Bikelash PART II: Dirty Laundry

On the morning of March 29, 2012, while riding my bicycle, I hit and killed a man who was crossing the street.

This is not a story of who was at fault, though at first it seemed that way.

We all share a critical responsibility when we go out into the world: the duty to keep one another safe. I failed in that responsibility and, as a result, we will never get back the life of Sutchi Hui. Words cannot adequately express how sorry I am for his death and for the loss to his family. I carry that sorrow with me every day.

This story is about what happened after the accident—and it’s a story that happens all too often: High-profile cases get tried not in courtrooms, but on TV and the internet. Media fans the flames, the public quickly passes judgment, and elected officials bend the system to secure political wins—at the expense of due process and fair outcomes.

The narrative is based on court transcripts, newspaper and online articles, television broadcasts, and extensive notes and journal entries I made in the months after the accident. To protect the privacy of others, I changed some names. All else is true to my memory of what happened.

I am sharing this not for redemption or personal profit, but because this side of the story rarely gets told. To make sure our justice system treats all defendants fairly, we need to speak up when it doesn’t.

I’m Chris Bucchere.

And this is Bikelash.

PART II: Dirty Laundry

CHAPTER TEN 

5 April 2012, 2:00pm—7 days since the accident

Today things continued feeling pretty surreal, but still under control. Though my teeth still didn’t line up correctly when I bit down and my bruise was turning into a horror show, my road rash had mostly healed and my head no longer ached or throbbed. My mind seemed to be functioning correctly, but as is the case with head injuries, it was hard to know when it hadn’t.

Besides, I had bigger problems to deal with than my injuries. An elderly man had died and—right or wrong—I was being blamed for it.

According to a TV news broadcast, the man, Sutchi Hui, had attempted to cross the street with his wife, Betty, on March 29, hurrying to catch a northbound 24 Divisadero bus to go pick up some eyeglasses. I was pretty sure I entered on a late yellow light and I had a lifetime of safe cycling behind me. I knew in my heart I had done everything I could do to avoid an accident while trying to exit that intersection.

Based on those feelings alone, I was pretty sure that several pedestrians crossed incorrectly, causing the accident—though I had no evidence to prove that. Criminal charges seemed far-fetched, but nonetheless, the hubbub about this in the media may have caused some ears to perk up in law enforcement. Maybe not all the cops and DAs would agree with Inspector Cadigan that this was “no big deal.”

At least I had hired some great attorneys. And Ted Cassman’s partner, Cris Arguedas, had eased my mind a bit. If my post-concussion email did fall into the wrong hands, Cris reassured me that it didn’t contain any incriminating statements.

However, things did not remain calm for long. While sitting at my terminal at work in San Bruno, IFTTT alerts came pouring in. I don’t know who first broke the story, but all at once, the news was everywhere. The Examiner, the Chronicle, and the weeklies ran headlines like Cyclist Who Struck Pedestrian At Castro: “I Just Plowed Through The Crowded Crosswalk.” Sentences like these, culled from my email, appeared all over the web. Nowhere were my words ever called an email; nowhere was it mentioned that the content currently going viral was only intended for my mom, my dad, a few close buddies, and my cycling teammates. Nor was it mentioned that I wasn’t of sound mind when I wrote it. Nor that Sutchi Hui was alive and, according to local papers, expected to make a full recovery at the time. Instead, I was now the asshole cyclist discussing the man I killed online, blogging, and defending my actions—after his death, morning my “dead” helmet instead of the dead pedestrian.

This is really fucked up.

Within minutes of the first IFTTT alert, my phone started ringing off the hook with numbers I didn’t recognize. I had to put it in airplane mode to make it stop. I checked the local news sites, and comments came surging in every couple of seconds—including many long-winded diatribes about being wronged by two-wheeled maniacs—and one simple profundity: “Now can we blame the cyclist?”

People seemed to think that my email somehow proved I was going too fast and/or cycling recklessly, even though it stated that I had a yellow light and that pedestrians filled up the crosswalk before I could finish crossing. So much for having the right of way until clearing the intersection.

When the media—print, TV news, and social—latched on to my post-concussive email, extracting catchy phrases like “way too committed to stop” and “plowed through the crowded crosswalk,” it confirmed and reinforced the prevailing narrative that everything was my fault. My high-on-painkillers attempt at protective humor was being stripped of all context and used to convict me in the court of public opinion.

At the same time, a curious thing started happening on the Mission Cycling email list. A dozen or so guys I had ridden with wrote to me privately to say how sorry they were about the accident, and they expressed their gratitude that I wasn’t more seriously hurt, along with their sympathies for the elderly man and his family. That’s what I would expect from my teammates, though it was surprising that it had to be off-list. They seemed willing to express their sympathies, but not publicly. Simultaneously, a few other cyclists from the Mission Cycling email list with whom I had never ridden—let alone even met—chastised me for my “reckless” riding, calling me an embarrassment to the team and telling me to “lawyer up.”

It was time to clear the air with MC’s leadership.

I found an empty conference room and dialed Aleph Vanderwall, one of a handful of Mission Cycling riders I knew from prior work connections. He got me in touch with Dylan DiBona, one of the two guys who devoted enormous amounts of time and energy into operating and managing the team. I had ridden with Dylan a few times, but I didn’t know him well enough to have his cell phone number. The other team coordinator, Kevin LaKritz, I barely knew at all. Dylan picked up.

“Dylan, it’s Chris. Aleph V. gave me your number.”

“Man, Chris, you’ve gotten yourself into some serious shit.”

“I know. We have a big problem here. Obviously somebody—or several somebodies—cross-posted the email I sent only to my mom and dad, a few cycling buddies, and the team list; now, it’s all over the news.”

“What the hell were you thinking sending that email?”

“I’m sorry, man. The best answer I have is that I wasn’t. I was probably still in shock, and my head was spinning from the concussion. I never should have taken two Percocet. I never should have sat down in front of the computer. I never should have cc’d the team! I’m really sorry I dragged us all into this.”

“The problem is that it’s not just the team; there are close to a thousand people on the MC email list.”

“What? Are you kidding me? I thought it was just active members, like no more than 150—”

“It’s closer to a thousand.”

Jesus. So we’ll never know how it got out. I saw the email turn up on MTBR and SF2G; at that point, it was as good as on the front page of the paper.”

“It’s also possible that someone from the media plucked it right from Google’s email archive of the list.”

“The archive is public?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, fuck, really? You need to change that setting to private!”

“I will.”

“And will you please also delete the email and all the replies from the archive? That will at least prevent people from linking to it.”

“Yes, I can take care of that.”

“And can you please tell people to stop talking about this on the email list? It only fuels the fire in the media.”

“Look, Chris. I’m not going to moderate the list or ban people from saying things. I’ll ask people to pipe down out of respect for the deceased, but I can’t guarantee that it will work.”

“That’s more than enough. Thank you. Now there’s one last thing: How do we handle my relationship with the team? It’s getting ugly out there. People are saying this whole thing was my fault, that I was reckless, and there are rumors circulating about charges, like for that last guy, Randy Ang.”

“Yeah, I know about Randy. You’re both all over the news.”

“And so is Mission Cycling. You guys need to distance yourself from me. I was a card-carrying member in 2011—but, wait! Have you sent the dues request email for 2012 yet?”

“Yeah, we sent it a while ago. Why?”

“Well, there’s your out! I never got that email. I didn’t pay my dues, so even though I ride with the team twice a week, that doesn’t make me a member. So why don’t you just disown me? I don’t want to take the team down with this ship.”

“Fine. We’ll tell people you’re not a member.”

“Thank you, Dylan. And again, I’m sorry. Let’s hope this will contain some of the damage.”

“Let’s hope.”

CHAPTER ELEVEN

5 April 2012, 5pm—7 days since the accident

A few hours later, the following text appeared on Mission Cycling’s website:

We feel it’s necessary to express what we know about the horrible accident that occurred on Market and Castro last Thursday the 29th. We’ve learned about this incident the same way that everyone else has, through a post on the Google group message board and through the reporting of that incident that is happening now. We were shocked to learn not only that this accident occurred, but also by the rider’s response to it in the post.

It should be noted that Chris Bucchere is not a member of Mission Cycling. He isn’t now and he wasn’t at the time of this accident. His reckless riding on that day is completely antithetical to the way we go about our sport. We don’t condone dangerous riding in any way. We believe it’s better to ride calmly and safely so you can enjoy a great ride with friends than to ride recklessly and jeopardize your health and the health of those around you.

Given the way this event is being reported, it’s also worth mentioning that Bucchere was alone at the time this happened and not part of any official club event. The mailing list this was posted to exists solely to allow the broader cycling community to communicate about cycling events and related topics. It was by no means an official Mission Cycling members list. Chris Bucchere’s post came as a surprise and shock to all of us who read it.

As our members and larger community of friends know, our goal with Mission Cycling has always been to promote a safe and positive approach the sport of cycling so that more people could be encouraged to try it. We believe cycling is a beautiful sport and, when done right, extremely safe. We also believe that in creating a supportive community around the sport we can most effectively spread a more positive relationship between cyclists and their surroundings. There simply is no place or reason for reckless riding.

This accident is awful and tragic. We would like to express our deepest sympathy for the family of the victim.

I had asked to be disowned, but I didn’t expect to be condemned! So now, despite being on the team for a year and riding with them hundreds of times, the sport of “non-reckless cycling” belonged to Mission Cycling riders—and not to me.

My “recklessness” was simply taken for granted and assumed to be true—even by the leadership of my own (now former) team.

Suddenly, I felt a vibration in my pocket. It was my father-in-law calling.

“Dad!”

“Chris, my goodness, this is quite a mess you’re in.”

“That’s an understatement.”

“Look, there’s something I want to mention,” he said, getting straight down to business, as he was wont to do. “You don’t have to act on it, not now or ever. Just hear me out.”

I gave him my full attention.

“You’ve got a tremendous amount of content on the internet. Facebook, multiple blogs, Twitter accounts, Strava rides, and all sorts of other writings I’m sure I don’t know about. Based on how hostile the media coverage is, journalists are probably already poring through all the content you’ve published, trying to draw false conclusions about your past that will help them illustrate your ‘recklessness.’” I could hear the air-quotes around “recklessness” even through the phone.

“That’s a good point. I hadn’t really looked at all that as a liability. I’ve never even blogged about cycling, and I’ve got nothing to hide in those Strava tracks—you know what a safe rider I am.”

“Yes, but you have no way of knowing how that data will be used and how your words will be twisted and taken out of context. The way I see it is that you have nothing to lose by taking the content down—and potentially a lot to lose by leaving it out there.”

“Thanks, Dad. That’s good advice. I’ll think about it.”

I pushed this latest thought—should I disappear myself from the internet?—on top of the stack, shoving all my other twisted, frantic thoughts, emotions, and paranoid fantasies down a bit. Just then a new thought emerged and took priority over all the others.

I need to study that intersection, ASAP.

CHAPTER TWELVE

5 April 2012, 9:30pm—7 days since the accident

By the time I had come home from work, figured out dinner, and helped my wife put our daughter to bed, it was already late, but the Castro was hopping. Moments earlier, I had affixed a zip-tie to one of the spokes on the front wheel of my commuter bike. Every time the zip-tie hit the fork, it made a solid clicking sound, indicating one full rotation of the wheel, effectively turning my bike into a linear measuring device.

I rotated the zip-tie away from the spokes and rode my bike down the hill to the intersection of Market and Castro, located less than a mile from the tiny bungalow above Dolores Park I shared with Carroll and Ashley. I adjusted the zip-tie, then starting from the southern line of the southern crosswalk (near the underground MUNI station), I walked the bike north, parallel to the western crosswalk, all the way up to the limit line a few feet north of the northern line of the northern crosswalk (near the gas station), counting each click. I repeated this three times. Two times I counted the same number of clicks; once I was off by one.

Next, I crossed the southern crosswalk, heading west to east, from the MUNI underground station to the 24 bus stop, in the same direction as Sutchi Hui and his wife, counting each click.

Once I was satisfied with these measurements, I took a seat upon the stone wall in front of the Twin Peaks Tavern, keeping my bike within arm’s reach. Holding my phone in my hand with the stopwatch running, I measured the yellow phase of the traffic lights in question, the ones that control north/south traffic on Castro Street as it crosses Market Street. I got a slew of different readings before I learned to anticipate the timing correctly.

Finally, I felt I had run the test enough times to settle on a three-and-a-half-second yellow. When the yellow changed to red, an “all red” phase kicked in for another three and a half seconds, which I also painstakingly timed over and over until I was confident in my measurements. Both the yellow and “all red” phases lasted for exactly three and a half seconds, as far as I could tell with my phone’s stopwatch.

I studied the lights some more, this time qualitatively. I noticed that during the three-and-a-half-second “all red” phase, all the vehicle signals in every direction turned red and remained solid red, and all the pedestrian signals displayed DON’T WALK in every direction. In other words, the “all red” phase—at least in theory—acted as a buffer that activated after every red light to keep all opposing vehicles and pedestrians from entering the intersection until all vehicles and pedestrians had exited it. City traffic engineers undoubtedly had used some kind of formula to compute the timing for this delay. The formula had probably factored in the length of the intersection, the speed limit, and perhaps also the empirical average speed through the intersection.

I also observed and recorded what happened when three and a half seconds had transpired: The traffic lights controlling east/west traffic on Market Street turned green in unison with the WALK indicators—the red upraised hand changed to a white walking biped—those glyphs ostensibly controlling the movement of the pedestrians who somehow filled up the crosswalk directly in front of me as I tried to exit the southern end of the intersection.

As I rode back up to our tiny house on Cumberland Street, I thought about the “all red” phase (or “delayed green,” as it is sometimes called). I entered on a yellow light. Admittedly, it was a very late yellow light, but as far as the law goes, yellow means yellow.

Assuming that I entered on the very last instant of the yellow, the “all red” phase would still have granted me an additional three and a half seconds of a car- and pedestrian-free intersection before the east-westbound cars and pedestrians would get their green light and WALK symbol. It may not sound like much, but three and a half seconds is a comparatively long “all red” delay. Although many of the large, dangerous Market Street intersections feature similar light timings, I don’t know of delays this long being used elsewhere in the city.

From my memory of the seconds before the crash, I knew that multiple people converged upon me, coming from both sides. I remember seeing a gap and then, to my horror, watching it close right in front of me.

Now in possession of some data about the signals in the intersection, I was able to come up with a new hypothesis: Several of the pedestrians, including the man who died and his wife, all had crossed well ahead of the WALK symbol—and by “well ahead” I estimated at least three seconds before they were lawfully allowed to do so. In other words, several pedestrians had started crossing approximately when my light turned red, three and a half seconds before they received their WALK indicator. So even though the pedestrians had been in a crosswalk, they were jaywalking, since the California Vehicle Code states that when DON’T WALK is displayed, “no pedestrian shall start to cross the roadway in the direction of the signal.”

When I got home, I measured the diameter of my wheel, including the tire, and multiplied by pi. That, times the number of clicks, gave me the width of the intersection from north to south, which came out to approximately 150 feet. The southern crosswalk measured forty-six feet wide, or twenty-three feet counting only my lane. If the opposite lane was occupied by a northbound bus, as was mentioned in that letter to The Examiner editor and corroborated by Betty Hui on the evening news, then that would have left me twenty-three lateral feet, or only about ten feet on each side of me. A handful of people—coming from two different directions with each person moving at a different speed—had created a deathtrap for me and for anyone else I couldn’t avoid.

Those three and a half “all red” seconds—during which time opposing pedestrians and vehicles were expected to remain stationary on the curb or behind the limit line, respectively—were absolutely critical to keeping an intersection this wide safe. One hundred fifty feet was a long way to travel in three and a half seconds. In fact, a vehicle traveling at the speed limit (twenty-five miles per hour, or about thirty-six and a half feet per second) would only traverse about 128 feet before the “all red” ends and the pedestrians get their WALK symbol in the opposing direction.

Satellite photo from Google Maps, with added markings to show measurements. “a” marks the approximate location of the collision.

