was a written statement that she prepared beforehand. This was a substantial concession on her part, she said, even though she was able to erase it immediately after I read it.

Ayelet wrote about how disenfranchised she felt by the whole Drupal ordeal: Her ability to consent dismissed, her perspective not sought by the Drupal authorities (according to her and her partner), and her loved ones endangered. She is now very concerned that her current partner, who takes her to professional events with him, will face the same outrage and ostracism that Garfield did. Ayelet described how hard it was for her to get to a place in her life where she could be herself, autism and anxiety and all, without having to contort her personality in order to survive. That sense of safety and comfort felt threatened. She and her partner say that the fears won’t subside.

That’s something I worried about a lot in writing this story. It’s hard for me to imagine any other scenario where strangers’ casual observations would cause me to question whether a couple’s relationship was consensual. In general I go through life assuming that people’s relationships are kosher, absent clear and obvious evidence otherwise, or an overt allegation from one of the partners. But because Ayelet is autistic and doesn’t communicate in the ways that most people do, I was charged with falsifying the idea that she was essentially being held hostage.

I’m not sure what else I could have done. I still feel uneasy, worried about whether I handled reporting this update correctly. Should I have pushed harder to speak with Ayelet alone? Or would that be a cruel imposition on her? I don’t know. Even though I feel that abuse is an extremely unlikely possibility, given the preponderance of evidence, there’s no way for me to definitively state that Ayelet’s relationships are healthy. I’m not qualified to make that judgment, and the level of access I’d require to even try is impossible. Andrea Shepard pointed out, “Would having ‘healthy’ relationships be framed as a prerequisite for access to love and public life for anyone else?”

She added, “Allegations of abuse by third parties without the support of one of the partners can be a rhetoric of delegitimization, and particularly for someone with a lot of mental health history, are likely to have resonances of forced separation and denial of agency.”

So I don’t know if I did this story justice.

And to be honest, when you really want to get a story right, that can be paralyzing. You write and rewrite and go to sleep thinking about how to frame the events. The dual responsibilities are keenly felt: You have to be fair to the subjects of your story, and prove worthy of your sources’ trust. Equally, you are obligated to be as transparent as possible with your readers and represent the information accurately. That’s a hard balancing act, especially when you can only have an incomplete picture. The facts you’re able to definitively state may be straightforward, but the way in which you contextualize them often isn’t.

All of that is to say, I’m sorry that this update is messy and inelegant. If you have any questions, feel free to email me. I’ll edit this blog post with clarifications as needed. Here’s a snapshot of the original version, for accountability’s sake.


Some feedback relayed by Ayelet’s partner:

I asked her if she thought anything was untrue or wrong, and she did correct that she’s been to more than one Drupal event. She also doesn’t think she’s emotionally troubled, but wonders if that’s more of an opinion. And she doesn’t think social anxiety is accurate, because she doesn’t feel anxious in social settings, so long as people leave her alone or don’t think she’s being rude or worry there’s something wrong with her.

Practical Nootropics; Political Brainhacking

So, this is a first! The following post is about nootropics, a transhumanist tool that I find very appealing. What’s new is that the post is sponsored by Modup.net. Modup is a vendor that sells modafinil online.

Native advertising has been on my radar for years, but I’ve never written a sponsored post before. Modup’s only request was that I link to the website, so I had complete creative freedom. I decided to explain why I think brainhacking is important. My perspective is an outgrowth of the cyberpunk paradigm that I chronicled for Ribbonfarm last year.

However! Before I get into all of that, the next section provides basic context for readers who aren’t familiar with nootropics or modafinil. Otherwise, scroll down to “In Favor of Manipulating the Wetware” and start there.

A Brief Introduction to Nootropics

A single modafinil tablet in a blister pack. Photo by Geoff Greer.
A single modafinil tablet in a blister pack. Photo by Geoff Greer.

Wikipedia describes nootropics as “drugs, supplements, or other substances that improve cognitive function, particularly executive functions, memory, creativity, or motivation, in healthy individuals.” Caffeine is by far the most widely used nootropic, although it’s doubtful that the average caffeine user thinks of it that way.

A more typical example of a “smart drug” is modafinil, the product that Modup sells. Fans of modafinil describe the effects that you’d expect from super-charged caffeine — boosted alertness, concentration, and general mental acuity. Modafinil’s official purpose is to treat narcolepsy and other sleep disorders. As a cognitive enhancer, the drug is very popular, perhaps the best-known nootropic that isn’t a mainstream product.

