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IndieWeb Summit 2017 Recap

3 min read

On June 24-25, I attended my first ever IndieWeb Summit in Portland, Oregon. IWS is:

...an annual gathering for independent web creators of all kinds, from graphic artists, to designers, UX engineers, coders, hackers, to share ideas, actively work on creating for their own personal websites, and build upon each others creations.

IWS 2017 was graciously hosted by Mozilla in their very cool Portland office, which provided fantastic video conferencing gear enabling people from around the world to join in. Day one kicked off with keynotes providing an overview of the IndieWeb, the state of the IndieWeb, and real-world examples of IndieWeb sites. Following the keynotes, attendees had an opportunity to introduce themselves and show a demo of their own personal websites. In my introduction, I showed off my On This Day implementation, along with a live demo of my website automatically logging when I watch media on my Plex server.

The group then adjourns for lunch, followed by a Barcamp-style scheduling session, where individuals can propose topics of conversation, where we quickly filled four tracks with amazing hour-long sessions for the day. Topics included WordPress, specialized Micropub clientspersonal website designs, voice and the IndieWeb, and a session that I proposed on creating a timeline for the open web. Every session was fun, engaging, and thought-provoking. In the evening, I joined a group of attendees for dinner and drinks, and then headed over to Ground Kontrol for some classic arcade games before calling it a night.

Day two gave attendees some time for hands-on assistance with their personal websites. I joined David Shanske and Ryan Barrett in leading a session to help people interesting in IndieWeb-ifying their WordPress websites. The afternoon was all about personal hack time and projects before we wrapped the day up with demos. I contributed a Micropub Media endpoint implementation to Known and then started working on a new Indie-reader called "together" with Grant Richmond and a few others. To wrap up, there was an afterparty at Voicebox Karaoke sponsored by DreamHost, which was an absolute blast.

I have attended many conferences over the years, and IndieWeb Summit 2017 was one of my all time favorites. Kudos to organizers Tantek Çelik and Aaron Parecki for doing an incredible job putting the event together. Everything was top notch!

Probably the best news of all is that nearly every moment of the event was recorded and posted online, along with detailed notes of each session. I've been catching up on sessions that I missed over the last few days, and my appreciation for the event is only growing.

Can't wait for next year!

 

 

On HomePod

5 min read

 

I've recently been thinking about the smart-speaker category, musing about Amazon's recently announced Echo Show, and speculating about if and when Apple would get into the game. Earlier this week, I got an answer when Apple announced the HomePod, a smart speaker with voice control powered by Siri. So, has the announcement of HomePod made my choice clear? Will I buy a HomePod, an Echo Show, or another smart-speaker?

Well. Its complicated.

Smart Speakers in Theory

In theory, smart speakers have several appealing features for me:

  • Convenient access to cloud-based music services like Apple Music, Pandora, and Spotify. Being able to whisper an incantation into thin air, and have the speaker play pretty much any song I've ever heard means that I'll spend more time listening to and enjoying music.
  • High quality audio in my great room, which is excellent for hosting parties, or just enjoying in the evenings after the kids have been put to bed.
  • An always-on assistant for my home, with a massive library of integrations and home automation support. I can imagine bringing up recipes on a screen for reference in the kitchen while I cook, only by using my voice, or setting multiple cook timers, asking for conversions, etc.

On the other hand, there are some significant theoretical drawbacks, the most significant of which is security and privacy. Having an internet-connected microphone in my house that is always listening is a bit scary. Is my information safe? Is the company that I am sharing it with a good steward of my data?

HomePod Tradeoffs

HomePod has really muddied the waters for me. I absolutely love the convenience, integrations, features, developer story, and screen on the Echo Show, but the dismal audio quality and significant concerns with privacy and security give me pause. The Echo Show is also not particularly well integrated with Apple's ecosystem, in which I am thoroughly entrenched, though that seems to be changing.

The HomePod has addressed my privacy concern very effectively. Apple made it abundantly clear that they don't send any audio up to their servers until you say "Hey, Siri," and that all information is encrypted in transit, and is anonymized to protect its users. I trust Apple more than I trust Amazon, Google, or pretty much any other major technology and services company. They're interested in selling me their products to improve my life, not in sharing my information with advertisers, or more effectively mining my information to enhance its retail offerings.

Audio quality is also huge focus for Apple with the HomePod. In fact, their marketing site introduces it as "the new sound of home," and spends significant time and effort discussing the internal speakers and adaptive audio features that use its onboard processing to optimize the sound to the room. While there's no way to beat, or even match, a properly tuned multi-speaker audio system, I am betting that Apple's engineers can make the HomePod sound pretty great. Certainly, much better than the Echo. In addition, Apple has built in multi-room audio features that put competitors like Sonos to shame, thanks to tight integration with iOS.

