Lessons from the Group Chat: Statuses

A few months ago, my iMessage group chat between myself, my wife, and our good friend Jasdev Singh, was lamenting the absence of user “status” in iMessage. Sometimes you want to let the group know where you’re at, be it physically, emotionally, or mentally, but without necessarily needing to describe it in ongoing messages.

This is something previous generations of IM tools like MSN or AIM had, but modern chat tools largely lack. Alas, this generation is largely lacking the concept of status / away messages entirely. And since iMessage is not user-extensible, we’re mostly out of luck.

Thankfully, this group chat of ours doesn’t shy away from getting meta about the chat itself — we’re no stranger to regularly discussing issues like these while we try to evolve the chat itself. One small way we’ve traditionally played with this is by routinely updating the name of the chat when the mood (or humour) requires it.

This, coupled with the design idea of prototyping / “fake it till you make it” prompted me to try something: what if we put our status in the group chat name? For example, we’ll typically call our chat something like “toasty eeps (Jasdev: Day-long allergy shots round ✌🏽, Kate: “Can you do it?!”, Jason: JAYCATION).” Here we’ve got the name of the chat, followed by individual “statuses” (which are sometimes words or sometimes just emoji). It turns out, this is quite effective! In some ways, it feels a bit like drawing with shit crayons — desperately eking out what meagre bits we can out of Apple’s rigourous control — but it does work.

Now we can ambiently let each other know what we’re up to. It’s far from ideal, but that’s the current status.

Speed of Light

How to Read a Flood

As it does most years around this time, my hometown’s (Fredericton, New Brunswick) Saint John River has flooded its banks, causing some streets to close and leaving general traffic mayhem in its wake. While watching the chaos, I realized it might make for an interesting project for children to explore and learn about. In doing so, they could learn to think in systems of all kinds, from natural systems like waterways and seasons, to human-made systems like urban planning and colonialism. These sorts of systems, and these ways of thinking, are grounded in the world of the child and prepare them to think in powerful ways they’ll find useful throughout their lives.

Here are some things a classroom could do:

Ask the class: who was affected by the flood? Students who take the bus? Who get driven to school? Who walk or bike?

What happens to the city when the river floods? What roads are closed? What happens when those roads close? (Traffic backs up big time; many years there is traffic all the way up the city’s main hill!) How essential are those roads that were closed? All kinds of urban planning questions could be raised and explored here.

What caused the river to flood? Here’s an opportunity to talk about the seasons, snow / ice melt, and how natural systems interact with human / city systems.

It’s also an opportunity to talk about the city of Fredericton’s geography (it’s a river valley city). Why is Fredericton built as a river valley city? (how was it colonized by Europeans? why did they establish it on the river? were there indigenous settlements here before the Europeans came?). This is also a chance to discuss why Archie comics are so relatable to people in North America (there are so many “River Dale” cities, like ours!)

How does flood time compare to other events where streets are closed? (like a parade or when the Prime Minister visits) How does advanced notice help prepare? (and how do you let the city know about it?)

Finally, you could use the flood as a jumping off point for thinking about what kinds of tools you might use to think about a flood. You can look at it from a city planning perspective, with paper maps, rulers, etc. What do the maps show? What do the maps ignore? Are there different kinds of maps? How would you apply what you learn to other cities that have different layouts or geography? How might you deal with the flood differently? How might you prepare for it? What kinds of tools let you think about cities abstractly?

Fredericton’s annual flood is a concrete event that’s happening in the students’s city, in the place they’re familiar with, and it’s something that can prompt questions and get them to think about bigger pictures.

Compare this to the way maths (or worse, computers) are taught today: entirely abstract and detached reality, devoid of meaning and to most kids, utility. None of the things I discussed really require a computer, but it’s interesting to consider how you might explore those questions with the aid of a computer (and if such a computer doesn’t exist, what’s your wildest fantasy for what such a computer might look like that does?).

See also Doreen Nelson’s City Building / Design Based Education which probably does stuff like this and much more.

Anyway, happy flooding Freddy Beach!

Books Break the Shackles of Time

What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.

Carl Sagan, Cosmos.

Less Than Thirty Seconds

“Next please; Suivant s’il vous plaît. Hello; Bonjour.”

“Uh, good afternoon.”

“Where are you coming from?”

“Uh, New York. Job interview.”

“Where are you going?”

“Uh, home? Fredericton.”

“Here you go. Welcome back.”

There Is a Mall

There is a Mall. It is owned by a company, but its doors are open to the public. It calls itself a town square. But it is a mall. It is owned by a company.

There are stores in this mall, where people can shop. There are chairs and benches in this mall, where people can talk.

There are nice people in this mall. There are mean people in this mall. There are Nazis in this mall, and racists, and sexists, and homophobes, too. There are more nice people than mean people, but the mean people are much, much louder in this mall. The nice people feel threatened in this mall.

From time to time an announcement comes over the PA system in the mall. It’s the mall owners. They say, “How can we make this mall better?” to which all the nice people cry out, “Kick out the mean people! the Nazis, the racists, the sexists, the homophobes too! They make us feel scared.”

Undeterred, the mall owners will reply over the PA system “We want to make the conversations in this mall healthier. We think the problem is the chairs and the benches are just not comfortable enough. We will be installing new chairs and new benches so you can have better conversations. Perhaps we’ll also fix the lights and the front door. Thank you for your input, we value your opinions.”

Hundreds of news articles are written about the coming improvements to the mall, breathlessly reporting about the upholstery of the new chairs, of the seating capacity of the new benches.

The man who owns the mall puts down the newspaper, proudly reflecting on a good day’s work. He sleeps eight hours that night, same as he does every night.


Outside, airplanes appear rather graceful, glimmering and gliding through the air. Sleek metal birds. But their insides betray this grace. Inside, they’re endlessly noisy. This rattles, that trembles, these hiss. Metals clink and clank. Outside, the wings wobble and roar while exhaust farts behind us and stains the sky.

~ ~ ~

This morning, while waiting to board my flight at an NY airport, I was saddened to see two Port Authority police officers (and later, a third) confront a man, white, fifties, who was at the gate filming out the window.

They asked him for his ID, his name, his travel agenda, and of course, why he dared film the airplanes? The man said he’s a video producer and he does it as a hobby. They asked to see his phone and his camera.

You see, they explained in gentle tones, that it’s suspicious to film in an airport and that of course it’s their duty to investigate, you understand, of course. While they did not speak forcefully, I refuse to describe them as “polite.” You can’t gang up on a man, as a trio of armed officers politely. It’s incompatible with politeness.

It’s so astonishingly sad that someone filming airplanes is considered suspicious, because that logic doesn’t hold up against the simplest of scrutiny. It’s action movie logic.

The officers, after taking notes, eventually told the man to “have a nice day” and left him alone. He didn’t appear obviously, outwardly distressed, but I could see that he was. This rattled, that trembled. He zipped up his bags before disappearing, if I had to guess, to go throw up in a garbage can from the stress.

~ ~ ~

Birds on the other hand are graceful, from what I can tell. No bird need roar in flight. No bird need shitstain the sky while it flaps, flutters, and glides. But maybe it does hiss and clank and rattle inside a bird. Does it gurgle? does the heart drum like thunder?

What It’s Like to Live in 2018

I’ve been trying to write this post the whole year, and it’s not so much a “year in review” post as it is one that I just ran out of days to write about 2018 so here we are.

The intention of this post, as its title suggests, is to write about what it feels like to be alive in this the year of our lord (Ariana Grande) 2018. To the reader of the future, be it me or be it you, I want to try to express what the mindset of one white Canadian man was, one who lived away, who lived at home, who tried, failed, failed, and finally succeeded at becoming a temporary immigrant (“the Resident Alien”) in the United States.

