Fake News on Social Networks

Manton Reece wrote a nice post last week about Fake news on Instagram:

Twitter has retweets. Facebook has sharing. But Instagram has no built-in reposting. On Instagram, there’s no instantaneous way to share someone else’s post to all of your followers. […]

When you have to put a little work into posting, you take it more seriously. I wonder if fake news would have spread so quickly on Facebook if it was a little more difficult to share an article before you’ve read more than the headline. […]

Instagram was no accident. The only question: was it unique to photos, or can the same quality be applied to microblogging?

I don’t think it’s unique to photos, thankfully! As Manton describes, conscious decisions by Instagram encouraged certain behaviours above others, and I think you can do that no matter what your social network’s primary content is. Let’s look at this in a bit more detail.

First, it’s important to get to the real meat of what’s going on when we talk about “fake news.” This is distinct from just inaccurate information (although that’s a part of it). What’s going on is really disinformation, better known as propaganda.

Aside from the normal reasons propaganda exists, it exists on social networks like Facebook and Twitter because it can exist on those networks. It’s profitable and useful for the parties manufacturing and disseminating it. To Facebook and Twitter, upon whose networks it propagates, it doesn’t really matter what the information is so long as it engages users. Facebook’s apathy to propaganda is regularly exploited.

Design Around It

So how could Facebook, Twitter, or a microblog network prevent it? The obvious first step is to use the tools which already work.

Facebook prohibits nudity on its platform and seems to have tools to defend against it (some combination of user flagging and automated tools). It should do the same for propaganda. Yes, it’s harder to recognize than nudity, but that’s not an excuse for not doing it. This is a starting point.

The next step is to design the interface to prevent it.

Maybe don’t let users retweet / share something with a link in it if they haven’t actually, you know, clicked the link. I bet this would be an easy win at curbing the spread of propaganda.

For anything that gets past that, give users tools to help them reason about the content they’re seeing. Do people routinely report this content as fake / propaganda? Show it. Who is sharing this and how often do they share propaganda? Show it.

Get readers to evaluate what they’re seeing and sharing. You read it, what did you think about it? Why? Let other readers evaluate those answers.

Your user interface can encourage thoughtfulness or it can encourage mindlessness. But that is choice you make when designing your interface.


See also:

Speed of Light

Check Out Roland Leth’s Blog

You should check out Roland Leth’s blog, he’s

[M]ostly writing about iOS, JS and Ruby development: snippets, walkthroughs, tips and tricks, stuff that I struggled with and links to interesting stuff I find around the web. From time to time I will find an interesting or helpful app and I will write about that, as well.

For instance, one of his recent posts is about Slightly easier Core Data manipulation in Swift, showing how you can leverage Swift protocols and their powerful, but mysterious associatedType functionality.

It doesn’t hurt that his site is beautifully designed (especially for code snippets, which is hard to get right!) and loads lickety split (an area my website could learn from 😅).

Thanks for taking me up on my offer, and thank you for sharing, Roland!

The Elephant in the Room

There’s this metaphor I heard a few years ago I really liked. It describes the human mind in two parts: an elephant and a human riding atop it. The elephant in this metaphor represents your emotions and the generally “animal” part of your brain; the human represents your rational self. The human rider’s control is at the mercy of the large and powerful elephant it rides atop. The rider can suggest, but the elephant is going to go where it wants to go.

The metaphor comes from Jonathan Haidt’s book, which admittedly I have not read, so it’s possible I’m misinterpreting it. But I like it because it helps me understand what goes on in my own head (for example, I have a hard time focusing when I’m hungry! the elephant gets what it wants!), and it helps me understand what’s going on in the heads of other people. We want to be rational and sensible, but our emotions often get the best of us.

~ ~ ~

It’s funny to me, framed by the above metaphor, that the United States’s Republican Party uses an elephant for its mascot. The two aren’t logically connected, of course, because the symbols are arbitrary (if you want to interpret the symbols literally, consider also the Democratic Party uses an ass), but it’s funny to me nonetheless.

In the 2016 election, it feels like the elephant got the best of the rider. I’m not implying merely having conservative political views means you’re irrational or at the whim of your animal brain, but I am saying many people voted out of fear above anything else.

~ ~ ~

Last week my wife and I visited her parents for American Thanksgiving. Her parents generally fall on the conservative side of the political spectrum, but it seemed as though they too were unhappy about how the election had gone.

There was an elephant in the room that I both wanted and didn’t want to talk about. I think every one of us felt it. Any mention of politics was quickly met with silent, downtrodden eyes. A game of “jumbling towers” (a knockoff of Jenga) prompted me to make a joke, “jeez this thing looks as rickety as one of Trump’s towers,” that led to short, nervous laughter from all at the table. But there remains an elephant in the room.

It’s Easy to Start a Blog

Just what it says on the tin. It’s easy to start a blog. There’s Tumblr and Wordpress and, I mean I guess Medium too. Those are hosted for you, but you can also do something like Squarespace or you can fully host your own (but that’s slightly more work and not my point).

So, it’s really easy to start a blog. Get an account, and start writing!

I hear two big reluctances about starting a blog: it’s hard to finish writing a post, and it’s hard to keep writing posts. Let’s explore those, shall we?

While it’s easy to start a blog, and while it’s easy to start writing posts, it’s definitely hard to finish them. Sometimes you get a hint of an idea, but don’t know how to see it through. Sometimes there’s a lot you want to say, but can’t find the words. Sometimes it just feels like your thoughts aren’t polished enough. I have been through each and everyone one of these, and they stink!

My best suggestion is really just to publish anyway. Can’t think of a great way to end a post? Don’t! Just end it. Maybe say “And I don’t really have a conclusion here, but yeah. bye” I think the reluctance stems from looking at blogs as a publishing medium, which it very much can be if you want. But I think the idea that blog posts have to be polished holds blogs back. While I encourage everyone to research, link, and polish posts to the best of their ability, I also think it’s fine to go without. Just be explicit, “Hey these are rough thoughts” or “these are just my opinions, they might not hold up to scrutiny,” and I think you’ll be OK.

The other difficulty is finding momentum. This one’s hard too. Maybe you’re fired up to write one or two posts, but maybe you lose steam after that.

I’ll start by saying, if you feel like you only have two posts in you, then at least post those two! Start somewhere. There’s really nothing inherently wrong with a two post blog anyway. Just publish them.

Beyond that, reflect on where your original posts came from. Why did you write them? Me, I write posts when I’ve had an idea buzzing in my head for a while and I want to explore it publicly. Or, I’ll write when I want to respond to something I’ve read or somebody else’s blog post. Ideas and thoughts that don’t fit in a tweet. If I start a twitter thread with myself, that’s usually a good indication I should be blogging it instead.

The more you do this, the more you post, the more you’ll want to post. The more people who post, the bigger the network effects. I started blogging because I saw John Gruber and Ash Furrow doing it and I thought to myself “I want to do that. I can do that.” and then I did it. When I see my friends blogging about stuff, I want to join the conversation.

If you’re reading this post, you’re obviously a very intelligent person. You probably have great ideas of your own. Great ideas that are done a disservice by trying to squeeze them into a tweet or erratically chatting them in a Slack room. Great ideas that would otherwise be lost to the sands of internet time, reduced to 404s when Twitter eventually shuts down.

I Will Personally Help You

Here’s the deal: you start a blog, and you tell me about it (either in the discussion section below, or by contacting me otherwise), and I’ll promote your blog.

I’ll make a post on my blog, linking to yours, and I’ll write something nice about it. If you’re having trouble and you want help, I’ll help you. I’ll review drafts, I’ll suggest ideas, I’ll listen, I’ll link to your posts again if you want.

