The Psalms

software

So Much To Do, So Much To See

An update on all I’ve been doing instead of what I actually intended to do.

There will always be plenth of things to compute in the detailed affairs of millions of people doing complicated things. – Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think

Everything happens so much. – Horse_ebooks

You have a desire for indulgence in your home and family, Co-Star has just told me in my weekly, email newsletter-delivered horoscope. “Venus conjunct to natal Moon” indicates this part of yourself will transform into something else, and goes on to say something truly stirring: the way you relate to your past is changing. I continue to be amazed by how influential the potential of the computing hardware present in my life at any given time can be on my habits. In the two weeks I’ve had my first moderately powerful desktop computer in over ten years, I have found myself using new image & video editing software, installing local WordPress stacks, finally experimenting with Git, somehow generating 20 draft posts on a fresh experimental WordPress site, and putting my whole back into my new Notion account, including – among others – projects like my “Keyboard Shortcuts Wiki.” All the while, there has been a pull toward a more deliberate, focused sort of digital existence: reflection on Kevin McGillivray’s Word of The Year concept, digital gardening, and a few other like discoveries have culminated in a newfound, unironic use of the term “Creative Wellness” to describe a set of ideologies which I believe I should strive for in order to improve my intellectual wellbeing.

In tandem with the fact that I have gone back to school, this has all crucially resulted in very little actual writing, which may or may not be conclusive evidence toward the classical minimalist technology argument that less capability results in more focus. On that note, remember when the Game of Thrones author appeared on Conan’s show and mentioned that he still writes exclusively using WordStar 4.0? This happening has been vaguely in the back of my mind since I encountered it during the relatively brief, basement apartment-dwelling era in Oregon when I first discovered WinWorldPC and got into running a bunch of DOS VMs, trying out every download from that blessed site which sounded even remotely interesting. Before I go on, let me just include a transcript of the entire anecdote I’m referring to here, because it’s actually much shorter than one is led to believe:

Conan: These novels that that you write are can be over a thousand pages long. They're massive tomes and apparently you write them all on a computer, but unlike most authors, you're not worried about a computer virus. I mean an author who writes a thousand-page book their greatest fear is a virus invades and destroys a chunk of their book you don't worry about that. Why?

Martin: No I have a secret weapon – I actually have two computers: I have the computer that I browse the internet with and that I get my email on and I do my taxes on and that computer and then I have my writing computer which is a DOS machine not connected to the Internet.

Conan: A DOS machine. How old is this program?

Martin: A DOS machine. You remember DOS? I use WordStar 4.0 as my word processing system.

Conan: Did you make this computer out of wood? Did you carve it? I'm curious why you decided to stick with this old program.

Well I actually like it. I mean, it does everything I want a word processing program to do, and it doesn't do anything else. I don't want any help. I hate some of these modern systems where you type a lowercase letter and it becomes a capital. I don't want a capital – if I wanted a capital, I would've typed a capital. I know how to work the shift key. Stop fixing it!

Conan: You yell at computers a lot. What about spellcheck?

Martin: Oh, I hate spellcheck. Especially when you have the realm of [???], it's [???].

That’s it! A less than sixty second exchange. I did not remember just how much coverage it received on digital news sites. Embark on a Google search for “george rr martin wordstar,” and you’ll discover a ridiculously long list of brief stories including the YouTube embed. A book I’ve just recently discovered and begun – which I am extremely excited about – is Professor Matthew G. Kirschenbaum’s Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing, and its introduction begins by mentioning The George Thing, which surely indicates that it is the most significant mention of word processing software in popular culture for at least a decade:

The clip was posted to YouTube and from there embedded in innumerable tweets, Facebook feeds, and blogs. Some commenters immediately, if indulgently, branded Martin a Luddite, while others opined it was no wonder it was taking him so long to finish the whole story (or less charitably, no wonder that it all seemed so interminable). But what was it about these seemingly obscure details that people found so compelling? Part of it was no doubt the unexpected blend of novelty and nostalgia: Many fans would be old enough to remember WordStar for themselves, and the intricacy of its interface seems somehow in keeping with Martin’s quirky persona, part paternalistic grandfather and part Doctor Who character. WordStar thus becomes an accessory to his public image, like the black fisherman’s cap he is frequently photographed wearing. But it is also clearly much more than that. Martin’s passion for the program is unmistakable...

The book, itself, was also more widely reviewed than one would expect, where it was deemed genuinely unique. I related quite hard to the preface’s first few sentences:

Track Changes began, as many books do, with a question: What was the first novel written with a word processor? Being an English professor interested in the history of writing as well as computers, I thought it was the sort of thing I should know, but I didn’t.

Discovering the volume was a result of a personal determination in the last week to give in to my latent obsession with word processing/text editing software, which also led to my creating a Notion table of every word processor I’ve ever heard of. Thanks to my desktop PC acquisition, found myself virtual machining a bit again, though some of the programs I’m particularly interested in trying have inexplicitly disappeared from my personal library and been removed from WinWorldPC, probably due to (mostly absurd) copyright claims. Most versions of WordStar are still available, though, and I’ll confess I still have a desire to learn how to use its cult keyboard shortcuts, as evangelized by Robert J. Sawyer in an essay also discussed in Track Changes, which specifically shits on WordPerfect more explicitly than I remembered. I keep returning to the idea that I should try writing the stuff I normally work on – like this post, for instance – in these software, but file transfer is a bigger and bigger obstacle the older the OS you’re running: VirutalBox’s “Guest Additions” – which allow clipboard sharing/shared folders/other interoperative network functions – are not compatible with DOS or any Windows editions before 4.0. There are workarounds, but I haven’t found any reasonably within my current abilities.

Truthfully, though, emulating twenty-year-old software seems a bit unnecessary when contrasted with the fact that Markdown, Typora, and Writeas were supposed to be my saviors from distracted writing. A compulsion to comment on a recent note-taking app comparison published in The Information reminded me that I still haven’t written an in-depth review of Typora, which I plan to prioritize in the near future, especially since it may finally be officially releasing, according to recent activity on Twitter.

Another result of my reintroduction to academia is that I can now afford a subscription to Adobe Creative Cloud thanks to student discounts. This has been life-changing in a manner which I should probably be a bit ashamed of, but once the desire to make full use of my subscription (by trying every single program it licenses) subsides, I really do intend to become proficient with InDesign – a learning experience which I will surely at least attempt to thoroughly document, here.

Digital Gardening

I think it was Tom Critchlow’s Digital Gardening blogchain that first exposed me to the term and his static site-generated wiki project that introduced me to the concept of personal wikis, not so long ago, though the desire to organize and/or archive personally-relevant information through the format has actually been rattling around my head for the better part of a decade. When I discovered that one could install MediaWiki – the platform Wikipedia, itself is built on – I created the shortlived Drywall Wiki, once upon a time. Since I last wrote you, I also purchased the extratone.wiki domain and played around once again with the platform. Typora even offers exports in MediaWiki’s bizarre proprietary text format! For better or worse, though, I don’t see anything becoming of the project for the moment I suppose it feels like somewhat of a risk, investing a lot of time I probably shouldn’t have into documenting all of my Twitter jokes. For the moment, I think my Notion account will have to serve as my personal wiki.

The most inciteful argument I’ve read among the Digital Gardens discourse revolves around value as it is created within our personal online writing spaces. Two of the many infinitely-quotable essays within this space: Mike Caulfield’s “The Garden and the Stream: A Technopastoral” and “Stock and flow” from Snarkmarket. The former references Vannevar Bush’s infamous “As We May Think” essay (which I’ve finally gotten around to finishing and its description of a “memex,” which many cite as a disturbingly-apt prediction of the World Wide Web. Caulfield, however, disagrees:

So most people say this is the original vision of the web. And certainly it was the inspiration of those pioneers of hypertext. But in reality it doesn’t predict the web at all . Not at all. The web works very little like this. It’s weird, because in our minds the web still works like this, but it’s a fiction.

Reading back from a lens including this commentary, I immediately understood. The memex concept is far more intimate than the web has become (or perhaps ever was – I wouldn’t know.) “Stock and flow” defines creative value in two disparate types of media:

Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that reminds people you exist.

Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.

To be honest, I personally cannot imagine undertaking the task of explaining this differentiation to anyone in my own life, but if the reactionary movement within The Web back to a focus on valuable content is, indeed, underway, perhaps such conversations are bound to shortly become more and more natural. For my part, I have attempted setting up an experimental site on Github Pages using Jekyll in the past few days with partial success: as soon as I tried to specify a custom theme, I apparently broke it, at which point I realized that I had homework to do. As much as I hate to admit it, Kev Quirk’s posts regarding WordPress’ practical simplicity over SSGs earlier this monthrings somewhat true. As things currently stand, WordPress’ permeability throughout The Web is an advantage for those who just want to publish something as simply as possible. My counterargument to both Kev and myself: Writeas is a wonderful compromise in terms of substance and image among one’s super e-enabled, Mullenweg-disgusted peers. It’s very much pure Markdown, but it’s far more accessible, cross-platform, than SSGs due to its shear simplicity.