There are certain things I, the writer, know today that you, the future reader, may not know. The events of this year are fresh in my mind, but they haven’t all become history yet, because the histories just haven’t been written. And who writes them will determine, in part, how you, reader, get to learn about what this year was like. If for example Trumpism and the rampant gutting of the US’s government continue, it’s likely the history books will look favourably upon 2018 as a year of triumph. They shouldn’t. We know there is at least one major investigation going on into Trump’s campaign (“the Mueller Investigation”) but we don’t yet know what it’ll reveal nor do we know if it will matter in the end. It should.

On the other hand, you the future reader will undoubtedly know many things about this year that I just don’t — just can’t yet know. 2019 and years beyond will certainly reveal new truths about this time, leaks of secret meetings, revelations of wrongdoings, and so on. You might even one day have the benefits of clarity. You’ll likely have some kind of view point on this year and this era, some whole (or at least whole-er) perspective on what the living fuck was happening in the world, that I just am not yet privy to.

You may wonder, how did we let this all happen? How did a nation allow itself to be so blatantly abused? How did the rich profit so much? How did a president condone tearing nursing babies from their mothers’ breast? and how did a government not condemn its leader?

I’m hopeful you have more answers than me.

This year has felt like an eternity, somewhere between a slow drip and water torture. It’s been a year of violence — not just of war, shootings, and hate crimes, but psychological violence too. The deluge of scandal, the festering undertow of nastiness and spite, the abstraction of people into “illegals” and “resident aliens” and “caravans,” is a baseball bat to the mind. It shatters our ability to care, to make sense, to object. It is beyond numbing, it is pulverizing.


I try. I think we all do.

It’s 2018 and we’re doing the damn best we can do, those of us lucky enough to do so. In 2018 it’s a struggle, but we’re learning how to be resilient. We’re learning, slowly, how to be less cynical. We’re learning. And we’re coming. (And, those of us who can, are voting).

Research Notes: Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World

I’m in the midst of a mini design project for Beach that’s involved me taking some notes from Carl Sagan’s wonderful book The Demon Haunted World.

I’m always curious how other people do their research work so I thought I’d share a tiny bit of how I do mine. They’re available here as a pdf.

My process is ever-evolving (and unfortunately, largely self-taught too), but I think this is a neat snapshot of a day-in-the-life of working on Beach.

(ps: it’s a fantastic book and you should read it)

1000 Books, Year 4

Happy November 14 everyone! What’s everyone doing to celebrate the big day?

For those who don’t know, November 14 is the yearly anniversary of me starting my reading challenge that I began a few years ago:

[To] 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).

This year was quite a wild ride for me in far more ways than I can or will describe in this blog post, but as a summary I:

  • read 32 books!
  • crossed the 10% mark! (Star Wars: Aftermath was the hundredth book, lol)
  • basically discovered fiction for the first time in my life.
  • read too many books in airports.
  • cried multiple times while reading (and not reading) on the subway.

Anyway, here are the books Jason loved, hated, and overall read in Year 4 of his reading quest!

  • Mindstorms, by Seymour Papert.

This was the first book I read when I began my reading challenge in 2014 and this year seemed like a great time to revisit it. Since I’m a different person every time I read a book, it was a neat experience reflecting on how I’d changed since I’d last read it.

Mindstorms remains a remarkable book which you should (re-)read if you haven’t. Don’t get distracted by how Papert talks about computers; get distracted by how Papert talks about children, learning, and powerful ideas. In our shallow, callous pop culture, it’s nice to be reminded of deep, earth shaking ideas and an unfaltering belief in the potential of children.

  • Seconds, by Bryan Lee O’Malley.

Oh my god was it less than a year ago that I read this??

  • Speaking Out Louder, by Jack Layton.

Layton is probably Canada’s best Prime Minister who never got to be Prime Minister. This book, written before his untimely death, discusses big ideas for Canada and Canadians. Practical, rational, and hopeful.

  • Visual Intelligence, by David Hoffman.

Jesus I read this in January of this year?

  • Dear Data, by Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec.

Good god it can’t be.

  • Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, by Frans de Waal.

How long was this fucking year?

  • At Home in the Universe, by Stuart Kauffman.

This book promised some pretty profound things about the underlying systems of the universe, but in my opinion spent a little too long admiring itself in the mirror rather than delivering on its ideas.

  • Slapstick, by Kurt Vonnegut.

Uproarious! Again I say, everyone should read more KV.

  • Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green.

Um. I refuse to believe I read this book in February. Nope. It was definitely ten years ago when I read this book.

  • Hunger Games: Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins.

Alright real talk: the I really enjoy the Hunger Games books. I love the narrative style, I love all the emotions Katniss goes through, I love the themes it explores, like how the rich profit off the broken backs of the poor, how opulence depends on suffering, how savage entertainment can be.

But 2018 was not the time for me to have read this book.

This book accompanied me to the US border where I was denied entry and separated from my family. This book accompanied me while I watched the US government tear children away from their parents and lock them in cages.

2018 was a year of physical, emotional, and psychological violence. And this book was a little too much for me.

  • The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger, by Stephen King.

Don’t even.

  • Cognition in the Wild, by Edwin Hutchins.

Hope you like boats!!

  • The Demon Haunted World, by Carl Sagan.

God bless the greatest invention of all time: writing, such that we may still be haunted by Carl Sagan’s words decades after he left us.

This book argues for science as the most tested and true antidote to superstition and human….all around dumbness.

  • Star Wars: Aftermath, by Chuck Wendig.


  • Jurassic Park, by Michael Crichton.

What I wanted: everything I liked about the movie but diving deeper into the nerdier sciency stuff.

What I got: Everything I wanted.

  • The Inconvenient Indian, by Thomas King.

Hi I’m a white Canadian who knows relatively nothing about the past + present of my country’s indigenous peoples. King’s book provided an excellent starting point for an area of my country and culture I still know shamefully too little about.

  • Snot Girl Vol 1 & 2, by Leslie Hung & Bryan Lee O’Malley.

Beautiful and brilliant and juicy and hilarious.

  • Borne, by Jeff VanderMeer.

Last year I read (but didn’t love) VanderMeer’s Annihilation and was reluctant to read more of his books, but the cover to Borne intrigued me (some sort of sentient plant-baby that grows and learns?? hell yes). It was kind of a blast to read even if my original guess as to what it was about was way off.

It’s hard not to love the plant-baby tho.

  • Ramshackle, by Alison McCreesh.

Ugh really was this really 2018?

  • Star Wars: Aftermath 2, by Chuck Wendig.

Having never really read Star Wars books until this summer, I had fun with these two. But it’s made me realize: the universe of Star Wars only really makes sense in movies and doesn’t really translate super well to books.

I think books demand a little more coherence than do movies. In a movie, it’s more or less acceptable to have a “big bad evil government that does bad” and you can suspend disbelief without too much trouble. But in a book? Well, there’s gotta be backstory, there’s gotta be motivation, there’s gotta be more thought to what’s going on. And suddenly, Star Wars kinda falls apart a bit.

But hey, it was still a fun read and couldn’t we all use some more fun reads in our lives?

  • I Contain Multitudes, by Ed Yong.

You contain anecdotes.

  • Unflattening, by Nick Sousanis.

Loved this book! Felt like a spiritual successor to Understanding Comics and again reminds me how much unfulfilled potential the comic format has as a tool for explanation.

  • A Man Without a Country, by Kurt Vonnegut.

Re-read this bad boy on an airplane and christ it’s like jet fuel for your rational brain.

  • Alone Together, by Sherry Turkle.

Sherry gets me.

  • Scale, by Geoffrey West.

This was a good book that needed to be scaled to ¾ its actual size.

  • Authority, by Jeff VanderMeer.

Way better than Annihilation.

