The Psalms

software

Tweetbot Resurrection

In the bleak face of Twitter’s centralization, Tapbots refuses to give up on its mobile client.

Were it just I who came to you with only my voice on this cold night, proclaiming the imminent release of a whole numerical version of a third-party mobile Twitter client in 2021, you really would have no choice but to send for the laws, for you’d be left no consideration other than my comprehensive descent into absolute insanity. 825 days ago, I told you lots about the history surrounding the development of Tweetbot 5, which I confidently described as “likely the last com­pet­i­tive third-par­ty Twit­ter app for iOS.” After spending the past few months diving deep into iOS in preparation to review and reflect upon Apple’s current flagship handset, my eyes have been opened to the exponentially-increasing pace of the whole environment’s metamorphosis during the course of my lapsed attention. In the name of progress, I’ve done my best to make a point of looking back, too, yet something astonishingly personally relevant managed to slip past me until just last week: there is a sixth version of the Tweetbot app. At this moment, it is listed on the App Store as an “Early Release” version, though its predecessor can still be downloaded by those who’ve already purchased it in the past, like me. This is an unusual practice – usually, pre-release versions of iOS apps can only be distributed through Apple’s developer beta testing infrastructure, though Testflight. Notably, Tweetbot developer company Tapbots was apparently required to take down Tweetbot 5’s store listing 30 days before releasing Tweetbot 6.

I can’t remember exactly why – though I suspect I was just fucking around on my phone before bed, bleary-eyed – but the implications of this next numeral passed me by the first time I saw and downloaded Tweetbot 6, two weeks ago. Perhaps it’s because the app didn’t appear to have any new features – in fact, it’s technically got less than 5, though those that have been removed – user-specified URL shortening, image hosting, and video hosting services – haven’t worked in a good while anyway. As my old fav, The Verge noted in their coverage of 6, blame for these omissions rests solely on Twitter, Inc., itself, who’s continued to hold its API development inordinately close-to-chest. I didn’t bother to find out about this, though, because my first assumptions upon poking around the new app – especially after encountering its new subscription requirement in order to use any of its substantive features – was that its developers had ceased any actual time investment into the app long ago, and that 6 was a new version in number and rudimentary visual updates, only, shoved out in hopes of peaking old, loyal users like myself enough to get us to download it, at least. In the disappointment I’d already expected, I closed and immediately deleted the app.

I’ve paused everything else to write you on this, though, because the story is actually much bigger. Had I investigated any further that first time, I would have discovered an odd amount of buzz coming from even the most mainstream of tech media in a simple search. (Yes, I am ashamed about it.) You’re still reading, but perhaps – as I was, originally – you are doing so from an appropriately-jaded, well-read perspective on software, generally, in 2021. Perhaps you’re looking at the search results, yourself, and wondering if you’re dreaming. Dedicated coverage of a fucking third-party Twitter client iteration??? At this point in history? What in fuck? I’m fairly certainly neither of us are, though: fucking Tweetbot made headlines on Engadget, TechCrunch, 9to5Mac, MacStories, iMore, MacRumors, and others. No, it’s not 2010 again. In fact, The Verge, at least, has never given up on Tweetbot. If my long term memory had been functioning, I would have remembered noticing its spot in “12 great apps for your new iPhone in 2020:”

Twitter is a vaguely terrible way to spend your time these days, but if you (like me) can’t tear yourself away from the social media service / entryway into hell, you’ll want Tweetbot, which actually makes using Twitter far less painful. Tweetbot shows you the tweets of the people you follow, in the order that they tweeted them. There are no ads or promoted tweets, powerful mute filters to block out unwanted noise, and (thanks to Twitter’s unfriendly API changes) no notifications to constantly ping you to come back to the app.