That means the engineer who designed the light timings for this area had cut it dangerously close at Market and Castro. They must have assumed that three and a half seconds of all red plus a second or two of reaction time, would allow enough time for vehicles traveling at around the speed limit to clear the intersection safely—before pedestrian and vehicle cross-traffic started to fill in from opposing directions. But would those timings work for bicycles as well, who may have been traveling at lower speeds?

I’m sure that most of the time—if the pedestrians always obeyed the WALK indicator and drivers never ran the red light—vehicles were given approximately five seconds (three and a half seconds delay plus a second and a half reaction time) to exit the intersection while it remained clear. At twenty-five miles per hour, five seconds buys the driver (or cyclist) 182.5 feet, putting the car (or bike) two car lengths’ past the line demarcating the southern edge of the southern crosswalk, well on its way, collision-free.

In other words, the traffic engineers had assumed that the three-and-a-half-second delay was long enough to allow vehicles that catch a late yellow to clear the intersection before the WALK indicator turned on. Likewise, I assumed that the pedestrians would obey the WALK indicator—or, if they had chosen to jaywalk and enter the crosswalk early—that they would have at least looked both ways to check for cross traffic.

The pedestrians, whether or not they had a WALK symbol, also must have assumed the intersection was clear of vehicles. Simply put: There was a whole lot of assuming going on.

And everyone knows what happens when we assume.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

5 April 2012, 11:00pm—7 days since the accident

When I got home from my measuring and timing exercise at Market and Castro, I should have gone to bed, but I felt too wired to sleep. Rather than letting another surreal day come to an end, I sat down in front of my computer.

As I sifted through the ongoing battle royale raging amid the comment forums on all the local news sites, weeklies, and local blogs, my mind ran in a million different directions. Suddenly, my mental gymnastics came to an abrupt halt. I had solved the puzzle: The final missing piece was the “all red.”

Let’s assume that I entered the intersection at the very last instant of yellow, right before it turned red. Captain Casciato made a strong implication that the pedestrians and I entered at the same time. Did that mean that pedestrians jumped the WALK symbol by three and a half seconds? The “all red” delay should have allowed my clear passage through the intersection—as long as the DON’T WALK symbols were respected by the pedestrians.

At this juncture, I felt some amount of relief knowing that, if Captain Casciato was telling the truth, several pedestrians had definitely jumped their WALK indicator, and they had done so egregiously.

But whatever relief I felt from this revelation dissipated as I dove back into the internet comment forums. The debate was still heated, but already getting old.

If only bikes needed to have licenses, then they could be held accountable! But what about little Bobby who’s only twelve and rides on the sidewalk—does he need a license? Cars kill so many more people than bikes—why is this story getting all the attention when cars do so much more damage?

The commenters peppered their generalizations with micro-vignettes that represented one or another version of the following: One time, this cyclist blew a stop sign and nearly hit me while I was crossing the crosswalk, and I want the DA to go after this guy to send a message to all those scofflaw cyclists.

Someone who gets hit by a car would never think to blame all drivers for their carelessness. Yet how quickly people jumped to the conclusion that this reckless, speeding, red-light running monster represented all cyclists. Behind a cloak of pseudonymity, the cycle of accusation and condemnation continued, seemingly without end.

Suddenly, all this gobbledygook swirling around in my head vanished when I saw my very own words appear on Twitter—not put there by me. “Take risks. There’s plenty of time to make mistakes, learn from them, and start over again stronger and better off than you were before.”

What. The. Fuck?

A few Google searches later, I traced the source of this tweet to someone excerpting from a transcript of a 2002 interview I gave with the Stanford Career Development Center. With the “career advice” context removed, it made me sound like a risk-taker, when in fact, I had been encouraging recent grads to join startups rather than big companies early in their careers.

Every character I had ever typed on the internet, every tweet, every forum post, every blog post, every website to which I had contributed—relevant or not—could now be used against me.

My father-in-law was right: I needed to disappear from the internet.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

6 April 2012, 1:00am—8 days since the accident

The evening waned, midnight came and went, and a new day began as I sat, hunched over my computer, hunting down and exterminating every last trace of my digital self. As my father-in-law had said, each tentacle of my far-reaching online identity had become a liability.

I had been running my own businesses since 2002. But years before that, I began establishing myself and, later, my employees as experts in a family of enterprise software products. My team and I were frequent contributors to online forums, user groups, and conferences. I wrote hundreds of blog and forum posts, providing code samples and other technical advice. I spoke at conferences, and clips of my speaking engagements had often been posted online. Now those clips had been defaced with comments like, “Who did you kill today, you fat fuck?” and, “Nice shirt, murderer.”

I hastily deleted all my personal and professional websites, videos, and blog posts, wiping out the abusive graffiti along with them. I nuked my Facebook and Twitter accounts and scores of other sites that contained my personal information. If I couldn’t delete my accounts, I marked over all my data with Xs. Then I submitted more than 400 individual content removal requests to Google to make sure that no trace of this stuff could be dredged up from the search engine’s cache.

I didn’t have control over all the nonsense being produced about me by others, but at least I could stop the bleeding when it came to my own content. As I did so, I felt sick to my stomach. Yes, I was protecting myself—but I was jeopardizing my professional reputation at the same time.

The sky had already started to glow with pre-dawn blues by the time I had finished my first pass. I knew I would need to spend many more hours following up on the content removal requests to make sure they were honored. I also needed to reach out to other people to ask them to take down their own content in which I appeared, before it was defiled by hate speech from trolls. For each account I deleted, I reopened the same account eponymously to claim the space before it could be hijacked by potential identity thieves. I emailed a professional photographer friend of mine, asking him to share a cease-and-desist letter that I could send to TV networks and websites that were unlawfully using photo and video copyrighted by me.

My content would never be completely gone from the internet, but I had made it very difficult to dig up anything that could be used to support the foregone conclusion that I was a monster.

This mass deletion meant that the internet footprint I had been creating for years was also gone. All that remained of me was what the media had created—a reckless, negligent cyclist who ran a red light, carelessly slaughtered a pedestrian, and then raced home to blog about how he cared more about his helmet than the man he killed.

I had inadvertently removed nearly everything positive about me—all my professional and personal contributions that showed I was, in fact, not a monster.

I hoped I wouldn’t come to regret this later, but I figured I probably would.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

6 April 2012, 7:00am—8 days since the accident

After just a few hours of sleep, I awoke feeling even more paranoid about the media and the internet in general, which seemed to be conspiring to bring ruin upon me and my family. I told work I was coming in late. I needed to run a few errands.

My first stop was an ATM on Castro Street, two blocks from where the accident took place. I swiped my card four times and withdrew $3,200.

Next stop: a mobile phone provider’s retail store, where I purchased two pay-as-you-go flip phones registered under fake names. I paid in cash. These phones could be reloaded, using cash, at any of the provider’s stores. This was about the closest I could get to private communications.

Next stop: a big-box electronics store to buy a four-camera video surveillance system of my own. I hoped the TV news wasn’t going to show up on my doorstep, but I wanted to be prepared in case they did.

Last stop: emergency survival backpacks for each member of the family.

As I drove down 280, I called a family friend and asked her if she would pick up our aging dog in case we had to leave town suddenly. Carroll and I had each already packed an overnight bag, plus one for Ashley. We had left a car parked outside the mouth of the cul-de-sac on which we lived, so we couldn’t be blocked in. If we needed to disappear, we’d turn our iPhones off, stop using credit cards, and meet at a predetermined rendezvous point nearby, but outside the city. We tried to eliminate the need to communicate as much as possible, but if we had to, we always had the flip phones. We weren’t taking any chances.

Feeling a bit more ready for what might come, I started mental preparations for another conversation I needed to have with Ted Cassman. No matter how many times I ran the numbers—the 150 feet, the three-and-a-half-second “all red,” the pedestrians closing in from both sides—I could not envision any scenarios that would have given the pedestrians the right of way. Despite what the media was saying, I was pretty sure that the pedestrians caused this accident, which could have been avoided if they had simply obeyed the DON’T WALK symbol or bothered to look for cross traffic before starting to cross.

My freedom might just depend on being able to prove it.

I arrived at the office, but before clocking in, I caught up on the latest developments on the internet. Amid the media furor, a small handful of very vocal commenters—all but one complete strangers to me—challenged the veracity of the prevailing narrative by asking questions: What actual color was my light? What color was the WALK/DON’T WALK indicator for the pedestrians? How fast was I actually going? How many people were in that southern crosswalk? Doesn’t the “blog post” imply that the pedestrians entered too soon?

When these concerns about separating “fact” from “allegation” got posted to sfgate.com, they were buried by hateful comments from trolls.

Exasperated, I stepped away from the online shouting matches and tried to focus on work.


Later in the afternoon, two emails and a text message from people I didn’t know arrived on my phone.

This media lashing is becoming too personal. I need to look out for the safety of my family. I need to make sure that they don’t end up on TV.

I headed back to my cube after a meeting broke up, wondering if something new in the media had prompted those threats.

In a story on sfgate.com, I found out that the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition had set up a pop-up outreach booth at Market and Guerrero to remind people that they “do not condone reckless behavior” and “pedestrians always have the right of way.”

This may have been well-intentioned, but it flew in the face of everything I knew about the California Vehicle Code. I’ve known since my teens that pedestrians do not always have the right of way. Just like it is for vehicles, pedestrian right of way is entirely situation-dependent. Pedestrians don’t have any form of right of way on interstate highways, nor when they disobey traffic signals, nor when they jump out suddenly into harm’s way, nor when they cross outside of a crosswalk or intersection, nor when they cross when there are “vehicles lawfully within the intersection at the time that signal is first shown.”

Suddenly an alert came in from a local blog called San Francisco Citizen.

I feared these alerts the most. Corporate media definitely spin the facts, but they usually can’t get away with claims that are demonstrably false. Bloggers, however, are not subject to that limitation.

James Herd, the blogger behind sfcitizen.com, took a screenshot of a page from Strava’s website and marked it up. He then linked my accident to an unrelated cycling death that took place in 2009. The only connection between these two events was that the other cyclist Kim Flint and I—like millions of other cyclists and athletes—both used the same online tracking system, Strava, to record our workouts. Herd’s theory was that Strava had somehow influenced my behavior while descending Castro Street—that it had a hand in causing the death of Sutchi Hui.

Since joining Strava in 2010, I had posted hundreds of rides and runs—including the morning of March 29th. I posted all of my rides and runs on Strava, even my short commutes. I like keeping track of my fitness data, not just for sentimental reasons but because I like to analyze it. Strava let me see how I was doing versus my PR (Personal Record) or versus the KOM (King of the Mountain). Strava is not a racing system; it’s a tracking system. But that’s not the way Herd spun it.

According to Herd, Strava pitted riders against themselves or other riders, scofflaws ignoring the rules of the road while racing for street cred. His claim was a misrepresentation, if not a perversion, of what fitness tracking programs actually do.

After Herd published this false connection, the weeklies and local papers picked up the story and ran with it. It didn’t take long for a heated debate to ensue: Strava is turning our fair city into a racecourse for cyclists!

As my phone lit up with alerts leading to stories all over the web about how I was racing against other people—or myself—on Strava, angry mobs of commenters swarmed in, unleashing I-told-you-so screeds. I was having trouble keeping up and, at the same time, trying to stay focused on work.

Then my phone rang. It was a neighbor calling to tell me that he had spotted two news vans—with telescoping antennae and all—loitering near our home. That was the tipping point.

I thanked the neighbor for the warning, hung up, and then sent a text to my wife. “911” it read. When I received the same text back from her, I put the iPhone in airplane mode, turned on my pay-as-you-go flip phone, stuffed my laptop into my bag, and high-tailed it down to my car.

It was time to get the hell out of Dodge.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

6 April 2012, 7:30pm—8 days since the accident

Bay Area residents don’t usually expect June gloom in early April, but nonetheless, a thick fog had descended upon the small, quirky beach town of Pacifica, just a few miles south of San Francisco. I waited in the parking lot of a hotel that bore a strong resemblance to the famous Del Coronado in San Diego. I didn’t want to use any of our expensive prepaid minutes, and I didn’t plan on turning on my iPhone’s radio features until the media had moved on, so I sat in silence, staring into the gray abyss, waiting for Carroll and Ashley to arrive per our predetermined evacuation plan. I couldn’t believe it had come to this.

After some time, I saw the familiar headlights of my wife’s car pierce through the fog. She pulled up, with our daughter buckled into her booster seat. I slid into the passenger seat of Carroll’s car, where I was greeted by a look of utter bewilderment on her face. Without saying a word, my wife’s expression conveyed one simple question: Has the world gone mad?

Too scared to return home and become fodder for the evening news, we booked a modest hotel in downtown Oakland, consolidated our overnight bags into the bigger car, and set off for the East Bay. Hours later, with our daughter fast asleep on a hotel-issue cot beside the room’s queen bed, my wife and I talked in muted tones about our new, frightening reality.

Throughout that day, my phone had interrupted me to bring updates on the narrative being woven. Reckless blogger/cyclist bemoans the death of his helmet after killing an innocent, law-abiding elderly pedestrian while racing on city streets. The stories took on lives of their own, racking up comment counts by the hundreds and sometimes thousands.

I tried not to feel sorry for myself. A man had died, and somehow I lived. Yet as the accusations got more and more outlandish, I found myself thinking less about the man who died and his grieving family and more about defending myself from attacks from every direction.

They claim I’m a monster—and I’m starting to feel like one!

How frustrating it was to have the facts distorted and then spun out of control. The media had taken my email and removed all context—they called it a blog post, rather than an email to friends, teammates, and family. The changed allegory to fact. They made it sound like I wrote it after Mr. Hui died.

The result: Stupid, heartless cyclist says he cares more about his helmet than the pedestrian he killed while racing.

It was exactly what you would expect from the worst-case stereotype of a cyclist. I had to wonder—were they crafting precisely the cliché they knew their audience wanted? Was this just feeding the lions? Did no one care to get the facts right? Do facts even matter?

This story, despite its faults, delivered an outrageous—and effective—punchline. Before long, there were articles about how big of a story this was becoming. Yahoo News said I was “blowing up on the Web,” and indeed I was—internationally, even. I didn’t read all the comments this time; there were thousands and thousands of them, undoubtedly just various reprises of: See, I told you so. Cyclists are assholes!

In this moment, I became acutely aware of the awesome power of the media. They have the ability to craft narratives and the distribution channels to influence readers, watchers, and listeners. The HuffPost reported that the media coverage caught the attention of the San Francisco District Attorney’s office. Assistant DA  Omid Talai told the press that they had seen the “posts”—my email had seemingly multiplied into “posts”—and that they found them “troubling.” This was not at all surprising, given the spin with which they had been pitched.

In just a few short days, I had transitioned from being a nobody doing nothing all that interesting to a viral phenomenon whose infamy was severe enough to require a statement from law enforcement about it.

As our daughter slept, blissfully unaware, Carroll and I sat like shipwrecked companions in a tiny lifeboat and watched my reputation being decimated, scuttled by my own foolish words, cleverly re-told by the media. I had promised Ted I’d stay silent, but I felt like I had to say something.

Earlier that day, Ted had released a very terse statement that we co-wrote:

Chris is devastated by the accident last Thursday and by the tragic death of Sutchi Hui. Also injured in the accident, Chris gave a statement to the police while still receiving treatment at a hospital, and has continued to cooperate fully with their investigation. Chris believes that he entered the intersection lawfully and that he did everything possible to avoid the accident. His heart goes out to Mr. Hui’s wife and family for their loss.

But as the media gale raged all around us, I didn’t think that was enough. To that end, I wrote a detailed statement for the press. I revised it several times and, when I felt it reflected what I truly wanted and needed to say in the face of this tragedy and the vitriol being directed at me, I slept on it.

I went to bed no longer feeling like the monster I had been reading about—the one who shared a name with me. Speaking my mind brought me back to the family man I was, the one who cared deeply about the hurt inflicted upon another family and who wanted to tell the world that this was a huge mistake and that perhaps we could work together to do something productive about it.

Date: Apr 7, 2012, at 7:54 AM
To: Ted Cassman, Cristina Arguedas
From: Chris Bucchere
Subject: Turning the media attention into something positive

Hi Folks,

As you well know, we’re caught in the middle of a media firestorm. Yahoo! covered this on a national news blog and they make it look like a reckless hit and run, making no mentions of my evasive action, my injuries, or my claims of innocence. The public outcry is bigger than a tsunami. 3,500 people on yahoo are calling for blood. I’m getting death threats via email and SMS.

