Lessons From Decades of Blogging.

Someone wrote on twitter that they’d been blogging for over a decade and I chuckled. I’ve been at it for at least twice as long, though my body of work has disappeared like fallen leaves in the forest of blogs. I can’t tell you how to make money blogging, because I haven’t made much directly, and I can’t tell you how to be popular because the popularity I had was niche and fleeting. I can tell you what not to do, so let me lay that out for you in the manner I can best describe.

KnowProSE.com

There’s the stuff I wrote on KnowProSE.com, which in it’s most successful period was a place where things about Second Life, Free Software and Open Source were the main focus, as well as a lot of quotations that I was building on with book reviews. The book review part was fun for me – but Amazon.com wouldn’t allow one to publish reviews on sites after Amazon.com after a while, and publishers wanted the review on Amazon.com, and there was no way to monetize that.

Lesson: Don’t tie yourself to one method of deriving income when they can change it at any time. And the second they can and it’s profitable to them, they will.

Then, through a weird kerfuffle on BlueHost.com servers, KnowProSE.com was knocked offline between backups I made while I was out of the country, at a CARDICIS event as I recall, and they lost all my data. And the data I had from Drupal was months old because, as it happened, the backups I had made in between couldn’t be restored.

Lesson: Don’t trust the technology and hosting of your blog. You’re just one of many, and you don’t matter that much to the hosts or to the content management system you use. And test your backups locally by using a local host on your PC.

This loss of content combined with the ageism in corporate America with real software engineering work caused me to get into farming for a while. The reward was the tangible, and plenty of time to think, but that’s more toward what I’m doing now than what has past.

BrainBuzz.com/CramSession.com

Around the time that I was getting KnowProSE.com, I was also involved in writing articles for Brainbuzz.com and CramSession.com for software engineering. This wasn’t blogging, per se, but the reality is that it was in how it was used. I got paid, and paid for moderating groups of software engineers yapping away in the forums with the religious wars of coding, of which there are many.

It was not a bad gig. I made $100 an article, I’d write at least 5 articles a month which was pretty good considering I was living in Trinidad at the time – I could live off that. In fact, I did. And I had the allowance of writing whatever I wanted about software engineering, and I did.
The trouble was the websites, and I expect companies, disappeared. That writing is gone forever.

Unfortunately, part of that $100 meant exclusive rights, and that means when it’s gone, it’s gone.

Lesson: Keep notes of what you have written before, no matter how easy it seems before, because while what you write for anyone else may be exclusive to them, it does not mean you can’t rewrite it.

Overall

One of the ‘problems’ I have is that I don’t have a ‘niche’. This is largely because I’m interested in everything, and I enjoy connecting seemingly unrelated things. This means my content ‘categorization’ varies widely, and as a ‘blogging rule’, this is not how to build a blog. People like to go to certain sites to get certain information consistently, like flipping to a television channel.

I hate that rule because I find it limiting. If you want to create a financial stream, that’s a good rule to follow, but what I have found is that there are needed silences in niches where there is nothing worth writing about, or the writing becomes repetitive. This leads to content for the sake of content, and to me that’s not the best use of the space we have to share our thoughts.

Some people like it. They do it. They make livings off of it, and what I’m doing is likely a mistake in the eyes of those that are financially successful in writing. People stick to genres and do well, and if you can do that it’s the easiest way forward. I’ve had mixed success with not following the rule.

And yet I have a lesson here, the final one for this post:

Write for yourself, or not at all. This is not to say that you should dismiss the audience, far from it! Yet your writing will likely be better and feel less forced if you follow your instincts and give yourself the space to grow.

LinuxGazette.com/A42.com

Through a loop of fate that had a lot to do with my travels in Latin America, which was a wonderful experience, I became editor of LinuxGazette.com and A42.com – both of which are gone.

The company that owned them, SSC, paid me well enough, but finding content that was original and getting people to write for them was challenging because of one key issue that I was not told about when I accepted the job: LinuxGazette.org.

This was an issue that put SSC at odds with a very vocal part of the community. Thus, this job was self-limiting, and I imagine a bit of a joke to the editors of Linux Journal at the time though I did not know it. I meant well, but intentions means nothing when you find yourself in the middle of a dispute regarding copyright and trademark where neither side understands what the word, ‘compromise’ means.

I tried to mediate, it didn’t work out, I advised my boss that going up against the community was a bad idea and was hated on by just about everyone involved for the trouble. Scathed.

The two sites at one point redirected to LinuxJournal.com, but now one is presently a redirect to ‘SwiftMoney.com’, the other to a site that I’ve never seen before that is not particularly helpful in explaining what it is.

Lesson: Do some hard research on things involved before you take jobs, and don’t trust the people around you to tell you anything.

WorldChanging.com

Well, I wrote a bit about this before, so I won’t repeat it. But I know at least one author from HuffingtonPost, Sally Duros, who voluntarily helped build HuffingtonPost up as many authors of the period did just to make one person rich.

