Even Shorter Blog Friday: Whooooops! Edition

Damn. I knew there was something else I was planning to do today. This was going to be a big post about Mastodon/the fediverse, and related topics, but on the one had I kind of forgot about writing it for a lot of the day and on the other hand, well…you might say a lot has been going on in the social media world, especially with respect to the app from which a record number of people are decamping to Mastodon.

There was also a bit of rather significant politics news, in that Nancy Pelosi announced she won’t seek another term as Democratic Leader in the House, but I don’t have anything much to say about that, I think she’s been a very effective leader but I think her decision makes plenty of sense.

Really going to try to get that Mastodon post written before next Friday though, I promise. And maybe next Friday I’ll just talk about guitars or something.

Not with a bang but a shitpost

Elon Musk, a strong contender for Worst Living Human, now owns Twitter, has fired the CEO, CFO, and head of Trust & Safety, and has promised to lay off some three-quarters of the staff, making the site unusable.

The results of the ownership change have already had extremely predictable consequences, so continuing to use the service is untenable. The only counter to Musk’s determination to make Twitter a platform for neonazi propaganda, coordination of harassment and stochastic terrorism, and widespread dissemination of disinformation on everything from elections to public health, is for a mass exodus of users to simultaneously render Twitter irrelevant. I can’t cause such an exodus, but at least I can leave, and say why I left.

Yes, moderately observant readers will note that a I did a big public “I’m quitting Twitter” thing before, but that was only because I hit the arbitrary milestone of ten years on the site, and I thought a change would be good for me personally. The stakes this time are rather higher.

I’ll discuss my thoughts on the various alternative social media services I think have some promise, but first, in case you got to this post from a pinned tweet on my now-dormant Twitter account, here are all the places I’ve at least parked my username. Aside from this blog, which is my primary web presence, you can find me on:

I only actively use Cohost and Mastodon right now, but I suppose one never knows which site will pick up more users in the future.

There isn’t going to be a “replacement for Twitter”, of course. For better (largely) and (to some extent) for worse, no other social media service works exactly the same as Twitter. The only case I can think of where a new service had even a little bit of success just by providing exactly the same features as an existing one is Dreamwidth, and “fanfic authors and readers who don’t want a Russian-owned company controlling their works” is not a large enough user base to form a critical mass for a new social media site in 2022.

Are.na and Ello are interesting in that they’re specifically focused on art, while the rest of the list are more general social sites. However, I rarely even glance at them. I don’t think I know anyone there and I haven’t taken the time to get a feel for using them.

Dreamwidth is exactly like LiveJournal, if LiveJournal had been taken over by a dedicated collective of developers who deeply valued the kinds of communities people built there, instead of by Russian spammers. If you ever used LiveJournal, you already know whether you’d like using Dreamwidth, so the only question is whether you know enough people there, or are willing to actively engage in finding communities, to make it socially valuable to you. If you never used LiveJournal, Dreamwidth will feel hopelessly Web 1.0 to you.

Pillowfort and Cohost are similar approaches (though with different results) to the question “what would a new, modern social media site be like?”. Pillowfort ended up a little more Twitter-meets-LiveJournal, while Cohost ended up a little more Twitter-meets-Tumblr. Pillowfort was Kickstarted, while Cohost is a project of a not-for-profit company founded by a group of leftist developers who are Very Online.

Mastodon, which has been around longer than most of the above, is also sort of the odd one out, in that it’s the only decentralized service. In all the other cases, the social network resides on a single site owned and operated by a single organization. In fact, even calling this social media service “Mastodon” is misleading. This one will take more than a short paragraph, I guess.