Here’s to Chaim for exposing me to a perspective I never would have otherwise considered: Tweetbot’s lack of push notifications as a positive. If you’re wondering, no, this new app does not ~yet~ include any additional notification integration, and it’s not clear whether or not it’s on Tapbots future roadmap for the app, or where. As for the reality of integrating Tweetbot 6 into your current Twitter use, I stand by my argument that deleting the native Twitter app isn’t really an option if you plan to ever view your notifications on your phone. The popular assumption (I assume) if you’re still reading is that you are a “poweruser,” meaning details about my own configuration are probably irrelevant. If by chance you’ve just downloaded Tweetbot for the first time, you should take the time to disable notifications for Tweetbot entirely, but leave them on for the native Twitter app, even if you decide to banish it to your App Library. Before I began any work on this review, I made sure to swap in Tweetbot 6 where the native app had been in my dock for several years, now. I originally pushed the native app all the way to page 6, but immediately found this extreme. Instead, I put it in the bottom-right corner in my second screen, as you can see in the screenshot below (which also serves as proof, if you needed it.)

Tweetbot vs Native Twitter Proof

I should also note how much my own engagement on Twitter has diminished in the past 3-5 years. Not to manifest tiny violins – in turn, my engagement on (and investment in) Mastodon has increased exponentially, and it’s of a much higher quality. I bring it up for context’s sake: I can afford to prioritize Tweetbot in my Twitter use because of how few daily notifications I get – a number which is unusual for someone who uses Twitter as much as I do. Inevitably, my own use is once again going to factor heavily in this work, as is the significance of my relationship with Twitter, generally, in my life. If you didn’t already know, I’ve met basically all of my friends since high school through Twitter. As of this moment, my private “Friends” Twitter List includes 149 accounts, and I’ve spent more than 10 years, now, reading almost every single one of their Tweets. I have been as critical of the service as anyone, but – whether or not either of us are willing to acknowledge it, wholly – I believe the intimacy of this arrangement to exceed that of any in-person relationship I have ever had. Reading the random thoughts of these people seconds or minutes after they’ve popped into their heads for all this time has been an experience unique to the format Twitter pioneered, if not to the service, itself. I have no choice but to acknowledge that I am deeply invested in not just Twitter, but Twitter’s less-than-visible Lists feature, emotionally and intellectually. When I hit my follow limit, several years ago, Lists also became my single means of acquiring new connections on the network. If it were to be removed, I would lose this ability, entirely, as well as any reasonable means of communicating with any of my friends.

Perhaps you understand, now, why I have written and Tweeted so extensively about Lists. You should also understand just how miraculous the possibility of Tweetbot’s new future now seems, personally, unless you’re new to all of these ideas and don’t feel like reading that big olé Tweetbot 5 review of mine (which is fine.) Before I go into the history of Tweetbot, let me first share the single most telling feature in Tweetbot of Tapbots’ belief in using Lists and share some evidence of others’ present day belief in Tweetbot. Shamefully, I’ve spent several years – tens, if not hundreds of thousands of hours – using Lists in Tweetbot, oblivious to its upmost Lists integration: “Use Lists as Timeline.” Had I actually bothered to look at the support docs at any point, I would have discovered this long ago, which would have almost certainly made my given year. If you use Tweetbot and Lists, for the love of Gourd, please take a look. Here’s what those docs currently say, in full:

One long time Tweetbot feature is the ability to use any of your lists as your main timeline. To do this, all you have to do is hold down on the “Timeline” label in the navigation bar (in the timeline tab) and a menu populated with your lists will appear. Select one and that will become your current timeline. You can switch to another list or back to your main timeline any time by performing the same action.

Even after reading this multiple times, it still was not obvious to me what it was talking about, and I was unable to find precisely zero visuals on The World Wide Web of this action taking place, so I recorded and uploaded the video embedded above. Good God, how I wish I’d been a more detail-oriented young man! I’ll be privatizing my self-punishment from here on out, though, so bear with me.