There are so many people discussing important issues these days, but unfortunately so much of that gets lost on Twitter or Slack or other shitty networks. Today, it’s easy to start a blog somewhere (or better yet, host your own), and you should do it.

I’ll help.

A Rant About the Post-Truth World

Oxford English Dictionaries made “post-truth” the word of the year this year. Post-truth. An era where facts, where truth, is irrelevant! Not just about misinformation or a lack of facts, but a bold-faced denial of facts. Staring the truth straight in the eye and ignoring it. That Donald Trump can so constantly lie to everyone, on camera, when he is provably wrong, and when that just doesn’t matter, not even a little bit. I take sardonic comfort in feeling he’ll fuck over everyone who voted for him, that he’ll continue to lie to them, that he won’t help them a bit, and that they’ll see him for what he is. Yet at the same time, I’m starting to doubt that will matter. Why the fuck should it matter at this point?

So he’ll lie to his people as he fucks them over. As the coasts sink further into the mire, we’ll be told how climate change continues to be a myth. And nobody will stop it because there is nobody left who cares about truth.

Of course that’s an exaggeration, but one I never thought I’d have to make. One that had never occurred to me. Truth, knowledge, rights, progress: these were all a straight arrow as certain as the passage of time. But this edifice has been shaken for me recently. Perhaps it was naive of me, perhaps I never should have assumed that was the case. But it’s clear that progress is undoable.

So how the hell do we dig ourselves out of this hole? How do we get people to value truth, to seek it out, to refute blather and bullshit and fictions?

I’d start by looking at how we got here, but I don’t know what to do after that. Amusing Ourselves to Death is my go-to reference here. About how television dramatically altered public discourse in the United States. About how politics is done a disservice by news soundbites. But there’s also Brave New World, where the people were so entertained they don’t need to care about anything else (Postman frequently alludes to BNW in his book).

Television yes. And also social networks like Facebook and Twitter. They’re a gaping hole, a bright red target for exploitation. Facebook and Twitter value “engagement” (a euphemism for exploitation), they don’t value or care about truth. They don’t care about progress. They care about people spending time on their software, seeing ads. (And true, this is just kind of capitalism 101… it doesn’t value progress or any other kind of good, it only values capital) And with phones and social networks, it’s run totally fucking amok.

I wish I had more of an answer here, or at least more of a point. But this is what I’ve got for now.

Down Days / Down Daze

A coworker asks me as we ride the elevator “How’s it going?” and I say “Well, some days are better than others.” Like the elevator, I’ve been having my ups and downs lately. “Yeah, me too” says my coworker.

The US 2016 election results have left me feeling more emotional than I thought possible. I’ve been sad, I’ve been worried. I’ve been energized and invigorated. And I’ve been angry and scared. I can’t quite make heads or tails of what’s going on most days.

The other day I felt nearly paralyzed by everything. After reading my zillionth tweet about the election, I started freaking out. I felt like all the hope had been drained out of me and I couldn’t focus on anything but that. I was at work, but I couldn’t focus on anything I was doing. All I wanted to do was go home and curl up in a ball and cry.

There’s a quote from a Bret Victor essay on global warming that’s been ringing in my head for a year now, even more so after the election:

But despair is not useful. Despair is paralysis, and there’s work to be done.

The quote is about climate change, but it rings so true to the world right now. America has just elected a fascist, and that needs to be opposed and fought at every step of the way.

There’s work to be done, yes, but I’m absolutely still in the grieving stage. I’m still in the I can’t get out of bed today stage, and I think for a little while, that’s how it’s going to be. I’m going to have my up days, and I’m going to have my down days.

There’s work to be done but I might need some time.

Introducing Speed of Light Discussions

Today I’m happy to announce I’ve added a discussions section to the website, directly below each article. Here you’ll be able to directly respond to what you’ve just read, share your thoughts, and have a discussion with other readers of my site. Today’s post is going to take a bit of a look inside why I’m doing this and how discussions work.

Why?

For many years, the blogging community I’m a part of (especially the Apple blogging community) has more or less subscribed to the “we just don’t do comments” line. Primarily, big names like John Gruber (who many of us copied) decided not to have comments, and so many of us decided not to too.

The arguments against blog comments go something like this:

  • It’s my site with my content. I want to control every word.
  • If you want to respond, do so on your own website and tell me.
  • Comments sections often become shouting matches or spam-riddled.
  • Twitter, Reddit, Hacker News (etc) are my comments section.

I think this mostly captures what Gruber’s written about, what Ash Furrow has written about, and heck, even what I’ve written about on the subject.

And I think these are mostly fair and valid arguments. Any author is entitled to what they do or don’t want on their own website. Comments often devolve into messy arguments, and it’s much easier to just tell people to comment on Hacker News or Twitter instead.

But I feel like I’ve been brainwashed by that party line, that “we just don’t do comments” and that’s held me back from even considering adding them to my website. For a website the size and popularity of Daring Fireball, it’d probably be madness to foster any kind of coherent conversation. But for a website the size of mine, it’s a different story. So let’s consider why I might want to add them, instead.

Primarily, it’s about having a conversation with my readers, a conversation that I just currently don’t feel happening these days. Earlier this year, I wrote:

When I started my website in 2010, I was really excited to jump in to writing on the web. There were blog conversations all over the place: Somebody would post something, then other blogs would react to it, adding their own thoughts, then the original poster would link to those reactions and respond likewise, etc. It became a whole conversation and I couldn’t wait to participate.

But I’ve never really had much of a conversation on my website. I’ve reacted to others’ posts, but I’ve never felt it reciprocated. I never felt like I was talking with anyone or anyone’s website, but more like I was spewing words out into the void. Some people definitely enjoy what I write, some agree and some even disagree with it, but the feedback has always been private, there’s never been much public conversation.

My readers are ridiculously smart and I respect the hell out of them. They have great insights, they share all kinds of connections to the things I write, and they often challenge my thinking for the better. But many of them don’t keep blogs of their own, or if they do, there’s never any cross-blog-conversation.

The “conversation” ends up on Twitter, which is a horrible medium for it. Twitter’s critical flaw is, of course, it’s comically small post length limit. It’s really hard to have a thoughtful discussion 140 characters at a time. This is compounded by its terribly reply threading and its complete lack of formatting. It’s 2016 and this is the place for conversation on the web? Fuck that.

So instead, I’m adding my own space for conversations.

Discussions

First and foremost, I’m referring to this space as a discussions section, not a comments section. While technically they’re essentially the same thing, by calling it a discussions section, I hope to foster the idea it’s a place for having meaningful conversation with me and other readers. A “comments” section to me implies more one-off drive-by replies that are more about the commenter than they are about the discussion itself.

Secondly, while Twitter, Hacker News, etc allow for minimal-to-no formatting options, this discussion system uses a rich text editor. You can make inline links, bold and italicize text, insert images, use lists and quotes, etc. Essentially I want to give readers writing tools to help them actually make decent conversation. It’s so frustrating that our popular tools for conversing, in 2016, are so damn neutered. Discussions here are still only HTML under the hood, but it’s a lot better than plain text.

Third, everything in the discussion section’s got to be more than 140 characters. I’m setting this bare minimum because I think it’s difficult (not impossible, but difficult) to have meaningful conversation in anything less. It has the added benefit of making one-word smart-ass posts impossible.

Great kinds of replies might include (but not limited to):

  • Related points the original post made you think of (related topics, articles, books, etc)
  • Counter-points (do you disagree with something in the post? explain your perspective)
  • A finer discussion about the original post (asking for clarification, perhaps)
  • Replies to other people who have participated in the discussion (for any of the same reasons as apply to the original post)

Other than that, they’re basically your run of the mill discussion system. Individual replies have permalinks and time stamps and avatars (which use Gravatar). Each post has a flag link on it, so if you see something objectionable, you can let me know.