Lesson: Don’t trust people with your work because you think they are well intentioned. Under the right circumstances, they may decide their value is greater than that of the people who helped build things up and, if they have the opportunity, they’ll do what’s best for them… and you’ll be out in the dark

Wear Eye Protection

Goggles WWII Flickruser SDASM archives public domainI suppose some writers will run their fingernails over their keyboards, caressing it like an old lover. What’s disturbing about that is that their fingers are between their brain and your eyes, and in an odd ways, this is sort of like poking your eyeballs. Gently, I hope, but if you see someone wiggling their fingers at you it’s best be safe.

Eye protection is important.

When you consider things like that, the world is viciously funny.

Two people fighting on social media are basically waving their fingers at each other, probably emphatically. On computer keyboards, they probably get good rhythm going, their thumbs using the space bar for percussion as they beat out their thoughts to someone who is likely not even going to read what they wrote. Even as they are typing, the other person is already working on their next response.

Dueling Keyboards. It would be a lot less intense if they got on a video call and just waved fingers at each other. How ridiculous would that be?

It might also be fun to stick them on some good gamer keyboards – something we older folks remembered as ‘standard’ with the IBM PC, XT and AT. You could hit people with it all day, use it to open a beer, maybe even chop wood with it and still use it. That’s something IBM made that few did in the early days: Bulletproof keyboards.

I used to go through a keyboard a year. Really. I stopped writing as much, and these keyboards I have have lasted… too long. A real writing session makes your fingers cramp, and that’s when you know when to stop.

But carry that with you as you go – that people are just wiggling fingers at your eyeballs, and you’re just wiggling them back.

Education Daydream.

So, for no particular reason, I was thinking of a story regarding sentient beings – not people – evolving on a moon rather than a planet.

Because the planet has it’s own rotation around a star, and because the moon doesn’t match the speed of the orbit of the planet, life is very different. To become a sentient being on such a moon would mean first of all counting what we think of as days. Days of light. So they’d have to figure that out – which to this day we humans have gotten down to leap seconds, but generally speaking our society is off.

This got me to thinking about how the education system would evolve, and what I came up with is this idea that everyone dislikes education systems. The administrators want to change it, the teachers want to change it, the students want to change it. Then you have the smart ones who know how to improve the system, the average ones who like it as it is, and the stupid ones.

Now, the stupid ones aren’t necessarily stupid. They’re just interested in stuff that’s not in the average curriculum and/or their talents lay elsewhere and/or they just don’t like having stuff they don’t like to do, and/or they have trouble at home, and/or… well, you get the point. Some are just dumb, too. The trouble is that the educational system doesn’t know the difference, so they’re all treated as stupid in society. That’s their lot in life. No bachelor’s degree? Clearly stupid.

So now these sentient beings came up with a political system that is best described as democracy, except these beings don’t get elected. It’s accepted in society that every group of 7, out of the 7, they decide one who will represent them. Now when those 7 get together, they do the same and form a new tier. So as the population grew, they gained quite a few tiers, and when the number wasn’t divisible by 7, 7 to the power of x people were excluded and they had no process for that. Messy. Like Democracy, but not binary.

The top tier of less than 7 made the decisions. This caused a few problems with population booms because the beings hated the deadlocks of even numbers, and that rare occasion when beings stopped having kids when they did not want to create another tier. Very much interested in 7, these beings.

So anyway, when it came to the education system, this odd democratic-like… system… would decide what changes to listen to, etc, and they were made up of – you guessed it! – the smart, the average, and the stupid (as explained).

What I didn’t explain was all the problems with being ‘stupid’ were the same with ‘smart’ and ‘average’. There were some absolutely stupid people who snuck into the smart and average brackets.

So these people, who were somewhere between smart and stupid, and who were really somewhere else between smart and stupid based on the education system, would listen to educators and administrators that had the same issue… and they made adjustments to the system.

If the true intelligence of this was high, the system would eventually improve.

If the true intelligence of this was low, the system would devolve.

Since it’s a mix, it’s more complicated, so we talk about the average true intelligence. Or you could call it true average. Whatever floats your boat. But then we get back to the above:

If the true average intelligence of this was high, the system would eventually improve.

If the true average intelligence of this was low, the system would devolve.

And then the true average shifts between generations. One stupid generation can do generations of evolution. Or a really smart generation could improve everything and they’d make large leaps.

Look how complicated education really is.

Demographics

evolution tech smallLast week sometime, a passing acquaintance on Facebook referred to something he had written 10 years ago regarding joining the final demographic. It prompted me to think about marketing demographics and how I must have fit in, as a tribe of one.

After some thought, I realized I was maybe part of an interesting demographic to marketers for a period when I was… creative… in how I described myself to get magazine subscriptions for things I was interested in. These were days when you filled in a postcard that was provided in, for example, a magazine, and asked how much purchasing authority you had, and so on. Filled out right, you’d magically get stuff to read that was in a specific field. My mailbox was never empty, something always interesting to look over, opening new worlds to me.

So there was that. Perhaps for a while based on income, or spending habits, but those two were something could be creative about, at least for a period, and that generally came with some benefits. Trying some free samples out, telling them whether you thought it was good or bad. But then… generally, I was never a part of the demographic marketers look at because I have broad interests and have never just stuck to one thing very much. I was never an ideal demographic. Age wise, sure, I had my moments, I may still have them, but overall – I was never very interesting to marketers.