Modafinil is supposed to be prescription-only in the United States, but it’s one of those illegal things that rarely prompt punishment, like driving five miles over the speed limit. Plenty of Americans purchase and use modafinil on a regular basis without any issues. Nevertheless, I am not a lawyer, so don’t interpret the previous two sentences as legal advice.

Whenever you’re buying nootropics online — even the legal ones — you should search for reviews and conduct due diligence. For example, the /r/modup subreddit has reviews from the past few months. Here’s a 2015 blog post including a Modup review, a more thorough 2016 review, and lastly a 2017 blog post. Feel free to Google for more.

And now, our feature presentation…

In Favor of Manipulating the Wetware

Some people hate the idea of using drugs to alter their mental state. It seems unnatural and aberrant, or they worry that they won’t be themselves anymore.

I’m not one of those people. I love being able to tailor how I feel — that’s what my daily antidepressants do, and I owe my life to those pills. Being able to tweak my mindset more easily, in more ways, would be wonderful.

When I’m irritable, the usual culprit is hunger, and eating fixes the problem. In an ideal world, that’s how I would manage every part of my cognitive life. Feeling scatterbrained despite a tight deadline? Pop some focus pills, that’ll do that trick!

I am not actually this cool. Photo by MeTaVoLuT1oN PsY-ph0toNiCs (yes, like the Spongebob meme).
Detail from a photo by MeTaVoLuT1oN PsY-ph0toNiCs.

The level of control that I want isn’t available in real life. Neither is the degree of instant gratification — at least not yet! In the meantime, while we wait for someone to invent an omnipotent neuroscience AI or whatever it is that keeps Elon Musk up at night, nootropics are the next best thing.

The usual approach is to devise a nootropics “stack” (combination of substances) that meshes well with your personal biochemistry. The goal is to augment your existing cognitive abilities and make it easier to reach the “flow” state of optimal productivity. In principle, it’s exactly like drinking a couple of beers in order to hit the Ballmer Peak — but hopefully minus the downsides of alcohol.

To me, the most alluring aspect of nootropics is having more power over how I experience and interact with the world. But I try not to fool myself by exaggerating what’s possible. No pill in the world will double my IQ, reprogram all my bad habits, and dispose of pesky emotional baggage.

So far I haven’t assembled a nootropics stack that works for me. I know that if I do, the best-case scenario looks like temporary periods of incremental improvement. I can imagine being a smidgen better at everything, just a little bit sharper and extra motivated. That would be a fantastic result, well worth pursuing! But I admit that it lacks Hollywood drama.

I should also note that simple lifestyle basics are the most reliable and effective self-improvement regimes. It’s wise to prioritize eating a balanced diet, sleeping as much as you need to, and exercising regularly. (For what it’s worth, the /r/Nootropics FAQ backs me up on that. But no, I am not great at practicing what I preach.)

Artwork by Rodolphe Bessey
Artwork by Rodolphe Bessey.

Although I try to maintain reasonable expectations, I still find the world of nootropics exhilarating. It feels like the future is extending a helping hand to the present. Accordingly, I love the gritty sci-fi glamour of “brainhacking,” an occasional synonym. “Nootropics” is anodyne, even clinical — the sound is corporate. It could easily be a brand name. Whereas “brainhacking” elevates the mundanity of drinking coffee in the morning or worrying about micronutrients.

On top of that, I appreciate the linguistic nod to the cypherpunks who unleashed everything. The nootropics ecosystem couldn’t function in the analog world.

Because of the internet, curious consumers can dig through endless information, ranging from hard research to rigorous blog posts to trip reports to hundreds of casual anecdotes. On the supply side, vendors are able to aggregate consumers from all over the globe, instead of having to rely on the limited market in a particular city or town.

Most importantly, the internet obviates the need to ask medical gatekeepers for permission. I may not be a full-on libertarian or a crypto-anarchist, but I have enough of a rebellious streak to resent a nanny state built to perpetuate regulatory capture.

Using nootropics is a potent expression of personal agency, both micro and macro. Brainhacking means exercising your rights to self-determination and free association.


Thank you to Modup.net for sponsoring this blog post! Please consider Modup if you’re looking to buy modafinil online. Paying with bitcoin gets you a hefty 33% discount. (That’s 13% more than the vendor I used recently!)

