The Internet Is Lying To You

Error 301: This post has moved permanently.

Just kidding! Ha ha!

But I did write about the problems with aggressive link redirecting for New York Magazine.

This is both dangerous and ridiculous. Pages load more slowly, and the extra useless links are much more likely to break, and it’s impossible to know where you’re actually heading until after you’ve already clicked. One of the reasons users must so awkwardly tumble through a useless proprietary server that performs customized URL-redirecting behaviors is because this sort of thing is not actually included in any of our technical standards for building computer networks, and it is not part of any standard because it is a terrible idea. Bouncing internet users around between obfuscating servers in a game of internet pinball is a patently absurd way to run any sort of address system. It is a terrible distributed collective architecture that comes at the expense of the real internet.

Meltdown, Spectre, and everything else

For Wired, a meandering essay that uses the Meltdown and Spectre exploits to point out problems with how we think about the future:

Anything that seeks to reshape the infrastructure built by our past selves should deserve our most aggressive scrutiny, regulation, and suspicion. If backtracking overeager technology is already proving so catastrophic for the cheap chips in our laptops and phones, then we certainly have no hope of reversing its changes to our homes, cities, and oceans.

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AMP for Email

Google recently unveiled a set of proposed upgrades to email. For New York Magazine’s tech section, I wrote about where it went wrong – most notably, that it should not be possible to “unveil” upgrades to a standardized communication platform in the first place.

The biggest flaw is simply that it can’t reasonably be called version two of email. That isn’t Google’s fault — version two of email doesn’t exist anywhere else either. We aren’t even trying. That is such a profound moral failure that maybe technical failure was also inevitable. And so a lukewarm quasi-open standard pushed by a monopoly interest punts our indefensible collective apathy right into the next generation, deeply broken and silly and misguided but also, embarrassingly enough, still the best we say we can do.

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This is in many ways the spiritual successor to a previous article I wrote about the continued stagnancy of email.

Net Neutrality

New York magazine’s tech blog Select All let me go wayyyy overboard explaining why internet application protocols like http:// and ftp:// intrinsically fight for net neutrality even with the FCC does not.

Networks are made of computers, and computers take instruction. They do as they are told reliably until they break, and for decades now, what we have told them to do is move information around as quickly and efficiently as possible. This is for two reasons: practical, because at the dawn of the internet it was important to squeeze bits over the limited bandwidth of dial-up modems; but also elemental, because designing any technology with intentionally suboptimal performance is self-evidently idiotic, so nobody does it — aside from the current FCC, apparently. Nonetheless, for the most part, the internet’s underlying application-layer protocols try to run as quickly as possible. This will remain true unless the internet is completely rebuilt atop a different foundation.

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Tweet Strings

My new piece for Motherboard unpacks the recent changes to Twitter’s character limits. In short, the big news is not that the tweets are growing longer, it’s that they are now being treated as data structures, not text strings.

Twitter has always performed text analysis of the tweet content to detect elements and extract them as distinct entities to discrete data fields. Now the separation is fixed and formal: They’re auxiliary data points, not part of the message content, and as such they will need to be specifically interpreted by any program, site, or service that integrates with Twitter. This means that tweets are no longer just text; they are turning into something entirely new.

Web Safe

Web Safe 2k16 is a strange, beautiful project in which writers sift through their memories of the early internet using a specific color as a prompt. I wrote about blue.

Opinions Are Like Software Applications

For New York magazine, an attempt to explain how Apple’s institutional priorities can be understood by looking at its source code, and what that might mean for the big pending legal battle with the FBI over encryption in the iPhone:

One reliable peril of advanced technologies is that the details of implementation usually aren’t yet common knowledge among most people — often including judges and lawyers, regrettably — but the compulsion of speech, or software-as-speech, isn’t made any more acceptable simply because fewer people know how to interpret it. The FBI’s demands in this case rely on that confusion: Its application for the order to compel Apple to provide them with the custom software states that “writing software code is not an unreasonable burden for a company that writes software code as part of its regular business.” This phrasing contains a subtle gamble: that both the courts and the public will conceive of the software as a tangible artifact produced by an incomprehensible factory in the clouds, rather than fully considering its design and development a coordinated act driven by human motivations, politics, and principles.

Email Is Immortal

On the occasion of its inventor’s passing, I wrote up a theory for New York about why it has been so hard for a more modern email replacement to take off.

That is, it will remain impossible to build a better communication system until the primary goal is actually communication itself. But by and large, we don’t invest much in creating new open standards, specifications, and protocols around which entirely new classes of tools can be built — we’re too busy trying to sell apps! The funding structure of the technology world is largely set up to fight interoperability.

Twitter timelines

My first story for Motherboard, the tech vertical at VICE, is about the darker side of Twitter’s recent experiments with polls and non-chronological timelines.

