Open Graph and oneboxing

This is a standardized way to present a preview of a URL. Instead of just showing a URL, like this:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dwight_D._Eisenhower

It can be presented as a “onebox,” like this:

That’s just a screenshot from a system which is able to do oneboxing. The magic is that when editing, (wherever you are editing,) you simply paste in a raw URL and the oneboxing is done automatically by the system.

What wizardry is this?

It’s based on the Open Graph Protocol (OG). Facebook started this as a way to get sites on the open web to provide software-understandable, summary information. It took off everywhere because it’s just downright awesome.

A web site includes information stuffed out of sight, in the source HTML of the page. Software can fetch the URL, notice the OG information and craft a meaningful summary. This grew into the idea of presenting a single box summary—”one boxing”—of a URL if it has OG information.

Testing it

When something doesn’t onebox as you expect, how would you figure out which end has the problem? (Was it the end serving the URL content that doesn’t have OG data? Or is the end fetching the URL that couldn’t parse the OG data?) So someone wrote a handy tool that lets you see what (if any) OG data there is at any URL you want to type in:

http://debug.iframely.com/

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The web is like water

There is no question that apps are here to stay, and are a superior interaction model for some uses. But the web is like water: it fills in all the gaps between things like gaming and social with exactly what any one particular user wants. And while we all might have a use for Facebook – simply because everyone is there – we all have different things that interest us when it comes to reading.

~ Ben Thompson from, https://stratechery.com/2014/web-still-matters-writing/

That’s from 2014, and holds up pretty well I think. That the web, “fills in all the gaps,” is insightful. Sure, the technology that defines “the Web” drives an enormous amount of stuff other than written content. But even just the smaller portion that is the written word is a huge swath of time and attention. That speaks well for us in the aggregate.

I still believe that the problem, currently, is simply that people rarely bother to figure out how things actually work. People don’t tinker and change things. Once someone gets the bug of curiosity, it’s a slippery slope from poking and prodding, to tinkering and experimenting, to building and creating; It’s a slippery slope lined entirely with reading.

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Interrupt driven

Think about this question for a moment. The Apollo program was massive in size and complexity. It was executed at an incredible pace (only eight years spanned Kennedy’s pledge to Armstrong’s steps) and it yielded innovations at a staggering rate.

And it was all done without e-mail.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2014/10/04/how-we-sent-a-man-to-the-moon-without-e-mail-and-why-it-matters-today/

Not just without email, but without computers or networks or cell phones or even hand calculators. They did it with paper, drafting tools and slide rules. Meetings, planning, and most importantly:

Communication.

All these tools that I have are only useful if I understand how they work. When you first start working in some field, you get the most basic tools—two manual, screwdrivers; one straight-blade and one Philips head. When you can tell me why the Philips head was invented, you can have a hand driver with interchangeable driver heads (“bits.”) When you can use them all… When you see a screw-head and pick the right bit… When you’ve exhausted your forearm from driving screws, then you can have a power driver. When you use the friction clutch correctly, you can have a larger power driver. And so on. (You can tell the quality of the craftsman by the way they maintain their tools. Yes, skilled persons can do great work with shitty tools. But at mastery level, the art is expressed in the tools themselves. Yes, all arts.)

So yes, you really do need to understand the different between wifi, cellular and Ethernet; between Apple’s IM, carrier SMS, and WhatsApp; between email, Google Docs, and Word.

As Carl Sagan wrote, “We live in a society…

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Sound of thunder in the distance

I’ve written before about the sounds of summer thunderstorms. I’m completely trained to relax and drift away to these sounds.

It’s said there are three things you can stare at endlessly: running water, fire, and other people working. I believe the first two trigger something deep within our brains; I believe there’s something about the small, random movements of water and fire which hypnotize the predator part of our brains… something about those movements stimulates our visual cortex.

But sound! The auditory part of our brain is older still, and the sound of running water is—at least for me, how about you?—deeply alluring. I’ll sit under cover on my patio and freeze my ass off just to hear the rain falling and the sound of water in the gutters.

Anywho. What brings up this train of thought? …on a gloriously sunny and blue-skied day?

…”sounds of rain and thunder,” is a thing you can listen to on Pandora.

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An online advertising bubble?

The story that emerged from these conversations is about much more than just online advertising. It’s about a market of a quarter of a trillion dollars governed by irrationality. It’s about knowables, about how even the biggest data sets don’t always provide insight. It’s about organisations and why they are so hard to change. And it’s about us, and how easy we are to manipulate.

~ Jesse Frederik and Maurits Martijn from, https://thecorrespondent.com/100/the-new-dot-com-bubble-is-here-its-called-online-advertising/13228924500-22d5fd24

For years I’ve been beating the drum about how we individually need to take control of how we use social networks and the Internet in general. There’s still time for us to turn away from the dystopian future where everything has become an algorithm optimized for profit for profit’s sake.

I’ve long known that we are individually fighting an uneven battle. The companies running the social networks are using technology and psychology to manipulate us via our basic human instincts and our basic human cognition. (Each of us, thanks to our biology, has big, ergonomic, grab-handles enabling others to manipulate us.) I think it’s possible that we can each practice using our rational minds and make good decisions; It’s possible, but all evidence shows it is not likely. Meanwhile, I continue to fight the good fight. Those of you reading, seem to be similarly interested.

This article planted a new idea in my mind: The dystopian future is made possible only because someone is paying. We, individually, are not paying. (Reminder: We are the product being sold to the advertisers.) Every single pixel on every single social network is powered by advertising revenue.

What happens if the companies paying to advertise online realize that advertising online doesn’t work the way they think it does?

Victory snatched from the jaws of defeat? …perhaps.

