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Saturday 9th September, 2023 - Circles or Squiggles? (Issue #131)
Exploring both the good and bad sides of tech. How do we progress when there is clearly two sides to the coin? Some incredibly awesome futuristic stuff but also some somewhat darker things too.
Hello and welcome to my newsletter!
Another season 2 instalment…
Sometimes it’s super obvious how to title a newsletter issue, other times not so much. The tricky part about this week is that there’s some really cool tech that’s inspiring and could lead to great things, but there’s also some darker stuff, that could be narly. They are two sides of the same coin so to speak. How do you talk about that without sending yourself into a depressive funk? It’s not obvious. Got to keep moving forward though.
There’s a ton of awesome podcasts this week. Futuristic CLIs, spacial computing, nerdy conversations between old friends, dev team archivists, designing biological cyborgs, and cities of the future. There’s also tech malpractice, very long timescales, desperation in circularity, and framing innocents. There’s good stuff, there’s bad stuff, and sometimes a bit of both intertwined in a sort of strange never ending cosmic dance.
I’d recommend consuming a bit of both. Life isn’t always full of wonderful, but it doesn’t always have to be doom and gloom either. And things are a lot better than they used to be. We are making progress, yet there’s still much to do, still lots of aspects to consider. Having an intuitive sense that there are always two sides to the coin is important.
It’s incredible to me to consider that even 20 years ago, pretty much none of the conversations in today’s newsletter would have been possible. Podcasts didn’t exist. We had television and radio and music CDs, cassette tapes, and book libraries, but it was very difficult to find places where interesting things were being discussed. And if you did find such a place, there was no way to participate. We didn’t even have mobile phones! And now just a few decades later, we are in a world wide knowledge renascence. That’s pretty incredible.
And yes of course as we move forward we are discovering lots of unpleasant stuff about how things used to function, and in a lot of cases how things still function, but we are learning, and we’re making things better. Piece by piece.
Let’s be kind to each other and ourselves, give ourselves some space, and keep moving forward.
I’ve been toying with the idea to split the newsletter into two more focussed newsletters. I’m noticing that the content is often either really small picture tech and programming or bigger picture more esoteric stuff. I really like both, I feel one informs the other, but having everything lumped into one newsletter is a bit confusing sometimes. With two newsletters I could give each one a proper, hopefully cool sounding, name so it’s not just “Mark Smith’s Newsletter”, which I went with initially because of a total lack of creativity I was experiencing at the time. What do you reckon?
If you have thoughts about this idea let me know in comments or via email. Especially if you have any ideas for what I could call them.
Development on my static site generator has been a bit slow this week. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to setup npm module caching in my Github Actions build and deploy workflows. Lots of conflicting information online. It’s still not working. I’ve also been fixing various small structural bugs that the new notes feature has uncovered. I’m making progress but for now the notes are still ordered in reverse on day archive pages. The day archive pages also aren’t rendering the day date above the notes. These two things make them a little difficult to read. You’d think these would be simple to fix, but often you realise that they require changes in the plumbing, which takes longer, but once done the whole thing will be much more flexible. I’ll hopefully get that resolved over the coming days.
On the plus side I noticed that in Github there is a way to add regular environment variables. I’m not sure if this feature was there all along or if they just added it. I thought you could only store secrets on repositories, which I use for most things. But on close inspection on the same page there is also a variables tab. So I was able to extract a bunch of hardcoded environment variables from my workflows. That’s pretty cool. It’s nice to have things a bit neater, makes it easier to figure out what’s going on.
Also on the plus side, I managed to verify both my Mastodon account and my Nostr account:
I’m still a little confused about how people find me on Nostr using my new nip5 address. It doesn’t seem to turn up in searches, but in my Nostr client it shows as verified. I’d appreciate it if someone out there could let me know if you have any issues finding and following my account.