One component which Digital Gardening would seem to offer others that I have never particularly struggled with is the freedom to write whatever I feel like writing. If anything, I have struggled in the opposite sense, existing in a state completely unhindered by consideration of the value my work may or may not offer anyone else. Perhaps the most substantial addition I’m capable of making to the Digital Gardens conversation, then, is best quoted from the first chapter of the advice book I have finally begun writing for young men, For God’s Sake, Just Sit Down to Piss:

If there is one idea of mine you ever engage with – in this book or otherwise – it is best distilled in this single sentence: you do not *actually* want to attain a state of true apathy, trust me. It is extremely unhealthy, miserable, and alienating. I have existed for an excruciatingly long time trapped in a state of being truly unable to care about anything in the face of a great, varying effort to do so. It is very far from the immunity imbued in terms like carefree – in reality, it is manifested in extreme depression. It is less immunity than it is distance from an essential part of life.

In terms of one’s blogging, I am glad for those who will/have/are finding a new freedom of expression, but hold this as a serious caution regarding the other extreme. Should you ever approach it, remember that considering one’s audience – as academics love to prioritize – really is important, eventually.

Curation

At this point, I’ve used a channel in Extratone’s Discord as my ongoing reading list for several years essentially without change. Earlier this month, though, I discovered Raindrop – a bookmarking service with public collections that (so fars) feels much more aligned with my own needs than Pocket – and pretty much immediately signed up to begin paying for it and set up a bot to crosspost from my new Reading List collection, there to the same Discord channel via the collection’s RSS feed. Raindrop’s browser extension – along with Notion’s, come to mention it – is actually usable in day-to-day browsing. As much as I love Reading.am, the prospect of its longevity worries me considering the most recent post in its development blog dates to 2016. Writing a dedicated “Little Review” of Raindrop is on my (ever-lengthening) todo list, but at the moment, I would especially emphasize my Digital Magazine Collection, which is the result of thousands of hours of web exploration and genuinely worth significant value for most anyone, I think.

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I know it may not seem all that significant, but this digital magazine collection actually represents a lot of effort – years of web exploration, both active and passive. Find it here: davidblue.wtf/magazines

A post shared by David Blue (@asphaltapostle) on

With the combination of my public Notion workspaces and public Raindrop collections, I hope to make my curatorial endeavors both more accessibly beautiful and more intimately available. In terms of a dedicated discussion of Notion’s interworkings and culture, I think I have quite a bit more exploring to experience before I’m sufficiently qualified, though my notes are already quite extensive (and publicly accessible, thanks to… Notion!) In general, I continue to be astounded by the amount of tools/services/applications I have not yet heard of, despite how long I have labored to become an authority on Writing Tools.

Too Many Fonts! - WordPerfect

Workflow

In my endeavor to more intentionally design my workspace – to actually dedicate a space for working, originally – I originally very much intended to set up dual displays for my desktop, but the desk I settled for (an old family piece from the early 1900s?) does not have enough surface area to position two displays, regardless of how thin they’ve become since I last had one. Combined with a limited budget and a concern that two displays might actually result in further distraction instead of less, I instead went for a single, 27” LED affair. I’ve also been making full use of Windows 10’s desktop switching feature and have found it surprisingly easy to make a habit, especially thanks to the Ctrl+Win+Lateral Arrow Keys keyboard shortcuts.

Hildur Keyboard Shortcuts

On the subject of keyboard shortcuts, I’ve by now worked out a personally-optimized remap (thanks to the keyboard manager tool included with PowerToys, about which I have far too much to say in some future post.) I had a conversation with a few Mastodon friends two weeks ago convincing me that my methodology of forcing myself to learn shortcuts by integrating a cheat sheet into my desktop backgrounds may actually be an original idea and useful to other users.

In terms of writing spaces, I have actually been composing the less serious stuff I’ve been writing within WordPress’ Gutenberg editor, which is not an admission I would’ve expected to be making, just a year ago. A dedicated post about this, too, is fucking coming, but suffice it to say that with a fairly-substantial PC and a better hosting provider (DreamHost over GoDaddy, in this case,) composition has become far far smoother – improving enough to make it a viable space within which to pound away original stuff for the first time. Writing essays for academia has encouraged my return to Microsoft Word, once again, on which I’ll blame the fact that I am currently composing this very bit in The Old Bitch. A desire to once again hack together a set of personalized Word templates has led to the birth of two such files which I am proud enough to share on my Notion drive. Eventually, I would also like to take the time to completely redesign the “Ribbon” in Word – something which I’ve literally never seen anyone else do. (I spent a substantial amount of time trying to find a library for MS Office customization files, to no avail, though you can find my own customization file as it stands on the same Notion page linked just now. Let me know if you’re able to successfully import it.)

Woke Word

A confession of vanity: I suspect the only reason I haven’t yet stopped composing within WordPress is that I figured out how to change the typeface to Adobe Caslon (across both the editor and the front-facing site, naturally,) thanks to my newfound access to Adobe Typekit. Yes, apparently I really am that shallow. For those Office 365 users among you, I highly suggest you look up how to enable the Classic Office sound theme. Unlike Make Use Of, I find them both adorable and genuinely useful as auditory feedback. You may also be interested in my discovery of some fairly-Woke additions to Word’s autocorrect options and the subsequent bitchy controversy their introduction spawned.

Software History Society Banner

The Read-It Website

If you know me at all, the following admission probably seems unbelievable: I have been using Reddit. I created a new subreddit for Extratone – which I do not necessarily expect to be populated any time soon – and r/SoftwareHistory after discovering that it didn’t yet exist, which I definitely do not expect you to populate, but would be delighted if you did. As with seemingly everything else I’ve covered, I also intend to write about how Reddit’s recent feature additions and redesign may actually make it a redeemable space on The Web, which should prove interesting. Clearly, I have become more than willing to accept the moniker of Software Historian whenever/if ever my authority achieves the appropriate volume to deserve to be christened so.

Obviously, none of the developments I’ve shared in this post indicate any improvement in my productive output, but I hope to learn soon how to settle into a fairly-consistent (and hopefully much more original) writing process.

#software #meta

Hey Tile

Basecamp's HEY matters, and not just because it took on Apple's App Store policies.

Something always worth celebrating: a considered, no-nonsense new effort to reimagine email. I've lived through many notable milestones in this regard: Apple Mail on the original iPhone, Gmail, Readdle's Spark, and (yes, really,) the revitalization of Microsoft's Outlook. Exciting innovations have abounded throughout email's history, but it's highly debatable whether or not any of them have really changed the way we use it in a profound way, yet I am unfailingly intrigued whenever somebody new comes along, so when I saw Casey Newton's story on The Verge's frontpage discussing Basecamp's HEY before I got out of bed on the morning of June 15th, I was delighted to see an organization still had the courage to invest their confidence and resources into their Ideas About Email. Originally, HEY's homepage included a prompt: “To get on the list, email iwant@hey.com and tell us how you feel about email. Could be a love story, or a hate story. Could be long, could be short. It’s your story, so it’s up to you.” Though I knew it'd likely never be read, I decided to write them a letter about my personal history with email, which turned into an entertaining enough anecdote to publish here.

The real reason HEY continued to be so widely covered by tech media, though, was its challenge to Apple's App Store policies after one of its updates was rejected by the marketplace just a day after Casey's story was published. Much drama ensued – I have done my best to aggregate links to all the news stories on the subject in a thread on the Extratone subreddit I recently started. I think the public resistance by Basecamp's CTO David Heinemeier Hansson was probably a PR move, which is fine, but all I wanted to contribute was a review of the actual function of HEY, itself. After reading posts by some of my favorite bloggers, however, I think it would be redundant. Kev Quirk argued “Email Is Not Broken,” to which Mike Stone responded “Email Is Broken.” Additionally, Business Insider's Lisa Eadicicco published an in-depth review at the beginning of the month.

My singular commentary: I'm worried that subscription services that exclusively accept large yearly sums like HEY inevitably become the “country club for the most self-important emailers in business” which Casey spoke of. I guess we'll see.

The following is an excerpt from my letter to HEY asking for a early-access invite.


Email and I: An Abridged History

I am 26 years old, so I suppose I'm of the first generation that's never experienced life without email. I grew up on a farm in rural central Missouri and my dad was very much an early adopter. (You'd be surprised how e-enabled farmers were becoming in the early 2000s.) I cannot remember life before the humongous satellite dish was anchored in our front yard. Long before I had any reason to be online (or really understood what that meant,) he began and ended every day sitting at in front of a CRT on a corner desk, clacking away on a cigarette smoke-yellowed plastic keyboard for hours. I did not understand why, then, but in retrospect I realize that he was corresponding with a huge network of neighbors, politicians, family, and college friends via email lists/chains and that he depended on it both professionally and personally in a big way. As a single man living at least an hour's drive from a city of any size, I suppose my dad was predisposed to have a rich online life long before his suburban peers, which normalized it precociously for me.