So, HomePod addresses my two main concerns of Smart Speakers with ease! Yet, the HomePod leaves me very conflicted. Why? Because, frankly, its not particularly smart. I was expecting to hear about a total overhaul of Siri, focused on improving accuracy, opening up the platform to developers, and closing the gap with Alexa. Yet, the HomePod has, in many ways, delivered the "same old Siri," which has no developer story to speak of. The only integrations you'll find are those with HomeKit, which thus far hasn't really taken off. Meanwhile, the Alexa Skills library is growing at a massive clip.

Finally, the HomePod clocks in at $349. Ouch. The Echo series ranges from $49 for the Echo Dot, $179 for the full size Echo, and $229 for the Echo Show, which features a touch screen and an integrated HD video camera. Now, Apple can always demand a premium price point, and I have no doubt that the industrial design and engineering quality of the HomePod will put the Echo to shame, but given the feature disparity, I am a bit disappointed in the price.

What's Next?

Given the tradeoffs and price point of the HomePod, I am almost certain to pass on the first generation. If Apple puts significant time and effort into Siri and the developer story, that may change. Early signs from WWDC are that they're interested in opening up HomeKit more, so I'm optimistic. I'm also hopeful that Apple will eventually release a HomePod with a screen with integrated Facetime support, which would be ideal for my kitchen.

Conclusion? Well, I think that the smart speaker category is pretty nascent, and its going to take a few more years to shake out. Amazon has the early lead, and both Google and Apple now have entrants that are playing catch up with varying degrees of success. As of now, I'm sitting 2017 out to see how things change before committing to a platform.

 

Micro.blog, JSON Feed, and Evergreen Give Me Hope for the Open Web

3 min read

I've long been a believer in the power of the open web, but my passion for saving it has been ignited by the IndieWeb movement, as of late. More and more people are discovering their distaste for creepy, ad-driven content silos like Facebook. Today's post by Dave Winer on the evils of Facebook, and John Gruber's hilariously sardonic "Fuck Facebook" reply do an excellent job of encapsulating my own frustrations. That said, there are reasons for hope.

The IndieWeb movement itself has been chipping away at the problem for years, but I've been particularly encouraged over the past few weeks by a few new developments.

First is the successful launch of Manton Reece's Micro.blog project to his Kickstarter backers. I'm a backer myself, as is my employer, and I've had the pleasure of using the platform for a few weeks now. Its early, but the project is already bearing fruit, with a rapid development pace, a vibrant community, and lots of excellent people to follow. Micro.blog is built on the notion of independence and respects your ownership of your data.

Next is the announcement and early success of the JSON Feed format created by Manton and Brent Simmons. JSON Feed is a new format designed for content syndication, similar to RSS and Atom, but based upon the JSON serialization format, which is popular with developers these days for being extremely easy to properly generate and parse. Since its announcement, there's been a flurry of activity around JSON Feed, including outcry about "yet another standard," and those who are upset that JSON Feed was created at all when there are other JSON-based syndication formats in existence. Over all of the noise, though, the adoption rate has been impressive. Many projects have been updated or created to generate and parse JSON Feed, and consumers are starting to adopt the format as well, including Feedbin, News Explorer, NewsBlur, Inoreader, and a few podcast apps. I've even jumped into the fray, creating an initial implementation of JSON Feed for the Known CMS that runs this website, and a second pass that aims to build in additional information through JSON Feed extensions. Regardless of competing standards, shortcomings in the format itself, etc., its undeniable that JSON Feed is generating real, palpable excitement for the open web, and that's undoubtedly a good thing.

Finally, in the midst of all of this, Brent Simmons has announced that he's working on a new, open source feed reader for macOS called Evergreen. Brent was the original creator of NetNewsWire, which was at one time my favorite app. In fact, I created several themes for NetNewsWire back in the day, and was a member of the beta testing and feedback group that Brent set up. Evergreen has a chance to take a fresh look at the problem of consuming feeds, and with JSON Feed and the new capabilities it could support through extensions, I am hoping that Brent takes a crack at solving the bigger picture that I blogged about in March. Imagine an open source app that bundles consumption (through feeds, including JSON Feed) with content creation and interaction (leveraging Micropub, a newly minted W3C recommendation, and Webmention). I'm looking forward to seeing what Brent produces!

So, yes, I lament the state of the web, thanks to walled gardens like Facebook, but I'm optimistic about the future.

 

 

Kentucky Derby Party Tomorrow!