Putting my legal issues aside (and considering the fact that I might not actually have any legal issues), we have a PR disaster on our hands. I want to address that problem and I want to address it while there is so much negative energy focused on this story. Putting my head down and hiding behind my counsel may have worked before the days of social media, but I don’t think it’s a good idea now.

I would like to publish a longer statement in The Chronicle that takes the focus away from the facts of the case and redirects the focus on a call toward ending the vitriol and starting a fundraising campaign to fund an engineering and traffic study to improve the safety of that intersection. Do people really care this much about this story? Can they put their money where their mouths are? We’ll see. I will match contributions up to $10,000 and then donate the fund to the city’s public works department in Mr. Hui’s name while advocating fixing that intersection and/or other dangerous ones like Van Ness and Market or Octavia and Market.

Let’s turn the current internet meme of “kill Bucchere and all cyclists” into something positive. We need to strike while the iron is hot.

Ted’s name turned up on my cell phone within minutes of hitting send, even though it was eight o’clock on a Saturday morning. He didn’t mince words when he said: never in a million years. The message was too long, confusing, controversial, not at all media-proof, and generally just not appropriate. He didn’t stop there: This will make things a lot worse. There’s nothing we can do about the media. We have to keep our heads down and weather the storm, letting these things run their course. What matters is making sure you don’t get charged and we’re doing everything we can on that front.

And so on and so forth, Ted proceeded to talk me off the ledge. I reluctantly accepted his advice, so I never got to find out if this would-be press release would have made things better, made things worse, or kept things about the same. I tried to fight it. But in the end, my limited experience with the media couldn’t hold a candle to Ted’s thirty-year history tackling high-profile criminal defense cases; he knew that when it comes to the criminal justice system, rarely can any good come from a defendant’s interactions with the press. The potential for blowback was astronomically high.

Ted was probably right, but that didn’t make it any easier. Not being able to defend myself was torture.

The life and reputation I had worked for and created was being set on fire, and there was nothing I could do to extinguish it.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

8 April 2012—10 days since the accident

I awoke Sunday morning with that weird panic response of realizing that I was not in my own bed. Any traveler has had this experience—it’s easy to wake up in San Francisco and think you’re still in New York. But Oakland was still Oakland, and we were still holed up in a shitty hotel room, hiding from the media.

I would occasionally question the decision to avoid the media—ask why we shouldn’t face them, head on—I didn’t break any laws, and we have nothing to hide!—but invariably I would get rebuked by my wife, by Ted, or by my own sense of good judgment. I could not bear the thought of my family being ambushed by reporters and ending up on the nightly news.

Regardless, it still troubled me deeply that Ted wouldn’t allow me to talk to the media. But even if he did, what could I possibly say to them? The media seemed to have made up its mind, and I suspected that whatever came out of my mouth that didn’t support my role as villain would end up on the virtual editing room floor. The remaining juicy bits would be chopped up and inserted as sound bites right into the places where they needed me to sound dumb or heartless or reckless, making sure I stayed in-character.

“Even if you rescue a dozen babies from a burning orphanage right now, people are still going to hate you,” Ted told me. He was probably right.

Thinking about this stuff was beginning to drive me mad. I needed a break from the dramatization of my real life unfolding in the mainstream and social media. Because we had lied to our daughter and told her we were having a “fun weekend getaway,” we decided to take her to Children’s Fairyland in Oakland. While the girls got ready, I went for a quick run around Lake Merritt.

Oakland, a true melting pot, bustled with all sorts of people. Throughout the run, I never had trouble navigating around them. But strangely, in Oakland’s Chinatown, I had to make several last-minute maneuvers on and off the street to make it through the few blocks without running into anyone. It could have been the density of the shops, or the fact that Chinatown was more crowded on this particular Sunday morning than the rest of downtown Oakland, or it could have been something else I observed: Most people, especially the elderly ones, seemed to stare directly at their feet while they were walking. Could there be a cultural component to my accident? I remembered my surprise when Jacques, the personal injury lawyer, assumed the pedestrian was Asian. But was he actually on to something?

Sure enough, a few Google searches back at the hotel turned up a study from 2010 that examined 7,354 traffic accidents in New York City, from 2002 to 2006, that resulted in serious injury or death. At all age groupings up to and including sixty-five years, pedestrians were hurt or killed at about the same rate, regardless of ethnicity, culture or gender. However, the study then stated, “Residents over 65 years of age in the Asian/Pacific Islander group have the highest fatality rate, 7.8 per 100,000 population, nearly double the average for the over-65 age group.” This was the only significant ethnicity-related conclusion drawn in the entire report.

I closed my laptop and loaded myself and my family into the car. For a few hours, we wandered through Fairyland, surrounded by eerie creations ostensibly put there to help fairy tales come to life. Meanwhile, the news media was bringing to life their own tale about me. What if this bizarre finding from NYC somehow became part of the story?

A short while later, at a restaurant, my daughter lost her very first tooth on a slice of flatbread, a special occasion for our young, one-child family. I tried to compartmentalize the thoughts swirling around in my head.

I had the law on my side and some pretty compelling statistics, too. But my daughter had lost her first tooth—I should be allowed to celebrate this. And yet, the poor family of the pedestrian must be in shock, grieving. I felt stuck between two worlds: my life as I once knew it with my wife, my daughter, and the milestone of losing her first tooth; and the dystopian version in which a reckless cyclist massacred an innocent pedestrian. Somehow, some part of me connected with and touched both worlds; yet I felt comfortable in neither.

We arrived back at the hotel, carefully-wrapped tooth in tow. I sent the study from NYC to Ted. He told me to forget I had ever read it.

“There will be a time and a place for you to say what you need to say, but for the time being, it’s still no comment.”

While the media continued to tell their fairy tale, we hid in a tiny hotel room, telling our daughter that we needed a vacation. All I could do was focus on clearing my name. I couldn’t bear the thought that I might be in jail when my daughter lost her next tooth.

After lights out for the girls, I did a few more Google searches, my laptop’s screen providing the only illumination in the tiny room. It didn’t take me long to ascertain that the media situation had gone from bad, right through worse, and straight to downright horrible. The big story in the local papers was that a witness had come forward claiming that I blew through “several red lights and stop signs.”

Immediately I found this suspicious—first and foremost, because I knew for a fact that I hadn’t.

One of the lights the witness claimed I ran was at 15th Street, which controls traffic right in front of an elementary school. Not only was I sure I didn’t run that red light, I was sure I would never do anything so stupid and dangerous—at 8 a.m. on a weekday when there would be kids present and a crossing guard. To “race” through a red at such an intersection would be unconscionable, and certainly something I would never even consider. I was a parent of an elementary school student, for crissake!

And why is this witness coming forward now, ten days after the accident?

Also suspicious: There was only one stop sign on Castro Street from where it forks off from Divisadero, at 16th Street and Castro. Still, these allegations could be problematic. I needed to tell Ted.

The unnamed witness—who claimed I ran “several red lights and stop signs”—was worrisome, but he certainly wasn’t the only problem. More searching turned up another widely-reported fabrication, this one emerging from an online bike forum. They claimed I was riding a fixie—a fixed-gear bicycle with no brakes—and that’s what caused the accident.

But my road bike, currently in police custody, has brakes and gears.

These lies kept piling on, each one damaging my reputation and threatening my innocence in a different way, leaving me feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. I needed to get some sleep, but it would be hours before I finished compulsively reading all the stories and many of the comments, which left me questioning the nature of humanity.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

9 April 2012 —11 days since the accident

Seeing as how the media volcano—which on Friday had erupted into national coverage—seemed to be simmering down, we felt cautiously optimistic about returning to our home on Cumberland Street after school and work. Other than the business cards of TV anchors from different news programs stuffed into the doorjamb, we didn’t find anything out of the ordinary. From what I’d seen on TV, at least one eager group of newscasters had dragged a camera crew up forty stairs to knock on the door of our temporarily-evacuated residence. Carroll and I shot each other a look. We dodged a bullet.

Is this what we do to people in the news, I thought, hound them in their homes and places of work, just to get a snippet of footage for the nightly broadcast? I felt a new sense of empathy for anyone in the public eye—for any reason.

Our homecoming turned out to be uneventful, but another problem soon reared its ugly head. Ever since the story had gone national, thousands upon thousands of enraged comments had flooded the internet. Too committed to stop? Typical hipster cyclist attitude. Cyclists never follow the law—this guy’s the perfect example. I hear they like those cyclist bitches with shaved legs in jail. With each big wave of media coverage came more death threats.

I knew the media had manipulated the story to produce maximum outrage, so it was hard to blame people for their anger. Still, did they really have to go this far?

My first inclination was to do nothing. These people are just blowing off steam, I thought. They’re not going to act out their insane violent fantasies.

My wife felt differently. She was genuinely scared for herself and Ashley—scared to live under our own roof, where we were sitting ducks for whoever might come looking.

Not really knowing what to do, I called Ted. We quickly dispensed with the pleasantries.

“People are sending threatening emails and text messages to me and Carroll. Lots of them.”

“I’m so sorry Chris.” He said it like he really meant it—and I believed he did. “How many?”

“Maybe a dozen emails, a couple of texts, and some suspicious phone calls—no voicemails.”

“Don’t respond to any of them and send them all to me. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“You also need to print them and file a police report.”

“Wait a minute. You want me to talk to the police?”

“Yes, but don’t tell them anything about the accident. If they ask about it, just tell them to refer to the existing case file or contact me if they have any questions. Tell them as little as possible, just enough so that they’re able to file a report on the threats.”

I had very little experience dealing with police and even less dealing with the criminal justice system, but from my education and my career, I had developed a healthy distrust of any authority, especially any kind of authority that presents itself in uniform. Badges and uniforms disrupt the balance of power. Inspector Cadigan, by dressing in plain clothes and downplaying the accident with her assurances, had gotten me to open up and talk about the events that day. In retrospect, I should have said only one word to her, the only word anyone should ever say to anyone in law enforcement: “lawyer.” If only I hadn’t hit my head so hard.

In light of these circumstances, it felt very strange to invite an SFPD officer into my home, but I went through with it on Ted’s advice and asked the officer to take and file a report. I had to explain to him why people were threatening me and my family, but the minute he started asking probing questions about the accident, I asked him to leave. I was polite and courteous, but not exactly hospitable.

Leaving this personal matter in the hands of the SFPD made me queasy, but short of going into hiding and taking my family with me, there seemed to be little else I could do.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

April 10, 2012 —12 days since the accident

Today I was greeted by a rousing condemnation from the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. It made sense that they would trash me—the SFBC believes the common misconception that pedestrians have the right of way, period. But even those who should have known better—the police, the DA’s office, Walk SF, Mission Cycling, and the media, social and otherwise—followed suit by summarily disparaging me and my actions and words. It was hard to take, especially because I was almost certain that I hadn’t broken any laws.

I imagined these condemnations to be a house of cards, all of which would soon come toppling down. The moment the authorities measured the intersection, did the math, and arrived at the conclusion that I was swarmed by a crowd of jaywalkers after challenging a yellow light, all the angst would be put to rest, and this entire affair would blow over, with apologies from all sides for the many different misunderstandings.

My optimism, however delusional, was bolstered by a tweet that my internet dragnet turned up the day prior. It was from another cyclist (whom I didn’t know) who tweeted the following observation shortly after sfcitizen.com’s fake Strava meme went viral. While it wasn’t enough to shut down the idea of cyclists “racing” through the city streets, it did point out that my average speed over three trips down that hill was fourteen miles per hour, hardly race-worthy.

Whatever positive feelings I had met an abrupt end on my drive home from work that evening. On my radio—tuned to the all-news station KCBS, as it had been on every car ride since the accident—I heard a teaser for a story about me. I flipped on my phone’s recording device and listened to a very concerned-sounding Holly Quan reporting on the twelve-day old accident, interspersed with the voice of a man who turned out to be George Gascón, San Francisco’s District Attorney.

George Gascón: “We’re still in the process of reviewing all this.”

Holly Quan: “The key, he says, is whether there was simple negligence, meaning a violation of traffic laws, or gross negligence characterized by wanton disregard, something that could be charged as a felony.”

GG: “I don’t want to be conclusive about that, but it certainly begins to appear that way.”

GG: “You know eyewitnesses are a key to this, right? Because it gives us the context of the ability to be able to see whether the bad behavior was just localized to that intersection or there was preceding bad behavior, meaning was there other speeding or riding unsafely even prior to getting to that intersection. That is very helpful especially when we’re doing the analysis to try to determine whether we had gross negligence or not.”

I thrust my finger into the radio dial, and all became silent but for the sound of the wind rushing by. As I drove up 280, it became undeniably clear to me that the DA of San Francisco, who hadn’t even been presented the case by the SFPD, said he was contemplating gross negligence—a felony!—rather than the misdemeanor charge for simple negligence given to Randy Ang, who had admitted to running a stale red light.

Even more alarming, the DA seemed fixated on charging me before he had seen any of the facts.The coroner hadn’t yet prepared a report to determine cause of death. Any reasonable person, especially this early in the ongoing investigation, would argue that fault was still in question—because of all the conflicting accounts: Had my light been red or yellow, and had the pedestrians walked on the WALK or the DON’T WALK symbol? But Gascón wasn’t deliberating between charging me and not charging me at all. He had already definitely decided to charge me. Now he was trying to decide how much to punish me. And he wanted a felony.

My head was spinning. I tried to focus on the road, but I couldn’t keep my thoughts from boiling over.

Gascón seemed to take for granted that what happened in the intersection was entirely the result of my “bad behavior.” That, in and of itself, was a problematic and scary statement, but, stepping back for a moment, why was he on the radio, telling KCBS about an ongoing police investigation that hadn’t been finished yet?

Also, where did this “riding unsafely even prior to getting to that intersection” stuff come from? Did he hear that from Mr. “Several Red Lights and Stop Signs?”

Still not able to comprehend what I had heard, I called Ted.

“Something crazy just happened,” I said, sounding like I was on the verge of a panic attack. “I think I just heard the DA tell KCBS that he’s trying to decide between simple and gross negligence and that he’s leaning toward a felony charge. The concept of not charging me looks like it’s off the table.”

“Wait, are you sure that’s what you heard? That he wants to charge you with a felony?”

“Yeah, he said something like ‘it’s beginning to appear that way.’”

“But his office told me that they haven’t seen the case yet. And that nobody has decided that they’re even pressing charges. This is very strange. Can I hear the newscast?”

“I recorded it on my phone. I’ll send it right now. Call me back after you’ve listened to it—I could be mistaken.”

I pulled over on Dolores Street and sent him the recording. A few minutes later, Ted called me back.

“Chris, he definitely said he’s leaning toward a felony. That’s a big problem, especially this early in the process. Another problem is that he went to the media first. We haven’t heard a peep from his office, and now his tongue is wagging about felony charges on the radio? That’s kind of unbelievable. It means we can’t fight a fair fight. It’s shameful, really. I’ll put a call in to his office right now and find out what’s going on.”

The next day, Sharon Woo, an ADA reporting to George Gascón, called Ted back and explained to him that Gascón was “misquoted” and that the SFPD hadn’t completed the case and presented it to the DA’s office yet—so no, of course they weren’t taking a formal position on felony vs. misdemeanor because they still didn’t have the police report, and yes, of course the option of “no charges at all” was still on the table.

But that “misquoting” didn’t feel like an accident.

Did the DA really already jump to the felony conclusion and announce it to the world before the coroner released a cause of death and before the police finished the report and presented it to his office?

There was, however, a silver lining: The radio broadcast mentioned that the police and/or DA might be examining video taken by a surveillance camera belonging to a business at the site of the accident.

A video is precisely what I need right now—something that will clear up all the ambiguity and show, once and for all, that my light was yellow and that the pedestrians’ signal said DON’T WALK.

I hung my hopes on this video. Eyewitnesses can be unreliable, but it’s impossible to argue against a videographic record—or is it?