The discourse surrounding Tapbots’ recent announcement has already reached a higher decibel count than I would have ever expected, so it’s obvious there are plenty of users who still love Tweetbot, and you already know from the beforelinked stories that The Verge has also stood firmly by it as the preferred Twitter experience. It takes a wee bit of digging, though, to discover the subtle bets on both Tweetbots and Lists from no less than Apple, Inc., itself. In the official Apple Shortcuts Gallery, a curated list entitled “Twitter Better” includes “Open Twitter Lists” at number 1. In 5th position is “Open in Tweetbot,” and “Open in Twitter App” (3rd,) is configured by default to first ask you to choose between Tweetbot and Twitter’s native app, despite its title.

Tweetbot Bets in Shortcuts

As for App Store rankings, the fact that Tweetbot 5 was forcibly removed from public listings makes it impossible to meaningfully judge recent popularity of Tweetbot on iPhone/iPad. Its MacOS-based sibling, though (called Tweetbot 3,) was the second most popular paid app on the Mac App Store as of February 6th, 2020. That’s the day I borrowed my Mom’s MacBook Pro for a short while to check up on MacOS Big Sur, when I downloaded the current version (3.5.2, if you wanted to know) of Tapbots’ desktop Twitter client and messed around with it enough to tell you that it’s as wonderful as ever. (Had I not switched back to Windows as my primary desktop OS a decade ago, I would use it every single day.)

Tweetbot 3 for MacOS Version 3.5.2

I suspect most active Twitter users in 2021 would be even more surprised to discover Tweetbot’s remaining, discreet hold on today’s Twitter experience than I was, assuming most of them joined more recently than myself and those I regularly interact with. For the sake of this Post, I reached out to Tapbots with an interview request about “Tweetbot’s roadmap, Apple’s requirement that [they] remove 5 from the App Store 30 days beforehand, and why [they’ve] decided to take this (risky, imo) bet on making our lives better,” though I don’t expect a reply, which is fine. They did respond to my support request regarding hardware keyboard shortcut support very quickly, saying they’ll look into it. (Without being verbose, I’ll just tell you that if a near future update to the app fixes the F and ⌘ + R shortcuts, I will shit out my whole ass.)

All Tweetbot Themes

The Business at Hand

Before I dig into the controversy and hypotheticals surrounding what Tweetbot 6 might become, let’s take a moment to qualify it vs all of one’s options to interact with Twitter on iOS currently (as in, Feb 11, 2021 at 19:24.) It’s almost certainly premature to do so, but skeptical readers would note, I’m sure, that its listing on the App Store is “early release” in name only, that I have just spent money on this specific version, which should therefore render inert the normal exceptions a review would make for beta or pre-release software. If you’ve somehow come across this Post before reading anything else about Tweetbot 6 and simply want to know what is new for this version compared with 5.5.3 (its predecessor’s most recent release,) the frank answer as it stands is not much. Perhaps I’m doing something wrong, here, but the YouTube videos and tech media articles I could find dealing with the subject of additions, specifically, were all either misleading, entirely wrong, or both.

While 6 lists one more option (for a total of 9) under Themes in the Display section of the app’s Settings menu, none are substantive variations of the same themes you’re familiar with from 5. “Future Light” is just a more turquoise variant of the “Default” blue UI theme in 5. In fact, the singular change in the Display menu is the addition of “San Francisco Rounded” under the Fonts selection. Below, you can see side-by-side screenshots of the Tweet Detail view in Tweetbot 5 vs. Tweetbot 6, with the regular SFUI font on the left and rounded variant on the right (text size slider set to max on both apps.)

To be honest, I can’t really tell the difference between the typefaces in this view, but have used the new app enough to know I prefer the latter. More topically exemplified in that image is Tweetbot 6’s new support for social cards, which the Tapbots boys have executed in a startlingly beautiful way that puts Twitter to shame and makes one feel like you’ve taken them for granted these past few years. Also in that vein and more than worthy of the same accolades is Tweetbot 6’s support for Twitter polls. They’ve never looked so good.

Poll Support in Tweetbot 6

Somewhat on-trend, the app also includes two new icons, but – if we’re being 100% frank – they’re a paltry, dated-looking afterthought and Tweetbot deserves (needs, even) better branding. If I were allowed a singular compulsion to impress upon its developers, I’d make them put out a public call for new art. I’m all but dying to see what the community would come up with.