There are many email services, and at a lower level, many different email server programs, and many different email clients; and there are many different web server programs and many different web browsers. But someone using Microsoft Outlook at work, where their email address is username@job.com, can exchange emails with their friend who uses gmail, and their nerdy friend who uses mutt in a Linux terminal window to interact with their university’s IMAP server. It’s all just email, and instead of knowing only someone’s username, you have to know their username and their server. Similarly, whether a web page is being served by IIS or Apache or nginx or lighttpd, and whether you’re using Firefox or Safari or Opera, it’s all just HTML data transmitted over HTTP.

“Mastodon” is like “Apache” or “sendmail”. It’s one server program — to be sure, the best known — among many that are all basically compatible because they use the same protocol. Mastodon.social is also the home server (or “instance”) for the Mastodon server software, and one of the biggest servers in the federated network of social media servers (often colloquially called the “Fediverse”) using the ActivityPub protocol. “ActivityPub” is an awkward name, but so were “email” and “http” once upon a time. Another popular ActivityPub server is Darius Kazemi’s Hometown, which offers some features Mastodon doesn’t, which is another thing that happens a lot with decentralized protocols. Imagine you had an email account at fancyemail.com, and while you could exchange regular, plain text emails with anyone who had an email account anywhere on the internet, if you were emailing with someone else who also had their account on fancyemail.com, you could change the text colors and add little animted GIFs to your message. (People at least as old as I am will remember that this kind of feature differentiation with email services was not uncommon, for a time.)

The technical details of how federation works for ActivityPub servers aren’t really all that important for the purposes of this post, but the key is that you can have your account on almost any server, and still follow and talk to people on almost any other server.

In theory decentralization is a great strength (once users become accustomed to the idea), but in practice it has some drawbacks. It’s very hard to imagine Twitter or Facebook shutting down completely, but while the Fediverse continues to exist regardless of any particular server staying in operation, individual servers do shut down, and there have been a few (relatively) high-profile cases of a larger instance shutting down with little or no warning. Most servers in the Fediverse are run by just one or a few volunteer administrators, who can’t always shoulder all the work of keeping the server up, updated, and well moderated. Tools do exist to ease migrating an account from one server to another, but they’re not as easy to use as they could be. As a user, you also have to put some trust in the administrators of the server you choose — this is of course true with all the centralized services as well, but they generally at least have some kind of LLC formed to operate them, while any given Mastodon or Hometown (or, god forbid, Pleroma) server is most likely just being run on a hobby basis by a single individual. Different people will have different levels of comfort with that idea, but many simply assume that communications on a social media service are inherently not secure in the first place, and discussions of highly sensitive information should be avoided. If you want, of course, you can always run a single-user instance of Mastodon or Hometown for just yourself: then you know you can trust the admins, and due to the federated nature of the network, you can still follow and interact with people on any other server.

I would like the future of the social web to look a little more like the Fediverse — decentralized, federated, mutually-interoperable networks where people can control their own spaces and footprints. All the technology to do this exists, but it has a steeper learning curve and requires more overhead work from the end users, on top of not being profitable, so without a very large critical mass it’s a model that necessarily loses out to centralized, capitalist, for-profit services. Still, the IndieWeb folks have the right idea. That’s part of why I’m trying to return to blogging here: it’s currently hosted by wordpress.com but I still have more control over this site than I do over my Twitter timeline, and I could migrate the blog to another hosting service if I needed to. I think here in late 2022, we can probably all see pretty clearly why the less we’re at the whims of enormous, for-profit megacorporations and/or their right-wing oligarch owners, the better.

I miss my bar, Pt. III: Two years of this

In which I commemorate the second anniversary of my Last Normal Day, and wax doomy about the state of the pandemic. But nothing lasts forever.

So it turns out getting back into the blogging habit is harder than I thought — failing at my attempt to quit Twitter didn’t help — but here I go trying again. The pandemic has, as I think for many people, scrambled my sense of time anyway. It feels like it must somehow still be 2020, but also like it’s been a lifetime since what used to be “normal”.

