How are stories kept a mystery in your mind? – A Whole Lotta Nothing

How are dreams ever unknown to us?

How are stories kept a mystery in your mind? – A Whole Lotta Nothing

I’d like to ask the opposite – how are dreams ever known to us?

I get fairly vivid dreams every once in a while. Sometimes, I can correlate them to events happening around me – some tension I’m focused on, some happy occasion that’s around the corner, etc. But most of the time, my vivid dreams are out of the blue. I meet acquaintances I’ve not seen in forever, I go to places I’ve never been, and once in a while, my wife stars as a detective in a story-line I have no way to make head or tail of.

But to me, these are not because our brains are trying to hide something from us, as Matt alludes to in his post. Dream narratives are when, according to me, our subconscious is able to surface ahead of our conscious mind. Our subconscious is always there, ticking away, firing off a million connections that make no sense whatsoever. Every once in a while, we have a eureka moment, because some connection is triggered that makes perfect sense to the conscious, and needs to be surfaced.

See, I think that our bodies do somewhat act as “a bundle of parts of competing systems”, but not knowingly. When we’re focusing on something, or going about our daily lives, the primary objective that’s driving our thoughts is survival. This can be of any order – from the most basic physical and ‘where will our next meal come from’ to a much higher level, such as thoughts about the future and metaphysics. But all this while, our body is going at its functions. Just as we don’t forget to breathe, we don’t forget to think in the background. It’s constantly happening. When we have a sudden urge to pee, it’s because our body realizes that we’ve been ignoring this function since some time and an alarm needs to sound. Just like that, when a great idea comes to us, it’s an alarm that some section of our brain sounds to let us know that the connections it recently created make some sense.

But when we sleep, our survival is in the background. If our minds were still preoccupied with urgency, we wouldn’t be able to sleep. So it is either that we’ve resolved the day’s urgencies, or our mind is overwhelmed with them and needs a break. For either reason, we sleep, and when we do, our subconscious’ plays come to the front.

Now, does it always happen that when we need to pee, or need to get up for an important meeting, our mind triggers a bad dream sequence to jolt us into waking up? I don’t think so. However, when those events happen, our mind does use vivid imagery, or fantastical scenes to inform us in its own way that we’re dreaming and need to get up.

As for the last question that Matt asks –

How could you even begin to design an experiment to figure out how stories unfold in our dreams?

I think the way to do this is to give yourself some tension. One time, drink a jug of water before going to sleep. Another time, worry a lot about some upcoming event and see how your dreams are different than when you had water.

I’d like to close by one of my most interesting dreams (there are a few I don’t think I’ll ever forget). As a child, I used to read Tell Me Why before going to sleep. On this particular occasion, I asked myself the question – “what’s the last topic covered in this book?” The answer was a three paragraph explanation of termites. I read it, went to sleep, and woke up in a dream where we had returned home to find termites infesting everything, from the large Eucalyptus tree outside, to every cabinet and drawer inside. It was not a scary dream – I saw it all matter-of-factly. Despite having read a single explanation about termites, and seen just one image about their handiwork, the vividness with which my mind recreated a termite invasion was amazing to me. It wasn’t out of any malice or urgency either. It was just the last thing my mind processed.

Good luck competing with Goodreads

Every once in a while, I come across a book management and listing tool. This is a broad category – it covers lists of the books you’ve read/want to read, your book notes, a social network inbuilt, and perhaps even the ability to buy books through them. Sometimes this is in the format of an app, and sometimes it’s a web service. Never mind that I actively seek these out (hey, everyone should have a past time), I always come out exasperated.

Why? Well, do you really want to build your entire book library all over again? I’m on the low-end of a prolific reader spectrum, and I’ve got about 260 books in my lists; that’s over a hundred books I’ve marked as read, and over one fifty that I want to. Most people have a lot more books than that in their lists, and almost all of them just hope in the back of their heads that Amazon doesn’t ever decide to kill Goodreads. Amazon has already been cozying up Kindle and Goodreads – you can post your Kindle reads, reviews, and notes directly to Goodreads through the Kindle apps. What’s to say that in a few years time they don’t decide that they’re done collecting our data through Goodreads and can shut the service down?

Oh, but don’t worry, you can export all your Goodreads data!

Really? Thanks! What do I do with it once I’ve exported it?

Uhhhhh…

See, this is the problem. This is why I keep looking for alternatives. But every time I come across one, I immediately realize the blind spot they aren’t addressing. If you’re an app/service, what you need to jump-start your platform is data. The ‘elegant’ way of doing this is to ‘ask’ the user for it. I put that in quotes because it’s more mandatory than just a small ‘ask’. If I come to a service, spend some time poking around, and realize I need to input all of my books all over again, that’s an immediate turn off. Services like Goodreads aren’t like conferences, where you can slap on a name tag and wander around till you find someone interesting to talk to. They’re more like parties, where if you don’t know anyone, you’ll just end up bored and.