Signing up and logging in are the same thing. When you post for the first time, I’ll send you an email asking you to confirm. Once you do that, your post will be visible. This way, I don’t have to keep any passwords.

Most importantly, I’ve got discussion guidelines which I ask you to follow. I want to keep these discussions going constructively, and I hope you do too.

Let’s Discuss

I hope you enjoy using the discussion section as much as I’ve enjoyed making it. There’s still lots to be done, but it should be mostly solid by now. Please let me know of any bugs you encounter (other than slow page loads; I’m working on that).

Anyway, is this a good idea? Are there better ways to foster discussions that I’m missing? I’m happy to say, you can now let me know below.

1000 Books, Year 2

I’ve just completed the second year of my 1000 book challenge, which I wrote about a year ago:

A year ago I gave myself a challenge: read a thousand books in my lifetime. I decided to start counting books I’d read since November 14, 2014 (although I’d read many books before this, I really only wanted to start counting then, so I could better catalogue them).

Last year I managed to get through 24, which I was quite happy with. I ended up with a little more reading time on my hands this year and managed to get through 33, which has me happily surprised! Still going to be a long haul from here, but I’m more than 1/20th of the way done and have some good strategies for reading a lot of books.

Looking over the list of books, I don’t know that this year really had a theme, but I do see some common threads. I read a lot about systems and systems thinking, and a bit about hypertext systems. I read a bit about language, reading, and metaphor. I read a bit about corporations, what they’ve done to our planet, and how to shame them. And I’ve read a few more graphic novels; I’m really enjoying all that medium has to offer.

Finally, I realized in my first year the overwhelming majority of the books I’d read were written by men. This year I made a conscious effort to read more books written by women (13/33), and in the coming year I want read even more voices.

Below are the books I’ve read in the last year, along with notes for a few of the standouts.

  • The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sachs.
  • Seconds by Brian Lee O’Mally.

    Beautiful and funny graphic novel from the creator of the Scott Pilgrim series. Plus, it’s Canadian!

  • Drama by Raina Telgemeier.

  • Dragon Ball Vol 1 by Akira Toriyama.

  • Economix by Dan Burr.

    I knew almost nothing about the American / global economic system worked before reading this graphic novel, but I found it a gentle introduction for people like me.

  • Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows.

    I wish I’d read this book earlier in life! It revealed to me a mental framework (and notation) for thinking about the world in systems. I had the vague notion that “systems are everywhere,” but this book really opened my eyes to what that means in practice. If you care about systems (education, politics, economics, oppression, biological, etc) then you should read this book. I can’t wait to read it again.

  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by JK Rowling.

    My wife and I have been (slowly) reading the Harry Potter series out loud to one another, which is nothing short of magical.

  • Turtles, Termites, and Traffic Jams by Mitch Resnick.

    Another book about systems! This time, about programming decentralized systems in a Logo-like programming language. Resnick shows how many complex systems emerge from simple parts, with no central control.

  • Memory Machines by Belinda Barnet.

    A must read book on the history of hypertext.

  • The ABCs of Bauhaus by Ellen Lupton.

  • The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon.

    My favourite novel I read this year. Graedon describes a noir-semi-dystopia New York City where a “word-flu” has infected the device-using population, causing aphasia in speakers, and literally erasing words from the dictionary. It’s beautifully written and a real fun read.

  • Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff.

    This book opened my eyes (metaphor) to the way we create (metaphor), share (metaphor), and explore (metaphor) meaning and understanding. This book demands (metaphor) a re-read.

  • Spelunky by Derek Yu.

  • Bootstrapping by Thierry Bardini.

  • What we see when we read by Peter Mendelsund.

  • Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus by Douglas Rushkov.

  • If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? by Kurt Vonnegut.

    Everyone should read more Kurt Vonnegut.

  • The Corporation by Joel Bakan.

    Terrifying, eye-opening look at corporate structure and its deleterious effects on our planet. Enraging that we, as a people, allow this to happen.

  • Dragon Ball Vol 2 by Akira Toriyama.

  • Is Shame Necessary? by Jennifer Jacquet.

  • Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami.

  • Our Choice by Al Gore.

  • Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman.

    Everyone who works in media (and if you’re a software designer or developer, you work in media) should read this book every single year.

  • Magic and Loss by Virginia Heffernan.

  • All About Love by bell hooks.

  • Making is Connecting by David Gauntlett.

  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

  • The Dynamic Library by Various Authors.

  • Adam’s Tongue by Derek Bickerton.

    Thoughts here.

  • Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.

    Beautiful graphic novel / autobiography of the author’s life in Iran and as a Persian abroad.

  • The Selfishness of Others by Kristin Dombek.

  • Dragon Ball Vol 3 by Akira Toriyama.

  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding.

Here’s to the next 943!

Hopesgiving

It’s been a devastating, gloomy sad week. Not only did Hillary Clinton lose the 2016 United States Presidential Election, but Donald Trump also won it. There are many in the United States who have new reasons to fear, for now the country has elected a man who manifests and normalizes hate.

On Wednesday, the day after the election, my wife and I were in a sad shock. She had an idea: “Let’s invite some friends over for dinner. We’ll commiserate and I’ll glue them back together with cheesy lasagna.” So that’s just what we did. (It doesn’t hurt that my wife makes the best lasagna)

We decided to call it “Hopesgiving.” Where in Thanksgiving you say what you’re thankful for, in Hopesgiving you say what you’re hopeful for. We shared food, wine, fears and tears, but most importantly we shared hope.

We talked about our grief, we talked about how this election has been a wake up call, especially now that the results are in. We talked about how we wanted to fight all the nastiness and hate, even if we don’t know exactly what to do yet.

Just having some friends in our home helped immensely. I think a sense of togetherness is what we really needed this week. We talked and cried and shared stories about a time when each of us had embarrassingly peed our pants as children (hey, it happens! and it’s kind of funny, looking back). It may sound silly, but sometimes it’s just good to cry with friends. And when it hurts too much to cry, it’s good to laugh with them too.

So if you’re having a hard time this week, whether you live in the United States or elsewhere, consider having an evening of Hopesgiving. Gather those close to you and share food or drinks or board games or whatever you need. Find some togetherness and find some hope.

Don’t Be Mean

A few weeks ago I saw something that made me sad: Craig Hockenberry, a Cocoa developer I once looked up to, tweeted this mean thing:

My new approach to dealing with uninvited contact:

Put yourself in Bennett’s shoes for a moment. How do you think he would feel getting an email like this? When I was starting as an iOS developer, I looked up to people like Craig. He was well known in the community, had lots of great experience under his belt, and seemed like someone you could learn a lot from. If I had sent him an unsolicited email asking about Cocoa dev, and he’d replied with something like this (and then tweeted it!), that would have absolutely devastated me.

I don’t know the all the context behind this tweet. Maybe this Bennett character is a real asshole, but that’s not really revealed in Craig’s tweet. What’s revealed here is Craig proudly sharing his mean response.

If you get a lot of unsolicited email, I imagine that’s super annoying, but it’s mean to respond like this, and it’s meaner still to publicly shame the poor guy. All Craig needed to do here was not reply.

Worse than being mean, this is sharing the meanness with everyone who follows him. I was very sad to see Dave Verwer link to it at the bottom of iOS Dev Weekly, sharing it with further more people.

And finally…

If you see this meanness shared and celebrated on Twitter or Slack or elsewhere, please stand up against it. Put yourself in the shoes of other people and try to imagine how they might read it. If you were new to iOS dev (or any community where this happens), how would this make you feel? Would you want to be the person laughing at the meanness, or would you want to be the person stopping it?