I made mistakes with credit cards early, which screwed up my credit rating, and then when people were talking about ‘cutting them up’, I simply stopped using them and something magical happened after a few years: I couldn’t do stuff because I had no credit history. That means that nobody really markets to you, since one of the demographics most sought after is those people who buy, buy, buy, and go in debt, debt, debt!

Even employers loved to see you get an expensive new car because then they were more secure that you wouldn’t leave. A new baby? Your employer hit paydirt! Ahh, those were the days. You could almost see the resignation in people’s faces when they had debt and the promise of future debt. Some people say it made them grow up. Mature. But really, what I saw was a measure of compliance with the way things worked. Equating that to maturity means a broken horse is mature, and a wild horse is a child.

Demographics. Now the world has no real need of those sorts of things other than for feeding bureaucracies. Marketers buy your information from wherever they can get it, and there is plenty of that still – or they just use one of the massive Big Tech companies with millions – billions- of users, run a few ads and see who responds, using the BigTech algorithms to go fishing for us.

Demographics. How long is that going to last for?

Advocacy And Social Networks.

social media remote via animated heaven flickr user public domain 1 aug 2022
Via Animated Heaven on Flickr, public domain.

Having now seen the troubles with Facebook (and by extension all companies under Meta), and getting involved in Twitter, I’ve seen a few things that disturb me. While my political views would hardly be called popular, I have taken pretty strong stances in support of Ukraine and women’s rights, as examples. This, of course, means you end up dealing with people of like minds because that’s how the social networks work.

However, we humans tend to confuse people going in the same direction as those who are going to the same destination, and in that regard, there is trouble. I’ll deal with the issue of social media interactions and Ukraine here because after the horrid video of the torture and castration of a Ukrainian Defender made the rounds, followed by an execution – I saw the video, it was absolutely horrible – things are even more tense.

The blowing up of a Ukrainian PoW camp even as Russia tries to say it was Ukrainians who did it… well, the Geneva Convention has rules about how far from the front PoW camps are supposed to be, and Russia of course ignored that, and evidence is that Russia did it. The United Nations and International Red Cross were useless. Broken. It’s hard for anyone observing to not be upset at some level, but apologists remain.

Now, these social networks have their own little echo chambers, and there’s plenty of disinformation to go round.

Given the failures of the United Nations and International Red Cross, and given that Ukraine likely doesn’t have the time or resources to create a registry of NGOs that are actually helping, it’s a matter of finding out from the ground in very quiet ways. I have done so, and I’m very select in what I share in that regard.

While all of that is happening, we of course have the Russian propaganda and misinformation happening, and people are calling that out. Some of it is patently obvious, like the same serial number on a missile used twice in Russian propaganda. There are plentiful examples of that sort of thing, even using pictures of the United States in Russian propaganda. Meanwhile, a genocide is happening in Ukraine, and the world is worried about inflation.

The price of living up to ideals is discomfort. And if our ideals are not worth the discomfort, there’s not much space for ideals in the future. During World War II, my fathers’ side of the family was getting rations in Trinidad, while my mother’s side was busy in the military or Merchant Marines. We call it sacrifice, whose root is, ‘to make holy’, but it is the cost of our ideals and how we wish the world to be.

In all of this, the social media interactions I’ve observed have had me thinking I should write this.

Becoming What We Hate.

There’s some things I see that I generally stay away from. I’ve seen people who support Ukraine go through multiple accounts on Twitter, referring to ‘Russian cum guzzlers’ and other creative profanity, to just this morning watching a group call out someone on something they didn’t agree with, calling in their group, and bringing up the fact that this person had been accused of causing a suicide through orchestration of social media posts… not unlike what that group was doing to the person themselves.

Wait, what? Yes. Don’t become what you hate.

Whataboutism.

Then there’s the falsehood of whataboutism. Some trolls will bring up something like what has happened in Iraq, or Syria, trying to create a parallel and at the same time reinforcing a division. Rather than engage it and say, “Yeah, that is/was wrong too”, which would allow the casual observer who might think that there really is a bias rethink their perspective. Instead, dismissing it reinforces to the readers that that particular issue is not considered real, when it very well may be, reinforcing their beliefs which works against the actual advocacy someone is trying to do.

I’ve done this quite a bit, saying, “Yes, that is bad too.” It generally is, and when someone reads that, it at best doesn’t reinforce a bias that the reader may feel when they started reading. At worst, there’s no comeback to it. All it takes is considering beyond the current person and to the greater audience who may not be interacting but is reading.

Whataboutisms are landmines of unintended consequences that, handled improperly, can cause people you don’t even know about to harden their resolve against your cause. What’s worse is when there is even a small amount of legitimacy in them, because unanswered, they fester. You might enjoy that smug feeling, but if your intent was to change minds, you likely failed.

And if you are advocating, for whatever reason, and you don’t want to change minds, you’re not advocating.

The Pile On For Mistakes.