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If Lincoln had email

If the Internet is robbing us of our ability to sit and concentrate, without distraction, in a Lincoln log cabin style of intense focus, we must ask the obvious question: are we doomed to be a generation bereft of big ideas? Will we lose, over time, like some vestigial limb, our ability to focus on something difficult for extended stretches? As a graduate student, I’ve had to put in place what are, in essence, rigorous training programs to help pump up my attention span. It’s a huge struggle for me. Somehow, I imagine, if Lincoln was in my position, he wouldn’t be having this same problem.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2008/02/20/would-lincoln-have-become-president-if-he-had-e-mail/

I usually quote things I agree with whole-heartedly. This one is a little different. I like the topic Newport has raised and he brings up several good points, but my thinking differs a bit.

The Internet is only a tool. There’s nothing magical about how it works to change your brain, distract you, or [as I’m found of describing it] eat your face. The power of choice remains with each of us. What do we use the tool for? What things do we talk about? Whom do we associate with? What change are we creating?

The Internet is only a tool. Make what you will of that.

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Tis the season

I like paying for my software when I’m buying it from a company that’s responsive, fast and focused. I like being the customer (as opposed to a social network, where I’m the product). I spend most of my day working with tools that weren’t even in science fiction novels twenty-five years ago, and the money I spend on software is a bargain–doing this work without it is impossible.

~ Seth Godin, from https://seths.blog/2018/06/on-paying-for-software/

Tis the season… to talk about paying for the things we get value from. Last year Seth wrote that great gem about software and I whole-heartedly agree.

Here’s a short list of a few pieces of software which I gleefully pay for, without which everything I do would be vastly more difficult or outright impossible: Hover, BBEdit, Hindenburg, Overcast, Reeder, Feedbin, Tower, Transmit, OmniFocus, OmniOutliner, iaWriter, Discourse, Basecamp and Front.

As a bonus round, here’s a short list of a few online services or publications which I also gleefully contribute to, because they provide me with magnificent information that makes my world a better place: Brain Pickings, Müvmag, PodNews, Once is Never, and WikiPedia.

My challenge to you for the holiday season: Post your own lists somewhere public, and share the love for the software and services that make your life better throughout the year!

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Podcasts and good old RSS

Once I started seriously listening to podcasts, I quickly reached the point where there are more podcasts, (entire shows, not just episodes,) than I can possibly keep up with. I’m left with the choice between staying subscribed to podcasts where I want to listen to only some of the episodes, or unsubscribing and knowing that I’m missing some gems.

…and then I remember this is all just RSS.

In my podcast player, (which is Overcast,) I now keep only the shows that are my dedicated favorites; shows that I generally listen to every episode. I moved all the other podcasts into my RSS reader, (which is Reeder.) I even added a bunch of shows which I had completely given up hope of being able to even follow them looking for gems.

This had two huge benefits:

First, it improved my podcast listening experience: Not keeping all of those podcast shows subscribed in my podcast player, means less downloading and less skipping. I don’t like having to wait, so I have everything set to pre-download, and removing a lot of podcasts makes a big difference. But even more important, there’s now much less distraction. When I’m in the mood, (or the time, or the place,) to listen to podcasts, I tend to continue listening by default. I’m more likely to listen “just a bit farther” to see if this episode is going to be good, whereas if I had read the summary I might have skipped it altogether. So my podcast listening experience winds up having far more great episodes because it’s just the shows I love.

Second, it actually leads to me finding more gems: When I open my RSS reader, (as I do every day,) I’m in “skimming mode.” I’m looking for things to queue for later reading. (Pocket and Instapaper for the win.) There’s very little effort for me to skim the episode descriptions, and when I find one that looks good I add it to my podcast player. This does require me to switch apps, search, and then add a specific episode. But this small effort helps ensure that the episode is likely to be one I would really like to listen to.

There’s one detail that is a slight snag: How do you find a podcast’s feed URL? We’re all so used to searching in our podcast player apps, but you need the actual podcast feed URL to add it to your RSS reader. You’ll discover that none of the podcast player apps, and none of the directories, (Stitcher, Google, Apple, etc.,) make it easy to find the shows’ underlying podcast URL. The easiest way to do it is to use the handy search on James Cridland’s, Podnews.net (no relation/benefit to me.) It pulls the show’s information from the directories, and explains all the details about that show’s configuration including a handy RSS link icon that has the URL.

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Fifty years ago: ARPANET was born

Many realize that 50 years ago, on October 29, 1969, the first message was successfully sent over the ARPANET, which eventually evolved into the Internet. But few know the story that led up to that message.

~ Leonard Kleinrock, from https://www.icann.org/news/blog/the-first-message-transmission

The Internet as we know it today was really born in the early 90’s. I remember when web sites—”The Web”—was invented. I was a graduate student in Physics back then. There used to be a web site at UIUC where someone kept a list of all the web sites. (People would email them when they added a web site to the Internet.) I used to check that site every day—and get excited on the days when a new web site had appeared.

…at least, that’s how I remember it. ;)

Anyway, great little read about some of the people who started it all, and the very first message across the Internet v1.

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Website obesity

Let me start by saying that beautiful websites come in all sizes and page weights. I love big websites packed with images. I love high-resolution video. I love sprawling Javascript experiments or well-designed web apps.

This talk isn’t about any of those. It’s about mostly-text sites that, for unfathomable reasons, are growing bigger with every passing year.

~ Maciej Cegłowski, from https://idlewords.com/talks/website_obesity.htm

This is so true that it makes me laugh and cry at the same time. I weep. I weep for the Internet. The Internet we know today was made possible by advertising, because too many of us don’t understand how reality works. That’s a good thing—that the Internet happened and grew to be as pervasive as it is—but the current trajectory does not lead to the best possibilities.

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