Beatboxing and humanity's relationship with technology

There’s something intensely cool about beatboxing. It’s not the music – though the music is pretty cool, too – but rather what it shows about mankind and our relationship with technology.

Look at this father-daughter pair:

Neolithic hunters could have done that. Ancient Greeks could have been beatboxing in the Parthenon. Joan of Arc could have been laying down sick beats while leading the French to victory. George Washington could have used it to entertain his troops at Valley Forge.

But of course they didn’t, because despite have the same equipment that beatboxers do today (that is, the same mouths) they didn’t have electronic music to provide a model for what could be. We discover more about the universe, which lets us build new things, which unlocks our imagination about what is possible, which pushes us to discover more about the universe…

Learning to make things

I finished Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford a few days ago and haven’t stopped thinking about it. This book came at exactly the right time for me, and raises questions that I’ve had stirring around in my head for a while now.

I am a software engineer, and thus almost by definition work with abstractions. I feel pride in my work, but it’s not the pride of someone who has worked with their hands. I’ve glimpsed that pride, mostly working with my dad on cars where the sputtering of an engine that was once quiet and still has brought me more joy than almost any work I’ve done in exchange for money.

The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, because he has no real effect in the world. But the tradesman must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away. His well-founded pride is far from the gratuitous “self-esteem” that educators would impart to students, as though by magic.

One part of the book that I thought was particularly valuable was a discussion of the segmentation of cognitive work, where the elite extract the mentally challenging parts of a job, reform it into a process, and feed the process back to workers in contained chunks, so that nobody has to hold all of the knowledge in their heads anymore, but rather can simply execute on their part of the process. “[T]he new frontier of capitalism lies in doing to office work what was previously done to factory work: draining it of its cognitive elements.”

If genuine knowledge work is not growing but actually shrinking, because it is coming to be concentrated in an ever-smaller elite, this has implications for the vocational advice that students ought to receive. If they want to use their brains at work, and aren’t destined to make it into the star chamber, they should be helped to find work that somehow thwarts the Taylorist logic, and is therefore safe from it.

I am, again, very fortunate that my work hasn’t undergone this process. It is still very cognitively demanding. The change is coming, though, and when it comes it’s going to leave a lot of software professionals out in the cold without marketable skills. A few of us, the luckiest perhaps, are going to learn to work with the machines in order to become even more productive than ever before, just as a few factory workers have benefited greatly from manufacturing automation, but that’s not going to be the reality for most software engineers, especially those who are just entering the workforce, and who have come out of accelerator programs that teach programming as a series of steps, rather than a holistic craft.

If this is the future, and I truly believe it is, then I need to prepare myself. I think the first step is really learning how things work, and learning to make things for myself. Wood and metal and electronics and food. Small steps, making something I would have bought, or trying to repair something I would have thrown away and replaced. Convex skills that reward investment with accelerating upside. Embedding myself in the material world in which I exist.

What if Trump really is a Russian puppet?

I mean, really, what if he is? I grew up in the 1980s but was still a kid when the Warsaw Pact fell apart and the Soviet Union dissolved. I thought I missed out on all of the really cool Cold War shit. But maybe I didn’t. Maybe the Russians still have a bit of bite left in them.

Not nuclear bite (though they still have that, but it’s hard to use power that in victory will still get you wiped off the face of planet), but that old school, plausibly deniable espionage bite.

If so, though, it’s hard to believe that nobody in the American intelligence community knows anything about it.

Plots, they are thickening.

The pope at Auschwitz

A jaw-droppingly powerful photo.

What a powerful photo.

Though the Catholic Church couldn’t stop Nazism, it did more than most to shelter those it could from the Nazi’s deprivations. There is much that I don’t agree with in the Catholic Church’s positions on social issues, but I think that Pope Francis has his heart in the right place.

I hope that we never return to the darkness of the mid-20th century, but if we do I hope that this pope or his successors will behave as bravely as Pius XII did in the face of Nazi Germany.

Photo credit: Filippo Monteforte/AP

The internet sucks if you're not white, male, and bland

Is That a Threat? by Alison Leiby:

I’ve never understood the inclination to engage with something I don’t like — on social media or otherwise. That’s the beauty of Twitter. If you don’t agree with someone, you can unfollow them. If something upsets you, you can block it. We all have that luxury. If you don’t like the taste of fish, you wouldn’t go to a restaurant, order the trout, and then call the chef a stupid bitch for serving it to you. So why do people do it on the Internet?