People pile on to others during disagreements at times when they’re assuming intentionality, or not even worried about the intentionality and only the impact. Someone said it well enough to quote, so here it is:
Terrence Jermain Starr Intention Impact
People make mistakes. I made a mistake early on in writing, “The Ukraine” rather than Ukraine, and someone understood my intentions were good and corrected me. I thanked them for the correction and never made the mistake again. I was fortunate in that regard, because there are people out there being pretty groupthinkish about what people should say at this point. However, we have to understand on a social network that people aren’t fed the same news we are, their lives are different, their world, as they see it, is different. This doesn’t mean that given facts they won’t change their minds, which is sometimes the case. But it gets nasty, and it can border on bullying.

We get to decide who we are on social media. We get to decide what we participate in or not. If it’s a Russian embassy putting out crap, I’m all for letting the pile ons happen – after all, someone is getting paid to post things that need to be called out. But if it’s someone who made a mistake, and we assume intentionality, we can actually ruin someone’s life.

This happened recently to someone I had interacted with in more than one Twitter space. I don’t know what happened, no one talked about it, but suddenly they just deleted their account after saying goodbye because they – who had supported Ukraine without question – was accused of spreading Russian propaganda. Another person I know who is well read on Russia and it’s history and who has helped me map out commonalities with European colonialism got accused of spreading Russian propaganda because they omitted something in something they wrote by someone in one of the popular groups on Twitter supporting Ukraine. I did something I don’t do often. I stepped in and was surprised I didn’t get a pile on out of it.

Today, something similar happened to myself, but it was sidestepped by a neutral party that I respect and it came to a halt. This group think policy is something that people should be considering when they become members of a group: What’s the destination? It’s not just about direction.

It’s not just about impact. Intentionality plays a part.

Groups Get People Looking for Fights.

As groups get larger, people join who just want to fight. The goal of advocacy is to win, not to fight. Fighting is necessary sometimes. Worse, you sometimes get people these days who pretend to be advocating for one thing when they’re really advocating for another, and without structure, these groups have no mechanism to deal with it.

Wrapping This Up

I could wax poetic about how to handle situations on social media and social networks because I have been involved in moderation since the 1990s in various ways, and I have been wrong, and I have been right. Being wrong and correcting my mistakes has allowed me to be right more and wrong less.

I’m imperfect. I get things wrong. I correct them when I find them.

The more technical side of this, which is imperative, can be found here: Why Social Media Moderation Fails. It deals with the black boxes of how social media platforms respond to things differently, and can appear to have biases that we ourselves can create. These social media platforms were hardly designed for the sorts of things that they do. They’ve been reactionary, imperfect, and sometimes they seem outright biased – but there’s no real evidence showing it. It’s our own bias, until we get evidence, and social media networks are hardly known for transparency. Oddly enough, it’s an iron curtain.

If you’re going to play these games on social networks and you don’t know the rules the social network uses (which is really most social networks), you could be shooting yourself in the foot and not even know it.

The trick to all of this, in any form of advocacy, is not that people are traveling in the same or even different directions. It’s about the destination, and the destination a person has is what they are advocating for. It’s also about not destroying one’s own advocacy.

Speaking for myself in the context of Ukraine, I would like to see Ukraine’s sovereignty honored by it’s inhumane neighbor. I’d love to see the International Criminal Court do it’s job. I’d like all the children forcibly moved by Russia to Russia returned to Ukraine. That is my destination.

And to be frank, that doesn’t seem like enough, but that’s more than enough right now.

Being Social.

web Craft Beer Lives HereI’ve taken to taking weekends ‘off’ to a degree, which is likely a bit odd for many people who read this since the majority of people already do that, and have done it for some time.

Growing up, these days were days when I worked one way or another. Family businesses, and some companies I worked for, were service businesses to service businesses, where being on call 24/7 wasn’t a job, it was just life. So, even if I worked for a company that gave weekends and holidays off, I would keep myself busy somehow.

Hobbies. Rebuilding RX7s, taking Pine64s and making neural nets from them, hanging shelves, writing, experimenting with new hardware and software (and libraries).
Maybe because of this, over the years that part of me atrophied from lack of use. Maybe I just was implicitly part of a hacker ethic, or maybe, just maybe, I loved avoiding the drama associated with other people from being misunderstood, from getting into a pissing contest, or listening to someone blather on about things that I didn’t care about (a staple of many relationships).
Maybe I’m just not a people person. People I interact with feel otherwise, generally, but that’s part of the load of doing it.

If I have to interact with someone, I want it to be positive, thoughtful, and as painless as possible while being as honest as possible. This is not an easy task with most people. ‘Painless’ is a matter of someone’s sensitivity and the ability to apply soft enough words to make a point without getting a person in pain, or defensive (which is a reaction to previous pains).

It’s easier to sit down and write these things after some thought rather than to do it in person, because you can just sit and think about what you write, but in a tense human conversation it’s all about improv, and when people run out of improv, bad things happen. Sometimes bad things just happen, but with a bit of experience, these can be avoided if one pays attention.

In all, it’s a lot of work. For some, it’s all very easy, but for me I see it as a lot of work. And that’s how I tricked myself into doing it on weekends and on holidays.

World Changin’.

Dystopian Lego Future
HellsBells by ‘Crusty Da Klown’ on flickr Public domain. Accessed 24 Jul 2022.

