Wednesday, November 26

Some folks point out that there is something kind of busted with the cert here. Most browsers do not seem to care, but some do. This is totally my bad - think I'm missing an intermediary or something, because I moved it from DreamHost fairly hamfistedly. I'm on the road for the next little while, but I'll take a look at this soon as I get a couple of hours to be frustrated at OpenSSL command line options and web server configuration.

Monday, November 24

so spam is normal behavior, but what if you stopped?

I have this thought for people working at several kinds of entity, including (but probably not limited to) retailers on the web and nonprofits who accept donations from the public at large.

Basically, it goes like this:

  1. Do you actually need your customers' e-mail / mailing addresses?
  2. If so, what for?
  3. So what if you consciously prevented yourself from being tempted to the kinds of action that having cheaply-used contact information encourages in the long term?

While I don’t have a great sense of the history here, I think it’s probably safe to say that mail-order businesses, publications, and charities have aggressively maintained lists of contact information for customers, subscribers, and donors for a very long time.

It’s certainly clear that this behavior has, in the age of databases and super-cheap networked communications, escalated and ramified in all sorts of ways. If you conduct a transaction of any kind with an e-commerce site or a charity, you can pretty well expect to get increasing quantities of e-mail (and maybe phone calls or paper envelopes full of guilt) from now until the heat death of the universe.

The incentives here are obvious enough: If you’ve spent money once, you’re almost definitionally the sort of person who might spend money again on the same thing. And if you’ve spent money once, you’ve probably handed over contact information of some kind as a basic element of the transaction. It shouldn’t be surprising that people looking to make money will look to make more of it from you, and, seeing as how they already got you on the hook once, have a reasonable expectation that maybe they can get you on the hook again.

What is spam?

Maybe spam is the hundredth time I see a thing I wouldn’t have minded seeing once.

Maybe spam is that which, when it appears in my inbox, I am immediately aware that I have not consented to seeing.

Maybe spam is an ad pretending to be something I should care about.

Maybe spam is that special form of theft which hijacks the superficial forms of communication to grind profit out of fractions of stolen cognitive bandwidth.

Here’s what spam is: If you’re trying to convince me you didn’t just spam someone, you just spammed someone.

So what is this experience like for customers, donors, and subscribers?

My feeling is that it’s kind of a shit sandwich. It’s cool if you want that kind of thing in your inbox, I guess (although you and I will probably never fully understand one another). And I get why so many people are so very good at tuning it out — it’s not like you’re given much of an option in civilization as it actually exists.

For people like me — people who are not actually very good at tuning out a lot of stimuli — it’s kind of painful. It’s like having your friends and relatives replaced by hundreds of televisions showing endless loops of some reality TV marathon.

No, that’s a bad analogy.

What it’s like is having all of the ways you communicate with your friends and relatives turn into the endless drone of the kind of communication exemplified by reality television, because that’s literally what is happening. None of the media with mass acceptance and big infrastructure are resistant to this mode of anti-communication, especially in an age when mass media are increasingly founded on the continuous delivery of spam.

It’s infinitely more costly, in raw cognitive and temporal terms, to stem the tide of this endless technicolor vomit than it is to be one incremental producer of the technicolor vomit itself. It costs a single human working at a single corporation about as much time to take a few seconds away from half a million people as it might take for any one of those people to block the stream of pseudocommunication. And there are literally millions of institutions with strong perceived incentives to create streams of pseudocommunication.

Assuming you’re not one of them, have you ever thought about what this does to the people who make it happen for a living? The people who lay down the mandates, and the people who grind out the pseudocontent, and the nerds living down on the wire who build the machinery and monger the data and manipulate the charts full of RoI and KPIs?

Let me tell you this: It’s not a real dignity-building exercise of craft.

So I got to thinking: In real concrete terms, what if you were an e-commerce site or a charity, and you had a policy, built out in software, of never storing contact info longer than needed for a given transaction?

I guess this could mean things like:

  • If you want to enable people logging in via e-mails, you hash e-mail addresses the same way you hash passwords. (And you think hard about what it would take someone to reverse the list by checking a known list of e-mails.)
  • You invent better password-recovery mechanisms than sending an e-mail.
  • Those of you working in currently well-behaved institutions scrub contact info for customers / donors / orders / donations older than six months, in anticipation of institutional corruption towards the spamming impulse.
  • You find a way to proxy communication to some reliable third party whose function is to hold contact info in escrow (revocable by you or the customer) until the transaction is complete.

Maybe only the last thing on that list hints at what really has to happen: The engineering of messaging systems where, unlike the mail model, knowing my address isn’t the same thing as being able to send me a message.

I’m not sure where to draw the lines, though. Spam may be a cultural problem, but if so, then it’s a cultural problem that can only exist in a huge matrix of engineering decisions. I don’t think I know how to engineer against it, but I do have to wonder if that’s not one place we should start. Spam is a failure mode, and good engineering depends on the awareness of failure modes.

