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Freenet 0.7.5 build 1491, codename “platform support”, is now available. Download Freenet This build is a bugﬁx release that improves operation on different platforms and with different local setup. It ships cleanups to the pitch black defense and to…
Freenet 0.7.5 build 1490 codename “pitch black streaming” is now available. Download Freenet Freenet 0.7.5 build 1490 is now available. This release provides three different changes: streaming in the browser,mitigating the pitch black attack,…
Freenet 0.7.5 build 1489 codename “solstice” is now available. Download Freenet This release adds an m3u-ﬁlter that enables safe access to m3u-playlists. Together with the existing support for media ﬁles (Audio using mp3, Ogg Vorbis, or Flac, and…
Freenet 0.7.5 build 1488 is now available. This build improves translations to make Freenet more inviting for people around the world: update French, add Hungarian.For additional details see the release tag for 1488.You can download this release as…
Nowadays especially it’s nice to have things to read. New things, things from various sources and various voices, various minds talking about their thoughts and experiences, telling their stories, posting pictures and things that are relevant to them. A couple of years ago, maybe 8 or 10 so maybe longer than a lot of people will be able to remember, there were blogs on the internet. You could search around and they’d come up even in websearch, and you’d ﬁnd yourself reading someone’s blogs. Maybe it was chronicles of their life as they got a job teaching in Japan and how it was leaving American for the ﬁrst time and all the new things there and skateboarding and meeting people and trying to meet girls, or a photographer working for a while in Minorca or some island off Spain when music hit a rock scene period and all the young people were dressing up in leather and tight jeans and going out dancing to dance rock and writing about his thoughts on where he ﬁt into the scene as he was kind of older but not old, or a compilation of weird and unexplained science and gnostic wisdom, or the things some guy was making out of wood or electronics in his garage, or some Japanese girl who posted pictures of herself looking extremely pink and pneumatic and writing little things with them.
Nowadays when everyone is on lockdown and there are days with nothing but spaces of time to pass, nights too, and you can make a hot tea or a coffee and sit down but when you look there’s nothing to read. You can’t access those unique voices writing about the things they care about, that are happening to them.
The other day I searched for an hour and couldn’t ﬁnd even one. They used to be endless. You’d just click on one you knew on Blogger and either click Blogger’s random blog button, or go to the sidebar of the blog you knew where they always had a list of blogs they liked, sometimes four or 5, sometimes 20 other blogs. And the same with Tumbler.
Blogs used to exist because there were blogging platforms. But Blogger was shut down by Google years ago, and the blogs on there have been disappearing until now you just can’t ﬁnd really any, and they’re not indexed in search anymore. Tumbler also was used by people to blog about their lives and interests, although there were also a lot of just pictures blogs, but it recently changed its policy and now permits no NSFW content, which compromised basically every blog that mentioned something not completely PG. All the old Tumbler blogs I had bookmarks for I can’t even access anymore because they were deemed by Tumbler to have NSFW content. I think about how those people must feel after putting all that work into making such a special thing and then Tumbler just destroys it. And that’s the end. There’s no way to ﬁnd blogs, and no one is writing them because there’s no platform for them.
But they would be the one thing I’d bring back to the internet if I could bring one thing back. They’re the thing I miss the most and the most often. They were the most valuable thing on here, besides freer availability of news, free although low quality video content on YouTube, and I guess some kinds of social media. But blogs are something you can sit down and read and get really into to the point you forget where you even are, and think about how you want to try those things maybe in your life, or just enjoy their writing, and you can read deeper into them into past blog posts, and tune back in later and see what they’ve posted since the last things you read about them.
When you search for blogs now on you see things like ‘Top 100 Blogs.’ ‘How to Make a Successful Blog.’ ‘Most Powerful 50 Blogs.’ But what you really want is 10,000 unsuccessful blogs. Web search now suggests ideas for your blogs to get views, shares, indexed, but what you really want is no ideas. It’s almost impossible now to ﬁnd a blog that’s not on a focused theme because that’s what search engines focus on and how websites proﬁt. But you want the opposite, a blog that never tried to focus or even thought about it. There used to seem to be endless search results indexed by Google and the other search engines that were killed by Google. Maybe you’d see 40,000 results for your search. Now it says there are 40,000 but you only get 10 or 20 pages of results you can get to, all basically corporate and lame. You can’t get to the 100th page anymore. It’d be nice even if someone built a crawler-indexer that you could use to search for everything including things that weren’t popular or judged by algorithms to be ‘relevant.’ The problem with alternative engines like DuckDuckGo is they just use Google Search and don’t crawl and index things in their own way. If they did they’d be fun and useful to use for reasons other than protection of privacy. Although some people say Google is becoming more and more useless to the point it won’t be revived and may collapse for this reason although even if that were true we’d still have to suffer with it for years.
A couple of notes, in case anyone is thinking of starting a new blogging platform:
There’s no point if you’re not going to protect people, and that means their privacy. Nowadays people won’t share content simply because they don’t trust the internet to share content to it. You have to provide for them to be anonymous and protected forever, which means letting people create accounts easily with just an email or something similar, and log into them or recover their password throught the email if they lose their password, and never any locking them out because you noticed suspicious activity or anything bogus like that and making them provide personal details. That is abuse of trust and abuse of people. They have to be able to blog without thinking someone is going to bring it up and ﬁle it away forever and maybe they won’t get a job because of it, or their tyrannical government will think they’re an agitator and attack them or an adversary will use it for selective characger defamation sometime. They have to be able to abandon a blog, start a new one, blog there, abandon it, etc. Otherwise they won’t feel free to write, so you may as well not say you’re going to provide a blogging platform for people if you won’t protect them.
Privacy protection and the inability of this to be changed to be used maliciously must be baked in at the start. I doubt Larry and Sergei or even Gates would have created what they did the way they did if they knew what it would be used for. Those guys now can try to ﬁnd other things to do with their lives now, or make up for it with charity, but their inventions are tools terribly used against people on such an extreme level. Anybody creating anything they think might someday become big should bake in at the start prevention against the possibility it could be used negatively when it becomes useful to powerful entities. I’m not sure the hosting servers could be based in the US because the US doesn’t protect privacy or internet usage. I’m not sure where does. I read that Argentina has constitutional law that protect insternet expression, although that freedom is tempered by the prohibition of writing about their own government. Entitites that hate that Argentina has a protected free speech internet while the US and Canada and Europe don’t protect human rights on the internet will say ’Well because of that Argentina is providing for terrorism and harming children, the two favorite claims of people who want to attack people or systems when those people or systems haven’t done anything actually wrong and they need to raise alarm in their supporters. Of course, those acts are prohibited in Argentina, but speech and expression on their internet is not, including of those things, as far as I know. I mean, just the idea: ‘illegal information.’ ‘Illegal speech.’
I’m not sure how a platform could be protected. Perhaps by partnering early with a trusted, transparent organization like the EFF and having them publicly audit the platform on a regular basis and saying that if this is ever altered and public transparent regular audits of the platform stop it’s users should immediately consider it compromised and stop using it. Another thing might be to route all trafﬁc through a VPN, a kind of server-side VPN protection, so while ISPs would log the domain they wouldn’t be able to log which speciﬁc blogs they visited or what they did there.
Also, you have to keep the content on the server of backed up forever, otherwise they won’t feel their effort in blogging for years will be worthwhile if the platform will someday just erase it like Blogger and Tumbler did. Maybe the platform doesn’t have a ton of money so it has to not save the images or videos, but at least the text should be maintained.
Also, the platform must be profitable or promise future proﬁt without abusing users or guests. This can simply be ads provided by one of the big internet ads companies or an ads company that’s part of the platform. Not too many ads so the blogs are ruined, but maybe an ad at the bottom or perhaps the top and bottom, preserving the space that belongs to the blogger. A Patreon or other anonymous ﬁnancing option could also be an option. Also the company probably should not ever go public, as we have seen how the involvement of a couple of big corporations or governments made the internet (and past forms of expression) worse, and that any degree of involvement of either of these two things will eat away or completely destroy it.
Ie, a platform where people can securely and privately blog, where it can’t be converted into a tool for abuse of people, and where freedom of privacy, thought, expression and discussion is maintained and there is no ‘chilling effect on speech.’
