From the 1300s
Due to the incredible amount of our members’ private information and content we handle, and the number and nature of people who want it, trust is a real issue. Consequently, NearlyFreeSpeech.NET operates under the Keyser Söze school of management. (Albeit with a lot less bloodshed and arson, most days.) We strictly compartmentalize projects and ruthlessly limit access to our production databases and systems.
To give a contrived example of how this works, if we needed member files backed up, we would not hire a system administrator to backup member files. We might hire someone to develop and maintain an automated system for backing up files. That system would be developed in isolation. Then, after code review and testing, we would deploy that system to back up member files. The person responsible for the system would thus never gain access to member files, even though that task can’t be completed without that access. The end result is a lot like we bought an off-the-shelf system that does exactly what we need from a vendor with really good support. (Which is also an option we pursue, on those rare occasions when it exists.)
This means that we do not have any traditional employees. Almost all of the day-to-day operational work is (where possible) done directly by the owners or by select highly-qualified vendors. When additional work is needed, we work with equally qualified independent contractors. In order to do this, a high level of information isolation is used. Although we joke that this means a person could be doing work for us and not even know it, in practice it means that they may be doing the work under an agreement with an intermediary, and they will typically be working on testbed systems with no real data on them.
Where work opportunities exist, we do not post them on our site. We prefer to identify and recruit specific individuals, often based on their relevant open source work or other demonstrated expertise. Sometimes we also make small, isolated projects available in venues where good candidates are likely to be found in an effort to flush them out. So, if you have exactly the mix of expertise, incredible skills, steadfast discretion, and willingness to work for fair but not lavish compensation we need for a specific project, you don’t need to apply. Mr. Kobayashi may be in touch.
NearlyFreeSpeech.NET is about three things: fairness, innovation, and free speech.
Our baseline pricing is designed to recover the basic costs associated with “keeping the lights on.” What that means is that if every member of our service set up only sites and services that subsequently got no activity, our goal would be for them to pay exactly enough to cover the costs we incur. In other words, at such a basic level, we would pay our bills, everybody involved would make a reasonable wage, and there wouldn’t be any money left over at all. Everybody pays their way, and nothing more.
Then, when sites get bigger and become more successful, that’s when we start to profit. That’s the essence of our intention that “our success depends entirely on your success!” However, beyond the occasional pizza, we tend to reinvest what profits we make, be it spending money on innovation, newer equipment sooner, or similar improvements. (No matter what we do or how far we come, our list of ways to make the service better always seems to gain items faster than we can cross them off.) We also like to keep a little money around so that when the really critical legal issues come up, we can fight to protect our members’ privacy and service, rather than letting anybody who can hire a lawyer financially DDOS our members into submission.
Like most web hosts, we use and depend on a whole lot of open source software. Unlike most web hosts, we don’t depend on a proprietary control panel written by somebody else that dictates what sorts of services we can and can’t offer. We use a clustered hosting network that turns downtimes that would last hours or days if your site was dependent on a specific web server into minutes, or no outage at all. On our network, moving sites that are misbehaving where they can’t hurt others is the rule, not the exception. Those are some of the benefits of innovation.
The flip side of this is that our interface and featureset were entirely developed by people who march to the beat of their own drummer. It does things that others can’t, and doesn’t do things others can. While the result of that is something that’s not for everyone, a lot of our members are kindred spirits, and they like the idea that supporting us as we chart our own course helps us support them as they chart theirs.
Since we started back in 2002, one of the things that’s repeatedly been made clear to us is that governments aren’t the biggest threat to free speech. They certainly bear watching and perpetual wariness, but they’re just not the source of the everyday threats to our members’ ability to express themselves.
The most common threats come from corporations and the pressure they can bring. Not a week goes by that we don’t hear from some cheap lawyer about how mad some company is that some website said something that they don’t like and what horrible things they’re going to do to us if we don’t hop to and do their bidding.
We know where the line is. We know what our legal protections are, and how far they go. We know how to tell intimidation from legitimate complaints (which, sadly, do come up from time to time). As a result, we’ve been successfully telling the corporate blowhards who think intimidation gets results where to stuff it since 2002, and at this point, we’re awfully good at it.
