Monday, May 25, 2020

feeds: linkblogs

Background: I’m writing some posts linking to feeds that I like.

Today’s theme: Blogs that curate interesting links.

Linkblogs were once a really common form, and if done lazily can be a formulaic waste of time, but there are a few people with a real knack for sifting out the good stuff who I find worth tracking. Three examples:

I do some linkblogging of my own. You can see stuff I’ve shared lately in the “linkdump” sidebar on the front page of this site, or subscribe to:

The Pinboard one in particular is strictly “stuff I want to remember”, not “stuff I think anyone else cares about”. It informs a lot of things I write here or work on elsewhere, and stands a fair chance of being deathly boring for readers who aren’t me.

p1k3 / 2020 / 5 / 25
tags: topics/feeds

Friday, May 22, 2020

feeds: stuff that makes me think

Background: I’m doing some short posts linking to feeds that I like.

Today’s theme: Some stuff that complicates how I think about the world in a useful way.

BIG by Matt Stoller is technically an e-mail newsletter, I guess, but Substack provides RSS feeds so that's how I subscribe. The tagline is "[t]he history and pollitics of monopoly power". Stoller is a thinktank type at something called the American Economic Liberties Project. I'm not actually sure I have much of a bead on his politics as such, and I'm frankly not smart enough to evaluate a large chunk of the claims made here, but I've found its take on monopolies pretty striking.

Feed URL:

Sample posts:

A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe is a blog on medieval history that talks about stuff like coinage, charters, architecture, and administrative matters. A special kind of drily fascinating, and a window into the kinds of deep research that you don't seem to get from a lot of popularizing works.

Feed URL:

Kiwi Hellenist offers detailed breakdowns of all sorts of stuff in classical antiquity and its footprint in modern culture.

Feed URL:

Sample posts:

Snakes and Ladders - A while back, I made an effort to follow more conservative (religious or otherwise) outlets and writers, consciously trying to get outside of my filter bubble. A lot of it didn't stick, but I kept reading Alan Jacobs in various formats. He's a writer, an academic, and the sort of person who publishes in places like The American Conservative.

You should read that last as a disclaimer of many of his probable views, because he keeps intellectual & cultural company with some people I find it pretty hard to stomach. Once in a while I come pretty close to unsubscribing. All the same, I often read his work with some interest and find that it makes me more aware of a conservative Christian intellectual culture that, while super messed up about all kinds of things, is more complicated than the American talk radio / Focus on the Family / Fox News / beat-your-children side of things would suggest.

Feed URL:

Granola Shotgun has some rich-guy-prepper-landlord vibes, which might be offputting here and there, but also a ton of interesting thoughts and background on housing, urban planning, regulation, etc. I take this one with a substantial grain of salt, but it's filtered into my thinking about the dynamics of the American built landscape and how much dry goods I'd like to have on hand. Also uses just piles of photos, which while often individually mundane do an effective job of conveying a story or idea when taken in the aggregate.

Feed URL:

Sample posts:

p1k3 / 2020 / 5 / 22

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

meta meta

Opening my notebook to where I left off, I notice that the most recent pages are full of the distracted scrawl and half-hearted jottings that result from leaving it open on my desk while I work. There’s a scratchpaper quality to all of it. Random TODOs, unfinished lists, scraps of conversation, doodles, context-free exclamations. It was probably useful for thinking earlier, but it doesn’t tell me much now.

Musing about this in writing — writing about an act of writing, its materials, etc. — is a particular kind of thing. Let’s call it meta. Meta-whatever:

  • Metawriting
  • Metaprogramming
  • Metaprocess

Writing about writing. Programming about programming. Meetings about meetings. The mind reflecting on its own function.

Meta-whatever can be both potent and dangerously tempting. It’s not for nothing that it shows up so many places, and at times it yields deep insights or significant gains in power. It’s also striking how often it seems to trap people in localized loops and hopeless ruts.

Methodology cults like Agile, Getting Things Done, and the recently emerging nerd-frenzy over the Zettelkasten method are rife with process obsessions, semi-stable patterns of recurring inquiry/argument, and people who mainly use their methods of choice to refine their methods of choice. You don’t have to spend much time around any given large organization to notice how much effort is burned on recursive bureaucracy, or how many contemporary jobs have collapsed into closed-loop no-external-reality meta-work.

This is all frustrating both to observe and to experience, when it gets out of control.

Maybe part of the reason it gets away from people is the high from when it pays off. Runaway metaprogramming might turn into such a nightmare because it starts with sharpening your tools to a keen edge, or with an act of leapfrogging tiers of abstraction. Automating your automation can feel like the purest response to that age old imperative of the hacker, that you make the computer do the stupid shit.

Of course, follow that impulse too far, angle it the wrong way — and pretty soon you’re Mickey Mouse trying to bail while the ensorceled brooms flood the whole joint.

Writing about writing might not have quite the same potential for nested, generative dysfunction, but it often produces artifacts just as unintelligible. Self-referentiality in fiction can be a real punch in the brain pan sometimes, but stories about stories get tiresome sooner or later. Taking the framework apart and putting it back together can be amazing; it can also become deeply annoying when a reader’s looking for a framework that contains something.

Sure, all narrative is a sort of trick — but artifice that’s purely interested in its own mechanics eventually leads to boring tricks. It’s like painting that’s purely about how paint adheres to a surface without any particular interest in or reference to external objects and context: There’s nothing wrong with that sort of thing, but there’d be something kind of depressing about a world where it was the only kind of painting.

