Other writing: December 2022

What have I been writing when I haven’t been writing here?

Stuff I wrote

The Pragmatic Programmers

  • Manage your project deadlines — Deadlines are easy to set and hard to meet. So how do you set deadlines that aren’t hard to meet? It’s not hard!

Fedora

Stuff I curated

Fedora

Opensource.com

Book review: Sapiens

I just finished listening to Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuvah Noah Harari. It an interesting look at the history of our species as viewed through the lens of thee revolutions: cognitive, agricultural, and scientific.

Harari takes a detached — and sometimes cynical — view of history. He does not place humanity at the center of the story. Instead, he talks about humans and human systems as part of a broader evolutionary process. For example, he says “we did not domesticate wheat; it domesticated us.”

There is no inevitability

It is a mistake, he argues, to ascribe intent to evolutionary processes. Humanity is not the end goal. It follows, then, that there is no underlying purpose of human life. We exist because we exist. Whatever meaning we give life is a shared myth, as is all of human culture. Our economic, political, religious, and all other systems exist and have power because we agree they exist and have power.

For me, some of the more interesting parts of the book were the descriptions of how various economic systems influenced — or even necessitated — historical outcomes. European colonization and empire from the 15th century to today is not because of any innate nature of Europeans. Environmental factors and accidents of invention gave Europe’s leaders the ability and motivation to conquer the globe. Were we able to replay history a hundred times, how many times would western Europe become the home of global empire rather than, say, the Middle East?

Are you better off than your ancestors?

I was also intrigued by early discussions of the relative quality of life and later discussions of human happiness. For all of the hardships we imagine our ancestors faced, Harari argues that our hunter-gatherer forebears may have had a greater overall standard of living than their post-agricultural-revolution descendants. Nevertheless, the agricultural revolution prompted changes in our societies that made going back all but impossible.

“Happiness” is a difficult concept to explain, let alone measure. Nonetheless, it seems plausible that we are no more happy than our grandparents’ generation, or their grandparents’ generation, or… If happiness has not increased, what was the point of the millennia of changes? Why do we try to increase our wealth, expand our understanding, and conquer disease? What, truly, is the point of anything?

The questions to ask

“What, truly, is the point of anything?” is a question to ask. But it’s a mistake to think any answer find is universal. What we consider as fundamental human rights are only fundamental because we think they are. Perhaps societies many thousand years ago that had little concept of individual well-being and instead focused on the well being of the collective were right? Ah, but what does it mean to even be right? Rightness depends on the cultural context, which in tend depends on the shared myths in that place and time.

Sapiens ends with a look at the future and how our technology puts us in a position to render ourselves obsolete. We are forced to confront the question of “what do we want?” for our future. But that’s not the most pressing question, Harari says. We should be asking ourselves “what do we want to want?”

Should you read this?

Although I found much of the latter part of the book less interesting, the book overall was well worth the time. It was thought-provoking in ways that I did not expect. I may end up re-reading it with the intent of putting it aside to explore the thoughts as they arise.

Sapiens was first published in English in 2015. Although that was less than a decade ago, some parts of it feel out of touch. Harari describes a move away from nationalism. While that may be true in the broader sense, the last few years have bucked that trend — in the US and elsewhere. Similarly, he says that no state can “declare and wage war as it pleases”, yet Russia has done just that. Although it faces international retribution, and indeed may prove to be worse off as a result, it nonetheless is very much waging a war against Ukraine.

It’s a mistake to assume that history is a smooth line. Only time will tell if recent events are the start of a long trend or a ripple in the trajectory of history of homo sapiens.

Don’t make new tools fit the same hole as the old tools

I forgot what prompted me to have this thought three and a half years ago, but it seems fitting for the moment.

One of the worst things you can do when replacing a tool is to try to make it work just like the old one. If the old and new tools were meant to be exactly the same, they wouldn’t be different tools.

Change is hard but necessary. You know what else is hard? Trying to contort your old workflow to work with the new tool. Replacing the tool is an opportunity to improve your processes. If nothing else, it prevents you from fighting the tool.

This holds true even if you’re writing the tool yourself. If you’re doing the work to write a new tool (or rewrite an old one), take the opportunity to re-think how you work. What assumptions have you carried forward that are no longer valid? What new ways of working have you learned since you first adopted the old tool?

I’m seeing this play out on Mastodon as people used to Twitter try to adjust. They expect certain things based on their use of Twitter. And while Mastodon has a lot in common with Twitter, they’re not the same. Some things may change as Mastodon grows. And some of the Mastodon experience probably should be more like Twitter, even if it isn’t. But if you make the switch, think about why you think it should work the way you want.

Prepare the lifeboats?

When do I leave Twitter? That’s a very good question and I don’t have a very good answer for it. But last night I decided to go ahead and create a Mastodon account just in case. It’s been less than two months since I wrote “Mastodon won’t save us“. I stand by everything I wrote there. But as Elon Musk continues to corncob at an accelerating pace, there may not be a Twitter to cling to much longer.

Where are my people?