Just Because It’s on the Menu

For a long time growing up I had this weird belief that if something was on a menu at a restaurant, it must be good for you. “They” wouldn’t let something be on a menu if it was bad for you. There are rules and laws designed to keep us healthy and safe. Growing up, I’d never really given it a whole lot of thought, but it was a comforting belief and it seemed reasonable.

Of course, it doesn’t hold up to any scrutiny and it’s not true. There’s all kinds of unhealthy garbage on menus. There is nothing really inherent in restaurant menus that forces them to give you choices that won’t eventually kill you. There are definitely some rules about what can and can’t be served, and there are plenty of attempts at limiting unhealthy choices, but by and (often) large, there are no built-in protections for you.

At some level, I think I held this belief about more than just restaurant menus. “Of course I don’t need to wear a seatbelt in cabs, because taxi drivers are professionals.” “Of course this book is going to be accurate, because they let it be published.” “Of course the doctor will do a good job, because they have an advanced degree.” Nevermind that people make mistakes and errors all the time!

The underlying principle, maybe, was I thought because there’s a way that these things could be made safe or healthy or somehow ideal, that of course they must be, too. What kind of world wouldn’t protect itself by default? This all probably sounds stupid, but that’s the belief I held.

Taping Culture

Isn’t it interesting that we as a culture (at least in the west) used to tape things? In the 1980s and 90s, it was common to use a VCR to record things off TV (or other VHS tapes) or record songs off the radio (or from other cassette tapes). I’m sure not everyone did this, but to my then-child eyes, it seemed like it was pretty prevalent.

What was so interesting about it was we were sort of appropriating media for our own uses. Television dictated “you watch this show when we tell you, or not at all” and taping culture said, “No, I’ll watch it when I please” or “I want to keep this around for reference later.” Radio and the music industry said “You either listen to the music (and ads) all the time, buy our tapes and records, or don’t listen at all” and again our culture had these little tools of defiance where we made audio our own.

The mix tape was a great fallout of this. Not only were we making copies, we were recombining copies as we saw fit! Maybe the perfect playlist for you had jazz and hip hop, but good luck waiting for the music industry to put out a tape like that. Fuck it, make it yourself.

Everything was and is a remix, yes, but without taping culture these remixes were often made and experienced en mass, created and consumed largely via entertainment industries. But now we could remix on our own.

Things have changed today, as they always do. For starters, most video and audio is copy protected (something tells me the industries sorta didn’t like home taping?). And with things like Netflix and Spotify, the need to record something to time shift has diminished. No real need to record something when you can just play it at will from a service, anyway. There’s also Tivo, which seems to fill the same niche as VCRs, albeit with a little more computer involved.

But it seems like the whole cultural idea of “taping” has kind of evaporated. Yes, it’s often technically possible to make copies of things (you can make or download copies of movies, music, etc), but culturally it’s not something we do as often anymore.

The closest things I can think of are apps like Tumblr, which allow you to do a kind of constant drive-by remix of a never-ending flow of “content.” This is similar, I guess, but it feels much less like you’re appropriating the media you want, and instead like you’re just redirecting copies of bits into your own personal ephemeral stream. It’s not that one is necessarily better than the other, just that it’s different.

Also cameras. With cameras in our pockets wherever we go, we now have appropriation devices. We can make crude copies of what we see, visually accurate but otherwise lifeless renditions of the world. I can and do take pictures of pretty much anything that interests me, but I also take pictures of things I want to remember, things I need to do (like travel receipts I need to get reimbursed for). I make screenshots of text conversations I want to hold on to.

The camera + screenshots are a common way we appropriate digital data on our phones, but the OS makers don’t seem to take advantage of this. The camera + screenshot + appropriation culture is brimming with potential, but relatively stunted due to the software available.

Do you think we still live in a taping culture? Has it largely evaporated in favour of large industries telling us when and what we do? Or do we as a culture still do make our it our own?

“Adam’s Tongue” book review / notes

I recently re-read (and re-loved) Derek Bickerton’s book on language + human evolution, Adam’s Tongue. I previously read the book in 2010, and I remember enjoying it, but feeling like a lot of it was over my head, so I’ve decided to re-read it with fresh eyes in 2016, and wanted to write a little review of it.

On its surface, the book is about how language evolved in humans, and how language was crucial to our evolution as a species, but what I love about this book is it’s about so much more.

One thing the book covers really well is how evolution works. It talks about Darwin and Richard Dawkins (natural selection and selfish genes, respectively), but it also talks about how those viewpoints are often limited. Bickerton really gushes about a relatively new view on evolution, that of “niche construction theory” which explains, essentially, how species are changed by their environment, but crucially, how species also change their environments, too.

Bickerton spends a lot of time not only talking about evolution, but also continuously emphasizes fallacies we hold about evolution. The big one is how we view evolution with homo-centrism: we see evolution only in terms of ourselves, and often put ourselves at the centre of it. When we look at evolution with this fallacy, we’re essentially looking at all animals / life forms in terms of how they compare to us, when in fact, evolution does not care at all about us. There’s really no centre to evolution, Bickerton says.

A specific example of that fallacy is how we often look on Animal Communication Systems as “failed attempts at language,” but really they’re just successful attempts for those animals to communicate. They’re not bad versions of language, they’re good versions of ACSs.

I’m really grateful he’s gone to such lengths to repeatedly point these sorts of things out, because I’ve found it eye-opening when considering what little I know about evolution. And, I think these viewpoints apply to non-evolution topics as well.

Another nice thing the book does is that it doesn’t hide the fact of other viewpoints on language evolution. Although he argues his disagreement with these other viewpoints, the author at least acknowledges and explains the other perspectives. He’s not running anybody’s name through the mud, but he does explain their arguments, and crucially why they don’t hold up to the scrutiny of his researcher + perspective.

In fact, an entire chapter is devoted to dismantling a theory put forward by Noam Chomsky et al about language’s supposed spontaneous evolution (I’m not sure if I’ve parsed the argument well enough to distill it here, but suffice it to say it was a thorough deconstruction). It’s refreshing to read opposing viewpoints, not so they may be shamed or humiliated, but so they can be contrasted and explored from different vantage points.

This book was an eye-opening read about language, evolution, and the history of the human species. It’s about what makes us us, and about how that very us-ness enables us to reflect on us. You should definitely read this book.

How to Read a lot of Books

Often when I suggest a book to friend, they’ll say “Excellent, looks great! Added to my forever-growing ‘to read’ list of books 😞.” I definitely sympathize with this sentiment: there are just so many books and so little time to read them. As I’m currently working my way through lots of books, I thought I’d offer some unsolicited advice on how to read a lot of books.

The first and most important thing is consistency. Find a rhythm for reading that works for you and stick to it as best you can. Plan to read every day, even if it’s only for ten minutes. Ten minutes of reading every day is a lot more than zero minutes of reading, nevery day.

If you have a commute involving public transit, that’s a great time to fit reading into your day. My commute is pretty short each day, but the time adds up. When I used to work from home I’d set aside cool-down time after work ended but before I started my evening, giving me a kind of reading commute instead.

I consider myself to be a pretty slow reader, so consistency has been the key for me. Slow and steady finishes books.

The second suggestion is to find a good reading environment, the place where you read. I find reading requires a lot of focus, so I try to read in places where I won’t be distracted. That can be almost anywhere for me, but there are things which intrude my concentration.

Phones and computers are a huge distraction. Every notification or badge or buzz destroys my focus and makes reading much, much harder. So, keeping my phone away (or off) is really helpful here. I tend to read paper books for many reasons, but one is they lack any inherent distractions!