To circle back to notes about note-taking, because that’s where this started: It’s a fruitful line of inquiry, up to some limit of circularity, some moment where you risk crawling up your own asshole about refining a System instead of using it to learn other things and think other thoughts.

This is a reminder I need, periodically.

p1k3 / 2020 / 5 / 20
tags: topics/notes, topics/systems, topics/technical, topics/writing, topics/zettelkasten

Thursday, May 14, 2020

the world computer: a marginally coherent bathtub rant

I was pondering Amazon just now, as I sat in the bathtub sweating profusely and reading an installment of The Murderbot Diaries on an old e-ink Kindle in a sandwich baggy.

I started thinking about how I bought a DRM-free edition of the book somewhere besides Amazon and jumped through several hoops to get it in a readable format on the Kindle (a device given to me by a former employer so I could participate in a book club for reading the blend of self-help, technical propaganda, and management porn that the class of people who go through startup incubators pretty much swim in).

And then I thought: For fucksake, the sheer futility of this kind of exercise, when we as people who read books all more or less live inside the machinery constructed by Amazon. I mean, sure, I have a copy of a book that I can stash for later and read on some other gadget, which has some practical value. But if you think of it as some minor act of resistance to the bullshit status quo… I mean, it feels good, I indulge in this kind of theatrics all the time, but fundamentally Amazon still owns publishing and for fractally similar reasons total assholes still control most of the code on pretty much every device on the planet.

From one reasonable but doomed point of view, the Kindle is a special-purpose computer I own. But that elides a whole lot of its essential nature, doesn’t it? What the Kindle really is: A fragment of Amazon’s computer that happens to be physically located in my house, interfaced with both my credit card balance and my brain.

And then I thought: We’re over the threshold. It’s not so much that there are a lot of computers. 20 years ago there were a lot of computers. Now it’s more like there’s one massive computer and we’re all inside it. We’ve collapsed into the state where cyberspace isn’t just a meaningful concept; it’s very nearly coterminous with human existence.

The same thought from a different angle: I was reading a thread about this pretty interesting piece of desktop software, and someone said:

This does look intriguing, but I can’t help but be disinterested in it because it doesn’t look like you can share and collaborate over the Internet.

And I thought: Right. This is where we are. Abstractions like “a kind of file that this software can read” have become implementation details for the technical class. Even for the technical class, what doesn’t open onto the network is essentially dead. And in an age and architecture when scale and corporate platform availability (Android, iOS, Facebook) are prerequisites for meaningful participation, “the network” means what’s wholly owned. The network’s the computer, the computer is the megacorporation.

But that understates the case. The meta-megacorporation is the network is the computer. Amazon doesn’t own the whole machine, or Microsoft, or Apple, or Facebook, or Google, or the governments of [the United States, China, Russia, …]. Vast territories are delineated within the network, but their boundaries are permeable and ill-defined. It’s impossible to cleanly disentangle client hardware from operating systems from databases from protocols from supply chains from datacenters. Just as it’s impossible to disentangle computation from the flow of money, the flow of goods, the flow of surveillance, the software-riddled cognitive state of populations. Scale permeates everything, even scale.

So: There’s a computer and most of us live there now.

p1k3 / 2020 / 5 / 14
tags: topics/amazon, topics/business, topics/murderbot, topics/reading, topics/sfnal, topics/technical

Friday, May 8, 2020

feeds for your consideration: a preamble

It’s 2020, which makes RSS and its siblings something on the order of 20 years old as a technology in actual use. It’s been a bit over 7 years since Google killed off Google Reader, and a year since Firefox removed feed discovery features, the last visible form of support in a mainstream browser.1

And yet: Feeds are still widely published and remain surprisingly effective for reading a slice of the web that isn’t overtly terrible.

Maybe this is an accident, or an emergent nerd conspiracy. Feed publishing isn’t that hard for programmers to implement, and rarely comes to the malign attention of marketing departments or upper management. It remains baked into enough widely-used software (WordPress, for example) that a lot of sites probably publish feeds without even realizing it. Podcasting is a whole thing and is built on the same underlying tech, which probably helps too.

This is tech I still use every day, and I feel like more people would benefit if they knew about it, but unlike the last few times I’ve written about this topic, I won’t waste space on the (doomed) idea that a browser vendor or the software industry as a whole might behave any differently. After decades of very hard work, we’ve achieved the natural equilibrium of the web: It totally sucks. The infrastructure is all owned by assholes with bad ideas and the technology is dominated by grotesque, unwieldy nonsense.

Instead of worry about that, I thought maybe I’d just write a series of short posts linking to feeds that I enjoy or get some value out of, so look for that when / if I get around to it…

Edit: How do you subscribe to RSS/Atom feeds, you might reasonably ask? Well, you need a feedreader.

On the web, I use NewsBlur, a paid option with a free trial that’s also open source. On the desktop, I’ve used Liferea. If you want to self-host a web app, Tiny Tiny RSS is popular. For Firefox and Chrome, there’s a plugin called Feedbro that doesn’t seem to be open source (which sketches me out a bit), but does seem to offer a decent user experience.

In Firefox, I use the livemarks extension to see when pages have a feed I can subscribe to and turn some of them into “live bookmarks”. For Chrome, Google offers RSS Subscription Extension.

1 I use both "noticeable" and "mainstream" lightly here, given that the features were buried in a settings menu years before their removal, and Firefox itself exists at the financial and technical sufferance of the adtech search monopoly that owns the only browser anyone cares about supporting.

p1k3 / 2020 / 5 / 8
tags: topics/feeds, topics/firefox, topics/syndication, topics/technical, topics/web