I am pretty sure that this matters. It’d be fair to ask why I think that. I guess my short answer is that it seems to me like we all suffer when self-reinforcing noise soaks up the bandwidth; when filtering deceptive inputs overwhelms the limited space available for learning facts and making useful decisions and having emotional experiences that map well to reality.

A constant sense of vague irritation is not a very good replacement for situational awareness. The dull, shouty, repetition-rotten hum of commerce in every channel is not much of a soundtrack.

Spam as default modality is bad for our politics, our artistic life, and our sense of the people around us. I’m not even particularly convinced it’s great for business, or at least not for business as a thing you’d much want to participate in.

Sunday, November 23

We hooked up Toni’s dad’s old turntable to my dad’s old receiver and Randy’s old speakers, and now we are listening to a record by The War On Drugs. It sounds like shit, probably because every element of the audio equipment chain here is worn out in at least one crucial way, but actually I kind of like the record.

I think I remember that Mark Kozelek is having some sort of drama with or about this band. I am intent on not paying attention to any of this. I just want to listen to some records and go to some shows, man.

This receiver actually supports quadraphonic sound and advertises the fact. For this reason, and also because I remember pretending as a small child that the knobs and glowing green tuner display were a spaceship control panel, I’m determined to open the thing up and make it sound good again one of these days. I’m honestly not sure if that’s possible with any level of knowledge I’m liable to attain, but stranger things have happened.

Friday was my last day at SparkFun. People were unbelievably nice to me.

It can be an astonishing thing, in a certain sort of life, to look around and understand that you have, and have had for a long time now, a lot of friends.

I wrote a poem back in February that still feels like something I’d like to say.

Friday, November 14

So I put together a résumé.

I think I’m trying to find either:

  1. Something pretty local to Boulder County.
  2. Something remote that doesn’t involve soul-crushing amounts of travel to major coastal cities.

I’d also like to avoid things that leave me feeling like I’m working against the better world I keep claiming that professional nerds should be trying to build.

To state that in positive terms, I would like to work on something that feels like it is making things better, or at least not actively making them worse. I had that for a long time. It seems possible, if you get lucky.

My friends and family and all of the wise people in my life keep telling me that the thing to do is to have a job that is just a job, to enjoy your work on a technical level if you can, as a challenge to be met well, but fundamentally to live your real, human life outside the space of the hours you sell, and to invest nothing emotional or personal, nothing that involves your sense of yourself (beyond an aspiration to competence) in systems at the mercy of an employer’s interests and follies.

They’re so very right. Of course they’re right. Still and all, I’m going to take a little time looking, since right now I can afford to take a little time looking. I don’t think I actually regret how much of myself I put into the last thing. It’s not like it was actually destructive. It’s just always more fragile and contingent than you want it to be.

Learning to let shit go. That’s the hardest thing for people like me, predisposed to nostalgia and obsessed with memory. We’re good at the timebinding thing, good at the accumulation of certain kinds of knowledge. We’re just not as good as we should be at coping with the ground truth that everything dies. Not quite as ruthless with the past as lets you go through events without periodically getting cut to pieces by all the things you lose in even a very charmed life.

I’m picking this up as I go along, I guess. You don’t have much option.

Speaking, though of memory: I think I’m shading into a new relationship with the materials of history. Once you shed nostalgia, or at least grind it down to an occasional experience, best brought out only for a few minutes at family gatherings and while re-reading certain important childhood novels — well, maybe then you can recognize the structure of the past as a part of the space you inhabit now. Once you know that everything dies, maybe you can learn to have the kind of thoughts that take years or decades or centuries. Maybe you can learn to play the long game.

Wednesday, November 12

I’m fairly sure it’s colder than it was last night.

Tuesday, November 11

It’s late on a Tuesday night in November. The temperature outside has been in the single digits for a couple of hours, and is projected to reach a high somewhere around tomorrow. It’s the kind of night where I’ve got cabinet doors open wide and a trickle running from the faucets and I might just leave the heat on when I go to work tomorrow, utility bills be damned.

I’m about halfway through a bottle of red wine and halfway through a box of peppermint tea. I should probably stop on at least one of these. I’m pretty sure neither one is going to knock out the dwindling but tenacious remnant population of whatever microbe has been colonizing my respiratory system for the last week.

I’ve been working on userland again tonight. Showing people squiggle.city the other day, I got yet another reminder that the social part of the unix trip is one of the really compelling parts (maybe the really compelling part, if you think about just where the modern internet came from), and the book doesn’t address that stuff directly at all yet. I’m going to try for a long, discursive chapter about unix-like machines as shared spaces and re-write some of the other parts to line up with it better. I want to communicate something small but important about how the web emerged (and emerges!) from this matrix of other, older, less obvious things.