The summer before my first grade year, my elementary school became the first in the district to have a computer lab (also the first air-conditioned room in the building,) so my high school graduating class was literally the very first to have had any digital curriculum – and an email address(!) – for the entirety of our public school experience. Because of this, I think most of us were trained to think of email as a tool for school work – it was eluded to by our computer teachers that our school email addresses were being monitored to make sure they remained so (obviously, they weren't.) As we grew into 6th-7th grade, however, we all seemed to end up with personal email addresses. I consider myself lucky to have experienced a very brief window – before instant messaging/early social networks became mainstream and SMS became even remotely pleasant to use – when my middle school friends and I corresponded exclusively by email when we weren't on the phone.

It still sounds a bit silly to say, but I've spent the past few years coming to believe more and more strongly that my first-generation iPhone changed my life forever in a profound way – especially my relationship with email. After watching Steve Job's introduction at MacWorld 2007 live, I promised to skip a year of Christmas gifts if my mom would agreed to buy me one, and she did. Obviously, it was like nothing else I'd ever experienced, and it completely changed how I responded to and thought about technology. Before smartphones, there was no checking email outside of time in the computer lab, which was intended to be quite strictly-regulated. I had a real advantage when I started bringing my iPhone to school – absolutely no one knew what it was (a bizarre thought in contrast,) including teachers. Suddenly able to browse and read my inbox in class, at lunch, and on the bus, my use and consideration of email was propelled far ahead of my peers'.

When I started an online magazine in 2016, I don't think I could've conceived of the extent to which running a modern media company – even one targeted toward tech-savvy, early-adopting youth – still involves email. I assumed that my audience rarely actually read from their inboxes and relied almost exclusively on social networks for content discovery, so I originally forwent any implementation of a newsletter. As I grew more and more interested in and engaged with the media beat, I was exposed to the email renaissance of the past 2-3 years thanks to services like Revue and Substack, saw that it was good, and decided to give it a try for myself. I launched our semi-regular newsletter in April, 2017 on the subjects of “Division, Art, and Media” and published a little over 30 issues over the course of 18 months. To be honest, I'm not sure I've ever had so much fun writing.

Very shortly after it began, I observed our general engagement quadruple, and – quite selfishly – found the process of aggregation to be soothing and very mentally restorative. It exposed some pretty horrendous media consumption habits of mine, but it also offered a painless solution to them. As soon as everything I read became a potential item in the newsletter, I wasn't just reading for myself anymore (or at least, that's the mentality it gave me,) so I could no longer afford to dismiss particular subjects as easily or to skim so recklessly. I nurtured a much less chaotic media diet and found myself absorbing a lot more of what I wanted to without wasting so much time burning through links. I ended up feeling more focused in other, unrelated areas of my life, too. Obviously, I love email for that, and I miss writing that darn newsletter so much that I continuously look for excuses to do something similar.

My former Tech Editor loved email perhaps as much, but she's definitely the only person I've ever met who finds the medium as entertaining as I do. (If you're really committed, I just made a Twitter Moment full of all the best stuff I've ever posted about email – mostly jokes like “patron saint of email marketing,” but there are one or two profound posts in there, too.) We realized one day that – aside from The Webbys – there are very few notable awards celebrating excellence in the email medium, so we decided our magazine would host the 2017 First Annual Email Awards. Unfortunately, I don't think anyone else had any idea what the heck we were trying to do, so we never received enough submissions. However, I noticed a great opening paragraph in the original announcement post which I thought made a worthy conclusion:

Man has used electronic mail to intercommunicate, woo, build communities, topple businesses & civilizations, embezzle money, spread worms, distribute cluttered, broken links to discontinued Orscheln products, feed infants, set climate control, confirm identities, check bank account statuses, and lie to exhausted, slightly-conceited, and newly self-published professors. That's right – These Trillions of simple digijewels have purveyed every single possible category of human communication, and it's still growing strong.

I'm excited to give Hey a try – I hope you'll consider inviting me early. I'll even send my feedback if you so desire it! If not, I'll probably end up trying a paid subscription, anyway hehe. Either way, let me wish the best of luck to your team. Win or lose, I'm glad you're taking action on your complaints, unlike the rest of us.

Thank you!

#software

Gurgle Crum Tile

Almost exactly two years ago, I warned that Google was on track to replace God of us all. Last month, The Verge's Dieter Bohn reported that Google plans to begin accounting for “page experience” in its search rankings beginning in 2021, later explaining in a subsequent episode of The Vergecast:

Here is another example of the Chrome team coming up with a bunch of web standards and then the Search team making a bunch of incentives based on those standards.

It was news to me that in May, Google launched a page called “Web Vitals” on its web.dev domain (which they've apparently owned since November 2018.) The company measures “page experience” based on three main criteria:

  • Largest Contentful Paint measures perceived load speed and marks the point in the page load timeline when the page's main content has likely loaded.
  • First Input Delay measures responsiveness and quantifies the experience users feel when trying to first interact with the page.
  • Cumulative Layout Shift measures visual stability and quantifies the amount of unexpected layout shift of visible page content.

CoStar just sent an oddly topical (and honestly, encouraging) notification:

Costar Notification

I'm not a “real” web developer – nor do I mean to dictate to a single one – but I know enough theory to note that of this “core web” education operation centered around web.dev is operating on some irritating assumptions:

1. Smaller assets are ideal.

The simple assumption that it is always better to have the smallest page possible – that images should be resized and compressed to hell and typography/other elements should be few in number. Instantaneous page loads should be priority over any other standards of measure for a web page – like interesting design, for instance.

2. Minimalistic design is necessary.

The reality – for most of the Western world, at least – is that average network speeds are exponentially increasing year-by-year. In 2018:

World-wide average mobile download speed was 22.82 Mbps (Megabits per second), an increase of 15.2% over 2017. Average upload speed was 9.19 Mbps, an increase of 11.6%. Fixed broadband speeds also increased. Average download speed increased 26.4% to 46.12 Mbps, while average upload speed came in at 22.44 Mbps, a 26.5% increase.

I may be a yokel, but these averages are still absolutely inconceivable to me. Our phones have as much RAM as my “studio” work desktop, now. 22.82 Mbps will reliably download very complex web pages nearly instantaneously. There is a very reasonable argument for essential services like search engines and news websites to conform to/adopt standards like AMP, but for the rest of The Open Web, ingenuity and risktaking should be encouraged, not discouraged, for the true good of all Peoplekind.

A term I haven't seen for a good while describes this ideology: “the mobile web,” and it completely sucking ass is not a new concept. I've before referenced an old complaint from 2015 by The Verge's Editor-in-Chief, Nilay Patel (which the original article also links in different context in its last line):

The entire point of the web was to democratize and simplify publishing using standards that anyone could build on, and it has been a raging, massively disruptive success for decades now. But the iPhone's depressing combination of dominant mobile web marketshare and shitbox performance means we're all sort of ready to throw that progress away.

3. Google has the right to dictate “Best Practices.”

The Mobile Web as a utility has its place, but it's certainly not a necessary or desirable ideal for the entirety of The Web, yet Google has the audacity to presume it can dictate what is and is not optimal web design. The URL in and of itself is extremely presumptuous – Google technically has every right to own web.dev, sure, but should it? The Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) program has already had an annoying effect on day-to-day browsing. I despise AMP links more than most things in life, just as I despise the name of the website Search Engine Land (which sounds like actual hell) who also reported on this:

If you have AMP, the good news is that the majority of AMP pages do extremely well in terms of page experience metrics, [Google Project Manager] Rudy Galfi said. It doesn’t mean that all AMP pages will have top page experience metrics, but AMP is built in a way to help with this.

Recently, I discovered an incredibly refreshing/affirming essay wrapped in a hand-build web experience called “Rediscovering the Small Web” by designer Parimal Satyal, arguing for a different variety of Web presence:

Modern web design principles are very rarely directed at regular people looking to make a website on something they are interested in. Instead, the focus is on creating websites that perform well: Don't use too many colours. Write short, catchy headlines. Don't let content be too long. Optimise for SEO. Produce video content, attention span is decreasing. Have a an obvious call to action. Push your newsletter. Keep important information above the fold. Don't make users think. Follow conventions.

I realize that the majority of Web utilization cannot “revert” to hand-coded plain HTML web pages hosted on Neocities, but there's something to be learned (or remembered, in my case) from Satyal's argument: The Web's forgotten strength is diversity (much like my country's, it would seem,) and the majority of users are being pushed by Google's search engine toward a very specific minority of URLs. We have not been exploring for a very long time:

Instead of browsing, the web is for many an endless and often overwhelming stream of content and commentary picked out by algorithms based on what they think you already like and will engage with. It's the opposite of exploration.

“It is worth remembering a website does not have to be a product; it can also be art,” argues Satyal. “The web is also a creative and cultural space that need not confine itself to the conventions defined by commercial product design and marketing.” (Emphasis mine.) It's not just that The Web was meant to be more – nostalgia is definitely not my particular trip, if you didn't know – it's that it can be so much more. My list of favorite Open Web projects contains just a few examples of what I mean.

It's possible I am being too critical of Google. A Twitter search for the link to The Verge's article reveals commentary like “Experience, matters ;),” “Web search moving forward,” and “Halleluja!,” so there are clearly users who are more than onboard, and not all of what Google has done for the web recently has been detrimental. It was also announced last month that Chrome will begin blocking “resource-heavy” advertisements by default and that Google and Microsoft have been working together to improve spellcheck and scrolling in Chromium. There's not much to feel about these announcements, but – as always – there is a whole lot to feel about Google as a company.

