Newsletter April 23, 2018

Ed’s Newsletter and the Dramatic Rescue of Archie

Ed’s Vacuum/ is another good one (of course!). Read up on the Y lot vote happening this week, which, woof…it’s acrimonious.

Ed also recounts the story of a lost dog that was eventually found via NextDoor. A few months ago we helped get a lost dog back to its owner and the thing that finally did it was just posting my phone number on NextDoor. Someone called within 20 minutes to collect.

NextDoor is sometimes derisively called “Twitter for Old People”. At its best it’s a fantastic way to quickly reconnect a dog to its owner and to get rid of that random thing in the garage you don’t need anymore. Beyond those amazing uses I’m not sure it’s that useful.

CATACA’s Death

This newsletter last week got sidelined by the death of one of my cats. It was very sudden. You can read a eulogy I wrote for her. Go hug your cats.

My friend, Kate (who is very wise) told us the exact thing I needed to hear “grief is not linear”:

“Something that helped me last year was reminding myself that grief isn’t linear; the five stages aren’t just cycled through, they’re random dice rolls at random intervals. May you always find space to let your emotions be what they are; may you eventually, incrementally, encounter more acceptance.”

This past week has definitely felt like that. I’ve alternated between every one of the stages in no seeming order. It’s been at times fairly brutal. On the Monday after I walked around downtown listlessly unable to make a decision on food. I knew intellectually I needed to eat, but just couldn’t figure it out, which looking back on it feels very strange, and very appropriate.

It is odd how much a small being can get intertwined in your life. Our other cat, Susu, is definitely out of sorts and is trying to figure out what life is now, although as a cat there’s no chance she can articulate that.

There have also been good remembrances of CATACA already. I know it’ll be fond memories.

An Idealized Internet Home

Continuing with some thoughts on how to make the internet a better place I’ve started compiling a quasi-manifesto of what our tools for creation should be:

  • The distance between thought and published work on the internet needs to be as short as possible. Social media gets this correct: fill in the textarea and click submit and you are done.
  • The activation energy required to go from no website to a website should be as small as possible. WordPress’ installation process can famously be done in 5 minutes. I think we should try to get it down to 5 seconds.
  • The features available to you on your personal site should exceed the best of a social network’s features. Social networks should have to fear or integrate open source projects because the open source project is better than what the social network can offer.
  • Network effects shouldn’t be constrained to a service that monopolizes the most users. We need disintermediated tools that allow for network effects to exist on top of everyone’s federated sites. RSS is one channel, there should probably others.
  • Companies should make money by selling these tools, support or services, not on the advertising that can be placed on them.

More as this percolates.

Coffee with Andrew

I had coffee with Andrew Sardone a few weeks ago to talk more about the indie web. Since I’ve started talking about this in the open I’ve heard from other nerds lamenting our current content hegemony. I’d like to hear from more. Email me and let’s talk:

Here’s some buzzing thoughts that came out of coffee with Andrew:

  • Despite reports to the contrary: RSS is not dead. He uses Feedbin to manage his feeds.
  • People don’t necessarily care about ownership on the web. They assume they own their FB or Twitter presence.
  • Whatever the alternative is to using FB it has to have feature parity+. This is very smart on Andrew’s part. If you’re on FB because of the groups (that’s me) then the thing you go to has to meet or exceed FB’s ability to handle group communication.
  • The activation energy to get a site and get it online is huge even for nerds mostly due to time. If you have a job and kids you’re unlikely to also want to do database administration at night.
  • Federation and Network Effect are two very important problems to solve. Posting something on your blog is great. Then there’s a secondary step of sharing/marketing. For me I’m trusting RSS and a quick tweet to do the meat of that marketing for me. However, it does mean that posting is less easy than it should be to do.
  • Desktop publishing allowed so many people to do the impossible: lay out a document in an interesting and quick way that it revolutionized design by making it much much easier. Having access to fonts, sizing, colors, etc. was quite a bit different than using a typewriter. We do not have the same ease of use for websites right now.
  • Thinking in terms of a garden: the startup costs are huge, and you can likely buy better produce from elsewhere, yet there is something compelling about having your own garden. It appeals to our ego and sense of order in the world. We want to tend to a thing and make it our own.
  • He pointed out, which is trying to solve these problems. I really really like what they’re doing.

Algorithmic Feeds Trend to Homogeneity

The medium is the message and our mediums are shaping the messages we’re willing to share.

The allure of the algorithmic feed is that it shows more relevant information to individual users. However, it maps very poorly with how people WANT the services to act. For example, I want to see everything my wife posts on any of the services we’re both on. This is important because they are often about her, our daughter, or our family in general. As far as Content I’d Like to Consume this ranks up so so so high on the list that it’s shocking to me whenever the Algorithm doesn’t surface this content. Surely with all of that Big Data they could make that connection that, yeah, these two people enjoy each other’s company.

When you trust the algorithm you start to use the only signals you have from the service to inform that algorithm. If those are based on things like likes and retweets…well…guess what’s not going to show up as often? A tweet that is perhaps highly relevant, but didn’t get enough engagement to push it over the edge to appear in your feed.

Most of my followers and people I follow are (by design) people with sub-1000 numbers. They are likely to never see a tweet go viral and most tweets might go by “unliked”. Then they get suppressed and likely don’t want to tweet similar things again. Imagine a twitter that had more controls over what you see. Imagine if you could go back to a chronological timeline!

Generating Art

Something I truly appreciate about programmers is when they encounter art and design they ask probing questions about the rules that went into the creation of that art. This is useful because it helps the artist/designer think through the decisions they thought they couldn’t fully explain. It’s useful to the programmers too because at some point they usually figure out, huh, there’s a lot to this!

Design is always a bit of a fungible thing, you can absolutely start with a bunch of rules, but then you’ll find that they need to be broken here and there or that, yeah, there’s actually a few other rules that we haven’t appropriately expressed. By the time you figure out a way to replicate the thought process perfectly you should have just had the designer do it and move on. Or it ends in programmer frustration because there’s no way to really synthesize meta-trends in patterns, textures, and colors. Sometimes you need to have someone there who just knows when it’s right or wrong. Sometimes you need to try a wild idea.

Anyway this thread is an amazing breakdown of reverse engineering an artist’s work to make it repeatable. It in turn results in art and that’s a worthy pursuit:

Maurice Meilleur on Twitter: “1/ So, the story of reverse engineering a Girard design starts with something one of my students brought to class one day: a water bottle.”

Meilleur spends time explaining each step in the process, where he went wrong, and how he solved it. Like all good programming stories showing your work is half the fun. And the result is, wow, I really like the resulting artwork he was able to produce is phenomenal.

Sacred Spaces

@gawanmac writes about a trip in the woods:

“I saw this on an OS map and couldn’t not investigate. A place of worship symbol in the middle of bloody nowhere on the edge of a wood. It was a foggy, atmospheric day up on the North Downs, so I decided to walk three sides of a square through the wood to reach it.”

“I’m not a believer in heaven, but I appreciate the notion of places where other forms of reality become tangible, where past and present interlace. This place is certainly one, helped by the apparent merging of this ancient human structure with the woodland crowding close.”