The other thing is we miss out on opening up our real lives and sharing our lives and their lives with the rest of the world. 7b people. What we miss. Out there we could meet on our blogs real friends, lovers, people we could learn from, and in this shrinking world we could probably meet them when we go traveling or they do. But people if they were allowed to be sincere could write their real thoughts and stories and experiences in our comments, or we could ﬁnd their blogs. This is something that is just taken off the table in the current state of the internet, where the lack of solid privacy prevents people from sharing their real selves or speaking from the heart or really. That’s why the internet, people’s phones, their computers, and people to a large extent develop daily and by the hour in superﬁciality and socially conservatively/defensively and not really as people.
Some people have started to send blog links. You can comment whatever you want of course, but here’s a page on reddit where you can post links to blogs as well: https://old.reddit.com/r/TTTThis/comments/gqivbv/post_links_to_blogs_worth_a_look_here/
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A week after the pandemic forced Minneapolis students to attend classes online, the city school district’s top security chief got an urgent email, its subject line in all caps, alerting him to potential trouble. Just 12 seconds later, he got a second ping. And two minutes after that, a third.
In each instance, the emails warning Jason Matlock of “QUESTIONABLE CONTENT” pointed to a single culprit: Kids were watching cartoon porn.
Over the next six months, Matlock got nearly 1,300 similar emails from Gaggle, a surveillance company that monitors students’ school-issued Google and Microsoft accounts. Through artiﬁcial intelligence and a team of content moderators, Gaggle tracks the online behaviors of millions of students across the U. S. every day. The sheer volume of reports was overwhelming at ﬁrst, Matlock acknowledged, and many incidents were utterly harmless. About 100 were related to animated pornography and, on one occasion, a member of Gaggle’s remote surveillance team ﬂagged a ﬁctional story that referenced “underwear.”
Hundreds of others, however, suggested imminent danger.
In emails and chat messages, students discussed violent impulses, eating disorders, abuse at home, bouts of depression and, as one student put it, “ending my life.” At a moment of heightened social isolation and elevated concern over students’ mental health, references to self-harm stood out, accounting for nearly a third of incident reports over a six-month period. In a document titled “My Educational Autobiography,” students at Roosevelt High School on the south side of Minneapolis discussed bullying, drug overdoses and suicide. “Kill me,” one student wrote in a document titled “goodbye.”
Nearly a year after The 74 submitted public records requests to understand the Minneapolis district’s use of Gaggle during the pandemic, a trove of documents offer an unprecedented look into how one school system deploys a controversial security tool that grew rapidly during COVID-19, but carries significant civil rights and privacy implications.
The data, gleaned from those 1,300 incident reports in the ﬁrst six months of the crisis, highlight how Gaggle’s team of content moderators subject children to relentless digital surveillance long after classes end for the day, including on weekends, holidays, late at night and over the summer. In fact, only about a quarter of incidents were reported to district ofﬁcials on school days between 8 a.m and 4 p.m., bringing into sharp relief how the service extends schools’ authority far beyond their traditional powers to regulate student speech and behavior, including at home.
Now, as COVID-era restrictions subside and Minneapolis students return to in-person learning this fall, a tool that was pitched as a remote learning necessity isn’t going away anytime soon. Minneapolis ofﬁcials reacted swiftly when the pandemic engulfed the nation and forced students to learn from the conﬁnes of their bedrooms, paying more than $355,000 — including nearly $64,000 in federal emergency relief money — to partner with Gaggle until 2023. Faced with a public health emergency, the district circumvented normal procurement rules, a reality that prevented concerned parents from raising objections until after it was too late.
With each alert, Matlock and other district ofﬁcials were given a vivid look into students’ most intimate thoughts and online behaviors, raising significant privacy concerns. It’s unclear, however, if any of them made kids safer. Independent research on the efﬁcacy of Gaggle and similar services is all but nonexistent.
When students’ mental health comes into play, a complicated equation emerges. In recent years, schools have ramped up efforts to identify and provide interventions to children at risk of harming themselves or others. Gaggle executives see their tool as a key to identify youth who are lamenting over hardships or discussing violent plans. On average, Gaggle notiﬁes school ofﬁcials within 17 minutes after zeroing in on student content related to suicide and self-harm, according to the company, and ofﬁcials claim they saved more than 1,400 lives during the 2020-21 school year.
“As a parent you have no idea what’s going on in your kid’s head, but if you don’t know you can’t help them,” said Jeff Patterson, Gaggle’s founder and CEO. “And I would always want to err on trying to identify kids who need help.”
Critics, however, have questioned Gaggle’s effectiveness and worry that rummaging through students personal ﬁles and conversations — and in some cases outing students for exhibiting signs of mental health issues including depression — could backﬁre.
Using surveillance to identify children in distress could exacerbate feelings of stigma and shame and could ultimately make students less likely to ask for help, said Jennifer Mathis, the director of policy and legal advocacy at The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington, D. C.
“Most kids in that situation are not going to share anything anymore and are going to suffer for that,” she said. “It suggests that anything you write or say or do in school — or out of school — may be found and held against you and used in ways that you had not envisioned.”
Minneapolis parent Holly Kragthorpe-Shirley had a similar concern and questioned whether kids “actually have a safe space to raise some of their issues in a safe way” if they’re stiﬂed by surveillance.
In Minneapolis, for instance, Gaggle ﬂagged the keywords “feel depressed” in a document titled “SEL Journal,” a reference to social-emotional learning. In another instance, Gaggle ﬂagged “suicidal” in a document titled “mental health problems workbook.”
District ofﬁcials acknowledged that Gaggle had captured student assignments and other personal ﬁles, an issue that civil rights groups have long been warning about. The documents obtained by The 74 put hard evidence behind those concerns, said Amelia Vance, the director of Youth and Education Privacy at The Future of Privacy Forum, a Washington-based think tank.
“The hypotheticals we’ve been talking about for a few years have come to fruition,” she said. “It is highly likely to undercut the trust of students not only in their school generally but in their teacher, in their counselor — in the mental health problems workbook.”
Patterson shook off any privacy reservations, including those related to monitoring sensitive materials like journal entries, which he characterized as “cries for help.”
“Sometimes when we intervene we might cause some challenges, but more often than not the kids want to be helped,” he said. Though Gaggle only monitors student ﬁles tied to school accounts, he cited a middle school girl’s private journal in a success story. He said the girl wrote in a digital journal that she suffered with self esteem issues and guilt after getting raped.
“No one in her life knew about this incident and because she journaled about it,” Gaggle was able to notify school ofﬁcials about what they’d learned, he said. “They were able to intervene and get this girl help for things that she couldn’t have dealt with on her own.”
Tools like Gaggle have become ubiquitous in classrooms across the country, according to forthcoming research by the D. C.-based Center for Democracy & Technology. In a recent survey, 81 percent of teachers reported having such software in place in their schools. Though most students said they’re comfortable being monitored, 58 percent said they don’t share their “true thoughts or ideas” as a result and 80 percent said they’re more careful about what they search online.
Such data suggest that youth are being primed to accept surveillance as an inevitable reality, said Elizabeth Laird, the center’s director of equity in civic technology. In return, she said, they’re giving up the ability to explore new ideas and learn from mistakes.
Gaggle, in business since 1999 and recently relocated to Dallas, monitors the digital ﬁles of more than 5 million students across the country each year with the pandemic being very good for its bottom line. Since the onset of the crisis, the number of students surveilled by the privately held company, which does not report its yearly revenue, has grown by more than 20 percent. Through artiﬁcial intelligence, Gaggle scans students’ emails, chat messages and other materials uploaded to students’ Google or Microsoft accounts in search of keywords, images or videos that could indicate self-harm, violence or sexual behavior. Moderators evaluate ﬂagged material and notify school ofﬁcials about content they ﬁnd troubling — a bar that Matlock acknowledged is quite low as “the system is always going to err on the side of caution” and requires district administrators to evaluate materials’ context.
“We’re looking for needles in haystacks to basically save kids.”
—Jeff Patterson, founder and CEO of Gaggle, which analyzed more than 10 billion online student communications in the 2020-21 school year.
In Minneapolis, Gaggle ofﬁcials discovered a majority of offenses in ﬁles within students’ Google Drive, including in word documents and spreadsheets. More than half of incidents originated on the Drive. Meanwhile, 22 percent originated in emails and 23 percent came from Google Hangouts, the chat feature.