So, this is what I ask of you if you’re making a service to compete with Goodreads – ask the user to export their data in an ugly .csv format and import the entire file to your service. Then you’ve got the entire library the user has curated on your rival service since the dawn of time without lifting a finger. You don’t even have to have this as the front and center of your UX. Get your user onboarded, get them talking, and then somewhere along the way, gently tell them you’ve got this amazing import feature that’ll help them quickly ramp up. If they care about books, they’ll do it. Those are the serious users of your platform anyways.

But nowhere have I seen this happen. I’ve recently come across a few apps – Litsy (by LibraryThing), Reading List (which seems to allow CSV imports, but needs them to be in its own format, instead of the Goodreads format; you’re this close folks!), BookBuddy (again, imports only its own data, god knows why) and some web services which I’ve already forgotten about, none of which seem to understand this basic concept of stealing from the enemy.

But what am I saying? I wrote all the way back in 2012 about how useless exporting data from Internet behemoths is. Nothing has changed in the last seven years. Till today, companies and apps come and go, without realizing that using prior data is a jump-start, not poisoned fruit.

Indie services actually get this. If you install the Goodreads plugin on Calibre, it lets you quickly import your data so your library is complete. Similarly, if you use the WordPress Book List plugin, there’s a way to import your Goodreads data. Because people who care about data, understand reuse of data. That tells me that if you’re not reusing my data, you’re not building a platform for me.

So good luck competing with Goodreads. Unless you can get my data from them and reuse it, you’re just shooting yourself in the foot.

Book review: Hadron #1 Dark Matter – 2/5 stars

I started reading Stephen Arseneault’s Hadron series #1, a book named “Dark Matter”. I got as a free eBook on Amazon and it’s been clogging up space in my Kindle library. So I decided to give it a try. At the time of writing, I had read a little over half of this book and there’s only one way I can describe it – frustrating.

There are a lot of reviews of this book out there that criticize it for being a ‘prepper’ book, glorifying doomsday preppers and pure redneck Americanism. But I’m OK with that. I’ve never read a novel about preppers and so this idea of a band of people surviving some sort of total system breakdown through the blatant use of guns is fresh to me. That’s one reason I started reading this book – the author makes no qualms about it in the beginning – this is not a book in and of itself. This is a prelude to all the sci-fi stuff that happens in the rest of the books. Read this book only to get context of what will happen next. Perhaps some of the same characters survive and go on to become central characters in the rest of the books?

If you think about it, any other combination of characters than the ones displayed in the book might not survive the events that happen. If they have guns but no one with a military background, or they have all that but no mechanical engineer with an agriculture degree who also brews alcohol, or have everything but no chopper flying father-son duo. Any of those missing characters and the story could turn out different. I found that to be a compelling idea. This is a somewhat Tolstoyan in vision – how can I explain what happens next, without explaining what happened before?

But that’s where I’ll end the comparisons with Tolstoy. The writing, the editing, the mollycoddling of the reader, are all a little too much on the nose. For each of those reasons, I’d like to take off one star out of the rating. Allow me to explain.

