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 Particularly in tech, the longer it takes you to write the book, the more likely it is that the earliest content is out of date.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


Lafayette Eats

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

Stuff I curated


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


Stuff I curated


Book review: Word Freak

I wasn’t sure what I’d get when I started reading Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive SCRABBLE Players by Stefan Fatsis. I’m a fan of the game, although I’ve never played it competitively. After reading this book, I never will.

It’s not that the book is bad. To the contrary, it’s surprisingly engaging. But the competitive game bears little resemblance to the game I play with friends. And the people who play at a high level? If Fatsis is to be taken at his word, they’re a pretty messed up bunch.

Can Fatsis be trusted, though? He’s hardly an objective observer. Instead of a distanced, sociological study, Fatsis immerses himself. He becomes what he studies, trying to achieve an expert ranking and befriending his subjects. Yet the way he describes them is hardly flattering. He paints them as a group of barely-functional obsessives.

Are they? Perhaps. It could be that he focused on the misfits because the normies don’t make for a good book. But whether or not the word freaks are representative of Scrabble’s top tier, Fatsis becomes one of them. Frankly, he does not paint himself in a very flattering light either. Although the arc of the book is his quest for an expert-level ranking, he’s not a sympathetic protagonist.

The history of the game is interesting. The strategies of the world’s top players are astounding. And the people are mostly pitiable. It makes for an interesting read, despite the length. But if you find yourself wanting to join that world, I think you should reconsider.

Book Review: Pleading Out

I was only a few pages in when Pleading Out: How Plea Bargaining Creates a Permanent Criminal Class made me angry. It wasn’t because of how Dan Canon wrote. It was because of what he wrote. In Bordenkircher v. Hayes, the Supreme Court held that prosecutors could, in effect, punish a defendant for asserting their right to a trial. Potter Stewart wrote that this was part of “any legitimate system which tolerates and encourages the negotiation of pleas.”

While legal systems in the United States do tolerate and encourage plea deals, a reasonable person can question the legitimacy of the system. That Paul Hayes received a life sentence for forging a $88.30 check calls the legitimacy of the system into question.

Canon spends the rest of the book making the case that the plea bargain system as practiced in the United States is not legitimate. It does not serve the interests of justice, but of power. “The American legal system,” he writes, “was designed by people in power as a tool to keep them in power whatever the cost.”

American exceptionalism

Plea bargains are rare in other countries. In the United States, 97% of convictions come from guilty pleas. Most of those are bargained. Why is that? Prior to the 1830s, plea bargains were rare in America. Attitudes started shifting when labor solidarity developed in the early industrial factories. Plea bargaining hid prosecution from the public eye, preventing scrutiny and revolt.

The expansion of federal crimes after Prohibition led to a need to process cases more efficiently. “What we have inherited is an amoral system of criminal proceedings; it cannot be called criminal justice. Expediency, not fairness, is the principal concern.”

It’s no coincidence that the United States has the highest incarceration rate and also the highest plea bargain rate. As Michelle Alexander explores in greater depth in The New Jim Crow, the legal system creates a permanent criminal underclass that has long-lasting effects.

Liberty and justice for some

The high volume of cases means that lawyers can’t keep up. Prosecutors can’t screen cases to drop the obviously bad ones. Worse, defense attorneys can’t mount vigorous defenses. Canon notes that in 15% of exonerations, the defendant gave a false confession. Thousands of innocent people are sitting in jail today because the police or prosecutors railroaded them into confessing to a crime they didn’t commit.

Because plea bargains are secretive, there’s no accountability. Wealthy defendants can work themselves into a sweet deal. Poor and middle-class defendants have to take what the prosecution offers. If they dare insist on a trial, they face persecution, not prosecution. Ask Paul Hayes. This does not benefit society.

So what do we do?

It doesn’t have to be this way. Canon writes about the decade when Alaska eliminated plea bargaining. The system adjusted. Prosecutors dropped cases they couldn’t—or shouldn’t—prove. Police got more careful with their investigations, knowing they’d actually be accountable. It wasn’t perfect, but it was an improvement.

Our current system doesn’t have to be our system forever. But it won’t change on it’s own. The first step is an informed populace. That’s why I’d recommend Pleading Out to anyone who cares about justice.

Other writing: April 2022

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

Stuff I wrote


Stuff I curated