Technical debt

Everything goes in cycles, right? Back in the 90s, we became excited about “4th generation” programming languages. In short, programming is very difficult and so people write programs, and they write tools to help them write programs. Eventually, those tools are really just new programming languages… and the rising tide (lifting all the boats) has gone up a generation.

Today, with a few commands and a couple of lines of code, we can prototype almost any idea. All the tools that we now have available make it easier than ever to start something new. But the upfront cost that these frameworks may save in initial delivery eventually comes due as upgrading and maintaining them becomes a part of our technical debt.

~ Ste Grainer from, https://alistapart.com/article/the-wax-and-the-wane-of-the-web/

Keep in mind that the rising tide does not move the foundation layers at the beginning/bottom. There’s ever-increasing distance between the hardware at the bottom, and the “surface” of the rising tide at the top. Yes, sure, we refer to the increasing complexity of keeping all the stuff (from foundation to surface) maintained and working as technical debt.

The part that bends my mind is this: There’s more and more room (from the foundations to the surface) for an increasing number of people to find things (places in the layers, particular technologies) that they love. Yes, the technical debt increases… Yes, non-human intelligence is coming… But there’s more—every day—space in those layers for so many people (and non-humans) to find their passion and craft and art!

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The Internet

When I started really fiddling with the Internet in 1989 it was a twisting mazy of branching passages. It was entirely technical details and arcane (not to be confused with difficult to master) knowledge. It was fun and rewarding to figure things out—all I had to do was simply read and experiment. It was also very much social! There were people, both in-person and remote (as in, I don’t think I’ve ever met them in person), who I got to know through working on things and exploring and building. But at no point did I ever even wonder if what I was doing and building was going to change society. “This is interesting” and “I wonder if…” were my guiding philosophy.

Such prophesies might be dismissed as the prattle of overindulged rich guys, but for one thing: they’ve shaped public opinion. By spreading a utopian view of technology, a view that defines progress as essentially technological, they’ve encouraged people to switch off their critical faculties and give Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and financiers free rein in remaking culture to fit their commercial interests. If, after all, the technologists are creating a world of superabundance, a world without work or want, their interests must be indistinguishable from society’s. To stand in their way, or even to question their motives and tactics, would be self-defeating. It would serve only to delay the wonderful inevitable.

~ Nicholas Carr from, https://aeon.co/essays/the-internet-as-an-engine-of-liberation-is-an-innocent-fraud

But an equally great quote is: “Technology promised to set us free. Instead it has trained us to withdraw from the world into distraction and dependency.”

Anyway. Looking back, I don’t see how I could actually have done anything differently. Looking back, I can clearly see how we—the world, society at large—got where we are.

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Access, for the win

The Whole Earth Catalog. Now there’s someone who poured their time, energy, money and personal brand of sanity into a project, and it succeeded. Then the Internet came along and supplanted the entire project.

Yet for years, access to the Whole Earth Catalog itself has been difficult. 55 years on from the first publication of the Catalog, it mostly lives on in the interstices — as a symbol of a vibrant countercultural history and an inspiration for writers, designers, and technologists, but less so as an actual set of catalogs that you can read. The Catalog is not lost media per se — copies can be found in libraries, archives, and personal collections across the world — but accessing its trove of information is no longer as easy as it was in its heyday.

That is, until now.

~ Jacob Kuppermann from, https://longnow.org/ideas/the-lasting-whole-earth-catalog/

…and then, that original project rose from the ashes to be something even better.

Sometimes, I find something that warms my dark, frozen, disenchanted, bitter, burnt-out heart. I don’t subscribe to notions like “information wants to be free” but when I see things like this… well, I get a little warm–fuzzy inside.

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Two perspectives

Everything is fun, until one’s expectations are crushed. I thought I was getting the convenience of online shopping for things that were previously literally unavailable; Instead, the local stores closed and I’ve lost the convenience of local purchasing. I thought I was getting expanded communication via email; Instead, I’ve been overrun by people taking advantage of the ease of access. In 1989 I was excited by what we could all do with the Internet. So excited, that in 1994 I quit a funded research position and dropped out of graduate school.

Today’s internet is largely shaped by a dialog between two ideas. One position considers personal data as a form of property, the opposing position considers personal data as an extension of the self. The latter grants inalienable rights because a person’s dignity – traditionally manifested in our bodies or certain rights of expression and privacy – cannot be negotiated, bought, or sold.