Google has announced a three-day live digital event at the end of this month (June 30th-July 2nd) in which viewers will “celebrate our community's actions, learn modern web techniques and connect with each other.” “Over three days, we'll share quick tips on aspects of modern web development,” explains the company on its web.dev/live page. I am planning to attend and bitch as much as I am allowed. Stay tuned to hear a chronicle.

#software

USS Bataan over New Khittomer

The ancient IP’s MMO is still Online, albeit with some disappointing discontinuations.

I entertained fantasies about a Star Trek MMO since first experiencing the genre through Eve Online and World of Warcraft in early adolescence. The idea of commanding my own starship in a universe of other “captains” alongside a hand-picked bridge crew was a beguiling one to myself and many others. This year, the game celebrated its ten-year anniversary (aligning well with the continued involuntary beat of this blog.) I’m currently in the midst of my annual check-in with STO and thought an exploration of this most-consequential video game of my life’s history would be an appropriate undertaking.

The execution of today’s final, Arc Games-owned and maintained product is a particularly long and interesting one. As Justin Olivetti chronicled for Engadget, the license for Star Trek Online was originally bought and developed on by Perpetual Entertainment, which was assaulted by a lawsuit and extensive layoffs in December, 2006. The company was sued by Kohnke Communications for allegedly selling “valuable assets like the Star Trek Online license” to an affiliated entity called P2 entertainment. Clever. A quote from the complaint as reported by Ten Ton Hammer:

“On information and belief, the assets transferred to P2 include Perpetual Entertainment trademarks and copyrights, the perpetual.com domain name, and assets related to Star Trek Online, including code and the license… Perpetual received less than market value for the assets it transferred to P2, and the transfer made Perpetual insolvent (or worsened Perpetual's existing insolvency).”

Perpertual’s STO was significantly different from today’s MMO. Instead of captaining one’s own starship, “players would have taken on the role of an officer who would be part of a crew of a starship,” echoing old legacy titles like Star Trek: Bridge Commander.

The proposed solution was that players could own smaller ships like fighters and minor spaceships, but the big ones — like the Galaxy class — would instead be adventure hubs with explorable, detailed interiors.

Perpetual Entertainment's Star Trek Online

I was 14 in 2008 when I joined the original post-Perpetual Entertainment STO IRC channel when the game's license was first transferred to Cryptic Studios. In fact, this channel was the only reason I left IRC clients open on my computers for years. It was exciting to find a community of people who were looking forward to participating in a Star Trek MMO as much as I was. I originally went by the (very cringey) username “crazyhooligin,” under which my current STO account is still registered. In the IRC channel, I met Sata – host of the now-defunct MMO Junkies podcast and ex-Perpetual developer. He and the STORadio crew accepted me into their Teamspeak conversations despite how strange and unsocialized I was. I learned how extensive and beautiful their development had been. One wonders what Cryptic did with the original game and art assets and who technically owns them now.

After acquiring the rights to make the game in early-2008, Cryptic was legally compelled to come up with a completed product in two years’ time as then-Executive Producer Stephen D’Angelo explained on the 100th episode of the STOked podcast:

We were under a very massive deadline to deliver the game. We had acquired the license from Perpetual and Perpetual’s license had an expiration date on it, and we had to ship the game before the expiration date or we would lose the license.

STOked also provided an excellent historical account of the acquisition entitled “How Cryptic Saved Star Trek Online.” By late-Fall, 2009, Star Trek Online entered Closed Beta, which I somehow acquired a key for in the name of STOHolic.com (a blogger site which represents one of my first web projects ever.) I was dual-booting Windows 7 Beta on my 2008 MacBook, which only supported 2 of its 4GB of RAM. The resulting performance was not optimal, but I was tremendously excited just to participate. Somewhere, there are at least three 480p handicam videos of Closed and Open Beta gameplay taken from over my shoulder, but I could not find them at the time of this writing. Comparatively, beta looked drastically different from the property that’s online today. In this video of the original entry tutorial, we are introduced to the game’s basic controls by the voice of Zachary Quinto of J.J. Abrams fame as the new Emergency Medical Hologram in godawful dropshadowed text. The lighting is dated, the blue-based user interface even more so.

Star Trek Online Closed Beta

The hair was bad and the textures of the armor, worse. So was mine, though. I uploaded two videos under my STOholic name: an unboxing of the Collector’s Edition and what appears to be the definitive YouTube tutorial to run Star Trek Online on Mac OSX using the (now defunct) wineskin wrapper. Though I was sixteen years old, I appear to be about eight. Endless waves of ground enemies, pressing the “1” key hundreds of thousands of times to whittle them away with my phaser rifle. There were bugs on top of bugs. My favorite was a swap between one's ground and space avatars: a gigantic captain would appear in space and a little ship would appear on the ground.

Four years ago, Lead Developer Al Rivera wrote “History of Star Trek Online – a Retrospective” – a blog post detailing the chronology of the game from its February 2nd, 2010 release date – about a week after my 16th birthday, for which my mom bought me my first and only gaming PC. I have never been very good at video games, and Star Trek Online has been no exception. After 10 years, my main Captain – Ambassador Kuvak – is still not doing adequate DPS to hold my own in Task Force Operations, from what I understand. My 15-16-year-old self chose a Science Captain but wanted to fly the great (engineering/tank-focused) cruisers of The Original Series, The Next Generation, and the latter's movies. This is possible, but not necessarily advised. Generally, one specs an Engineering Captain to tank, a Tactical Captain for DPS, and a Science Captain for “exotic DPS” and light healing. I managed to level a single science character – the original – through to the max ranks using little intelligence and a lot of persistence. Later in life, I’ve learned the patience for a more deliberate approach, but still struggle to make the numbers.

The Exploration System

For many Star Trek fans, Star Trek Online’s combat feels excessive. Or at least, that’s what you’d think. The current reality is that search engine results for “too much combat in STO” are virtually nill. There are some comments on Massively Overpowered posts, a year-old blog post in Contains Moderate Peril by Roger Edwards, an old Ryan Somna take, and… that’s about it. There was a definite (and entirely reasonable) argument against the amount of combat across the community early in the game’s development, but it looks like the arguers have simmered down and/or given up. This is also reasonable, considering its now ten-year lifespan. The only trouble is that non-combat options in Star Trek Online have actually diminished over the years.

Star Trek Online Romulan Borg

The original Exploration System was an ingenious and significant idea that “used automated tools to facilitate large quantities of widely varied content.” Unfortunately, the result was “nothing close to what [Cryptic] originally planned.” Instead of inspiring variety, Exploration Clusters ended up becoming the most repetitive activity in the game – nothing more than a good source of crafting materials. The missions were generic and the environments simply randomly combined segments of the same interior textures. Procedurally generated environments would hit the mainstream conversation years later with No Man’s Sky, which was written about in two fascinating articles by Raffi Khatchadourian in The New Yorker and Chris Baker in Rolling Stone:

Using procedural generation isn’t simply about offloading the creative process onto an algorithm – the real challenge is that it requires developers to teach an algorithm the difference between good and bad game design.

Perhaps if Star Trek Online’s initial development window had not been so limited, Cryptic would’ve had time and resources to pioneer something truly Trek and extraordinary in the exploration system, but it ended up having to kill the idea altogether – no amount of Change.org petitions could prevent this.

The Foundry

Perhaps the most innovative feature Star Trek Online contributed to gaming as a whole came to the live server in Spring, 2011. It was called The Foundry, and it allowed players access to a diluted form of the same mission creation tools Cryptic themselves used to create content, enabling the community to publish its own playable stories. The result was a wonder virtually inexpressible in words. In player-made Foundry Missions, I found joy, wonder, sorrow, and insight – truly everything and more than one could ever want from fiction. Throughout 2013-2014 my girlfriend at the time and I ran regular Foundry missions together along with couple friends in our fleet. Unfortunately, I cannot remember a single specific mission (aside from Unholy Alliances, I think,) but I remember the storytelling. I remember laughing at, dwelling on, and even crying for the characters we were introduced to. There were farming-oriented missions and some fairly rough drafts, sure, but the vast majority of the content was deliberately and delicately considered, especially the Foundry Spotlight series, which highlighted player-created stories of a particular quality and intrigue.

Ambassador Class

Last April, however, Arc retired the Foundry forever – perhaps the worst possible news – stating “the legacy knowledge required to maintain the Foundry at our quality standards is no longer available,” meaning – as Rodger Edwards notes – that all developers with their hands, hearts, and heads in the project had long since departed the company. The community reaction was heartbreaking. On Reddit, a group of mission authors and devotees committed to capturing as many Foundry Missions as possible on video in the month between the announcement and date of death. User waimser lamented the loss of the Foundry as a critical hit to Star Trek Online’s endgame:

Once you've played through the story missions and built your ship, the foundry is what's left, and it has some damn good stuff.