  • Creative Selection, by Ken Kocienda.

  • Reincarnation Blues, by Michael Poore.

My favourite book of the year, easily. It tells the story of Milo, a man who is given 10000 lives in which to attain “perfection.” It details in many heartwarming, sometimes sad, and always hilarious ways, he lives and dies.

A line in the book made me cry on the subway, so much I had to put the book away.

Then I re-read the line a few minutes later and damnit I cried all over again.

This book made me think about life and death in ways I hadn’t before. Some new things clicked for me. It made me think about time in new ways too. I can’t tell if I’m living my first or my last life, but I’m definitely living one hell of one.

Do you ever get that giddy feeling when you meet someone new who you just really click with? And you think, wow, this person is just fascinating! All you want to do is just hear more.

And then, oh fuck, they go and say something really awful and you cringe, and you think “No! I wanted you to have not said that, I wanted you to be better than that!” Do you know this feeling?

There were moments in this book when I felt like that. I loved this book, mostly, but there’s a chapter where, for no real reason! there’s the trope where a female character makes a false rape accusation against our male protagonist. And then he goes to jail and he suffers in all kinds of terrible ways. And frankly that’s just garbage. It’s a bad trope and it needs to die and I was so upset to read that in this book. I felt hurt by it, I felt like the book betrayed me.

Anyway, read the book, or don’t. I’d understand either way. But suffice it to say, it was a wild ride for me.

  • Here, by Richard McGuire.

Here’s another non-linear story about time, this one told by a graphic novel. It’s an expanded version of McGuire’s groundbreaking comic of the same name.

What an eerie trip this book was. Reading it, seated in the corner of my own living room, wondering “what has happened in this very room over the past century? What highs and what lows? Who has cried where I’m sitting? Who had happy birthday sung to them? How many puppies and kitties have slept here? What were their names? What was here before this building? What will be centuries from now?”

And how lovely is it that it only takes a few hours to read this book and experience all that for yourself?

  • The Hand, by Frank R. Wilson.

  • Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen, by Dylan Horrocks.

  • Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire.

Story time.

It’s September 2018. I’m in Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon.

I have a friend who’s a big fan of popular education, a topic I know next to nothing about. But I figure I can find a book about it in this behemoth of a store. I remember the name of this book and its author, head to the education section to find it. I can’t find it.

To a sales clerk I say, I’m looking for this book, I’m not sure that you even have it, could you help me find it? and I show her the name.

She furrows her brow and says “Ooohhh, I know this book. This book is always hiding in the wrong places.” This book is a troublemaker, she says with her tone. This book is up to no good, she says with her eyes.

At last we find the book, this pesky book. This book that’s up to no good. And lo, this book is challenging, but rewarding. And if I’m being completely honest, which I am, it was a damn hard read that I’ll need to revisit when I’m feeling better.

  • To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, by Jenny Han.

I’m team Ms Rothschild.

Here’s to the next 881 books!

Retiring Why Not Fireworks

Quick PSA: I’m retiring my portfolio domain whynotfireworks.com, and instead have moved everything over to this current Speed of Light domain. Links on the old domain will automatically re-direct to this domain for the coming while.

So, some updated links:

Why do this? Well, I realized in the last year or so one major flaw of the “websites are on domains” system is that the more distinct domains you control, the harder it is to maintain them all forever. Since the WWW is a thoughtlessly cobbled together mess of a publishing platform, the onus is on publishers (aka site owners) to ensure domains (and thus publications) stay up. Keeping multiple domains up forever is harder (and more expensive) than keeping just 1 domain.

So, from now on I want to keep as much as possible on a single domain, this one. The old portfolio domain will redirect here for a little while, but eventually it’ll go away (“please update your links” he says to an audience that surely will not). Eventually, I’d like to turn nearthespeedoflight.com into less of a blog and more of a portfolio / homepage-of-me, but for now I’m leaving it alone.

I Am

Shocked. Amazed. Stupefied. Flummoxed. Flabbergasted. Stunned. Speechless.

Why are there so many words for this feeling?

A Ramble About the Slow Web

Sooooooooo I go back and forth about blogging. Sometimes I think, “hey I should blog all the time, every day. I should just blog about my day and stuff. And sometimes, write longer essays and whatnot, because so much of today’s writing happens in slacks or twitter and you can’t make any kind of good argument on those!”

But then again I think, hmmm, what if blogging shouldn’t exist? I kind of run with the assumption that because “blogging is dying” that means “blogging must be saved” and maybe that’s a faulty assumption. Maybe blogging was just this thing that happened for a while and that while is now passing.

Also, and this is a big also, I worry that people are inundated with stuff to read and process, and most of the time I don’t think my writing (especially the “this is what I did today” stuff) is worth adding on to those piles. We talk about The Feed but really it’s The Flood. And it’s not that I think my writing is terrible necessarily or anything, just that, I respect people’s attention (or maybe, I fear a global lack of concentration / understanding) such that I don’t want to derail it unless I have something Real Important to talk about, and usually I don’t.

There’s another possible world where I blog, but it’s a kind of lowkey affair, for those who want to check in on me from time to time (aka my friends!). And that’s a nice feeling. Or something like an online diary.

I’m constantly amazed by and enamoured with Jason Kottke, whose eponymous website has been running for nearly 20 years (and it’s his full time job). These days it’s a kind of “what Jason K finds interesting on any given day” but hey, since he’s been running the website for almost 20 years, some of it is kind of an online diary. I found myself looking at his archives for September 2001 today and it’s kind of incredible to read his feelings as the month goes by (I should say, it’s his + the world through his eyes’s feelings).

Another cool aspect of his website is he’s tagged most of his posts, so if you want to find neat stuff about maps or NYC or music or space or whatever, go wild. Years of the web at your disposal. This is kind of what my pinboard has become for me (and for anybody who stumbles across it): click on one of the tags and tumble down the rabbit hole of links I’ve grabbed on the topic.

Which reminds me of something I’ve been internally referring to as “the slow web,” the kind of stuff you find on the web that doesn’t exist in a chronological order (it doesn’t have to be “timeless” or anything, just not something that only makes sense in a timeline). In that way, it’s kind of the anti-blog, or the anti-feed (or the anti-flood). One of the defining factors of blogging or microblogging is that they happen in a chronological manner. You post with some frequency, and then others read your stuff in that order (or the reverse of that order). It means that everything has a kind of sticky nowness, you come to the blog every day to see the new stuff. In that way blogging is a lot less like a book and a lot more like a news program or a tv show or whatever. It’s mostly about now. And now is an OK time, but it’s not the only time. I’m kind of interested in writing things, or making things, that maybe you don’t read constantly. Maybe you find it and you read the whole thing and then you’re done and there’s no incentive to come back unless you want to read the whole thing again. Or maybe it’s something you come to and read a bunch of and then forget about and then one day remember for some reason you can’t quite put your finger on but you’re elated because you really enjoyed it the first time and so you start reading it again but oh boy it’s maybe kind of different this time because there’s new stuff in it. (A wiki is like that).

So anyway, a pinboard is kind of the slow web from a reader’s perspective. It’s fine to follow an RSS feed of it to keep up with what somebody else bookmarks, but there’s also this whole other mode of reading a given tag at random, and doing that doesn’t really depend on time, doesn’t depend on “keeping up on it” or anything like that.

So anyway, that’s what’s on my mind today. I don’t know what to make of it (figuratively or literally). Probably nothing for a while.

Estate Auction Belongings

Last night my mother asked me if I’d like to join her at an estate auction. Neither of us had ever been before, nor was there anything in particular we were looking to buy, but it seemed like something fun to check out.