It’s March 14th, 2022, the second anniversary of what I think of as my Last Normal Day, when I walked to the barbershop and had my last professional haircut. I’ve been making do at home with clippers and my partner’s assistance, but in a fit of likely-premature optimism, I did book an appointment for this week, so I’ll see my barber again for the first time since then. Still masked, of course; I’ll stick to trimming my beard at home for a while longer, that’s much easier to do anyway.

Pretty much every jurisdiction in the US has dropped mask mandates now, as far as I know, though they’re still requiring them on planes and trains for another month (I’m sure compliance will be even worse than before). In Massachusetts, the average test positivity rate is down around 1.5%, which is great compared to the peak of the Omicron wave (officially 23% in early January, a figure well past the “we cannot possibly accurately measure how much of this shit is out there” threshold) but not great at all compared to last June’s low point of below 0.3%. I miss my bar, but for a glorious couple of weeks there, before even Delta, let alone Omicron, I felt like it was safe enough to go back a few times.

But if letting our collective guard down last summer when case rates were so much lower, because we figured the Alpha wave was done, left us so vulnerable to the worse variants to come, it seems flatly insane to be ending all mitigation measures even though the rates are higher and the new variants are more transmissible. Not to mention insisting on the importance of “getting back to the office” and proclaiming COVID “endemic”, as though the bare assertion would make that true despite over a thousand deaths a day in the US alone. As I said on Twitter a few days ago, it’s like deciding we’re tired of putting out a fire and we need to get back to stacking oily rags everywhere, and those smoldering embers in the corner are probably just going to quietly go out on their own, so we need to just learn to live with constant smoke inhalation.

Medical consensus is growing that somewhere in the range of 10 to 30% of COVID cases result in “Long COVID” chronic post-viral illness, which can be debilitating for some; it also appears that even mild cases can cause physical damage to brain tissue that is visible on scans. The risks of both scenarios are probably reduced by vaccination, but public health officials insisting that it’s silly to try to reduce cases to zero makes me feel like either they’re completely detached from reality, or I am.

What a happy note to end on! I suppose this was always going to be a gloomy anniversary, but I will try to get back to posting a couple times a week. I have other things I’d like to talk about. Keep wearing the highest quality, best fitting masks you can afford whenever you might be indoors with other people outside your own home, use rapid tests (and get your second set of free tests from covidtests.gov, if you haven’t — or your first and second, if you haven’t gotten either! — a measly eight tests per household is wildly inadequate but they won’t do more if there’s not even a demand for this) if you think you may have been exposed, get a PCR test if a rapid test is positive or you have symptoms, get vaxed and boosted if you haven’t, and try to protect the unvaccinated and vulnerable people in your life, since the government has decided that’s just not really their job.

I said up top that my sense of time is scrambled, and I have that Groundhog Day-like feeling that it’s both been forever and no time since the world changed, but a while ago a friend said something I’m holding on to: “Nothing has ever lasted forever before.” Everything ends, and the pandemic will too, but it hasn’t yet; and the more we act like it’s still a real danger, the sooner it will be over.

Enough rambling for now. Maybe next time I’ll talk about guitars. In the meantime, here’s a picture of my cat.

Moss, a small black long-haired cat, sitting in a sunbeam on a rug. A guitar amplifier is in the background.
This reminds me I really need to vacuum the living room rug.

…So, uh. Remember blogs?

I kind of forgot this one again for a while.

Anyway, there’s been talk lately about “self-defense” and whether, and when, one has a right to it, and it had me thinking of a purely hypothetical thought experiment. (Hypotheticals and thought experiments are, of course, always imperfect and not necessarily 100% applicable to any real-world situations that might seem similar.)

Suppose you see me walking down the street, and you throw a rock at me. (Maybe you recognize me as the guy who got you kicked out of your family home due to some small paperwork error your great-grandfather made and no one noticed until last year, so now you and your family live in a cramped apartment in a shitty building.)

From here, there are a few possible outcomes.