~ David Schmudde from, https://schmud.de/posts/2022-12-05-different-internet.html

There’s nothing wrong with the Internet. There’s nothing wrong with people. There’s nothing wrong with government. The problem is in everyone’s failure to think things through. “Can” and “should” are very different animals. Until a plurality of people think things through—until a plurality of people stop delivering themselves into the power of ideas they do not know they have accepted—there will be nothing new under the sun.

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Work only we can do

No, this isn’t about AI. I mean the work that we want to do. That’s why only we can do it. I want to sift through a certain amount of things. (For example, I like to sift through all dogs.) I want to find things that are interesting and surprising. And I want to have way more books than I can ever read.

Because the meaning isn’t going to emerge on its own—you have to create it. The algorithms and tag searches and bookmarklets will only get you so far; afterwards, it’s work only you can do, work the machine has no need for. The reader is your own personal anthology, but you are the editor: you are the sum of its parts.

~ Mandy Brown from, https://aworkinglibrary.com/writing/three-definitions-of-reader

RSS Tip: Every Substack publication has an RSS feed. Go to the front of any Substack publication—the page after you ignore the sign-up dialog. Then copy the URL, and add /feed onto the end. (If the URL has an “?gobble-dee-gook” on it, trim that off before adding that /feed ) Add that edited URL to your favorite feed reader. (RSS nerds: Nope the RSS feed URL is not listed in any <link> tags. These are stealth feeds.) Ta-DAH! You’ll find the entire posts from the publication appear in your feed reader. This of course will only work until everyone starts doing it. Then Substack will modify those feeds to just be an excerpt of the article . . . and that’s still awesome, because that’s how web sites work on the Open Web. Protocols, not platforms.

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Actively decide

It takes some commitment to decide. I find my urge is to wriggle. My urge is to try to keep my options open. My urge is to take on more. In the case of this little missive, I mean to seek more and more information. To go beyond actively seeking, to passively permitting more and more things to flow at me.

Does this content move me closer to or further from my ultimate aim? If what we consume becomes our thoughts, our thoughts become our actions, and our actions become our character, can I give the things I watch, listen to, and read — the things I’m turning into — a grade of B or above? The lure of a compelling headline aside, does this topic actually interest me? Does this content educate and edify? And when I’m seeking pure entertainment, which everyone sometimes needs, does it at least not appeal to the most reptilian part of my brain, and make me feel lower, baser, and stupider as a result?

~ Brett McKay from, https://www.artofmanliness.com/character/behavior/sunday-firesides-be-a-ruthless-editor-in-chief/

Still, I resist the urge to decide and invite the self-made disaster of overwhelm. Why? Because it takes real courage, in the presence of others and in the presence of others’ vociferous opinions… It takes courage for me to say, “I don’t know.”

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Upwards

As the edges of human knowledge are advanced, the total amount one must learn to be able to then contribute to further advancement grows. If there’s a proverbial mountain of knowledge, it grows taller as each contributor adds. If you start from the beach (at birth), wander inland in your early years of not-guided-by-you learning, and eventually decide to scale the mountain… well, it really matters in what epoch you happened to be born. Or maybe it doesn’t?

There is a growing mountain of research. But there is increased evidence that we are being bogged down today as specialization extends. The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers-conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear. Yet specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial.

~ Vannevar Bush from, As We May Think

Bush played a complex role in the history of the United States. (It’s better if you form your own opinion about him and his work.) His short essay from about 80 years ago is these days seen by technophiles as heralding our own, current Internet and information age. In particular, a lot is read into Bush’s description of a desk which behaves like our modern Internet, information systems, and data processing. That’s fine. It’s like reading 80-year-old science fiction that became science fact.

Much more interesting to me is the point that with just a bit of squinting, it looks like nothing has changed in 80 years. Everything about this—the mountain of information, the tools [eg, Bush’s imagined desk, our internet], the people feeling overloaded, the specialization—feels fractal.

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Protocols and platforms

Love ’em or hate ’em, big platforms with big collections of people and information about said people are currently ever-present. This deep dive from Masnick has a bias—one which I wholeheartedly endorse—but it is also an excellent description of what does “protocols versus platforms” really mean? What’s a protocol, and what’s a platform? How are they different, and why do they seem to have such different effects on the late-game situation? If you’ve so far avoided this topic, this is a good place to try spending a half an hour to see if it makes more sense.