CHAPTER TWENTY

April 11, 2012 —13 days since the accident

Whatever hope I felt quickly disappeared the moment this San Francisco Chronicle headline popped up on my phone: Video of fatal S.F. crash may contradict bicyclist.

“‘The biker is going fast and looks like he is hunched down. He hits the victim dead-on. There is never a moment where he looks like he is trying to slow down,’ said the [law enforcement] source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because police are still investigating the March 29 crash.”

No attempt to slow down? That’s not what I remember at all!

I read on in bewilderment. I vividly remembered a crowded crosswalk, at least a half-dozen people, maybe more. Chronicle columnists Matier & Ross wrote: “According to our source, however, the video shows only three or four people in the crosswalk when the collision occurred. ‘It’s not like there is a sea of people crossing,’ the source said.”

The crosswalk wasn’t crowded? Like hell it wasn’t!

And then it got worse: “One thing the video does not show was whether the light was red or yellow when Bucchere entered the intersection. The light was out of the camera’s view.”

Out of the camera’s view? You’ve got to be kidding me!

I tried to pull myself back into a more comprehensible reality. Was it even conceivable that I could have been so utterly wrong about the accident? I had blacked out for at least fifteen minutes; perhaps my memory couldn’t be trusted.

No, that’s impossible. I had a vivid picture of the entire ride, right up until the moment that my head hit the pavement—or so I thought. I hadn’t the faintest idea where these gossip columnists and their “law enforcement sources” were getting these assertions, but they were making me look like a first-class asshole—as if I hadn’t already achieved that status with my widely reported red-light-running, speeding, brakeless-fixie-riding, racing-on-Strava killing spree.

I struggled to find something I could use in this ungodly mess. On a second reading, something subtle caught my eye: “The video shows Sutchi Hui of San Bruno and his wife stepping into the intersection at Castro and Market streets just as Chris Bucchere rides in from the north side, said a law enforcement source who has viewed the footage.” I took a deep breath and tried to calm myself down. This was interesting: Even if the video didn’t show any traffic signals, which seemed both unlikely and unlucky, it did show that the Huis and I entered the intersection at the same time, according to the source who had watched it—which, I recalled, corroborated Captain Casciato’s statements from the day after the accident.

So let’s just assume, for the sake of argument, that the previous statement was true: The Huis and I entered the intersection at the same time. Remember that there’s a three and a half second “all red” phase. Because of this all red phase, either the Huis waited for the WALK symbol and I ran the red light by three and a half seconds, or I entered on a late yellow and the Huis began crossing three and a half seconds before the WALK indicator turned on. Only one of those assertions could be true.

Yet without a traffic light or pedestrian signal in the video, we would never know what really happened.

However, I did know one thing: I needed to get my hands on that footage so I could take a look for myself.


To be continued on August 19, 2018.


For a closer look at the research behind Bikelash, visit the companion GitHub project.

Bikelash PART I: The Accident

On the morning of March 29, 2012, while riding my bicycle, I hit and killed a man who was crossing the street.

This is not a story of who was at fault, though at first it seemed that way.

We all share a critical responsibility when we go out into the world: the duty to keep one another safe. I failed in that responsibility and, as a result, we will never get back the life of Sutchi Hui. Words cannot adequately express how sorry I am for his death and for the loss to his family. I carry that sorrow with me every day.

This story is about what happened after the accident—and it’s a story that happens all too often: High-profile cases get tried not in courtrooms, but on TV and the internet. Media fans the flames, the public quickly passes judgment, and elected officials bend the system to secure political wins—at the expense of due process and fair outcomes.

The narrative is based on court transcripts, newspaper and online articles, television broadcasts, and extensive notes and journal entries I made in the months after the accident. To protect the privacy of others, I changed some names. All else is true to my memory of what happened.

I am sharing this not for redemption or personal profit, but because this side of the story rarely gets told. To make sure our justice system treats all defendants fairly, we need to speak up when it doesn’t.

I’m Chris Bucchere.

And this is Bikelash.

PART I: The Accident

CHAPTER ONE

29 March 2012, 8:20am—18 minutes since the accident

Nothingness. I’d never experienced anything like the nothingness.

I had once read that near-death experiences involved being surrounded by darkness. Then, from amidst the darkness, a tunnel was supposed to lead to a beckoning white light. But this was different. No white light, no tunnel, no darkness even. No way to tell the darkness from the light. I simply did not exist.

Then, all of a sudden, I did. I could sense myself again. I could feel—and my first feeling was panic. I was choking! I could barely breathe.

At once, a pinprick of light appeared. My eyes began to focus, and my vision crept out in ripples until I could see my hands prying at a cervical collar.

“Get this thing off of me!” I shouted, my voice sounding raspy and hollow as I gasped for air.

“We can’t do that, sir. It’s for your own good.”

A male voice spoke to me, calmly, reassuringly. I had enough peripheral vision by now to see that I was being loaded into an ambulance.

“What’s happening to me?” I asked. “Whose blood is that?”

“It’s from an old man you hit,” said the reassuring voice.

Oh my god! Is he okay?”

“We don’t know, sir. Let’s focus on you for a minute,” said another reassuring voice.

“What’s that they’re pouring on the blood on the street?”

“Hydrogen peroxide. Look here: I’m going to ask you some questions. What’s your name?”

I pondered the question for a long time, then finally told him. I struggled with other easy questions that anyone should have been able to answer. I can’t remember the rest of the ambulance ride—and certainly not for lack of trying. It’s as if it never happened.


Bright lights everywhere. People shuffling around, talking. What am I doing in the hospital? I didn’t feel any pain, other than the choking sensation from the neck brace.

I raised my hands so I could see them again, feeling thankful that they seemed to function properly. And the gloves—long-fingered, black PEARL iZUMi gloves. Why was I wearing my bike gloves? Fuck! It finally dawned upon me: I had been in a bike accident. A road bike accident. The blood. The pedestrians. Oh, fuck!

I felt compelled to take inventory of the damage. All my limbs were intact. I could move my hands and feet. My left side felt numb—like when a hand or foot “falls asleep,” but extending from my calf to my shoulder. I struggled to focus on my injuries. I could hardly breathe with the neck brace on me. Also, they were trying to put an IV in my arm while they continued to stump me with simple questions. I struggled to pay attention to my surroundings.

In the spaces between my fragmented perception, I began the slow process of piecing together the circumstances that had landed me in the ER.


Some time later—no telling how much—I found myself in a hospital gown sitting on a bed. In a hospital room I didn’t remember entering, in a hospital I didn’t remember being admitted to. First an ambulance, then the room—in a matter of seconds. What the hell is happening to me? Am I time-traveling?

Nearly everything in the room gleamed white, chrome, or hospital blue. There was a poster on the wall of a cartoon marching band crossing a four-way intersection.

My wife, Carroll, was sitting in a corner, looking stiff and pale. I had no memory of her entering the room, but I was happy she had.

All of a sudden, an unfamiliar voice startled me. Though unidentifiable at first, the echo of it inside my head made me realize I was hearing the sound of my own speech. I was talking—about the accident.

“The last thing I remember is seeing a crowd of people crossing the street in front of me,” I told her. “People were closing in from both sides, but there was a gap—a gap that was disappearing rapidly. I remember braking like crazy and then trying to crash my bike on my left side. The next thing I remember is the feeling of choking from the neck brace and being loaded into an ambulance.”

The moments before the crash were clear; the moments after were like a patchwork quilt missing most of its patches.

Carroll seemed to be in shock. I tried to comfort her with some lighter topics, like our six-year-old daughter. As I struggled to make conversation, I was distracted by my swirling thoughts, this time of my friend and cycling buddy Tobias. He and I had been riding together moments before the crash. He must have seen something. I made a mental note to call him, though it would be a small miracle if I remembered with my semi-functional brain. Oh, and where is my bike? Before long, we heard a knock on the door.

In walked a tallish woman, stylishly dressed in all black: black pants, black top, black leather bomber, black boots. Two splashes of color, both gold, shone from the badge affixed to her belt and the tiny crucifix that hung from a thin chain around her neck.

“Hi, my name is Lori Cadigan and I’m an Inspector with the Hit-and-Run Detail. We know it wasn’t a hit-and-run; that’s just what they call our unit.”

I don’t know if it was her street clothes, her disarming words, or her warm, motherly mannerisms, but somehow Inspector Cadigan immediately put me at ease. I told her everything I could remember: how I went through a yellow light and that I had no idea what those pedestrians were doing there. I told her they closed the gap on me and that I just wasn’t given a chance to leave the intersection in one piece. I pointed to the silly framed poster on the wall with the marching band crossing the street, and told her that it reminded me of Market and Castro earlier that morning. She snapped a photo of that poster, along with photos of my injuries, my shredded bike clothes, and my smashed helmet.

After I gave my statement and Lori took her notes, she stood up and said, with a deeply sympathetic affect, “I understand what happened, Chris. Pedestrians cross way too early all the time in this city. Plus, I’m sure he’ll be fine. This is no big deal.”

CHAPTER TWO

29 March 2012, 2:00pm—6 hours since the accident

I found myself at home, reclining in a chair, without a clue as to how I had gotten there. On the table next to me was an open bottle of Percocet, a glass of water, and an ice pack that I was supposed to move from the table to my head and back every fifteen minutes, a task made unusually difficult because time was playing tricks on me. How did I get here? Carroll had to remind me that she had driven us home in her car.

My beat-up body—and the bells tolling in my head—left me in no shape to go to work; plus, the day was more than half over already. That gave me the afternoon off—but with a fist wedged in my left temple, an eggplant-colored bruise on my hip, at least forty-eight square inches of road rash, one humdinger of a headache, and some fierce painkillers. In other words: ideal conditions for binge-watching TV in the fetal position.

In spite of this, I fumbled around for my laptop and started composing an email to my family, a few friends, and my cycling teammates to let them know there had been a horrific accident but that, for the most part, I was okay.

This turned out to be more difficult than I had imagined. My thoughts arrived in short blasts interrupted by surges in the sting of my road rash. The few ideas I could produce swirled around in my head like water at the end of a toilet flush.

I had a flashback of the pedestrians closing the gap on me. At once, the gravity of this situation began to seep through the swelling and narcotics. I’m a mess right now, but thanks to my helmet, I’ll be fine. But what about the pedestrian? Is he going to make it?

Then, in the very next instant, I’d jump into a different thought vortex.

I told Lori what had happened; she said it was no big deal. Pedestrians cross early all the time, she said. I wondered how long they’d need to keep my bike.

This wasn’t complicated, but it was making my head spin. And throb—even more so than it did already.

It’s a small miracle that other people weren’t injured, too, I thought. It’s a small miracle that I wasn’t more seriously injured. Jesus. Both the man I hit and I could have died. Easily. Other pedestrians could have died, too. The only thing that saved me—in all likelihood—was wearing my helmet. Jesus!

The seriousness of the situation was beginning to hit me—how close a call it had really been. A second or two later and my daughter wouldn’t have a father; my wife wouldn’t have a husband; my parents would lose their son. My brother… My friends… The emotions came in waves—fear, nausea, relief—with each new realization.

A vision of Carroll getting that terrible phone call coursed through my poorly functioning brain: “Mrs. Bucchere, your husband has been killed in a bicycle accident.” Although I had been the one to conjure it up, I was unable make it stop. My head throbbed. I reached up and touched the lump on my forehead. I’m really fucking glad I was wearing my helmet.

I’m not a big crying person, but I started sobbing. Damn, what the hell do they put in Percocet?

My thoughts circled around and around, up and down, as I typed away, my brain playing table tennis with my emotions.

Suddenly, I remembered that I needed to call Lori to check on the pedestrian in the hospital. I hope he’s not hurt too badly. Wait, I just did that. He’s probably going to be fine, Inspector Cadigan had told me.

I squinted, as if trying to make my brain function better, and I read through the words. My thoughts continued to swirl. I felt extra-witty, almost giddy. After all, everyone lived!

Then I rapidly transitioned to a frightened little boy. I almost died. My life and the lives of everyone around me had almost changed irrevocably in an instant. These terrifying images were too much to handle, especially in my battered and drugged condition. So I did what I normally do in such situations: I tried to be funny. Humor seemed like a good shield to keep my true emotions from showing.

On Mar 29, 2012, at 2:16 PM, Chris Bucchere wrote:

Dear Missionistas / Raiders of the Morning, Famiglia and Amigos [translation: Wife, Mom, Dad, Brother, a couple riding buddies and my Mission Cycling teammates],

I wrecked on the way home today from the bi-weekly Headlands Raid today. Short story: I’m fine. The pedestrian I clobbered? Not so much. Long(er) story:

Around 8am I was descending Divisidero Street [misspelled, and actually Castro Street] southbound and about to cross Market Street. The light turned yellow as I was approaching the intersection, but I was already way too committed to stop. The light turned red as I was cruising through the middle of the intersection and then, almost instantly, the southern crosswalk on Market and Castro filled up with people coming from both directions. The intersection very long and the width of Castro Street at that point is very short, so, in a nutshell, blammo.

The quote/unquote “scene of the crime” was that intersection right by the landmark Castro Theatre—it leads from a really busy MUNI station to that little plaza where The Naked Guy always hangs out. It was commuter hour and it was crowded as all getup. I couldn’t see a line through the crowd and I couldn’t stop, so I laid it down and just plowed through the crowded crosswalk in the least-populated place I could find.

I don’t remember the next five minutes but when I came to, I was in a neck brace being loaded into an ambulance. I remember seeing a RIVER of blood on the asphalt, but it wasn’t mine. Apparently I hit a 71-year old male pedestrian and he ended up in the ICU with pretty serious head injuries. I really hope he ends up OK.

They asked me a bunch of stupid easy questions that I couldn’t answer, so they kept me for a few hours for observation, gave me a tetanus shot and sent me on my way.

Anyway, other than a stiff neck, a sore jaw/TMJ, a few bruises, and some raspberries, I’m totally fine. I got discharged from the hospital during the lunch hour. The guy I hit was not as fortunate. I really hope he makes it.

The cops took my bike. Hopefully they’ll give it back.

In closing, I want to dedicate this story to my late helmet. She died in heroic fashion today as my head slammed into the tarmac. Like the Secret Service would do for a president, she took some serious pavement today, cracking through-and-through in five places and getting completely mauled by the ragged asphalt. May she die knowing that because she committed the ultimate sacrifice, her rider can live on and ride on. Can I get an amen?

Amen.

The moral of this little story is: WYFH

Hoping you’ll all keep the rubber side down,

Chris

My head was hurting too much to continue, so I pressed the button with the paper airplane on it. I heard that satisfying “swoosh” sound, and closed the lid on my laptop.

CHAPTER THREE

29 March 2012, 4:00pm—8 hours since the accident

Before sending that email to my friends, family, and teammates, I had contemplated lying down and taking a nap. Now I really needed one.

Instead, I called Inspector Cadigan again to ask about the condition of the other person involved in the accident. I didn’t know his name; I only knew he was male and elderly. The more I regained my mental faculties, the more deeply I became concerned about the pedestrian, and the more I hoped desperately that he would be okay. Inspector Cadigan said that he was in stable condition, but that he hadn’t left the ICU. She didn’t seem too concerned.

Then, out of nowhere, I asked her when I could get my bike back. Soon, she told me. I immediately regretted asking.

Trying—and struggling—to stay focused, I flipped open my computer again, only to discover that earlier that day, over at the San Francisco Chronicle, Ellen Huet, a Stanford-educated journalist about ten years too young to have been my classmate, had done some writing of her own.

I tried to read it, but my mind wandered back to the scene of the accident. The gap. The pedestrians closing in on me. The blood. Scattered, broken memories of the hospital.

After struggling to regain my concentration, I read Ellen’s article.

Pedestrian, cyclist injured in crash in Castro
Published 1:12 p.m., Thursday, March 29, 2012
San Francisco—A man walking in a Market Street crosswalk was struck and injured by a bicyclist and taken to the hospital this morning, authorities said. The cyclist was also injured and taken to San Francisco General Hospital following the accident, which occurred just after 8 a.m. at the intersection of Castro and Market streets, said S.F. Fire Department spokeswoman Mindy Talmadge.

The pedestrian’s injuries were originally believed to be life threatening, but he is expected to survive, police said.

