0.0 Context setting
It’s Wednesday 5 May, 2021. A sunny day in Portland, Oregon and I’d be writing outside on the deck but for it finally being allergy/hayfever season and my body completely freaking out.
This is of course excellent timing because tomorrow I’m going to have my second Pfizer shot and my immune system has spent the last year not doing much so let’s get it all over with in one go.
Today, Facebook’s Oversight Board (not, I want to be clear, the Oversight Board, as is Facebook’s preference) issued its “ruling” about Facebook’s banning of the previous president of the United States, which is as much an object lesson in “how the internet works”, the abject failure of government to pay attention to what was happening on the internet for the last 30-odd years, a pretty damning indictment of that laissez-faire attitude, and a wonderful teachable moment for “what a non-governmental for-profit private entity can do” versus “what it can do when it operates in a society supposedly governed by a, well, government”.
Before I get on with the show, a request!
If you’re an editor or if you know a friendly editor, I’m finally getting around to collecting my writing on the subject of waves hands digital transformation and so on. I will need an editor to help me turn that collected writing into an ebook! Are you potentially that person? Do you know someone who might be? If you are, please drop me a line by replying. Thanks!
Now we can get on with the show:
1.0 Some things that caught my attention
First, cats are susceptible to optical illusions just like we humans are, and now there’s a citizen-science published paper on cats being able to perceive the Kanizsa contour illusion, which creates square contours through negative space.
Caught my attention because: Cognitive psychology is totally my jam, visual neuroscience is definitely my jam.
Can you hear me now?
Last year, NASA chose Nokia to “build the first ever cellular network on the Moon” as part of the NASA’s Artemis program. It’s an LTE network (well, it’s going to be an LTE network).
Aside: I learned that the current incarnation of Bell Labs is Nokia Bell Labs, of which the original was of course Bell Labs, then AT&T Bell Labs, then Lucent Technologies’ Bell Labs Innovations (remember Lucent? With that very 1990s brush-stroke red circle logo?), then Alcatel Lucent Bell Labs, and then since November 2015, Nokia Bell Labs.
This makes Nokia’s corporate description somewhat out of date (at least, tantalizingly out of date) because it starts “We create the technology to connect the world”, and if this project is carried through, Nokia will need to update it to at least “We create the technology to connect the World and the Moon”. Although I suppose I need to check to see if any of Nokia’s technology is a critical part of the Deep Space Network.
Anyway, this is all part of NASA’s strategy now that it’s buying COTS hardware for access to space (nicely summarized by Eric Berger) and theoretically using SpaceX’s Starship, because using Starship theoretically means a capability of getting “more than 200 tons to the Moon” in one mission, paving the way to charismatic megaprojects like legit lunar bases.
Writing on the internet
I wrote the other day that I was slowly starting to accept the inevitable, that I should change this newsletter “back to a blog” that also happens to be delivered by email alongside RSS. The fact that I’m now writing this in a newsletter is not lost on me.
For me, the most interesting part of the ensuing conversation was this part with Dorian Taylor and Matt Webb, which encompassed what is it that makes a newsletter different from a blog? There’s the usual points that I’m not interested in to be honest (they’re all just content, and we should all be using RSS more), because sure, that’s true, but how is a newsletter different from a blog?
Calling it all content and just talking about the irritating shift to newsletters as a delivery mechanism misses the point. They are mediums (sigh, media?) in themselves, despite the wishes of, say, marketers to treat them otherwise.
Matt, for example, has a blog and started writing online roughly the same time as me in the late 1990s. Matt recently started delivering his newsletter over email: here’s the latest web version. For me, Matt’s newsletter doesn’t quite nail a newsletter-ish tone of voice, mainly because it starts from writing-for-weblog. Matt thinks (and I agree) that he hasn’t managed to make the newsletter voice work, and that his feels more like blog + email-as-delivery-mechanism.
(Look, I can see where this is headed, and I’m going to out myself as being in this tiny little bubble of White Dudes Who Have Been Online For A Long Time, which means preface all of this with: this is just what some people are doing on the internet, and I have no doubt that historically (and presently) underrepresented people on the internet are likely doing way more interesting things).
Here’s what’s in my head:
A personal newsletter is, well, a personal newsletter. This one started out over 7 years ago as stream-of-conscious notes to myself: that’s why it’s called Things That Caught My Attention, and that’s why it’s relatively undisciplined and meanders or wends its way around the place.
The form I’ve evolved has a sort of top-and-tail that establishes that personal voice. And the medium matters: this is me, writing to you, and it arrives in something that is personal to you. This is qualitatively different from an RSS feed of a blog because that blog is published to the world, even though in both cases you have agency in deciding whether to subscribe to it. RSS subscriptions, right?
But look at the language around RSS. We talk about feeds and feed readers. A feed is… technical? I’m hesitant to bring up Google Reader again (frankly I’m somewhat proud that it’s taken this long in this Thing to get to it), but people clearly had a very personal attachment to Google Reader!
Anyway. The deliberate tone of this newsletter was that first I was writing to myself, and then I was writing to a small number of people, and then after that I was writing to a large number of people (just under a hundred paid subscribers, around 2,600 others along for the ride), many of whom were quite frankly intimidating. But still very defensively: this is me writing to you. And me. It’s complicated.
But a blog post would be different. Medium posts are different. The setting is different. The place is different. The context is different. I had a frankly stupendous story from a reader of getting my newsletter and reading it on the tube/on the way home from work in London and then seeing someone else read it on their phone and honestly, I should try to remember that story more because it’s kind of awesome?