(Please don’t take this as an invitation to violate our Terms & Conditions of Service. That’s a betrayal of the trust we place in each and every member to play by the rules, and when that trust is violated, we come down a lot harder than any corporate thug. In fact, we would go so far as to say that in such a case, we would strike down upon you with great vengeance and furious anger.)
(If you want to dig back into the past, you can visit this page from 2005.)
…for clipping. WordPress just takes too long to begin editing a new post.
Composing a new post should feel like water. The online editor is so great, but it just takes too long to load.
michael_nielsen on Twitter: “@albrgr Richard Rhodes’ “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” is extraordinary My favourite scientific bios are Gleick’s “Genius”, on Feynman, and Skideslky’s abridged Keynes.” / Twitter
— Read on mobile.twitter.com/michael_nielsen/status/1244141467645313024
Rajat Suri on Twitter: “Positive American thought of the day: even in the two World Wars, the US was late and slow to act initially….but mobilized rapidly and motivated its best people to figure out solutions to the hardest problems, with great results” / Twitter
— Read on mobile.twitter.com/rajatsuri/status/1244018995545563137
Paul Graham on Twitter: “Something I didn’t fully realize till the past month: it’s dangerous to have a leader whose base holds him to a low standard. If Trump’s base insisted he take charge of the Covid-19 response, he’d have to. But since they’re satisfied with press conferences, that’s all we get.” / Twitter
— Read on mobile.twitter.com/paulg/status/1243898228304740353
AROUND 15 OR 20 years ago, in the early aughts of this century, it was faddish in certain corners of the history of science to write biographies of obscure figures. The idea was that understanding the life of run-of-the-mill researchers would tell us more about how science actually operates than would studies of rarefied individuals. Enough with Darwin and Newton; it was time to excavate the life of moderately successful 19th-century zoology professors at land-grant universities. This wasn’t quite a call for social history — these studies generally retained the discipline’s traditional focus on the intellectual accomplishments of relatively elite individuals — but it did reflect a yearning to incorporate the quotidian into a field better known for its interest in breakthroughs.
If I’m not naming names, it’s not solely out of a desire to protect the well intentioned. Very few of these projects were ultimately published. I encountered them primarily as a young acquisitions editor at a university press, where I reluctantly rejected them, one after another. As a recently minted history of science PhD myself, I believed these would-be authors when they touted the revelatory potential of the overlooked, utterly average career. But try as I might, I could not convince my editorial colleagues of the untapped market potential for books on people no one had heard of.
My more experienced publishing colleagues were undoubtedly right about the market. And yet, historians of science of my generation occasionally let themselves wonder about what might have been. One of these historians is Michael Gordin, whose fascinating new book, Einstein in Bohemia, demands we take seriously the idea that Albert Einstein himself was once just another physicist. A book about the most famous scientist in the world, it stubbornly, insistently, focuses on a 16-month stretch in which nothing particularly eventful happened. Einstein spent those 16 months as a professor of theoretical physics at the German University of Prague. He arrived intending to stay. He made a few important friends, played some chamber music, struggled with static theory, took a lot of walks, and then he left.
For Gordin, the banality of Einstein’s time in Prague is the point. Einstein in Bohemia is as much a series of essays on historical method and memory as it is a biography that uses Einsteinian ideas about perspective and spacetime to riff about the relationship between past and present, space and place. It’s also very much a book about Prague. It works in movements, looking backward and forward from Einstein’s Bohemian interlude to explore issues of biography, physics, Czech and German nationalism, the philosophy of science, literature, Jewishness, and public monuments. It is best savored in chunks, to better indulge in moments of reflection.
Einstein accepted the position at the German University of Prague in 1911. The move from Zurich would disrupt both his family and intellectual work. It had been six years since the scientist’s annus mirabilis, when Einstein fired off articles on Brownian motion, the photoelectric effect, and the special theory of relativity. In 1907, he published a review article that laid out a research agenda to “generalize” the special theory of relativity from objects moving at constant speed in relation to each other to accelerating objects. Einstein’s work since had stalled. He would not make much progress in Prague — but of course he didn’t know this at the time.