There’s a sense that the world is broken, and we built this world. This got me thinking about when I was part of the team of WorldChanging.com, which started off strong but later would become a book. I didn’t agree with the publishing team at the time because I was perturbed that while they had agreed to publishing under a Creative Commons License with me, they never really posted the copyright notice for it.

That, and some disagreements about the Alert Retrieval Cache that became nasty, cinched it for me. Imagine my surprise when I was asked by email, and not by Alex Steffen, if they could use some of my articles in the book when I had made it a point that everything I wrote for WorldChanging.com was under a Creative Commons license. When I corresponded with Jamais Cascio about it, since he was involved from the start and he had brought me into the team as I recall, the answer was pragmatic. Do I think less of the team? Some of them. We had a good thing going.

Thinking of this, I visited the domain today and saw that it’s been repurposed to something about “Flexible Mobile Offgrid habits”. I checked the domain WHOIS, and saw the information is registered by Google LLC.

Like most things I’ve been a part of or worked on, it’s gone. It’s not really that big of a loss, the book was dated even before it was published. I never bothered with buying a copy, and I was never offered one either from those that cashed in from the publishing. It had a developing world bias that didn’t translate well to the developing world, in my opinion, which is another reason I left the team. At the core of it though, was a problem I was having with someone else regarding the Alert Retrieval Cache, which worked something like Twitter about a year before Twitter was formed.

In The Green Pen, the Alert Retrieval Cache was described as an offshoot of the blog when in fact that’s not what it was at all. The Alert Retrieval Cache (ARC) was attacked on the SEA-EAT blog at the time when I was trying to get a post done about it so that we could use it. One of the actors of the ARC at the time was busy self-promoting, and it certainly must have looked like self-promotion. There was, after all, a lot that could be done with such a combination of technologies, and he was busy trying to promote something when we were trying to test and build it in real time. It’s no surprise to me that Peter Griffin and Dinah Mehta may have misunderstood that part of history, but that and the issues on WorldChanging.com pretty much sank the project.

That, despite how it was done, was a good thing in my opinion. I didn’t see it at the time, but it was a good thing, and I’ll explain why.

After Twitter came into being, I was still toying with the Alert Retrieval Cache. Andy Carvin, who I would later find out created a Wikipedia stub on me as a way to promote the Digital Divide Network without my knowledge and causing a kerfuffle between myself and Wikipedia, asked me how Twitter could be used for disaster management. Someone from the U.S. Army, at around the same time, was also asking me about disaster communications (but as I explained to the Army, they had a nice closed system, so they didn’t need me).

The trouble that just about everyone has figured out since then was what I explained to Andy Carvin at the time. The trouble I anticipated was trusted sources. Now there’s much ado about misinformation, disinformation and propaganda on social media, but it’s too late, Pandora’s box was not only opened but danced around. Facebook’s algorithms are in overdrive while below quality, Twitter trolls right now are bad enough where NAFO has real people trolling other trolls, I know Instagram and Reddit have blocked the International Legion for Defense of Ukraine’s accounts… it’s all run amok.

The trusted sources issue is not an easy one to solve. I built some code to contend with it years ago, and I may revisit that in some Python I toy with off and on, but the reality is that people were so busy trying to make a buck while questioning other people’s motives instead of their own. Everyone was trying to claw ahead, some to get the next big story, some to put out fires, and so on. It was quite the mess.

Yet can we get trusted sources? Trusted by who? And therein is the rub. I look back on everyone who cashed in during that period and quietly shake my head because that’s the sort of thing that really bothers me. I was a true believer at that time, as were others. And those that cashed in on that are the ones I hold in the lowest regard because they did it on the backs of people who truly did believe that they were improving the world.

Yet here we are. The world is no better. The world has been changing, and not for the better.

Maybe there’s a link between my observations and that. I don’t know, but what I do know is that if there’s a group of people who truly want to improve the the world, the trust must be there.

A World Built, Part III.

Stonehenge in 1877
Picture of Stonehenge from 1877, public domain, courtesy Wikipedia

We’re not sure exactly how it started, this world we have now. Archaeologists and other scientists are still figuring that out, and they’ve got theories. Some of the latest at the time of this writing can be found in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari, if you want to dive into it.

So far, the story of our past has been revealed as far as our origins and migration from what is now the Southern part of the continent of Africa. Were we hunters and gatherers? Were we tribes? Probably, though the tribes were most likely opportunistic in what we ate. The world provided. Migration was part of the survival of our ancestors, since we didn’t cultivate things.

While theories may vary, our ancestors wandered around, ate, and procreated. We figured out communication, and while we likely communicated about that saber-toothed tiger at the watering hole nearby, it’s also likely we communicated about what was happening in the tribe. “Biff is out hunting, so Alana is entertaining Atouk in the cave.”, perhaps with a knowing wink. Gossip, which supported the social organization of the tribe.

The Internet shows not that much has changed in that regard. In reading updates on Twitter today, in the middle of all the things about Ukraine, troubles of democracy in the United States and the United Kingdom, Russian propaganda and the latest things escaping China’s iron firewall, there was some silly article about someone I don’t care about wearing Versace. That it showed up in my feed is likely because other people I know found it popular enough that Twitter offered it up as something I might be interested in. It’s gossip about what people are wearing. Nevermind the odd fetish with Elon Musk’s every bit of reverse flatulence.