School ofﬁcials are alerted to only a tiny fraction of student communications caught up in Gaggle’s dragnet. Last school year, Gaggle collected more than 10 billion items nationally but just 360,000 incidents resulted in notiﬁcations to district ofﬁcials, according to the company. Nationally, 41 percent of incidents during the 2020-21 school year related to suicide and self-harm, according to Gaggle, and a quarter centered on violence.
“We are looking for needles in haystacks to basically save kids,” Patterson said.
It was Google Hangouts that had Matt Shaver on edge. When the pandemic hit, classrooms were replaced by video conferences and casual student interactions in hallways and cafeterias were relegated to Hangouts. For Shaver, who taught at a Minneapolis elementary school during the pandemic, students’ Hangouts use became overwhelming.
Students were so busy chatting with each other, he said, that many had lost focus on classroom instruction. So he proposed a blunt solution to district technology ofﬁcials: Shut it down.
“The thing I wanted was ‘Take the temptation away, take the opportunity away for them to use that,’” said Shaver, who has since left teaching and is now policy director at the education reform group EdAllies. “And I actually got pushback from IT saying ‘No we’re not going to do that, this is a good social aspect that we’re trying to replicate.’”
But unlike those hallway interactions, nobody was watching. Matlock, the district’s security head, said he was initially in the market for a new anonymous reporting tool, which allows students to ﬂag their friends for behaviors they ﬁnd troubling. He turned to Gaggle, which operates the anonymous reporting system SpeakUp for Safety, and saw the company’s AI-powered digital surveillance tool, which goes well beyond SpeakUp’s powers to ferret out potentially alarming student behavior, as a possibility to “enhance the supports for students online.”
“We wanted to get something in place quickly, as we were moving quickly with the lockdown,” he said, adding that going through traditional procurement hoops could take months. “Gaggle had a strong national presence and a reputation.”
The district signed an initial six-month, $99,603 contract with Gaggle just a week after the virus shuttered schools in Minneapolis. Board of Education Chair Kim Ellison signed a second, three-year contract at an annual rate of $255,750 in September 2020.
The move came with steep consequences. Though SpeakUP was used just three times during the six-month window included in The 74’s data, Gaggle’s surveillance tool ﬂagged students nearly 1,300 times.
During that time, which coincided with the switch to remote learning, the largest share of incidents — 38 percent — were pornographic or sexual in nature, including references to “sexual activity involving a student,” professional videos and explicit, student-produced selfies which trigger alerts to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
“I’m trying to imagine ﬁnding out about this as a high schooler, that every single word I’ve written on a Google Hangout or whatever is being monitored … we live in a country with laws around unreasonable search and seizure — and surveillance is just a really slippery slope.”
—Matt Shaver, former Minneapolis Public Schools teacher
An additional 30 percent were related to suicide and self-harm, including incidents that were triggered by keywords including “cutting,” “feeling depressed,” “want to die,” and “end it all.” an additional 18 percent were related to violence, including threats, physical altercations, references to weapons and suspected child abuse. Such incidents were triggered by keywords including “Bomb,” “Glock,” “going to ﬁght,” and “beat her.” About a ﬁfth of incidents were triggered by profanity.
Concerns over Gaggle’s reach during the pandemic weren’t limited to Minneapolis. In December 2020, a group of civil rights organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California argued in a letter that by using Gaggle, the Fresno Uniﬁed School District had violated the California Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which requires ofﬁcials to obtain search warrants before accessing electronic information. Such monitoring, the groups contend, infringe on students’ free-speech and privacy rights with little ability to opt out.
Shaver, whose students used Google Hangouts to the point of it becoming a distraction, was alarmed to learn that those communications were being analyzed by artiﬁcial intelligence and poured over by a remote team of people he didn’t even know.
“I’m trying to imagine ﬁnding out about this as a high schooler, that every single word I’ve written on a Google Hangout or whatever is being monitored,” he said. “There is, of course, some lesson in this, obviously like, ‘Be careful of what you put online.’ But we live in a country with laws around unreasonable search and seizure — and surveillance is just a really slippery slope.”
To Matlock, Gaggle is a lifesaver — literally. When the tool ﬂagged a Minneapolis student’s suicide note in the middle of the night, Matlock said he rushed to intervene. In a late-night phone call, the security chief said he warned the unnamed parents, who knew their child was struggling but didn’t fully recognize how bad things had become. Because of Gaggle, school ofﬁcials were able to get the student help. To Matlock, the possibility that he saved a student’s life offers a feeling he “can’t even measure in words.”
“If it saved one kid, if it supported one caregiver, if it supported one family, I’ll take it,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”
Despite heightened concern over youth mental health issues during the pandemic, its effect on youth suicide rates remains fuzzy. Preliminary data from the Minnesota health department show a significant decline in suicides statewide during the pandemic. Between 2019 and 2020, suicides among people 24 years old and younger decreased by more than 20 percent statewide. Nationally, the proportion of youth emergency room visits related to suspected suicide attempts has surged during the pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but preliminary mortality data for people of all ages show a 5.6 percent decline in self-inﬂicted fatalities in 2020 compared to 2019.
Meanwhile, Gaggle reported that it identiﬁed a significant increase of threats related to suicide, self-harm and violence nationwide between March 2020 and March 2021. During that period, Gaggle observed a 31 percent increase in ﬂagged content overall, including a 35 percent increase in materials related to suicide and self-harm. Gaggle ofﬁcials said the data highlight a mental health crisis among youth during the pandemic. But other factors could be at play. Among them is a 50 percent surge in students’ screen-time during the pandemic, creating additional opportunities for Gaggle to tag youth behavior. Meanwhile, the number of students monitored by Gaggle nationally grew markedly during the pandemic.
But that hasn’t stopped Gaggle from citing pandemic-era mental illness in sales pitches as it markets a new service: Gaggle Therapy. In school districts that sign up for the service, students who are ﬂagged by Gaggle’s digital monitoring tool are matched with counselors for weekly teletherapy sessions. Therapists available through the service are independent contractors for Gaggle and districts can either pay Gaggle for “blanket coverage,” which makes all students eligible, or a “retainer” fee, which allows them to “use the service as you need it,” according to the company. Under the second scenario, Gaggle would have a ﬁnancial incentive to identify more students in need of teletherapy.
In Minneapolis, Matlock said that school-based social workers and counselors lead intervention efforts when students are identiﬁed for materials related to self-harm. “The initial moment may be a shock” when students are confronted by school staff about their online behaviors, he said, but providing them with help “is much better in the long run.”
As the district rolled out the service, many parents and students were out of the loop. Among them was Nathaniel Genene, a recent graduate who served as the Minneapolis school board’s student representative at the time. He said that classmates contacted him after initial news of the Gaggle contract was released.
“I had a couple of friends texting me like ‘Nathaniel, is this true?’” he said. “It was kind of interesting because I had no idea it was even a thing.”
Yet as students gained a greater awareness that their communications were being monitored, Matlock said they began to test Gaggle’s parameters using potential keywords “and then say ‘Hi’ to us while they put it in there.”
As students became conditioned to Gaggle, “the shock is probably a little bit less,” said Rochelle Cox, an associate superintendent at the Minneapolis school district. Now, she said students have an outlet to get help without having to explicitly ask. Instead, they can express their concerns online with an understanding that school ofﬁcials are listening. As a result, school-based mental health professionals are able to provide the care students need, she said.
Mathis, with The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, called that argument “ridiculous.” Ofﬁcials should make sure that students know about available mental health services and ensure that they feel comfortable reaching out for help, she said.
“That’s very different than deciding that we’re going to catch people by having them write into the ether and that’s how we’re going to ﬁnd the students who need help,” she said. “We can be a lot more direct in communicating than that, and we should be a lot more direct and a lot more positive.”
In fact, subjecting students to surveillance could push them further into isolation and condition them to lie when ofﬁcials reach out to inquire about their digital communications, argued Vance of the Future of Privacy Forum.
“Effective interventions are rarely going to be built on that, you know, ‘I saw what you were typing into a Google search last night’ or ‘writing a journal entry for your English class,’” Vance said. “That doesn’t feel like it builds a trusting relationship. It feels creepy.”
One of the most narrow pieces of feedback I give to people being promoted to manager is simple - don’t joke about ﬁring people. When I deliver this feedback people will often respond with some form of befuddlement: “I wasn’t planning to”, “Ummm….OK”, “Obviously”. However, this feedback is driven by knowledge of mistakes made by a number of new managers.