I know I’m late to this party and that this is by no means an isolated incident, but for fuck’s sake.

As a white male who would never imagine saying things like this to a woman (or anyone, really, unless it was to their face and I was looking for a fight, which I never am because seriously who the fuck resorts to fisticuffs anymore it’s not the 1790s), I’m embarrassed and ashamed and disgusted by this sort of behavior. I love the internet and I support freedom of speech, but this shit has just got to go.

Full disclosure: I work at Facebook, tangentially in support of teams that fight against trolls and hate on the platform. We’re not perfect, but we do try. My opinions do not necessarily represent those of my employer, yada yada.

Publishing friction

In order for the open web to compete against the silos, it needs to be as easy and streamlined to write a blog post as it is to post a status update on Facebook.

It’s amazing how much a little friction in a process will slow its adoption, and cause those who did manage to adopt the process to abandon it as soon as a lower friction option appears.

Over the years I’ve thought a lot about publishing tools. I’m not a publisher, but I am a toolmaker, and I like to write, so I’ve been drawn to creating tools that make writing and publishing that writing easier. It’s been a few years since I’ve done much in this area, but I’m starting to pick it up again (this blog is, to some degree, a testbed for those tools).

Facebook and Twitter (and increasingly Snapchat) have won by solving a lot of fundamental problems: distribution, notification, authentication, and ease of use. There’s no denying that it’s just easier to create a post on Facebook than it is on one’s own blog–both easier at the time of creation, and without all of the upfront cost of setting a blog up. I’ve automated a lot of my workflow, but I’m a software engineer and nerdy enough to take the time. I am not the general case. For the open web to compete against the silos, we have to solve for the general case.

Anyway, this post is also a test post for a new workflow I’m building (code for this entire blog, including the tools I’m building to power it, is here). I’m pretty sure it works.

Only one way to find out.

On not having goals

A lot of people in my life are strongly goal-driven, but I am not one of them. I always worried about that, but maybe I should worry less.

I’ve never set goals for myself. Or, rather, I’ve set goals for myself and they’ve never worked out, because they don’t motivate me. Over time, I’ve learned that setting goals just doesn’t work, and I’ve worried about it because goals are supposed to be good, right? If you don’t have goals, then you don’t know where you’re going and what you should be doing next, right?

A few days ago, Jason Fried, founder of Basecamp née 37Signals, wrote about not having goals:

I can’t remember having a goal. An actual goal.

There are things I’ve wanted to do, but if I didn’t do them I’d be fine with that too. There are targets that would have been nice to hit, but if I didn’t hit them I wouldn’t look back and say I missed them.

I don’t aim for things that way.

I do things, I try things, I build things, I want to make progress, I want to make things better for me, my company, my family, my neighborhood, etc. But I’ve never set a goal. It’s just not how I approach things.

Jason Kottke agrees, quoting from a Fast Company excerpt of The Antidote:

It turns out, however, that setting and then chasing after goals can often backfire in horrible ways. There is a good case to be made that many of us, and many of the organizations for which we work, would do better to spend less time on goalsetting, and, more generally, to focus with less intensity on planning for how we would like the future to turn out.

Dave Winer, who I respect greatly, says that he’s a goal-a-holic:

You might say I am a goal-oriented person. Even goal-driven. Sometimes to a fault.

There are times when in retrospect it would have been better to give up and pursue a different goal. I’ve wasted a fair amount of time throwing good money after bad.

I remember as a kid, saying to my father that I couldn’t understand how anyone would choose to not be directed to do great things with their life. I was hoping he would tell me what he was trying to do. He said most people don’t have goals.

I don’t do goals very well. My wife, on the other hand, is very much a goal-setter, to the point that she feels listless when she doesn’t have an explicit goal towards which to work. We frustrate each other in this regard, to put it mildly.

At work, goalsetting is far and away my least favorite thing, and not just because it runs against the grain of my personality, but mostly because it tends to be a lot of wasted work. We make lots of plans with detailed goals, and then the universe has its say and throws those plans to the wind. It’s OK, life goes on and at the end of the half or year we are still able to look back and be happy with what happened, even though it wasn’t what we planned on happening.