“What if,” Gordin writes, “we did not read the past through the future, or through Einstein’s own retrospective haze?” What if, instead of focusing on the moment that we, in the present, now recognize as important, historians wrote about the world as their subjects saw it, as a series of encounters with people, places, things, and ideas that could go in any number of directions? Putting it “in Einsteinian terms,” he writes,
the spacetime interval eventually becomes a defined worldline, but that does not happen immediately and is only clearly discernible in retrospect. While it is still our present, history remains open; to see how it changes, we can dive into the records of the past and hold diverse meanings up to view in our mind’s eye.
In Prague, Einstein lived the life of a physics professor. He taught a handful of courses, occasionally gave and attended public lectures, and traveled to professional conferences. The relatively light demands and intellectual isolation of his position allowed him the mental space to try a new approach to the problem that had thus far stymied him. Perhaps gravity, rather than quantum theory, offered the path to general relativity. Einstein ultimately abandoned the particular approach that he took in Prague — static theory — but Gordin encourages us to see this not as a dead end but as a start to the work that would eventually produce his breakthrough.
Einstein himself rarely invoked his Prague period when reflecting on his life; his static theory is largely forgotten.
The richest sections of Einstein in Bohemia explore similar questions of what we choose to remember, and what we choose to forget. Einstein, being Einstein, has attracted any number of myths, and his time in Prague is no different. One of the most peculiar of these involves a long-standing claim that Einstein served as the inspiration for the figure of Kepler in Max Brod’s novel Tycho Brahe’s Path to God (Tycho Brahes Weg zu Gott, 1915), and that, therefore, the novel can be used as a historical source for Einstein’s time in Prague. Remarkably, as Gordin notes, all but two major Einstein biographies published since 1947 have “equated the physicist with the depiction of Kepler in Tycho Brahe’s Path to God and then quoted Brod’s descriptions of Kepler as though they were straightforward reportage of Einstein’s character.”
What on earth? First, let’s clarify the cast of characters and their relation to the principal. Max Brod is best remembered today as Franz Kafka’s editor. Einstein knew Brod from a salon that gathered at the home of Bertha Fanta. The discussions frequently centered on philosophy and Zionism, but Einstein kept coming back for the chance to play his violin (Brod accompanied him at least once). Einstein and Kafka apparently also met at one of these salons, an incident that Gordin carefully documents only to dryly point out that neither of them remembered it.
The bizarre claim found its way into official Einstein lore via a biography written by physicist Philipp Frank. As fellow physicists, Einstein and Frank had a more substantial relationship than Einstein had with Brod. Frank had been Einstein’s chosen successor at the German University of Prague and, once installed, cultivated a role as the protector of Einstein’s legacy in that city. This continued even after Frank relocated to the United States in 1938 — he and his wife had been on a steamer to the United States for a lecture tour when news of the Munich Accords broke, and they stayed. Frank’s interests gradually shifted from physics to the philosophy of science, particularly the implications of relativity theory for epistemology.
To be clear: Brod did not base his depiction of Kepler on Einstein. Brod read Frank’s biography of Einstein and issued numerous statements distancing himself from it. It’s not entirely clear from Gordin’s account why Frank claimed otherwise, except that it made sense to him at the time. The more interesting questions, for Gordin, are why the myth took hold and what unpacking it can reveal about literary and intellectual life in Germanophone Prague. Language, philosophy, religion, and national identity all find their way into Gordin’s explanation of how and why an obscure historical novel by Kafka’s editor has become part of the Einstein canon. In Gordin’s words,
More distant observers were content to draw analogies between Einstein and Kepler based on little more than their shared commitment to mathematizing the universe, flattening the centuries and worldviews that separated these two Germanophone physicists who happened to share the experience of living for a time in Prague.
It’s a complicated, nonlinear story that loops back in on itself, focused as much on what didn’t happen as what actually did.
Gordin’s attention to this odd conflation of the historical Einstein with a fictional Kepler is representative of a book focused as much on myth, memory, and what might have been as on how Einstein spent his 16 months in Prague. Einstein in Bohemia makes a persuasive case that spotlighting the most obscure moments of a scientist’s career can in fact illuminate larger truths — at least if that scientist is Einstein.