If I do nothing, and the rock hits me, it will probably hurt, and might leave a bruise. If it’s a big enough rock, and/or you throw it hard enough, it might even break a bone or give me a concussion. In this scenario, I clearly have not defended myself.

A second possibility is that I see the rock coming, and can dodge it, or raise my briefcase up to shield myself, and so while I may be startled or surprised, and may not even recognize you as the victim of a real estate transaction that was mostly just abstract to me, I have not been physically harmed. Clearly here, even if this is the end of the encounter, I have defended myself.

Third, perhaps I avoid the rock or perhaps it hits me, but either way I see that you threw it, and I pursue you and whack you in the head with my briefcase, maybe even hard enough to knock you down. I probably yell some choice words, too; but having struck back — and having hurt you more-or-less as badly as your rock was likely to hurt me — I leave it at that if you do. This is probably a little less clear-cut, in that I arguably attacked you back rather than (or in addition to) simply defending myself, but I think most people who didn’t know about the real estate swindle would regard the harms as proportional and my actions as more-or-less justifiable. They might say “well, he probably shouldn’t have, but I get it.”

Fourth, suppose I don’t just hit you back once, but I knock you down, then strike you repeatedly with my briefcase and kick you while you’re on the ground, until you stop resisting or trying to escape, or until I exhaust myself. (If this is the real-life me, it does not take me long to exhaust myself, but let’s suppose for the sake of the hypothetical that I have more stamina.) In this scenario I have probably hurt you much worse than your rock could have hurt me. I may have rendered you unconscious, broken several ribs, concussed you, possibly harmed your eyes or broken your teeth, etc.; it’s far from out of the question that I’d have caused potentially life-threatening injuries. It’s very possible to outright kill someone by kicking them while they’re down. This is again not necessarily entirely clear-cut, I’m sure there are some people who’d argue that my disproportionate violence is useful in order to deter future attacks (memo to those people: we live in a society, actually). But I think that most disinterested observers would agree that my actions went well beyond reasonable self-defense, and ultimately I’m the one in the wrong.

Finally, maybe after I bat the rock away with my briefcase, I press a switch on the handle, which causes the shell of it to drop away and reveal a submachine gun, like in gangster movies, and I spray the street with bullets indiscriminately, wounding and killing a dozen people, probably including you. And then, because I did recognize you after all and I know that the rickety tenement building just down the block is where you and your family moved to, I use the built-in launcher on the gun to fire a high-explosive grenade that critically damages the structure and causes the entire apartment building to collapse, killing and maiming dozens more people who weren’t even aware anything was happening.

That last one really doesn’t seem like “self-defense” anymore, now does it?

I miss my bar, Pt. II: A year of this

It’s the Ides of March (by the way, check out Dessa’s Ides project — a new single each 15th, for the first six months of the year — so far “Rome”, “Bombs Away”, and today’s drop, “Life on Land”) and the weekend was full of musings about the anniversary of the pandemic “becoming real” for most Americans. Here’s mine.

A year ago this just-past Saturday was Friday, March 13th, 2020. That was the last time I sat and drank a beer at a bar, chatting with the bartenders and fellow patrons, a weekly social activity I feel the lack of very keenly; over the summer I did occasionally go back to have a pint at the outdoor tables one of my regular spots set up, but it’s not the same. I haven’t been to my other regular joint at all, save to pick up a to-go Easter dinner last year.

A year ago Sunday, on Saturday, March 14th, 2020, was the last time I had a professional haircut. I bought some cheap electric clippers and with my partner’s assistance have been able to manage an adequate job, especially since hardly anyone sees me without a bulky headset on anymore, anyway.