What I’m struggling with is that I now have several hundred thousand words worth of newsletter and it feels like I need a proper home for it so people can link to it. Apparently people want to link to it! Because this is software all the way down, I have options which for me come with significant philosophical consequences. For example, I could:
- Just take all the archives, import them into a website, tag them, etc and have those be the canonical URLs.
- Write into a blog first and then collate those entries into a newsletter, Matt Webb-style, using glue and sticky-tape to send them out via Buttondown.
- … but that would mean a different tone of voice.
- Do the writing into a blog first but also write newsletter specific content that only occurs in the email, but also gets written back to the blog?
And this is all without figuring out if/whether I want to talk about the newsletter on Twitter.
Which is to say that Cory Doctorow is experimenting with this on Pluralistic, which is links and blog posts and commentary and Tumblr and delivered in a newsletter and delivered over Twitter (but also edited for Twitter, as far as I can tell) and also coming soon to Medium. I suppose, though, it is basically Cory’s job to write on the internet in a very internet way. … and what Cory has is pretty much the early 2000s era linklog with short description which is kind of what I started with, only writing run-on sentences about why I wanted to bookmark certain links and what’s, well, interesting about them.
All of which is to say writing on the internet is complicated if you think about it too much, and if your goal is to just write, perhaps don’t think about it too much.
Patricia Klein is a freelance designer who I found recently and amongst other work also makes mission patches. I especially liked this one for the Interstellar Parallax Experiment.
Data and Society have a new report out, The The Challenges of Building Healthy Tech for Young People, covering adolescent well-being and its prioritization (or lack thereof) in social media and games.
I’ve been thinking about ways to lay out some of my Dumb Twitter Fiction. Previous attempts at this were incredibly disappointing (or, at least, embarrassing) because it turns out when you take something specifically written for one medium and paced for that medium, and then try to turn it into prose fiction, it kind of breaks a little. Or it requires a lot more work. So the latest idea is to do something a bit like Robin Sloan’s Fish: a Tap Essay, of which I’ve been excitedly talking to Robin about. In the meantime, for related design reasons, here’s a guide I found about how to set up Keynote for grid layout design.
- OpenDoc was a 1990s era software component framework from Apple in the vein of Microsoft’s OLE, which was the thing that let your 486 computer very slowly embed a Microsoft Excel chart into a Word document in ways that felt like they should work, but actually in the end made everything worse. This is the kind of thing that I’d love to write more about, but instead I’m going to link to this question from Andy Matsuschak asking why OpenDoc failed, a great thread from Geoffrey Litt about OpenDoc, a frankly amazing blog post by Greg Maletic, then a Product Marketing Manager for OpenDoc and now at Panic. One of the general principles brought up in reply was Ken Kocienda’s, which was a reminder of Steve Jobs’ philosophy that “you can’t start with the technology and figure out where you’re going to sell it.”
You know what, I am going to go into that one a bit. There’s obviously nuance, and it’s important to understand that Jobs quote in the context of it being 1997 and Apple being pretty much about to go bankrupt. I think the pov back then was: look, you actually have products that you can sell and that people will buy. Technology that is technically superior isn’t going to save us. What’s going to save us is things that people will buy.
This is in opposition, I think, to technologies like USB and, say, light field dot depth sensors like what powers FaceID, that Apple have used in respectively iMac and iPhone X. In those cases, my understanding is that Apple’s gone out and found interesting technologies that are more or less ready and then figured out how to solve problems with technology that others have developed. This isn’t to say that Apple doesn’t develop technology like that in-house! But that feels like me to be the answer to “but Apple do start with technology and figure out how to sell it” sometimes.
My understanding of OpenDoc is that it’s more elegant and that it solves technical architectural problems as well as meeting ultimate user needs like “I want to make a document and not bounce between a spreadsheet and a word processor”, which sure, those are real, but… they can’t be bet-the-farm? They haven’t been, I don’t think, successful in a sort of big-bang roll-out. Arguably Apple could have done something like this with their in-house iWork suite, and Microsoft did do this with OLE, but I also think it’s telling in that (it’s my recollection at least) that OLE was most successful and most used by Microsoft so its Office applications teams could at least pretend to be reusing code. And even then my recollection is that it was a shitty experience that promised more than it delivered. OLE and OpenDoc promised to solve problems that developers and engineers see: it would be better if software would be componentized, it would be better if documents were made of much more structured data and not the horror of seeing a bitmap pasted inside a Word Document that’s turned into a PDF. But the reality of the situation is at the moment, you can’t make people make software work that way? Unless, I suppose, you have a history of breaking backward compatibility, clearly deprecating old APIs and more or less declaring that software needs to make use of new APIs Or Else. Which, I suppose, is what Apple’s doing. Anyway, you can see that Matuschak’s question was super interesting to me because it leads into a how should computing work area.
There’s an argument that we have an even worse problem now, which is that Saas, online document… applications like the entire Google Whatever It’s Called Now suite that includes Docs and Sheets don’t really integrate amongst themselves, never mind with third parties, other than through obscure (yet tantalizingly powerful) integrations like secret (or rather, not very well known) backdoors for getting live data into Sheets, for example. But otherwise, your Docs lives in Docs and thanks to platform economics, far off are the days when you could take a Doc and put it in, or have it be part of… whatever competing Document-Type-Application might exist in sizeable numbers in the future.
Okay, that’s it for today.
I have my second shot tomorrow. I think it’s telling (and sad?) that I’m not just happy about it, but that I’m tired at having no idea how I’ll ever claw back the energy spent over the last year. When will we stop being tired?
How are you?