According to police, the male cyclist was traveling south on Castro and crossing Market when he struck the man, who was walking eastbound in the crosswalk. The bicyclist may have run a red light, according to witnesses, police said.

One witness said both people were unconscious after the collision, Talmadge said, but she couldn’t confirm that detail.

Two paramedic units and a fire engine responded to the scene. Police estimated the pedestrian’s age as at least 65. No age or extent of injuries was given for the bicyclist.

I read the article over and over. After a while, my deeply-drugged, post-concussive mind focused enough to draw a few conclusions.

“Carroll, we have a problem!” I shouted through the wall separating the guest room from the kitchen. “There’s an article in the Chronicle that makes it sound like this whole thing was my fault.”

“What? Why? How?”

“You know how everyone in this city feels about cyclists, right? They’re using some really slippery language to play into negative stereotypes. It says the guy I hit was walking in a crosswalk, which implies he had the right of way, but it doesn’t say what color his WALK indicator was. However, it does say—although third-hand—that I may have run a red light.”

Carroll leaned over my shoulder and read the article.

“It also says ‘struck and injured by a bicyclist’ instead of ‘by a bike,’” I said. “If he were hit by anything other than a bike, it would have said, ‘hit by a car’ or ‘a bus’ or ‘a train,’ not by a ‘driver.’

“Unless the driver was drunk,” I added. “Then it would have said ‘hit by a drunk driver.’”

This article seemed crafted to malign the unnamed cyclist as much as possible—without becoming verifiably false.

For proof that the Chronicle’s strategy was working, I needn’t do anything but scroll down. Against my better judgment, I read the comments—all 500+ of them. By the time I had reached the last page, I clicked back to the beginning and saw hundreds more pour in. Here is what San Francisco had to say in response to Ellen’s article:

“Most bicyclists represent the pinnacle of San Francisco narcissism and self-righteousness. Out of the thousands of bicyclists I have seen on the streets here, only one has stopped at a stop sign. It was a memorable sight!” —musclesister

“Bicycle riders VERY rarely obey the traffic laws. I avoid Market Street and the downtown area, but normal everyday cyclists ignore stop signs, lights, right of ways, etc. They think they own the road and always should have the right of way. They cut you off and then flip you off if you disagree with them. Some are curious, but not many!!!! Furthermore, I have NEVER seen a cyclists pulled over getting a ticket for anything! Do they ever get tickets for flying through stop signs, or red lights?” —gldretlvr

“Every single rush hour biker at Valencia and Market ignores the ‘No Right on Red’ sign. Every single one, as many as fifteen at a stop, for a solid forty minutes or whatever. So that’s probably several hundred scofflaws during that hour. They then will weave in between the cars stopped in the right lane during traffic, and many will pass cars ahead of them signaling/waiting to turn right onto Gough. ON THE RIGHT. They pass right-signaling motorists, ahead of them, on the right! I’m there four/five times week dropping my girflfriend off at school. They all do it. Idiocy. The freakin Bike Coalition website has ‘Do not pass a right-signaling motorist ahead of you on the right’ (or similar) on one of their ‘how to’ pages. But they’ll all do it, whip into the pedestrian crosswalk lane, cut you off, and then say ‘F you’ if you honk.” —Kennydojo

Perhaps one out of every three dozen comments would encourage people to remain patient: We don’t have all the facts. Everyone’s innocent until proven guilty. Right of way depends upon the color of the lights.

The moment these—and other similar ideas—were espoused, they got shouted down by trolls.

CHAPTER FOUR

29 March 2012, 7:00pm—11 hours since the accident

“Come eat with us,” Carroll said, her tone subtly—but noticeably—different from the first two times she had asked. Dinner was on the table, and she and our daughter, Ashley, were sitting down to eat. By waiting for me, they were doing the polite thing, and I already felt guilty.

“I can’t, honey. Everyone’s saying this is all my fault.” I sounded pathetic.

“But you said your light was yellow.”

“Witnesses say it was red—and I’m sure it was red at the time of the accident. But it was yellow when I first entered the intersection.” My mind, still not quite right, wandered mid-conversation. What were those pedestrians doing there?

“The pedestrians had to have started moving before the WALK symbol came on in order for the crosswalk to fill up as quickly as it did,” I continued. “But the article fails to mention that. And I can’t prove it! It just says they ‘were in the crosswalk,’ never once mentioning whether they were there lawfully or not. And besides, it’s my word against everyone else’s. All the commenters jumped on this ‘red light’ bandwagon. Now they want my head on a seat post.”

“Really? People are saying that?” Carroll asked in disbelief.

“That’s one of the tamer ones! Why are people so mean on the internet?”

Carroll shrugged. That was an impossible question.

I kept reading the comments, unsure of why I felt compelled to do so, yet unable to stop. My eyes moved from one to another and another until they all started to sound the same. Suddenly, a vision of Inspector Cadigan popped into my head. “Pedestrians cross early all the time in this city,” she said. “This is no big deal.”

With these thoughts lingering in my still-underperforming brain, I was able to make it through dinner, trying to find topics to distract me, Carroll, and Ashley from the 800-pound gorilla in the room. We didn’t want to frighten our girl.

Carroll offered to handle the bedtime routine so I could watch, in near real time, as hundreds upon hundreds of people cursed and scorned me—this nameless, faceless bicycle villain. Commenters employed creative tactics to avoid the website’s abuse protocols in order to get their jabs in, and there was nothing I could do about it.

Even though they didn’t know who they were attacking, I did. Watching these people defile me—in what felt like a digital lynching—was absolutely maddening. But as awful as it was, and as awful as it was to know I couldn’t fight back, at least I was anonymous. They hated this cyclist, but they didn’t know who he was.

Then something terrifying popped up in the comments. I thought my eyes—still bleary from shock, the concussion, and the drugs—were playing tricks on me. I refreshed the page but there I saw, unmistakable, even in my fog-ridden condition—my email address and my phone number. Right there in the comments. What the fucking fuck?

“Carroll, you need to come up here, quickly.” She came running up from the downstairs bedroom.

“Somehow people are posting my name, email, and phone number on the Chronicle website. Commenters are connecting me to Ellen’s article, even though she didn’t mention my name. How is this happening?”

A few Google searches later, I found my answer. One of my Mission Cycling “teammates”—someone with whom I had never ridden—had copied the text of my doped-up email into a new thread on the online message board for SF2G, a group of cyclists who congregate to commute from San Francisco to the Peninsula and South Bay. From there, my email ended up on MTBR, a forum for Bay Area mountain bikers. Like it or not, my email had now been posted—without my consent—on the open internet in a very public way. As people dissected it—stripping away its context—that oh-so-clever note of mine started to take on a life of its own.

Dealing with Mission Cycling’s leak would have to wait because I needed to focus on a bigger problem: How was I was going to get my email address and phone number off of sfgate.com, where a mob had been fomenting all afternoon and into the evening? I quickly scanned the Terms & Conditions of the Chronicle’s site and found that they prohibited the posting of someone’s personal information online without his or her consent. That was all I needed. Every time my contact info turned up in a comment, I filed an abuse report, asking for the comment to be removed.

At first, I was able to keep up with the postings. But before long, this effort of mine turned into a seemingly-endless game of Whack-a-Mole. I needed help. I called a buddy on the east coast, who, despite the late hour, lent me a hand in reporting the abuse of my personal information. Even with two people hammering on the “Report Abuse” button full time for more than an hour, we were falling behind. I knew we couldn’t keep this up for much longer. Then I had an idea. It wasn’t a very good one, but it seemed worth a shot.

I pointed my browser to the members-only Stanford Alumni Directory and typed in “Ellen Huet,” the Chronicle reporter who—by including the red light comment in her article—had started this media uproar. The alumni directory listed The Mercury News in San Jose as her employer. I dialed the number. After a few rings, a voicemail greeting played, confirming that it was in fact Ellen and that she could be reached on her mobile phone if it was urgent. I took down her number and called it. She didn’t pick up; I left a voicemail, and she called me back about ten minutes later.

“Hi, Ellen,” I said, measuring every word.

Hi, Chris. I’m sorry I couldn’t take your call—I was in the shower.”

“No problem,” I said hastily. “Listen, I’m sorry that I have to do this, but everything we talk about tonight has to stay completely off the record.” This was perhaps the first smart decision I had made since the accident, twelve hours prior.

“Okay…” Ellen said tentatively. That wasn’t good enough for me.

“Can I have your word?”

“You have my word.”

“Thank you. So here’s the deal. I’m the cyclist from this morning’s accident. I sent an email account of what happened to my family, a few close friends, and my teammates. Somehow, it’s now all over the internet. People have connected me to your article, and they’re posting my personal contact information and bits of the email in the comments section, mixed in with some of the most profoundly hateful personal attacks I’ve ever seen.”

“I’m sorry about that, Chris. I’ve asked the web team to replace those anonymous forums with something that uses real people’s identities, perhaps even their Facebook accounts. Because right now they’re brutal.”

“Yeah, using Facebook or something would be great, but about what’s happening right now with my contact information—what can we do to get rid of it?” I’m sure she could sense the wide-eyed terror in my voice, shaky from the physical trauma and nearly short of breath from the emotional, painkiller-laced roller coaster ride.

“Are you using the abuse reporting form on the website?”

“Yes.”

“Well, that’s a good start.”

“But people are posting my contact information faster than I can request that it be taken down. I’m having trouble keeping up.”

“I’ll call the web ops team and see if there’s anything they can do. It’s late, but I’ll do the best I can.”

“Thank you, Ellen.”

“Listen, while I’ve got you on the line, do you want to make a statement?”

“Yes, I want to. But I can’t. We have to stay off the record. But I’ll tell you what. There’s already a lot I want—I need—to say about this. So I promise, the moment I can talk, you’ll be the first person I call.”

“Thank you, Chris.”

“All right then. We’ll be in touch.”

As I put the phone down, I wondered whether I had accidentally stepped on a hornet’s nest or intentionally kicked one in—and, moreover, whether or not that distinction mattered even in the slightest.

CHAPTER FIVE

30 March 2012—1 day since the accident

I awoke in such overwhelming pain that the very thought of getting out of bed made me ask myself how it was, exactly, that I had managed to get myself into bed the evening before. I tried to gather my wits and take inventory of my injuries. On the surface, my left side stung with a red-hot, burning sensation: like a bee sting on top of a sunburn. My left thigh pulsed with dull thuds, reminding me of the deep-purple, football-size bruise on my hip. And in my head, the bells still tolled, but not as loudly as they had yesterday. I knew I was lucky to be alive—and lucky I wasn’t more seriously injured.

Putting aside the splitting headache, perhaps the most vexing problem was that my teeth still didn’t seem to line up quite right when I bit down. I wondered if my jaw issue might require some follow-up care. I also wondered if I should call Inspector Cadigan again to check on the condition of the pedestrian. But it was too early to call. I made a note to try her later.

I dreaded the reality of what checking the internet would bring, but the morbidly curious part of me dragged my body out of bed and up a flight of stairs, where I plunked myself down in front of my laptop. A few dozen more comments had streamed in on the Chronicle’s website through the night, but they had slowed to a trickle by the morning. Thank god, I thought, they found some bigger fish to fry. I scanned the site for traces of my mobile number or email address, but I didn’t find any.

I felt—albeit tenuously—in control. Perhaps, with some help from Ellen, I had dodged a bullet, but I had a funny feeling this wouldn’t be the last time I would see my private artifacts strewn across the pages of the media, both social and mainstream.

For now, however, all I could find were more commenters making more negative over-generalizations—cyclists NEVER stop at red lights or stop signs—and more personal accounts of how cyclists are to blame for ignoring the rules of the road, riding on sidewalks, running down innocent pedestrians. Those arrogant bastards!

All this was peppered with the equally repetitive counter-arguments: cars hurt a lot more people than bikes do, and besides, nobody follows the rules of the road anyway, etc. On both sides, everyone seemed either unreasonably entitled to something or bemoaning the unreasonable entitlement of others to something else. And, in keeping with “Godwin’s law,” people eventually started comparing me to Hitler and the Nazis.

For some of these commenters—who hid behind a cloak of pseudonymity—it was difficult to discern the exact target of their animosity, but most of it appeared fundamentally related to how some sub-group—in this case, cyclists—were bringing ruin upon our fair city. If we could only save our city by banning bicycles—or at least licensing them—or enforcing the rules of the road—then we could have the wonderful San Francisco to which we’re all entitled.

This “full-fledged bike-car hatefest” (as commenter queerflame put it) revealed a palpable bias against cyclists. Nearly every adult drives, but relatively few ride bikes. This makes it easy for non-cyclists to generalize the lawless behavior of a small contingent of outlaw cyclists and apply it to all cyclists. Never do people consider blaming all drivers when a pedestrian gets killed by a car.

I desperately needed to think about something else. I contemplated going to work. More often than not I cycle-commuted there, but I was in no shape to ride. I loosened up a bit in the shower and, after some breakfast and aspirin, I found myself driving to my contract software development job in San Bruno.

During my commute, I finally remembered to call Tobias. He picked up.

“How are you holding up?” asked my good friend of more than a decade.

“Well, could be worse, I guess,” I said. “My biggest concern right now is what those pedestrians were doing in the street. You slowed to turn onto 17th Street and would have had a perfect vantage point. I thought I made the light at Market Street. Did the pedestrians jump the WALK indicator?”

“Look, Chris, I didn’t see anything, just heard a commotion as I approached the light, so instead of turning right, I stopped, waited for the light to turn green, and came over to help. Really though, we shouldn’t be having this conversation.”

“Why not?”

“Because if I need to testify or I get deposed, I don’t want people to know that we talked; otherwise they might think we’re colluding.”

“Colluding? I just—” I had more to say, but Tobias cut me off.

“Look, Chris, I’ve retained counsel. You probably should too. And we need to not talk about this. Trust me; it’s the right thing to do.”

The conversation hadn’t gone at all as I had expected. I’d already lost my dignity from the shellacking I was getting on the internet; was I about to lose a good friend now, too?

I tried to put these thoughts aside as I walked from my car into the office. My coworkers’ reactions were measured. Faced with all the drama that goes with running a global e-commerce operation that employed more than 800 web servers in rotation at any given time, these guys and gals hardly ever got fired up about anything. I found that admirable and tried my best to follow their lead.

One of my co-workers, a slim, long-haired, goateed software developer, stood out from the pack. He was of Indian descent, but because he had been born in Nairobi, he identified more with being Kenyan than being Indian—if not with being human itself. As a meeting broke up for lunch, I pulled him aside to say hello.

“Man, are you okay?” asked a concerned Prince, his eyes avoiding the hideous lump and gash on my forehead.

“Hanging in there. All in all, I wasn’t hurt too badly; was out of the ER in just a few hours.”

“You know, I live just a couple blocks from SF General, so if you ever need anything.”

“I know, but if I never see the inside of that place again, it’ll be too soon.”

“Don’t tempt the universe,” warned Prince. We laughed.

I had only known Prince for about nine months, but he’s one of those people with whom nearly every topic of conversation ends up transitioning into comedy. But this time I needed his help, not his humor.

I wanted to bounce some ideas off Prince as I pieced together a preliminary understanding of what really happened at Market and Castro the day before. Armed with a fierce-smelling whiteboard pen, I drew a quick sketch of the intersection, narrating along the way.

“I entered the intersection from the north, coming down the hill on Castro. It’s not too steep, but I had picked up some speed—low twenties is my guess, perhaps more—but I don’t really know for sure. Anyway, I’m headed south down the hill when I first saw the yellow, and my lizard brain took over and decided to go for it.”

“Why didn’t you try to stop?” It was a good question, coming from a place of love and concern.

“It was a spur-of-the-moment decision—my gut thought it was safer to run a stale yellow than to try an emergency stop at the bottom of the hill, which could have sent me skidding into the intersection, where I would likely then be run over by a car—or two or three. But who knows if I really put that much thought into it. It was instinctual.”

“I’ve been there, man—we all have. There’s that feeling in the pit of your stomach—relief when you make the yellow—and guilt and fear when you don’t. So, did you make it?”

“I did.”

“Great. Well then, you have nothing to worry about.” Prince smiled wryly, indicating either irrational confidence or wicked sarcasm—or perhaps a bit of both.