After a decade or so of the general sentiment being in favor of the internet and social media as a way to enable more speech and improve the marketplace of ideas, in the last few years the view has shifted dramatically—now it seems that almost no one is happy. Some feel that these platforms have become cesspools of trolling, bigotry, and hatred. Meanwhile, others feel that these platforms have become too aggressive in policing language and are systematically silencing or censoring certain viewpoints. And that’s not even touching on the question of privacy and what these platforms are doing (or not doing) with all of the data they collect.

~ Mike Masnick from, https://knightcolumbia.org/content/protocols-not-platforms-a-technological-approach-to-free-speech

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Text

There’s an old saying familiar to those who work in radio: Radio has the best pictures. It’s obviously a jab at television. But it’s also completely true. Since it doesn’t literally have pictures, listeners are left to imagine, and imagination is almost always better than anything that can be jammed into images. This all goes doubly so for books and reading. I was grudgingly going along with Apple’s production of Asimov’s Foundation series of books. Until they showed me the Mule. (You either know this character, or I’ve lost you.) My heart sunk.

If you explore MicroMUSE today, you’ll get a preview of the fate that awaits all of our social systems. The streets are empty, but it’s more than that: there is a palpable sense of entropy. You can query the system for a list of commands, but many of them no longer work. It’s half glitchy video game, half haunted house. Sometimes it falls offline entirely, only to return days later.

The system still speaks. You are welcomed by the transporter attendant, who gives directions to all newcomers to this space city. It cautions you: Clear communication is very important in a text-based environment…

~ Robin Sloan from, https://aeon.co/essays/before-minecraft-or-snapchat-there-was-micromuse

This article was nearly too much for me to read. That’s the Internet that was growing when I started tinkering. Today, with god-like power (from my 1994 perspective) at my fingertips, it took me 3 seconds to install a telnet client. And just a minute more to learn the answer to Sloan’s main question, “As kids, we make secret worlds – in trees, in our imaginations, even online – but can we go back to them when we’re grown?”

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Master of none

The idea of a changeable-bits, screw driver is brilliant. There were dozens of different screw-driving tools that varied only in the shape of their pointy end; their handles and other properties were identical. This was the perfect opportunity to create one tool to perform many functions.

You might wonder whether life is really simpler this way. Wouldn’t it be far more convenient to use a single device to accomplish all of these tasks?

Technically, yes. Psychologically, no.

While there’s an undeniable ease-of-use factor to housing a phone, internet browser, entertainment center, camera, and GPS in a lightweight rectangle that fits inside my pocket, the proximity of each of these tasks to one another leads, inevitably, to constant distraction. If you’ve ever tried to find the perfect angle for a photo while your Instagram post is blowing up, or answer a work email while your mom is calling you, you know what I mean.

~ Talia Barnes from, https://www.persuasion.community/p/the-case-for-digital-minimalism

I agree with Barnes, and her point about proximity is one I’d not seen clearly expressed. And there’s a more obvious argument for digital minimalism: It actually works.

The multi-bit screw driver works exactly as well as the dozens of tools it replaces. But my “smart” phone is a less capable phone, a less capable camera, a less capable correspondence tool, etc. Yes, clearly, it’s more convenient. But “the best camera is the one you have with you” is only true if your definition of “best” is: I captured the photo. “The jack of all trades is master of none.” holds true. If instead your definition of “best” is: I did the thing well. Well, then, you need the right tool. And the right tools—the right technology, is calm technology.

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Curating your sources

Some people are highly motivated. They will curate their information sources and follow whoever provides the most value. That will likely include some independent writers (maybe “good” ones or maybe “bad” ones).

But most people aren’t all that motivated. They just want to get information quickly and go live their lives. So they get their information in three ways:

~ “Dynomight” from, https://dynomight.net/copypasta/

Whenever “the Internet” comes up (including discussion of anything that runs via the Internet, without the Internet itself getting a specific mention) I trot out this handy aphorism: The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing us that anything related to the Internet was easy to understand. In this article, the anon-/epon-ymous “Dynomight” goes deep into why the mainstream (read: online media platforms that gets all the traffic) winds up being this solidly middling quality of content. To get there, there’s a deep dive involving tourists finding restaurants and a you-must-not-miss mention of Gell-Mann amnesia.

