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.

Alien vs. Star Wars

Over at the Message, I have a meandering analysis of the new Star Wars film which tries to connect it to the narrative schism that was created in between Aliens and Alien³ when handing off that franchise between directors.

Successful serials and franchises are small miracles given the complicated competing interests introduced by the business scale of modern blockbusters like the Star Wars saga. Empires are built around their marketing and production, but even writing a sensible core narrative is already hard enough. Weaving stories out of smaller pieces can be incredibly difficult, because in isolation, each piece tends to pull in its own direction, and it’s only through careful and deliberate oversight that they might eventually coalesce into something rational. With that in mind, please sit tight for a moment and pardon this immediate tangent. We’ll get to Star Wars in due course, but in order to contextualize where it’s going, it may actually help to start with Alien.

Drupal Philosophy

Here’s a strange interview I did with the lead developer of Drupal, a software project which is dramatically re-architected for every release, about general philosophies of change.

You’re sort of explaining striking a balance between hierarchical values and non-hierarchical values. How do you manage the relationship between those two types of concerns, and when there’s a new concern that appears, how do you determine whether it’s a hierarchical concern or a non-hierarchical concern?

Let’s say you go to a restaurant and you order fish. You don’t care which truck brought the fish to the restaurant, do you? Sometimes it’s as obvious as that. You have to do what’s right for the operator, the fish is fresh and what have you, but we don’t care what truck gets the fish to the restaurant. Everybody understands that, even the truck driver. Maybe it’s not a great analogy.

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.

Literate Programming

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of coding in CoffeeScript, which is a very elegant language, but my favorite feature is actually just a workflow. Instead of first coding and then later annotating the code, with “literate mode” you first write out descriptions of your logical structures, and then inside that framework you start to embed the executable code. It’s a very interesting way of working, so a few days ago I put together a small shell script which allows me to apply a “literate” workflow to any other kind of code.

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.

It’s Time To Choose!

I hope you had a great summer! I wrote about one last round of potential Song of the Summer candidates for the Awl, again excluding anything in English.

I can’t remember the last time I saw a teen pop group this large in the U.S.—there are eight members, including one drummer who doesn’t participate in the choreography. Here they swap out leads so quickly and stitch together the vocals so tightly that the singers are still all but indistinguishable by the end; it’s a five-minute song, so that’s 37.5 seconds allotted to each member, if we allow no time for breathing. To keep things under control, they’re sometimes split into two color-coded sub-groups, just like the blue and gold teams from the early-nineties X-Men.

memento.js

I mostly threw together that last post so I could clear my plate for some new action happening over on GitHub: memento.js, which binds data sets along a timeline for dynamic recall during media playback.

My excitement about this code cannot be overstated.

D3 Text Wrapping

It’s been more than a year since I posted it on GitHub<, so I suppose I should finally acknowledge the existence of my text wrapping plugin for D3.js. It has already been discovered by some folks (including Mike Bostock, who enthusiastically described it as “generalized somewhat.”) Gregor Aisch’s d3-jetpack also contains a simpler implementation of this feature based on counting characters instead of measuring the width of the rendered text.

Color Palettes

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

Passive Voice

The newest installment of Facepalm Pilot, my technology-driven column for McSweeney’s, focuses on grammatical structures and the way they influence our understanding of the world.

As a thought experiment, let’s examine in extremely close detail a set of iterative changes that can be made to a single simple grammatical structure.

Where Is The Song of the Summer?

Wrote about some great pop songs from Botswana, Macau, and French Polynesia for the Awl:
Some of the samples harken back to the nineties heyday of white R&B/pop. They’re spliced in here with a heavy-handed aggression, though, a refreshing change from the usual misty-eyed nostalgia, so it sounds like nothing else so much as bludgeoning the New Radicals to death with Paula Abdul. more

More Summer Songs

My worldwide pop chart watch for the Awl continues.

In a world teeming with earnest YouTube bedroom confessionals, maybe finding the good ones becomes more rewarding? Everybody please take care when stampeding down to the pawn shop to buy ukuleles. more

I cannot stop listening to “Playback.”

BrooklynJS and Multiverse JSON

Belatedly, I gave a short talk last week at BrooklynJS, New York’s nerdiest JavaScript event. I unveiled Multiverse JSON, a lightweight new specification for configurable editorial projects which are stored as structured data and compiled with Python before reading or publishing. More importantly, I gave the entire presentation using a sock puppet.

It’s Still Number One Somewhere

In a manner of speaking, The Awl has picked up the remnants of my erstwhile Spin column about foreign language pop songs. For the next few months, I’ll be covering the phenomenon of the “song of the summer,” but specifically excluding anything with English lyrics.

The Japanese songwriter’s new single is so relentlessly upbeat and optimistic that it almost reads as 2015’s response to Pharrell’s “Happy,” but it’s also somehow simultaneously weirder than anything currently happening in mainstream American pop. There are the unexpected production flourishes derived from disco, of course – shades of Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You,” or perhaps at least the lightweight adaptation of it he might have performed during a guest appearance on Sesame Street thirty years or so ago.

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Exporting Twitter Problems

Twitter’s new anti-harassment tool is lame! I wrote about why it actually kinda sucks for Wired.

The mere creation of a list doesn’t give due respect to the phenomenal complexity of online hate and abuse. The list is black and white – an account name is either present or absent, the CSV list item is either imported or it isn’t. But there is no single standard for harassment online; it’s not a simple toggle switch, so the tools built around it can’t be as simple as binary filters. more

Writers of Color

Durga Chew-Bose, Jazmine Hughes, Buster Bylander and I were all tired of hearing that it’s too difficult to find non-white writers, so we decided to do soemthing about it. At the heart of our Writers of Color project is a directory of professional listings for writers which is queryable by location and topical specialties (and, for those who want to poach from competitors, searchable by publication name). We’ll also be retweeting opportunities posted to our audience at @writersofcolor, as well as compiling a public Twitter list for the editors to follow and explore. I’ve uploaded the WordPress plugin that makes all the magic happen to GitHub, in case you’d like to try something similar for a different group or industry. We unveiled all this by taking over the Today in Tabs newsletter, where I served as Bijan Stephen’s guest intern.

Seriously, I’ve had enough of this shit!