We arrived about a half hour before the auction began, so as to get a chance to see all the things on sale. Us and probably a hundred others. It was so strange stepping back and witnessing it all. All of us pouring and pawing over somebody’s old furniture and trinkets. So densely packed were the people and belongings, it was hard to navigate. We were ants crawling over a picnic basket.

We took our seats as the auction began. Having never attended a real one in person, I was curious if the auctioneer was going to sound like those on tv and in movies, or if it would be a more low key affair. He turned out to be a bit of both, like a fast motion WestJet flight attendant (or for those who haven’t flown WestJet: a little mix of playful, sarcastic, and coy).

I like to think of myself as someone quite self aware of when I’m being sold something. I like to stay conscious of how businesses don’t operate out of the kindness of their heart (eg a sale is not a deal unless you were already planning to buy it anyway), I try to recognize when something is a scam, etc. Yet, sitting here in this auction of mostly old furniture, I couldn’t help but think “Oh wow, that really is a good deal” and “Hmmm, well maybe I should place a bid of that” and so on. Of course, this is kind of the point of attending auctions in the first place, so no wonder! but it’s the fact I was trying to avoid that urge and yet the auction made me feel it anyway — very effective.

But my mind kept running back to us all pawing over the old belongings and how strange it felt. What’s strange to me about the auction wasn’t that people were trifling through some dead person’s stuff, it was that that stuff is now separated from the dead person. It’s kind of out of context now and you just see this room full of no-longer-belongings. A lot of objects that kind of make sense when they’re in a house and tended to by a person, but how strange to see all a person’s belongings strewn out in front of all to see, where they don’t belong?

Things I’d Like to Do But That I Don’t Have Time to Do

  • Learn to draw
  • Learn 3D modelling and shading
  • Read 50-60 books per year
  • Scan all of my childhood drawings and scribblings that I have in my possession
  • Blog every day
  • Write a book about Dynamicland
  • Make a video game
  • At least finish playing some video games

My Recent Depression

This post might be a bit of a personal ramble because I don’t quite know how to say what I want to say, but I want to say it anyway. I’ve been going through a bit of depression lately and it’s been weighing on me quite a bit. I like to use my blog as a way to think out loud, so I figured I’d take a crack at writing about what I’ve been going through.

Aside from the culturally shared things to be depressed about this year (e.g., the monsters in the US government and the adult voting population who elected them), I’ve personally had a hard time with my move to Ottawa. I miss my old home much more than I anticipated, and feel out of place here (it’s especially weird to be back in my home country but not really feel home).

My friends here, both new and old, have been nothing short of amazing. They’ve been endlessly kind, warm and welcoming. But my out-of-placeness has made me feel kind of withdrawn and lonely, and I feel like I’ve been a bad friend because of it. The irony of this situation is not lost on me.

Lately, everything just feels hard. The days are short and lately, extremely cold (-20°C for the past week). I’ve been sick on and off for the last month. And things I normally enjoy, like reading and working on my side project Beach have become quite a struggle (which of course makes me feel guilty).

Life is far from all bad, thankfully. My partner has been incredibly supportive and helpful; she is my rock. As previously mentioned, my friends here have been so good to me too, which really does make a big difference. I’ve had lots of support from non-local friends and family, too. And I’ve done my best to hold on to the things I enjoy and not be too hard on myself when I struggle, because I know it’ll get better.

I’m looking forward to some things coming up in the Spring. The days are getting slightly longer, the cold will get warmer (…eventually…). I will, I will struggle less with reading and working on my projects as time goes on. It’ll just take time.

Anyway, I hope this was helpful for you, because it was helpful for me.

Spoiler-Filled Thoughts on The Last Jedi

The following thoughts are filled with spoilers and not necessarily in any order. This isn’t a review per-se but more of a brain dump.

I hadn’t seen any trailers or read really anything about it before going in, so I was going in completely blank slate, which I found to be really enjoyable.

Overall I really liked the movie. For the first time in a long time, this felt like an original Star Wars movie. I worried that it was going to be a refresh of Empire, but thankfully it wasn’t (there may have been some shared traits, but it didn’t feel like a retelling, the way The Force Awakens felt like a re-telling of A New Hope). It was different, and at times a little weird, but I’m thrilled that they told a new Star Wars tale, even if it didn’t work 100% of the time. Risks are good.

The movie was absolutely beautiful. Rian Johnson really did a stand out job on the direction of this movie. Every shot felt well composed, like it could have been a photograph.

The score was great, but on my first viewing, it didn’t seem like it introduced any new musical themes, compared to The Force Awakens (which had Rey’s theme, Kylo’s theme, etc). I did hear the Imperial March though, which was not in The Force Awakens to my knowledge. The music was still moving though, even when it was bringing back familiar scores.

I absolutely loved every moment of Luke and Rey. Luke’s character showed a lot of maturity, like he’d been contemplating the Jedi religion and had fallen out of love with it. He questions it and implores Rey to not fall victim to it. He knows how powerful the Jedi can be and he worries that it’s become too strong of a legend, and that legends mislead people.

Which brings me to the first of two major themes I noticed in this movie: burning down the past. Luke wants to burn down the Jedi order (and with the help of Yoda, literally succeeds at doing so). Kylo wants to burn down the first order and get rid of everything that came before him. Anakin’s lightsaber is discarded off a cliff by Luke and then later ripped apart by Kylo and Rey. There’s this moment where Rose (a fantastic addition!) has one half of a pendant she shared with her recently killed sister (her sister had the other half), and DJ, the thief character wants her pendant as collateral for something, and almost without hesitation she gives him the pendant. She loves her sister and what the pendant symbolizes, but she literally does not want to cling to the past. The Last Jedi is trying to say, the past isn’t sacred, and if anything, it’s holding you back.

I read this theme as kind of a fuck-you to The Force Awakens. Where The Force Awakens was a reboot relishing in its past, The Last Jedi burns it down. In fact, some of the movie almost felt like a fuck-you to JJ Abrams, especially with how Phasma was killed off (Phasma was a character JJ created in reference to….something I can’t quite remember!). She was barely in the movie and killed off quite soon after she appeared.

(Also, thankfully this movie has way way less fan service. Sure, there are lots of things that are from the earlier movies, but only in ways that make sense for the story. There aren’t really any easter egg moments of like “OH! I remember that thing!!“)

Let me get back to Luke and Rey for a bit. For starters, every scene on the island (whose name I’m forgetting) was absolutely stunning. The colour, the scenery, the atmosphere. Sunshine and rain and darkness — talk about balance! It felt almost like a dream. There’s a part where Rey is following Luke, but sees something off in the distance. She heads towards this mystical place — this place is literally in a mist — until she enters the original Jedi temple. Like I said, it feels almost like a dream.

The island felt at the same time deserted and lived in, like a faded memory. The creatures all feel at place on this planet. Although, I will say the part where Luke milks the big creature on the side of the hill was a bit much.

I wish I had got to see a little bit more of their chemistry together. I wanted them to really dig in to what was bothering Luke, and what Rey was hoping to find. I could tell Rey didn’t want to give up and be pushed away, but I wanted to see her dig her feet in more.

Random things:

I loved the new character, Rose! She was sweet and charming and had great chemistry with Finn. I’m glad that she saved him and then she kissed him too. The Force Awakens felt a little devoid of passion at times, so it was nice to see them show some real affection in this one.

I felt like they made Finn a bit less interesting in this movie, and they didn’t give him enough to work with. His chemistry with Rose was good, but beyond that he’s kind of isolated throughout the story. I wish I had seen him interacting with the rest of the characters more.

On that note, pretty much all of the characters were split up in this movie and they way they did it bugged me a little bit. Now, The Empire Strikes Back had Luke + R2D2 split off from Leia, Chewie, and Han, but it worked there because it drove the tension of the movie. Yes they were on two different tracks, but they were pulling each other together by the end of the movie. I didn’t necessarily feel that in The Last Jedi, they just kinda felt split up and when they got back together it didn’t feel as big of a deal. I think the chemistry of the main characters is one part that really shined in The Force Awakens, and we got less of that here.