When people get promoted to manager their former peers become direct reports. It’s awkward. They try to break the tension with self deprecation and poking fun at the newfound responsibility. That “haha I’m the bureaucrat now what a joke this is” attitude carries through each new day and eventually some situation arises where a report makes some sort of gaffe. They spill their coffee. They accidentally let a door close in your face. Their computer runs out of battery in a meeting. And then it happens: “that’s it, pack your things and go, you’re out of here buddy”. Or some other joke about their termination from the company.
You might think it’s innocuous, but it’s not. The second you became their manager you forfeited the right to joke around in any capacity about their employment at the company. Even though you still feel like a pal joking around, even though the fact that you’d make the joke at all is a testament to your discomfort with having to make ﬁring decisions, it’s not something you can ever joke about. People don’t ﬁnd it funny because it’s not funny. The ability to terminate someone’s employment is a big deal. Treat it that way, always.
Furthermore, this sort of break-the-awkwardness mistake can be made at other, even more inappropriate times. Anything causing discomfort in the air - from COVID-19 to police brutality and beyond - is an opportunity for a manager to try and break the discomfort where it’s not appropriate. The advice is simple: don’t kid about serious things. Even if you think the spirit of the comment is clearly in support of your team or well meaning. Don’t do it.
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🙌 I’m Geoff. I live a minimalist lifestyle in a van that is slowly working its’ way around Australia. When I’m not sending cake to GitHub I work as a software engineer at Gitpod, a product (and open-source project) that provides ephemeral software development environments in the cloud.
This post is the fourth in the series about remote work from a van. If this is your ﬁrst time reading my blog and you have questions about living (including toilets or showering) and working from a van then check out these blog posts:
Anyway, if you are going to work remotely anywhere in Australia from a van, you need damn good internet. Here’s how I put together a vehicle with the best internet connectivity in Australia:
There are three mobile phone carriers in Australia. Thus, naturally, the van has a connection with Telstra, Optus and Vodafone.
I use Huawei B818 modems because they run off 12volts and are LTE category 19 4G modems that support carrier aggregation. Each 4G modem is connected to its own XPOL-1-5G omnidirectional antenna. In Australia, the Huawei B818 modems can be found cheaply on eBay and whilst they have Optus branding they work on all mobile carriers.
The external antennas are important because the insulation of my van, unfortunately, interferes with mobile reception and inbuilt antennas, in general, are garbage in comparison to specialised antennas.
There are also two Alfa AOA-2458 high gain WiFi antennas mounted on the back of the van connected to an Alfa AWUS036ACH USB WiFi adapter that is used to provide inbound internet connectivity from friendly WiFi hotspots.
Finally, there’s a Nokia FastMile 5G modem that provides unlimited high-speed data when I’m near areas that have 5G coverage (ie. when urban camping in cities). As this modem does not have the option for external antennas the modem is in the driver’s cab and a network cable is run from there to the network switch.
All of the above gets merged into a single internet connection via an ESXi virtual machine running on an Intel NUC with eight Ethernet ports that are bonded out to the vans internet router; an UniFi Dream Machine Pro, which provides WiFi connectivity via an UniFi AC Mesh Pro (for when sitting at a park bench) and an UniFi AC Pro (for when inside the van).
The key piece to making this all work is:
Speedify performs channel bonding to combine multiple Internet connections into a faster, more reliable connection and automatically prioritizes streams over other network trafﬁc so you avoid stuttering, buffering and disconnects.
Each network connection that is bonded by Speedify can be conﬁgured with custom priority rules such as:
Network connections that are bonded can be conﬁgured as follows:
* Streaming: Speedify maximizes the speed and reliability of your streaming trafﬁc (video calls, audio calls, live streaming, etc.) by intelligently using both bonding and redundant trafﬁc to get the best performance from your available internet connections. This mode uses extra data to deliver a better streaming experience.
* Speed: Speedify intelligently distributes web trafﬁc amongst all available internet connections in order to deliver optimal speed and performance.
* Redundant: Speedify operates at the speed of the fastest single internet connection and uses additional data in order to deliver an ultra-reliable connection. When using Redundant Mode, each packet gets sent simultaneously over multiple connections and whichever packet gets through ﬁrst, is the one to be delivered.
When I’m camping somewhere with terrible internet connectivity on all network links I switch Speedify to the Redundant mode. Speedify is simply amazing - I’ve been in situations where I’ve been driving in regional NSW where there’s no mobile phone service on my phone but the internet link remains solid enough to sustain a connection to stream music from Spotify.
You might be wondering how much this costs to run each month? The fastest, most redundant and portable internet connectivity in Australia costs circa $280 AUD/month (+$139 AUD/month when Starlink launches) with the majority of the cost being tax-deductible as this is a business expenditure. In the future, I intend to sell internet access via the UniFi Captive Portal to fellow campers and remote workers so I’m really not concerned with the price as I need internet to make money.
Yes, this setup is overkill but having functioning internet is especially important for me to be able to make money and also when spending time with my young kids. Nothing beats time around a ﬁreplace cooking marshmallows, eating a freshly cooked bag of popcorn and bonding over your childhood movie favourites or having emergency access to ABC reading eggs.
Honestly, I don’t even need a fast internet connection when doing my software development tasks because with Gitpod my computer is a data centre. What I need is a network connection with low packet loss and that’s where having six (soon seven) internet links comes into play.
Having said that, the extra bandwidth and resiliency do come in handy when doing Twitch streams, however!
Speedify is also available for Android and iOS. By pairing an external 4G Nighthawk WiFi router with an iPad Pro with Celluar or your smartphone you can achieve a similar setup.
Above is the exact setup that I used recently two weeks ago whilst working up in the Bunya Mountains from an iPad Pro and a 27000mwh USB-C battery pack.
Anyway, thanks for reading. I’ll be doing a live Q&A at 6PM EDT on Tuesday the 21st of September. Come hang out and ask any questions you may have!
This post is the ﬁfth in the series. I’m blogging more and tweeting less, so if you want to learn about sweet places to visit in Australia, working remotely from a van enter your email address to be notiﬁed when future blog posts ship.
ps. Musk, baby, hook me up with Starlink sooner?
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This article is a collaboration between New York Magazine and The Verge.
Lea el reportaje en español aquí.
The Willis Avenue Bridge, a 3,000-foot stretch of asphalt and beige-painted steel connecting Manhattan and the Bronx, is the perfect place for an ambush. The narrow bike path along its west side is poorly lit; darkened trash-strewn alcoves on either end are useful for lying in wait. All summer, food-delivery workers returning home after their shifts have been violently attacked there for their bikes: by gunmen pulling up on motorcycles, by knife-wielding thieves leaping from the recesses, by muggers blocking the path with Citi Bikes and brandishing broken bottles.
“Once you go onto that bridge, it’s another world,” one frequent crosser said. “You ever see wildlife with the wildebeest trying to cross with the crocodiles? That’s the crocodiles over there. We’re the wildebeests just trying to get by.”
Lately, delivery workers have found safety in numbers. On a humid July night, his last dinner orders complete, Cesar Solano, a lanky and serious 19-year-old from Guerrero, Mexico, rode his heavy electric bike onto the sidewalk at 125th Street and First Avenue and dismounted beneath an overpass. Across the street, through a lattice of on-ramps and off-ramps, was the entrance to the Willis, which threads under the exit of the RFK Bridge and over the Harlem River Drive before shooting out across the Harlem River. Whatever happens on the bridge is blocked from view by the highway.
Several other workers had already arrived. The headlights of their parked bikes provided the only illumination. Cesar watched, his arms crossed, as his older cousin Sergio Solano and another worker strung a banner between the trafﬁc light and a signpost on the corner. It read WE ARE ON GUARD TO PROTECT OUR DELIVERY WORKERS.
Sergio walked back beneath the overpass, took up his megaphone, and whooped the siren, signaling to workers riding up First Avenue to wait and form a group before crossing. When ﬁve assembled, he announced the next departure for the Bronx.
