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.

Advertisements

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.

What if the Singularity already happened?

I’ve been re-reading one of my favorite science fiction books, Accelerando by British author Charlie Stross. In one of my favorite passages, some of the characters are sitting around talking about their belief in the Singularity. One of the characters makes the following claim (about when the Singularity happened):

“Au contraire. It happened on June 6, 1969, at 1100 hours, Eastern Seaboard Time,” Pierre counters. “That was when the first network control protocol packets were sent from the data port of one IMP to another — the first ever Internet connection. That’s the Singularity. Since then we’ve all been living in a universe that was impossible to predict from events prior to that time.”

While it’s typical to equate the Singularity with the future advent of superhuman artificial intelligences, I think this definition makes a lot of more sense. The Internet has had more impact on our world in the recent past than any other technology (especially after the advent to mobile pocket-sized connected computing devices), and furthermore, it came almost completely out of left field. Few of the “classic” science fiction stories I remember reading (particularly by Isaac Asimov) prominently feature networked computers, even though they have faster-than-light spaceflight, aliens, robots and the like. Perhaps we should take that as a warning: the most disruptive technologies are the ones we’re least cognizant of, until the disruption is well under way.

Investing in the Open Web

It seems like every few days there’s a new post lamenting the death of the Open Web, and the corresponding rise in ad-driven social media machines and clickbait. Recent examples include this lament on the Cult of the Attention Web (prompted by Instagram moving to an algorithm presentation, away from a chronological timeline), and Brendan Eich’s response to online news publishers strongly objecting to the ad-blocking browser, Brave.

At the risk of beating a dead horse, we seem to have collectively struck a number of Faustian bargains: free services in exchange for our personal information; free articles, audio and video in exchange for advertising, more personal information and ugly, slow sites; walled gardens, in whose operation we have little say, in exchange for ease-of-use. And while I would love to pit advertisers and social media giants against brave independent bloggers and developers in a black-and-white contest, the reality is never quite so simple.

If we really want an vibrant, independent, open web, we need to invest in it with our time, money, effort and technical know-how. But I don’t know if that investment exists, or if the people complaining about the state of the open web are ready to make it. Examples abound: the above piece about Instagram is posted on Medium, which might join said Cult of the Attention Web any day. WordPress, which powers a significant fraction of the open web (and on which this site is built), would rather pretend that it’s a feed-reader and encourage me to “follow” other blogs, than make it simple and quick to write or edit posts (it takes me four clicks from the WordPress.com page to start editing a draft). And I myself would rather rant about investing in the open web than build a CMS that I actually want to, and enjoy using.

If we seriously care about preserving an open web outside of walled gardens and free of ugly, privacy-destroying advertising, we need to be an active part of it. We need to publish to our own domains, backed by services that won’t turn into advertising machines tomorrow, maybe even pay for hosting. We need to vote with our wallets and actually subscribe to publications we want to read and support. We need to write code and build publication platforms that embody our ideals and values, and make it easier for others to do the same.

I do two of those three, though not as often as I would like to. I don’t exaggerate when I say I wouldn’t be where I am in my life without the open web. I would like to invest in it so that others can say the same in the future.