1 min read

In the kitchen tonight, I am prepping:

  • Angel biscuits, to be served with butter and country ham
  • Black eyed peas, with ham hocks and onions
  • Pimento cheese sandwiches
  • Cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches
  • Smoked, pulled pork shoulder
  • Deviled eggs
  • Chess pie
  • Derby pie
  • Kentucky Maid cocktails
  • Mint Julep cocktails
  • Bourbon flights

Tomorrow should be big fun! I'll take pictures.

 

Tim Bray on Blogging in 2017

1 min read

Replied to a post on tbray.org:

Thank you, Tim, for still blogging, and owning your own identity on the web. Your presence makes it more vibrant, unique, and diverse.

The great dan­ger is that the Web’s fu­ture is mall-like: No space re­al­ly pub­lic, no store­fronts but na­tion­al brands’, no vi­su­als com­posed by am­a­teurs, noth­ing that’s on of­fer just for its own sake, and for love.

This sentence in particular resonated with me. I want the web to be a massive, interconnected network of independant thinkers, businesses, artists, communicators, individuals, etc., not just a collection of brands shouting into the void, hoping to attract consumers.

 

 
 

Disqus, Self-Hosting, and Owning Your Interactions

3 min read

This morning, I read an interesting post by Don Williamson about how he removed Disqus comments from his site and moved to hosting his comments on GitHub, using some very creative hacks. Learning about the hacks he used is pretty fun, but I actually found his exploration of Disqus and its aggressive tracking more interesting. On the impact of performance on his site from using Disqus, Don pointed out:

Load-time goes from 6 seconds to 2 seconds.

There are 105 network requests vs. 16.

There are a lot of non-relevant requests going through to networks that will be tracking your movements.

He then goes into detail listing all of the ad networks and trackers that are pulled into a site when Disqus is enabled, and its terrifying:

disqus.com - Obviously!

google-analytics.com - Multiple requests; no idea who’s capturing your movements.

connect.facebook.net - If you’re logged into Facebook, they know you visit this site.

accounts.google.com - Google will also map your visits to this site with any of your Google accounts.

pippio.com - LiveRamp identify mapping for harvesting your details for commercial gain.

bluekai.com - Identity tracking for marketing campaigns.

crwdcntrl.net - Pretty suspect site listed as referenced by viruses and spyware.

exelator.com - More identity and movement tracking site which even has a virus named after it!

doubleclick.net - We all know this one: ad services and movement tracking, owned by Google.

tag.apxlv.net - Very shady and tricky to pin-point an owner as they obsfuscate their domain (I didn’t even know this was a thing!). Adds a tracking pixel to your site.

adnxs.com - More tracking garbage, albeit slightly more prolific.

adsymptotic.com - Advertising and tracking that suppposedly uses machine learning.

rlcdn.com - Obsfuscated advertising/tracking from Rapleaf.

adbrn.com - “Deliver a personalized customer journey across devices, channels and platforms with Adbrain customer ID mapping technology.”

nexac.com - Oracle’s Datalogix, their own tracking and behavioural pattern rubbish.

tapad.com - OK, I cant’t be bothered to search to look this up anymore.

liadm.com - More? Oh, ok, then…

sohern.com - Yup. Tracking.

demdex.net - Tracking. From Adobe.

bidswitch.net - I’ll give you one guess…

agkn.com - …

mathtag.com - Curious name, maybe it’s… no. It’s tracking you.

 

Including third-party JavaScript libraries on my site like choosing a sexual partner: you better know who that third party has been in bed with, or you'll be in for a nasty surprise.

Comments and comment spam are hard. But, that doesn't mean we should turn over control of our interactions to companies that choose to leverage your audience and your data for their own profit. Own your interactions!

 

 

Owning My Memories

1 min read

My quest to own more of my digital identity continues, as I continue to search for ways in which I depend on social media silos like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. One feature of Facebook that I actually find quite delightful is On This Day, which shows you content and interactions over the years on the current day of the month. I like this feature so much, I felt like I should have it for my website, in the spirit of the IndieWeb. I'm happy to say, I've got an initial implementation in place on my site!

I've created a plugin for Known, the CMS for this site, that collects a few of my own customizations, including my On This Day implementation, and its available on my GitHub. Currently, the On This Day functionality requires a patch to Known core that isn't yet open source, but I'm hoping to polish that up and attempt to get it into Known sometime in the next few weeks.

Three cheers to owning my own memories!

 

Sharing what I watch...

1 min read

As I get deeper into the IndieWeb, I've been loving exploring more ways to share and publish my activities. Having a timeline that includes where I have been, what I've been eating and drinking, my recipes and reviews, along with photos, and social interactions helps me remember where I was and what I was doing on any given day.

