Essays on Technology and Culture

The State My Data is In

I have a folder in Dropbox with 380 files of notes, running lists, and piece of writing, ranging from finished posts, to running lists, to one-line note snippets. I have nearly 2600 bookmarks in Pinboard, and they’re all badly tagged. My life exists in various chunks of disparate data, largely living in the cloud, and it’s become a mess. Finding things, even with the great search tools in Pinboard and nvALT, is still a challenge. The point of a filing system is to be able to find things when you need them—fast. My system, or lack thereof, has failed me. And every piece of data I add is only making the problem worse. This is my fault, of course. Only a poor craftsman blames his tools. Part of how I got into this mess was first not defining just what belongs, or doesn’t belong, in these buckets of stuff. 

I had this problem once before, and my solution has been to live life in Plain Text (well, Markdown). I built a system around Merlin Mann’s txt system. Combined that with occasional use of Evernote for anything that required images or PDF files, and I was off to the races. My cardinal sin, however, was using nvALT as home for more than just “notes”. I used it to house my writing. When I first realized my nvALT was getting crowded, I set up a rule in Hazel to move anything tagged with #archive in the file name to its own folder. This worked, but I ran into a bug with nvALT when I changed a file name and Hazel moved it out, if I was editing another file name, it would switch the file I was renaming it with the one below it in the list, which only made my tenuous file organization even worse.

As for Pinboard, back when I started with Delicious for bookmarking, I was somewhat religious about tagging everything that ended up in my database. However, it’s so easy to pipe stuff into Pinboard—every Tweet I fave has its attached link saved, as well as everything I save in Instapaper—and so hard to go back in and tag things. I love Pinboard. It’s the best service in its class, as I discovered after trying to use Evernote to store bookmarks for research. However, it does not reward sloppy bookmarking, and a lot of the tools I used to load things into Pinboard were extremely sloppy.

It’s looking like the only solution is to start over again. Drop a bomb on my Notational Data folder and my Pinboard, clear out the years of cruft, and vow to be more disciplined as to what goes where. I don’t want to give up Pinboard, but I suspect my writing and notes workflows might need a revision. I’ve been experimenting with using Trello to track tasks and lists, and I can see it as a great way to offload a lot of the running lists of media and the like to check out into a more structured system. I also could shunt off my Writing to a dedicated space in iCloud and have that all live in Byword. Evernote can take over for quick capture, notes, and reference files.

The “Everything Bucket” app I’ve dreamed of for years isn’t going to work. I’ve tried nearly all the options over the past decade: Yojimbo, DEVONthink, MacJournal, and even Evernote. The way my mind works, and the lackadaisical way I tend to organize things make dumping all my data into one silo a bad idea. I need to make sure that I’m vigilant in policing what goes in, where, and how. I also need to make sure I clear out what’s no longer valuable. I doubt there will ever be an application that can organize my information for me without some intervention. The right tools, however, with the right mindset, will put me in a good place to keep up with what comes in.

Crush On Radio Signs Off

In May of 2012, I got together on Skype with my Internet friends Andrew Marvin and Matt Keeley to start a podcast about music and being a music fan: Crush On Radio. The premise was simple: we’d all pick an album, we’d all listen to each others, and then we’d talk about it along with some general music-fan chat. Occasionally, we’d bring on a guest, and have them provide an album for us to chat about.

After two years of the show, the challenge of scheduling three people with full-time jobs, one in Seattle, and two on the East Coast, and finding time to listen to albums became a hassle–even moving to a bi-weekly schedule, not that we’d been great at keeping to weekly. Even after streamlining the recording and editing processes, putting the show together still remained a tedious pain the rear. Perhaps if we had any audience traction, it might have been worth it, but our download numbers peaked at around 150, and averaged in the low double-digits. I needed a change.

The original idea for Crush On Radio was to be an interview show, talking to interesting people about the music that shaped them and focused on albums. Realizing this might be a bit beyond me, I decided to draft my friends and do it as a panel show. The change was to go back to the original idea, and with two years of podcasting under my belt, I figured I could make a go of it. I just didn’t want to edit the stupid thing. If I could unload the tedious grunt work of audio editing onto someone who knew what they were doing, everything would be in place to bring the show back with a new format. That’s when Ben Alexander came in.