So, if you were wondering what the fuck Tapbots have been doing these past 3+ years, you should now have the basal bullet points of your answer. The Greater Truth about this gosh darned Twitter app (and why its long-respected developers are now asking you for a whole dollar a month,) though, requires a broader look.

Slow & Steady

For as long as I can remember, both the MacOS and iOS versions of Tweetbot have always possessed a more-or-less undefinable (perhaps Apple Development- specific) quality that’s noticeably set them apart from their direct competitors. I didn’t fully understand why they “feel” so much more “right” until I started making my way through this list of all the interviews/podcast appearances by Tapbots’ iOS code wizard, Paul Haddad, who comments in variations the same argument for a very deliberate developmental pace. The first time, with a MacWorld journalist on some steps outside WWDC 2013, I assumed he was just tossing some self-deprecation around to casualize the interview:

Frankly, we’re slow at doing stuff.

Yes, you are, Tapbot… From a returning user’s perspective, it’s hard to understand what in Gourd’s name they’ve been doing. I listened and read through every Tapbots interview I could find – all but one with Paul, who has through the years continued to come across as a sensitive, well-read, even wise professional developer with a healthy, professional outlook on the work of his little (relatively) weathered company and its place within the warp speed nightmare that is the mobile software industry. I suppose I was expecting to find an explanation for what I saw initially as a minimal regard for Tweetbot’s history, in contrast to 6’s announcement. I wouldn’t find it, though, because in truth, I was sure I already knew it: Twitter made it clear over a decade ago – just after they’d purchased Tweetie and slapped their own name on it – that they had no intention of competing in the client space, so third-party developers were no longer welcome.

Developers have told us that they’d like more guidance from us about the best opportunities to build on Twitter. More specifically, developers ask us if they should build client apps that mimic or reproduce the mainstream Twitter consumer client experience. The answer is no.

As we point out above, we need to move to a less fragmented world, where every user can experience Twitter in a consistent way.

I’ve spent enough time in The App Space (read: Phone Dude Hell) to expect a lot of melodrama, largely without judgement, considering how generally awful the big vendors have made the whole situation. The business legality of the story was spiked into the mainstream conversation last year by controversy encouraged by Basecamp following some pretty toxic, retaliatory correspondence from Apple regarding their plan to subsidize their new email service, HEY. Frankly, I’ve found such stories – about clashes between big software companies over mediocre, uninspiring, and sometimes just downright bad software – ridiculously exhausting and less and less interesting, lately, as I’ve realized that the most innovative, quality work I have experienced has basically all come from the tiniest teams. The most groundbreaking projects and products I’ve bothered to show and tell, here – Unichar, Zalgo Generator, Bear, Toot!, Mastonaut, Mast, etc. – were all built by individual developers except for Shiny Frog’s Bear. (Their team currently numbers 16, by my count.) Each one of those hyperlinks eventually leads to a form of my same rant: why the fuck won’t tech media talk about genuine innovation anymore.

As I read and listened through Tweetbot’s history for this work, it occurred to me that I might be neglecting to acknowledge an age old divide in development philosophy across platforms. In the singular instance both Tweetbot devs appeared together in a podcast interview – a Founder’s Talk episode from 10 whole years ago – Paul Haddad addressed the when is it gonna be done question in a comprehensive and particularly illuminating way:

I personally hate that question because, you know… it just will get done when it gets done… We’re definitely slow. We go over every screen, every detail over and over again until we get it right. That takes time, which is why we don’t talk about upcoming projects.

Every screen, every detail, over and over again. This sort of deliberateness (which I have personally been working on appreciating, as of late) is actually – as I have come to realize – Tweetbot’s defining feature, especially going forward. Out of all the third-party Twitter clients to come and go, Tweetbot has been overwhelmingly singled out as the favorite because of how aligned it is with the traditional priorities of the Apple space: thoughtful, deeply-considered robustness. Pardon the cliché, but it is the only one that has always felt native – as if it could have been published by Apple, itself.