  1. The writing – There’s one rule, one simple rule of long form fiction writing. You must never break this one rule, no matter how innovative you’re trying to be, or how different you think your English to be from the English spoken around the world (i.e, even if you describe your language to be “American”, you still follow this rule) – always write in Active voice. I can’t say it more calmly. For years, I’ve written things, copy pasted them into hemingwayapp.com and had to rewrite the entire thing because I wrote it in passive voice. Now, when I paste things in, I get the gold standard of good writing – zero sentences in passive voice.
    • For a long time, I didn’t understand why this was such a problem. “Passive voice is so easy!” I would say to myself, grumbling. But now that I’ve read this book, I take it all back. Hemingwayapp is right. Passive voice is the worst thing you can inflict on your readers. Even spelling mistakes don’t hurt as much as passive voice. Most of the time, I can’t tell who in the story is performing a particular action or speaking a sentence.
    • Sentences like, “Tres was signaled” or “The neat stack of boxes was carried to the back of the trailer. ” are so frustrating and jarring that they completely throw the reader’s flow off. Till this point in my review, the only two uses of passive voice are the sentences above. It’s so stupid that the author decided to write the entire book in passive voice and that his editor let it slip, and the advanced readers let it slip, and the reviewers giving glowing reviews let it slip.
    • The author often forgets that in a conversation of a few people, a simple ‘she said’ would explain so much to the reader. This means that most of the dialogs are spoken by ghosts and the reader is left grappling for context. Sometimes, it’s obvious who said what, but compounded with the grammatical mistakes, this tends to get confusing and irritating fast!
    • At one point, I started questioning my own sanity. Had I received a bad copy of the eBook? Is this an ARC that slipped into production? Is there an update in Amazon that I can download to get an active voice, free-from-errors version? Nope. This book is in passive voice and that is torture. Why am I sitting through it? The idea is slightly novel to me and I’ve already spent my time on half the book, I aim to breeze through the rest.
  2. The editing – Was there an editor to the book? I went back and checked and couldn’t find any. I wrote an email to the author, being as polite as I could to ask if there was an editor, but ended up not sending it, because it sounded insensitive and attacking. But it’s clear that no one looked over the author’s shoulder while he hit publish. There are missing opening quotes throughout the book, so you’re never sure if it’s a dialog or narration. There are instances where the author mixes up ‘to’ and ‘too’ and forgets ‘of’ from phrases like “couple of homebodies”. There are many scenarios where actions are mixed up, so it’s unclear which character did what first.
    • These are all things that a good editor could find. Heck, even a mediocre editor could spot them and nag the author to eventually fix them. I noticed that the book is available in paper through an independent on-demand publisher on Amazon. Perhaps they could have done something to help the author out of this mess? The worst thing is that the book came out in 2015 and the author has had enough time to revise it a hundred times on Kindle, but has chosen not to.
  3. Lastly, I want to look at how author presents the book. This being the first book in the series, and perhaps the worst written one, the author has placed it on a perennial full discount. You can download it for free from Amazon and read it. That’s how I got into it. At the beginning of the book, the author explains that though it is the first book in a scifi series, it’s not a scifi story in itself, but a survival one. That’s all fine, but then the author goes into a long, two page explanation of what will happen in the book and what one should expect from it. Why? What is the point of the book if the author is going to give me the tl;dr version right at the beginning. This is not news or a buzzfeed article. I want to read the story, so why are you irritating me with an explanation of the story right before the story?
Stephen Arseneault, the author was thinking exactly this when he wrote the introduction to the novel, at the beginning of the first chapter!

All in all, it’s an irritating and frustrating book to read. I’ll still finish it though. Why? Just for the credit (on Goodreads). I’ve spent a good amount of time on the book and I’m not going away without some of the promised ending. In case I find the ending to be exciting and the cliffhanger to be intriguing, will I pick up the next book, or any other books written by Arseneault?

Not in a million years.

Reuters takes offense at hacked apps in iOS

It is unclear how much revenue the pirate distributors are siphoning away from Apple and legitimate app makers.

Source: Software pirates use Apple tech to put hacked apps on iPhones | Reuters

It’s taken a long time and another massive Facebook privacy scandal for the news media to discover this underbelly of hacked apps chugging along happily due to Apple’s Enterprise Apps program.

I’ve used one on and off – Instagram++

I must say, it’s a liberating experience – I see no ads on Instagram, I see no random “Suggested Friends to Follow” crap.

I had to resort to this because my Instagram experience is vastly worse off than my wife’s and my friends’. I see, on average, 3x more ads on Instagram than others around me. How many ads does my wife see? None.

So to my mind, using Instagram++ makes perfect sense. If I can hack my way to a better UX, why shouldn’t I? It’s the same as using an adblocker.

I don’t support piracy of services. There’s no legit reason to not pay for Spotify.

As for hacked games, well, cheats and hacks have always existed, and will continue to exist, despite the alarmed voice of this Reuters article.

Also, the article got one thing wrong – I’ve observed Apple kick out the Enterprise cert almost once a month, sometimes two or three times a month. They seem to make it sound as if Reuters alerting Apple was the only thing that forced Apple into action.

They’re very much aware of the problem and can’t or won’t do much about it. Talking about it as if it’s the end of the App Store is just noise.

As for how much revenue these services generate? Not close to enough. They do seem to have a comfortable existence, and so might be able to get around Apple’s 2FA proposal by just buying a bunch of phone numbers in China. But do they run a massive profit? You bet that if they did, Apple would be all over them.

This is the same as the jailbreak community in some senses – only a small percentage of users are actually trusting these services not to misuse the extensive powers that Enterprise certs give them. Out of that small percentage, a further small percent is paying for it.

It’s sad that large companies like Facebook pulling the shit that they do often also bring to light little players that are just trying to provide a good service to users.

Now, the technical aspect of this – Instagram++ is available online for download as an IPA if you want to use your own developer account. If you don’t have a dev account, Apple now allows side-loading, but it is a cumbersome process that expires after 7 days. Apple’s earlier sideloading used to be 30 days. When Apple made it free for everyone to sideload (not just if you’re a $99/year paying developer), they reduced the time frame of the cert to 7 days, which in my mind is a total d*ck move.

