Become illegible

One thing I appreciate about Mastodon (and the Fediverse) is the desire among some users to not be legible. Some users don’t want to be seen, understood, or to have any “reach”. There’s a desire to not be visible, to not be widely understood, and to basically be baffling to outsiders.

I’m taking this idea of legibility from James C. Scott’s book Seeing Like a State. I’ve seen some Mastodonians explicitly reference Scott’s book. Others don’t refer to Scott directly, but are often speaking about the same thing.

There are numerous strategies for being less legible: having a private account, not posting to the public timelines, not threading posts that would make much more sense threaded, not using a real name, deliberately not explaining references, not providing context, sub-tooting, and so on. This is all behavior that is common to inward-looking groups elsewhere on the internet, but only on Mastodon have I seen illegibility as being the explicit, stated goal. It is a decidedly interesting and compelling goal, and I humbly submit it here for your consideration.

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BBS

As a high school student, I spent quite a bit of time on my local BBSes. For those who are too young to remember them, or were not paying attention, BBSes were proto-internet social networks of a sort. You would use your modem to dial a local telephone number, where you would then log in to a small, shared, text-based community. They were local to your area code (unless you wanted to pay for long distance calls), and very oriented towards nerds.

There was plenty of age-inappropriate content, primitive networking (hi, fidonet), and random strangers to talk to. I learned my first lessons about online identity and online behavior. The whole experience was probably formative of the way I still think about what is “online”. It’s a shame that this whole world has now entirely disappeared, although I did meet someone on Mastodon recently who still runs a BBS in France. The closest thing that most of us have access to today is SDF and other such pubnixes, which have a similar aesthetic.

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Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I took the one that was not machine learning

I started making a Mastodon bot over the weekend, although I’m not super excited about it. Mostly this is because, from a technical perspective, it’s not new ground for me. The bot is text-based, and uses Python and SpaCy to work with text drawn from the Wikipedia API. I’ve done this before, so I’m not terribly enthused.

But I want to spend more time programming, so I stayed up late working on it. Frankly, I am finding it a challenge to stick with Python these days, since a bunch of the current excitement surrounding the language is around machine learning, and I am decidedly *not* interested in that, from either a technical or a social perspective.

Is this why people turn to new languages? To find a different emphasis, or maybe some different buzzy topics to work on? I didn’t realize how much I was relying on the popular Python topic du jour for motivation until all of a sudden it diverged from my interests and left me mostly adrift. I will have to reorient, and reground my programming practice in something new.

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Abstraction

Abstraction is largely the story of computing. Software developers have been building abstraction upon abstraction for decades now. Lev Manovich (of the CUNY Graduate Center) captured this clearly in his book Software Takes Command, and my thinking about this topic is influenced by his book. Abstraction makes life easier by simplifying tasks and making complex processes easily understandable to humans.

For example, in many programming languages, tasks can be written as functions. Functions allow us to abstract away complexity. Because complexity can be hidden away inside a function, someone using the function often does not necessarily need to understand its inner workings; for some purposes, they just need to know what it does and how to run it. Related functions are often bundled into libraries, giving programmers a ready-made toolkit of abstractions that are relevant to the specific task they are working on.

The basic building blocks of programming languages, such as functions, objects, and so on, are powerful tools for making and using abstractions. These abstractions allow us to greatly simplify our work, because we can let the abstractions do the heavy conceptual and computational lifting. Crucially, we have access not only to the abstractions that we’ve built ourselves, but also to many, many abstractions made by others. We build upon their work as well as our own. To borrow from a popular saying about turtles, computing is abstraction all the way down.

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CUNY IT Conference, debrief

My presentation yesterday at the CUNY IT Conference went fine; surprisingly I was not particularly nervous, which was unusual for me, and very welcome. The CUNY IT Conference is a bit unique, because while it is decidedly aimed at technical people, the talks are usually not particularly technical. But I just went for it and explained a bunch of production code in my slides. I wasn’t sure how this would go over, but based on people’s reactions, my guess is that about half of the audience followed the coding parts, which is pretty good, I guess!

I did have one non-coder tell me afterward that although he didn’t understand much of the technical part, the presentation still made sense. This was reassuring, because I obviously did not want to lose anyone in the details; I just wanted to talk about how things work. If the message of the talk was communicated in spite of the technical hurdles, I am happy.

Afterward, I had a nice long talk over coffee with a fellow librarian, about all kinds of technical and CUNY-related things, which was very nice.

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CUNY IT Conference

On Friday, I’ll be presenting at the CUNY IT Conference on our library’s efforts to apply some features of Vue.js to our library webpage. It’s a one-hour session, which is really a lot of Vue (maybe too much?) for one sitting, but I’ll do my best.