Last night, I had trouble sleeping, so I decided to attack a new problem. I'm a big movie enthusiast, and enjoy collecting and watching great films. I decided that tracking what I'm watching would be a fun and useful way to enrich my activity stream.

I'd like to introduce Watching, a plugin for the Known CMS that I use for running this site. Using the plugin, I can publish a record of which movie or TV show I just watched. Earlier this evening, I watched a few minutes of Mad Max: Fury Road, which I absolutely adored, and it's been logged on my site.

Better yet? I've written experimental support for Plex webhooks, which create these records automatically on my site whenever I click or tap "play." How fun is that?

 
 

The Deck is Shutting Down

1 min read

Innovative ad network The Deck is shutting down for good. From their announcement:

In 2014, display advertisers started concentrating on large, walled, social networks. The indie “blogosphere” was disappearing. Mobile impressions, which produce significantly fewer clicks and engagements, began to really dominate the market. Invasive user tracking (which we refused to do) and all that came with that became pervasive, and once again The Deck was back to being a pretty good business. By 2015, it was an OK business and, by the second half of 2016, the network was beginning to struggle again.

The consequences of walled gardens like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Medium soaking up the majority of internet traffic go well beyond data ownership and privacy. A more decentralized world wide web creates more opportunities for innovation and a system that is harder to "game."

 

Tweetstorms vs. Publishing

2 min read

Today, I read about the launch of an app to make it easier to create "tweetstorms" on Twitter. I'll start by saying that Stormcrow seems like a well-designed, very useful app, and my commentary here isn't meant to take anything away from the developer. That said, the fact that this app needs to exist is a sad indictment of the current state of personal publishing on the web.

From a user experience perspective, tweetstorms are an absolute disaster, both from the creation perspective, and the consumption perspective. Twitter is not designed for long-form content, and tweetstorms are a dirty hack, at best. Nevermind the issue that people's carefully crafted communications are then sent off into the void of Twitter, where the conversation is difficult to follow, algorithmically curated, and controlled by a corporation.

I'm really proud to work for a company who's ultimate purpose is to help people own their digital identity, and its becoming clearer to me that its possible to also provide a better user experience for all involved in the process. I've shared some of my thoughts on user experience and the IndieWeb already, and I plan to continue to think (and write) about the problem in the future!

Also posted on IndieNews

 

User Experience and the IndieWeb

6 min read

Those of you who have been following me on this site and on Twitter for the last few years know that I've been a proponent of the IndieWeb and its ideals, and would like to see a return to the open web.

Earlier today, I published a series of tweets about my desire for better, more unfied experiences for people who want to actively participate in the IndieWeb:

I received some great replies from fellow members of the IndieWeb community, including some links to interesting building blocks that people have been working on for years:

Ryan Barrett also shared his thoughts on the topic way back in 2015, with many great ideas.

Building Blocks vs. Unified Experiences

Tools like Granary, Indigenous, and InkStone are great pieces of the puzzle, as are open source CMS's like Known and WordPress with support for Micropub, Webmention, and other IndieWeb building blocks. But, the reason that silos like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are popular is that they provide a convenient, easy, and attractive unified experience for content consumption, content creation, and interactions. In order to be successful, and drive mass adoption, the IndieWeb must provide a user experience on par with silos on all three of these fronts.

I think that Manton Reece's Micro.blog project is another good start on attacking the problem, and may get us closer than we've ever been before, which is why I pushed my employer to back the project. But, again, its likely not enough on its own.

Between RSS and Atom, Webmention, and Micropub, the building blocks are there to create such an experience in a decentralized way, with participants in the network owning their own domains, websites, and data, pulling in content from a variety of sources via feeds, and creating posts, reactions, and interactions to their own sites with notifications to other participant sites.

My Vision for a Unified Experience

Today, most people's experience of the web is through algorithmically generated, ad-supported timelines like Twitter and Facebook. Frequently, its on mobile devices in the native app clients for these silos, rather than through a web browser. That's really a shame.

These algorithmically curated timelines are filling the gap that feed readers and aggregators like Google Reader left open. Web browsers have also ceded ground to silos, focusing purely on navigation, tab management, and search, rather than thinking about the bigger picture.

The ideal solution to this problem would be a native application for desktop operating systems and mobile platforms that places user experience at the forefront, and provides:

  • Content consumption for both the open web, through RSS/Atom, and silos like Twitter and Facebook in separate tabs or timelines.

  • Content creation for both the open web, through Micropub, and silos like Twitter and Facebook via syndication or their APIs.

  • Rich interactions for both the open web, through Webmention, and silos like Twitter and Facebook via their APIs.