The group even created a Google Docs spreadsheet to coordinate the effort. Another created a thread in the Star Trek Online forums dedicated to “aggregating the various channels with Foundry content and providing those links to you and updating them as necessary.” In an interview for Gamesindustry.biz, Al Rivera suggested that the secret to the title’s longevity in which his team had been “strategically successful” was knowing when and when not to make drastic changes. “Don't change the fundamentals of what players love about your game,” he suggested.

UFP Fleet Roster

Community

Though STOked and STORadio have long since been off the air, the Roddenberry Podcast Network’s PriorityOne is still going strong, having just recorded its 460th episode. As I discovered last year, the game’s Twitch community is also thriving. Layiena’s streams are incredible because – while he understands theory as well as the other broadcasters in the STO Twitch community – it’s his incredible skills at live Captain commentary (calling out abilities and other command inputs as if he really is in the captain’s chair.) It may sound cringey (and perhaps it would be to many,) but his thoroughness and accuracy actually 1) make it seem pretty darn cool to me and 2) are hugely valuable in helping the viewer understand what he’s doing. After some three years, I know my one rotation fairly well, but only three or four of its steps by name – not even remotely well enough to do what he does. Unfortunately, it appears as though he’s been inactive since last year.

Sphynx’s streams also have an especially professional feel – he is excellent at calling out his actions as well, if perhaps without so much intensity. His Norwegian sensibility is wonderful: when I introduced myself as being around in the community since 2008, he remarked “that’s strange considering the game has only been out since 2010.” Nigh-universally common threads among them: imperturbable kindness to their audience and an impressively wholesome commitment to actually having fun. Though I’m far from deeply saturated with Twitch culture as a whole, I’ve watched my fair share of Eve Online, World of Warships, and Gran Turismo Sport streams, and – while all of these have incredible communities – there’s none quite like the sincerity of the Star Trek fraternity.

A few weeks ago, I departed my own derelict STO fleet for the aptly-named United Federation of Planets which has over three thousand (presumably at least semi-active) members in its fleet armada. The fleet website has user profiles, a very active forum, and a Discord server – everything I could possibly ask for. So far, I have been welcomed with overwhelming positivity, and I’m grateful. In a prompt posted on both their forums and Reddit, I asked players what their favorite part of the community is. Oddly enough, some of the responses I got from the latter were quite jaded: “I really enjoy the love and respect the PVP community gets. No, wait...” Alex Rowe for The Startup:

The game’s subreddit is full of folks who are tired of the game because they’ve blasted through all the content, but as someone who has only seen about 1/6th of the quests currently in the game, I’m eager to check out more.

User JediMasterx4 seemed particularly disgruntled:

You can do all the lockbox promo vids you want, but you are going to have to live in reality, no matter where your ego flies off to.

However, there were some positives. User ModestArk:

What I really like about this community is that it seems to be more grown up than other gaming communities. Maybe this comes from Star Trek itself, since it is more based/focused on science than Star Wars etc.

Jahoan recommends StarSword’s series on the U.S.S. Bajor and Jordanomega1 vouched for Captain Geronimo’s videos.

State of The Game

This past January, Star Trek Online: Legacy was launched, bringing The Original Series-referencing episodes The Measure of Morality parts I and II along with a new 10 year anniversary event and the Tier 6 Khitomer Alliance Battlecruiser – “the first Klingon/Federation Starship.” I did not participate in the event, save for experiencing the new missions, which I talked about in my review of Star Trek: Discovery. JustGaming4Us produced an excellent, in-depth video review of the two missions as well as a tour of the event as a whole. I, for one, have never been partial to Shiny New Ship gluttony largely because of how long it took me to “master” my own Intrepid-Class Retrofit – christened the U.S.S. Bataan after the aircraft carrier my grandfather served on in WWII – as much as I have. It took me years to arrange my bridge officer abilities and their keybinds in such a way that I could maintain a fairly-steady dps rotation and I have no desire to go through the process of learning a new ship again. For most veteran players, however, trying out different ships/skill specs is all there is left to do.

Choosing whether or not – or to whom – to recommend the game is an issue best left to actual gaming journalists. In March, Massively Overpowered – the followup project to what was once Massively.com – published Mia DeSanzo’s account of her first experience in the game:

Everything you’ve heard is true. Ground combat is, as multiple sources have told me, “a hot mess.” I don’t think clunky is an adequate descriptor. You’d have to try it.

For the same site, Tyler F.M. Edwards argued in January that Star Trek Online is best left to those who already love Star Trek:

STO has some things going for it as a video game, and it’s certainly unique in the MMO space, but it has too many basis quality issues for it to be a game I’d recommend to someone who’s never watched an episode of Star Trek.

Compared to what I experienced all those years ago in Closed and Open Beta, Star Trek Online is now vastly more polished, but perhaps compared to other MMOs in 2020, it is, indeed, “rough.” In my casual return this past month, I have yet to experience any significant bugs. Considering his character data dates back to launch, I’d like to think that the server is set into some brief, confused panic every time I log in to Kuvak, but perhaps that’s just a fantasy. I have still been enjoying the space combat in the classic Advanced-level Borg Disconnected and Counterpoint TFOs and my first entry into high-level gear upgrade crafting from the vast cache of materials I’ve built up over the years. . Apparently, my old lockbox collection might actually be worth some significant Energy Credits on the Exchange – as of the time of this writing, however, not a one had yet to sell.

Constellation Class Retrofit

If you’re a ship junkie who’s entirely unfamiliar with the property, know that Star Trek’s ships are fucking cute. The Nebula Class, especially, inspires real affection. In my opinion, it alone is worth giving this free-to-play game a shot. My two point eight pound Surface Laptop 2 is enough to run it fairly well at medium-high settings, which is an absurdly low barrier-to-entry. You shouldn’t be worried about investing your time, either – Star Trek doesn’t appear to be dying anytime soon.

View more screenshots in this gallery.

🗎 PRINT/PDF

#software

Discord Art Orange

Why Extratone has used Discord instead of Slack for our team chat.

Back in 2015, I hosted a pre-Extratone culture podcast called Drycast with musician friends from all over the net. To record remotely, we originally used Teamspeak 3 – a gamer VoIP staple. When I discovered Discord, I thought we'd found podcasting heaven. Originally, the free plan included 128kbps audio in its voice channels, which was nearly twice what we were getting out of our paid Teamspeak server. If I were still podcasting, Discord's just-released server video feature would undoubtedly prove invaluable for live streams.

According to a poll I ran on Twitter, 2/3rds of all people on Earth are thankful for Discord's existence. This is not surprising considering what every Discord user is still offered without spending any money at all: community spaces with audio/video and text chat capability, organizable by Twitch and YouTube-integrated roles with a plethora of different permission options, instantly and easily shareable by customizable temporary or permanent invite links through an application that's about as cross-platform as one can get (Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, iOS, or simply one's web browser.) Those of us that remember IRC, Ventrilo, and Teamspeak should all consider Discord a tremendous gift.

Never before have so many VoIP, video, and text chat features been offered together, or in such a beautiful package. “What we really did was create an all-in-one voice, video, and text chat app that replaced this constellation of tools that people would use,” said CEO Jason Citron in an interview with CNBC. Technically in terms of these details, Discord has no competition. Slack offers text and voice chat with its paid plans, yes, but nothing close in terms of video – especially considering Discord Go Live, its fairly-new streaming feature, which allows users to stream game video directly to 10 other users in the server. With some jury-rigging, it's possible to simply screen share this way, which is an essential sell for business video communication applications like Skype.

“Discord and Slack have many similarities, but Discord is the superior tool,” says esports team Ardent United. “Discord has voice channels, which allows us to easily chat with our supporters and other team members. Discord also allows us to set user roles and permissions which makes moderation extremely simple.” It's not just gaming companies, though. Decentralized cloud platform Sia also moved their community to Discord:

Its intended audience is gamers, but many large communities have switched from Slack to Discord, including development communities like Reactiflux and Unreal Slackers. It includes an unlimited number of users, unlimited file uploads (with a per-file size limit), unlimited message histories, and really great moderation and spam filtering features.

Slack is often praised for its integrations, but it shares support with Zapier – a dedicated web integration service which more or less integrates them equally.

Slack works with a long list of tools, including Google Calendar, Zendesk, Salesforce, Wunderlist, and dozens of others. If you're looking for an integration that isn't immediately obvious, you can always turn to Zapier for help, because Slack is a supported service. Zapier is an online service that creates integrations between other apps and services, without you having to know any code to make it happen.

For sharing detailed post embeds, there's also Discohook, which I just discovered. Productivity company Chanty's blog wrote perhaps the most in-depth comparison of the two services (emphasis theirs):

At their core, Discord and Slack and very similar. Both are team chat apps with a similar interface. Both apps have team communication organized in channels. The biggest difference between the two is their target audience, and of course, their specific features.

Ultimately, one must decide how relevant the services' respective target audiences are to productivity. For a not-for-profit media organization like Extratone, Discord's features-for-price ratio is simply too rich to pass up. If you'd like, stop by our server or try out our server template.


Further Reading

#software

Microsoft Build Olive Tracker

New Microsoft Office features, the PowerToys Run Preview, and a test of Edge Chromium.