The point here is not what we talk about, but that we do. While times have changed and every now and then the metaphorical saber-toothed tiger pops up, most of the time it’s about other people. The technologies have shifted, from our discovery of writing, to radio, to television, to the Internet. We communicate about things that are important to us as individuals even though they may not be important at all, at least on the surface.

Let’s go back to those tribes migrating from what we know as the southern part of the African continent. Certainly, some left because other tribes were eating their own food, perhaps even establishing territories. Some may have left because they wanted to see what was over there, the part of us that enjoys exploring. Or maybe Biff caught wind of Atouk and Alana and, in an early version of a romance novel, they eloped and made their own way up north without Biff, forming their own tribe. Nobody really knows how that all went, and the likelihood is good we will never know.

This continued, trekking across land bridges, going here and there. Of course, Homo Sapiens weren’t Homo Sapiens yet, and we encountered variations of ourselves. We’re not sure what happened there, whether they integrated or not, but as an example neanderthal DNA has shown up in some people. We were busy eating and having sex in the caravan of life, scattering across the world for whatever reasons we had.

We would later figure out agriculture and form societies in place. This required more structure, and our language evolved as our structure did. Everywhere there were people, people did things at least a little bit differently, and having moved beyond basic twig technology, we built cities. Some of us built early ships to fish, or to see what was over there, or to trade. Trade likely happened before our societies became stationary, but it truly evolved when we stayed in one place. Some places had some things, other places had other things, and so societies traded. Currencies became a part of this.

Other things happened. We developed nations with borders that were usually demarcated by what we thought were permanent landmarks. Water was a great boundary, or so we thought. The border of Guyana and Venezuela proves that this is not so even to this day. Other boundaries were negotiated, agreed upon.

Borders are fictions we created to keep us from them. It’s territorial, and while a fiction it’s an agreed upon fiction. It’s real in that regard, but the concept of borders themselves is something we just made up so that the influence of the fictions of one nation don’t overlap into another. What’s more, it became recursive with personal property, where there are borders between properties, with associated drama. Currencies are much the same thing.

The laws societies chose to live by were also agreed upon fictions. Some would say that there was morality involved in these laws. Some theologians claim that the morality came from some omnipotent being that no one has evidence of other than someone millennia ago scribbled something down, and work from that faith – which is perfectly fine. I’m of the camp that morality is based on empathy, and theology reinforced it. Fighting over that doesn’t seem productive so I don’t bother. The point is that we found ways to live in larger groups rather than splitting off all the time into tribes that wandered off to find somewhere else to be – though that does continue to happen, albeit rarely and not in a while. The Mayflower comes to mind.

Our societies are based on mutual agreements, social contracts, that are mutually agreed upon fictions. We see this now as Russia’s unprovoked aggression continues to cost lives in Ukraine of not just Ukrainians, but people from around the world who answered the call for the ideals of democracy. Maybe it was too much Sesame Street. Maybe it was too much Disney. Maybe it was too much about how good democracy is when it’s just the best choice we’ve come up with, and we haven’t figured out how to institute it homogeneously. Where wars of the past have been less clear, the war for Ukrainian sovereignty has a ring to it that we find right, whereas the actions of Russia – unless you have a steady intake of Russian propaganda – are wrong.

This is an interesting example not because it’s happening now, or because I’m solidly in the camp of supporting Ukraine. It’s because for at least a hundred years, Russia has written the history of those within it’s empire which, unlike most European empires, was landlocked. Rather than going to visit old relatives and subjugating them, as European empires did, Russia’s history is one of picking on the people it could get to once the Tsardom of Russia gained prominence after the influence of the various Khanates that were derived from the Golden Horde were defeated or waned. The Tsardom was that of war and expansionism, Imperial in nature, and was brutal as most empires were at the time. What Spain was doing in South America in the 1500s against indigenous peoples, the Tsardom did to it’s neighbors to expand. This is a simplification. To get into it completely, I offer you should read any history about Eastern Europe not written by someone from Russia.

Empire is about getting rid of those that disagree with the empire, or subjugating them. Language, religion… all of these things are a part of colonialism that a large portion of nations suffer a hangover from to this day, with borders drawn by former empires that those who lived there had no say in. The history of Eastern Europe is largely overlooked in this context because the rest of Europe was busy fighting with their neighbors over lands far from their shores.

That colonialism extends to this day, though it’s more popular to talk about hegemonies now. Most of the world has moved on from colonialism though former colonies, their riches depleted by former empires, have not done as well – which is understatement.

There is something awkward about some humans using sailing technology to go visit old relatives and subjugate them, but then at the same time people were still figuring out that the world was not flat despite the protestations of religion. You’d think that might have made it into a religious text. Perhaps there will be updates on the religious texts soon, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

With all of this going on, people were forced to look at the world through the eyes of those that ruled them, and if you decided to go back to nomadic roots, you had to pick the place with the fictions you liked or, if you were lucky, go start your own somewhere – as happened with the United States.