Back in the early days of Twitter and the iOS App Store, John Gruber wrote about Twitter clients as pioneers of user experience. He was absolutely right! Twitter's (then) open-ish API enabled indie software companies like The Iconfactory, Atebits, and others to innovate and create incredible user experiences. In fact, the early work of The Iconfactory in Twitterific led to the hashtag, @-mention, and other patterns to take hold. The concept of "pull to refresh" was born out of this storm of innovation. Then, as it tried to figure out how to monetize its VC-backed platform, Twitter closed up its APIs, cutting off this innovation.

A unified experience for the rebirth of the open web is a massive market opportunity. The building blocks are there. History has shown that these kinds of experiences can become massively popular and drive innovation.

Opportunity for Who?

This opportunity begs the question: who will build this unified experience? Well, this time, the building blocks are truly open, so anyone can participate. All of those amazing indie developers who were creating Twitter clients back in 2007-2012 could absolutely dust off their code, and pick up where they left off.

That said, I think that browser vendors are in the best possible position to create these experiences, as this is all about driving people to the open web, and consuming it inside of web browsers. I firmly believe that innovation in web browsers has been stagnant for years, with the focus mostly being on search, navigation, rendering, and tabbed browsing, while the ultimate user experience has remained fundamentally the same.

Because of its values and origins, Mozilla is perfectly suited to the problem, and needs to reinvent itself after years of declining market share for Firefox. Mozilla has spent years on distractions like phone operating systems, and a client for enabling publishing, interaction, and content discovery and consumption on the open web, free from silos, is a great opportunity to get back to its roots.

How Can I Help?

For my part, I'm going to continue to advocate for the IndieWeb, support the members of the community that are making the future possible, and work with my employer, DreamHost, to help enable people to own their own digital identity with open platforms like WordPress.

How can you help? Well, that's a blog post for another day.

 

"White People"

1 min read

Yesterday, while I am here in Atlanta for WordCamp ATL, I hopped in a Lyft from my hotel to head out to dinner. When I opened the door to the car, I could hear Outkast playing, to my approval. The driver was a young African American man, and he greeted me before activating Google Maps on his phone. Then, he reached down to his stereo screen, and picked a playlist named "White People." The Outkast stopped, and on came Maroon 5.

I would have told him to switch the music back to Outkast, but I couldn't stop laughing for long enough!

 

WordCamp Atlanta: Day Two

2 min read

Its the end of day two for WordCamp ATL, and I've had a really great time. The themes from day one continued to be important, with business success, automation, productivity, and design dominating the content and conversations, but a few more themes did emerge.

Development Isn't Always Programming

Following my attendance at LoopConf and A Day of REST, WordCamp ATL has been much less focused on lower level development topics like APIs and PHP code, but today I did hear several talks about leveraging WordPress as a platform to build more than just marketing websites. The theme and plugin ecosystem for WordPress is so rich, that it becomes possible to create full backend business systems on top of WordPress.

One talk I attended featured an entire business process automation system built on top of WordPress and Gravity Forms. It was truly impressive! By using plugins and themes, and the general power available in WordPress core, its possible to build out entire systems with WordPress without writing a single line of code. WordPress freelancers and agencies are solving real problems for real businesses in a very non-traditional way.

Deployment is Hard

I also attended a few sessions related to hostng and deployment. Its clear that WordPress entrepreneurs don't want to worry about managing servers, scaling sites, or deploying and upgrading their sites. It was good to hear that people are still in search of hosting, as I work for a major web hosting provider focused on WordPress.

Its exciting to see all of the activity in the managed WordPress space, and even awesome projects for DIY'ers like Trellis and Bedrock from Roots. WordPress developers have plenty of great choices for enabling worry-free hosting.

See Y'all Next Time

Overall, it was fun to be back in Atlanta, even if only for a few days, and WordCamp ATL was a very well organized event, with a vibrant community, excellent content, and a large audience. I hope to be back next year!

 

WordCamp Atlanta: Day One

4 min read

I'm happy to have traveled to Atlanta today to attend WordCamp ATL, a two-day gathering of WordPress professionals designed to educate, connect, and share experiences. My employer was a sponsor of the event, and it was a great opportunity for me to visit my old stomping grounds, talk to customers, and learn about what's going on in the WordPress community.

I thought it'd be fun to touch on a few of the highlights and themes from day one of the event.

Path to Success

Easily the most common theme of day one was enabling success. The majority of attendees of WordCamp ATL are trying to build sustainable businesses designing and building websites for their customers. Atlanta has produced quite a few successful WordPress businesses running the gamut from individual freelancer to large agencies and everything in between, and many of them are speakers.