If Apple really wants to combat Enterprise cert misuse while letting users do whatever they want with their systems, they can just legitimize sideloading and let me choose when my cert would expire, but Apple isn’t that generous.

Till a good solution presents itself, services like TweakBox, Tutu, and AppValley will continue to operate by hook or by crook. So be it.

The deadline is always now

Any good personal blog is like an episode of Seinfeld – there’s a lot of navel-gazing, an excess of philosophizing, and not a lot of public good comes out of it. That’s fine, because the personal gains are humongous, if metered like the seasons of self-love and loathing.

Whenever I think of non-text forms of blogging – podcasts, and photostreams – I realize that neither of those are truly enough. You can express a lot in a photo, but it feels static, whereas the written word has largely proven that it should always be taken with a grain of salt based on the time from which the writing belongs. You can’t express a lot in podcasts because speech is such a thing that it derails the most cohesive of thought. I’ve rarely ever come across a podcast that was more than one person, off-script, and intelligible after about five minutes of listening.

But blogging, well, that’s something. Don’t take my word for it. Here are my favorite quotes about this art form –

A blog is sort of like an exhale.

– Nora Ephron, 2006, via Daniel Gray

For bloggers, the deadline is always now.

– Andrew Sullivan, 2008, via tedium, via The Atlantic

I used to think that if I critique something on my blog – a book, or an idea, or a movie – it should be well researched and well structured. The frivolous thoughts are for microblogging. I still think that about the other forms of blogging. But there’s vgr, holding a mirror, saying, “No, blogging is for everyone and everything. Dump your worst ideas and your stupidest thoughts on your webspace. Are you that curated in your offscreen life too?”

I’ve written a few book reviews and notes and movie reviews here on my blog. The only time I’ve received any form of feedback is when I criticized a highly timely and visible piece of tech, which was immediately picked up by the lead developer and I’m glad I was wrong and completely out of line and learnt that over time.

I love the concept of blogging, but, and I believe this to be true for a lot of bloggers out there, am held back by this wanton need for perfection. Screw the perfection. Just hit publish. The deadline for your thoughts is always now.

p.s. I’ve linked to a lot of posts from my own blog. Because once a blogger is done navel-gazing, it’s time to make others do the same!

Update. Perfect timing – after I wrote this post, I updated my Jetpack plugin and they’ve added a new Gutenberg feature to find and add GIFs to posts. What could be more frivolous than GIFs? So here’s one –

Update. More timely validation, this time from a more professional environment that uses blogging –

Perfection is the enemy of the good

Have No Fear – Learning to love your blog

Update. Austin Kleon on the importance of revisiting diaries (and his blog) –

[…] the live reading and revision, that’s what this blog is for. It’s the place where I take private thoughts and turn them public, see what the reaction is, if any, and then weave what I’ve learned back into the work.

The importance of revisiting notebooks

Don’t Moleskine your blog

Have you ever seen people using a Moleskine notebook in public? You can see them using a fancy pen or pencil, writing in beautiful cursive, making excellent sketches, drawing straight lines without scales, right into their beautiful overpriced notebooks. It’s a gorgeous and truly scary sight.

I’ve never been able to buy a Moleskine notebook. I’ve often come across them in shops and stores, but every time I flip through the well weighted, elegant pages, which can give you paper cuts all day, I realize that I’m not worthy of a Moleskine. My handwriting is terrible. My ability to sketch wouldn’t save my life! Besides, the most important thing I want out of any notebook is the ability to scribble random ideas, or write small notes into. I want to just dump chicken scratch and small paragraphs in, without having to worry about elongating, or writing perfectly. Do I furiously scratch out words as I’m writing? All the time.

Would I ever want to use a Moleskine for that? No.

I recently came across this post by Jeff Perry –

It got me thinking – do we sometimes treat out blogs as Moleskine notebooks? Do we worry that we must only present our best writing on them, instead of just putting our ideas out there, perfection be damned? Yes, we do. We write entire posts and then save them in drafts, only to forget them forever. Either we’re not proud of our writing, or we’re not sure if it’s the right time to publish them, or we’re unnecessarily being perfectionists. Whatever the reason, what happens when you open your blog the next time? You come to the homepage, or the admin dashboard, and what do you see? The drafts? No. That’s a hidden page somewhere, totally ignored. So we move on to the next idea, and then the next, until our creativity is stifled and our spirits dampened by the lack of publishing. Why do we do this? Because the home page of our blog, at least in our minds, is a public space, and on it, only our best work should be displayed. But this is not true. CMSes allow two states – logged in and logged out. When you’re logged in, your blog’s home page is, in fact, not a public space, but a private one. Most of us do not realize or understand this, let alone capitalize on this simple idea.