I have no idea why I signed up to attend Microsoft's virtual 2020 Build Conference, but I did. I thought I'd add my End User commentary to the mix. Sorry. My first event was called “Every developer is welcome, with Scott Hanselman and guests.” Hanselman is listed as a blogger and podcaster living (of course) in Portland. I'm not a “real” developer, but I know what Microsoft Teams is, and I recognized the event as a desktop screenshare of his calls with different Microsoft employees. There was a child invasion and a dropped phone. I also noticed the icon for the “new” Microsoft Edge browser in his taskbar and realized that I hadn't downloaded it yet. I remedied that for the conference's sake – I thought it only appropriate that I try to use as much Microsoft software as possible in this context. I also installed the new PowerTools Run preview which I mentioned in my tips post.

Build allows an attendee to build one's own event schedule, but I neglected to find those focused on what I really care about: Office 365. As reported by The Verge, Microsoft Fluid is going to change a lot:

Microsoft’s Fluid Framework sounds a lot like Google Docs, but it’s actually Google Docs on steroids. Microsoft is so confident it has built the future of productivity, it’s now open-sourcing its Fluid Framework so the rest of the world can help shape what it has created.

There's also Microsoft Lists, which is reportedly going to revolutionize SharePoint Lists into something more modern and useful:

It builds off the existing feature in SharePoint, and will let you track progress and data to organize your teams, potentially making the company’s offerings more streamlined and productive.

Microsoft PowerToys Run

Microsoft Edge Chromium

As an Office 365 administrator, I basically only use Edge for administrative/management tasks. Otherwise, I can't imagine a reason to use it over Firefox, Brave, Vivaldi, Chrome, Opera, etc, but I thought I'd give the “new” (as of January) Edge a tryout for your sake and make it my default browser for a day as well as Microsoft's Bing search engine. There's also news specific to Build: Edge is integrating with Pinterest, of all things:

Now, Edge will feature a Pinterest-powered tool that will show suggestions from Pinterest at the bottom of a collection. Clicking on that, Microsoft says, will take users to a Pinterest board “of similar, trending Pins so users can quickly find and add ideas relevant to their collection.” Users will also be able to export collections to Pinterest.

I'm in no position to “test” a browser, but the new Edge is noticeably faster at rendering pages and much much smoother when navigating between tabs/preference windows. It looks much more like Chrome, which makes sense. Perhaps because my install is absent of third-party extensions, opening new tabs and windows was much faster than my other browsers. I recorded a ~2 minute demo of normal browsing on my Surface Laptop 2.

In terms of touch support, Edge remains the only acceptable browser on Windows 10. If you've spent money on a new PC recently, chances are your device is touch-enabled. If you're like me, you've already disabled it. If not, you'll find scrolling and navigation in Edge have improved tremendously – it's like an entirely new browser because it is.

Because Edge used a different rendering engine than Chrome or Safari, it meant that it would sometimes have problems on websites. Testing a website against multiple browsers has always been difficult, and because Edge had so little uptake, it meant optimizing for it often fell off the priority list for web developers.

I really like how easy it is to mute audio from tabs and how much better my CMS is rendered. I still prefer Firefox's method of tab switching (by last-used chronologically instead of in the order presented.) The reader view is smoother than its competitors and offers a beautiful selection of themes as well as the best “Read aloud” feature in the business.

Microsoft Edge Reader View

I'm not going to quote you measurements – check out Computerworld's browser review for that – but I can say that Edge Chromium is using more RAM than Firefox but a bit less than Chrome. Office.com also looks and works incredibly well. Overall, I'm extremely impressed with Edge Chromium and the improvements to Bing. As of my experiences today, it's the fastest and smoothest web browser I have, which is a complete flip from that of the old Edge.


Further Reading

#software

Zalgo Generator for iOS

A powerful iOS utility for fucking digital text with ruthless efficiency.

A warning siren sounds louder still for the current state of the Digital Divide than the profoundly ignorant spectacle of Mark Zuckerberg’s drooling, ghoulish interrogators last year from the digital hole of none other than W3School’s trusty web validator, which would surely be rated as the Most Anxious Being in History if it were to acquire sentience. The CSS file this very webpage referenced returned no fewer than 350 syntax errors at the time of this writing; Facebook dot com’s login page set off only 55. For going on a decade, now, the web has continued to expand into a grotesque, diseased mass.

Yet another piece of software I have notably been using for 10 years: the infamous eemo.net Zalgo web text fucker. Ideally, I’d now proceed to embed some special examples of the hedonistic online text vandalism which the tool enabled me to inflict widely throughout my adolescence. However – as you can probably imagine – searching for these criminally-broken posts using standard tools provided by the services that have hosted them is virtually futile. In retrospect, I do not recall ever eliciting any acknowledgment of Zalgo’s effects, yet I’m positive that at least the majority of my victims set eyes upon the mess at some point – their silence is actually more entertaining than not, I think. Despite my extensive use of the format, I made a point to maintain my total ignorance about the origin of “Zalgo” for the past decade – only spoiling it in the name of good journalism for your sake and this review.

On forums and image boards, scrambled text began being associated with Zalgo with phrases like “he comes” and “he waits behind the wall.” David Higgins revealed that the text is an ~abuse~ of a Unicode feature that enables the user to combine multiple superscript and subscript characters into a vertical line.

By bizarre coincidence or some ridiculously obscure, intractable common cultural thread (which would probably take a lifetime to successfully trace,) Dave Higgins and I were already mutuals on Mastodon before I had any idea his name was at all associated with Zalgo. More bizarre still: Dave must’ve been watching his timeline at the exact moment when I posted the above quote mentioning him.

Unfortunately, it seems his blog has moved, killing the hyperlink citation in one of the two relevant search engine results for “zalgo”: its Know Your Meme page. Searching the same term on his new WordPress blog yields absolutely nothing, so perhaps “I deny everything” was a more sincere response than one expected. A thread on Stack Overflow entitled “How does Zalgo text work?” explains the fuckery in more detail than I ever could:

You can easily construct a character sequence, consisting of a base character and “combining above” marks, of any length, to reach any desired visual height, assuming that the rendering software conforms to the Unicode rendering model.

There is something artistic about destroyed text like this – something that's more than just edgy chaos. I believe in “surreal memes” that can break Facebook and Twitter posts. I believe in Zalgo, and I believe you need Zalgo Generator for iOS on your phone right now.

#software

Face Computer

I don’t want you to think this is just another listicle to mark as spam or ignore completely – though it technically is, I suppose. I know how it looks… because I’ve run into many of them and have been just as irritated as you. In fact, I would be so bold as to presume I’ve run into many many more than you have simply because a primary hobby of mine has always been Just Trying to Do Things On The Computer without any academic authority or hands-on training. This is a way of life for my generation and those proceeding it, yes, but I promise you that I have gone far, far deeper than the vast majority of anyone you know. What I’m ultimately trying to do here is to spare you the hundreds – perhaps thousands – of hours I have had to spend mulling through shitty workflows throughout my childhood and adulthood before I stumbled upon Good Practices (i.e. Better Ways to Do Things.)

I want you to come away from this list feeling as liberated and powerful as I do now when I’m On My Computer without any condescension or tedium. Unfortunately, there’s probably going to be some of both, so please stick with me and don’t take it personally. I do a lot of online reading, writing, and fiddling. I’ve been compelled to do these things in one form or another since very early childhood, and what follows could be described as a list of my favorite tools to accomplish things. Almost all of them are entirely free to use and the vast majority of them are easily and beautifully functional as well. They are what I suggest for my own mother to use, for what that’s worth, and I would argue sincerely for their extreme importance. Don’t waste your life on bad software.

Enpass Password Manager

You Need a Password Manager

In 2020, password managers are no longer optional for digital life. They are mandatory. If you only ever heed a single piece of my advice, ever, please make it this one. Most password managers available are secure, cross-platform, optionally cloud-synced tools that help you generate, store, and organize digital credentials. More likely than not, you’re already using one in your favorite browser. On MacOS and iOS, Safari is linked to a service called Keychain, which is – functionally – a robust password manager. On signup for a given website or service, Safari should prompt you to automatically generate secure, complex passwords to store in Keychain. Generally, it’s pretty smart about knowing when it’s time to retrieve the credentials with Touch-ID, but for when it isn’t, you should know how to manually retrieve passwords from Keychain. If you’re deeply enough embedded into the Mac ecosystem, you can feel free to continue to rely on this process as long as you know how to help yourself when it fails. I’m not going to tell you who to trust, but I do almost actually believe in Apple’s commitment to securing user data, if only because of the way their incentives are aligned (in contrast with those in front of data-funded organizations like Google.)