In my conversations with attendees, a common refrain has been "how do I create success for my clients, and therefore for my business." The day kicked off with Troy Dean's keynote about building his seven-figure business on top of WordPress, and he tackled this question head-on, encouraging the audience to build their business on "authenticity, congruence, and intention," not just a quest for money. He summarized his talk with a quote:

You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help other people get what they want.

Zig Ziglar

Other talks focused on effective marketing, messaging, and packaging to build successful WordPress businesses. But, success isn't just about creating success for your clients, its also about creating success for yourself, which leads me into the next key theme for the day:

Process, Automation, and Time to Publish

Entrepreneurs face many challenges on the road to success, and the biggest one may be the sheer volume of work to do. Time is the most precious resource of an entrepreneur, and many of my conversations with attendees on day one focused on making the best use of limited time.

For designers just getting started, I heard about page building plugins like WP Beaver Builder and leveraging premium themes to get from proposal to client delivery as quickly as possible. Genesis and Underscores came up more than once, as did many theme vendors. In the early days of a designer's business, they'll be attracting customers with very limited budgets, and being able to whip out a website rapidly is critical.

Once a designer moves to the next phase of their business, their attention turns to automation and process. There were several talks about standardizing your workflow to reduce wasted time, and there was also a great talk about leveraging automation to optimize your business by David Laietta of Orange Blossom Media. David covered using platforms like IFTTT in concert with services like MailChimp, Slack, and Trello to fully automate everything from proposals, to contracts, to client requests to make sure nothing falls through the cracks. David will be launching a site called Bear Hacks in the coming days which focuses on automation, and I'm looking forward to seeing it.

Design is Still King

Finally, I'm very pleased to see that good design is still a fundamental topic of conversation and focus in the WordPress community. There were excellent talks on typography, responsive design, and design best practices. A room full of smart, technically-minded creatives is one of the most enjoyable places for me to spend a weekend, so it was great to see that design is still a focus.

I'm looking forward to what tomorrow holds, and I'll try and post a followup if I can grab some time.

 

David Letterman: National Treasure

3 min read

Retired David Letterman, not actually Sasquatch.I finally got around to reading David Marchese's incredible interview of David Letterman for Vulture on my flight to Atlanta today, and its pure gold. Throughout the interview, Letterman addresses everything from politics, to his interview style, to the late night wars with Jay Leno, to which he hilariously responds, "I'm assuming I'll bump into him before I die."

Letterman also touches on grappling with a return to "civilian life," and adjusting to living the life of an average American. His exchange with Merchese over his attempt to purchase new shoelaces is prototypical, classic David Letterman, and made me laugh out loud:

I needed a pair of shoelaces. And I thought, Hell, where do you get shoelaces? And my friend said, there’s a place over off I-84, it’s the Designer Shoe Warehouse. So I go over there, and it’s a building the size of the Pentagon. It’s enormous. If you took somebody from — I don’t know, pick a country where they don’t have Designer Shoe Warehouses — blindfolded them and turned them loose in this place, they would just think, You people are insane. Who needs this many shoes? It’s sinful.

The interview eventually does turn to politics. One of my favorite segments of the centers on Vice President Mike Pence, from Letterman's home state of Indiana:

Pence scared the hell out of me. There was a therapy …. conversion therapy. That’s when I just thought, Oh God, really, Indiana? I don’t care if you’re a fundamentalist Christian — even they have gay relatives. They can’t be saying homosexuality is a sin. It’s horseshit. Then, this transgender issue that just happened, I just think, Are you kidding me? Look, you’re a human, I’m a human. We’re breathing the same air. We have the same problems. We’re trying to get through our day. Who the fuck are you to throw a log in the road of somebody who has a different set of difficulties in life?

Letterman has always been such a wonderful, sardonic voice that is really missing from late night television. He wasn't just a silly comedian poking fun at any and every topic, he was just a quirky guy from Indiana who just wanted everyone to enjoy life. During his tenure as a late night talk show host, he reacted with such candor and authenticity to every piece of news, and it really felt like you were having a conversation with a funny uncle.

In the interview, Letterman also addressed how late night television is increasingly able to talk politics:

Bill Clinton having sex with the intern, well, that’s not comedic heavy lifting. After that it became George W. Bush, and I thought he was funny in a harmless way. I mean, Dick Cheney was the guy to keep your eye on at a party, because he’d be going through your wife’s purse. But George W. was nothing but fun.

Thoughout the interview, Letterman refers to the sitting President of the United States as "Trumpy," and it gives me more joy than it probably should. Gold, I say! Pure gold.

David Letterman is a gosh darn national treasure.

