WordPress bugginess on Android

This year I’ve been trying to reduce my use of social media, and of my phone. These two goals go hand-in-hand: if I don’t have social media apps on my phone I am less tempted to keep looking at it, checking for something new. It also means that when I get a notification on my phone, it is more likely to be a message (via SMS, or messaging apps) meant specifically for me, rather than some low-information notification to increase my “engagement” with a social media app. Together, this is a way for me to keep believing in the Internet, and ensuring that I’m using it, rather than the other way around.

Another aspect of reducing dependence on social media is investing more in my own, independent publishing platforms: this blog, and my website. For the time being at least, this blog runs on WordPress.com which has apps for all the common platforms.

Part of achieving the above is posting not just longer articles and links to this blog, but also pictures capturing memorable moments in my day-to-day life. This is something I’ve been using Instagram for, but since I took the Instagram app off my phone, I wanted to see if I could use the WordPress Android app to do the same.

The answer is: sort of. I initially posted yesterday’s Sunday Selection post without the image. I then wandered out to one of my favorite local cafes where I took the picture. But adding the picture to the post using the WordPress Android app turned out to be more troublesome than I was expecting.

First I added the picture to the post from my phone’s photo gallery, and updated it. Everything seemed to work, but when I checked the post, the image URL appeared broken. For some reason the app used a URL for local Android storage rather than the uploaded image URL. If I somehow interrupted the image upload or the post update, this wasn’t clear at all.

Second I tried to edit the post again to make sure the changes had saved properly. But when I exited the post editing screen without actually making any edits, the app designed to remove all paragraph breaks from the post. Luckily WordPress seems to keep a version history for posts, so I could go back to an older version.

Finally, I ended up deleting the image from the post, and then adding it from the WordPress media library (which had the proper uploaded version of the image) and re-publishing. This seemed to finally work.

So I managed to do what I wanted, but the fact that what should be a common use case was so buggy leaves a really bad impression. While I don’t want to go back to using other platforms for this, I’m now much less excited to use WordPress for this. For now, I’m willing to give WordPress the benefit of the doubt. Maybe this is a one-off use case, or these bugs will be fixed in future versions, but I certainly am disappointed.

Going ad-free

This blog is now ad-free.

I firmly believe that surveillance capitalism propping up the online ad economy is a scourge and existential threat, both to the open Internet and to civil society in general. We sorely need to come up with economic and business models that allow the creation and distribution of high quality information (new, investigate journalism, peer-reviewed science, cultural artifacts, etc.) without requiring consumers of such information to give up their privacy.

Aside. I have a related rant on why we should start paying for software and services (but also avoid Software-as-a-Service), but I’ll save that for later.

I don’t know how to solve the broader societal and economic version of the problem, but I can take the small personal step of protecting readers of this blog. So I’m paying the $4 a month to upgrade to the Premium version of WordPress.com to get rid of the (increasingly tasteless) ads. That seems to have gotten rid of the annoying cookie disclaimer as well.

Eventually I would like to move off of WordPress.com and transition to a lighter static site completely under my control, but this will do for now.

Happy reading.

Sunday Selection 2019-09-15

Hope everyone is enjoying a good weekend. By the time you read this, I will probably be attending the Commonwealth Pen Show. Fountain pens (and related stationery) have been the only halfway serious hobby I have been able to maintain in a while, but it can also be a mostly solitary. I’ve enjoyed being a part of some related online groups, I take the chance to meet my fellow pen people whenever I can. While I am off doing that, you can enjoy the results of my various ramblings around the web.

Why I Have a Website and You Should Too

I’ve had some kind of website or blog for over a decade now. The identity that you could with little effort, and no gatekeepers, put your words out on a global network for anyone to read and see has always seemed incredible to me. Over the last few years, I’ve been seduced by the siren song of social networks (as have many of us). I’ve also realized that they have been a double-edged sword that has cut us deeply in more ways than one. I’ve since started experimenting with smaller alternative networks like Mastodon and micro.blog. While they are interesting experiments (and I hope they succeed, for some definition of success) there is really no substitute to having your own website, under your own control.

We’ve Reached Peak Wellness. Most of It Is Nonsense.

In many ways, learning how to become a fully-functioning adult is about how to properly take care of yourself (and eventually those around you). This is something that I’ve been learning mostly the hard way since I left college (where it was possible and socially acceptable) to not take very good care of yourself. I’ve gradually found a combination of regular meals, exercise, meditation, socializing and ample amounts of Netflix and books, that seem to be both necessary and sufficient in keeping my balanced and stable, physically and mentally. And the overlap with what gets sold as “wellness” is also thin at best. This article is also richly linked to references to other articles and studies, as all online writing should be.

How Does A Person Lose Track of their Diary

Continuing the theme of notebooks and journals from last night, this is a delightful read about a writer’s fascination with diaries, both her own and others’. Personally, I’m not entirely sure I find other people’s diaries quite so fascinating, but I have been reading more biographies lately. I think there is something very attractive (and just a little embarrassing) about learning about how other people live their lives, especially in an age where there seems to be no right and stable path on how to go about life.

Penny Dreadful

I told you Netflix as crucial to maintaining my sanity, didn’t I? I’ve been rewatching this short series over the last few weeks. It’s beautiful and terrible and exhilarating and depressing all at once and I love every moment of it. It also makes me want to read Milton’s Paradise Lost, but mainly so that I can pull out random lines from it and look all fancy at parties.

