A hot dog is not a sandwich

Thoughts

Few etymological debates stir up as much furore as whether a hot dog constitutes a sandwich. It doesn’t, but that reality doesn’t dissuade descenting delicatessen doyens demanding the dictionary definition of a sandwich is satisfied by a hot dog.

Eric Mittenthal, president of the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, exposes the flaw in this logic:

“A hot dog is not a sandwich,” he said. “If you go to a hot dog vendor and you say give me a sandwich, they’re going to look at you like you’re crazy.


Content, engagement, and extraction

Internet

I’m iffy on the language used to describe people, our creativity, and our interactions online. Everything is measured by engagement, for the production of content, and extracting value. And it’s hollowing out the web from the inside.

Doc Searls expanded on this last month, in a blog post explaining why attention is not a commodity:

My point here is that reducing humans to beings who are only attentive—and passively so—is radically dehumanizing, and it is important to call that out. It’s the same reductionism we get with the word “consumers,” which Jerry Michalski calls “gullets with wallets and eyeballs”: creatures with infinite appetites for everything, constantly swimming upstream through a sea of “content.” (That’s another word that insults the infinite variety of goods it represents.)

He also touches on why so many of us are jaded on much of the innovation happening in the industry right now:

None of us want our attention extracted, processed, monetized, captured, managed, controlled, held in custody, locked in, or subjected to any of the other verb forms that the advertising world uses without cringing. That the “attention economy” produces $trillions does not mean we want to be part of it, that we like it, or that we wish for it to persist, even though we participate in it.

I’ve noticed this on The Bird Site, with an explosion in the number of accounts designed expressly to solicit comments, grow follower counts, and target people with ads. Sites like Reddit similarly have to deal with bots that repost popular content in order to farm “karma”, then flip the account for advertising or propaganda. Decentralised and federated social networks are largely spared from this right now, but there’s no reason to believe they wouldn’t also fall victim if enough people moved across. Followers and karma == money.

None of this is new; it just feels more acute now.

Doc suggests we get around this by building tools for individuals, and services that leverage those tools. That would be a start, but I worry that we face an uphill battle not just due to the network effect, but because we’d be pushing against billions of dollars in an economy that treats minds like an amorphous sea to be pumped by oil rigs.

Doc claimed ad tech is the biggest boycott in history back in 2015, which Cory Doctorow also expanded on a few years later. Perhaps that’s the key: we need to make this invasive tech and spam as unappealing a business proposition as possible. We also need to stop measuring success based on these metrics.


Using Network Location in macOS

Software

I’ve been using modern macOS since the original Mac OS X betas were shipped on CD. Yet this is, to the best of my memory, the first time I’ve ever used the Location feature for networks.

If you open System Preferences and choose Network, there’s a dropdown labelled Location. It’s set to Automatic by default, but if you select it, you can choose Edit Locations… and add another. From then on, subsequent network settings will only be changed for that location.

Cooler still, you can then select that location from the Apple menu. Now I have all my custom DNS, IP, and VPN settings available within two clicks:

Screenshot showing the Location submenu on the Apple menu, with a list of places I've defined

Schveet!


Do you log out of sites?

Internet

Here’s a mental exercise. When was the last time you logged out of a site? Not closed the tab, or put your laptop to sleep, or waited for a timeout; but pressed a log off button to end a website session?

If your answered recently, do you think any of your colleagues, classmates, friends, or family still do?

I ask, because I’m starting to think it’s unusual. It used to be accepted security wisdom to log out when you were done with a session, but once again I feel like I’m an outlier doing it.

I can see three reasons for this:

  1. Sensitive sites, like online banking and the tax office, will log you out automatically after a period in activity. People have become used to this. I worry, because it trains people to think all sites do this, when they most definitely don’t.

  2. Sites like Facebook are incentivised to keep you logged in to track and monetise your activity. This is why Messenger was such a masterstroke; you have to be logged in all the time to get IM-style messages on their site.