One neat thing I did enjoy about this movie was that it felt very intimate. For almost the whole movie, most of the plot is happening very close together, with the First Order hot on the tail of the Resistance for the whole movie. Most Star Wars movies feel spread out across the galaxy. A planet here, a planet there. And sure, they do zip from planet to planet at some points during this movie, but the First Order on the tail of the Resistance in space acts as a central hub, a closeness that you just don’t get in the other movies, and that felt really cool.

The moment when Holdo (Laura Dern’s character) jumps her ship to lightspeed aimed at the First Order cruisers was nothing short of astonishing. It was one of the most visually powerful scenes I’ve seen in ages. The audience I was sitting in gasped (and at a second viewing of the movie, a woman in the row behind me whispered “oh my god!” when it happened). Johnson’s directing here really let the audience feel the visual and emotional impact of what just happened, which was so much more powerful than your typical “we just blew up the big bad weapon / monster” explosion you see in most movies today. The destruction of Starkiller Base has nothing on this moment.

(Side note: it’s the geography of the planets in The Force Awakens always felt a little off to me, especially when Starkiller Base destroys the Republic capitol planet. It’s weird because the Resistance base can see the explosion in the sky… so that means that their base planet is really close to the Capitol? which also seems really close to SKB? I could never quite get that straight in my mind.)

Back to chemistry for a minute, the chemistry between Rey and Kylo was super interesting and fun. I genuinely didn’t know what was going to happen and that was exciting. At first it kind of seemed like, oh no Kylo can read Rey’s mind and he’s going to track her down. But it wasn’t like that. It was a bond they shared and they really did reach out for each other (literally and figuratively). This not only continues to make Kylo an interesting and conflicted character, but it makes Rey a conflicted character too.

During the showdown with Snoke (which, Kylo killing him was always a huge surprise for me!), Rey and Kylo fighting together, I got the feeling like, holy shit maybe it’s going to be the two of them on the run from both sides for the rest of the trilogy. Who knows!

And that’s what was so exciting about this movie, is that I was surprised over and over again by it. The movie makes you care about the characters and then makes them act in interesting ways. You can’t quite tell what’s going to happen next but you sure as hell want to know.

Further random things:

The ending: first, after the First Order had blasted down the base doors and Luke walks out to face him, there was this moment where the music was rising, Luke was facing them at sunset, and it just really felt like “Wow, they could just head straight to credits right here and now and leave it as a major cliffhanger.” I had a few seconds of feeling that, but the movie continued.

I didn’t really end up liking the ending shot (the one with the kid who uses the Force to pull the broom to himself, then looks off to the stars). It felt a bit corny to me. But it does help reinforce Luke’s message that the Force is everywhere in the universe, it’s a part of all things and doesn’t belong to anybody. Even this child can have it.

The second major theme I noticed was that of having hope. Hope that things will get better, hope that you can rely on people to help you when you’re in need, hope that things will work out. Maybe it’s just me, but this coupled with the “resistance” felt really timely for present-day Earth where the rise of Trumpism in the United States feels like a hopeless situation.

And who knows. Maybe Trump fans will read this movie’s theme of “burn down the past” more as a nod to the “drain the swamp” ethos. It’s easy for everybody to see themselves represented in the heroes, no matter what their beliefs. Whether or not the themes of this movie were directed at me, I still appreciated them.

Anyway, I loved the movie. There were a few bumps here and there but overall it was interesting and fresh and risky. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

1000 Books, Year 3

Yes, it’s that time of year again: my annual “what has Jason read in the last year?” post! As I wrote when I began a few years ago,

[In 2014] 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 had a bit of extra reading time on my hands (yay unexpected employment loss!) and read 33 books. This year, I had a bit less reading time but still managed to get through 29 books, which I feel pretty happy about. For those keeping score, I’m now 86 books down out of my 1000 book challenge. Still a ways to go, but I’m really looking forward to breaking the 10% mark this year.

What a year it’s been (I assume, for all of us). Looking over what I’ve read in the last year, I again see some definite themes (because like all humans, I find patterns everywhere and also I was the one who chose the books in the first place, so). We’ve got a bit of a doomsday / dystopia / destruction-via-media theme going on, systems, play, and cities (which this year I’ve connected thanks to what I’ve read) and as always some solid books on learning and education.

This was also the year I feel like I’ve sort of discovered fiction. Of course fiction’s always been great, but I think I haven’t really clicked with it in a long time, most likely because I’ve been reading the wrong-for-me kind, and because I’ve been focusing on a backlog of mostly non-fiction.

What follows is everything I’ve read in the last year, and notes accompanying the standouts.

  • Watchmen, by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins.

    Easily one of the best graphic novels I’ve ever read. It’s gritty, sure, but more importantly it explores its characters and world as integrated and complex systems. That, and the just outstanding use of the comic form make this pretty much a masterpiece.

  • The Story of Your Life, by Ted Chiang.

    Bought this short story at the Strand bookstore immediately after seeing (and loving) the film it inspired, Arrival. It goes in a slightly different, but enjoyable, direction than the movie.

  • The Meaning of the Body, by Mark Johnson.

    By one of the authors of Metaphors We Live By, which I read and loved last year. This book contends, roughly, that human meaning is grounded in our physical bodies, with the argument beginning all the way “down” at our physical movement / flexibility.

    It was a heady read to say the least, but has given me a new sense when thinking about cognition and bodies (especially when thinking about computer intelligence).

  • Congratulations, By the Way, by George Saunders.

  • Bridget Jones’s Diary, by Helen Fielding.

    OK. Let’s first take a few minutes to bask in how fantastically laugh-your-arse-off funny this book is from start to finish. It’s good. It’s very good.

    And at a deeper level, it’s even better. I think it’s important for men to read this book, not just because it’s enjoyable, but also because it explores the kinds of things our society puts women through (from calorie counting, to self help books, through to male fuckwittage). Yeah the book’s kind of absurd (like all satire), but that’s kind of the point. (I’ll also add I think it’s even better than the fantastic movie that it inspired)

  • Teaching as a Subversive Activity, by Neil Postman.

    Originally read this book in two days after a personal recommendation from one of Postman’s friends and loved it, but decided to re-read a little slower this time.

    It’s easy to read this book and think “Jeez, the author sure hates teachers.” but the better way to read is as “Jeez, the author sure loves students.” and I think that’s kind of the point. It introduces the need to develop in children rock-solid crap detectors: children should grow up fully equipped to make meaning about their world and their surroundings, and should be immune to all flavours and aromas of bullshit.

    This book has inspired my views on education more than any other book save Mindstorms. Not necessarily the particular views it espouses, but on the dire need for children to grow up as meaning makers, as epistemologists.

  • Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell.

    Read for no reason in particular.

  • How to Watch TV News, by Neil Postman.

    Read for no reason in particular.

  • The Systems Bible, by John Gall.

  • Play Design, by Chaim Gingold.

    A thoroughly researched and well written thesis on play and its implications for game design, education, city building, and playgrounds. Completely mind opening.

  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by JK Rowling.

  • Street Fight, by Janette Sadik-Khan.

    This book explores city and traffic design, and the relentless effort required to grow (or slow) it. This is my favourite kind of book, because it makes you see things which were previously invisible to you.

  • Ghost in the Shell, by Masamune Shirow.

  • Pokémon Red, by Nintendo.

    You caught me. This is not a book but a video game. But you know what, I’ve decided to include some video games in my quest because what is a video game like this if not a story, fleshed out with characters, and exploring themes?