I learnt about this problem in 2017 and solved it for myself. I want to share the idea with you, dear reader, so you can also stop moleskinning your blog. I’ve alluded to me writing this post before, specifically mentioning a key aspect of my solution – that when you see my blog’s 2018 archive, you see 25 posts, while I see 59. Yes, that’s thirty four posts that are not sitting tucked away in a drafts folder, but active and alive on my blog, albeit only for me.

Here’s how – this plugin on WordPress can set the default visibility of every new post you create on the web to Private. If you’ve never done this before (and I had not, till I discovered this solution), go ahead and manually try it now. When you change the visibility of a post to Private, WordPress immediately changes the save prompt from “save as draft” to Publish. You can finally get it – you can hit that Publish button and get that sweet, sweet rush of publishing something, but you can also get the freedom to read your post after some time, catch a few errors, a sentence you don’t like and such, and finally, when you’re happy with it, you can publish it publicly, which, by then would be a much smaller cognitive step than publishing it for the first time.

Side note – I’ve long recognized that seeing your blog posts on the front page of your blog, with theme and all, is a much different experience than writing and editing inside a text area and then publishing it. The feel is different, your eyes move differently to that beautifully set font, but most importantly – your mind responds differently.

I’ve tried hard to capture this feeling. A few years ago, when I found out about front end editors, I tried every single one I could get my hands on. One of my favorite ones was Barley. It was very well built, and a charm to work with. But front end editors come and go. Besides, the mind’s response to an editor is still that it is just that – a workspace. Even in the look and feel of my blog’s theme, the words seemed to flow differently when they were in edit mode.

I’ve been excited about Gutenberg since it was announced. But when I installed it in beta, it was horrible. However, the first release was actually quite good for me. For some reason, when I turned on SSL on my blog, one of the Gutenberg JS files crapped out (probably something to do with bad caching) and I can’t use it any more for post creation. I’ve gone back to the Classic Editor for now.

Just as well, because I noticed that when I was using Gutenberg, my willingness to quickly pound out an idea to the blog actually went down. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the Private Posts by Default plugin only works on the blog when using the Classic Editor. That’s because it uses JavaScript to change the visibility setting on the fly. It’s a little silly, but it’s a better solution than the other hacks I’ve found, including a database script that’s changes the visibility setting as soon as you actually publish a post to public <shudders>.

Coming back from that long winding side note, when you’ve published a post to private, go your blog’s front page and just read. Be a consumer. Be a reader. The first time I did that, I found two spelling mistakes I’d made towards the end of my post. It’s so much easier to do that when your mind is just casually glancing at words instead of trying hard to be creative and write. The second time I did it, I was able to find a few sentences I hated reading and edited. Immediately after I made the edits in both the cases, I changed the settings to set the visibility to Public and published my posts. I’ve even used this process to sit on a post for a few days, slowly edited it every day, till I was ready to hit publish. Of course, you need to be careful to set the time and date of publishing to the current time and date instead of the value it’ll actually be – the time when you first hit Publish.

You don’t have to use the plugin. Whenever I’m on the WordPress iOS apps, I just head to the Post Settings section and quickly set the visibility to Private.

As I said before, stop moleskinning your blog. It’s not a perfect, pristine place which must always reflect the best work you’ve ever done. It’s alive. It’s a creative space where your ideas should stare you in the face so you can always work on them, and when they’re presentable, you can show them to the world. If you don’t ever want to, that’s fine too.

p.s. I let this post marinate on my blog in private mode for one night. According to WordPress, I have edited it twelve times after the initial publish. 😊

Flag as Appropriate

There’s a huge stress in the media to tag things as inappropriate for kids. But perhaps we need to empower users even more – across the aisle, media offerings from websites to games should be taggable as appropriate for certain ages. The consensus would then be both an indicator of where our society currently is, and a good indicator to other parents of where they should be.

2018 and 2019 in books

2018 has come and gone. I had a goal of reading 15 books in it, and I fell short – I read only 12. Though, considering that one of them was War and Peace, I’d say I’ve read enough books.

Very quickly, the highlights are as below. If you want the full list, it’s on Goodreads (no login required afaict).

I thoroughly enjoyed the Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu. It’s part 1 of a 3 book series and I hope to read the rest of it soon.

All Our Wrong Todays was a gut-wrenching time travel story. I reviewed it here. I also reviewed The Devourers here. It’s an epic tale that takes the history of India and weaves an excellent story into it. I believe I’m a fan of historical fiction now. From War and Peace and Poland (which are more fact) to Devourers and Three-Body Problem (which are more liberal with their facts), I love this form of writing that melds truth and fiction together.