Cesar, Sergio, and three other members of their family, all of whom work delivering food, had been standing watch each night for nearly a month. They live together nearby and heard about the attacks through the Facebook page they co-founded called El Diario de los Deliveryboys en la Gran Manzana, or “The Deliveryboys in the Big Apple Daily.” They started it in part to chronicle the bike thefts that have been plaguing workers on the bridge and elsewhere across the city. Sergio himself lost two bikes in two months. He reported both to the police, but the cases went nowhere, an experience common enough that many workers have concluded calling 911 is a waste of time.
Losing a bike is devastating for a delivery worker, obliterating several weeks’ worth of wages as well as the tool they need to earn those wages. “It’s my colleague,” Cesar said in Spanish through an interpreter. “It’s what takes me to work; it’s who I work with and what takes me home.” He’s customized his with dark-blue tape covering its frame, blue spokes, and color-changing LED light strips on its rear rack. Two Mexican ﬂags ﬂy from his front fork. He also attached a second battery since the main one lasts only seven hours, and he rides fast and for every app he can, typically working from breakfast to dinner. He maintains his bike with the help of a traveling mechanic known only as Su, who broadcasts his GPS location as he roams upper Manhattan. Recently, Cesar added a holster to his top bar for his ﬁve-pound steel U-lock so he can quickly draw it to defend himself in case of attack.
Even before the thefts started, the city’s 65,000 delivery workers had tolerated so much: the ﬂuctuating pay, the lengthening routes, the relentless time pressure enforced by mercurial software, the deadly carelessness of drivers, the pouring rain and brutal heat, and the indignity of pissing behind a dumpster because the restaurant that depends on you refuses to let you use its restroom. And every day there were the trivially small items people ordered and the paltry tips they gave — all while calling you a hero and avoiding eye contact. Cesar recently biked from 77th on the Upper East Side 18 blocks south and over the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, then up through Long Island City and over another bridge to Roosevelt Island, all to deliver a single slice of cake for no tip at all. And now he had to worry about losing his bike, purchased with savings on his birthday.
For Cesar and many other delivery workers, the thefts broke something loose. Some started protesting and lobbying, partnering with nonprofits and city ofﬁcials to propose legislation. Cesar and the Deliveryboys took another tack, forming a civil guard reminiscent of the one that patrolled San Juan Puerto Montaña, the small, mostly Indigenous Me’phaa village where they are from.
That night, the space under the RFK overpass was a makeshift but welcoming way station. Aluminum catering trays of tacos and beans were arrayed beneath the trusses of the bridge. Arrivals never went long before being offered a plate and a Fanta. The parked bikes ﬂashed festively. Some workers lingered only long enough for a quick ﬁst bump before forming a convoy and departing. But a rotating crew of around a dozen stayed and chatted — sharing stories about who got in an accident and how they’re doing, how orders had slowed lately. Cesar, who hopes to be a video editor, livestreamed his nightly broadcast to the Deliveryboys page. It was something between a news bulletin and a pledge drive, with Cesar interviewing workers, thanking people for donating food, and shouting out to his viewers, who number in the thousands and tune in from Staten Island to their hometown in Mexico.
Just before 1 a.m., a delivery worker rode up, his right arm bleeding. People rushed to him. The worker had been waiting, he explained, at a red light on 110th when someone leaped in front of him with a knife and demanded his bike. The worker accelerated but was slashed on the arm as he ﬂed. Soon, a police cruiser arrived and later an ambulance.
The worker, his blood pooling on the street, at ﬁrst refused to be taken to the hospital. But the Deliveryboys convinced him to go. Sergio and Cesar shared their phone numbers and took his bike home when they left around 2 a.m. He retrieved it the next day before the Deliveryboys began their watch again.
Juan Solano makes deliveries in midtown during the dinner rush.
Between the lunch and dinner shifts, delivery workers rest at an underground garage that serves as a makeshift break room.
Anthony Chavez with the batteries for the electric bikes that must be changed every six hours.
At a garage on the West Side of Manhattan, bikers charge batteries for their electric bikes ahead of the dinner shift.
For years, delivery workers in New York have improvised solutions like the bridge patrol to make their jobs feasible. These methods have been remarkably successful, undergirding the illusion of limitless and frictionless delivery. But every hack that made their working conditions tolerable only encouraged the apps and restaurants to ask more of them, until the job evolved into something uniquely intense, dangerous, and precarious.
Take the electric bike. When e-bikes ﬁrst arrived in the city in the late 2000s, they were ridden mostly by older Chinese immigrants who used them to stay in the job as they aged, according to Do Lee, a Queens College professor who wrote his dissertation on delivery workers. But once restaurant owners and executives at companies like Uber, DoorDash, and Grubhub-Seamless ﬁgured out it was possible to do more and faster deliveries, they adjusted their expectations, and e-bikes became a de facto job requirement.
Today, delivery workers have an overwhelmingly preferred brand: the Arrow, essentially a rugged battery-powered mountain bike that tops out at around 28 miles per hour. A new Arrow runs $1,800 and can easily exceed $2,500 once it’s equipped with phone-charging mounts, lights, second batteries, air horns, racks, mud ﬂaps, and other essential upgrades. What began as a technological assist has become a major start-up investment.
Delivery workers now move faster than just about anything else in the city. They keep pace with cars and weave between them when trafﬁc slows, ever vigilant for opening taxi doors and merging trucks. They know they go too fast, any worker will say, but it’s a calculated risk. Slowing down means being punished by the apps.
A few days after the Deliveryboys began their Willis guard, I met Anthony Chavez in front of a sleek glass apartment building near Lincoln Center. Chavez is something of an inﬂuencer among delivery workers, though his fame was inadvertent and the 26-year-old is too reserved to fully embrace the role. Wanting to share the tricks and texture of New York delivery, he started ﬁlming his work in late 2019 and posting the videos to a Facebook page he started called Chapín en Dos Ruedas, meaning “Guatemalan on Two Wheels.” Later, his posts about bike thefts would expand his audience to more than 12,000, but at ﬁrst it was mostly just the six other Guatemalan delivery workers he lives with in the Bronx. Long stretches of his videos pass with little dialogue, just the background whine of his bike and the Dopplering trafﬁc punctuated occasionally by his advice: Always wear a helmet, only listen to music with one earbud, avoid running red lights, and, if you must, really look both ways.
For about half his week, Chavez works at a rotisserie-chicken spot in midtown. He likes it there; the delivery radius is a bit over a mile, and the kitchen is good at batching orders. The restaurant pays him even when an accident takes him out of commission. He doesn’t even need his Arrow. Instead, he rides his pedal-powered Cannondale. An enthusiastic cyclist who rode BMXs back home and wears a small gold bike on his necklace, he likes cycling best about the job.
This used to be how delivery worked across the city. A restaurant that made delivery-friendly food like pizza or Chinese employed people to take it to customers in the neighborhood. Managers could be cruel, and owners frequently exploited a worker’s immigration status with illegally low wages, but the restaurant also provided shelter, restrooms, and often free meals and a place to eat them alongside co-workers. Unfortunately for Chavez, the chicken spot never has enough hours, so the rest of the time, he works for the apps.
Before the apps, sites like Seamless and Grubhub simply listed restaurants that already offered delivery. But DoorDash, Postmates, and the other apps that arrived in the mid-2010s had their own delivery workers, armies of contractors directed by software on their phones. If a restaurant didn’t offer delivery or was too far away, the app just sent a gig worker to order takeout and bring it to you.
The main reason restaurants weren’t already letting you order a single bacon, egg, and cheese from 50 blocks away for almost no charge is that it’s a terrible business model. Expensive, wasteful, labor intensive — you would lose money on every order. The apps promised to solve this problem through algorithmic optimization and scale. This has yet to happen — none of the companies are consistently profitable — but for a while they solved the problem with money. Armed with billions in venture capital, the apps subsidized what had been a low-margin side gig of the restaurant industry until it resembled any other Silicon Valley consumer-gratiﬁcation machine. Seamless, which merged with Grubhub and added its own gig platform to compete, was particularly direct in its pitch, running cutesy subway ads about ordering delivery with zero human contact and requesting miniature entrées for your hamster.
They obey the bespoke instructions that pop up on their screens: Don’t wait outside Benny’s Burritos, don’t ask to use the restroom, be “super nice!” to Dig Inn because it is a “VIP client” — or have your account suspended.