    While Pokémon Red is kind of childish at times (duh), it also holds up pretty well after all these years (minus the whole dogfighting thing). It’s a great case study on keeping a learner (player) engaged and feeling confident — yet challenged — basically at all times.

  • Mindset, by Carol Dweck.

    I should have read this book a decade or two ago, but I’m glad I’ve at least read it now.

  • Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari.

  • A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki.
  • Proust and the Squid, by Maryanne Wolf.

    Fascinating book about the history of reading and writing systems, how the brain reads and how it learns to read (with supreme difficulty), and also explores a bit on what causes struggles for those learning to read.

    I absolutely loved this book, and it’s given me a newfound appreciation for reading and fluency.

  • The One Device, by Brian Merchant.

  • Landscape as Urbansim, by Charles Waldheim.
  • Mike Meyers’ Canada, by Mike Myers.

    I’m having so many feelings about Canada this year but they’ll have to wait for future blog posts. Very charming book though.

  • The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs.

  • Stories of Your Life, by Ted Chiang.
  • Contact, by Carl Sagan.

    A few things:

    1. This book shook me to my core, so deeply and so completely it took me a few days to recover after reading it. I loved it.

    2. It’s easily become my favourite fiction book I’ve read, and is a pretty high contender for favourite book, too.

    3. I’ve tried to write a few blog posts about the book and my love for it since reading, but have struggled to put it quite into words.

    4. Picked up a copy of this book at Ottawa’s Black Squirrel Books, a used bookstore + café that’s quickly become one of my favourite places in the world. A used bookstore is nice because it’s kind of like “this is what your community reads.”

    5. You may already be kind of familiar with Contact, as it inspired a movie with the same name and roughly the same story, starring Jodie Foster. It’s a brilliant (and I think, subtly under appreciated) movie, one I’ve enjoyed for many years. Both the book and the movie do a wonderful job conveying their stories, using their medium to the best of its abilities (I don’t think it makes sense to say which is “better” but if you enjoyed the movie, there’s even more to love about the book).

    6. The story is optimistic because it sees the best in its characters, often even its antagonists (you see, a message from a distant star has caused quite a stir in the religious community, but Sagan presents the religious leaders not as brainless deniers of Science, but as people viewing the world through a different lens). It’s optimistic that Science is a guiding philosophy that breaks down international borders and undergirds a deeper human understanding.

      You might say it’s a bit “optimistic” in a naive sense, that there’s no way humans can all work together to solve global crises or challenges together, and you might be right. But Contact illustrates what if, what if we maybe could do that? What if the nature of the universe is so profound that we can all rally behind it? Contact asks not simply “Wouldn’t it be nice?” but “Shouldn’t we strive for this?“

      And if you’re struggling to find hope these days, what better way to find than to reach out to a universe that surrounds us on all sides, beckoning us?

  • But What If We’re Wrong?, by Chuck Klosterman.

  • Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer.
  • Maus 1, by Art Speigelman.
  • Maus 2, by Art Speigelman.

    Maus was a hard read for good reason. It’s a biography of a Holocaust survivor, so naturally some of it is pretty fucking heavy. But the story is beautifully and artfully told (and not just because it’s a graphic novel). Speigelman makes good use of levity throughout the story to calm your nerves as you read it, which I really appreciated.

    The Holocaust is never not absolutely, heartwrenchingly shocking to me. It’s hard to grasp the magnitude of it some times, and I think a lot of media does it a disservice (i.e., most movies about it seem to focus on (American) heroism during the war, about “good vs evil,” but rarely are stories told of the institutional antisemitism and other bigotry).

  • Bridget Jones’s Diary 2: The Edge of Reason, by Helen Fielding.


Here’s to the next 914!

Some (Rough) Thoughts on Thinking

I’ve had this vague notion for the past year or so about how people think, and that how people think has changed over the ages. Not just in general notions of “people think nicer things now” or something like that, but that people think in completely different ways today than in previous times.

When you read something written many years ago (say 50, 100, 500 years ago), it sounds quite different to you than something written today. Part of that is because things in people’s lives have changed (eg we have the internet today but they didn’t 100 years ago), and partly because language has changed (words have new meanings, there are new words, etc), but also partly because the sorts of things people think about have changed (eg there are different political or social events happening at different times).

But I think people aren’t just thinking about different things, I think they’re thinking about things differently, because part of how we think depends upon the things we think about. There are a few things floating around in my head that are giving me / supporting this notion (in no particular order):

  • the medium is the message (media change the way we think in order to use them; different media mean thinking different thoughts)
  • metaphors we live by (if metaphor is a fundamental part of our cognition, and if our metaphors change over time (along with language) (I’m not certain that they do but I suspect they do), then mustn’t our cognition change along with our metaphors?)
  • Kieran Egan’s The Educated Mind (lays out a pretty good argument for modes of thinking across different cultures)
  • situated cognition (changes over time because the literal physical objects we think with, eg slide rules, change over time — we think with different physical things than we used to, that has to change how we think, doesn’t it?)

Note: I’m not saying that our different thinking is necessarily better thinking, only that it’s different. It might be better, but I’m not asserting that here.

I am, alas, under the influence of the technology of my era and I can’t help but think about the brain + mind as “hardware and software.” In this metaphor, the human brain hasn’t changed a lot recently, but the mind — the software — has changed a great deal, and changes quickly. This isn’t an OS that’s “loaded” but more like one that exists socially, ephemerally, distributed across all people we interact with / are influenced by. It’s a gooey mess of influence; maybe it’s a fog, maybe it’s an ocean with currents.


A Whimsical Walk Around Austin Kleon’s Brick Notes

Today I was looking for a summary of Neil Postman’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity, so I checked my neil-postman tag on Pinboard and sure enough, I found this post I’d previously bookmarked with a summary of the book, by Austin Kleon (who, among other things, wrote the book Steal Like an Artist which I apparently own but have yet to read!).

Re-reading his summary, I noticed it was part of a series of books he read in 2016, many of which were about education. So I decided to read through his posts about education, in hopes I might stumble upon something relevant to what I’m working on.

Some of the earlier posts in that series included pictures of hand-written notes he’d taken. He calls them “brick notes” and I find them kind of fascinating. From what I can tell, he groups together themes and key words from what’s reading, sometimes including page numbers too. To top it off, the notes are all on a single page, which doubles as a bookmark (example).

He’s got a tweet thread about it and a page on his website about note taking, too.

I’m writing this for a few reasons.

  1. Techniques people use in their lives are fascinating to me. He’s made his own cognitive tool — a super power of pen and paper — which helps him read and probably helps him write. I’m posting his tool not only for its own sake, but as an example of a kind of tool I find fascinating.

  2. Isn’t it wonderful how many kinds of books there are? Reading through his year of reading, I’m astounded by the number of “topics” that have books written about them (“topics” is in quotes because the idea of giving a definite label or a genre to a book probably limits my thinking about what books can be about (or what books can just be)).

  3. Isn’t the web wonderful? I don’t very often take the time to reflect on what it’s like to mosey about on the internet, but it sure is nice. And it beats the pants off channel surfing (or I guess, Youtube autoplaying videos until you die). I have done one of these before, though.

Software Poetry

What’s the computer / software equivalent of a poem? What’s the software equivalent of a poet? Or a software song? Or a software sketch?

These are kind of silly questions, because poems and songs and sketches are so much more than “small versions of bigger things” (a poem, for example, is much more about what it expresses than the fact that it’s usually short).

But still I wonder, can you make a little thing that captures a feeling? That by watching it or by using it or by exploring it, you somehow recreate that feeling? A feeling that’s bigger than just what you see in front of you, bigger maybe than the sum of its parts? Can you express a feeling as a system?

I don’t know what that looks like, but it’d be nice to figure it out.

Open Question: What Does it Mean to Understand a System?