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Calm technology

The most potentially interesting, challenging, and profound change implied by the ubiquitous computing (UC) era is a focus on calm. If computers are everywhere they better stay out of the way, and that means designing them so that the people being shared by the computers remain serene and in control. Calmness is a new challenge that UC brings to computing. When computers are used behind closed doors by experts, calmness is relevant to only a few. Computers for personal use have focused on the excitement of interaction. But when computers are all around, so that we want to compute while doing something else and have more time to be more fully human, we must radically rethink the goals, context and technology of the computer and all the other technology crowding into our lives. Calmness is a fundamental challenge for all technological design of the next fifty years. The rest of this paper opens a dialogue about the design of calm technology.

Designs that encalm and inform meet two human needs not usually met together. Information technology is more often the enemy of calm. Pagers, cellphones, news-services, the World Wide Web, email, TV, and radio bombard us frenetically. Can we really look to technology itself for a solution?

But some technology does lead to true calm and comfort. There is no less technology involved in a comfortable pair of shoes, in a fine writing pen, or in delivering the New York Times on a Sunday morning, than in a home PC. Why is one often enraging, the others frequently encalming? We believe the difference is in how they engage our attention. Calm technology engages both the center and the periphery of our attention, and in fact moves back and forth between the two.

~ Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown from, https://www.johnseelybrown.com/calmtech

Calm technology is designed to be unobtrusive and blend in with daily life. The opposite is technology that is distracting and disruptive, creating agitation and stress.

Calm technology

Never before have I seen, nor imagined, the adjective calm associated with technology. It never occurred to me to question where technology falls on a spectrum of calming to agitating. Mark my words: Calm technology is going to get mentioned by me going forward.

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The open internet lives on

But, there are always tradeoffs. Relying on someone else’s platform is often just much easier. It doesn’t involve having to maintain your own site, and it’s also often where the audience is. The issue with blogs is that you had to attract — and then keep — an audience. Tools like RSS acted as a method for keeping people coming back, but… then Google became the de facto provider of RSS reading tools, and then killed it. To this day, that move is still considered one of the defining moments in the shift from a more distributed, independent web to one that is controlled by a few large companies.

~ Mike Masnick from, https://www.techdirt.com/2022/06/03/the-internet-can-still-be-small-and-nice-but-its-on-all-of-us-to-make-that-work/

My pull quote is really just a small side trail in the article. But I’m quoting it because it reinforces my point (possibly on purpose by the author, possibly by coincidence). Even a maneuver by the giant Google hasn’t killed blogging. Blogging continues. (Hey thanks for reading my blog!) And the same is true for everything else.

Because it all runs on the internet. The walled gardens referred to as social media? …they actually run atop the internet. The current darling-child that is Mastodon? …it uses a protocol called ActivityPub which was invented to enable federated networking of social activity. And ActivityPub runs atop the good ‘ol web… which of course runs on the internet. The true gift is the open internet.

Also: I’m on Mastodon :) just look for @craig@constantine.name to follow this blog, or you can even look for @craig@moversmindset.com to follow the Movers Mindset project.

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Advice

If you stop to listen to a musician or street performer for more than a minute, you owe them a dollar.

There is no such thing as being “on time.” You are either late or you are early. Your choice.

~ Kevin Kelly from, https://kk.org/thetechnium/103-bits-of-advice-i-wish-i-had-known/

Alas, though I’ve provided you a link, it has already rotted. (I lamented this just a few weeks ago too.) You’re welcome to click through, but it leads now to a teaser version of the original piece… and links to the it’s-now-a-book on Amazon. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I’m all for people making money off their own work. It’s just weird to me, because it was only just 5 months ago that I marked that URL for later reading (my read–things–later tool saved me a copy of the page) and yet now it is no more.

Pro-tip: If you have the URL to something (as I’ve given you above) the Internet Archive probably saved you a copy. For example, here’s 103 Bits of Advice… from May, 2022.

As for the specific bits of advice, above I’ve chosen just two to quote. The bit about being late or early is my favorite; The world would be infinitely better off if everyone learned that bit. And the bit about owing money to street musicians is one I learned later in life, but to which I strictly abide; If I stop to listen, I will contribute.

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The sands slip through

“Charles blew a little smoke and said, ‘Build a thousand and if we can’t sell them, we will use them in the store for something,’” Mr. Roach recalled in remarks to the Fort Worth Executive Round Table last month. “We were finally able to ship some machines in September and shipped 5,000 that year, all we could assemble,” Mr. Roach said. “Our competitors shipped none.”