My favorite non-prose was Woman World by Aminder Dhaliwal. It’s a beautiful look at a pseudo-post apocalyptic world that doesn’t have any men in it. Though, I must say – since there are no men in the world, it’s not really an apocalypse. It’s quite pleasant, in fact.

I also read a book I’ve long held on to – Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer. It’s pure YA, and perhaps aimed at an even younger audience. But it’s full of surprises and a very interesting take on fairies. It was a fun read!

Moving on, I hope to read a lot more in 2019. I’ve set myself up for even bigger failure – my new goal is 19 books for the year! (It’ll only increase with each passing year, maybe I’ll catch up with the goal one of these years)

I’ve already got a few books that I want to read lined up –

  1. Today Will be Different by Maria Semple – I’ve read and loved “Where’d you go Bernadette?” and I have this one sitting in paperback at home. I’ve heard good things!
  2. The Symposium by Plato – why the heck not? It’s a good story till now (I already started reading it in 2018). Loads to learn!
  3. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Giun – I wanted to read at least one Le Guin book this year and this one seems just as good as any to start off the author’s works. Is there any other you’d recommend instead?
  4. V, Gravity’s Rainbow, and The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon – I want to read a lot of Pynchon this year. Let’s see how it goes. I read somewhere that I should read V before Gravity, because of something something. I have Lot 49 sitting in paperback at home. Maybe I’ll tackle that first.
  5. The Dark Forest, and The Wandering Earth by Cixin Liu – these are the other books in the series I talk about above. The first book was really, really, really good!
  6. Dubliners, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce – I’ve wanted to read Joyce for some time now. I am going to read these in preparation for –
  7. Ulysses by James Joyce – I’ll probably read this in eBook form, considering its supposed sheer size. War and Peace was conquered in a similar fashion!
  8. Murder by Misrule by Anna Castle – I have the eBook burning a hole in my Kindle app. Will read it and mark it as done!
  9. Young India by Lala Lajpat Rai – I’ve noticed this book around. It too is burning a hole in my Kindle app. But more importantly, it should be an interesting historical document.
  10. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf – I read A Room of One’s Own in 2016 and it had a profound impact on my thinking about creativity and ‘own space’. I think I should read one Woolf book a year.
  11. Bonus points – Walden by Thoreau and Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson – Will I be able to reach these? Let’s see!

That’s 16 books listed! Four more than I read in 2018. By simple math, I have to read approximately 2 books a month to accomplish my goal. That’s one book every 15 days! I shudder at the thought of that pace.

Wish me luck! Also, if you’ve got some suggestions or recommendations, or think I should read some book before reading one of the ones on the list here, do tell!

A year with Facebook

A year ago, I decided to change my relationship with Facebook. I decided to be more active on the network, but not in the way Facebook would want me to be – commenting, liking, browsing, and clicking more.

I wanted to use Facebook to put out my thoughts more. So I actively started blogging more and putting it all on Facebook, a practice I had stopped for a while because I wasn’t getting anything out of it. I did another thing – something I’ve often been told off for, but I just wanted to experiment with – I connected my twitter account with Facebook. The benefit? All my tweets (and quote tweets, which is a little silly) started getting posted to Facebook. This meant that each passing, silly thought, which we often toss into the void, became instantly visible to my real life friends.

In a way, I did do all the things that would be considered an increase in Facebook activity – I have spent the past year listening to a podcast called Philosophize This! The podcast has an accompanying community on Facebook. Though I didn’t interact with the community much, I did become a part of it. I also found a community relating to an app I use a lot – Day One. The community also chugs along, though I’ve not derived as much value from it as I would like.

I also started using Facebook a lot more. There was a time when I would gleefully count the stupid notification counter on the Facebook website approach 99. I call it stupid not because I have prejudice against it. I like notifications. They’re an excellent approach to garnering attention. But somewhere along the way, Facebook decided that I am not a worthy enough user of their service and they downgraded my experience. They made the counter stupid by pushing every little activity to it. Things which belong in the newsfeed – someone posted something, someone liked someone else’s post, someone had a birthday – were suddenly in my notifications. But at the beginning of the year, I decided to be more proactive, hoping that the algorithm would notice this and rid me of the stupid notifications and only give me the smart ones. I’ll let you know that the algorithm is not smart. It never did recognize my contribution and that portion of the experiment quickly bombed. Now I don’t care what the notification counter says. Whenever it irks me, I click it to reset it and ignore the notifications. (They’ve added even more notifications now – friend suggestions, community posts; heck they’ve even added Facebook notifications to the Instagram app, because why ruin just one social network when you can ruin two?)

I even went ahead and actively started using Instagram. I thought, maybe one Facebook property will feed into the algorithm of the other? See above regarding algorithm smartness.