I was connected to Ben through Sid O’Neill, who helped create Constellation’s web site. I shot Ben a quick proposal, and he accepted me into the family. I was part of a network, and the editing would be handled by house editor Lorenzo. I reached out to a few dream guests, and got a couple episodes in the can before going live: Merlin Mann and Patrick Rhone. Lorenzo edited, and I put them out into the world, and everything seemed gold. Then, things got a little crazy in Ben’s life. While Ben was unable to publish shows, my pipeline of guests dried up. Rather than double-down and try to get more episodes out the door, I got discouraged with the lack of guests, the lack of feedback, and the difficulty of doing a podcast. I stopped producing shows

Turns out that trying to organize and book guests, especially when being on the show requires homework of both picking an album and listening to it, is a pain for both sides of the call. Even without the main editing job, I still had a bit more to do with the audio than I found pleasant as well: cleaning up my side, making song clips, etc. And, with the irregular release schedule—a problem since the start as an independent—any signal boost from interviewing Merlin and Patrick out the gate dried up. I was back in the same place I was after two years of podcasting, but enjoying the process even less.

So, I’ve decided to put an end to it. There’s one episode left in the queue, with Myke Hurley. Myke reached out to me after Patrick’s episode went out, and that is the professional highlight of my brief career as a podcaster. It should be out soon, as Ben rebuilds Constellation as Fiat Lux. After that, I’ll be hanging up my podcaster hat, though I still have my Blue Snowball. The possibility exists that I might try something less ambitious in the podcasting realm in the future, but I want to focus on writing and on Sanspoint.

Things could have been different. If Crush On Radio had a larger, more supportive audience, it might still be a going concern. I had dreams of getting sponsors, doing live shows (streamed and in-person), and being the music-fan equivalent of a 5by5 show. It didn’t work, for whatever reason, but all of them come down to my own failure to make the show on a consistent basis. There’s other factors, but the only person who should be falling on the sword is myself. That said, there’s still fifty-seven episodes in the can, and I can point to them and say “I (and my friends) made this.” I got to speak to some of my heroes, and got turned on to new bands. It’s a net win all around, and I thank everyone who supported the show.

Kathy Sierra is a Hero

Simply moving on is not an option for the haters once you’ve been labeled a Koolaid server and/or a rich source of lulz. Ignore them, and the trolls cry harder, scream louder, and become destructive.

If you’ve already hit the Koolaid Piont, you usually have just three choices:

  1. leave (They Win)

  2. ignore them (they escalate, make your life more miserable, DDoS, ruin your career, etc. i.e. They Win)

  3. fight back (If you’ve already hit the Koolaid Point, see option #2. They Win).

Kathy Sierra – “Trouble at the Koolaid Point”

I have no words. I didn’t get halfway through before I felt sick and angry. Please, please, please read this. Of course, this is Trigger Warning out the wazoo, but worth powering through.

Kathy Sierra is a hero.

Technology’s War on Women

The biggest problem in technology isn’t buggy Apple software, government and corporate spying, or the venture capital bubble. It’s the systematic and aggressive disenfranchisement of half of the world’s population from the technology world. It’s the ongoing, increasingly violent and visible war on women in technology. Compared to that, a buggy iOS update is nothing. This is not a new war, but it’s had a few flare-ups in recent months. The most visible, of course, is Gamergate, a systematic harassment of women gamers and game journalists under the ostensible banner of “corruption” in games journalism. The war on women in technology extends far beyond such things, covering the gamut from hacked celebrity nude photos to women quitting–or being forced out of—their jobs by the culture in tech companies.

Why is this such a problem? If you have to ask that question, you may be too far gone already. So much of the promises of technology are egalitarian. The Valley likes to promote itself in the guise of a meritocracy. GitHub, considered the new résumé for coders, described itself as a “United Meritocracy” until sexism and harassment in its workplace was revealed. Meanwhile, startups founded by women get less than 5% of all venture capital funding. In established technology companies, there is a gigantic gender imbalance, and it’s not getting better.

Certainly not with a vocal and obnoxious contingent of powerful men in technology using their influence to shut down women. Just a few days ago, legendary hacker Kevin Mitnick attempted to harass a woman out of her job when she spoke up about the harassment that forced another woman developer off Twitter. Sexual harassment of women is endemic at technology conferences. This sort of behavior is unacceptable in any context, and certainly not in an industry that prides itself on the empty rhetoric of “meritocracy.” Even those few technology organizations that recognize the problem and seek to fix it are accused of racism and bias by clueless white men in technology.

This problem isn’t just something women face. It’s a problem experienced by gays and lesbians, by trans and genderqueer individuals, and by minorities in technology. It needs to end. Many men, too many men, don’t see this as their problem. This is the fundamental issue behind the infamous #NotAllMen hashtag. When you say “Not All Men,” what you mean is “I’m not contributing to the problem, therefore it is not a problem.” As long as it is men who are disenfranchising women, men sending rape threats, and publishing personal information about their “targets” for having the temerity to just be female and exist in a public space, it is our problem. We created it. To sit idly by as people like us make the lives of women and other groups a living hell is shameful. If you’re upset by being lumped in with the angry masses of misogynist men, stand up against them—don’t just blithely wash your hands of it.