As polls spread highly structured tweet content, algorithmic presentation meanwhile creates a testable structure around the more chaotic tweets. Since the implicit contract with users would no longer be based on publicly verifiable values like timestamps, a fully algorithmic Twitter would actually just be an experimental Twitter, a service in which the content can be constantly tweaked and manipulated in order to see how users will react.

Breaking Bad was a UI Problem

For the Message, a theory about the influence of Netflix on television scripts:

Nearly forty percent of American homes pay for access to a streaming video service like Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime Video. A theory: even excluding forays into original programming, their prevalence has now started to shape the material they present. As we’ve seen from a decade of arms races in SEO and social media, content evolves to jockey for position with its audience.

Software Naming Conventions

A strange piece for the Message which attempts to illuminate the absurdity of our current approach to naming software.

If you can’t Google your way to something, it’s almost as though it doesn’t even exist, but luckily the filename suffixes used for coding scripts, such as .js and .py, are linguistic (linguistic.js) anomalies which all but create their own SEO (seo.js). Businesses strategize based on their Google rankings relative to competitors for the same reason that tweets are usually weighed in favorites and retweets — on an impersonal internet, visibility (visibility.js) is almost synonymous with value. Publishing any code at (at.js) all creates an instant presence which would be hard to build in other ways. The tech industry is our modern gold rush, drawing swarms of opportunists westward (westward.js), and memorable terminology is one of its new land grabs.

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Clusterfucks (A Working List)

Just in time for Halloween, a list of things that should scare you about modern technology:

Tech has always generally moved faster than government in most senses, but increasingly it now outpaces the agencies we’ve been conditioned to trust, not just the municipal parks struggling to put pool schedules online. Very real threats form in dark corners of the internet precisely because the people who hang out there can buy drugs and weapons, and trying to limit the transactions quickly led to untraceable online currency. These are functions we theoretically employ vast literal armies of government agents to manage.

Blood, Guts

I’m so excited to have started as a contributor to The Message, the chaotic in-house tech and culture vertical at Medium – thrilled to be working alongside all these geniuses. First up, here’s a look back at the circumstances that have occasionally driven me to write scripts to solve personal issues:

I’d often react to a case of information overload by trying to find a way to pare it down, little data processors which attempted to solve the problems I’ve had in my life over the past decade. I realize these are very strange artifacts to feel nostalgic about, but we don’t get to choose these things.

Color Palettes

Wrote about a disaster from my youth that revolved around pixelated graphics.

The Way We Scabbadeedlybop Now

For Mental Floss magazine, a catalog of the various ways in which lyrics web sites like Genius attempt to represent the purely phonetic syllables used in scat singing, as with the bizarre 1994 one-hit wonder I’m The Scatman.

How does the modern internet treat this most bizarre of cultural artifacts when its only goal is to capitalize on it as an ad surface? On some level these snapshots seem to point toward subjective perceptions of art and the love it can inspire in us, but they are then promptly torn into nonsensical shreds by the brutal Darwinism of online marketing.
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Our New 64-Bit World

A new article for Wired about how a technical problem at YouTube related to the music video for “Gangnam Style” points to a whole new scope for the technology industry.

When “Gangnam Style” hit 2 billion views back in May, a record at the time, Google’s engineers noted that it might also soon overflow the limits of a 32-bit integer. That fix was as simple as changing the memory space allotted to that data point from 32 bit to 64 bit, which is actually a relatively small change. It didn’t actually “break YouTube’s code” in any meaningful sense, let alone “break the Internet.” What’s mind-boggling about all this, though, is that the number that was pushing those limits loosely correlates with a quantity of people.

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My Triumphant Return To Academia

I wrote what I believe is the The Awl’s first technical white paper.

Apple + U2 album release

I wrote a very opinionated post for Wired about Apple’s recent decision to force downloads of the new U2 album on all iTunes users.

There’s a very simple reason why this is unprecedented, and that is because it doesn’t make any sense. Never before has such a major technology company also operated as publicist for a creative artist. The whole endeavor yearns desperately to be a landmark new innovation for the music industry, perhaps something along the lines of Radiohead’s legitimately earth-moving In Rainbows, which was self-released with variable pricing in 2007 and remains the gold standard against which music industry innovation is measured. But this is not In Rainbows, and as such should instead be remembered primarily as a monumental blunder by the tech industry.

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Update: At 1:30pm today I’m going to be a guest on CHQR AM 770 in Calgary to discuss this fiasco; listen here.

Twitter and Television

A few nights ago I stayed up late to start watching season 2 of House of Cards as soon as it premiered, and as you might expect, I freaked out when Frank Underwood immediately kills Zoe Barnes in the first episode, so I wrote an essay for Wired about the odd sensation of sharing a cultural experience like that via the internet despite the availability of video-on-demand services like Netflix.

Even in the middle of the night, I wasn’t alone. Both Netflix binges and traditional broadcast television are increasingly subject to an internet-based social halo surrounding fandom, and nobody wants to be the one who misses the party.

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