The apps failed and bought each other, and now three giants remain: DoorDash, Uber Eats, and Grubhub-Seamless. Each divides the New York market more or less equally, and each uses the piecework model pioneered by Uber itself. Workers get paid when they accept and complete a delivery, and a gamelike system of rewards and penalties keeps them moving: high scores for being on time, low scores and fewer orders for tardiness, and so on. Chavez and others call it the patrón fantasma, the phantom boss — always watching and quick to punish you for being late but nowhere to be found when you need $10 to ﬁx your bike or when you get doored and have to go to the hospital.
Then there is a fourth app, which Chavez and thousands of others work for but few customers have heard of, called Relay Delivery. It’s a privately held company founded in 2014 and mostly limited to New York. The best way to understand Relay is to think of most delivery apps as two different businesses: the lucrative digital one that customers order from and that charges restaurants commission and advertising fees, and the labor-intensive, logistically complicated — “crummy,” in the words of Grubhub’s founder — business of getting the food to the customer. Relay handles just the second one.
Restaurants can outsource all their delivery to Relay, no matter if the customer ordered on Seamless or DoorDash or called direct. When the food is ready, the restaurant uses the Relay app to summon a worker who is supposed to appear in under ﬁve minutes. It’s often cheaper for restaurants than the other apps, and it’s extremely reliable.
This is in part because the rewards Relay offers workers are greater and its penalties more severe. Rather than piecework, it pays $12.50 per hour plus tips. But unlike Uber and DoorDash, workers can deliver food only if they’re scheduled, and the schedule is designed through daily zero-sum competition, with the best-rated workers getting ﬁrst dibs. If you get an early enough sign-up time to grab the Upper West Side from 5 to 9 p.m., you can rest easy knowing you’ll have a decently paying job tomorrow. But if you rejected a delivery, or went too slow, or weren’t in your designated zone the second your shift started (even if that was because you were delivering a Relay order from your prior shift), or committed any other mysterious infraction, your sign-up time moves back 20 minutes. Maybe all that’s left is Hoboken from 2 to 4 p.m. Worse, maybe there’s nothing and you’re relegated to picoteo, or “pecking.”
You see them around the city, sitting on benches jabbing their screens, refreshing the schedule on the off chance some unlucky colleague had to cancel. It’s a fate terrifying enough that when one worker hit a storm drain, ﬂew from his bike, and suffered a concussion so severe he was passing in and out of consciousness and had to be taken to the hospital, he still made sure to have a friend message the company explaining why he wasn’t accepting orders. Later, trying to get his score up, he volunteered to work during Hurricane Ida, wrecked his bike, and got bumped from the schedule entirely.
So while DoorDash and Uber workers have some leeway to pick which deliveries they take, as a practical matter, Relay workers accept every order assigned to them. They obey the bespoke instructions that pop up on their screens: Don’t wait outside Benny’s Burritos, don’t ask to use the restroom, be “super nice!” to Dig Inn because it is a “VIP client” — or have your account suspended. Above all, they try to maintain the ideal pace of a delivery every 15 minutes, no matter the delivery distance.
If these sound more like the demands placed on an actual employee as opposed to an ostensibly free independent contractor, many class-action plaintiffs have agreed. The company has been sued multiple times for worker misclassiﬁcation, tip theft, and other infractions. It settled three times, avoiding a ruling that could torpedo its business model, and another case is currently in arbitration.
A spokesperson said the company has implemented a ﬁx to prevent restaurants from unilaterally expanding their delivery zones, but it currently only works for new entrants to the platform. The tip theft that workers often complain of occurs when restaurants receive an order, then enter the wrong tip information into the Relay app, the spokesperson said, and the company has added a way for workers to dispute this. As for the intense pressure, the company said that it matches the number of riders each day with anticipated demand but that there is a large backlog of people who want to work.
That’s true. Many would rather work for a restaurant, but when forced to pick among the apps, Chavez, Cesar, and others choose Relay, which they say pays better and more consistently than its piecework peers. It is, after all, the closest among them to a traditional job. But all the apps have this in common: The physical practicalities of maintaining the modern buffet of speedy delivery options fall to the workers.
What it’s like to be a New York City delivery worker. Film by Danilo Parra for New York Magazine.
I followed Chavez down the ramp of the glass tower’s parking garage and around the corner to where delivery workers have set up a subterranean base. Electric bikes were parked in front of plywood shelving crammed with charging batteries, their lights blinking red and green. Under the garage ramp, ﬁve workers sat on a pipe eating lunch beneath a harsh ﬂuorescent light, clothes hung to dry on another pipe above their heads. About a dozen people sat on folding chairs around a long table, eating from Styrofoam takeout trays and playing with their phones. Others napped in the carriages of bike rickshaws draped with plastic ﬂowers.
Garages like these are scattered across the city, a solution worked out to replace some of the necessities once supplied by restaurants. Another option for shelter, particularly in the winter, is to get a Chase debit card and take refuge in the lobbies of the bank’s ubiquitous branches, warming yourself with a coffee before you’re told to move on. But the coffee raises another pressing question: where to ﬁnd a restroom. The garage solves both problems and others, like bike storage and battery charging. Now, instead of shift meals during the predinner lull, workers take turns ordering delivery and eat underground. (They always tip well.) Chavez pays $120 a month for his spot.
Every adaptation has a cost, the Arrow being by far the largest. The appeal of the Arrow is the network of shops that sell it. They sell only Arrows, and if you have one, they will do simple repairs for cheap or free. The shops also charge second batteries for a monthly fee. The city’s pocked streets are rough on the bikes, and each evening just before the dinner rush, delivery workers wait outside Arrow stores as mechanics strip and rewire water-damaged controllers and replace bald tires with the ﬂuid focus of a NASCAR pit crew.
Bikes, cold-weather gear, garages, maintenance: The costs add up. Workers even pay for their own app-branded cooler bags. So while DoorDash claims Manhattan workers make $33 per hour, including tips, when you factor in expenses, delivery workers have a base pay of $7.87 per hour, according to a recent study of app-based workers conducted by the Cornell Worker Institute and the Worker’s Justice Project. Neither estimate includes time spent waiting between deliveries.
Workers developed the whole system — the bikes, repair networks, shelters, charging stations — because they had to. To the apps, they are independent contractors; to restaurants, they are emissaries of the apps; to customers, they represent the restaurants. In reality, the workers are on their own, often without even the minimum in government support. As contractors and, often, undocumented immigrants, they have few protections and virtually no safety net. The few times city authorities noted the delivery worker’s changing role, it was typically with confused hostility. Until recently, throttle-powered electric bikes like the Arrow were illegal to ride, though not to own. Mayor de Blasio heightened enforcement in 2017, calling the bikes “a real danger” after an Upper West Side investment banker clocked workers with a speed gun and complained to him on “The Brian Lehrer Show.”
The NYPD set up checkpoints, ﬁning riders $500, seizing their bikes, and posting photos of the busts on Twitter. The police would then return the bikes because, again, they were legal to own. It was a costly and bewildering ritual. For years, bike activists and workers pushed for legalization, though the apps that beneﬁted from them were largely silent. It was only when another group of tech companies — hoping to make scooter-sharing legal — joined the ﬁght that a bill moved forward in Albany. Then the pandemic hit, restaurants were restricted to takeout, and the mayor had to acknowledge that the bikes were an essential part of the city’s delivery infrastructure. He halted enforcement. The bikes were ofﬁcially legalized three months later.
Maybe it was legalization that triggered the robberies. Maybe it was the pandemic-emptied streets. Maybe it was all the people out of work who needed money, or all the other people out of work who were enlisting to serve the newly formed Zoom class and suddenly needed e-bikes. Everyone has a theory. But what happened next is a familiar story. The workers turned to the city for help, got none, and started ﬁguring out a solution themselves.
Chavez has no history of activism and no interest in being a leader. Those things take time, and he came to the city with a plan: work hard for ﬁve years and save enough money to buy a house in Guatemala City. Many workers treat the job like a dangerous but temporary trial they hope will give them a shot at pulling themselves out of poverty back home. Cesar has a plan too: work until he can buy a house for his parents and himself, then return. Things don’t always go according to plan. You meet someone here and start a family. You discover that all the money you thought you were saving has gone to bikes and food and rent. The city becomes familiar. Years go by.
That was the case for Eliseo Tohom, Chavez’s 36-year-old roommate. He’s been working delivery for 14 years. Chavez teases him on his livestreams. “That Eliseo is well known around these streets,” he said when Tohom chimed in on the chat. “Single ladies, delivery worker Eliseo is looking for a girl to take back to Guatemala.”