“Have you come down the Castro hill before where it crosses Market?” I asked.

“I have.”

“Then you probably know that there are two pairs of traffic signals—one pair at the north end and one at the south end. The northern signals were out of view when I saw the southern lights turn red, meaning I was already in the intersection.”

“Good. So, then, how the hell did you manage to hit someone?”

I hadn’t quite sorted this part out yet. And I needed Prince’s help. I continued scrawling with the whiteboard pen.

“The intersection is pretty wide—I would guess somewhere between a hundred and two hundred feet—it crosses four lanes of traffic and then narrows like a funnel as it continues down Castro Street, south of Market Street. The instant I looked down from the changing light, people—crossing from both sides—started to close in on me. I tried everything—braking, yelling, swerving, even ditching the bike—but I didn’t stand a chance. Here’s what I can’t figure out: Were those pedestrians supposed to be there? Did they have the right of way somehow?”

“No and no,” said Prince. He seemed overly confident, especially given how little information I had shared with him.

“How can you be so sure? You don’t even know whether they had the WALK symbol!”

“It doesn’t matter! When you get a green light, what does that mean?” asked Prince.

“Go?” I answered tentatively. I had a feeling I was about to be taken to school.

“No!” Prince said loudly, but not loudly enough to turn any heads.

“Green means proceed with caution. It means, if the intersection isn’t clear, you have to wait until it clears before you go charging into it. And the same rule applies to walk symbols. WALK doesn’t mean ‘go’—it means look both ways, then if it’s clear, ‘proceed with caution.’”

We’d only known one another for a short time, but I’d loved Prince since the moment I came into the office one day and found him loitering in my pod. We worked ten feet from one another, so we always made time for chit-chat and tried to have lunch together every day, if possible.

Certain that he was just looking out for his pal, I didn’t entirely believe his interpretation of the law. We stepped over to my cube and pulled up the site for the California Vehicle Code. Sure enough, Prince was spot on. CVC Section 21456(a) states that “a pedestrian facing the signal may proceed across the roadway in the direction of the signal, but shall yield the right-of-way to vehicles lawfully within the intersection at the time that signal is first shown.”

“So it doesn’t matter whether their signal said WALK or DON’T WALK, Chris. They were legally required to wait for you—and all other vehicles—to clear the intersection before they started crossing,” Prince said, again, with a confidence I wish I shared.

This revelation at least gave me the peace of mind to get back to work. I dove into one of my projects. Like Inspector Cadigan said, this was going to be no big deal. The pedestrians crossed too early. They either didn’t have the WALK sign at all or, if they did, they were still legally required to wait for me to clear the intersection before they started crossing. But they didn’t wait. And by “they” I meant at least a half dozen people, if not more, though I couldn’t be sure.

As the afternoon waned, I couldn’t hold out any longer; I needed to see what the media was saying about the accident. Expecting the best—but preparing for the worst—I searched “pedestrian cyclist market castro.” This time—it was good news. Sergeant Daryl Fong said that doctors expected the pedestrian to recover.

What a relief. The elderly man was going to live!

But then, just as suddenly as it had come, the lightness in my chest quickly gave way to a new heavy, sinking feeling: He’s still elderly and possibly not in great health. He’s still in the hospital. We’re not out of the woods yet. But then again, the papers were reporting that doctors were saying that he was expected to survive.

Later that evening, San Francisco Police Department Captain Rick Casciato told KCBS that “the light had just changed as a 73-year-old man stepped into the crosswalk and the bicyclist entered the intersection traveling downhill fast on the southbound side of Castro Street.” Although I found his assessment of my speed a little spurious, I noticed that by saying that the light had “just changed” as the pedestrian and I entered, he implied that we entered at the same time. This gave me a new frame of reference for understanding the accident. If we both entered at the same time, who had the right of way? Prince had already decided that I did. As much as I wanted to believe him, a definitive answer to that question remained outside my reach. My head, for a multitude of reasons, continued to throb.

Meanwhile, something remarkable happened online. SF Streetsblog started a counter-backlash of sorts by calling out the disparity between the relatively-small amount of media coverage given to all the pedestrians killed by cars versus the whopping amount of coverage about my accident. I took this as a good omen. Dissent in the media meant that the prevailing narrative might get challenged.

So for these reasons—and perhaps because I was still suffering from my head injury—I felt cautiously optimistic. I took comfort in the news that the still-nameless pedestrian was going to survive. And that the cyclist was still just a cyclist, not Chris Bucchere the cyclist.

Inspector Cadigan was right all along. The pedestrian would recover from his injuries and, in the end, this really would be no big deal.

CHAPTER SIX

31 March 2012—2 days since the accident

Saturday: the final day of this incomprehensible week. I was still in a lot of pain, but it was manageable without painkillers. My head also seemed clearer, but I couldn’t shake my nervousness and concern about the condition of the pedestrian; in fact, it seemed to be getting worse.

I couldn’t call Inspector Cadigan because I only had her office number, and I knew she wouldn’t be there over the weekend. I wanted to talk to her again, badly. I wanted to know how the elderly man was doing. Did he get moved out of the ICU? How badly was he injured? How is the family? I wanted her to reassure me again that this was no big deal.

Since that wasn’t going to happen, I drove to the store and bought the nicest-looking orchid I could find, one with a half-dozen beautiful purple and white flowers, along with a card. On the card, I wrote a note expressing my sympathy and wishing the elderly man a speedy recovery, even though I still didn’t know his name. I dropped the card and the orchid off at SF General Hospital, leaving them at the front desk. Although powerlessness and helplessness over this man’s situation overwhelmed me, I went to bed feeling slightly better for having at least done something.

The following evening, I spent some time on a website called IFTTT in an effort to help me stay on top of media coverage about the accident. IFTTT—pronounced so that it rhymes with “drift”—is short for “IF This Then That.” The site offered no content of its own, but it provided automation tools for connecting many of the popular sites and services on the internet. By stringing together a few alerts for mentions of keywords, I was able to get text messages to my phone within fifteen minutes of anything being said, anywhere on the internet, about me or the accident. I set the body of the text message to the URL so I could easily click through and read the stories and comments.

One of these IFTTT alerts soon provided an important clue in a letter to the editor from a man claiming to have witnessed the accident.

Dangerous intersection

I had just read The Chronicle, including the column by C.W. Nevius, “Adopting a corner simple way to keep street safer” (March 29), when I witnessed a morning rush-hour traffic accident at the corner of Castro and Market streets involving a bicyclist and a pedestrian.

As far as I could tell, both parties were anxious to cross the intersection: an adult male cyclist going south downhill through that major, complicated intersection, and an elderly male pedestrian stepping into and crossing the street hoping to catch a northbound 24 Muni bus.

This intersection needs a major rethinking by all responsible parties, and updates to make it safer for all San Franciscans and visitors to use.

John Mehring, San Francisco

Why did the author assume that the pedestrian was headed for the bus? I didn’t remember seeing a bus, but my memory of the accident was far from perfect. If the letter writer’s account about the bus was correct, it meant that using the opposing northbound lane to avoid pedestrians wasn’t an option for me, because it was probably blocked, at least in part, by this bus. It also meant that the pedestrians coming from the opposite side of the street might have been hurrying to catch the 24—or perhaps that people getting off the bus were hurrying to catch the MUNI underground on the west side of the street.

As I drifted off to sleep, I thought how the author was right: “This intersection needs a major rethinking.”

CHAPTER SEVEN

2 April 2012—4 days since the accident

Monday morning. I had substantially less difficulty prying myself out of bed relative to my experience the prior two mornings. Looking in the mirror, I gasped at the enormous blood bruise on my left thigh. Stepping into the shower, I felt the sting of thousands of pinpricks as the warm water coursed over my road rash—as if each droplet was trying to peel off a tiny nascent scab.

I still felt pretty beat up, but I knew I would eventually heal. As the stinging subsided, I turned the water a bit hotter, wincing in pain again from the change in temperature. I wondered how the pedestrian was doing. It was probably too early to call Inspector Cadigan, but I planned to do so when I got to work.

As it turned out, work was busier than usual on that particular morning, and I didn’t get a chance to call before an “Unknown” caller ID popped up on my phone.

“Chris, it’s Lori Cadigan. I have bad news. The pedestrian died today.”

The words “oh my god” came out of my mouth, though I don’t feel like I consciously spoke them. My face turned hot and red, and I didn’t know what to say. The stinging surged through my head and shot down my spine, radiating out to my extremities. I have never felt such a sensation before. It felt like burning from the inside out.

”Lori, that’s impossible! The newspaper said he was getting better! My god, this can’t be right. What happened?”

“I can’t discuss the specific medical issues with you. And we need to hold on to your bike for a while,” Inspector Cadigan said, her voice still soothing and reassuring, but now also stern and a little shaky, too.

“Keep it as long as you need. And please tell me if there is anything else I can do.”

“I will.”

She hung up the phone. I could hear the sadness and concern in her voice. It seemed genuine, as had all my interactions with Inspector Cadigan.

I desperately needed to tell my wife. But I couldn’t do it. Words failed me, completely. He was dead. Because of my actions, a man had died.

The only coherent thought I could assemble about this matter was that it was completely and utterly impossible. The doctors had said he was expected to “make a full recovery.” I had read it in the newspaper; I had seen it online; I had watched it on TV. The hospital spokesperson had said it.

This is not actually happening.

I finally mustered up a shred of courage and called Carroll. We shared the same emotions: devastation, shock, and horror as we thought about the family of the deceased and their loss. What have I done? What can I do?

I left work early, my emotions surging. I called my parents and a few close friends. Everyone was shocked and horrified. They expressed grief for the family, while feeling powerless and helpless. I felt the same.

But during each phone call, the conversation inevitably included one additional sentiment: Before saying or doing anything else, I needed to find myself an attorney.

CHAPTER EIGHT

3 April 2012—5 days since the accident

Still in shock from the prior day’s news, I finally heeded the many warnings I was getting and started calling attorneys. I began my search by calling Lauren, an occasional Mission Cycling rider with whom I had been doing some cycle-commuting. I knew—from an email he himself had sent to the Mission Cycling mailing list—that he had been hit by a car recently while cycling in the city. He had good things to say about his attorney, Jacques Mumford, who, I soon found out, picks up his own phone.

“Hi, Jacques, I got your name from one of the guys I’ve been riding with. I was in the bike accident with a pedestrian that’s all over the news.”

“Oh, yeah, that one. Were you injured in the accident?”

“I was, but not too badly. I was in and out of the ER in about six hours.”

“Good. How about the old Asian guy?”

“At first they thought he would recover, but then out of nowhere he died in the hospital yesterday. Hey, wait a minute, who said he was Asian?”

“Nobody. I’ve been doing this a long time, man—and when a pedestrian gets hit by a car in this city, it’s always some old Asian guy.”

I’d spoken to the police several times and read dozens of news stories and umpteen-thousand comments. No one had said anything except “elderly” and “male.”

“Look, Chris, this sounds terrible. I wish I could help you. But I usually represent cyclists as plaintiffs looking for medical bill payments and other compensation for being injured by vehicles. What you need is a criminal defense attorney.”

“Criminal?”

“Yes. People really despise cyclists in this city, so you’ll likely face criminal charges for this.”

“Criminal charges? What kind of criminal charges?”

“Too soon to say.”

“Well, what do I do?”

“I would call Ted Cassman. He’s the best criminal defense attorney in the Bay Area. You should act quickly. And don’t talk to anyone about anything.”

“Thanks, I will. And I won’t.”

“Oh, and one more thing. Have you heard of a kid named Randy Ang?”

“No, I haven’t.”

“Google him.”

I did, and soon found out that San Francisco, unlike most other cities, had a concerning history of overcharging a cyclist for accidentally—but fatally—injuring a pedestrian.

About a year prior to my accident, District Attorney George Gascón charged cyclist Randy Ang with misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter for his role in a bike/pedestrian collision with a 69-year-old woman in a crosswalk at Embarcadero and Mission. The news of Ang’s sentencing broke just seventeen days before my now-fatal accident.

The press ate up Ang’s story, causing a torrent of angst-ridden, vulgar, and often violent screeds, as commenters read and remarked about how Randy “got off easy.” His supposedly “light” sentence? 500 hours of community service, three years of probation, and a restitution payment to the victim’s family in the neighborhood of $15,000.

In actuality, Randy Ang received a decidedly heavy sentence, compared to the de facto punishment for the drivers of machines that cause more pedestrian deaths than anything else on wheels: motor vehicles. A study of 434 pedestrian deaths in the Bay Area from 2007-2011 revealed that “sixty percent of the 238 motorists found to be at fault or suspected of a crime faced no criminal charges.”

They probably didn’t see their names in the newspaper, either.

So Ang actually got a relatively stiff sentence, but one that walked a very fine line between San Francisco’s highly vocal bicycle lobby and the raging anti-cyclist contingent clamoring for Ang to serve jail time—ignoring that all the while, the deceased’s widower called for no incarceration, saying, “Our loss is done.”

I put in a call to Ang’s attorney, Tony Brass, and he told me that the pedestrian, Didi Cherney, was about to finish lawfully crossing Embarcadero Street with a group of several others in a crosswalk with the clear right of way. Ang then ran a late red light—stale to the point of being near the next green cycle—and collided with her. Tony said he immediately admitted to blowing the red and failing to yield the right of way to a lawfully-crossing pedestrian. Then he made a plea deal and received a sentence similar to that of some motorists, which may have been stiffened up a bit because the cyclist was clearly at fault. Perhaps the heavier charges also had something to do with the overwhelmingly negative public reaction to anything involving people who ride bicycles in San Francisco.

Commenters whipped themselves into a frenzy over Randolph Ang and Didi Cherney, but the stories about Ang quickly faded into obscurity as attention turned toward the next controversy. If the Chronicle’s online comment forums were to be believed, however, many in the city were left with the mistaken impression that cyclists always get off easy.

CHAPTER NINE

4 April 2012—6 days since the accident

The two-story offices of Arguedas, Cassman, & Headley conveyed a modest sophistication that included, in the waiting area, a large print of the churning whitewater that succeeds the crash of a great wave. I sat in the lobby and played with my phone, not really knowing what to expect.

After a short while, a slight man strode down the stairs. He wore black jeans, a fitted, dark-gray dress shirt, and minimalist athletic shoes. A few wisps of silver hair remained upon his otherwise bald head to complement his gray goatee and slate-blue eyes.

“Ted Cassman,” the man said, as he stuck out his hand. “I’ve gathered a team in a conference room. Come on upstairs and tell us what happened.”

Ted led me into a large room and introduced Cris Arguedas and several other folks—junior attorneys, contract private-investigator types and the like. I had the floor, so I recited my account of the events of the week prior—the same account I had given to the police—along with printed emails exchanged between Inspector Cadigan and me in the days after the accident as I continued to cooperate fully with their investigation. I took a deep breath, suspecting that those in the room could sense the gravity of the situation.

“So, then there’s this awful email,” I said with chagrin, as I produced the final piece of paper I intended to hand to the folks who I would likely soon entrust with my future.

I held the paper in my hands and stared at the words I had written not even a week ago. How I hated those loathsome words! They felt foreign to me, as if they were written by someone on drugs, in a fog; by someone who had most of his screws loose.

“It’s this glib, post-concussion rambling email I sent to my family and my teammates, primarily so that they would know that I had been in a serious accident, but that I was—mostly—okay. One or more ‘teammates’ forwarded the email around, and now it’s bouncing from one online bike forum to another. It’s only a matter of time before the media are gonna get their hands on this.”

I handed the printed email to Cris, and the room sat silently as she quickly read it to herself. She looked up, but didn’t speak. After a few moments, I could no longer bear the silence, so I spoke first.

“It’s not incriminating, right?” I didn’t think that it was, but I wanted to be sure.

“Incriminating? No. Callous? Yes.”

“I had a concussion and didn’t really know what I was—”

Ted stopped me in my tracks. From this point forward, he did the talking. “Right now the email doesn’t matter. What does matter is this: Because the pedestrian died, you could be charged with vehicular manslaughter, which carries a sentence of up to a year in county jail.”