If you’re using a Windows Home Machine and/or an Android smartphone, I believe it’s more urgent that you find a standalone password management solution immediately. I use a gorgeous app called Enpass to store all of my passwords as well as my bank credentials, credit cards, driver’s license information, and anything else I might need to keep handy, securely. I can use virtually any cloud or file-sharing service to keep my “vaults” synced between all of my devices: Microsoft OneDrive, Google Drive, Dropbox, iCloud, Box, etc, and I also regularly create encrypted local backups just in case. I can even share end-to-end encrypted credentials with another device or Enpass installation. I migrated to Enpass two years ago after using 1Password for nearly 10. It was intuitive and virtually seamless, as such things in software tend to be these days, and as a result, I haven’t had to memorize a single password since my adolescence. Enpass allows me to create custom login templates for quick differentiation when creating new entries as well as picturized categories and tags. With one click, even the icon can be pulled from a given URL’s favicon to help keep my vault looking visually itemized. It also includes presets for a hundred services or so – from Google to Wix to Yahoo! Japan.

Total Recall with a Clipboard Manager

Imagine if everything you had ever copied (as in Ctrl-C) were listed in linear order, easily and instantly searchable via a single global keyboard shortcut (Alt-`) and navigable with the arrow keys. Imagine if you could then export an archive of your clipboard so nothing could ever be lost. Imagine clipboard tabs that are easily switchable. CopyQ – an “advanced clipboard manager” – is one of my favorite software discoveries of all time. Some workdays, I use it literally hundreds of instances in my workflow. It is difficult to describe how much more useful it makes the clipboard feature – something we’ve all been using for decades, now. For someone like me who copies a ridiculous amount of links every day, CopyQ’s functionality has truly become life-changing.

Windows 10 Keyboard Shortcuts - General

Alt-D and Other Keyboard Shortcuts

Somehow, I did not discover Alt-D until 2018, which means that I had spent the entirety of my 24 years since triple-clicking to select every single URL I’d ever copied. I built a media company this way, and I can’t believe nobody told me about this shortcut. Open any given web browser, use Alt-D, and your selection will move to the URL in the address bar on top of the page. It’s very possible this will be of little use to you, but anyone who regularly shares or copies links will save themselves so much time. I felt the same way when I discovered text navigation with Alt, Shift, Ctrl + the arrow keys. Most of these are cross-platform, but I am specifically focusing on Windows shortcuts for this piece because that’s what I’m currently using.

· Shift in conjunction with the arrow keys selects text in a document surrounding the cursor.

· Alt in conjunction with the arrow keys allows one to go forward or backward in a browser.

· Ctrl in conjunction with the arrow keys allows one to navigate text by word.

Virtually all of the “Windows logo key” shortcuts are usable in day-to-day workflows. I use Win-D to immediately minimize all windows and show the desktop on the regular. Microsoft is currently testing a feature like MacOS’ spotlight which is triggered with this key.

Designed to replace the existing Win + R shortcut, the new launcher will include options to quickly search apps and files across Windows and support for plugins like calculators, dictionaries, and search engines.

We can only hope this feature will be as useful as spotlight (which is triggered with ⌘-Spacebar for you Mac users,) and will be implemented as standard as soon as possible. If you’re not already using basic shortcuts for functions like closing tabs/windows and cut/copy/pasting text, I’d advise you to begin as soon as possible. It can be hard to commit, but I promise it’ll make your life better. Try printing out a list of shortcuts for your particular operating system to keep by your workspace and/or find or create an image of the list to set as your desktop background for a while.

Learn Markdown Immediately

While we’re on the subject of text – and hopefully without finding ourselves exploring the entire history of word processing – I’d like to evangelize what very well might be the Ultimate Formatting Language for digital text. It’s called Markdown, and it’s something you’ve likely already used in one form or another. Technically, Markdown is “a text-to-HTML conversion tool for web writers,” but – more importantly – it’s a method of stylizing text which is as simple as possible, easy to universalize, and already quite popular. While Vice argues that Markdown is a “power-user tool,” I’d suggest that it’s one everybody should make use of. Though I am currently writing this in Word (for the first time in a good while,) I’m going to pay for it later.

A Word file is the story-fax of the early 21st century: cumbersome, inefficient, and a relic of obsolete assumptions about technology.

“[Markdown] has all the advantages of plain text, but with the organizational power of a word processor,” says Lifehacker. From Ian Lurie:

I once had to convert a Word document to a web page.

Once.

After spending hours deleting mso-style blocks and cleaning up thousands of lines of crap, I swore (and swore, and swore) that I’d never do that again.

So I moved to Markdown. For a writer who publishes mostly to the web, it’s perfect.

Before I committed to writing in Markdown and moved Extratone to Write.As – a wonderfully simple, open-source web CMS entirely based on Markdown – I really struggled with text formatting on our old WordPress-based site, spending hours cleaning up text from Word, Apple Notes, Dropbox Paper, and Google Docs. Now, WordPress natively supports Markdown along with Ghost, Slack, Discord, Tumblr, and more.

Mashable published a formidable list of Markdown editors in 2013, but many are since significantly out of date. Instead, I’d refer you to @awwsmm’s “State of Markdown Editors 2019,” which suggests Joplin as the winning pick. Joplin is open-source and syncs across devices using your preferred cloud service, but it requires that all notes be written in a monospace typeface, which I do not prefer. If you have a MacOS-running machine and/or an iOS-running smartphone, you must download and try an application called Bear. It is quite simply the most beautiful piece of software – aesthetically and functionally – that I have ever seen, and therefore the most beautiful possible execution of a Markdown Editor. From The Verge’s Dieter Bohn:

Bear uses a simple three-paned design. The largest column is devoted to your current note. A smaller column to the left contains your notes in reverse-chronological order, topped by a search bar. The left-most column contains notes that you’ve pinned, as well as any tags you’ve created to organize your notes — #recipes, for example. I spent years trying to sort my notes into notebooks in Evernote, only to learn that what I really needed was a faster search box.

As much as I despise the term “seamless,” everything about Bear is its definition. For someone like me, it, alone, almost warrants a reversion to MacOS. If you have the correct platforms, I require you to try it. Unfortunately, there can be no true Windows or Linux equivalent without the work Shiny Frog has done to streamline Bear’s near-instantaneous iCloud integration, but there is one application that can literally simulate its functionality in every other way. Typora is an infinitely-customizable alternative that spans all three platforms with a well-populated themes gallery (including an actual copy of my favorite Bear theme.) My installation is not nearly as smooth as Bear, but it’s technically more powerful – bad news for users like me who can’t resist fiddling. I’ve downloaded (and attempted to author/modify) a billion themes for Typora. Bear, by contrast, allows just enough stylistic modification (color theme, a choice list of 7 beautiful typefaces, and sliders for font size, line height, paragraph spacing,) without any access to its internal workings. In this way, it provides the perfect blend of customizability and minimalism. If you tend toward the latter, try an ultra-slim solution like WordPress’ Simplenote.

Telegram Desktop

Telegram

I ran a poll on both Twitter and Mastodon yesterday asking “do you still email things to yourself?” Overwhelmingly, my “audience” responded “yes,” which is awfully surprising considering their demographic – young, techish early adopters. Though email is not yet “obsolete” – as envisioned by Inc’s John Brandon in 2015 – it has indeed been replaced by other software in many of its functions, especially the old Mail-to-Self practice. I cannot remember the last time I emailed myself anything – even to transfer photos from my cellular to my computer, as I used to do often. Instead, I use a private Telegram channel to send myself photos, videos, links, text, and any other file up to 1.5GB! There’ve always been plenty of reasons to use the messaging app for general communication – especially since Facebook acquired WhatsApp in 2014. Though press coverage of the application has all but dried up, I would argue there are now more reasons than ever to make use of Telegram in your day-to-day life.

As of 2016, Telegram had 100 million active users, but it’s certainly experienced its fair share of controversies. I see no reason to be worried about encryption or privacy at all, for that matter, for the vast majority of Mail-to-Self cases. If the files you’re sending yourself are sensitive enough to worry about, you shouldn’t be emailing them, anyway.

Other Stuff

If you’re the sort of person who regularly types out 500+ word text messages (or have to do homework/any real writing) on your smartphone, I have a secret to reveal to you: most smartphones still have Bluetooth keyboard support. It may look strange, but yes, you can use a full qwerty keyboard with your phone. Those of us who’ve livestreamed or used screenrecording software know that OBS (Open Broadcaster Software) is an absolute gift from Gourd, but these days, it’s also easy enough for most computer users to make use of. I’d encourage everybody who can think of a reason to record their screen – to show somebody how to do something, for instance – to download and install it. Finally, I think every Windows user should look into compacting their operating system into just the essentials. “Compact OS” is really just a Windows 10 install without bloatware: the shit you almost certainly don’t need. If you do find yourself in need of default Microsoft apps, you’ll be able to redownload them instantly from the Windows Store.

I’d been meaning to write something like this for a very long time, so I hope you or someone you know has found it useful. I’m not an authority in the technical sense, but I’ve used every one of these suggestions in my own computing life for years, now, to great benefit. If you have any comments/suggestions/feedback/petty insults, please do contact me via email, Twitter, Mastodon, or Discord.

🗎 Print/PDF

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The Crossing Auditorium

Askeptical spectacle in the day-to-day typhoon of Faith’s modern enterprise.