Everything Happens So Much

The iOS Poweruser Community has been “allowed” to drift away from these principles since iOS 12, especially, and its Pandora’s box-like integration of Siri Shortcuts (Workflow, by another name.) You may or may not be aware of the jailbreaking community’s continued efforts – I was certainly surprised to discover that the r/Jailbreak subreddit has nearly 600,000 subscribers, which outnumbers all but the eldest subreddits in the Apple sphere, including r/iOS, r/iOSBeta, and r/Shortcuts (one of the primary hubs for the Siri Shortcut tinkering community) by a huge margin. Since iOS 14’s addition of sanctioned custom widgets, Twitter and Reddit have been host to a fairly-steady stream of personalized iOS “themes” representing varying degrees of tedium/obsession/madness. One “fringe”-ish avenue I’ve explored quite thoroughly is the adjacent community of public beta tests via Testflight, which allows willing App Scrubs like myself to download beta/pre-release versions of iOS apps. As of this moment, no less than 25 of the 227 apps installed on my iPhone 12 Pro Max are Testflight beta versions (both numbers far higher than normal because of my in-progress review.)

Third-Party Twitter Client Telegram Poll

Essentially, it’s now easier than ever to run incredibly janky software on your iPhone or iPad, remaining well clear of a warranty violation, yet the apps that stick out most boldly in the mind (at least for myself) are unfailingly apart from any sort of experimentation. Bear, for instance – the writing app I evangelize to every iOS user and have continued to describe as “the most beautiful piece of software I have ever seen” – just allowed registered beta testers access to its in-progress “Editor 2.0” on iOS, which Shiny Frog describes as still in its “alpha” stage, yet even I have as yet been unable to trip it up whatsoever. This is the league Tweetbot pioneered, in many ways. For the record, both Tweetbot 6 and Tweetbot 5 have been demonstrably more reliable for me in the past few months than Twitter’s native app, which has been crashing multiple times per day on my devices for quite a while during regular use. I’m accustomed to crashes, so I can’t say with 100% confidence that Tweetbot has never crashed, but it certainly hasn’t since I first downloaded 6 and began this review, despite my deliberate attempts to probe its every possible function.

Not only is Tweetbot 6 reliable as hell – it’s also stupid frugal. Currently, its App Store installation weighs in at 10.9 MB, while Twitter’s app is more than ten times heavier, at 116 MB. I realize Sizes On Disk are further from your mind than they’ve ever been in this age of outright computing gluttony and you probably couldn’t care less about my personal encounter with bandwidth famine in late 2018. In fact, I find it particularly telling that Tapbots has continued to prioritize such efficiency in their development despite operating under less financial, technical, and social pressure than ever to do so.

Various - Tweetbot 6

Future of The Bot

Let’s say you’ve somehow made it this far without either satisfactorily resolving your confusion about Tapbots’ decision to implement subscriptions, why they’ve decided to continue investing their time in third-party Twitter clients, whatsoever, and/or some other App Quandary, and you’re still expecting David Blue of all people to articulate some pivotal element of this story that’ll put your intellect at ease. Perhaps you’re still looking for a comprehensive picture of what using Tweetbot as one’s main Twitter client looks like in 2021. Let’s change it up a bit, toss in some fucking bullet points, and list a few fundamental truths:

  1. If you intend to view your Twitter notifications on iOS at any point, completely deleting the native Twitter app is not an option. (Notably, it doesn’t look like this is going to change anytime soon, if ever.)
  2. “Shopping around” for a third-party Twitter client leads the at all attentive user back to Tweetbot, exclusively. With the potential exception of Fenix, all other Twitter apps on the App Store are fucking bunk and will cost you as much or more as Tweetbot 6’s new subscription.
  3. If you use Twitter Lists regularly, you’d be an idiot not to start your Tweetbot subscription right this fucking minute.
  4. All of these will probably remain true for the foreseeable future, unless I’ve totally misunderstood Twitter’s stated intentions for its API 2.0.