Someone on Mastodon objected to my use of the word “lifeboat”. But that’s what it is. I care about Mastodon as a technology exactly as much as I care about Twitter: none cares. The important part is the social aspect. I ran my accounts through the Movetodon tool. Of the 2708 accounts I follow on Twitter, it found 380 Mastodon accounts. I’ve manually added 19 others. Most of them are my tech friends.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my tech friends. But what about the ~2300 others? My timeline gets a lot less interesting if 85% of the people I follow disappear.

Will I use it?

I know myself well enough to know that I crave the interactions of social media. Because I try to associate myself with kind people, my replies are almost universally soothing to my overwhelming sense of insufficiency. So even if Twitter survives, I’ll probably end up active on Mastodon without meaning to be. That’s how I roll.

One thing I’ve already noticed, though, is that I’ve skipped on posting a few things already this morning. I wasn’t sure if I should post to Twitter or Mastodon, so decided not to post at all. I have long believed that cross-posting to various social media sites is anti-social and I have no desire to maintain parallel streams of thought. I guess we’ll have to see how this plays out.

Other writing: November 2022

What I have I been writing when I haven’t been writing here?

Stuff I wrote

Duck Alignment Academy

Fedora

Stuff I curated

Fedora

Happy birthday, Kurt

Booth Tarkington. Theodore Dreiser. John Green (a transplant). Ben Cotton. Indiana has a tradition of great authors. But none of them can compare to Kurt Vonnegut, Junior, who would have turned 100 years old today.

My dad first introduced me to Vonnegut’s work when I was in sixth grade or so. He lent me his copy of God Bless You, Mister Rosewater when I went on a road trip with some extended family. I’d never read anything like it. It mixed talk of pubic hair with phrases like “offensive effluvium.”

The first story we read in the Junior Great Books after-school program in seventh grade was the short story “Harrison Bergeron.” I loved that story. The rest of the year was a disappointment.

But soon I was reading other Vonnegut books. Breakfast of Champions inspired several projects for the intro to drama class I took my sophomore year. The first assignment was to make a poster for a play — real or imagined. I decided to make a poster for “Cornflakes”, a play where a man went crazy and began eating nothing but corn flakes. For a later assignment, I had to design a set. I kept using “Cornflakes” and designed the slide room from the play: the room where the main character slid down a slide into a giant bowl of corn flakes. My drama class was at the end of the day, so I had eaten many of the corn flakes by the time class rolled around. I still got a decent grade. Later on, I began writing the short story when I had down time in classes. It is mercifully lost to time, but as far as I know, it remains the only short story based on a set based on a poster.

Breakfast of Champions has been my favorite since I first read it, and not just because Dwayne Hoover has some absolutely bonkers lines. It wrestles with questions of existence in a way that’s both profound and absurd. In the 25 years that I’ve read and re-read it, something else catches me every time.

Mother Night is the same way. When I was younger, it was a tragic tale of a hero who lost everything in order to anonymously serve his country. Now, it’s a cautionary tale. Whenever I’m tempted to pretend to be a terrible person on the Internet for some lulz, I stop and think “we are what we pretend to be.” Howard W. Campbell was absolutely a good guy to a younger me. Older me isn’t so sure.

Of course, I’ve ready many other Vonnegut books, and books about Vonnegut. I even got to help with a time capsule and a literary landmark designation at the Vonnegut Museum earlier this year. I don’t have time to go into all that I know, or think, or wish I knew about Kurt Vonnegut. But it’s clear that his work has had a profound effect on me. I often catch myself trying to be witty in a way that is, at best, a poor imitation of Vonnegut’s style.

When my sisters and I were coming up with the eulogy I was to read at Dad’s funeral, we knew it had to include a Vonnegut reference. I’m glad that a love of these books (even though I think much more highly of Slapstick than Dad did) was a bond that my father and I could share. And when my kids are a little bit older, I hope that I can share that with them. I hope Kurt would have liked that.

Other writing: October 2022

What have I been writing when I haven’t been writing here?

Stuff I wrote

The Pragmatic Programmers

Duck Alignment Academy

Fedora

Stuff I curated

Pragmatic Bookshelf

  • Designing Data Governance from the Ground Up — I was a tech reviewer for Lauren Maffeo’s book. Lauren provides an excellent framework for implementing data governance for leaders at any level of an organization. It gives real-world guidance that’s easy to understand and apply, whether you’re a data expert or not.

Fedora

Twitter blew

Last night, Alex Heath reported that Elon Musk wants to raise the price of Twitter Blue and require it for verification. It’s possible that this decision won’t backfire spectacularly, but I have concerns.

Misunderstood feature

At its core, this decision fundamentally misunderstands verification. First, it’s less a benefit for the verified user than it is for the rest of the users. It’s essentially a trust mechanism: this person is who they say they are. Verification means users can more easily determine if something was said by a politician or a clever impersonator.

Of course, misunderstanding verification is not unique to Elon Musk. Twitter has always been a company that doesn’t quite understand its product. Under previous leadership, Twitter has revoked the verified status of users who have repeatedly been bad actors on the platform. This signals that verification is some sort of approval, rather than identification.