The year I was given my first generation iPhone was the last of 14 through which my mother was still comfortable enforcing my obligation to attend Sunday morning church service. She and my stepfather had migrated 18 months or so prior from [Suburban Church of Mediocore Dope Christ-Appropriated Lukewarm Dilluted Prog Rock and The Occasional Teachings of Protestant-ish Side-Glances at The New Testament] to the New York Times-appointed champion of Columbia Missouri’s 20-Year-Long Quirk the Church! Soverignty Crusade: The Crossing. Like its competitors (of which my parents’ previous church had ranked quite poorly,) the blatantly death-cult-sounding House of God includes its own artisanal, latte-equipped coffee shop (I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s actually a Starbucks affiliate at this point,) a regularly-replenished catering table full of doughnuts immediately to the side as one enters, and a sophisticated childcare operation staffed no less thoroughly than my public elementary school.

Since 2007, the church has been expanding from its first home (as a functional place of worship, anyway,) which lies within 1) line-of-sight from one of Nancy Walton’s properties, 2) a mile of the southernmost exit off US-63 – mid-Missouri’s primary North⟺South roadway – and includes a powered pump-arrogated pond, though the majority of the acreage is blackened by pragmatically-arrayed big box store-caliber multi-rowed parking. Ye, by night, it is flooded in coordinately-distributed cold white light suspended by the same uniform steel poles which guard long-term airport lots. Naturally, the entry and exit points for the asphalt spread are arranged deliberately opposed so that four figures’ worth of God’s children may be fed, digested, and evacuated through their weekly appointment with Christ as efficiently and hassle-free as possible.

God’s ~white~ children become especially sensitive to entirely-trivial delay or other perceived deviation from Their Expectations when inside an automobile thanks to a rampant misconception that simultaneously allows them a renewed sense of control over their environment. Psychoanalytic observation has suggested it is catalyzed by delusions of physical anonymity, exemption from civic responsibility, and a titanically-inflated perception of their personally misattributed contributions to the perpetuation of the universe. This vehicular component of the customer experience is a fundamental ingredient in The Crossing’s stellar member retinenance record – the single metric above all quantifying a Christian organization’s overall effectiveness in accomplishing the faith’s (mostly cross-denominational) evangelistic Prime Directive / General Order Number One as abridged by Christ himself to the Pharisees after his resurrection: “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of [The Holy Trinity].” I did not take the opportunity to sample The Crossing’s baptismal services, but I’m sure sufficient combing of the church’s Yelp! page would yield as qualitative an analysis of such a “service” as you could possibly imagine. (Notably, it would appear the “lowest” review is the singular 4/5 star entry.)

I do not mean to disparage The Crossing, specifically nor even organized religion, generally, but instead to emphasize the absurdities which have leapt just as readily into what I’d specifically call The Business of white protestant Christianity over just the course of my own maturation as it has into any other aspect of our lives. The difference, of course, is the universal set of exceptions – and the particular age of said exceptions – which religion maintains, societally. The perspective formed by my own experiences having grown up wholly embedded across the spectrum of white midwestern Christianity – including two years of vigorous and quite academic study of the Bible in a tiny private school headquartered in the basement of a Lutheran church – lends to a particular skepticism, amusement, horror, offense, and existential astonishment that latches my fascination into a not-entirely-voluntary hold.

(Before I go on, I suppose I should also note that it’s been at least two or three years since I last set foot inside the church building at all – my only recent experiences/engagement with The Crossing has been with their digital content from a relative distance.)

Apple Leadership Headshots

The ludicrous parallels between Apple events and services at The Crossing, especially, come immediately to mind every single time I watch one (live or otherwise,) as they did just weeks ago when I first engaged with this summer’s WWDC keynote. Pastors Dave Cover, Keith Simon, and Shay Roush all look, dress, speak, and photograph exactly like Steve Jobs, Tim Cook, Scott Foristell, Jony Ive, and just about any public-facing leadership figure we’ve ever seen giving an Apple Keynote. They’re hilariously interchangeable, as are other explicit aspects of the typical Sunday morning service at The Crossing. As far as I can tell, the church as a whole only uses Mac computers and the projections in the main auditorium/worship hall – mostly sing-along hymn lyrics and referenced bible verses – are exclusively created through Apple’s office presentation software, Keynote, just as the company itself does for its “Keynotes.” This was immediately obvious to me upon first entering that space because they both use the default theme – typography, color palette, transition animations and all. Indeed, during the sermons, the three pastors would take command of the slides by fairly inconspicuously clicking what I’d imagine must be a very sweaty Apple Remote in the exact same manner in which Tim Cook and his underlings still do.

I JUST REMEMBERED DAVE EXPLICITLY USING MENTION OF APPLE PRODUCTS IN HIS SERMONS

The Crossing on WordPress

Nay, the likenesses do not diverge when comparing the fundamentals of the two organizations more broadly: The Business of the faith is very much a volume business, which also describes Apple’s contemporary strategy with perfect precision. It’s been a few years since “ecosystem” ceased to be an exhaustive buzzword in tech media discourse, perhaps because the term falls very short in expressing the change in global Apple scale. My recollection of high school biology has failed to produce a scientific substitute, but I find Matt Honan’s “very lovely swamp” exceptionally said in 2014, but the fact of the swamp’s becoming generally lovelier in the interim – in a less linear fashion than would have been ideal, mind you – leaves ample room, I think, to fear and respect whatever it was that we then called The Apple Ecosystem in 2014 as a ruling deity or daemon (just as Google’s sought to be, recently.)

The church live streams every fucking keynote sermon in HD on Vimeo, not YouTube. (I had no idea Vimeo offered “professional streaming services” until this moment.) They have a fucking iOS app (apparently developed by an outfit called Subsplash, who had the audacity to include analytics meta tags following the root of their website within the in-app attribution button) which features a calendar-bound tool containing full-text preparatory reading material from scripture, on-demand audio and video recordings

I genuinely wonder quite often if the individual who set the digital template for the sign in front of our Portland neighborhoood’s Episcopalian church paused to look at the text he was arranging: “PRAYER REQUESTS BY EMAIL.” I'm not sure any of this really means anything, but it's sure spectacular to look at.

#software

Mablis Festival Dot no

A not altogether-cohesive review of July reads and research.

In case you're similarly long overdue for a reminder that beautiful things are still being made on the internet...

After nearly a year of relative sobriety from my old, once-severe addiction to Web Site hunting, it occurred to me just yesterday that some explicit wandering as I once did for days at a time – through the clever, innovative, and uniquely tasteful projects through which an astonishingly-original few give their whole thinking (and often physical) selves in obscurity despite how little financial (and often professional) incentive is maintained by those who unknowingly need it the most – might be the best feasible remedy to my current, most perplexing state of faithlessness and bafflement toward the ambitions of trades and cultures I feel I once so thoroughly understood. A great portion of you are surely undergoing your own manifestations of the same hopelessness – I cannot ever remember a time in my life when global events were so utterly discouraging so relentlessly.

Design and The Open Web

In this present when every element of American reality is so much more incessantly ugly than we could’ve ever imagined, let’s take at least a momentary respite to look at some visually irresistible and/or super sick Sites on the truly-resolute Open Web to assure our existential selves that yes, beauty shall not cease to exist. For better or worse, my #1 goto source to find innovative, delicious web design has always been Typewolf, who announced last fall that he will not be continuing his “Site of the Month” section, though his relentless “Site of the Day” roll will continue, unhindered.

Zeff Cherry

Recent Discoveries

Poolside.fmPoolside.FM is a retro digital oasis for your summer” | The Verge

Audio

Those of us for whom the Podcast medium became a trusted and relatively regular one in our lives long before anyone figured out how to make a real business out of it – certainly eons preceeding the original startup podcast-only (apparently HBO-like publication – Gimlet Media – to be successfully launched. Now, though, your mom – perhaps even her mom – listens to podcasts, and what was once a The single Missouri alumni at The Verge, Ashley Carmen, explored the proliferation of podcasting and the process by which it became profitable.

In 2009, only 11% of the U.S. population had listened to a podcast in the past month.
How podcasts became so popular | The Verge on YouTube

Whilst trying out Garageband for iOS’ new sample packs, I sampled the accompanying video to the article and produced the best “track” I’ve ever made with the app (for whatever that’s worth.)

Speaking of Gimlet Media: the latest episode of my longtime favorite of their podcasts, Reply All, is a sort of condensed remake of my favorite podcast episode of all time (of any show, not just this one) in which hosts Alex Goldman and P.J. Vogtmaintained an open telephone line for 48 hours and spoke with a whole bunch of people (mostly Americans) about... whatever. The result was beautifully human, if you’ll forgive my use of the cliche. I tend to revisit it when I’m feeling particularly isolated from and/or confused about the general ambitions of the people around me. I’ll be honest: I didn’t pay much attention to my first listen through the new episode, but I can tell you that it is worth your time, at least.

I was distraught when Spotify bought both the aforementioned Gimlet Media and the social audio turned podcasting app Anchor – both of which I (rather ridiculously) felt a special personal ownership over. (The latter, especially, because they reached out to me early on to feature Extratone’s channel on their music section.) However, it appears that both are being treated fairly well in the 18+ months since their acquisition – probably because they’ve been making Spotify money.

Further Reading

Other Favorites

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