Television is my ultimate focus destroyer. I find it nearly impossible to read (or write!) when there’s a tv on anywhere in my home. Interestingly, a crowded subway is a much easier reading environment than a home with a television on. I think it’s because tv is designed to grab your attention at all costs, and it’s very good at this. If you’re trying to read while somebody else is watching tv, try playing some music to drown it out (jazz works well for me) or even better, invite the tv watcher to join you in silent reading!

My final reading suggestion is to stay motivated about reading. This can come in many flavours, but here are the three things I do:

One, I keep a spreadsheet of all books I’ve read, with a little bit of info and a review about each of them. This helps me see my progress in getting through books, and lets me glance back at any notes or thoughts I may have had while reading. You definitely don’t have to do this, especially if it feels like work to you, but I find it’s a useful way to keep me going.

Two, get excited for your next book. Whenever I read a book, I find it motivating to think about the book I’ll read after this one. That gives me something to look forward to and it helps me finish my current book. You don’t have to have a concrete ordered list of all books you’ll ever read, but it helps to plan one ahead, one you can’t wait to get started. If your current book is a slog, this will help (and if it’s too much of a drag, maybe stop reading it?).

Three, go to a bookstore often. Nothing in the world makes me want to read more books than walking around a bookstore. You don’t have to buy a book every time (though often I do…), but I find just being around a bunch of books and book lovers really makes me want to read all the time. Seeing the books, picking some out, walking around different sections, etc. Amazon is great for many reasons, but it’s an entirely different experience than walking around a physical store.

These are my main suggestions on how to read more. It can seem like an uphill battle at times, but the more you read, the easier it gets. As they say, the journey of a thousand books begins with a single page.

Arguing on the Internet

I want to talk about something I’ve been noticing in how people converse online, in particular publicly in networks like Twitter and Slack. A lot of this conversation seems to be argumentative, which misses a great opportunity to grow understanding in communities.

By “arguing” I don’t really mean people having shouting matches or otherwise having heated or nasty conversations, I mean the literal sense of the word, having a reasoned, rational, and relatively polite debate. Most of this applies equally to the nastier version of arguing most of us think about on Twitter, but I’m going to give the benefit of the doubt and talk about the kind of arguing that happens at best on Twitter and Slack.

What I notice goes something like this: Somebody will make a statement, then one or more somebody elses will reply to that statement, agreeing or disagreeing, with reasons supporting their stance. Again, it often ends up meaner and less reasoned online, but I’m talking about the best case.

As far as debating goes, this is pretty run of the mill. But the problem is lots of subtly gets left behind. When all you’re trying to do in a reply is try to prove or disprove a statement, you ignore the nuance of what’s being said, and you don’t allow any of it to enter your worldview. There is no space for “Oh, that’s interesting! How does that relate to…” there’s really only room for “I disagree, here’s why…”

But it’s hard to fit that kind nuance into a Twitter discussion. And while Slack lets you type long messages, the flow of Slack often doesn’t leave time for contemplation (at least not in a group setting). It’s not impossible on these networks, but these media really don’t want you thinking about the subtleties. So while possible, it’s not common.

A lot of what I publish here isn’t so much to be right or wrong, isn’t so much to prove a point, but instead it’s a way for me to share something I’m thinking about so that you, reader, can see a potentially different vantage point. You may disagree with some (or all!) of it, but I hope disagreeing with it doesn’t mean you ignore everything I say.

Nuance

For most of my life I’ve tried to have discerning ears and critical eyes about what I read, hear, and learn. It’s not that I’ve just taken everything at face value and believed it all. But I think in recent years I’ve started to approach what I read or hear with more nuance. Essentially I’ve started to really internalize that there usually isn’t such a thing as “the whole picture” when learning something, or as a “correct answer” when trying to figure something out. There’s no perfect political view, and there are no silver bullets.

What they teach you in school, for example, is often slightly or entirely incorrect. But even when what they teach is entirely accurate, it still leaves out different points of view, different histories, because there just isn’t enough time to delve into everything.

At their best, schools have to make value judgements about what’s most important to be taught. Unfortunately, this usually doesn’t include teaching the fact I just described, “Hey kids, this isn’t the full story, you should know that.”

I think the idea “this isn’t the full story” is a big one for me, because I’ve started to internalize there really isn’t a full story in the first place. But there are so many details we ignore if we assert to ourselves we know everything about a topic.


See also Bret Victor’s “Reading Tip #1” in his 2013 reading list.

Answers and the Meta Process

I was having a conversation with a co-worker recently where we talked about work processes, and how we don’t have all the answers figured out yet, but that we hope to find them soon. That got me thinking as to what we consider an “answer” for how we work. I’ll use the example of code review at my software development job, but this should apply, in the abstract, to any kind of thing you do at work.

Our “answer” to code review is to follow a set of steps on how to do it. This is our code review process, where we do one thing after another until the code review is done, and it works pretty well. But while the steps are easy to follow, this answer, like most answers, isn’t perfect. In particular, it has no mechanism to change itself.

But what if we get a little bit meta on our problem and say “the answer to the problem of code review isn’t so much ‘what are the steps to do code review’ but instead, by which process do we decide those steps in the first place?” Now it becomes much more interesting.

So the “answer” to code review becomes a process for finding out how to do code review. Instead of just being an unchanging set of steps, the “answer” now becomes a method for figuring out those best steps.

Day to day, this probably looks exactly how it did before we changed our point of view on it. But with this new perspective, we’re able to evolve how we do things as we go along.

This meta perspective isn’t just useful for code review, or just for job related things, but I think can be applied anywhere you need an “answer” for something. Instead of treating the answer as a finite thing, treat the answer as a process for finding answers (and go as meta as you please).

Some countries use this technique for their governments. The United States decided the answer to tyranny isn’t really a specific person or law, but instead a process for avoiding tyranny called democracy. On the surface, democracy seems similar to code review: a set of steps you follow (voting) to achieve an outcome (leaders). But democracy also includes the process by which the leaders lead by an evolving system of law, among other things.

The idea of answers as an evolving process itself isn’t definitive, and not a solution for everything. But it may be a useful tool for your cognitive tool belt.

Redefining What Success Means for a Blog

When I started this website in 2010, I knew what a successful blog was. It was a blog with thousands of subscribers, and ideally, enough ad revenue to “take the site fulltime” and be paid to blog all day. It wouldn’t hurt if you participated in a community with other bloggers, too.

That was a great definition of a successful blog in 2010 and I think it’s still a great definition in 2016, too. But damn is it hard to achieve. By that metric, I can really only think of a few select sites which should be considered successful. That’s kind of funny, isn’t it?

Let’s consider alternatives.

The biggest metric of success for me hasn’t been subscriber count (which is easy to say because I have a small subscriber count anyway), but more the quality of the people who subscribe. Specifically, I find the people who tell me “hey I love your blog” or “that post your wrote last week really spoke to me,” not only are those wonderful things to hear, but they also tend to come from people I respect tremendously.

So, one form of success: few, but highly respected people read my stuff > oodles of people I don’t really know read my stuff. (True, they’re not mutually exclusive, but if I had to pick one, I’d pick the first any day).

Another definition of success is longevity. I’ve been running this site since 2010 and it’s quite remarkable to be able to refer to 6 years of my public writing on the internet. I’ve had my ups and downs in terms of quality, but this is one of the few projects I’ve stuck at for this long. The posts may not make me money, but they’re a public outcrop of some of my thoughts, linkable for all to read.

The final definition is kind of a mix of the two: I feel a major success whenever anyone refers to my posts. I don’t just mean normal links from other blogs (although those are of course great), but when somebody refers to one of my posts to help them understand or reason about something. When somebody points to my post and says “this! this is what I’ve been trying to say!” There’s pretty much no better feeling of success than having a company you’re interviewing at say “I know you’re a blogger because we refer to some of your posts in our internal wiki as part of our dev process.” How much more 😍 can you get?