I swallowed hard. For the first time in my life, I faced the prospect of going to jail. Ted must have seen the color drain from my face, because he then said, “Our first priority is making sure you don’t get charged.”

“That would be great. I don’t feel like I broke any laws out there, and I’ve been nothing but cooperative. I’m sure they’ll understand that it was nothing more than a tragic accident.”

“We’ll see about that. In the meantime, you are forbidden from speaking with anyone: the pedestrian’s family, journalists, the cops, insurance companies—no one. If anyone contacts you, send them to me. Do you understand?”

“I do,” I said, mostly because I feared the consequences of saying anything else.

“And if anything you experience strikes you as wrong or unfair, write it down, okay?”

“I’ve already started.”

“Good. My bill rate is $760 an hour. We’ll need to establish a retainer and an expense account. A $10,000 retainer and $4,000 in the expense account will do for now.”

The words for now sounded ominous. But, if I wanted the best criminal defense attorney in the Bay Area in my corner, it was going to cost me. I set up a wire transfer for the amount they needed. Fortunately, my wife and I had been saving aggressively for the past fifteen years, so we had some emergency cash in a separate account reserved for the unfortunate circumstances in life that just can’t be predicted.

Like being charged with vehicular manslaughter for riding a bicycle.


>> Continue to PART II: Dirty Laundry


For a closer look at the research behind Bikelash, visit the companion GitHub project.

Bikelash Trailer

A true story by Chris Bucchere. On August 5th, 2018, the ten-week podcast series begins.

March 29th, 2012, 8:20am, Castro Street
When he regained consciousness, Chris found himself bloodied and bruised, being loaded into an ambulance. He had no idea that his life had permanently changed. Because, a few days later, an elderly man he had hit with his bicycle would die of injuries sustained in the accident. News would go viral internationally, including articles in the New York Times and Forbes magazine. The District Attorney of San Francisco would see Chris’s case as an opportunity to send a message to the city’s cyclists.

But this isn’t a story about cycling. It’s about criminal justice. It’s about prosecutors manipulating the press in order to deprive defendants of due process, where facts get misconstrued and inaccurate details leaked. It’s about social media whipping public opinion to a frenzy, giving DAs fodder for political gain. It’s about what really happens behind the headlines: who wins, who loses, who plays fair—and who doesn’t.

Bikelash is a ten-week podcast series chronicling Chris’s role in a fatal bicycle-pedestrian accident. These 107,000 words are based on court transcripts, emails exchanged with his attorney, and Chris’s in-the-moment journaling from immediately after the accident until he pleaded guilty to felony vehicular manslaughter eighteen months later.

Subscribe to Bikelash on Android, iTunes, Stitcher, or where-ever you get your podcasts.

Continue reading PART I: The Accident.

Bikelash

On Sunday, August 5th, 2018, I’ll publish the first installment of a ten-week blog and podcast series Bikelash: How San Francisco created America’s first bicycle felon, chronicling my role in a bicycle/pedestrian accident that made international headlines in 2012.

Follow the story here on my blog, on medium, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

The Post-Facebook Internet

The recent Facebook scandal—in which Cambridge Analytica obtained 50 million Facebook users’ personal data—really shouldn’t have been such a big deal. By no means was it the biggest breach of data, nor a breach of the most sensitive kind of data. It wasn’t nearly as salacious as PRISM nor any of the other secret programs the NSA designed to siphon phone and internet data (which remained covert until whistleblower Edward Snowden famously told the Guardian about them in 2013).

The most—if not the only—potentially unlawful act in this saga was the deal struck to share the data between Aleksandr Kogan and Cambridge Analytica, a potential violation of the terms of service for the survey app that Kogan created to harvest the data in the first place. The act of collecting the data, though no longer permitted by Facebook, was perfectly lawful at the time.

So why then was this breach such a big deal?

First of all, we can universally agree that Facebook has amassed a trove of personal data larger than that of any other company on the planet. Given the obvious value of these data, Facebook is constantly targeted. When such a breach occured on the world’s largest social network, millions of people became upset, rightfully so. Facebook got pressured to explain how it happened. Still seems like no big deal.

Their explanation, however, begged an important question: Why does Facebook need all these data in the first place? That in turn led to an interesting Catch-22: In explaining the data breach, Facebook had to draw attention to its business model, namely that it collects data, anonymizes them, and sells them—albeit indirectly—to their real customers. The real customers are not us, the Facebook/Instagram/WhatsApp users. No, Facebook’s customers are ad networks and advertisers, i.e. companies and people who pay to promote their products and services on Facebook.

This “revelation” should have come as no big surprise to anyone, or at least to anyone paying attention. Revenue through tailored advertising is the business model of Google, Facebook and nearly every media entity that operates online. Last year, Facebook reported that 98% of their revenue came from advertising.

Using your data (and mine and everyone else’s), Facebook built an incredibly powerful ad targeting platform, a platform we allowed them to build and deploy when we accepted their terms of service—all two (plus) billion of us.

It’s even possible—through Facebook’s publicly-available advertising platform—to target a 41-year-old man in San Francisco who speaks Spanglish, who has attended at least one Lindyhop event and who belongs to the Bay Area Esk8 group. In other words, I can target an ad so narrowly that it’s shown only to me. (I just tried this, and though the platform gave me a warning that my targeting parameters might be “too specific,” it didn’t stop me from setting up the ad.)

So this is how Facebook makes hay using our personal data. Along with paywalls/subscriptions (e.g. San Francisco Chronicle, Medium, New York Times) and donations (e.g. The Guardian, NPR, Wikipedia), selling ads targeted to people’s personal sensibilities is how hay gets made not just on Facebook, but all over the internet. If that means I get to consume ads for dance camps and wetsuits in lieu of celebrity plastic surgery disasters, then everybody wins. (Facebook infers, correctly, that I surf. O’Neill pays Facebook to advertise the wetsuit to me and other surfers, we buy the wetsuits from O’Neill. Repeat. Cha-ching.)

Somehow we got from selling wetsuits to throwing elections. To understand how our current internet failed us in order to frame to where the new internet needs to take us, it’s worth doing a shallow dive into internet history.

A Brief History of the Internet (and Cats)

The internet was never intended to be a money-making machine. In the late 60s and early 70s, large universities wired their computers together in order to share research, primarily through email (of all things) on an early version of the internet known as ARPAnet. Along the way, the DoD provided financing to create DARPAnet. In the 80s, I’m sure sharing cat pictures (uuencoded as streams of text) started to become a thing, if it wasn’t already. Even still, the internet’s only “business model” was government-sponsored academic propeller-spinning.

In 1994, with the advent of the Netscape browser, non-academics flooded onto the internet in droves. Ten years prior, I got my first email account and dial up access from AppleLink. I connected to and explored BBSs and started using protocols like Gopher and NNTP (Usenet). I read up on “netiquette,” learned how to keep my CAPS LOCK key off, how to spot an AOLer (hint: CAPS LOCK USUALLY ON) and how to construct some basic emoticons, something we once called “ASCII art.” |_|] ← That’s a coffee mug right there. Really, it is.

This early internet, on the precipice of becoming commercial, had the feel of a loosely-coupled collection of “expert communities”—for lack of a better term—scattered amongst BBSs, Usenet and AOL chatrooms. (Keep this notion of “expert communities” in mind as you continue reading; I’ll circle back to it later.)

From roughly 1994-2002, companies flocked to the internet to experiment with the web’s first “real” business model: ecommerce. For a few years, it seemed like every business needed a web storefront. However, when investors realized that selling cat food online wasn’t quite what it was cracked up to be, the bubble burst. The same market forces that quickly evaporated five trillion dollars of value also declared Amazon the clear “winner” of ecommerce, proving that centralized inventory (along with on-demand inventory) and centralized technology and fulfillment logistics were the best way—if not the only way—to sell cat food online and actually turn a profit.

After a brief moment of reckoning, from the second wave of the internet—what some call Web 2.0—emerged a new, more indirect business model, this one borrowed from traditional media companies. Like newspapers and magazines, “Web 2.0” sites and applications would also run ads, but insteading of hiring professional photographers and journalists, everyday users would supply the cat photos and write the heartwarming cat stories. Sites like these could save money by letting amateurs create the content—called User Generated Content (or UGC for short)—while they collected money for every cat food ad impression (CPM), every cat photo click-thru (CPC) and every action, e.g. signing up for a site’s feline marketing content or taking a cat survey (CPA).

Naturally, the sites with the most users and the most cat photos (predominantly Facebook and Twitter) could provide the richest ad targeting platforms. Facebook’s claim of making the world more connected belied another mission: to create the richest, most effective ad-targeting platform known to mankind.

(It’s worth nothing that I’m glossing over huge swaths of the ad industry, including search ads/SEO/SEM and scores of networks that serve up ads on third-party sites and mobile applications. I’m also neglecting to talk about the mobile web in general terms, the Semantic Web, the Internet of Things and a whole host of other topics, just so we can stay focused on UGC.)

User Generated CatsContent

While it has been part of the technology toolkit and lingo for at least 15 years, many—if not most—people heard about UGC for the first time during the recent fallout from the Facebook/Kogan/Cambridge Analytica scandal. Prior to a few days ago, people thought Facebook was free; in reality it’s not. We pay for Facebook by bartering our personal information in exchange for the Facebook features we enjoy.

Perhaps “used to enjoy” would have been better phrasing, since this latest scandal left angry mobs of people joining the #DeleteFacebook movement. In many ways, they’re doing so in vain, because we would literally need to stop using our smartphones and the entire internet, change our names, addresses, hair/eye color, purchase history and a thousand other things to escape the personal data collection happening everywhere on the web.

On Facebook and elsewhere, UGC greases the gears of an enormous machine designed to turn cat photos into cash. And it works, or at least it works for a few massive companies, which seems to be a theme as far as internet companies go.

In fact, at least three times in the brief history of the internet have we seen huge oligopolies create—and consume—entire online business models: Amazon (for ecommerce), Google (for search advertising) and Facebook (for UGC advertising).

Organic growth and the acquisitions by Facebook alone resulted in more than two billion people’s personal information, likes, preferences and social interactions gettings stored inside what is effectively one enormous database.

And that finally explains why this scandal is important: because it has caused people to start asking some really good questions, like: Was it a good idea to allow companies like Facebook to give everyone a free microphone in exchange for harvesting, storing and mining everything everyone says?

It’s Not the Cat Photos; It’s the Cat Distribution

Facebook may be the biggest collector of data, but they certainly aren’t the only one. Plus, they’re not going to delete their data, as it’s the lifeblood of their company. So instead of focusing on Facebook, I want to ask a more fundamental question, one that will surely ignite the ire of free speech advocates everywhere, but one that needs to be asked regardless: Was it even a good idea to give everyone a free microphone in the first place?

Put another way, when is it a good idea—in the real, non-digital world—for us to tell something, instantly, to everyone we know: family, good friends, co-workers, acquaintances, people we just met and immediately befriended? Before Facebook, this wasn’t easily possible. We used to hide our reading materials and journals under the mattress and only send things like baby announcements to everyone we know (even then selectively skipping creepers like Uncle Charlie). Now Facebook has flipped that notion on its head. Your cat photo has more likes than my baby announcement? Does this make any kind of sense IRL? Then why should it be possible online?

But, what about free speech? Yes, in this country we are all free to say nearly anything without fear of repercussion. In another sense, however, speech isn’t really free at all. Our precious free speech is utterly worthless without distribution. Without distribution, our posts on the internet are nothing more than trees falling in the forest with no one around to listen for the sounds they might make. Distribution costs money—and that’s why we strike a Faustian promise with every word and click on Facebook. We provide the content; they provide the distribution. And we pay for the distribution, albeit indirectly, by allowing Facebook to broker our data to advertisers.

Too often and too easily is distribution confused with truth. If something is “widely reported,” that doesn’t make it factual. Therein lies problem with the awesome distribution power of Facebook: It can be used to distribute facts just as efficiently as it can to spread, um, “alternative facts.” As a result, Facebook and Twitter and other UGC sites are heavily moderated both by people and by machines. The other day, Facebook’s censorship robots blocked my friend Tim from saying “trees cause global warming.” Many artists have had their work removed for showing a little too much nipple (or a little too much something). This introduces a whole new set of problems, the most of important of which is: Do we trust Facebook to arbitrate “good” speech from “bad?” Under what or whose standards?

I had a revealing personal experience in 2012 when I helped Miso—a Google-backed venture conceived as a social media site for videos—build an application called Quips. This app would allow people to use their phones to take still images from TV shows and movies and create memes from them by adding the chunky white text we’ve come to associate with such artifacts.

Long story short: we didn’t build moderation (a common internet euphemism for censorship) into the first version of the platform. Rather, we gave people unfettered access to tools they could use to create potentially viral content. What could possibly go wrong? Within weeks, Quips had degenerated into the most profoundly hateful cesspool I’ve yet to see on the internet—and I even (sometimes) read YouTube video comments! Who knew Miso was actually short for misogyny—and racism, homophobia, xenophobia and a million other kinds of hate speech?

It was easy for us to sunset Quips and bury the steaming pile of dreck that Quippers created. It’s not so simple for Facebook.

They certainly can’t delete everything without destroying the data vital to their business model. Meanwhile trying to censor posts is an endless game of algorithmic Whack-a-Mole certain to offend the sensibilities of moles on the far-right, the far-left and every mole in between, including my friend Tim (who doesn’t actually believe that trees cause global warming; it was just a joke).

So distribution without moderation/censorship leads to a cesspool. We technologists all knew this already, but it hasn’t stopped a host of really smart people from trying to build a better moderation/censorship mousetrap. Ultimately they will fail because of (what I can only hope is merely a few) creative individuals with a lot of free time producing a seemingly-limitless supply of garbage. Or art. Or jokes! Sarcasm, something nearly impossible to detect on the web, can often be mistaken for hate speech, especially when the whole point of the sarcasm was to raise awareness of the hate speech in the first place.

When faced with an intractable situation like “stamping out misinformation on the internet,” it helps to reframe the problem by looking at the actual root cause. The cause is not fake news per se, nor ad networks, nor Facebook, Cambridge Analytica nor even UGC. Rather, the naive ideology of the internet coupled with the worst traits in humanity formed ideal grounds for a Tragedy of the Commons: If you create something open and free, some people will eventually find a way to exploit it for their own benefit and thereby ruin it for everyone else.

Emerging from the Cesspool

Even though it’s likely a very small segment of “bad actors” who are ruining the internet for everyone, I’m proposing a radical shift: let’s leave the internet for what it is (a cesspool) and build a better one. What if we could start over with the same lofty goals—connecting the world by sharing information—but this time build an internet with failsafes that would prevent us from creating yet another cesspool of misinformation and hate speech?

I’m not suggesting that we shut down the internet, but instead that we build something atop existing protocols that helps the world organize information, validate claims, and establish fact; in other words, we need to build an internet that lives up to its early design considerations, which, obviously, did not include building a cesspool of falsehoods and hate speech.

A recent NYT article really drove this point home for me: “The downgrading of experience and devaluing of expertise can be explained partly by the internet, which allows people to assemble their own preferred information and affords them the delusion of omniscience.”

Note it said “partly.” The internet is partly at fault. Humanity bears responsibility for the rest.

So yes, humanity is a big part of the problem. But it’s also the solution. For every bad actor, there are thousands and thousands of good ones.

What if we could build an internet wherein good actors could drive out bad?

What if we could create an internet consisting only of factual information? An internet devoid of corporate interests? An internet of real people wherein everyone could only interact with the system using a proven identity?

What if we could finally draw the line between private and non-private digital communications, such that private conversations could remain truly private?

What if all information was organized into siloes, like the “expert communities” of the early internet, but codified into a meritocratic hierarchy where every claim needed to be vetted by an established community of experts? What if experts could delegate privileges to other experts who prove their worth through contributions? What if the information curated remained free to the consumer, but provided a basic income to its creators and gardners for the work they put into curating the information? What if this internet could remain completely read-only to everyone not designated an expert in a particular silo?

Web X.0

Much of the technology we need to build something like this already exists. Signal, Keybase and scores of other platforms offer peer-to-peer (serverless) encrypted messaging. StackExchange already provides a model for curated expert communities, entirely based upon Q&A. Modeling the new internet off of StackExchange (or Quora or WhySaurus), each question response could be stored as a block in a blockchain with experts from the appropriate communities recruited to validate the responses, much like block validation already works today for cryptocurrencies.