On with the newsletter…
Back to the terminal of the future Ep#555 (Changelog Interviews Podcast) - Terminal and the command line interface is such a big part of web development that it’s surprising there aren’t more products focusing in this area because if you think about it for a few minutes you’ll realise how much opportunity there is to improve the developer experience. This is a great interview from a tech perspective, with lots of cool features discussed, but also from a business perspective as they talk about what it’s like to build a company that makes developer tools, covering among many things, navigating funding, open source licensing, and working with designers and engineers. https://changelog.com/podcast/555
“Pleading the Fifth” with Michael Simmons Ep#384 (The Talk Show Podcast) - John and Michael get into the nuance and detail of the Vision Pro and developing apps in this new “spacial computing” paradigm. It’s a really interesting discussion because it’s so early in the cycle that most of it is uncharted territory, and these two have such a wealth of experience to draw on, that they manage to paint a very compelling picture of the possibilities ahead of us. https://daringfireball.net/thetalkshow/2023/08/31/ep-384
Affordable luxuries, creative offsites, brain stimulation, OCD, ADHD, tokenizing humans and more (The Random Show Podcast) - I see both Tim & Kevin as heavy weights in the internet and tech related creator space, so it’s a treat when they do one of their random shows. Their conversations are always at the core very tech focussed, they’re nerds and they like sharing their adventures, but because they’ve had some success, they mix in relevant personal business stories, and a touch of the luxurious tastes that they’ve been able to afford to explore. Plus the banter gets very funny in places because they’re old buddies. Great show to get into the latest cool tech trends. https://tim.blog/2023/09/01/the-random-show-drinking-edition
You call it tech debt, I call it malpractice Ep#12 (Changelog and Friends Podcast) - Covers in some detail the somewhat controversial thesis that the popular notion of tech debt is often misguided and should more appropriately be thought of as malpractice. Many interesting topics covered including the reality of devs not staying in the same teams for long, the benefits of hiring archivists onto dev teams, the possibilities of AI to next level software documentation, institutional knowledge, answering the re-occurring question of how did we arrive at this decision?, and the practical downsides of associating value to code. https://changelog.com/friends/12
Neri Oxman: Biology, Art and Science of Design & Engineering with Nature Ep#394(Lex Fridman Podcast) - I haven’t had a Lex show in the newsletter for a while, most of his shows recently haven’t really been tech focussed, but this episode is definitely on the tech frontier. It’s all about the idea that we can augment all biologies on the planet with bits and bytes. Would it be possible to give other animals and even plants an internet, and what does that even mean? It’s an interesting discussion that makes you wonder about computing in a different way. Also, synergistically, last week’s theme popping up again: very long timescales. https://lexfridman.com/neri-oxman
Thinking About Decentralisation Ep#364 (Tech Dirt Podcast) - Mike Maznick and Danny O’Brien who have known each other since the early days of web2.0, discuss decentralisation, copyright, protocols and platforms, disinformation, censorship and many other of the du jour topics in social media. And they’ve been internet mates for many years so it’s quite a fun conversation. https://www.techdirt.com/2023/09/05/techdirt-podcast-episode-364-thinking-about-decentralization
Ian Goldin: Circular Economies & the Age of the Sustainable City Ep#1688 (Keen On Podcast) - Everyone this past year or so seems to be talking about circular economies. The idea that since nature by definition is circular that we should design our large scale systems in a similar way. Personally I’m not convinced it’s always an effective approach, in fact taken to extremes I think it could be quite harmful. The programmer in me that has had to debug very narly circular reference bugs recoils at the sound of circularity. Perhaps not thinking in a circular way is the way we break out of the natural world prison we find ourselves in. Anyway though some of my opinions differ, it’s still a great conversation about building cities and the difficulties and challenges that entails. Topics include the future of cities, fascinating San Francisco in trouble, inequalities being sources of anger and desperation, countryside vs city, capitalism and government, fixing old cities vs building new ones from scratch. https://podcasts.google.com/feed/aHR0cHM6Ly9hamtlZW4ubGlic3luLmNvbS9yc3M/episode/M2I2ZDI1NTItNGNiMi0xMWVlLWI5YzktMTc4MjJjZjRiYWMz?sa=X&ved=0CAUQkfYCahcKEwjY3vH35ZyBAxUAAAAAHQAAAAAQDg
Is Chain Analysis Prosecuting Innocent People? with L0la L33tz Ep#706 (What Bitcoin Did Podcast) - There is growing realisation that questionable software tools are being used to imprison innocent people. This is especially true with bitcoin and crypto. This conversation focusses on Chain Analysis and their software that has been used in over 100 000 cases and doesn’t appear to be based on sound ideas. Important conversation to have, we need to at the very least be aware of where this could happen. If it happens at all then it could happen to anyone. That’s the tricky thing with software, ultimately anything is possible, both good things and bad. Perhaps there are some structural things that can be done to avoid some of the worst aspects. https://www.whatbitcoindid.com/podcast/is-chainalysis-prosecuting-innocent-people