There’s a lot of talk about the “death of blogs” but maybe that’s because our definition of a thriving blog requires it to make oodles of money it just can’t these days. But if we change our definition of a thriving blog, we see many are doing pretty OK! I look around at some friend-blogs, like Ash (who in large part inspired me to start writing) and Soroush (who in large part inspires me to continue writing) and theirs are doing stupendously well today. Blogs aren’t dead, we just have outdated perceptions of them.

After the Last Page

I find so much of reading a book takes place after I finish the last page. For me, someone still relatively new to reading books for pleasure, I find books really grow on me after I’m finished reading them.

Part of it is definitely letting my brain gel on the topic I’ve just read. After I’m done a book, it usually mentally goes on my back burner, but I often find myself making mental connections to what I’ve just read pretty often after I finish reading.

Ideally, I’d like to formalize this process a little better, by taking more time to reflect on the books I’m reading (among other things). I’ve never been a super thorough note-taker, but it seems like a good way to reflect on what I’m reading. (It also kinda feels like work to me, which is perhaps why I don’t take reading notes!)

But there’s value in this extra churning. Even if a book is kind of a slog to read, I’ll usually try my best to finish it, because I’ll often get more value out of these books after they’re done than while I’m reading them. It’s these extra connections, made with other books I’ve read or experiences I’ve had, which draw out the value in a book. I suspect the more books I read, the stronger this gets.

The Modern Prometheus

“What’s the number one killer, worldwide?” asks Jason Brennan, CEO and founder of Frankenstein, Inc, a stealth mode startup Speed of Light is bringing you exclusive coverage of. We’re sitting in the Geneva Lab of their Palo Alto campus, where he’s talking about his company for the first time.

“More than cancer and heart disease and malaria, the number one killer worldwide is of course death itself,” Brennan answers. “We could cure all the other diseases, but eventually humans will still die of natural causes, so why even bother curing malaria or whatever? What we’re doing is much bigger than that.” Frankenstein’s plan is kind of ingenious: users take a daily anti-death supplement to help slow, but not stop ageing. A user death will still eventually occur, but Frankenstein has a revival device which they say is extremely successful at user revival. Web services typically measure their uptime by how many “nines” of uptime they have (e.g. 99.99% is four nines). Brennan says their revival units are good for five nines of revival odds.

“My mother always told me about money, ‘you know you can’t take it with you when you go.’ Her solution was to enjoy your money and be charitable while you can,” Brennan says with a smile, “but I’d rather just not die in the first place.” Brennan said he’s doing this by following his mom’s advice, funding Frankenstein with the vast majority of his personal wealth. “But I’m still charitable; I’ve donated lots to teach kids Javascript, there are just so many jobs out there still, so what better way to help the kids.”

Brennan seems either unaware or unconcerned about the irony when asked about his startup’s namesake, “I mean everyone’s seen a Frankenstein movie, but I like to think our approach is a little more civilized.” When asked how it compares to the book, he said he “[hasn’t] read the book yet, but it’s on my list. I heard it’s written by a woman too which is good because I’m trying to read a few books by women, you know?”

Frankenstein is still in private testing for now, but plans to launch a public beta this winter in Europe. Despite their challenges, Brennan is excited. “We think the launch is going to be out of control. We think it’s going to be a runaway hit.”

Don’t Terraform Mars

Yesterday, Elon Musk unveiled SpaceX’s spectacular vision of interstellar space travel and the colonization of Mars. Their video, while dazzling, is scant on details (which as visions go, is fine), but it’s the detail at the very end of the video which leaves me unsettled: the terraforming of Mars.

I think terraforming Mars (the act of altering a planet’s climate to be similar to Earth’s, with breathable air and bodies of open water) would be a huge mistake. Yet if you look around much of the tech world, nobody is even questioning it.

SpaceX’s vision is suggesting, without displaying even a cursory amount of thought, that we should dramatically and irreversibly alter the fundamental climate dynamics on an entire other planet. Mars has plenty of water locked in ice, we just need to warm the planet up and bingo bango, we’ll have lots of liquid water to splash around in.

This is bad for two reasons:

First, we don’t yet have a very good track record of building an advanced technical civilization that doesn’t totally ruin the environment of a planet (e.g., Earth). I’m thrilled Elon Musk works on electric cars and solar cell technology. Both technologies are necessary for an environmentally friendly technological civilization, but neither are sufficient for one. We need much more: a strong fundamental indoctrination of environment respect and preservation, new systems of government and (crucially) education to help populations thrive in new frontiers. There’s probably a lot more I can’t even think of, which brings me to…

Second: hubris. It’s incomprehensibly hubristic to think terraforming another world is a mere technological detail to be glossed over and figured out later. We can build space-faring rockets, what’s so hard about radically overhauling a climate? The hard part isn’t so much the physical alteration of a planet (we’ve managed to do that quite well on Earth, and we didn’t have to think about it!), but how to think about altering a planet. We’re not enlightened enough to deal with that, yet.

I am in full support of exploration of our Solar system. I think it’s crucial to our learning as a species, as representatives of Earth. We stand to gain so much by exploring new worlds, like where we came from, like if we have siblings among the stars. And eventually, yes, I hope that we’re ready to one day thrive on new worlds, but we have so many questions to answer first.

While we do have some international law governing what nation states can do in space:

outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means

We don’t have much precedent for companies attempting to claim ownership of celestial bodies.

What makes us entitled to the rest of the solar system? Is it ours to do with it what we please? Is it our manifest destiny? To let our capitalism, which has thus far ravaged our home planet, extend endlessly into the vastness of space, pillaging ever more worlds?

As usual, Carl Sagan implores us:

What shall we do with Mars?

There are so many examples of human misuse of the Earth that even phrasing this question chills me. If there is life on Mars, I believe we should do nothing with Mars. Mars then belongs to the Martians, even if the Martians are only microbes. The existence of an independent biology on a nearby planet is a treasure beyond assessing, and the preservation of that life must, I think, supersede any other possible use of Mars.

I don’t have answers to these questions, but we desperately need to explore them before we start fucking up other planets. They are not a technical detail to be figured out later, they are among the most important questions our species will ever ask.


Further reading:

Dear Old Friend,

Have you ever done a thing and then wince at the very thought of it basically as soon as you’ve done it and then forever? That’s basically what I do, all the time. It’s fun, you should try it.

I sent you a message a few minutes ago and in my head I was like “Oh hey I’ll just make it really short and peppy and that’ll be good.” thinking to myself how’d it’d been a long time and so I didn’t want to send you a long diatribe masking anything. I’d just be all aloof and that’d be an easy way to start a conversation.

But oooh, there’s that embarrassment creeping up on me.

The internet is so tremendously weird. It’s lovely and it’s terrifying all wrapped up into one big mess.

I wish catching up with people on the internet was more like the Dandy Warhol’s (“A long time ago, we used to be friends”.. I know the song is more about moving on, but it’s catchy and fun, whatever) and less like “I’m lonely and it’s Friday night and we used to be friends, so let’s ‘Connect’ on Facebook” bleh.

Is there a nice middle ground that doesn’t involve one person sending the other a longish message out-of-the-blue? (oops) Or that doesn’t feel like bad nostalgia? Probably not.

Anyway, I was thinking to myself lately about how I’ve really connected with exactly 5 people total, ever, in my life, where I’ve had regular, honest conversation and that’s one of my favourite things (you’re one of those people, of course).

I’m guessing there’s like a 90% chance this message is just going into a void somewhere. Or like maybe one of your distant descendants will discover one day, some kind of Indiana Jones-like character, spelunking around the internet, trying to discover relics of the ancient past and they find this. Sorry, if that’s the case.