Then we have the ideologies of government, with Communism, Socialism, and Democracy. Democracy, while imperfect and hardly standardized around the world, has been adopted by the majority of nations on the planet not because it’s the best but because it’s the best we have. Yet even in a democracy, the systems are gamed.

All of these things are, at their core, things we agreed upon to an extent. One may be better off having been born into a democracy by accident of geography, but that hardly means that what that nation does is something the individual agrees with because there are gaps in representation.

A lot of this is at least appears broken right now as the world, which doesn’t agree to any of our fictions, dances across borders with pandemics and climate change. When there should be more work as a global society, we see more isolationism. When our species could be considered an organism living in an ecosystem, we hardly act it.

Yet we remember how to play with toys and are guided by them, and our methods of communication are influenced by a few outside of democracy.

Maybe it’s time to revise some fictions.

A World Built, Part II.

mirror_universeIn Part I, I wrote briefly about how in building with toys, we learn to look at the world through the framework of those toys. We’ll get more abstract with software, which is a functional work and which has a few sides to it.

The Non-Technical Side

For the average person, software has come a long way since Ada Lovelace first wrote a way to calculate the Bernoulli Numbers on a computer that was never built. In fact, until the home computer began making inroads in 1977, very few people knew about software, and at the start software was published by articles in physical magazines, typed in and ran. If there was a typo, or an error, you had to figure it out or wait for the correction that would hopefully show up in the next month’s issue of the magazine.

By the end of the1980s, boxes were being sold with floppy diskettes to load into computers. Later, it became more sturdy diskettes.

Certain applications became very popular. Word processors helped with writing, the creation of VisiCalc brought the spreadsheet to home computers, educational programs began to show up for children and of course, the games. Much of these placed in boxes and sent out to stores to be sold. Some you could order through the mail. People began copying them at home, handing copies to friends openly. This rubbed some people the wrong way, such as Bill Gates and his new company, Microsoft, and thus began the era of ‘copy protection’ and ‘software piracy’.

It takes knowledge, time and energy to write software, and while Bill Gates learned to program by diving into dumpsters and studying the code printouts of others, he was not a big fan of other people doing it because he was forging a company out of that dumpster of knowledge.

Within that same period, the MIT AI Laboratory had a new printer installed. Previously, the code had been altered so that it would message people when their print jobs were completed and would message everyone with a print job if the printer was jammed. The new printer didn’t come with the source code, and from those roots, Richard Stallman started the Free Software Foundation which created the copyleft (The GNU General Public License, or GPL), a software license that required that the source code would be shipped with the software so that it could be modified.

Two main philosophies, one that focused on the people making money to not have their product redistributed or altered (proprietary) and one that was about allowing people to change the code for convenience, finding bugs and altering the program.

One had a bigger marketing budget than the other.

In an attempt to make Free Software more attractive to commercial developers, the Open Source Initiative came into being in 1998 and it focused on the ‘business potential of sharing and collaborating on software source code’ – building blocks, if you will, that companies could share and use. This lead to a bunch of different software licenses that weren’t as permissive to users as the original GPL but allowed different shades of how code could be used commercially.

One had a bigger marketing budget than the other. Well, maybe, I’m not as sure, but I know that they did a full court press on it and separating themselves from the Free Software Foundation. The Open Source licenses allowed companies to use such software licensed within their own software, which one can argue allowed more rapid development by those who used them.

With all of the different free software and open source licenses now including the proprietary licenses, there are a lot of options for re-using parts of the software the end user can use, but the final products are still, to this day, largely proprietary. People waited for bugs to be fixed in the next release, whenever that was and if the company was still around. New features were much the same.

As the Internet became more stable and commercial, software became available online without the boxes – but the prices remained pretty much the same. They still are. Software updates happened more frequently with the Internet, but downloading an application still seemed to make you pay for the box. The convenience was what we paid for, rather than a box.

Software as a Service (SaaS) sprung into being, which most people will know as the subscription model where you pay a software company money for using the software. In fact, writing this on WordPress.com, I’m using an open source piece of software (WordPress) to write this, with the ability of the site’s open source code base ‘unlocked’ the more I pay for the hosting and maintenance that comes with it.

We are allowed to use the software through the licenses that we are given, take it or leave it, and there’s not much we can do about it unless a product is actually a Free Software product, and sometimes when it’s an Open Source product.

Bear in mind, I haven’t written much at all about the Internet, which itself is filled with different software with different licenses, yet by reading this, you’re using all manner of software.

During all of this, something strange happened. People stopped looking for software that met their needs and were perfectly happy to have software companies define their needs. If you’re not a big part of the market and you want different features, it’s pretty certain you won’t get it.

The (Gentle) Technical Side

There’s no mistake that software is made up of existing pieces of software. In software engineering and programming, we have about object oriented programming which is not as new as we would like to think. Often enough, toys like legos are used to help us think of these little bits of abstraction. Rather than bore the snot out of non-software people about this, we’ll just carry on with that metaphor.

Most of the software we use today is made up of other pieces of software, smaller functional works that allow things like word processors, web browsers and apps on your phone to work. In doing it this way, if we have a piece of software that does something really well, we can simply reuse it. While we can copy and paste it, it’s generally given the equivalent of a street address, and the software will go to that street address as it needs to so it can do whatever task it has to do for us.