PR Advice for Startups From an Actual Reporter

“How I got press coverage for my dinky seed-stage startup” is a common topic in places like /r/Entrepreneur, but it’s pretty rare for a journalist’s perspective to be included. Well, I’m a full-time tech reporter who’s been following and writing about the industry for several years. I don’t claim to be a veteran, but I certainly receive a lot of pitches from or about startups. I would appreciate it if the caliber of those pitches improved!

(I also owe a hat-tip to Sean Byrnes; last week he asked me how I decide which emails to pay attention to and which companies to cover. That’s why this subject is top-of-mind.)

Before we get into the suggestions, one caveat: Unless you have a Trumpian sixth sense for publicity, you will probably get farther by following my advice than you will by following your instincts. However, that doesn’t mean that my preferences generalize to literally all reporters.

Optimal Attitude

You’re not heading into a fair contest.

For one thing, the supply-demand dynamics are against you. Tech journos are inundated with pitches on a daily basis, and we only have so much time. That’s why you should adjust your approach to make our lives more convenient, whereas we can delete three times as many emails as we respond to.

For another thing, reporters are strongly biased in favor of companies or founders that our readers already know about. Especially at general-interest publications. “Popular Entrepreneur Does Thing” will usually generate more reader excitement than “Unknown Entrepreneur Does Thing” and journalists are keenly aware of that. Companies like Google or Facebook could be terrible at PR and they’d still get covered nonstop, because readers love hearing about them.

I’m sure it’s frustrating, but that’s just how the incentives work out. You’ll have a better time if you accept the unfairness and tailor your approach to giving your company the best chance possible.

Necessary Elements

Emails that don’t satisfy these requirements are wayyy more likely to be trashed immediately.

Within the first few sentences, say who you are and what your relationship is to the company. If you’re the founder, I want to know that. If you’re the head of comms, I want to know that. Etc, etc.

Explain the company’s purpose — what it does and what the product is. Be concrete and use plain English! Cliché or baffling jargon is an immediate turnoff. (This step isn’t necessary if your company is well-known, but if that’s the case, why are you even reading this post?)

Don’t pretend that you closely follow my coverage of blah blah blah, unless it’s actually true. Acceptable: “Since you wrote about [whatever topic], I think you might also be interested in covering [similar topic].” Annoying: “I really enjoyed your article about [whatever topic], and [insincere flattery].” C’mon — I am skeptical for a living.

That said, please do look at what I’ve written about before, and don’t pitch me if your company is not even remotely on my beat! It’s a waste of everyone’s time. The automated “spray and pray” approach to PR can work when executed well, but only if you manage to reach journalists who write about your subsegment of the industry.

Sparking Interest

Beyond the basic email etiquette outlined above, here are the criteria I use to evaluate whether a startup is worth more attention:

Does the product sound like it’s useful, and does the company have a business model? Yes on both counts = you pass this round. Yes on product = maybe. No to both = do not pass Go; do not collect $200.

Did the company actually do something? “Hey, my startup exists” is far less compelling than a genuine event. If you want to be in the news, do something newsworthy! Examples:

  • raising money
  • launching a product
  • changing strategy or pivoting
  • hiring a notable person

Side projects and internal initiatives can also qualify.

Will the company share metrics? Revenue is the best one, but hardly anyone discloses that. DAUs, MAUs, number of paid seats or licenses, MRR, burn rate — going on the record with financial details of any kind automatically makes you more interesting to me. Especially if the figure hasn’t been reported before!

Is there external validation? VCs can serve this purpose, as can advisors or notable customers. If Elon Musk called the founder a brilliant person, you will have an easier time getting covered.

6/15/2017 Update

I got the following text from a PR person who introduced me to a relatively early-stage startup:

I’m wrapping up the freelance gig with [company] and wanted to re-engage before I do and see if you wanted to revive this. Any feedback is helpful to them, too. What they’re doing is unique but I honestly struggled to get their name out there.

I responded:

Hey! So, in this case I wanted to write about the company or do a video but didn’t have buy-in from my editors for a dedicated piece.

Also, PR operates on long time-cycles. (You can tell them I said so.) it wouldn’t be surprising if I have a reason to mention [company] in the future. Knowing about the company and how it works means I have someone to tap if I’m going to write about [industry], for example

I probably didn’t do a good enough job distinguishing my enthusiasm about the idea from a guarantee of coverage — I can’t really ever guarantee that, and I’m trying to be more proactive about saying so

Tl;dr you did a fine job, but the stars didn’t align on my end

Hopefully that exchange adds some context about how this works in practice.