Last October, the two were eating pizza in Central Park and talking about the robberies. A fellow garage member, 17 years old, had been unlocking his bike after depositing a dinner on Riverside Drive when two men tackled him from behind. A third grabbed his bike and rode off as the other assailants leaped into a waiting car.
It was the second such attack to befall a garage member and one of countless they had heard about. According to NYPD data, robberies and attempted robberies of delivery workers increased 65 percent in 2020, to 332, and are on track to exceed that number this year. But those are only the small fraction of cases that are reported to the police. Workers say ofﬁcers often discouraged them from ﬁling reports and showed so little progress solving the thefts they did report that many stopped bothering to do so. In contrast to the NYPD’s numbers, the Worker’s Justice Project’s survey found that 54 percent of the city’s delivery workers have had their bikes stolen. About 30 percent of those thefts were violent. The group said it receives approximately 50 reports of thefts and robberies a day.
Tohom had put together a pool to buy the kid a new bike, but he wanted to do more. He proposed going to the local precinct, maybe with a dozen or so people from their garage and another group in midtown, and asking the police to do something. Chavez posted the announcement on Chapín.
About 30 people showed up to the park at 72nd and Amsterdam and rode honking to the precinct. There, they blocked the street, shouting “No more robberies!” to nonplussed cops. Eventually, a Spanish-speaking ofﬁcer came out. Tohom stepped forward and listed robbery after robbery — Monday at 150 Central Park, yesterday at 100th, another at 67th, knives, guns, machetes, thefts they reported months ago and received no response about, bikes stolen with GPS that police refused to pursue — as the crowd yelled “Help us.”
The bikes, maintenance, shelters, charging stations, cooler bags — when you factor those in, delivery workers take home a base pay of $7.87 per hour.
Chavez posted a video of the scene, and it ricocheted through New York’s delivery community. Overnight, he gained 1,000 followers. The next day, a representative got in touch from the Worker’s Justice Project, which had previously supported construction workers and domestic laborers and had started organizing delivery workers during the pandemic. WJP helped ﬁle the paperwork for a more formal rally the following week. Again, Chavez announced it on his Facebook page. This time, hundreds showed up. Chavez livestreamed as the armada rode honking down Broadway, ﬂags waving from their bikes, to City Hall.
It was the ﬁrst time so many delivery workers had gathered in one place, and it sparked an explosion of new groups. It was there that Cesar met Chavez. Soon after, he and his cousins and uncles launched the Deliveryboys page. Like Chavez’s page, it soon became a hub for theft alerts, but it was also a place to memorialize slain and injured workers. When the DoorDash worker Francisco Villalva Vitinio was shot and killed for his bike in March, the Deliveryboys posted videos of vigils in New York and of Villalva Vitinio’s casket being carried down the streets of his hometown in Guerrero, Mexico. Later they broadcast live from the precinct on the day the suspect was arrested.
Small cadres of workers had already begun forming groups on WhatsApp and Telegram to share information and protect one another. But now they built more formal and larger versions with names like Delivery Worker Alerts, Emergency Group, and Robbery Alerts in the Big Apple. At the protest, workers scanned QR codes on one another’s phones to join. Approximate territories took shape, with groups for the Upper West Side, Astoria, and lower Manhattan.
“There are thousands of delivery workers on the streets, and if we are all connected, we can see the thieves and act ourselves,” Chavez later told his viewers as he rode. Join a group, he said. Buy a GPS and hide it on your bike; that way, when it gets stolen, you can track it down and call on your fellow workers for help. If the police wouldn’t get their bikes back, maybe they could do it themselves.
It was Gustavo Ajche, a 38-year-old construction worker and part-time DoorDasher, who contacted Chavez’s group after the impromptu precinct rally and helped get permits for the larger one. Even then, he was pushing the group to think bigger. Chavez and Tohom wanted to march to Columbus Circle; Ajche said the thefts were affecting everyone, so they should march all the way to City Hall. He also wanted them to think beyond the robberies, to regulations and durable improvements to working conditions.
I met Ajche at 60 Wall Street, a gaudy ’80s atrium decorated with palm trees and columns that is a frequent hangout for delivery workers in the Financial District. The nearby parking garage where Ajche stores his bike isn’t as nice as Chavez’s, he explained, on account of leaks and rats.
There were about a dozen Arrows parked outside, all with stickers bearing the red-and-black ﬁst-raised deliveryman logo of Los Deliveristas Unidos, an arm of the Worker’s Justice Project that Ajche helped start. An animated speaker with an open face, Ajche is an effective organizer, and he’s eager to grow the movement. Taking out his phone, he showed me a new Deliveristas logo written in Bengali — part of the group’s effort to expand beyond Spanish-speaking workers. He would soon make versions in Mandarin and French. I noted the green gear-eyed skull logo on the back of his phone case, the symbol of Aztecas en dos Ruedas (“Aztecs on Two Wheels”), a ﬁxie-riding, alley-cat-racing club of delivery workers. “They are my friends; they are with us,” he said by way of explanation. A worker, still helmeted, pushed through the turnstile door and waved to Ajche before joining a group seated on the other side of the hall — Ajche’s friends too.
After the success of the October march, the Deliveristas planned an even larger rally for April. This time, thousands gathered and rode honking to City Hall, where they were joined by representatives from SEIU 32BJ, the powerful union that backed the Fight for $15. City Councilmember Brad Lander, then running for city comptroller, and State Senator Jessica Ramos spoke. Later, the City Council introduced a package of bills crafted in discussion with the Deliveristas that would establish minimum pay and give workers more control over their routes, among other changes (it will likely be voted on this month). In June, the Deliveristas helped kill a bill pushed by Uber and Lyft that would have allowed gig workers to unionize while falling short of offering them full employment rights.
Some of the apps also began discussions with the Deliveristas. DoorDash announced that nearly 200 (out of 18,000) of its restaurants would let delivery workers use their restrooms and that the company is working on an emergency-assistance button for its app.
Ajche is far from appeased. He recalled a Zoom meeting in which DoorDash put forward a “top Dasher” to tell them how great working for DoorDash was. Ajche silenced him by saying that he can bring 500 people with complaints. “They are afraid of us,” he said. “They think we are trying to unionize.”
Later in June, around the time when Cesar and the Deliveryboys were beginning their watch at the Willis Avenue Bridge, Ajche and other Deliveristas met with the NYPD chief of department, Rodney Harrison, who agreed to appoint an ofﬁcer to act as a liaison with the workers and to increase security on the bridges.
Progress is slow. The NYPD said it encourages people to register their bikes with the department and to call 911 if their bike is stolen. But the department is a sprawling organization with tremendous inertia and little understanding of what modern delivery work entails. “What we’ve been doing is conquering precinct by precinct,” said Hildalyn Colón Hernández, whom the WJP brought on to handle police relations and policy. Colón Hernández, who previously worked on a construction-fraud task force in the Manhattan DA’s ofﬁce, recalled a recent exchange in which she was pushing an ofﬁcer to investigate a stolen bike and he said, essentially, “What’s the big deal? It’s just a bike.” Colón Hernández launched into an explanation: First off, it’s their tool; they lose that tool, they don’t work tomorrow. Second, it probably cost around $3,000. “That patrol ofﬁcer looked at me very differently,” she said. “They were like, ‘Wait a minute. This is a grand larceny?’ ”
She has been having conversations like that across the city’s bureaucracy. Take the Willis Avenue Bridge. First, she had to talk to the precincts on either side of the bridge because the city splits jurisdiction down the middle. Then came the cameras, which workers complained were broken, because despite the NYPD sign saying the bridge was under 24-hour surveillance, whenever they went to the police asking for footage of their assaults, they were told none existed. But the cameras worked just ﬁne; it’s just that they were pointed at the cars, not the bike path. To change that, Colón Hernández will need to track down someone in the Department of Transportation and explain why it’s urgently important that they shift the trafﬁc cameras on a bridge.
Chavez and the Deliveryboys rarely attend these meetings. They stress their independence and express skepticism that anyone — police, city ofﬁcials, sometimes even the Deliveristas — will ever help them. Chavez sees himself as just a guy with a Facebook page. Juan Solano, Cesar’s uncle and the most outspoken of the Deliveryboys, sees a distinction between “politics,” which are futile, and what they are doing, which is “organizing our people” to help themselves.
