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.

Other writing: September 2022

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

Stuff I wrote

Duck Alignment Academy

The Pragmatic Programmers

Fedora

Lafayette Eats

  • Sunrise Diner — Sunrise has been a staple of downtown Lafayette for decades.

Stuff I curated

Fedora

Open source is selfish: that’s good and bad

Back in May, Devin Prater wrote an excellent piece on Medium titled “Linux Accessibility: an unmaintained Mess“. Devin talks about the poor state of accessibility on mainstream Linux distributions. While blind people have certainly used Linux, it’s generally not an easy task. There’s a simple explanation for this: most open source contributors aren’t blind.

There’s no rule that you can’t make accessible software if you don’t need that particular accessibility feature. But for many open source contributors, their contributions are based on “scratching their own itch.” People work on the things that are personally interesting to them or impact them in some way.

That’s a good thing! It means they’re invested in how well the software works. I’m sure you’ve used some applications where you thought “there’s no way the people who made this actually used it.”

The problem comes when we’re excluding potential users and contributors. People with vision problems can’t contribute because they can’t easily use the software. And when they can use it, the tools for contributing add another barrier. I can’t imagine trying to understand a patch or an XML file read aloud, but there are people who have to do that.

In Program Management for Open Source Software, I wrote “software is only useful to the degree that people can use it”. I don’t have a great solution. As a community, we need to figure out how to keep the good part of the selfishness while being more inclusive.

SaaS makes the Linux desktop work

That take got fewer bites than I expected, so either it’s not very spicy or I need to repeat myself. But I want to give myself some room to expand on this idea.

To the average user, operating systems are boring. In fact, they’re mostly irrelevant. With the exception of some specialized applications (either professional or gaming), the vast majority of users could sit down at any computer and do what they need to do. Give them a web browser, and they can get to everything else.

For the purposes that matter, the Linux desktop has won. Except it’s not traditional distributions like Fedora or Debian. It’s Android and ChromeOS. And it’s not on desktop PCs. It’s on phones, tablets, and some laptops. If we meant something else when we spoke of “The Year of the Linux Desktop”, we should have been more specific.

That said, Linux desktops as Linux enthusiasts envisioned them are suitable for mainstream users. But it’s not because of native, locally-running apps; it’s because software-as-a-service (SaaS) makes the OS irrelevant.

This is not a cause for alarm. It’s actually an opportunity. It’s never been easier to move someone from Windows or macOS to Linux. You don’t have to give them a mapping of all of their old apps, you just say “here’s your browser. Have fun!” That’s not to say that the ecosystem lacks first-rate applications. Great FOSS applications exist for all OSes. But with SaaS, the barrier to changing the OS is dramatically reduced.

Of course, SaaS has problems, both technical and philosophical. We shouldn’t ignore those. The concerns have just moved up to another later. But we have the opportunity to move more people to Linux while we — as both FOSS communities and society in general —- address the concerns of SaaS. Or, perhaps more likely, move them up another layer.

Book review: Why Fish Don’t Exist

I found Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by accident. Someone had shared a screen capture of a Tumblr post which talked about how trees aren’t a thing, taxonomically speaking. How weird. And then I saw that fish are also not a thing. Mindblowing. Somewhere in my searches to prove to my girlfriend that I was not making this up (although she can be forgiven, because that is very much the sort of thing I’d make up), I found Lulu Miller’s 2020 book.

I checked it out from the library as an audiobook so that Miranda and I could listen to it together. We were prepared to learn all about how fish are a lie. But we did not learn that.

Well, we learned it eventually. But only in the last chapter does Miller actually touch on the subject. The rest of the book is a mix of her life and the life of David Starr Jordan. Jordan was a famous researcher in his day, credited with discovering a fifth of the fish species we know today. He was president of Indiana University and later was the founding president of Stanford University. Oh yeah, he was also a eugenicist and may have been involved in murder.

Miller does an excellent job of tying the ups and downs in her life to Jordan’s. He serves as both inspiration and…whatever the opposite of inspiration is. The book is a fascinating and engaging tale. Had I not been waiting to learn about the fish, I would have loved it. Instead, I found it frustrating. I might read it again, knowing what to expect—and what not to expect.

Other writing: May–August 2022

What have I been writing when I haven’t been writing here? Not much, but I’m picking up the pace again! And Program Management for Open Source Projects is now available in print and DRM-free ebook!

Stuff I wrote

The Pragmatic Programmers

Duck Alignment Academy

Opensource.com

Fedora

Stuff I curated

Fedora