Broken Money w/ Lynn Alden Ep#574 (The Investors Podcast) - Lynn Alden’s latest book about the origins of money has been received unanimously with enormous praise. It’s a great podcast episode that looks at it’s main ideas. Definitely worth the time to listen, contains many very clear mental models combined with an exploration of the history of monetary technologies, why various financial tools developed the way they did. Having this background is key in being able to envisage the possible paths going forward. Main topics: broken money, commodity money, fractional banking reserve system, military backed currencies, funding wars using debasement, the outsized impact of inflation and volatility on emerging countries. https://www.theinvestorspodcast.com/episodes/broken-money-1-w-lyn-alden
USENET, the OG social network, rises again like a text-only phoenix - The central governing authority was reconvened in 2020 after 10 years of dormancy. There has been a bit of a resurgence of late. Turns out many of the usenet servers have been quietly ticking along all these years and much of the network is still functional. Might be an idea to have usenet access setup as a sort of backup plan in case modern social media further implodes. The article lists some interesting looking groups active for science fiction and computer history. https://www.theregister.com/2023/08/30/usenet_revival
Why I don’t want to grow my freelance design studio into an agency - Nela Dunato describes her reasons for prefering to remain working solo as a design freelancer. She's pretty candid about her reasons, clearly she's had some bad experiences in agencies, and of course she has adapted accordingly. Each person's situation and trajectory is different, no doubt there will be folks that have very valid reasons for doing the exact opposite. I think we can have a world where both models can work side by side, you never know when your life circumstances might change and having the optionality to switch models is a net win for everyone. I wish more people felt as confident to share their reasoning without fearing repurcussions. It's really helpful reading articles like this. I'd love to read something similar from the pro-agency perspective. https://neladunato.com/blog/why-wont-grow-freelance-studio-into-agency
Building a wide news commons - Ben Werdmuller writes a piece about local news. How things were, how they have changed with social media, and how he hopes it plays out. Lots of interesting ideas and cool examples. Caffs not Cafes sounds cool, covering London caffs. I'll have to check it out later when I'm online again. Glad to come across this article via my RSS reader. It had been a while since I openned it. I think Ben is part of the HN bloggers feeds collection. https://werd.io/2023/building-a-wide-news-commons
Wikimedia DNS - Wikimedia have launched a public DNS service, currently a small-scale beta project. Supports both DNS-over-HTTPS (DoH) and DNS-over-TLS (DoT). It's not served on the wikipedia.org domain. https://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Wikimedia_DNS
What OpenAI Really Wants - Stephen Levy (Author of the legendary book Hackers) profile piece about Sam Altman and OpenAI. Starts out comparing the attention he's getting to the Beattles when they first got popular. Seems a bit of a stretch, but in the piece he follows Altman and his small PR team around London as they hop between presidents, prime ministers, university lecture theatres, and more, and you do get a sense that something quite unusual is unfolding. Some interesting insight into the nascent AI / LLM scene. https://www.wired.com/story/what-openai-really-wants
If You’ve Got a New Car, It’s a Data Privacy Nightmare - Honestly this is quite shocking. Cars used to be the last space people felt they had privacy, often used as a place to call your doctor or just a temporary shelter from a crazy world. Turns out car manufacturers are now harvesting a plethora of user information, everything from driving habbits to sexual activity and health info to genetic data. They use a variety of sensors and recording devices built right into the cars. https://gizmodo.com/mozilla-new-cars-data-privacy-report-1850805416
Lots more links on the daily linkblog, and they often include extra context links which there isn’t an easy way to include in substack. Please check them out:
I like the new fancy federated protocols but I'd feel better if I had a robust setup for RSS reading, newsgroups/IRC and forums. https://markjgsmith.com/notes/2023/09/06/131200-markjgsmith.com
My RSS reading experience is quite bad at the minute. Organising all my feeds feels like a gargantuan task. With 15 or so years of feeds that have accumulated, many of which are defunct, there is just so much to wade through. There is also no clear way to categorize any of them in a useful way. https://markjgsmith.com/notes/2023/09/06/133100-markjgsmith.com
A blog post is too much effort because I have to think of a title, and write a description and a bunch of stuff. A note isn't much more effort than a tweet. However notes tend to be less well thought out, and probably have more spelling mistakes. https://markjgsmith.com/notes/2023/09/07/130200-markjgsmith.com
It's possible to easily run MacOS VMs on Mac using something like Vimy. What's the current state of affairs running MacOS VMs when you are on Windows or Linux?Important question if you are a web developer. It used to be that it simply wasn't possible. I wonder if that is still the case. https://markjgsmith.com/notes/2023/09/08/102400-markjgsmith.com
This is a new section that I’m testing out this week. These are extracts from some of the notes I wrote this past week. Please check out the rest of them:
That’s all from me…
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