Every information silo would require a community of experts to curate it. But what good are these experts if we can’t check their credentials and contributions to validate that they really are experts? The missing piece here is global identity management, i.e. a way to prove that we are who we say we are. We need a biometric-seeded revocable cryptographic key that would allow us to conduct business using our IRL identities or with pseudonyms that the owners can prove are theirs (but not the other way around). The Human Unique Identifier (or HUID) described by the ambitious Cicada Project proposes a clever design for this.

Creating a secure, un-spoofable identity system is a fundamental challenge, but it’s surely not the only challenge. In building this new internet, our biggest enemy is what we don’t know—and what we won’t know until we we’ve already written oodles of code and tests, as is often the case with software projects.

But we can’t let fear of the unknown stop us. The time has come—in fact it’s long overdue—to create a new internet, an internet that can’t be defeated by Nigerian scammers, Russian fake news bots or that 400-pound kid in his bed somewhere. Let’s leave the existing internet intact but teach our kids that they should assume that nearly everything they read there is either bullshit or sponsored bullshit. If vetted, cite-able, factual information is what they seek: They need to consult Web X.0.

And yes, this new internet would be read-only for 99.9999% of the world’s population. This would leave about 7,000 experts in control of all the world’s public factual information, with the ability to delegate more experts as needed. No corporations would be allowed; no corporate interests would be tolerated. In this way, the denizens of the new internet would maintain all the world’s information much like the denizens of the early internet “expert communities” on BBSs, Usenet and chatrooms, but this time with HUIDs and block validation keeping everyone honest.

People could still interact with corporations on the “old internet,” but we could use the Web X.0 HUID to doll out Basic Attention Tokens (or something like them) to allow people to decide for themselves which revocable personal information they want to share with commercial entities—and get compensated with cryptocurrency in return. In other words, corporations would pay consumers directly for paying attention to their messages, eliminating the layers of ad network middlemen who get paid for matching companies to consumers.

The Cicada Project takes this a step further by adding a secure direct democracy component, which would allow populations small and large to self-govern. Direct democracies are notoriously disastrous (e.g. Athens) but given that two of our last three presidents took office despite losing the popular vote, maybe is an idea worth considering again.

Then again maybe direct democracy is biting off more than we can chew. Maybe we should start by building and deploying the HUID on the existing internet and then go from there.

Maybe this is all hogwash.

But maybe—thanks to Facebook, Kogan and Cambridge Analytica—we’re finally starting to ask the right questions.

Make America Kittens Again

Adorable Tomasina, available for adoption at the SFSPCA.

America, lend me your ear.

This has got to stop. We’ve fallen prey to the greatest con in the history of mankind. We sold our liberty not to Putin, but to something far more sinister: a reality TV personality. He has turned our fragile democracy into a particularly bad episode of the Jerry Springer show. But times a billion. And a billion times worse.

There’s only one solution. Everyone needs to install Make American Kittens Again, a browser extension that replaces images of these shysters with kittens. We also need to build one that rewrites every Trump headline as: “Wow, Look How Fucking Cute This Kitten Is!”

Better yet, Dear Media: Just do this for us. Every time Trump says anything, just write a story about a really cute kitten or cat. Include lots of pictures.

In case you were wondering, this is why we put all those cats on the internet in the first place.

Let’s end this reality show by deploying the cats and showing this administration who’s really in charge: we, citizens of the internet.

Internet: 1, Trump, et. al.: 0

Let’s do this.

How I Quit Email (and You Can Too)

CC0 Public Domain

Today, email turns 44 years old.

If that doesn’t already sound odd, consider this: We upgrade our smartphones and laptops every few years, yet we’re using those very devices to communicate via a crusty old protocol that’s barely changed in half a century.

But there’s a more important, more existential problem: email consumes us. Adobe surveyed 400 American white-collar workers in 2015 and found that on average, we use email six hours a day (or 30+ hours a week).

Several months ago, I decided it was time to pull myself out of this quagmire. Today, on the 44th anniversary of its birth, I am declaring email dead. At least to me. If you’re willing to jump over a few hurdles, you too can free yourself from its clutches.

If you’re not already convinced that it’s time to say goodbye to email, here are a few reminders of why it sucks:

1. It’s not secure (and simply never can be)

Most email travels around the internet in clear text. Even when message bodies are encrypted, which is rare, the metadata still have to be sent in clear text.

Because it’s so prevalent, and because it’s easy, spearphishing attacks have caused dozens of major crises over the years: Sony, the DNC/Podesta and Hillary were all victims of simple, un-sexy email password theft. More recently, Reality Leigh Winner (an NSA whistleblower who allegedly smuggled classified documents out of a SCIF and snail-mailed them to The Intercept) was recently apprehended in Trump’s first major bust-the-leaker case. Why? Traces left behind by emails sent to the media from her work computer.

2. It’s chatty (and the chat logs live forever)

One email touches dozens of servers as it travels to and fro, leaving a digital trail a mile wide across the internet. The sender and the recipient have no way of knowing who has seen, captured or even altered the state of an email while in transit. Neither party has any control over the security of any of the logs, something that varies substantively from one data center/network to another.

3. It’s overrun by spam and near-spam

Despite heroic legislative efforts (e.g. CAN-SPAM) and heroic technical efforts (e.g. Gmail’s spam filters), we still get unsolicited email.

Even if we don’t get actual spam, we often inadvertently (or not) sign up for mailing lists and notifications while shopping online, reading news, etc. leaving our inboxes cluttered with junk, much like snail mail.

4. It’s a CC mishap waiting to happen

We’ve all been on email threads from hell where 20 people somehow end up on the CC line. We’ve all said the wrong thing, had it CC’d to the wrong person and had it come back to bite us. But it gets even more insidious: People can seamlessly add or remove other people from the CC line, either hastening the spread of foot-in-mouth disease or leaving key people out of an important conversation.

Even when we think we know who we’re communicating with, let’s not forget about the endless wonders of BCC.

Even when we’re aware of everything on the TO and CC lines, we have no way of authenticating that sending to someone’s email address will actually result in that someone receiving the message. (Perhaps not, because someone just fell victim to a phishing attack.)

5. It’s the worst possible way ever to share living documents

There are dozens of better ways to collaborate, yet somehow people still send documents as email attachments asking for feedback, creating untoward madness.

Email is a never-ending, relentless time-sink in which the important gets drowned out by the worthless screaming, “Look at me!”

Believe it or not, it wasn’t the above that pushed me to do away with email; rather, it was a conversation I had with my then-10-year-old daughter. At the time she was (and still is) an avid iMessage user. (I’ve never seen so many emoticons!) When I tried to describe email, she asked, “Why is it better than txt?”

And—despite my self-proclaimed mansplaining prowess—I didn’t have a good answer for her.

Why not? Because it’s not better than iMessage. In fact, it’s far, far worse.

On that day I started the process of moving away from email. Fast-forward several months and I’ve reduced my inbox to a healthy, manageable non-urgent notification queue filled up entirely of things I actually want to see, put there almost entirely by bots, some of my own design.

If you fancy the same or something similar, consider the following steps:

1. Verify your digital identity

Set up Keybase. It’s super geeky, so it might not be clear what you’re doing, but do it anyway. In laymen’s terms you’re “signing” your digital identities (e.g. Facebook and Twitter) so that people have a way of knowing that when they’re talking to you, they’re really talking to you and not someone (or something) else.

2. Embrace a secure messaging app

Any of these send encrypted messages: iMessage, FaceTime audio (or video), WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Google Phone/Messenger, Skype, Twitter DM or Slack. There are hundreds of others. Of course, YMMV based on how much you trust the companies responsible for these apps not to get hacked.

I’m trying to make Signal (by Open Whisper Systems) my goto messaging app. The UI is a little rough around the edges, but the emphasis on security, disappearing messages and a really slick device onboarding flow more than makes up for it. Give it a try.

As an added benefit, your conversations remain organized by person and not by message, which more accurately models the way people communicate IRL.

Ironically, you might get email notifications that you’ve received messages on some of the above platforms, which is okay (see #5).

3. Use Google Docs to Collaborate

Like with your choice of messaging app, you’re putting your trust in a vendor. Google, from any angle, is a pretty safe bet, especially if you’ve enabled TFA (Two-factor Authentication) for yourself and all your collaborators.

4. Set up an auto-responder

The auto-responder covers the edge case of someone actually trying to write me an email in the traditional sense. They get a short note asking them to find me on: 1. Facebook, 2. Twitter or 3. Signal (by phone number). That should work for, respectively: 1. people I know, 2. people I don’t know and 3. people who are close enough to me to already have my phone number. Of course nearly all of the auto-responders will end up getting sent to bots — and they certainly won’t mind.

5. Fine tune your notifications

I use IFTTT to filter out popular stories from the New York Times and email them to me (usually about five a day, unless Trump forgets to take his medications). I also get daily briefings from the Guardian and the WaPo. I get some mass emails from my daughter’s school, from the lindyhop community and from a few editorial sites I really enjoy (Tasting Table, Urban Daddy, Bold Italic and a few others).

Aside from communicating with bots (e.g. shuttling a NYT article delivered by IFTTT to Pocket so I can read it later), I’ve sent no more than two dozen emails this year. My inbox has become a dumping ground for notifications, none of which is urgent or terribly important. I can keep up with them most of the time. Once in a while, I get behind and I mass-delete everything in my inbox, something I can do with a high level of confidence that I haven’t missed anything important.

I’ve ceased using email for all important (and human!) communication and at the same time turned my inbox into a bespoke, bot-generated “daily briefing” of sorts.

Real conversations need authenticity, reliability and privacy. Bots don’t care about those things, so they get relegated to my once-sacrosanct inbox.

Let’s hand email over to the bots. Humans deserve a better way to communicate.

In Explaining Why He Sacked Comey, Trump Borrows From Mein Kampf

Be forewarned: I’m going to compare Trump to Hitler, again. Before accusing me of violating Godwin’s Law, please understand that his “law” refers to the odds of a Hitler reference approaching 100% in comment threads. Godwin doesn’t mention anything about the opening lines—let alone the entire premise—of a blog post.

So why Hitler? Why again? And why now? Pundits have already jumped on the liar-liar-pants-on-fire bandwagon, but they’re missing something crucial to understanding the latest balderdash to come from Trump, a literal font of nonsense and duplicity.

This time, he lied so bigly, so obviously and with such brazen impunity that his words qualify as a “big lie,” as defined by the  Führer himself in Chapter 10 of Mein Kampf:

“All this was inspired by the principle—which is quite true within itself—that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods.

It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.”

[Emphasis mine.]

On a number of occasions, I’ve heard the claim that a lie becomes true if repeated often enough. Some even quantify this: It must be repeated at least seven times, they say. Often the qualified and/or the quantified version of this sentiment get attributed—incorrectly—to Hitler.

Hitler never said anything about the importance of repeating the lie, to the best of my knowledge, though repetition surely also had to be part of his strategy (in an epoch before instant mass communication). His description of the evil genius of a “big lie” merely states that the lie’s likelihood of being believed grows proportionally with the level of said lie’s intrinsic preposterousness.

Hitler adds that “the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it.” For evidence of this, one need not look further than Trump’s other attempts at big lies. He had a hand in the infamous birther lie, a big lie whose “traces behind it” literally birthed a movement unto itself. Others that come to mind? The size of the inauguration crowds. The alleged Obama wiretapping stunt. Now this.

Trump’s lie that Comey’s firing had something to do with Clinton’s emails is yet another “big lie.”

If Hitler was correct in his analysis of the efficacy of a “big lie” (and I’m afraid he is), then this lie—Trump’s biggest and most “grossly impudent” to date—is even more dangerous than all the others. Because “in the primitive simplicity of [our] minds” we are inclined to believe it.

Whether we believe it or not, we’ll be stuck with the “traces left behind it.”

Where will we find those “traces” this time around? In the selection process for the new head of the FBI. In the process—and eventual outcome—of the pending investigation into Trump’s alleged Russia connections. In his many, many conflicts of interest, not the least of which is firing the person investigating him. In more investigations of the Clintons, even.

After all, if Comey did get fired for bungling the Clinton email server investigation, we will of course want to know how exactly it was bungled so that the Clintons will finally be “brought to justice,” right?

That, of course, is a trap. If we fall into it, then we help manufacture the many “traces left behind” that will haunt us indefinitely.

An Unlikely Cure for Procrastination

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.” —Nelson Mandela

We all have tasks that—for whatever reason—we just don’t want to do.

They might be as mundane as organizing the garage or as grandiose as building the next Facebook. Small or large, easy or complex, self-rewarding or based on the obligations to others; regardless of what needs doing, I noticed something recently that consistently helps me break through cycles of procrastination and stay focused on the tasks that matter.

My “ah-ha” moment of introspection about procrastination came when a coworker said, “I’m addicted to working on this project.”

I didn’t doubt that he was telling the truth. People have been addicted to far stranger things than software projects. But the remark made me wonder: Can I improve my productivity by channelling my inner addict?

The answer was a resounding yes. I use and re-use “addiction training” (for lack of a better term) any time I find myself resisting some task that I don’t want to perform.

In order to understand why this works for me—and may also work for you—we need to understand how someone becomes addicted. The word addiction carries with it some serious baggage. Everyone knows how dependence on hard drugs or alcohol can lead to financial and emotional ruin, the destruction of relationships and sometimes even death.

Most people also know that addiction is not a character flaw; rather a person’s brain chemistry changes related to how “rewards” get processed. A shallow dive into neurology explains the chemical nature of addiction, beginning with the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain associated with logic and decision-making. At first, we consciously set “goals” of getting drunk or high (or working out or having sex) because those things feel good. After a relatively short period of time—with some drugs, just a few doses or with “good” habits, some say 21 days—the motivation to continue the nascent behavior moves from a logical, conscious place to a more Pavlovian one. A new part of the brain takes over: the anterior dorsolateral striatum, wherein we process rewards-based learning.

“In rats seeking cocaine, additional evidence supports the hypothesis that seeking behavior is initially goal-directed, but after extended training becomes habitual and under the control of the anterior dorsolateral striatum (aDLS).” [source]

Once the aDLS has taken over, addicts will feed their addiction at all costs, even if they can knowingly reason that “smoking is unhealthy” or “alcohol is ruining my life.” It’s literally beyond their logical control.

The chemistry of addictive drugs, stimulants in particular, facilitates the transition of using drugs from “goal-based” to “habitual.” But how does this apply to my software project—or cleaning my garage?

Here’s what I do when I find myself procrastinating:

  1. Set up an extremely small reward challenge (to trigger the aDLS), e.g. “I’m going to install RVM/ruby and create my Rails project, then I’m going to have a bowl of ice cream.”
  2. Do the extremely small task. (Okay, that was easy and it took less than five minutes.)
  3. Eat the ice cream. (That felt good.)
  4. Go back to procrastinating.
  5. Repeat.

By associating the smallest level of effort with a reward, we can begin to trigger the reward processing module of our brain, effectively feeding our nascent addiction. (Bonus points for substituting “eat a bowl of ice cream” with “go for run” or some other healthy habit.) After repeating these steps several times, you’ll likely find yourself autonomously attracted to the work you logically don’t want to do. There’s a lesson to agile product owners here too: Stories reduced to the smallest atomic parts can give developers little “slam dunks” wherein the reward is baked into the process of moving the story along the agile board.

It’s important not to create additional negative addictions during this process—and equally important to keep the aDLS on its “toes.” Give yourself a huge reward for doing very little. Then give yourself a small reward for doing something huge. Sometimes, give no reward. Or flip a coin and if it’s heads, eat the ice cream; tails: Go back to work! This “random” nature of the rewards helps cement the working addiction using ideas from something (anecdotally) more addictive than cocaine: gambling.

This method for training an addiction might work better for some than others. One study claimed that 47% of the population carried a genetic marker for addiction. Even so, we all have an aDLS and we can all learn to train it to our advantage.

Having trouble exploiting your addictive tendencies to become more productive? What other techniques have you tried when you need to break out of a procrastination rut?