No doubt some people will choose to pay the monthly fee in order to retain their blue checkmark. But for a lot of smaller celebrities, local journalists and politicians, and the like, the $20 per month fee doesn’t seem worthwhile. There’s a value mismatch, too: verification is a one-time activity; tying it to a monthly subscription makes no sense. (It will also be interesting to see how large companies handle this. A $20/month fee is rounding error to large companies. Will they see it as worthwhile to set that up in their accounting system or will they require the social media manager to expense it?)

Show me the money

The price increase is another matter. Twitter Blue’s feature set is marginally interesting to me. I’ve given some thought to paying for it in the past at the $5 price point. At $20, it makes absolutely no sense for me. At $20, you’re more expensive than Netflix, Disney+, and several other streaming services. Does Musk think that Twitter Blue offers a Netflix level of value over the free Twitter tier?

Maybe he plans to reach his goal of having half of Twitter’s revenue come from subscriptions by destroying the ad market instead. It’s hard to see this move as anything but “I’m going to stick it to all of those liberal blue check elitists.” Quadrupling the price of a subscription and extorting your most active users is some galaxy brain business shit, I guess.

Who wants to work for this guy?

Heath’s article also says that Musk gave the team until November 7 to deliver this or else they’re fired. There’s nothing like swooping in, making a stupid demand, and tying employment to a tight delivery timeline to chase employees away. Of course, Musk has said he wants to reduce the staff at Twitter, so this might be considered a feature. But the people most likely to leave are the high performers who can easily get a job elsewhere. Seems like those are the folks you’d most want to keep.

There’s also the stories about how Musk brought in Tesla engineers to review code. “Software engineering is software engineering,” supporters say. Bullshit. Talented software engineers can look at unfamiliar code and figure out what it does, yes. But car software and social media sites are not the same. They have different considerations. Any sufficiently old code base has a lot of history that makes seemingly bad choices actually be the best choice, unless you plan on starting over from scratch.

As I was scrolling in the middle of the night because my body is dumb and didn’t want to sleep, I saw a tweet from someone who just got the full self-driving beta for their Tesla. It reminded me of how detached Elon Musk’s timelines are from reality.

Why do I care?

I feel sorry for the people who work at Twitter. Their jobs got a lot more unpleasant on Friday and there’s not much they can do about it. More selfishly, I don’t want Twitter to implode. I’ve been able to make friends over the years with people whose interests barely overlap my own. My network is full of weather, technology, sports, English professors, locals of various pursuits, and other total strangers that I’m lucky to have found. If Twitter collapses, not everyone will run to the same place. Some will move to Mastodon or other Twitter-like services popping up. Others seem to be heading for Instagram. Some will probably just abandon social media all together.

I don’t care if Elon Musk succeeds or not. But I want Twitter to succeed.

Mastodon won’t save us

By the end of this week, Twitter will (maybe?) be owned by Elon Musk. And as much as the past leadership hasn’t understood the site, the future doesn’t understand it even more. Some users are publicly contemplating leaving the site, perhaps much in the same way that people say they’ll move to Canada after an election. In any case, people are talking about Mastodon a lot more than they have in a while.

I’m not convinced that Mastodon is the answer. Social media success isn’t about being technically or morally better; it’s about the network. Almost everyone I’d interact with on Mastodon is already on Twitter. Where’s the incentive to move? I get to maintain two parallel accounts instead? It’s a Catch-22 that helps the big players stay entrenched. Will the average person get mad enough at Twitter to switch to something else? I’m not betting on that.

If people do switch, the decentralized nature of Mastodon is an anti-feature for the average person. There’s no one Mastodon service like there is with Twitter. How does the average person pick an instance? How do small instance maintainers keep going?

In some ways, Mastodon is more like email than Twitter. The federated nature makes moderation and safety more complex. Detecting ban evasion is hard enough on a single server, never mind dozens of servers. Despite its ubiquity, no one loves email and spam continues to be a fact of life.

Centralization is inevitable-ish, at least for a successful service. At which point, we’ve just shifted the problem.

Write a tweet before you write a book chapter

When my publisher’s very smart and talented publicist suggested I post about my book weekly for four weeks, I decided to do one better. Or nine better, really. “I’ll do one post about each chapter,” I confidently said to my kanban board. This turned out to be great advice that I wish Past Ben had.

I don’t know how much of an effect it had on sales. The feedback loop is far too long there. But even if I’ve tapped out the buying (and sharing) power of my network, the thought process is useful. I wish I had done it before I started writing. If you can’t explain a chapter’s value in 240 characters, is it worth including?

When you’re writing a non-fiction book, you’re in a bit of a race against time. Particularly in tech, the longer it takes you to write the book, the more likely it is that the earliest content is out of date. One of the ways to keep the writing time low is to not include material that doesn’t matter. If you can concisely express why a chapter (or section, even) matters, it’s probably good to include it. If not, you either need to cut it or think a little harder about why it’s important.

One suggestion that my editor gave me early in the process is to state a problem that each section solved. This was mostly for the reader’s benefit: it told them why they should care about a particular section. But it also made me think about why the section should be included. More than once, I cut or reworked a planned section because I couldn’t clearly express a meaningful problem.