 

The Evolution of Hacker Culture

10 min read

Growing up during the 1980's, I quickly developed a fascination for technology and computing. I'm a bit too young to have experienced the very early glory days of the computer revolution, missing the Homebrew Computer Club and the innovations at Bell Labs and MIT. That said, my life was greatly influenced by early "hacker culture."

The Birth of Hacker Culture

Steven Levy's "Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution," was published in 1984, and attempts to capture and define what Levy calls "hacker culture." Levy's central concept is that of the Hacker Ethic, a set of principles that he believes will bring forth a better world, if carefully adhered to:

  1. Access to computers—and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works—should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the Hands-on Imperative!

  2. All information should be free.

  3. Mistrust authority—promote decentralization.

  4. Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race or position.

  5. You can create art and beauty on a computer.

  6. Computers can change your life for the better.

—The "Hacker Ethic," Steven Levy

I didn't hear of the Hacker Ethic until my early teens, but it immediately resonated with me because of my curiousity about technology, mistrust of authority, and Robin Hood-esque desire to hack the world through computing.

Ocean's Geeky Eleven

In my Senior year of High School in 1997-98, I was President of my school's Computer Club (look out, ladies). The list of our exploits was impressive, and included, but was not limited to:

  1. Deploying a Slackware Linux-powered server on our school's T1 line, which we used to host websites, to learn to program/script, and to host other services. I still remember using upwards of 40 AOL free trial floppies to install Slackware on that server.

  2. Causing an overly-protective MCSE administrator at our school so much frustration that he resigned in protest of our continued ability have a Linux server on "his" network. Mind you, our server was the most secure device on the network...

  3. Providing free training for parents and other students on how to use the Internet, including Gopher training, and a comparison of World Wide Web search engines (we were all pretty big on AltaVista, preferring it to Lycos and Yahoo).

I have so many fond memories of those days, where I fed my curiousity, and truly believed that I could change the world with technology.

My favorite, and perhaps most illustrative, story from that time in my life concerns our Computer Club's participation in the Distributed RC5 challenge.

Before I recount the story, I'll note that the facts have gone through years of filtration in my brain, and some of the specific numbers may not be accurate. But, the general strucuture and spirit of the story is very much true.

The goal of the RC5 challenge was to claim a $10,000 prize funded by RSA Labs as part of their "Secret Key Challenge." Teams could register to join a massive distributed computing effort to claim the prize, installing a simple piece of software, an "agent", onto computers under their control that would use spare cycles to eventually find the winning key.

The RC5 challenge embodied everything we cared about: harnessing the power of computing to make a dent in the world. Our merry band of computing misfits had a real chance at hacker glory! The Computer Club attacked the problem in earnest, registering our team, and installing the agent on our Linux server and our home computers.

The contest had a leaderboard, where you could see how your team stacked up against other teams globally, including a few university and commercial supercomputer projects. At the beginning, our ranking was shamefully low, and we decided that we had to do something about it.

Our first course of action was, of course, harnessing all of the computing power at our disposal. This involved several weeks of covert effort getting the agent installed on every computer in the school, without any of the teachers or administrators noticing. At the time, it was pretty easy to hide the agent in plain-sight on the vintage Macintosh computers on campus, but the Windows computers were a bit trickier. Through some deft programming, we were eventually able to hide our agents on those as well, and we saw our team begin to rocket up the leaderboard, stalling just outside of the top 25.

Unsatisfied with our ranking, the Computer Club decided to take radical action. We would break into our rival high school, who had a very large computer lab filled with new computers, and covertly hide our agent on their network. At the time, I felt like Danny Ocean in Ocean's Eleven. We cleverly disguised ourselves as students, and made our way into the computer lab in the hours after school had closed, but before the doors were locked. Using our Windows and Mac forks of the agents, designed to hide themselves, we were quickly able to deploy our code throughout the entire computer lab.

The rival high school's network turned out to be locked down a bit more than we planned, and was blocking all outgoing traffic on ports other than the very basic services (HTTP, FTP, SMTP, POP3). We quickly adapted, building new versions of the agents that sent traffic over port 25 (SMTP), and then relayed it through our Linux server.

Twenty four hours later, our team was ranked in the top 10, alongside supercomputers and massive university-supported teams. We were doing something big! Soon enough, we felt that we'd crack the top 5, and have a real shot at the prize and glory.

Our excitement was short-lived, and over the next week, we were caught, and nearly expelled from school. We had to apologize to our rival high school, and point out how we exploited their systems. The jig was up.

Parrish's New Hacker Ethic

I was reminded of this time of my life as I recently watched Allison Parrish's talk, "Programming is Forgetting: Toward a New Hacker Ethic" from the 2016 Open Hardware Summit. Allison Parrish is a computer programmer, poet, and educator from Brooklyn, NY.