As my time at SparkFun winds down, I’m looking at how much of my life has been spent on this one little in-house IRC server with my coworkers. It’s a space with a lot of idiosyncracies and a lot of petty office drama, not infrequently a source of considerable stress, an ocean of stupid YouTube link bullshit — I’m gonna miss it so much.

Love is a buffer full of text.

I just pulled up Twitter and clicked “unfollow” three or four hundred times. I didn’t exactly think I was going to do it until I did it, and it was actually kind of a wrenching exercise, but I wasn’t sure how else to make myself stop using Twitter. I literally don’t follow anyone now. I uninstalled the client on my phone and my tablet and such. I suppose I’ll check in now and then, but I’m going to do my level best not to post things there. Or at least I’m going to try that and see how it goes. Twitter has been kind of a huge part of my life for a long time. I still have a lot of thoughts — good and useful ones — that want to become tweets.

For the longest time, I had this essay in the back of my mind, a long apology/defense for/of twitter-the-form and twitter-the-place. I wanted to talk about how twitter felt to me something like IRC with more time lag and “channels” defined by emergent networks of loose association rather than by a single decision to attach yourself to a named message stream. I wanted to talk about how, like a lot of great media, it was a vast array of different experiences and modes for a vast array of different people all at once, and how as a kind of protocol accidentally captured by a corporate implementation, it was a thing vastly better than the superficial similarities to commons-enclosing corporate silo-empires like Facebook might suggest.

I really loved twitter, at its best. But then on the other hand, a couple of things started happening.

The first was that twitter’s capacity to amplify, focus, and recirculate every negative emotional & intellectual experience started to eat away at me. I followed a bunch of people whose concerns and interests I shared (or wanted to share), people who probably take joy in the things I take joy in, people working on problems I care about, or wanted to learn how to care about — and somewhere along the way I began to notice that every time I read my twitter stream, I got depressed as hell. Lost and confused and sad and angry for days, sometimes.

The second was that Twitter the company really committed to the Facebookification of the internet in a way that became impossible to ignore. Somewhere within that organization, the decisions were made and carried forward to begin dismantling the basic structure of the thing (a reverse-chronological stream of length-constrained messages from users you felt like explicitly following on purpose) that was the twitter protocol.

I don’t know how much those two things are related, but once the latter became really inescapable, I decided it was probably time to quit. I guess I probably won’t be writing that essay about how great twitter is. But it really was pretty great for a long time.

Too bad it wasn’t actually just a protocol. We really need to figure out how to do protocols again.

In the meantime, I’ll be on IRC.

Monday, November 3

autumnal notes

So I gave notice at my job on Friday. No one I’ve talked to much since September will be overly surprised by this.

It’d be hard to overstate how important SparkFun has been to me, or how much I’m going to miss everyone there, but it’s time and past. The last useful thing I have to contribute to that scene is probably just signalling the people in it that, for me at least, it’s over.

It’s been seven years just about to the day. I’ve never worked so hard on anything, and whatever else comes along in life, I don’t expect to have another experience like it. A thing like SparkFun is a thing that happens once, and then only by some weird alchemy of luck and frenzied effort. For a long time I thought I’d write a book about the whole thing. Now — well, I don’t know. There’s a lot I’ll try to get down in words before the memories all fade and shift, but for now I’ll leave it at that.

I really don’t know what I’m doing next. I’m looking for jobs in the usual places (though it’s been so long that I don’t think I know what the usual places even are any more), and making myself do the exercise of putting bullet points on a resume, and talking to people. That last will probably be the most important.

The other thing I did at work on Friday, besides quit, was give a lunchtime talk on the basics of the Linux command line while wearing a half-finished wizard costume. I was nervous, and I didn’t prepare enough, and I probably should have bombed, but the truth is that it went pretty well. Afterwards I gave some more people accounts on squiggle.city, which is itself a project I can’t help but feel good about.

I used to experience this fear so overwhelming that it was like a form of physical paralysis every time I tried to do any kind of structured public speaking. I don’t exactly know when I lost that, but I don’t miss it.

Whatever this thing is with trying to make the technical world legible to people, I want to work on it more. It’s a small thing so far, and I don’t know if it will ever get enough traction to be more than a kind of ritual exercise on my part, but it feels good.

I can sense a lot of people who share some of my defining experiences having a similar impulse right now. I hope we all follow through on it. I hope there are some things we know that’re worth helping other people to know, some class of knowledge that’s worth re-examining and re-integrating as something a little more humanely and inclusively understandable. A class of knowledge about the future we are occupying that can grow to encompass some of the other decent things we’ve learned and built in the course of arriving at that future.

There are a lot of thoughts I appreciate here:

A lot of the internet that feels useful and decent to me lately has been tildes and TinyLetters. I don’t think this is happenstance.