  3. Logging in has become a pain. Split login forms, CAPTCHAs, insecure SMS-based MFA systems that time out delivering codes, and confirmation emails because… wait, you log out sometimes? That’s unusual activity! And the solution? Use your federated login from point 2!

Some of this comes down to security or bad design, either deliberately, or because people don’t prioritise accessibility with alarming regularity.

Still, I thought it was an interesting shift.


The sham referendums in Ukraine

Thoughts

The news as reported by the Kyiv Independent, which you can support here:

The announcement [of annexation] comes after Russia’s proxies held sham referendums in the occupied parts of these regions and, on Sept. 27, declared nearly 100% of people living in the occupied territories of Ukraine “voted” to join Russia.

These numbers look North Korean. They’re so ridiculous, and so divorced from reality, that no rational person would take them seriously. Even in the most unified and functional of democracies, a 60% win is seen as a landslide.

99% of Americans can’t vote against shooting kids, and we’d never get 99% of Australians to admit our gambling crisis. Yet we’re supposed to believe a wartorn oblast you don’t fully control, and where your invaders have killed, pillaged, raped, and tortured thousands of innocent people, agrees with your invasion at those numbers?

Despots, dictators, and deplorables make this obvious mistake every single time. 99% doesn’t make you look strong, it exposes your scam.

As a reminder, the President’s United24 initiative includes links for where you can send donations for defence, demining, medical aid, and reconstruction. Please consider if you can. Sláva Ukrayíni. 🌻


Blander logos are good, via @NeilIreland

Thoughts

Last year I wrote about MediaWiki’s new logo, and talked of the general trend among logo designers towards bland, dull, uninteresting, unoriginal, and largely interchangeable marks.

Neil of the imitable Matchstick Cats and the late great IntoYourHead podcast (I miss joining him at those incredibly exciting moments), sees the positive:

Good. Brands exist to trick us into parting with our money or our good judgement. If they’re less good at creating then that’s a welcome development.

He’s onto something. Just Creative linked logo design to the current global climate, dubbing them “reblands”:

[…] the Great Recession also contributed to a reduced appetite for all things excessive. While this can easily be seen on the fashion and decor side, all aspects of design are inextricably linked — logo fonts included.

I happen to think (that’s dangerous) that’s a good thing. Less stuff we don’t need, spent with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t like, the better.


Do I need line numbers? Yes

Software

I’ve been having fun lately challenging assumptions about my operating environment. I’ve got into the habit of blindly enabling settings without stopping to think if I need them, or for what reason. I’ve been surprised how much stuff was either built on sand, or that have been held over by sheer inertia and force of habit.

Line numbers are one of these. No matter if I’m starting with Vim, Kate, or a code repository site, I instinctively reach for the tool’s respective line number setting or dotfile config, and everything is right in the world.

But… why? What use are they?

Time was, one needed line numbers to do programming. I grew up in primary school with QBasic and QPascal, the former of which had the legendary GOTO statement. But then, those rarely mapped 1:1 with line numbers; those in the know would manually add and pad their line numbers so you could insert intervening lines without having to retroactively renumber everything underneath it. Many an afternoon was spend tediously doing this.

Modern editors and languages gives us line numbers without any work on our part, and no longer require them to function. Which means they’re now entirely a human affordance.

I took note of how I used them in Vim, and was a bit surprised:

  1. My eyes tend to dart to line numbers to provide a reference for where I am in a document, even when there’s a scrollbar and Vim’s ruler present which reports my position. (This is also why the trend of hiding scrollbars is counterproductive. They’re a visual cue as much as they are a functional component, which UI designers either forget or ignore).

  2. They let me know how long each soft-wrapped line is when writing longform documents, such as in LaTeX or Markdown. I can see the above point wrapped five times in the source file for this post, because there were that many lines between it and the next one. Whether you think soft-wrapping is useful or a sign of the devil is a philosophical discussion beyond the scope of this post!