In the ~month since the Tweetbot 6 story first broke (a nice birthday present!,) no less than three newish Twitter features have made the news. Last week, it (apparently) committed to the worst possible user-side content monetization model concept out of the dozens that have dipped in and out of rumor for virtually the service’s entire history: “Super Follows” are slated to shade our collective experience with putrid freemium concerns. “Communities” sound in concept like a worthwhile and genuinely value-adding feature addition for actual Twitter users, but any substantial expectations of the company feel far too risky to invest in. All the while, Twitter Spaces – the audio-only Clubhouse-ish mutilation of Periscope’s corpse – has been silently bestowed upon a secret set of @s at an achingly slow pace. I don’t know about you, but I still haven’t even fully digested fucking Fleets, yet.

What does Tweetbot 6 really offer you, Twitter user, in 2021? Freedom from all of that bullshit.

It’s just occurred to me how much more anxious the movements of Twitter, Inc. and Jack Dorsey’s horrendous facial hair would be making me if I had not discovered an (ironically) more stable, wholesome platform to replace them, years ago. No, I will not discuss Mastodon beyond this remark, but readers invested enough to get to this point who haven’t heard of the federated, open source social network by that name would do well to consult this handy hyperlink. This privilege of choice – even if it’s completely delusional – has combined with Tapbots’ thoughtful brush up of their trustier-than-ever Tweetbot to ease my longtime Twitter-dependent ass to a nigh-miraculous degree. However, stepping back from it all, I realized Tweetbot’s new life bets even heavier on that single, defining feature which the company hardly mentions, and could conceivably restrict – maliciously or not – or remove entirely without real consequences to their business or public standing via tech media outcry. What if Twitter killed Lists? We’d all be fucked.

Upon this realization, I shot out of bed very late in a recent evening and went straight to fucking Trello, of all places, to sift through Twitter’s public development roadmap for any official word on their fate. I really did panic for a beat upon first reading the words “Replacement for Lists functionality” before realizing the actual intention of the card’s expression in the context’s syntax, which is probably about as positive as it could possibly be: a public suggestion that Lists will continue to be supported through 2.0, at least. The card sits in the “Nesting” column (which I assume to be the lowest priority group, chronologically,) right between identical cards for Bookmarks and Direct Messages.

The Grandma's House Method

Writing about Tweetbot 6 has been an illuminating personal experience, if you haven’t yet caught on. The timing of its release has proved awfully convenient, just predating the aforementioned catastrophe of disjointed features that has descended harder than ever before on Twitter’s own app, leaving it an absolute mess. When I initiated the symbolic swap maneuver documented at the very beginning of this review, I assumed I was going to find Tweetbot awkward to use as my primary in the present day, but have found the opposite to be true. The social network Tweetbot draws from is barely recognizable as the same property it drew upon originally, when its Lists-loving configuration was simply one of a dozen different interpretations of how one should interact with Twitter (by far the sharpest, I think we’d agree.) Tweetbots, in contrast, is virtually identical in principle, though the unwavering bearing of its development has resulted in the true definition of refinement. The result is the most beautiful way to use Twitter in 2021, no competition, and is also crucially the singular means of interacting with it on one’s “own terms” – as long as yours align with The Lists Method, that is – in an environment that feels predictable and fundamentally at your control.

As much as I have praised the Mastodon app Toot! as the most innovative social app available – and will continue to do so until I encounter something more original and ingenious – it’s perhaps the singular remaining cleverly playful Tweetbots feature which first opened my perspective to appreciate little Easter egg-like tricks. Indeed – even after all we’ve been through together these past ten years – you can still cycle through all of Tweetbot’s visual themes by two-finger swiping vertically in 6. Quick Account Switching is the other less-than-obvious swipe function of note, which I’ll rely on an embed stolen from Tapbots themselves to demonstrate:

I don’t think it should ever feel natural to speak sentimentally about mobile apps, but Tweetbot is a worthy exception. If you glance over the respective comments sections of the articles and YouTube videos I’ve hyperlinked, you’ll pick up on this phenomena of legacy Twitter users chucking back some tragically nostalgic sentiments in response to the reminder surfaced by the Tweetbot 6 news of just how long we’ve been doing this. From my perspective, the other majority sentiment found there catalyzes the bizarre chronobending at play even further. I can’t believe how many folks continue to be flabbergasted by the idea of paying for software in 2021, but I’ve been literally begging Twitter to charge me a monthly fee in exchange for some greater curative capabilities for as long as I can remember. The whole of my gospel, again, is that Tweetbot 6 has personally made using Twitter a little bit better than bearable, so I have no other reasonable choice available: I’m paying the fuck up.

See this post's corresponding GitHub Issue for related media, aggregated links, and other minutia.

#software

Dark Wrapped 2020 - Spotify

Reclaiming tastemaking for listeners in the Spotify era.

Last week, Spotify users were treated to the service’s annual “Spotify Wrapped” feature: a visual summary of an account’s listening habits throughout the year, including their most listened-to artists. New for 2020 are “in-app quizzes,” a chronological “Story of Your 2020,” and detailed podcast listening statistics. For premium users, “badges” will “crown listeners with various titles based on the ways they listened.”

For example, if a number of your playlists gained significant new followers, you’ll be a Tastemaker. If you listened to a song before it was cool (aka hit 50,000 streams), you’ll get the Pioneer badge. And based on the number of songs you added to playlists this year, you just might become a Collector.

Their use of the term Tastemaker is particularly interesting. “Tastemaking” – a function once relegated to magazines – has taken a concerning bent in the Algorithmic Age. Very much contemporary terms like “filter bubble” and “echo chamber” – applied more and more often to social platforms like Facebook and Twitter, now – can also be associated with music streaming services like Spotify, who’s “playlistification” of content has had a number of alarming effects on American culture.

Premium Badges - Spotify

In 2018, The Baffler’s Liz Pelly explored Spotify playlists’ gender bias in “Discover Weekly:”

On Today’s Top Hits, I found that over the course of one month, 64.5 percent of the tracks were by men as the lead artist, with 20 percent by women and 15.5 percent relying on collaborations between men and women artists. When all features were taken into consideration, I found that 85.5 percent of tracks included men artists, while only 45.5 percent included women. This was one of the highest percentages of women artists out of all the playlists I examined.

She also quotes a LinkedIn post by “Jerry Daykin, the Head of Media Partnerships at Diageo,” in which he observes, “The most popular tracks on Spotify get featured in more playlists and become even more popular as a result.” In January of the same year, the online music magazine Pitchfork published an op-ed by musician Damon Krukowski entitled “How to Be a Responsible Music Fan in the Age of Streaming,” which provided concrete statistics on this phenomenon (emphasis mine:)

According to the data trackers at BuzzAngle Music, [on Spotify,] more than 99 percent of audio streaming is of the top 10 percent most-streamed tracks. Which means less than 1 percent of streams account for all other music.

“While streaming media is pitched to us as tailored to our taste, or at least to our browsing history,” Krukowski goes on to note, “the business of it is in fact closer to one-size-fits-all.” Clearly, this is an issue, but technically only insofar as Spotify advertises itself as a means to discover new music, which it does consistently.

The company has faced criticism in other areas, most recently by The New Yorker’s Alex Ross in a widely-read review of “Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music,” a new book by University of Oslo professor Kyle Devine, entitled “The Hidden Costs of Streaming Music.” Ross first cites a statement by Spotify CEO Daniel Elk, “The artists today that are making it realize that it’s about creating a continuous engagement with their fans,” arguing the true meaning of his words to be “to make a living as a musician, you need to claw desperately for attention at every waking hour.” His most original (as in, yet to be considered in the mainstream discourse) argument, though, involves the service’s environmental impact. He cites Devine’s depiction of a profound cultural delusion surrounding the consumption of music, suggesting that music is “seen as a special pursuit that somehow transcends the conditions of its production.”