One of my favorite quotes is from USMC General James Mattis: “No war is over until the enemy says it’s over. We may think it over, we may declare it over, but in fact, the enemy gets a vote.” And that’s how it is with everything–we get one vote and the universe gets two.

Instead of goals, I try for habits. Good processes. Things that will move me and my work in a direction that I’m generally happy with, without spending too much time plotting the exact course. It has worked reasonably well for me thus far, and seems to not be as uncommon of a philosophy as I had feared it was.

That we're living in a simulation is taken for granted

Random quote from HN:

That we’re living in a simulation is taken for granted. On the other hand the idea that we can comprehend the nature of the simulation or its creators should not be taken for granted.

Does a glider in Conway’s Game of Life comprehend the hardware its running on? Does it know the mind of Conway?

And perhaps more importantly does it matter?

Don't boo, vote: the OSS ethos for politics

With one sentence in last night's speech at the Democratic National Convention, President Obama tied two of my worlds together.

One of my favorite internal Facebook sayings is “nothing at Facebook is somebody else’s problem.” This is a restatement of a long-held principle of open source software–if you don’t like how something works, don’t complain, fix it, and then send a patch so that everyone else can benefit from your fix. It might seem naive, but it’s this approach that has gotten us the internet, which is miraculous despite all of its warts, and it’s this approach that drives forward innovation.

Democracy is essentially open source. There are plenty of problems with American democracy, but for now we can fundamentally change it if we put our minds to it. When Obama responded to boos at Trump’s name with “don’t boo, vote,” he was expressing that essential open source mindset: this belongs to all of us, and if you want to make it better, you’re going to need to do it.

It’s not a perfect analogy by any means, but it’s getting there. We have to participate in our politics, not just stand on the sidelines and bitch. Voting is a good step, and there are many more steps beyond that if you’re interested, but at very least you need to vote.

Nothing in America is somebody else’s problem.

Trump and white poverty

Far and away the best view into the mentality of Trump's supporters I've read this election season. It's too easy (and condescending) to simply dismiss the support he's receiving as ignorance.

Please read this interview with former Marine and Yale Law graduate J.D. Vance, the author of “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis”. I’ve heard bits of these things said by others, but nothing I’ve read thus far puts it together as well as this interview does.

The two political parties have offered essentially nothing to these people for a few decades. From the Left, they get some smug condescension, an exasperation that the white working class votes against their economic interests because of social issues, a la Thomas Frank (more on that below). Maybe they get a few handouts, but many don’t want handouts to begin with.

From the Right, they’ve gotten the basic Republican policy platform of tax cuts, free trade, deregulation, and paeans to the noble businessman and economic growth. Whatever the merits of better tax policy and growth (and I believe there are many), the simple fact is that these policies have done little to address a very real social crisis. More importantly, these policies are culturally tone deaf: nobody from southern Ohio wants to hear about the nobility of the factory owner who just fired their brother.

Trump’s candidacy is music to their ears.

The elite’s condescension comes from both cultural disconnect and the fact that it is “safe” to look down on poor whites without violating elite white social norms against racism and xenophobia.

A lot of it is pure disconnect–many elites just don’t know a member of the white working class. A professor once told me that Yale Law shouldn’t accept students who attended state universities for their undergraduate studies. (A bit of background: Yale Law takes well over half of its student body from very elite private schools.) “We don’t do remedial education here,” he said. Keep in mind that this guy was very progressive and cared a lot about income inequality and opportunity. But he just didn’t realize that for a kid like me, Ohio State was my only chance–the one opportunity I had to do well in a good school. If you removed that path from my life, there was nothing else to give me a shot at Yale. When I explained that to him, he was actually really receptive. He may have even changed his mind.

Vance, a political conservative, was also asked for advice for liberals. One bit stood out to me, and is something that I personally want to work on:

Liberals have to get more comfortable with dealing with the poor as they actually are. I admire their refusal to look down on the least among us, but at some level, that can become an excuse to never really look at the problem at all.

It’s hard to look at a culture of which I am not part and say “you know what, this part of the culture is fucked up and is holding you back” and not feel like a total asshole. And sometimes people who talk like that are total assholes, and are coming from a place of condescension. But not always, and ignoring the real problems faced by people makes it impossible to address those problems.