More sincerely,

Jason

You Don’t Have to Buy an iPhone Every Year

When I was a broke university student, I used to look toward the future when I’d be a well paid software developer. I thought to myself, that’ll be great because I’ll be able to afford a new iPhone every single year! That’s what All True iOS Developers do, right? If you read the Apple blog / twitter world, that’s certainly what you’ll hear. We buy a new iPhone every year; that’s what we do.

I’ve been hearing a lot of grumbling about the impending iPhone 7 and its supposed lack of a headphone jack. John Gruber jacked off about it last week, and lots of people are talking about it. Ugh, that’s really going to suck if they get rid of it, right? What am I going to do if I can’t use my headphones?

Here’s a suggestion I can’t believe I have to make: maybe don’t buy the new iPhone? I mean, if you’re an iOS developer, presumably you’ve got a fairly recent model already… there’s no real need to buy another one, especially one you seem a little sad about.

I never ended up buying a new iPhone every year, either. So far I’ve been getting one every two years. By this logic, my iPhone 6 would be up for replacement with this year’s iPhone 7, but now we’re at the point where this two-year-old model is so good even today, I feel no need to replace it. It’s still mighty fast, has a great camera, great battery. It’s a perfectly good device; replacing it would be a waste.

And that’s the other thing, too. It’s a waste of money to get a new phone every year, but it’s also a waste of resources (do you really need 5 iPhones sitting in their boxes, collecting dust?). It’s wasteful on the environment, and I dunno, rampant consumerism just doesn’t seem like a great thing, either. I’d love to get 5+ years out of a phone, wouldn’t you?

So, if the idea of losing a headphone jack on your phone seems unappealing to you, remember that you don’t have to buy it.

Amusing Ourselves to Death

Over the weekend I re-read Neil Postman’s fantastic Amusing Ourselves to Death, which I can’t say enough good things about. Seriously, this book is about as Jasony a book as they come, and no doubt a large influence on what makes me Jasony in the first place (previous post about the book).

If you haven’t read the book (shame on you), it’s essentially about how media shape the kinds of public discourse we have (specifically politics, current affairs, and education), and how America’s shift to a predominately television-centric country diminished its ability to have serious conversations about these issues.

Postman argues public discourse in America was founded at a time of pervasive (book) literacy. The media of print entails memory: arguments can be complex and built up over pages, chapters, and volumes; the reader must take time to think, process, and remember what they’ve read; books allow us to learn the great ideas of history and of our current society. There were (and still are) plenty of junk books, but books and print supported well-argued, serious discourse as well.

Conversely, in television we find a medium of entertainment. Like print, there is much junk content on TV, which is just fine. The problem, Postman argues, is when television tries to be serious, because it fails in spectacular ways. Television is an image-centric medium, and as such it’s impossible to have complex, rational arguments for or against anything. Think about how dreadfully boring a “talking head” is on TV news, and those usually only last for a few minutes at a time!

Where print requires you to remember, television requires you to forget. Instead of long, coherent discussion, you have a series of images strewn together which are almost meaningless. In his chapter “Now…this,” Postman looks at tv news as an example of this. Most news segments last about 60 seconds, and are placed in an incomprehensible order. A devastating mass murder, now a political gaffe, now a car recall, now unrest in the middle east, now an advertisement for retirement savings. Not to mention immediately following the news is Jeopardy.

Amusing Ourselves Today

“But Jason!” I see appearing in a thought bubble over your head, “the book was published in 1985, when television was the media in America, but these days its been displayed by app phones and the Web. Is this book still relevant in 2016?” Absolutely, unequivocally, yes.

The good news is, some software allows for interactivity and personal agency. Through email, blogs, and forums (i.e., written word), we can have complex, well-reasoned discourse (I said can). We can even improve some of the shortcomings of the printed word, by pulling in various sources via links, by including images and interactive, responsive diagrams and graphics, and by collaborating with many people around the world.

Software does not require us to sit quietly, mouth agape, awaiting amusement. But today’s software does ask us to do so, relentlessly.

Much of what we do with app phones is largely incoherent. I’ll read an email from a friend, now I’ll check twitter, now I’ll check Instagram, now I’ll write some code. And too often, even just within one of these apps it’s all incoherent. First, remember that for the overwhelmingly large majority of software users, today’s social software is “what you do” with a computer or phone; Facebook is the computing experience for many people. And within an app like Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, you have a series of things strewn together in a “feed.” An article about Donald Trump, now your cousin’s baby’s 2nd birthday, now (lol) a video of this goat who faints when its scared, now hey cool an ad for Chipotle.

Or take Instagram for example. True, you’re consistently getting images, but that’s about it. There’s no space for discourse on Instagram. Image dominates, and the strongest message you can really send is a “like.” There is literally little space for discussion, and the discussion is largely irrelevant anyway. Instagram shows, it does not discuss.

Books and Beyond

My interpretation of Amusing Ourselves to Death is its thesis goes beyond books and television, and again focuses more on how media relate to discourse. It’s not to say that the printed word is some kind of ultimate medium for discourse, just that it’s presently much, much better at it than is television (and I think, most of our software, too). There’s nothing wrong with media that entertain us, the problem is when a medium only entertains us and is incapable of having cogent conversations about anything else.

That problem is just as important today as it was 30 years ago.

The Lost Art of Instant Messaging

All throughout middle school, high school, and much of university, MSN Messenger was the place for me and my friends to socialize online (if you’re my age but grew up in America, chances are you can replace MSN with AIM). MSN was an instant messaging system. You had a contact list, online / away / busy / etc statuses (with custom status messages), and usually had one-to-one chats (although you could have multiple people, too).

You knew your friends were available to chat because they had their status indicated. An “online” status meant there was a good bet if you messaged them, you’d get a response rather quickly. “Away” meant they were logged in, but probably not at their computer. “Busy” meant they were present, but didn’t really want to be disturbed. These weren’t hard and fast rules (someone could appear to be any status, but still be present anyway, and vice versa), but you generally felt a sense of presence with your contacts. You at least knew what to expect, generally, when you messaged somebody.

These days, it seems like Instant Messaging, as a concept, has largely vanished. In its place we have things like iMessage and texting (I’ll admit, I don’t have a Facebook Messenger account. Do a lot of people use this?), but we lose a lot with them. Sure, iMessage means you can send a message whenever, but you also lose the feeling of presence you got with IM.

Because there’s no concept of “online” or “away” (etc), you have no idea if the other person is available to chat at the moment. Where IM chats often felt engaging while both people were online, iMessage “conversations” feel sporadic, like a slow trickle of words back and forth. Sure, sometimes you do have bouts of back and forth messaging with iMessage, but more often than not a message is a shot in the dark (consider how gauche it is to text somebody “brb” or “gtg"). The expectation is the conversation never really ends, but in fact, it never really starts, either.

And who knows, maybe this is just me. Maybe everybody uses Facebook Messenger, or maybe everyone else just has more engaging friends they text or iMessage. I use Google Chat and literally IM with two people ever, these days. But I really miss having nice long conversations with my friends.

What about you? Do you have engaging conversations over iMessage / texting? Does everyone just use Facebook Messenger (or another IM service)? Or is it really a lost art?

Sorry Not Sorry

“You’re Canadian? You don’t have much of an accent” people tell me when they find out I’m Canadian. It’s true, I’m from New Brunswick, Canada, but I’ve never had much of an East Coast accent, and much of it has faded since I moved away from home a few years ago. I never really minded in the early years because I was a little embarrassed by it (my home region is generally considered a little backwards by the rest of Canada), but lately I feel like I’m losing a little bit of my identity because of it.