  3. Disabling line numbers made the editor feel… empty. Which is ridiculous. But then, so are all emotional attachments to inanimate objects.

Then there are line numbers in shell tools like diff(1) and git(1), which report differences based on where they are in a file. I’d say those are more functionally important than in a text editor, but I include them here as another example.

Perhaps they’re a bit of an anachronism in a interactive environment like a text editor today, but I’m happy to keep them around. If they come for free, why not?


Raspberry Pis in racks or PCI slots

Hardware

I’m on a bit of an efficiency kick of late. I’m interested to learn what I can run with less, to save power, money, and space.

I’d always wanted my own home server rack, before I decided to consolidate everything into a server pedestal case. But then I learned you can get rack mounts for the Raspberry Pi too. Here’s an example from UCTRONICS, with some nice thumbscrew sleds:

Rack mountable Raspberry Pi system with thumb screws, and four Pis mounted.

I’ve seen the Raspberry Pi Compute Modules and their boards mounted in racks for ARM development, but the idea of mounting regular Raspberry Pis into racks tickles me. Think of how orderly all my generations of hardware would be, and with all the cable clutter hidden behind panels!? I could even see these potentially fitting my cute new RISC-V board I backed on Kickstarter. I could even get a LACK rack in the interim.

The alternative would be to figure out how to mount them in a pedestel server case, along with my existing mATX Supermicro board. I have a bunch of empty PCI slots; would Pis fit on a sled mounted to those? I expect the IO would be too tall, but then if they’re all internal to the case that wouldn’t matter.

Money is tight right now, but I love working through hypotheticals like this… and not just on account of that word sounding like hippopotamus. There’s something about having a dense, kitted-out box that does everything, much like my mythical external drive enclosure that would contain all the power bricks and SCSI cables for all my external retro Iomega drives.

Weirdly, I’d be interested in making something out of wood before I did any metalwork. Pity I live in an apartment either way.


David Gerard’s cryptocurrency talk

Internet

David Gerard of Attack of the Fifty Foot Blockchain fame attended a conference in Nashville last week, where he talked with senior-level American state and provincial regulators about this brave new world in which we live.

I thought this was a helpful reminder next time you get bogged down talking about the utility of someone’s chosen cryptocurrency:

My bit was my basic stuff: don’t worry about the tech, look at the financial instrument, and the people and the flows of cash.

He also offered a bit of advice:

The general lesson for innovative financial entrepreneurs is: if you rip off enough of the public, you don’t get just the SEC after you, but sixty state and provincial regulators as well. Celsius and Voyager have met that bar.


Archive it if you care about it

Internet

If Beyoncé were an engineer, she might have suggested that if one were to like something, they should have put a disk on it. That might be among the worst sentences I’ve ever typed, and I couldn’t be more proud.

Wha-oh oh, oh, oh-oh, oh, oh, oh, oh oh oh.

Everyone has felt that sting when books, videos, music, podcasts, webcomics, and sites they care about go away, or are threatened. It’s normal to feel an attachment to something that formed an important part of your life, regardless of what it is. Cynics feign ignorance of this, with jokes that are perhaps more self-effacing than they intend. Denial, Egyptian rivers, and all that.

Fans of a YouTube franchise got some bad news today about one of the cast. Clara and I loved specific episodes (which happened to not include the person in question), and credited their lighthearted take on life with getting us through Covid lockdowns in 2020. This echos a similar issue with a popular cooking channel we watched for similar reasons.

Whether those shows will continue to be available is an open question, but I’m sceptical if the past offers any hints.

Unlike the physical media of yore, streaming and online video platforms are ephemeral places. If misguided copyright law doesn’t take something down, it’s the heavy-handed and short-sighted whims of a platform, the creators themselves, or even a technical issue or outage. It can affect anyone.

The only way to be sure you can read, listen to, or watch stuff you care about is to archive it. Read a tutorial about yt-dlp for videos. Download webcomics. Archive podcast episodes. If you don’t care, that’s fine. If you do, you should.