But, what can we do? Aside from doing our best to shut down those in our midsts who contribute to the problem, and to amplify the voices of women and other marginalized groups, I’m lost. I’ve been thinking about how to approach this issue in my writing for weeks. Part of why it’s taken me so long to publish anything is that I’m worried both that I wouldn’t add anything of value, and that my voice, like that of so many white male “allies” would be amplified to the detriment of important work women and other activists for the technologically marginalized are doing. When a male technology CEO publishes a book about the struggles of women in technology, he gets praised. Meanwhile, activists in the trenches, of all stripes, are ignored once again. I don’t want that to happen here.

There are plenty of women making their voices heard. At the forefront is Shanley Kane’s Model View Culture, with contributors across the gender and racial spectrum contributing insightful criticism of technology. Brianna Wu, of game studio Giant Space Kat is essential to follow, as is Randi Harper, a DevOps engineer, and OSS contributor (the one whom Mitnick tried to get fired). Creatrix Tiara has led the charge against Ello and how social media fails the marginalized. This is just a sampling, and there are plenty more women, trans*, and minorities who are fighting the good fight in technology. Follow them, read them, and learn. Then, take action.

What The Next Great Social Network Needs

If anyone is going to break the hegemony of Twitter and Facebook for being the focus of our online social lives, they’re going to have to do what Twitter and Facebook—and Ello—are not doing. They’re going to need a understanding of how human social interactions work offline, and find a way to reflect that in interactions. The closest implementation of this is Google+’s Circles, though Google+ failed by requiring a huge amount of cognitive overhead to build and maintain them. Google at least understood that we don’t share everything about us with everyone we know. The binary nature of Facebook friends is not even close to representative of human friendship.

Getting this right goes a long way in solving most of the problems in social. It’s a huge step in preventing both violations of privacy, and preventing abuse. If Facebook understood this, gay students wouldn’t be outed to their homophobic families by joining a Facebook Group. Our relationships with our families, our friends, and our coworkers are all different. We even have different relationships with certain groups of friends. There are things I would tell my partner that I wouldn’t tell my parents. There are things I would tell my parents that I wouldn’t tell my friends—and vice-versa. There are things I would tell my real life friends, but not my online friends. There are things I would tell all those groups, but not my coworkers.

If you feel that you can be free and open with all the people you know, you have a luxury that most people don’t have. There’s always the risk that something you say or do online will become public. It shouldn’t be easy for this to happen. When a secret told to a friend leaks out, it’s a violation of trust, and that person should not be your friend. The structure of most social apps makes it all the more likely someone will make a private statement public. It’s caused by a mix of apathy in implementation, failure to understand the nuances of real social structures, and the needs of advertisers to see data before they give you money.

This is why it’s so bothersome that Ello is considered the vanguard of “private” social networking when its idea of privacy is just to not sell your data for ads. For real privacy, you’ll have to pay for it. If the choice came down to an ad-supported social network with fine-grained personal privacy controls, versus an ad-free social service that forced users to live in public (even with a pseudonym), I’d take the former any day. If half of the effort that went into Ello’s artistic site design and manifesto went into trying to find a smart way to incorporate the same nuances, filters, and limits in our online social lives that we have in real life, this is a debate we wouldn’t be having. “Friends” and “Noise” are not enough.

Understanding is the start. Implementing it the next step. With all the machine learning algorithms we have applied to our social graphs, it strikes me that it would be possible to algorithmically determine the relationship between two users—to a certain extent. If you’re friends with someone who shares your last name, for example, but is a few decades older than you, chances are they’re a parent or other older relative. So, the theoretical network can say “this person may not be someone you want to share everything with. Can I put them in your ‘relatives’ group?” The analytical tools used to target ads can be used to help users target the audiences of their posts. It would take some machine learning and trial and error, but at least they’d be doing something new in a moribund space.

Modeling real life, pre-Internet relationship models combined with strong and usable privacy controls that put real people in control of who sees what, when, and how. This is the real future of social networking. Getting it right, so it doesn’t require much more thought than just clicking “Post” is the hard part, but we have all those smart programmers and designers out there wasting their time on slicing and dicing data for marketers. There has to be a group of them somewhere willing to turn the tables. Once someone rolls out a service like that, I’ll be first in line to sign up—and I’ll bring as many friends as I can with me.