It’s interesting that there’s a lot to say about this topic, especially because this presentation is really centered around Vue’s v-for directive, which is not a super complicated bit of functionality. But such is the nature of modern JavaScript frameworks that you can spend most of an hour talking about what is essentially a for loop.

I’m building in a lot of time for questions and comments, because I’m really super interested in what people think of this project. It has been mostly in my head (and in the code) these past few months, so I’m really looking forward to hearing from others.

If you’re at the conference, I hope that we get a chance to say hi!

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A strange month for Mastodon

Last night, I tried to start a post about the current state of Mastodon, but I couldn’t really formulate anything that wasn’t overly emotive. I tapped out a few words, looked at the screen for about an hour, and then gave up and went to bed. Others have done much better than I could: Hugh Rundle has captured his (very resonating) feelings much better than I could in his own blog post. That post went viral (by Mastodon standards). I hope that the emotional labor that Hugh put into that post resonated with some of the new Mastodonoians.

Mastodon is in a strange place right now. The people who are running the infrastructure have mostly been on the fediverse for a long time. Yet most of the users on a lot of the servers are very new. This seems like a recipe for conflict. Some of us admins have deliberately kept our servers small and invite-only to manage the dissonance. Honestly, I feel that may be the only plausible coping mechanism in the short term. The longer term is going to require a lot of flexibility from everyone involved. Making new ties as well as maintaining old ones are both necessary for the future of the network. Let’s see how this goes.

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Break everything day

Since our library has had LibGuides, there has been a long-simmering desire among the librarians to standardize the layout of our guides. In fact, a few years ago we attempted to do this by building a standardized template that the librarians were encouraged to use. But this voluntary standardization did not work at all. The librarians continued to use whatever guide template they wanted to. It was a big flop.

Now, we’re going to try again, but this time the standard template will be non-optional. I expect this to be effective, in a somewhat brutal way. If we insist on one style, existing guides will be shoehorned into that style. This will not be seamless, because some things will invariably break in the new layout.

What I’ve proposed to the librarians is that we have a “break everything day”. We’ll switch all of the guides over to the new layout all at once, and then collectively fix everything that we broke. Of course, I’m going to try to minimize the surprises: I’ll do a test run in advance, to see exactly what we’ll be dealing with. We can identify what guides will be most affected, so that we can better plan our response.

We’re planning to have our “break everything day” this winter. As a bonus, it’s a great opportunity for me to clean up some legacy CSS. If we’re breaking the guides anyway, deleting some old CSS won’t be a big deal; it will all get fixed at the same time, in one big group effort. Win-win.

Posted in css, libguides, maintenance | Leave a comment

Avec le temps

Dramatic news about Twitter, like we’ve seen in the past week, always drives a big influx of people to Mastodon. Mastodon, part of a larger decentralized federation of communities called the fediverse, is my social medium of choice. On a superficial level, Mastodon is very Twitter-like. The culture though, is very different. New arrivals to Mastodon are of course very welcome. I hope some of them stick around, so that they can help Mastodon thrive.

But things inevitably change too. The characteristics of Mastodon that I find so appealing today will probably eventually fade, either slowly or quickly. It is unavoidable that almost any community will evolve and change. What is a mistake is to assume that because a forum is good today that it will always be good, or that it is good for everyone. You could call this misplaced optimism “the communalist mistake”. For example, at one time (2008) I was really positive about Twitter too, although that enthusiasm has long since vanished. While I’m super excited about Mastodon now, I know enough to know that it’s not forever. In my experience, communities, especially online ones, never are. The hard lesson learned is not to over-invest yourself.

For now though, the sun is shining, and Mastodon is a great place to be. Let me know if you want an invite.

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Debian on a Chromebook

I recently (and very unexpectedly) bought a Lenovo Chromebook. The reason was that my Dell XPS laptop fell apart rather spectacularly and I was without a computer. The Chromebook is a cheapish stop-gap until I can afford to buy another “real” laptop. To be clear, I wasn’t too excited about the prospect of using a Chromebook. My preconception was that it would be too locked-down and limiting by design.

But as it turned out, I was pleasantly surprised. It can run Debian! Moreover, I didn’t need to pave over ChromeOS or resort to any particularly hacky solution; the Chromebook came with the built-in capacity to run Debian. I’m a bit hazy on this, because ChromeOS explains itself very poorly, but it is definitely Linux running on some kind of container or virtual machine. Very useful!

For now, it’s just a terminal (no GUI), but that’s really sufficient for me. I can run git and vim, and do bashy stuff. I am mostly placated and, for the most part, can keep up my usual workflows. It’s a better outcome than I expected!

Posted in chromebook, linux | Comments closed
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