But the last thing, that of posting more, I did religiously. After my initial December 20th, 2017 post, I’ve posted 25 public posts on my blog, a marked increase over the 13 posts I made in 2017. The plan was that all of the posts would be posted to Facebook and the ensuing conversations, controversy, and opinion would all happen in Facebook. After all, only if I contribute more to the platform, will I reap the rewards of the happiness that are supposed to come from it.

I also definitely did not delete any (well, most) of the tweets that got pushed from twitter to Facebook. I don’t like posting about political stuff openly. It’s like religion, everyone has one, and it’s best kept personal. But some tweets do get out once in a while. I believe I deleted those from Facebook. About 70 tweets made it to Facebook before disaster struck.

In the words of Hillary Clinton,

What Happened?

Well, the year started off nicely. Posting to Facebook is certainly a good way to garner attention. Friends who often forget that I have a blog were reading my posts and sometimes even clicking through to come to my actual website to check it out. The fact that Facebook discards in-text HTML, thus removing all URL references from a post both helps and hinders. It removes all context, but it also means that astute readers realized they had to click through.

I don’t have a lot of unknowns on my Facebook account. I do have a bunch of acquaintances, and people I haven’t met in years. I’m not a particularly social person irl. But everyone on there is someone I know or knew once. So it’s not like I was able to appeal to the masses and drive ‘traffic’ to my blogs. What I did achieve is a meager amount of conversation – a few likes and comments per post.

This extended to both types of posts. Folks who had never heard me express things about the random topics I post about on twitter and other microblogs, suddenly had access to my thoughts. Some reacted like idiots, some had positive or negative comments, and some just hit like and moved on.

All this stopped on August 1st. The declaration came in the form of a blog post by Facebook on their developer portal on April 24th. It was hidden between a bunch of other deprecated APIs, which I’m sure broke a lot of other things for other people. At the time, a huge noise rose, specially in the WordPress world about this. A lot of blogs depended on this API to post to Facebook using either the Jetpack plugin or the dlvr.it service (or other, similar services). Matt Mullenweg commented on the change, hoping that Facebook will reverse their decision and re-embrace the open web, to which this decision shuts the doors. But that’s not Facebook’s way. I reckon they heard him once in 2017, so they’re done listening to him for a decade.

I didn’t bother with finding workarounds to this problem. Smarter and more dedicated people than me would have found ways if there were any. Regardless, I wrote a blogpost on August 2nd and manually posted it to my Facebook profile on August 11th. This was my last cross-post from twitter or my blog to Facebook. It did not get any likes or comments.

According to some people, removing this API is important in helping fight the corruption that was revealed in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. But from what I can see, removing the ability for content to come in through legitimate sources is certainly not the way to go if you want to increase trust in your system. This was just a random move by Facebook, which is running around in headless chicken mode right now. It would be better if it were actually headless right now though, because the current head is part of the pattern of problems that Facebook manifests in this world.

Regardless, my year-long experiment ended mid-year.

The outcome of this experiment was this – I fell in love with the written word again. I also fell in love with my blog again. Though I now have newfound respect for a few things – first of all, I’m glad that my twitter is no longer connected to Facebook. The stream of consciousness that goes into twitter is not at all suited to Facebook, even though it should be, and for a majority of the world this has been a learning curve. Rants and raves belong to the place where outrage is common. You put it on Facebook and you alienate friends and get fired from jobs. While none of that happened to me, the effect was clear – people who I’ve never bothered to talk to my every day thoughts about were suddenly talking to me about them whenever I met them. This was… awkward. So I’m glad it’s no longer happening.

The second thing I’m glad of is discovering a rather important aspect of WordPress – private blog posts. While I’d like to talk about this more in another post, the overview is this – when you see 24 published posts for the year of 2018, I see 58. My process used to be that I would write a post and just leave it in drafts if it didn’t feel ‘complete’. This was wholly unsatisfying. Now, I privately publish my posts, giving them a timestamp that helps me date my thoughts. I also believe deeply in the concept of the blog as an Outboard brain as once proposed by Cory Doctorow. Though not as vibrant and well published as his blog, Boing Boing, my blog is my space, and having things published and showing up on the home page of my site when I’m logged in means I get to think about those things more.

What happened on the Facebook end of things? I noticed that the folks who interacted most with my posts were the same over and over – friends in the US who share my time zone, and some in India who I frequently interact with on Facebook. But what happened when the posts stopped? Nothing.

No one noticed. No one pinged me and asked me what was wrong with my blog and my tweets. Part of this is just the way the internet operates. Even with the extensive RSS setup I have, where I follow a lot of amazing blogs, if one slows down, I don’t have an easy way to figure it out. Time spent on the internet gets filled up by whatever is available.