As an example, let’s say that we have software that asks users annoying questions, which seems to be trendy in software applications. We’ll say that we have this function, give it the address of 1 Annoying Question Street, and whenever we want to ask the user an annoying question, we tell the program to go to 1 Annoying Question Street with the question to be asked. When the stuff is done there, it returns the response to the annoying question so that the main program has that response. Like, “OK.”, or “Cancel”, or, “Why are you asking me this annoying question?”.

Now picture all the repetitive things a piece of software does being done that way. You now understand object oriented programming at a very basic level, though unfortunately I have no certificates to distribute on that.  It’s like Legos at this level of understanding, and if we dig deeper into it we can easily lose that perspective because it can get very complicated and convoluted.

Yet not all of the software components are compatible because of the way that they’re licensed, as mentioned in the non-technical part of this article.

Some of us may remember when word processors were much more basic, and the menu bar was not as overloaded with features as we see at this time in 2022. It wasn’t always that way. Over time, more and more features cropped into word processors to the point where you may need a team of archaeologists, or a 9 year old, to decipher all the hieroglyphics in the menu bar.

In fact, there’s this term we use, “Software Entropy“, which happens when a program gets so complicated as the developers do more and more that the complexity makes the software ‘rot’. This can also happen if the system the software operates in changes, which they always seem to because we’re always upgrading operating systems and computer hardware, be it on that mainframe computer that somehow is still in use at the bank (true!), or on your mobile phone. We blame the hardware most of the time when the software complexity itself is sometimes partially to blame.

To manage all of this, we put processes in place when writing software. In the early 1980s, a single software developer could write some software and sell it. Today, it takes teams to write software, a legal department to keep the software licenses in line, and an administrative team to run separate projects while a customer service department might report bugs, requested features, and smile at shouting people via email and telephone.

It’s a complex system, it’s a competitive system, and it defines a lot of what we do in our connected world.

Bringing It All Together.

When it comes to software, more often than not people ask about what they can do with software more than what they could do. The user base and the programmer base have moved far apart in a world that has become increasingly technical. It’s not just software. It includes broadcast licensing and geographical licensing (where where you are defines what you can access), as well as copyrights, patents and trademarks.

It’s no mistake that a Lawrence Lessig wrote Code Is Law, which is well worth the read, but this essay can be read to get to the meat of the ideas expressed. There’s no sense rewriting what he so well wrote on that.

We’ve covered toys and software so far, but these alone didn’t build our world. No, there’s much more, and I’ll try to round that out and finish an article tomorrow for the final part.

A World Built, Part I.

Lego Architecture Studio_A few years ago, I picked up the Lego Architecture Studio on Amazon and have not been able to play with it as much as I wanted to – it was an indulgence in simply having legos in the new place because I grew up with them, collected into an old pickle bucket my mother had found. In reorganizing, I rediscovered them within the dusty box, and the book that came with it.

One of the things I had been noticing over the decades is how the Legos of my childhood have made way for all sorts of specialized Lego sets. There were less specialized sets when I was growing up, and in an odd way, I found more space for imagination because of it. I recall spending a lot of time creating spacecraft that had engines, and of course weaponry because I had grown up in the era of Star Trek and Star Wars. I couldn’t talk too much or be seen playing with them in that way because at the time, we were Jehovah’s Witnesses, and anything that went pew was forbidden. But I built them anyway, and convinced my mothers that the weaponry were headlights when she asked because, “Space is dark”.

There were other toys, like Capsela and Tinker Toys. For now, the Legos.

Legos allowed me to organize, build and imagine. I was left to my own devices with them. It was a framework I could build from, the then proprietary blocks allowing me to build what was suggested – and to create my own imaginary things. The new more specialized systems with their little special parts would allow more of that, but all within what the Lego framework allows to be possible.

Construction sets played a crucial part in shaping the modern world.
From within the Lego Architecture Studio Book.

When I looked in the book, it mentioned things in line with the things I am writing about in more of a long form. What we play with defines how we shape our worlds. We start with objects as children, connecting them together in ways through experimentation to build things. Sometimes we imagine them in advance. Sometimes we just want to see what happens. Sometimes we have no idea what we’re building until we are done – and sometimes we are never done.

This is what we do. Douglas Adams went further back, jokingly maybe, writing of ‘twig technology’. We started off with sticks and stones, poking and bashing things, creating tools that we then built further with to the complexity that we now have specialized tools that are put into stores which are full of such potential. We place them in stores, their smell of plastic and metal permeating the hardware, their marketing so good that we buy things on average that we rarely use, like electric drills.

All of these things give us biases in how we see the world. What we use defines how we see the world, just as what we observe does the same.

This, though, is only the realm of the physical world. We do the same with abstractions, and that’s where it really gets interesting.

We build with what we have, and we are biased based on how we are influenced. Yet, too, we are also limited by what we have and how our biases influence how we look upon them. It’s only when we understand that, when we can work beyond those biases and maximize what we have available on hand that we truly move forward.

Tomorrow, I’ll dive into the abstractions.