In her talk, Parrish shares her experiences with hacker culture, and proposes an evolution toward a new hacker ethic that she believes will "foster a technology culture in which a high value is placed on understanding and being explicit about your biases about what you’re leaving out, so that computers are used to bring out the richness of the world instead of forcibly overwriting it."

The "philosophical kernel" of Levy's hacker ethic that Parrish takes issue with is the "Hands-On Imperative," which is referenced in rule 1 of his hacker ethic.

Hackers believe that essential lessons can be learned about the systems—about the world—from taking things apart, seeing how they work, and using this knowledge to create new and even more interesting things. They resent any person, physical barrier, or law that tries to keep them from doing this.

This is especially true when a hacker wants to fix something that (from his point of view) is broken or needs improvement. Imperfect systems infuriate hackers, whose primal instinct is to debug them.

—Hackers, p. 28

Parrish asserts that the Hands-On Imperative assumes that the world is a system that can be understood perfectly and broken down into components that can also be understood. When stated this way, its clear that the imperative has inherent hubris. The world is a complex place, and every person has a point of view and bias. In addition to personal bias, the divide between the analog and the digital world is problematic:

The process of computer programming is taking the world, which is infinitely variable, mysterious, and unknowable... and turning it into procedures and data.... The world, which consists of analog phenomena infinite and unknowable, is reduced to the repeatable and the discrete. In the process of programming, or scanning or sampling or digitizing or transcribing, much of the world is left out or forgotten. Programming is an attempt to get a handle on a small part of the world so we can analyze and reason about it. But a computer program is never itself the world.

—Allison Parrish, "Programming is Forgetting: Toward a New Hacker Ethic"

Due to this impedence mismatch between reality and the Hands-On Imperative, Parrish proposes a revised hacker ethic which is, instead of a set of black and white assertions, a series of questions more well-suited to the analog and variable world that we live in:

  1. Access to computers should be unlimited and total. Who gets to use what I make? Who am I leaving out? How does what I make facilitate or hinder access?

  2. All information should be free. What data am I using? Whose labor produced it and what biases and assumptions are built into it? Why choose this particular phenomenon for digitization or transcription? And what do the data leave out?

  3. Mistrust authority—promote decentralization. What systems of authority am I enacting through what I make? What systems of support do I rely on? How does what I make support other people?

  4. Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race or position. What kind of community am I assuming? What community do I invite through what I make? How are my own personal values reflected in what I make?

—"Hacker Questions," Allison Parrish

Parrish's questions are a direct response to the first four tenets of Levy's Hacker Ethic, but she leaves his last two assertions alone, as she believes that they're valuable:

  1. You can create art and beauty on a computer.

  2. Computers can change your life for the better.

After all, every hacker believes that computers can change lives in real, and beautiful ways.

Bringing out the Richness of the World

I'd encourage you to watch Parrish's talk to get the full story, as it resonated with me strongly, and caused me to reflect on my own life's journey through hacker culture, and my experiences with the darker and more subtle side-effects of Levy's seminal work on the hacker ethic.

How would my journey be different if hacker culture had been influenced by Parrish's Hacker Questions, rather than Levy's Hacker Ethic? How would my high school Computer Club story have changed? What would the technology industry look like today if hacker culture looked more like Parrish's vision, rather than Levy's?

Above all, I share Parrish's desire to shape a hacker culture that "brings out the richness of the world, instead of forcibly overwriting it." The world today is more connected and impacted by technology and computing than ever before, but there are also a lot of truly frightening things happening. Hackers who embrace this new ethic have the potential to change the world for the better: to create opportunities and access for people who may otherwise be left behind; to call out bias and strive to surface more points of view; to invite the formation of more welcoming communities.

More often than not, the average person engages with computing and the internet through avenues so fundamentally tainted with systematic algorithmic bias, that major governments are capable of being sabatoged by exploiting these systems. I, for one, believe that hackers united around an ethic that surfaces bias, improves access to important and contextualized information, and creates more authentic community, can change the world for the better.

So, go forth, fellow hackers, and bring out the richness of the world.

 

Supporting the Open Web

1 min read

Today, my employer announced its backing of Manton Reece's excellent Indie Microblogging Kickstarter campaign. I wrote a few words about it over on our blog, and you should check it out. If you haven't already become a backer, I'd encourage you to consider contributing to the cause.

2016 was a really interesting year for DreamHost, and I think the thing that I am most proud of is our revised Vision statement, which is in support of an overall Noble Cause.

  • Noble Cause: We help people own their digital presence.
  • Vision: People have the freedom to choose how their digital content is shared.

Its great to be a part of a company that has a passion for the open web, freedom of information, and privacy.