The other half of this, I blame on Facebook. Their algorithm has become too smart for themselves. A willing user such as I should be able to push my posts to my friends without acting like an SMB and paying them money. In the same breath that they turned off the wall feeds, they promoted creating a separate page for one’s blog. This is a bad approach. For Facebook, it makes perfect sense – they can easily show hundreds of thousands new pages being created within the year, with all that untapped potential for paid promotions. That money will never come. A blogger such as I would rather trust the open web as a source of feedback and views than Facebook, whose track record for respecting ad spend is poor if not terrible. Facebook is a hungry beast, always looking for its next fix.

I’m tired of being Facebook’s fix. I don’t care for it any more. I have had an intense love for it as a platform at one time. I’ve been in awe of the leadership at one point. But now the spells are broken. 2018 was a journey, both public and private, in trying to see where Facebook goes. For me, it’s led itself to a dead end.

postscript – I opened Facebook recently, after perhaps a month, and a few things jumped at me. First of all, Facebook wished me for being with them since ten years. I think that’s serendipity. No social network online has a good life of more than a decade. Facebook should be no exception. While the company has morphed and plundered and established itself as the place to go to steal access user data, it should know that its main platform is tired and done for. I will slowly stop visiting and interacting with it. I know a lot of people have done this in 2018, but I still have derived some utility from it, so I’m sure it’ll feel somewhat bad to do so. On a new device I setup recently, I specifically made it a point to uninstall Facebook (it came preinstalled for some reason), while I did install Instagram. I know this is counter intuitive, but this is a signal from me to the company that it’s time to retire your aging platform or at least break it up instead of amalgamating into it. Facebook’s ugly attempts at driving people back towards their main property are so transparent that they should accept that it’s time.

The second thing I noticed was that Facebook had killed off an ugly experiment it has forced me to be a part of since two years – the Facebook marketplace and Video tabs. The main app has had these tabs since the beginning of 2017 for me (ymmv) and I never used them. I’ve looked forward to the day Facebook does *one* smart thing and recognizes that users would like an experience that’s suited to their needs instead of Facebook’s. By the way, for a brief time last year, when I discovered the Facebook groups app, my daily activity on Facebook actually increased, because I was able to get an ad-free, clean, groups-only experience of Facebook. Then FB killed off that app. So it goes. I’m glad that Facebook has removed its craigslist clone from my Facebook experience, but I didn’t celebrate it the day I saw it. Too little, too late.

A comment on The YouTube Conundrum

The following is a comment I was writing on the above post. It became long enough that I’d rather just throw it on here for posterity. A couple of loosely knit thoughts on YouTube –

YouTube seems different.

Source: Is YouTube Fundamental or Trivial? – Study Hacks – Cal Newport

YouTube is different.

Instagram, twitter etc have a feed. YouTube doesn’t have a feed like that. YouTube does have an autoplay option, but in my experience most people prefer to keep it turned off. It’s a fundamentally different browsing model than these other social networks.

The author wishes people use YouTube as a sort of backend to embed videos into their websites. I’d say that a lot of people did initially experiment with video embeds as a means of ‘indiewebifying’ YouTube and Vimeo. Many still continue to do so. So many methods of embeds exist, from WordPress shortcodes to YouTube itself giving you easy to copy iframe and html5 snippets. But that’s not how YouTube is truly consumed. Just like those other social networks, YouTube is consumed mainly within their app. There’s true continuity there, even though most people don’t actually use it.

The other point is that content is king. When you’re chasing silly cat videos, whatever YouTube suggests seems fine. Similarly, when my wife has to do some housework, she puts on one fashion blogger or the other and the algorithm takes her on a journey of background noise that’s more than adequate.

However, when we get home and want to either watch some news/latenight commentary/random funny videos from specific content creators, we specifically select a video, play it, and exit after it’s done.

My main method of consuming YouTube is on the Apple TV. With the new version of their app, YouTube has effectively shot themselves in the foot. The app doesn’t do a very good job of good, engaging, never-ending recommendations. We’re a little more discerning than letting complete random videos play when we’re actively looking at the screen, so after a few refreshes, the content of the day dries up and we can actually get out and watch something else we’ve been paying for – Netflix or Amazon.

So what’s the right way to think about YouTube: is it fundamental to the internet revolution, or just another source of social media distraction?

YouTube is both, true. But it’s both because people have recognized the value of uploading serious content on there. Now, serious content isn’t only suited to video format. It can be made in photos (see brainpickings Instagram) and in tweets (the reuters twitter feed). But can it be consumed in those formats easily? No, and that’s why YouTube stands out.

YouTube is a conundrum because people actively upload cat videos on it.