Daylight Saving Time also just kicked in over the weekend, so I’m in that awkward period of adjusting to the missing hour. (My Senator is trying to do something about that, at least.) I’ll spend the rest of my life, I guess, adjusting to this missing year, and I know I’m one of the luckiest ones — I’m only missing the year, not my health, not any loved ones. I have friends who did get COVID, and who are still unsure whether or how badly or how permanently they’ll have any of the long-term symptoms that seem commonly associated with the disease, but all of them survived it. Over half a million in the US (well over, as the official tallies are known to be drastic undercounts) did not, mainly because of the actions of the federal and state governments over the course of 2020.

How, as a society, do we recover from something like this? “Carefully,” as the dad-joke goes, I suppose, but we won’t even fully understand all the harms we’ve suffered for years, if ever. Trauma can settle, like varicella zoster in the nerves of the spine, where we don’t really notice it, and produce unexpected effects long after the event.

I’m not going anywhere with this, I don’t have a conclusion, other than “things didn’t have to be this way,” but that’s true of everything. It just seemed worthwhile to mark the anniversary of my Last Normal Day.

[Update: I failed to link to Emily Hauser’s vital pieces, from October and from February, which get at this issue far better than I can. They say the worst thing a movie can do is remind you of a better movie you could be watching instead, and Emily’s a better writer than I am, but I didn’t link to her until the end of the post, so you had to read my thing anyway. So there!]

Happy New Year

Well, it’s 2021. 2020 was pretty bad! it’s gonna take a lot of work to make 2021 good, but maybe we’ll all manage it together.

One positive change I’m making is that I’ve quit Twitter. I don’t currently plan to delete my account — it’s useful to have posts here automatically linked over there, and there are a lot of people there I’d hate to lose touch with, so if the account stays accessible they can at least find out why I’m not tweeting anymore — but a couple of weeks ago Twitter notified me that it was my tenth anniversary on the site and asked if I wouldn’t like to make a commemorative tweet with a special “10” graphic they’d prepared, and I thought, well, ten years is definitely too long to be here.

I have more thoughts about the ways in which “social media” as it currently exists, and Twitter in particular (I quit Facebook about ten years ago, so I don’t have any first-hand knowledge of its current state), is bad for us as individual people and as a society, and why, and what might be better; and maybe at some point I’ll organize those into a post here. I want to work on, and write about, more software projects first, though, so look for more on that soon.

Anyway although time is largely fake, there’s something nice about choosing to mark the new year a few weeks after the solstice — it’s about when we start to actually notice that the days are getting longer. It’s been a few months of it getting darker and colder, and it will stay cold, and even get a little colder yet, for another couple, but we can see it’s starting to get a little lighter, and we know it’ll get warm again, we just have to get through the hard depths of winter.

A metaphor, if you like. Happy new year, wear a mask, don’t go to restaurants or weddings or bars or generally spend time indoors with or near people you don’t live with, get the COVID vaccine as soon as you can, don’t vote for Republicans, tip servers and delivery people extra, do what you can to help other people.

Remember blogs?

Blogs were these things we used to have, and the internet was better then. Correlation isn’t causation, but still, one has to wonder.

Blogs were these things we used to have, and the internet was better then. Correlation isn’t causation, but still, one has to wonder. I had a blog once, and sometimes some of my posts were very mildly popular. I helped moderate a much bigger blog, and I participated at some other blog communities. All of that kind of withered, or maybe I just fell away from it, as social media became the dominant mode of internet interaction. But what if it didn’t have to be? What if: blogs, again?

Anyway, I guess it’s worth a shot. I need something more productive to do with my time than constantly being mad because I saw a bad take on Twitter — Twitter is nothing if not an endless source of all the bad takes you could ever get mad about, and then some — and it’s hard to look at the IndieWeb movement and not think, “you know, they might be onto something there.” Individuals controlling their own space and experience on the web, using open protocols and prioritizing accessibility and interoperability over the interests of a for-profit corporation that controls a massive platform? Sounds all right.

I’ve been saying for years that Twitter’s bad for me, and I don’t think I’ll be there too much longer, now. Let’s try blogs again.