Felix Rambles

Another step to taking back control

Internet and memory

27 September 2018 — Felix Pleşoianu

While going through my old browser bookmarks recently, I was reminded once again how quickly the average web page goes away. It's part of the so-called digital dark age we're headed towards as more and more media files, stored on now-obsolete devices, become impossible to read, let alone decypher, if they haven't been long deleted.

(Not that it's a new phenomenon. The BBC erasing years of invaluable footage so they could reuse expensive tape reels made headlines a while ago. And it was par for the course back in the day.)

At the same time, it happens more and more that things people said or did years ago, sometimes in their teenage years, resurface unexpectedly thanks to social media, causing no end of trouble. It even led to the EU creating a "right to be forgotten", which was about as tone-deaf, ineffective and potentially damaging as the more recent GDPR. But I digress.

It seems like a contradition. On the one hand, we're complaining that computers are too forgetful, and launch on ample missions to rescue our collective digital memory. On the other hand, we're complaining that computers aren't forgetful enough, and call for crusades to bury the past. Maybe we should make up our minds already.

Except, of course, it's not possible. The same fire that cooks your food can just as easily burn down your house, and there's no way to magically make fire do only what you want. The best you can do is use fire sparingly and with proper precautions. So it is with knowledge. Any knowledge.

Because, you see, human brains require the ability to forget. We wouldn't be able to function otherwise. The price is that we sometimes forget important things. Oh, we can write them down, but writings can also get lost or destroyed. Ideally, those that enough people value will be preserved across the centuries. But since value is in the eye of the beholder, you never know exactly what will be preserved. And so it happens that some of the oldest surviving texts are complaints about a shady merchant in Ancient Mesopotamia. How's that for cosmic humor.

Writing, it turns out, works exactly like human memory in the long term. And so do websites.

While going through my huge pile of browser bookmarks, it was a pleasant surprise to discover how many pages are still there. Others are now gone, sometimes along with the whole website, or else locked up behind a paywall, which amounts to the same thing. Yet more are still there, but I can't for the life of me remember why I bookmarked them in the first place.

Guess comparing the web to a planet-sized brain isn't so far-fetched after all. And our brains sometimes remember terribly embarrassing situations we'd much rather forget. Especially mom's brain.

Ah, but you see, moms also forgive. Internet mobs, not so much.

Well, they'd better learn, because much like with brains, you can't control what the internet does and doesn't remember. Not without breaking it. Nor can you put the genie back into the bottle, any more than you can tell Prometheus to take his newfangled fire and return it to the gods.

But do we understand ourselves well enough in the first place to deal with this monster we've created in our own image?

Tags: social-media, website

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Fun with static website generators

09 September 2018 — Felix Pleşoianu

Oops. Haven't posted here in over a week, and while I don't exactly have a quota, this is even less often than expected.

Having now used BashBlog for long enough to know what it can and can't do, and being satisfied that it can provide a path forward for my long-form blogging, I started thinking about the way Twitter is going down and Mastodon could become literally illegal this Wednesday if the European Union's "copyright reform" law passes as proposed. Which in turn reminded me of an older idea for a static website generator different from the hundreds of others out there.

It started with my use of manually edited RSS, which is easy enough but kinda clumsy, because the format simply wasn't designed with that in mind. Then there were the experiments to reimagine my big webcomic list, which ended up staying a single long document. It was simply not worth the trouble to make anything fancier. Especially after all this time.

Still, the ability to quickly and comfortably post links or quips remains important. As I wrote over nine years ago, microblogging had to be invented. And most existing solutions are overcomplicated, largely because they insist on being social.

Far as I'm concerned, being social on the web means having a newsfeed people can follow.

Which brings me back to RSS. Why not Atom? Because RSS is more flexible: items don't require a title or link, making them useful for mixed content. They even have a concept of a permalink for the item itself, distinct from whatever it's pointing at. And my primary use case just so happens to be a linklog.

So as of yesterday I've been working on a static website generator that runs from the command line, like many others out there, but designed around the capabilities of RSS. How I'll make room for it in my established workflow remains to be seen. So far it looks like a solid concept at least. And the web needs a new vision.

Wish me luck.

Tags: blog, software, social-media

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Thoughtfulness is radical

01 September 2018 — Felix Pleşoianu

I've recently taken to writing down my thoughts in a little paper notebook before posting them to Twitter or Mastodon. A6 pages are just the right size, and it forces me to think hard before blurting out my thoughts online, possibly hurting someone. Hadn't realized what a special thing it was until someone snarkily replied to my suggestion that long-form blogging is due for a comeback by asking, "why not go back to hand-written letters while we're at it?"

Speaking of which: it's essentially impossible to post something on the Diaspora network without getting at least one snarky or angry reply. Sometimes entire flamewars in the comments, that you can only watch helplessly, unless you delete your original post altogether. Turing forbid you actually try to defend or clarify your position, or otherwise interact with the oh-so-smart techie brodudes you've just riled up. It happens elsewhere, too, but only in that particular online neighborhood does it seem to be the norm.

In 2018, giving yourself some time to consider your next words is a radical act.

Let's do it, then. Let's show people what it was like before the tweetstorm had replaced taking the time to formulate a coherent discourse. I'm not talking academic levels of intellectual rigor. Just a modicum of consideration. For your audience. For your ideas. For yourself.

Amazing what difference it makes when you have a literal filter. Handwriting is more laborious, and serves as a first draft, too. And if you notice your draft swelling beyond tweet size, you know it's time to hunker down and write a proper blog post. Don't have a blog? Use a pastebin, and post just the link on social media. Better yet, do yourself a favor and get a proper home on the web. One people can choose when to visit, instead of hearing you trumpet over the rooftops, whether they feel like it or not at the moment.

You don't have to turn off your smartphone. You don't have to give up immediacy. You won't die of boredom if your gratification is a little less than instant.

The internet wants you to be a Pinocchio on Pleasure Island. You know how that ends.

Tags: blog, philosophy, social-media

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