~ Sam Roberts from, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/23/technology/personaltech/john-roach-dead.html

I had no idea who this person was until I saw this. A TRS-80 (the portable model, called a “4P”, so my computer’s name became “Forpy”) was literally the first in our home. We unpacked it Christmas morning and my father had declined to buy any games (which cost extra) for it. I didn’t even notice—I programmed the crap out of that thing. First in ASCII graphics, then added a graphics card so it could—gasp—draw progressively changing, black-and-white ellipses that looked like othello pieces flipping. I even manually coded the optimal tic-tac-toe algorithm so it could actually play. So, just knowing that one of the people who made that possible, is now gone… well, that’s a little sad.

You should go find the TV series Halt and Catch Fire.

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*Throws down controller*

That’s the thing about aggregation: one can understand how it works, and yet be powerless to resist its incentives. It seems foolhardy to think that this might be true for economics and not true for ideas, even — especially! — if we are sure they are correct.

~ Ben Thompson from, https://stratechery.com/2022/the-current-thing/

Sometimes I read things on the Internet and I want to throw my keyboard (my title is a reference to 1980s console games where one might get furious, and rage-quit by throwing the game’s controller.) Partly, my urge to rage-quit is from exasperation that Thompson keeps cranking out these great articles (and his podcasts Dithering and Exponent and this other thing he did that is awesome but you wouldn’t understand because I can’t explain it well) while I’m over here plinking away writing snarky blog posts when I should be earning a living.

But also because of the point of the article which is found in my pull-quote of the entire final paragraph.

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This I hope for you

This simplicity was disorienting in a way. Many times a day I would finish whatever activity I was doing, and realize there was nothing to do but consciously choose another activity and then do that. This is how I made my first bombshell discovery: I take out my phone every time I finish doing basically anything, knowing there will be new emails or mentions or some other dopaminergic prize to collect. I have been inserting an open-ended period of pointless dithering after every intentional task.

~ David Cain from, https://www.raptitude.com/2022/02/what-i-learned-during-my-three-days-offline/

It is still uncommon for me to be without my phone. I have to admit that sometimes I carry it simply because I have a flat pince-nez stuck to the back of my phone. Recently it’s dawned on me that I have another, identical pair in a tiny flat case not stuck to my phone and I sometimes just carry those and not my phone. Regardless, you’ll never see me whip out my phone—unless we have a question, what’s the weather, where’s the nearest…, and so on. It’s a tool I sometimes use, like shoes.

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May break the Internet

If Earth were to shift to even longer days, we may need to incorporate a “negative leap second”—this would be unprecedented, and may break the internet.

~ Matt King and Christopher Watson from, https://phys.org/news/2022-08-length-earth-days-mysteriously-scientists.html

The use of the phrase “may break the internet” made me smile. It’s not irony, and it’s serious. I do not want to think about what would happen if they inserted a negative leap second; The forward sort are bad enough, and don’t get me started on Daylight Savings Time. I digress.

This is a refreshingly clear, popular-science level article that covers the myriad reasons there is such variability in the exact amount of time it takes our magic marble to whirl precisely once around its axis. The very first thing most people never think of is how do we even precisely decide what “one rotation” is. (Hint: Astronomy.)

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Together

It’s an endless list of little things that you think you’ve forgotten, but you haven’t. You are quite literally built to sense an infinite amount of subtle bits of signal from your fellow humans. We were not built to live alone in caves; we were built to live together in them.

~ Rands from, https://randsinrepose.com/archives/what-we-lost/

As the “online interaction” soared in recent years, I’ve gradually moved away from feeling grumpy about the quality of (for example), video calls online. Through that time I continued to enjoy in-person interaction as much as I ever did, and I had already spent years massively reducing the frequency of those. My feeling is that all the online interaction has expanded—not replaced, nor “attempted to replace” nor anything negative like that—my human interaction. I’ve had multiple conversations with people from other continents I’d never had been able to meet in person.

I’m not suggesting “Rands” has it wrong. No, he has it quite right. I’m simply pointing out that these sense-limited interactions can be an enormous positive addition when we don’t think of them as replacing normal human interactions.

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Pet peeve #7

Web pages which neglect to include two of the most important pieces of information: Who and When. Yes, all web pages. Thou shalt always list the author. (“Anonymous” is a legitimate answer to, “who?’) Thou shalt always list at least a general composition/publication date. Online, it is already difficult to place things into context. Having a Who and When gives that many more clues to place things into context.

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