One of the lifestyle changes I’ve been wanting to make in 2019 is to reduce my consumption and to live in a way that is more considered and careful. I’ve already written about how I’m doing that when it comes to information and media consumption. In more material ways I’m trying to do things like take more public transport, eat out less, and reduce the amount of food and non-recyclable waste that I produce. I’m also trying to reduce the computational resources I use, and by extension the energy, human and natural resources used.

I’ve been a happy Linode user for several years now. I started using what was then their lowest tier at $20 a month to host some of my websites and small web applications. Over the years, I’ve been paying the same amount per month but been getting upgraded to more powerful virtual servers, until I got up to their Linode 4GB Standard tier: 4GB of RAM, 2 CPU cores, 80 GB of SSD storage and 4TB of network transfer. If that sounds like overkill for serving a few small websites, you’re probably right.

Linode is starting to migrate users from a monthly billing plan to an hourly billing plan. In the process of reading about the plan differences (spoiler: not much for small users like myself), I decided to re-evaluate how much computation I actually needed and used. The above mentioned specs were far more than what I needed, or could see myself needing in the near future. So I downgraded to the current lowest Linode configuration, the Nanode: just 1GB of RAM, 1 CPU core, 25 GB of SSD storage and 1TB of network transfer. That should be more than enough for my needs, and will cost me just $5 a month.

I could probably go even lower and do most of my hosting out of GitHub Pages, or an Amazon S3 bucket, but I find it useful to have an actual virtual server to run arbitrary programs on if I need to. I am planning on making some more changes to my computing usage in the near future. Currently the VPS runs Arch Linux with a fairly large list of userspace tools (including a full OCaml compilation stack). The lower specs will probably make compiling things on this VPS annoyingly slow, so in the future I’ll be compiling on my local Linux machine and just moving binaries over. I will also be switching over to using Alpine Linux to run an even lighter system. Also, this blog currently runs on WordPress.com. That has worked out pretty well, but for a number of reasons I think it’s time to part ways. I’ll go into those reasons in depth in a future post, and I will be moving the blog over to said Linode VPS over the next few weeks.

Now, I’m fully aware that this doesn’t make a huge impact on anything in the grand scheme of things. And yes, part of doing this a reason to just geek out on UNIX sysadmin-y things that I don’t do much these days. But still, I do believe that if a few minor changes can make a positive effect on the world (no matter how small), then it is worth investing the time and energy to make those changes.

We Need Hyperlink Literacy

A couple weeks ago, I was in a student discussion with James Grimmelmann, law professor at Cornell Tech who studies how laws regarding technology affect freedom, wealth and power. A large part of our discussion centered around search engines and media platforms, specifically how personalization and algorithmic filters may affect what users see, even when they don’t understand or know that they’re getting filtered content. One way to tackle this issue (in addition to regulation, or some form of opt-out) would be media literacy: teach people that what they see is not some kind of perfect, impartial truth, but might be tailored to their preference and past histories (and biased in other ways).

Fostering that kind of media literacy among the populace at large is at once sorely needed and immensely difficult. Given how much our society depends on the Internet, the World Wide Web, search engines, social media platforms and the (often inscrutable) algorithms behind them, it is crucial that people understand how they get their information, and what are the biases, agendas, and influences shaping what they see (and don’t see). This is clearly a massive challenge, and likely one that we don’t yet know how to overcome. Personally, I would settle for solving one much smaller piece of the puzzle first: a more general understanding and respect for hyperlinks.

The humble hyperlink is the foundation of the web as we know it. It takes the web from being just a digital version of a library or filing cabinet to something truly new: a system where direct access to a piece of information is as easy as naming it. Unfortunately, along with the rise of digital walled gardens such as Facebook (and to a lesser degree, Twitter) the hyperlink seems to be losing prominence. That’s ironic given that the hyperlink is a sharing mechanism, and Facebook would like to bill itself as a platform for sharing and connecting. On a normal web page, one can use snippets of text as anchors for a hyperlink, instead of using the raw link itself. Facebook doesn’t let you turn pieces of text in a status update into links. Furthermore, pasting more than one link at a time breaks the user interface. I suppose Facebook wants to give the link more prominence than what you have to say about it. People like Dave Winer and John Gruber have commented at length on how Facebook breaks the web. Poignantly, that last sentence (with two hyperlinks) would be impossible to write properly in Facebook.

And it’s not just Facebook. Twitter is approximately the same as Facebook. Slack supports links poorly in the same way: there’s no obvious way to use pieces of text as anchors for links. Adding more than one link is slightly better: giving previews for both links (though they are bigger and more prominent than the message containing the links). These systems are silos: they prefer you share and interact with posts within their own boundaries, rather than with content on the web as a whole.

By reducing the prominence of hyperlinks and truncating their utility, we create online cultures focused on sharing information, rather than ones that encourage combining and synthesizing multiple sources and viewpoints into coherent narratives. I would argue that in doing so we are giving up a large part of the power of the Web, to our detriment, and for no clear benefit.

So how do we fix this? Certainly, there is an argument to be made for reducing our dependence on platforms where we cannot sufficiently control our own writing. But beyond that, I would like to see hyperlinks become a more ingrained part of writing on a computer. I would love to see a world where whenever you write some text on a computer that references external sources, you link copiously to them, rather than just inserting references that readers have to look up manually. School and college writing classes would be the prime places to teach this. In the same way that we teach students to include citations to external sources, I would like to see students treat hyperlinks with the same importance and fluency.

In a deeply connected technological society such as ours, using the core technologies of the web should be a central part of any kind of digital or media literacy.