Again, read the whole thing. I’ve already bought the book, and it’s next in my queue.

The internet's Twitter

Dave Winer asks for visions of what "the internet's Twitter" would look like, and these are my thoughts.

A few days ago Dave Winer asked for visions of a decentralized, open version of Twitter – a Twitter owned by the internet, rather than by a single corporation. I responded in a short Github gist, but I’ve thought about it a bit more and wanted to record my thoughts here.

In my original post I said:

I think the short answer is “something like XMPP.” XMPP has a lot of things going for it: 1. It’s an open standard (we can all build our own implementations and fork our own features and at a base level it will remain compatible as long as we’re not dorks and break the interface). 2. It’s federated (I can choose who I trust, and I don’t have to pay for everyone to use my server).

Dave responded saying that he had “always wanted a simplified API for XMPP. Send a message, get a message.” I think he’s right that the XMPP interface is too complicated.

Manton Reece also responded, saying:

But as great as XMPP is for messaging, it seems too different from the web; it would be like starting over. The nice thing about building on independent microblogs is that we can leverage the existing open web infrastructure: all the WordPress installs, RSS feeds, and new work from the IndieWebCamp.

Totally fair point–HTTP has a huge install base, and the more that’s built on top of it the more resilient the entire system becomes. So, what’s the middle ground?

The big advantages that XMPP give you are that it’s built from the ground up to be real-time and distributed. There’s a very clear model for how messages pass between servers, and from servers to clients, in both directions. This is helpful. Open web infrastructure obviously comes with its own advantages, mostly around install base, software diversity (everything works across HTTP), and scalability (I can host a static blog on S3/Cloudfront–and I do!–and it could receive millions of views tomorrow without any concern about servers failiing).

I think the missing piece is notifications. If someone posts something, I want to know that they’ve posted it. If their post results in an updated item in their RSS feed, I need an easy way to know that their RSS feed has been updated. RSS readers did that in the past (and I think contributed mightily to RSS’s success), but the Google Reader apocalypse has taught us not too put too many eggs in one corporation’s basket (plus the whole point of this exercise is to think about a non-centralized Twitter). Of course I could poll the RSS feed, but that doesn’t really scale, and requires me the end user to set up server software which is a total non-starter if this is to compete with Twitter.

In the old days there were ping services (and there may still well be) that you could ping when you updated a post, but they were flooded with spam. Maybe there’s something there, but it would need to be better architected. It is still effectively a poll by the client on the ping server’s list of updated feeds, but at least the polls are to central nodes, rather than many-to-many across clients. This makes it a bit more centralized, but there needn’t be a single ping server. You could register with many and update several at once, and the ping servers themselves could be federated.

Hmm… maybe there’s something here. Open web standards for publishing and consuming, and a layer of real-time messaging and updating for publishers to notify clients when new content is available. I’ll have to think a bit more about how this might work.

The 2016 US elections, and why encryption matters

Do you really want a searchable, indexable database of all of your past communications to be available to a Donald Trump-run government? If the answer is 'no,' you should learn about encryption.

Donald Trump is scary, and dangerous, but he’s probably not Hitler.

But what about the next demagogue? And the next?

Fascist states have sprung out of times of turmoil and inequity throughout history. We are living in a time of turmoil and inequity. Who’s to say that fascism won’t take root here? Bush and Obama have largely dismantled the Constitutional protections that were intended to keep the executive from wielding dictatorial powers.

Meanwhile, we have built and deployed the largest and most sophisticated surveillance system in history. Snowden may have embarrassed the NSA, but he didn’t stop it. What you say today is most likely not going to cause you any problems today because we still enjoy the rule of law. What if someday we no longer enjoy the rule of law? During upheavals like the Nazi takeover of Germany, Stalin’s terrors, and the Cultural Revolution in China, just the mention of some past utterance against the current state was often enough to get you in trouble. What about a searchable, indexable database of past utterances?

This is where encryption is important. While it not enough if you’re the direct target of a hostile state, it does prevent casual collection and indexing, because without being able to decrypt the message the message can’t be indexed, and if it can’t be indexed it can’t be searched. It’s not perfect, and it’s not terribly user friendly, but it’s a start.

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