Ajche understands the wariness. “In our countries, organizations show up, promise to do stuff, and never deliver,” he said. It’s not like they’ve gotten much help from institutions here, either. Yet he is palpably frustrated at the resistance. “A change of mind would be good for them. They have potential; they’ve done things. But they reached a point where they can’t do much more since they’re not in touch with politicians.”
Ajche pointed out that earlier this year, the Deliveryboys told their followers to barrage the Relay app with a cut-and-paste indictment of the company’s rating system, long routes, and vanishing tips. “Us delivery workers are tired of so much injustice,” they wrote, threatening to “stop working without prior notice.”
“It’s the same thing that we are trying to do!” Ajche said.
Not long after the walkout threat, Relay added a DISPUTE TIP button. It was a victory, but a partial one. Making use of the feature requires workers to know the actual amount a customer tipped, and many lack the language skills to ask. Juan is thinking about making cards in English so they can show customers why they need to know.
Anthony Chavez preparing to head out for the dinner shift.
Delivery workers store their bikes at a garage overnight and prepare to take the subway home.
Cesar Solano at Willis Avenue Bridge on his birthday at the end of his work day.
Bikers wait for a bigger group to form before crossing the Willis Avenue Bridge.
Juan Solano at home in the two-bedroom apartment he shares with ﬁve other delivery bikers.
Compared to the grinding progress of New York’s bureaucracy, when it comes to thefts, self-defense yields immediate results: a bike recovered, a thief apprehended, a bridge defended.
Chavez advises workers to keep a photo of their bike on their phone. If it’s stolen, send the photo to the group, and often another worker will soon spot someone selling it on the street. The spotter sends the location, then pretends to be an interested buyer — “Hey, buddy, how much you want for that?” — until reinforcements arrive and unobtrusively encircle the two hagglers before closing in. Ideally, surrounded by a dozen delivery workers, the suspect gives up peacefully and returns the bike to its rightful owner.
But not always. In June, a Lower East Side group saw someone selling a stolen bike on Lafayette, but the suspect hopped on the bike and ﬂed. The group gave chase for several blocks before tackling him on Delancey. At that point, the police took notice and detained the suspect. When the bike’s owner arrived, he ceremoniously inserted his key into the lock, dangling from the frame, and opened it to cheers.
Two weeks later, a Relay worker named Angel Lopez was cruising up Amsterdam with a dinner from Celeste when he noticed someone sawing through a bike lock with a power grinder, throwing up sparks. He stopped, shocked. While he was debating what to do, workers from a nearby Chinese takeout place rushed out, grabbed chairs from their outdoor-dining setup, and started hitting the thief, who responded by brandishing his buzz saw. A standoff ensued until the thief, deterred, jogged off. Lopez sent an alert to his group, Upper Furious, and followed from a distance.
If I let him go, he’s just gonna get away, just like every other guy, he thought. Lopez crossed paths with two other workers and told them what was happening. They joined in cautious pursuit. Periodically, the thief looked back and yelled, “Keep following me. I got something for you,” Lopez said, and they wondered what that could mean, whether he could have a gun in his backpack and be luring them to a less crowded part of town.
The man stopped at another locked bike and began again with the buzz saw, threatening the workers whenever they got close. “That thing will cut your face off,” Lopez recalled. The bike freed, the thief started to pedal away.
There were now about ten workers, and they chased the thief, trying to shove him off his bike as he attempted to strike them with his saw. Lopez said they passed a cop car and shouted for help, to no avail.
They hit the downward slope toward Riverside Park, and a few workers gunned their bikes forward to head off the thief. Surrounded, he got off the bike and swung the saw, then hurled the cut lock at the gathered crowd. But in throwing the lock, he lost his grip on the saw, and it fell to the ground. It was at that moment that police arrived, pushed through the workers, and pinned the suspect to the ground with, Lopez said, a degree of force he felt ambivalent about. “It got to the point where he said, ‘I can’t breathe’ — you know those famous lines,” he recalled. A few workers shouted that he deserved it. “You could feel the anger in the air,” Lopez said.
He couldn’t stay to talk to the cops. He was 30 minutes late with his order and worried Relay would deactivate him. “You’re no superhero,” he imagined the company telling him. “Just deliver the food.” The suspect was charged with attempted robbery, possession of a weapon, petit larceny, and resisting arrest.
These ad hoc sting operations worry Colón Hernández. She believes that some of the thieves are organized, possibly transporting the bikes out of state. They are often armed. Workers have been stabbed and attacked with ﬁreworks when they tried to recover their bikes themselves. Chasing down and apprehending every thief in the city is both unsustainable and dangerous.
“The ﬁrst time works. The second time may work. What happens when the third time, somebody gets killed? Or you hurt somebody because you’re chasing people at a very fast pace?” she said. “I’ve been saying this to the NYPD: One day I’m going to get a call that I don’t want to get.”
On a Friday night in July, Nicolas was coming back outside after dropping off a pizza near Madison Square Park when he saw that his bike had vanished. What am I going to do? he thought. How am I going to work?
Originally from Puebla, Mexico, Nicolas, 42 (who, fearing retaliation from the thief, requested a pseudonym), worked to send money home to his four children, whom he hadn’t seen since he crossed the border 12 years ago. The more he worked, the sooner he could return, and he worked a lot: a 5 a.m. cleaning shift at a pizza place, then delivering either for the restaurant or for DoorDash.
He called his brother, another delivery worker, and asked him to post a photo of his bike to the Deliveryboys’ WhatsApp. An hour later, he got a hit: Someone had spotted his bike, a teal-taped Arrow, being wheeled into an apartment building in the Bronx. The tipster had followed the man, ﬁlmed him, and noted the address. Nicolas got on the train and headed there.
He was met by ﬁve other workers from the WhatsApp group who’d come to help. Standing in front of the building, Nicolas called 911 and was told to wait for a patrol car, so they waited. And waited. After midnight, he thanked the others for standing by him and told them to go home.
Three days later, after he’d given the bike up for lost, one of the workers who had stood with him Friday ﬂagged him down. Another bike had been stolen and traced to the same building. A group was gathering to get it back.
When the two arrived, they encountered 15 or so workers standing in front of the building. Cesar was there along with a contingent that had caravanned from the Willis Avenue Bridge. Chavez was there too. Nicolas introduced himself.
Cesar and Chavez had been called there by the owner of the other bike, Margaro Solano. Unlike Nicolas’s bike, Margaro’s had a GPS. Seeing his bike had been taken to the Bronx, he and his wife — who left her restaurant job to help — had immediately headed there. They conﬁrmed they had the right place by obtaining building surveillance footage of a man — the same one ﬁlmed carrying Nicolas’s bike — lugging Margaro’s up the stairs and into his apartment. They could hear Margaro’s bike alarm blaring through the door.
After Margaro was unable to get help from the nearby precinct, he called Chavez, who texted Cesar, who put out a call on WhatsApp. By the time Nicolas arrived, the group had gone back to the precinct, failed to get help, and settled in for a stakeout.
Rather than risk a confrontation inside the building, Chavez and the others decided the safest approach would be to wait for the thief to emerge and ask for the bikes back. Two workers stood just outside the building entrance, while another loitered in the lobby. The rest gathered on the sidewalk outside, chatting. The stakeout was the ﬁrst time most of them had met in person.
Around midnight, conversation began to shift to how late it was and when they should decide to call it a night. Many had come directly from work, skipping dinner. Then he emerged, the man from the videos. The workers on the street watched as he opened the lobby door and stepped outside.
The group followed him for a block, tailing him as stealthily as a dozen deliverymen on electric bikes could manage. After a second block, they descended, surrounding him on the sidewalk.
For vigilante justice, it was a restrained confrontation. No one touched anyone else. The workers, masked, stood back in a circle and asked for their bikes to be returned; the man towered over them by at least two heads. Chavez was ﬁlming, Cesar broadcasting live. Nicolas stood at the margins, watching.
To Cesar’s surprise, the man asked how many bikes they had come for.
When the thief asked for $1,000 to give them back, the workers started shouting. “Show him! Let him see!” they yelled in Spanish. “The camera was watching you!” in English. Chavez said they didn’t want trouble and wouldn’t call the police if the man just gave back the bikes — a bluff. Chavez knew the police wouldn’t come. The man didn’t budge.