I recently began working on a new app. It’s one part design tool, one part programming environment, and lots more too. But at its core, it’s a medium for creating, thinking with, and understanding complex systems. Of those goals, understanding a system is probably the most important, but murkiest to me.

What does it mean to understand a system? Is it the same thing as “reading” a system? How do you go from not understanding to completely understanding one? What does the threshold look like?

That’s just for a single system, so how do you generalize these principles to all systems? What does it mean to be “fluent” with systems?

I happen to have a few ideas on how to answer these questions which I’ll post in the discussion section below, but I’m curious to hear your answers too. Please feel free to use examples, to link to papers and books I should look at, etc. I’m really curious how you think about this topic.

PSA: Speed of Light Discussion Rules Relaxed

I decided to try changing up the rules for the discussion system on this website. Previously, replies had to be at least 140 characters long before you could submit. This was done in hopes of discouraging one-off or spammy comments. But, I wonder if it’s been discouraging people from saying anything at all?

Now you can reply with just about anything, so long as it’s 5 characters or longer. You can manage that, though.

I’m Moving to Canada in June

Quick personal announcement time! My wife and I will be moving to Ottawa, Canada at the end of May, and we’re pretty excited. I’ve been living as a Canadian ex-pat in New York City since the start of 2013 and my time here has been nothing short of amazing. However, it’s time for a new chapter.

There are many reasons for the move: best of which is I miss my home country and the slightly chiller lifestyle of Ottawa; least best of which is the current US political climate (and my worries about Canada following suit). But suffice it to say, I’m excited.

If you’re in New York, please reach out and we’ll grab a drink, some food, or just walk and talk the streets. I’m gonna miss all of y’all.

Diversity at Playgrounds Con

I recently came across a post by Belle Cooper about her experiences at Playgrounds Con, especially with respect to diversity and inclusion at the conference. It’s a great post, and her handling of nuanced issues sets a great bar for me and everyone else in the iOS / Mac community.

Among other things in her post, Belle discussed sexism she noticed among some of the speakers at the conference. As I had given a talk at the conference, I was particularly intrigued to hear what she had to say. She began,

The most frustrating example was a misattribution of a quote by a woman to a man. The speaker in question obviously thought this quote was useful enough to include, so they played a video of a man quoting his female colleague. After the video ended, the Playgrounds speaker attributed the woman’s quote to the man in the video who quoted her.

Quoting and attribution are always important and should be treated very carefully, but it’s especially infuriating to see a quote by a minority misattributed to someone in the majority.

My heart sank out of guilt, because I am the (unnamed) speaker here and Belle is completely correct: I misattributed a quote from Vi Hart to Alan Kay during my talk. This was 100% on me and I’m glad she pointed it out. I try really hard not to do this sort of thing, but in this case I did indeed make a mistake, and regrettably did not attribute the quote to Vi as I had intended.

I’d like to thank Belle again for taking the time to share her experiences at Playgrounds and for calling out the examples of sexism she saw. I’m sorry I misattributed Vi’s quote to Alan, and I’m glad to learn from this mistake. I hope others can learn from it too.

On (and Off) Twitter

The last day or so I’ve been logged back in to Twitter and am dipping my toes in it again. I’ve been on a twitter hiatus for a few months now (and will likely return to one shortly), because I found the service quite stressful — both in terms of the amount of bile / bad news it showed me, and in terms of “I must constantly refresh it because what if somebody reacted to something I did on it?”

But I can’t say I didn’t miss it at least a little bit. Here are some things I did and didn’t miss.

Did miss

  • Some familiar faces (or at least, their avatars) and the things they tweet about.
  • A general sense of “people are around and some of them are listening.” I don’t think Twitter is a great place for “being connected” (though it can give semblance of that), but it is a place for some awareness that others are around. I crave a more intimate version of this, though.
  • Jamming out on twitter. I like to think I’m “good at tweeting” (if that’s such a thing). It’s debatable if this is a good thing or not, but it’s something that makes me feel happy. I’ve used the service for over a decade and I’ve sorta got the hang of it now. It’s a fun place to play with language.
  • Similarly, it’s a fun place to riff with people during shared events (like being at a conference, watching an Apple Keynote). This is insufferable to anyone not in on the thing, but if you are, it’s a riot.

Did not miss

  • All the bile. The hate, the sexism, the bots, the nazis, the trump supporters. The arguing, the fighting, the bad vibes. I don’t want to keep my head in the sand about the Legitimately Bad Shit happening in the world, but I also don’t want to read about it from dawn till dusk.
  • Dudes. A general profusion of dudes. Look, I know there are many of them out there, and heck, I am one too. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being a dude. It’s just that programmer-twitter is overrun with them and it’s a big big drag.
  • Related, and worse, is Rational Dude Twitter (it has some overlap with programmer twitter). Rational Dude Twitter is where dudes try to sound so wise by using real big words, academic words, pedantic phrasing. And they flex their big Rational Dude Muscles by squeezing in as many of them as they can into a tweet (or, jesus) a tweet storm. What an utter bummer these people are.
  • The aforementioned stress caused by needing to feel “on” all the time. Refreshing twitter all day, especially if I’ve just done something on it (what do people think of it?). Trying, and failing, to not care. Closing the tab and then immediately re-opening it. Checking twitter when I wake up, when I stop at a traffic light, when in line at the store, when I’m poopin, when my subway car gets cell service. Certainly not everybody gets as roped in as I do, but I sure do.
  • Trying to communicate anything of nuance, whatsoever. I’ve tried. It’s really hard. If you try too hard you end up sounding like Rational Dude Twitter where you only speak in maxims and koans.
  • A horrible, pathetic, embarrassing, offensive use (or disuse) of hypertext and rich media. Twitter is a website that doesn’t let you make web hyperlinks (only auto-links). You can’t bold text (like the Xerox fucking Alto could do 45 years ago). You can’t embed other media (except that which twitter has deemed acceptable). Need to explain something complicated? Screenshot of text or a “gif” (it’s not a gif) of software it is!

Anyway, all of that is to say, I’ve got some feelings on the subject. I’ll write more soon (because embarrassingly enough, this website doesn’t support auto saving yet and I’m worried I’ll accidentally delete this otherwise nice post).

Picking up where I left off…

This is the part where Jason-the-programmer says “And so here’s the technology I’d like to see to improve this” and I’ll rattle off a bunch of features for twitter to do (and they won’t do them) and I’ll feel satisfied.

You can probably guess from my tone I’m not exactly about to do that. But I would like to imagine a bit of an alternative to twitter, which has many of its strengths and fewer of its faults. This is not a 3rd party twitter app, and it’s not an alternative service (like app.net was) but instead is an inkling of a “protocol” for people talking to each other on the web without a shitty service in the middle.

Before I go further, I’ll say this was written hastily, probably has lots of flaws, and is almost certainly already kinda in the works in the form of WebMention and others.

The biggest thing I’m after in my imagined web network is a really solid way for having good relationships with people online. Too often online life presents the artifice for relationships, without providing much in terms of actual relationships. Corporations (it’s always corporations) say they’re trying to make a more “open” or “connected” world. Connections are great, and underrated (hey look, I can contact just about any living human being on the planet, no matter where they are, in a matter of minutes, and if that isn’t absolutely mindbogglingly astonishing, you should take some time and reflect on it), but as far as building relationships go, connectivity is a bare minimum — necessary, but not sufficient.

And I’ll admit, “relationships” are one of the most complicated aspects of the social human being, and I don’t hope to facilitate or foster all or even most aspects of human relationships via my proposed online world, but boy wouldn’t it be great to foster them just a little bit more than we currently do?