That’s it! Let me know if you have any questions. I’m smann@inc.com, me@sonyaellenmann.com (checked much less frequently), and @sonyaellenmann on Twitter.

Amazon PR on Whether Scammers Use the Platform

I had this conversation with an Amazon PR person — whose name is withheld for their privacy — as part of my reporting on the company for Inc. I’m publishing the transcript here so that readers will have access to a fuller picture of Amazon’s perspective. The “dear so-and-so” bits have been cut, but otherwise this is copy-pasted verbatim from the email exchange (except for one redacted bit, which is noted, and prettified links).

Continue reading “Amazon PR on Whether Scammers Use the Platform”

Fediverse Q&A with Patreon

I went to Patreon HQ today for work. (In case you didn’t know, I’m a tech reporter at Inc.) Beforehand, I asked the Fediverse if they had any burning questions for the Patreon team. Here are the questions — all of which you can see in the original thread if you wish — and the answers I got. No particular order, and I just copy-pasted the questions.

Would be cool if we could get them to talk about how Operation Choke Point affects their business — which things would they like to support but had to not? I’d also prolly ask about cryptocurrency plans

More on this coming soon. I forgot to ask about cryptocurrency support, though — my bad! I’m going to send Patreon staff a link to this post, so maybe they’ll get back to me about that.

how can they make patreon more friendly to open source maintainers. They put in a lot of work to maintain software that a lot of companies make millions off of. How can we maintain their genius with a for-profit set up that displays their skills?

OSS is definitely on Patreon’s radar. They have ideas in this area that are off-the-record (sorry, I know that’s annoying) but I think y’all would approve of the possibilities they’re considering.

ask ’em about smol, zero-dollar a month users
I’m not sure what exactly, but go for it anyway

This question prompted a really interesting conversation — thanks Sargoth! We talked about how low-level financial support can help a person level up their hobby. For example a YouTuber might use Patreon to buy studio lights. My personal Patreon funds my MailChimp subscription!

What did you have for lunch today is always my answer to the question of “ama” or “what should I ask?”

I visited before lunchtime, but for breakfast they had quiche, and a Patreon employee made sourdough bread as part of an internal hackathon. (I love the idea of hacking bread.) They shared some with me; it was delicious.

What breed of cat does the admin have

It’s actually a fox, not a cat! The first designer that Patreon hired, several years ago, had a thing for foxes. That led to a cute cartoon fox becoming their company emblem. From the 404 page:

Patreon 404 fox

What a cutie, right?! Patreon also recently published a blog post about their procedurally generated fox icons.

(It is possible that I misunderstood this question.)

why give 5% of $ to trump packer

I asked this person to elaborate but I still don’t understand what they’re referring to. The Patreon staff were nonplussed too.

WHY CAN WE NOT DO INDIVIDUAL PAYMENTS

I mean, I get the whole shtick of the site, but there’s times I want to give an *immediate* bump to somebody I’m patreonizing, and it’s dumb to have to go somewhere else to do that when the payment pipeline is already *right there*.

Basically, this is on the list of desired features, but it hasn’t risen to the top. Patreon has to triage what they work on first, and enabling one-time payments hasn’t made the cut for strategic reasons.

why is it so hard to delete your account?

Patreon made it hard to delete your account on purpose, because they’re worried about creators’ incomes being jeopardized in the event of a hostile account takeover (hacking, an abusive spouse, etc).

1) What happened to you hair?
2) Did you use Homer Simpson’s make up shotgun?
3) When was the last time you went to the gym?

The response to this was basically ????? and I share the Patreon staffers’ confusion.

maybe ask them how their flagging thingy works, and what they do to prevent false positives like https://youtu.be/RtvQm5_eUaY?t=87

I missed this question, for which I apologize. I will follow up with my main Patreon contact.

How can Patreon more directly fund the passion projects of creators?

Another one I missed! Again, my bad.

are they looking at implementing an group/project oriented funding models? Right now they have accounts that represent groups, or figure heads that represent entire operations – but I’d prefer something that works better for loose collectives (non formal organizations) and helps divy out money.

Yep, this is on their radar, but it’s difficult to implement — both legally and logistically. One of the staff members I spoke with mentioned that Patreon has dealt with contentious multi-person account issues before, and it’s a huge headache for everyone involved.

That’s all, thanks everybody!

Disclosure: I am a member of the Amazon Associates program. If you click on an Amazon link from this site and subsequently buy something, I will receive a small commission (at no cost to you).