There are many telltale signs of a New Brunswick / East Coast accent. The big tell are our hard Rs (“are are harrd Rs”), though that’s common to most of the region (I correctly identified Kirby Ferguson of Everything is a Remix as an East Coaster on his hard Rs, alone). More specific to New Brunswick is our unmistakable lexicon, like “right” (pronounced “rate") to mean “very” (“it’s right cold outside”), “some” to mean “quite” (“it’s some busy at the mall”), “ugly” to mean “mad” (“she was some ugly when she heard the news, let me tell ya”). We drop suffixes (“really badly” becomes “real bad”), too. And I’m pretty sure we invented the “as fuck” intensifier (“it’s cold as fuck right now,” “I’m tired as fuck”) long before the internet caught on to it.

I took a linguistics class in university (which I highly recommend, by the way), and we learned about language extinction, that many languages are disappearing and we’re left with less and less as time goes on. I asked my teacher why this was a bad thing, but I kind of got a funny look (I meant the question genuinely, not in a rhetorical or smarmy way; at the time I didn’t really understand why a lack of diversity in language was so bad). I think I understand the general sentiment a little better now.

Since moving away from home, I’ve definitely lost much of what I had of an accent. When you’re not surrounded by speakers of your dialect, it’s feels weird using words or sounds you know will stand out to people you talk to. My Rs have softened, my “eh"s have disappeared, and even the most quintessential Canadian word has changed: my “sorry” has gone from the Canadian “soar-y” to the American “sar-y.”

It’s a weird kind of identity crisis to either sound normal to yourself, but weird to those around you or to sound weird to yourself but normal to those around you. But I’m trying to reverse course by calling it out (and by watching copious Trailer Park Boys). Though the sound of the word might change, I’ll at least always say “sorry” when I bump in to somebody—that Canadian part of me will never fade.

Mass Consumption and our Sense of Meaning

How odd is the juxtaposition between our mass consumption culture and the meaning of our lives? On the one hand, mass consumption gives us a perspective of the unlimited: there’s always more to consume, it’ll always be there, it’ll always replenish. On the other hand, our lives are inherently finite: you only get one childhood, you always figure out life too late, youth is wasted on the young, you’re going to die someday.

It’s kind of distressing to think about. Mass consumerism asks us to buy in (literally and figuratively) to the idea of limitlessness. It asks us to ignore, to not even think about, the fact that our lives are not at all limitless. There will be a new iPhone every year, the grocery store shelves will always be restocked, but I’m 27 years old and my childhood is long over and I’m never going to get another one.

Maybe it’s more comforting to think in the consumption mindset, that there will always be another book, another tv show to watch on Netflix, another hamburger to eat at McDonalds, a longer infinite list to scroll through. But it’s also really dissatisfying how little that lines up with my life, how much, in fact, it denies what my life is like. Consumerism doesn’t give me a frame of reference to make sense of my life, to understand what it means to age or to have a finite set of choices (and I bet looking at life as “a finite set of choices” only makes sense as a perspective because of consumption culture; we probably wouldn’t look at life as being limited without mass consumption as our default way of looking at the world).

I’m sure this is well covered in philosophy and I’m certainly not suggesting I’m the first person to think of, just that, jeez this sort of thing has been hitting me hard lately and I don’t know how to make sense of it.

Aliens

I wanted to expand a little bit on a tweet I made the other day about aliens in science fiction movies. There’s an opportunity in these movies to explore western society’s fears about immigration amongst Earth’s peoples (immigrants referred to as aliens), but most movies don’t seem to do this.

Most movies about aliens see them as invaders and earthlings as the heroes, defending the homeland. My friend Brian pointed out to me these movies (and fears) aren’t about immigration but colonialism. The aliens aren’t looking to join us, they’re looking to conquer us. It’s a great point, and I think it matches up with fears many people hold about immigration, but I think it’s weak of screenwriters to pander to these fears instead of exploring them.

Science fiction is a lens we use to see ourselves and our current world, it’s a way to extrapolate and play “what if?” and see more sides to our lives than we currently see today. In stories like A Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty Four, fears of oppression through technology were explored, not celebrated.

But in many of today’s alien-related movies, the fears of being taken over by aliens are reinforced, not examined. We’ve got our guns and we’re the heroes, nobody’s gonna take our land from us, we say. Why don’t we have more movies where oh, I don’t know, the aliens aren’t invaders but are refugees? Or where the hero says “Wait, hold on, are we sure they’re actually invading? Shouldn’t we learn from them before we start blowing them up?” Whether or not people really do think immigrants are invaders looking to oppress us, it’s cowardly for alien films to not examine this.

There are a few good examples, though. District 9 is particularly on the nose about aliens with a refugee status; there are humans who see those aliens as invaders, but those humans are portrayed as villains. E.T. has aliens not as invaders or as refugees, but as explorers who wish to learn. True, E.T. is a visitor, but he’s also explicitly not an invader. Despite naming the titular alien a “xeno-morph,” the movie Alien is a lot more about sexual predation than it is about invasion (the face-huggers and chest-bursters are not so subtle allusions to rape and its unwanted consequences). I’ve heard good things about Alien Nation about immigration, but I can’t personally vouch for it. And I’m sure it’s explored better in science fiction literature, too.

Immigration is a vital topic to pretty much everyone on this planet, yet fears of it are pandered to and reinforced in science fiction movies all the time.


PS: Yeah, maybe actual contact with actual extra terrestrials wouldn’t go so hot. They’d almost certainly be of vastly different intelligence, technical prowess, hell, even body chemistry (microbial exchanges alone could easily destroy us). They may not be violent invaders (that’s probably a reflection on our own evolution and history than it is on theirs), but they’d definitely have arisen from some form of natural selection, originally. But movies with “alien invasions” are hardly about presenting scientific reality, and that’s OK. An alien movie where they come here and we all get alienpox and die probably isn’t telling a very good story.

PS: Yeah, it’s also problematic to have actual aliens represent humans from different countries. Showing them as wholly different, often monstrously so, reinforces views that “aliens are other” which doesn’t help anybody.

Reclaiming #NotAllMen

Today the phrase “Not All Men” (often #NotAllMen) represents something pretty terrible. When feminists speak on the internet about the patriarchy, inevitably dudes will butt in with the phrase “Not all men!” to say, “Not all men are rapists!” “Not all men wish for inequality!” etc. I won’t go into all the details of why this is problematic because many better essays have already been written, like this one or that one.

But I’d like to reclaim this expression. I want “Not all men” to mean “I don’t want this thing to only have men.” For example, the programming team I work on currently has no female developers, so I want this team to be Not All Men, but include women (and people of any gender, too.)

I want casts of movies and TV shows to be Not All Men. I want people I see at conferences to be Not All Men. I want the CEOs and people in the news to be Not All Men.

To be clear, I know there are many women (and people of all genders) currently working very hard to achieve these goals, and I support that in every way. By reclaiming this phrase, I hope we can reinforce and help what’s currently being done. I hope the phrase can act as a reminder to us all that until we see teams of Not All Men out in the world, there’s still work for all of us to be done.

Social Media Cheesecake

I’ve been thinking more about the phenomena of social media, popularity, and expectations and I’ve thought of a new metaphor:

I’ve made a cheesecake, and I’m not a professional chef, but I’ve worked really hard on this one and I’d really love to share it with everyone, because everyone loves cheesecake. But nobody wants it, because they’re stuffed from all the other cheesecake (and pies and puddings) they eat all day, everywhere.

So of course this makes me sad. I worked hard on my desert and I think it turned out great. But social media is a potluck with way too much food. And even though you’ll only really connect with people sitting directly beside and across from you, it’s a potluck you simply must attend, because there’s so much good chow.