So I think my narrow definition of “relationships” here mostly means intimacy. Not in the sense we often think of it (as physical intimacy between people, often sexual), but more so as closeness and trust between people. I want to know what my friends are up to, I want to be able to talk to them (about the big stuff, but also about small talk stuff). I want the opposite of loneliness, and the opposite of loneliness isn’t dozens of people, the opposite of loneliness is togetherness.

Related, I don’t need or want thousands of online friends. I can’t deal with thousands of most things (unless it’s thousands of dollars, and even then my track record is only so-so). I don’t want a platform to grow my brand, I want a place to hang out with my friends online.

When I was a teenager I used to hang out online just about every night. For me, that was MSN Messenger: most of my friends were there, not all at once, but at various times throughout the evening. Yeah, it was mostly a place to gab, but it was also a place where you felt you could confide in those close to you. You had a sense that other people were around, and that you could be together for a little while. People had “statuses” to indicate when they were around. If someone was online, MSN told you so, and you knew you’d have pretty good luck spending some time with them. Likewise, if their status was “Away” or “Busy” or “Offline” you knew they probably weren’t around for hanging out, and that’s OK, because you had the right expectation.

With twitter, I can kind of guess when my friends are around, but I’m not really sure. Maybe he’s up for tweeting back and forth; maybe she just put her phone away because she’s going out tonight. Who can fucking tell?

What I’d really like is a place where me and my friends can hang out online. One that’s on my website, and that’s on your website, and on all your friends’s websites. I cannot and will not trust twitter to do a good job at this, not only because obviously I’m just Jason and they don’t have to listen to me, and even if they did it’s not the product they’re trying to create, and even if it were, they’re mired in the vitriol that resulted from their previous poor design decisions, and on top of all that they’re a corporation that doesn’t really give a shit about my mental wellbeing.

I don’t necessarily want another IM (although hey, if I could recapture they heyday of my MSN years, I wouldn’t turn it down), but I’d love to reintroduce the concept of online status into today’s web networks. It doesn’t have to be straight online status, it could be something like Glancing or it could be an evolution into something altogether new, but I should at least be able to tell when my friends are “around.”

I don’t want to be constrained to 140 characters, as that makes it really hard to talk about just about anything with just about anyone. People are complicated and messy and we need a little bit of breathing room to express that. I’m not saying that everyone should be writing blog posts to each other (necessarily), but holy crap give them the space if they need it.

Maybe this looks like a feed, maybe it looks like IM, maybe it looks like something a little different from that. But this is the sort of thing I want from an online network of people. I want to hang out, I want to be together, online. And I don’t want to be dependent on a corporation for it, either. It doesn’t necessarily have to be private, but it could be.

Could this work? Sorta (probably). Everyone runs their own server (oops, that’s probably game over), and the servers communicate via an API / protocol about new posts, for example. There’s another obscure networking service that works a bit like this, and it’s done alright. I won’t go too far into implementation details beyond saying that “it’s probably possible” because that’s all that matters and because I’ve yet to fully flesh out and design what the service would actually look like.

These are some of my meandering thoughts on Twitter and social life on the internet in 2017, and maybe social life on the internet in 2018 and beyond. What do you think? What do you want from your network?

About My Playgrounds Talk

On February 23 I spoke at the Playgrounds conference for iOS developers in Melbourne, Australia. I spoke about the purpose of education, what programmers can do about it, and how the current “learn to code” movement falls totally short of accomplishing important educational goals.

I intend to provide a more formal, essay version of what I covered in the talk in the coming weeks (famous last words), and I’ll definitely link to the video recording of the talk once it’s published, but in the meantime I wanted to provide a few links to things I talked about as fuel for anyone interested in following up.

Alan Kay

As mentioned in my presentation, my talk was largely inspired by the work of Alan Kay. Indeed, part of me wanted to just hop up on stage, hit play on this talk by Alan, and let the whole thing play out. Alas, I also wanted to provide a bit more context for the Swift / Playgrounds audience, so I decided to speak a bit more in terms of what Apple is up to. Suffice it to say, these ideas are neither mine, nor are they new (personal computers have been seen as potential devices of enlightenment roughly as long as they’ve existed). See also Alan’s paper where he envisioned something like the iPad nearly 50 years ago.

Where do we go from here?

Let’s say you were in the audience of my talk, and you more or less liked what you heard, and you want to participate. What now? It’s a tricky question to answer, but I’ll do my best. (Honestly I was quite unprepared for the largely positive feedback to the talk; I probably should have prepared this sort of answer in advance!)

As mentioned in the talk, the first thing you should do to help is learn. Read books about learning and education (and understand the difference!). Talk to teachers and learners and try to understand what their needs are.

“Learning” is of course an on-going process; not one you start and finish before doing something else (in fact, you’ll often learn a lot by studying plus doing at the same time). Try to make informed inventions. Do you think everyone needs tools to create and reason about complex systems? Try to make such an environment! (Hat tip to the three men from New Zealand, whose names escape me, who chatted with me about Sim City — I could write a whole post about that game, what’s good and what’s bad from a systems learning perspective. For now, google “Alan Kay Sim City” and you should get an interesting discussion about it).

Developing new systems for education is of course quite difficult, so I’d recommend starting small, and prototyping as much as you can. Apple has a great talk about prototyping, as does my former coworker, May-Li Khoe. Prototyping allows you to iterate quickly, and think out loud.

And while you’re learning and building, reach out! There’s a small community of people who research and develop this sort of thing, and the more people working on this, the better. These are hard problems, so the more people working together and collaborating, the more likely any of us will make a positive impact.

Coming Soon

As mentioned earlier, I plan on eventually releasing a more formal, essay version of my talk, with full references to everything I spoke about, hopefully in a less-nervous presentation (getting up in front of 200 people is hard too). I will link to it here when it’s ready.

I’ll also link to the video of the talk when it’s available, too.

Thank you so much to everyone who had encouraging discussions with me about the talk. It truly made all the work worth it.

How to Work in a Smelly Open Office

Like many people in the tech industry, I work in what’s called an open office plan, where everybody works in one large, open space. A big shared space can often be great for collaboration, but at times I find it hard to concentrate.

You know how it goes: it’s easy to focus in the early mornings, but by around 10am, once enough people arrive at the office, things start to get pretty smelly.

Too many people all together in a big open space can get stinky really fast, and that makes it pretty hard to focus on my work. It’s distracting when you’re trying to figure out a tough bug and your nostrils are burning from all the stank wafting over your desk.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: if it’s too smelly in your office, just put something that smells nice up your nose! Like many people I work with, I’ll often do this. Last week I was resting freshly sliced bread on my upper lip, and this week I’ve started shoving cinnamon sticks up my nose. But doesn’t that seem kind of strange?

Don’t get me wrong, I love smelling good things. There’s nothing like the familiar scent of freshly baked cookies to bring me back to my teenage years. You don’t have to tell me how powerful the memory of aromas can be.

But it still feels strange. As much as I love smelling great things, I wish I worked in an office that just wasn’t smelly in the first place, where I wouldn’t have to shove things up my nose just so I could focus on my work. That’d be music to my ears.

A First-Hand Account of Meeting Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as Told by My Eighty-Six Year Old Grandmother

Last week my grandmother met Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, while she played her weekly game of cards with her old lady friends at a church in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Here’s what she said of the meeting:

Oh, we chatted about the weather, the cards, how we were doing, our age, no big politics. Nice friendly chat. We were playing cards when he came in, he came over to our table and asked all kinds of questions about it. Real friendly. Security was unreal. They brought the dog in to sniff all our purses before he arrived, went in the bathrooms before he came in. It was really something.

Made a lot of old people kinda happy today, he did. Lot of young people too. Didn’t tell anyone around that he was coming, it was just our card group, and a few people from church. Didn’t want to attract big crowds, you see.

Big black cars and limousines. It was something out of a movie. Unreal.