In a chapter on the digital and streaming era, Devine drives home the point that there is no such thing as a nonmaterial way of listening to music: “The so-called cloud is a definitely material and mainly hardwired network of fiber-optic cables, servers, routers, and the like.” This concealment of industrial reality, behind a phantasmagoria of virtuality, is a sleight of hand typical of Big Tech, with its genius for persuading consumers never to wonder how transactions have become so shimmeringly effortless.

Also noteworthy are questions of Spotify’s viability as a business, which Ross includes by citing a July article in Barrons quoting Spotify Technology’s second-quarter earnings report: “The streaming music company lost $418 million, or $2.24 per share, versus analysts’ expectations for a 41-cent loss.” Spearheading this year’s news conversation surrounding the company, though, were its widespread acquisitions in the Podcasting industry, including Anchor, Megaphone, Gimlet Media, and – most controversially – the exclusive rights to the most listened-to property in the medium, The Joe Rogan Experience. Though details of their implications are beyond the scope of this essay, it is reasonable to assume its concerns – if not its proposed solutions – should apply to the future of podcasting as well.

Responsible Curation

For solutions to address Spotify’s overwhelming skew toward rewarding popular music with even more popularity, we can first look within its own history to just a few years earlier, when human curation was more equally matched in its fight against algorithmic curation. In 2015, the company claimed that “Half of Spotify users stream from other users’ playlists at least monthly.” Pitchfork’s Marc Hogan profiled a number of “power users” within the upper percentile in terms of followers and personal playlist popularity. Notably, all of his examples are male.

Generally, human curation should hypothetically combat its algorithmic counterpart in terms of favoring already commercially successful content, if not its gender disparity. The industry’s other biggest player, Apple Music, has invested heavily and successfully in the former. (Disclosure: I have been an Apple Music subscriber since its launch.) Fast Company addressed this contrast in a 2018 long read entitled “Spotify’s $30 billion playlist for global domination:”

Cook’s words embody Apple’s longstanding critique of Spotify, which is that its algorithms are eroding music’s spiritual role in our lives. Cook doesn’t mention Spotify by name but says, “We worry about the humanity being drained out of music, about it becoming a bits-and-bytes kind of world instead of the art and craft.”

Then again, the same article also quotes Tim Cook – the CEO of the most valuable company in the history of the world – as insisting “We’re not in it for the money.” In turn, Daniel Elk is quoted, saying “Music is everything we do all day, all night, and that clarity is the difference between the average and the really, really good,” though what exactly he is quantifying as “really, really good” is not entirely clear. In context, the words of both leaders seem untrustworthy – vague, at best.

In tremendous and relevant contrast to the voices of these CEOs is that of Ethan Diamond, CEO and co-founder of Bandcamp, a music streaming service unlike any other. In an interview with Music Tech Fest director Andrew Dubber this May, Diamond exemplifies an entirely different mentality in running a for-profit service for independent music artists.

In 2007, Diamond and former colleagues Shawn Grunberger, Joe Holt, and Neal Tucker set out to build the equivalent of blogging services like Blogger, WordPress, MovableType, etc. for musicians. As Holt bemoaned in a 2008 interview with The HTML Times, creating an online presence for one’s music had long been “a pain in the ass:”[^1]

You need to find a place to host it, you’ve gotta get the metadata right, it’s just hard. So we just decided we would do that hard part for musicians so that they didn’t have to be so nerdy.

From its very origin, the team designed Bandcamp to make the process of publishing one’s music as easy as possible. In the first post on the company’s blog from September, 2008, Diamond details the results of their engineering:

We keep your music streaming and downloading quickly and reliably, whether it’s 3am on a Sunday, or the hour your new record drops and Pitchfork gives it a scathingly positive review. We make your tracks available in every format under the sun, so the audiophilic nerderati can have their FLAC and eat mp3 v2. We adorn your songs with all the right metadata, so they sail into iTunes with artwork, album, band and track names intact. We mutter the various incantations necessary to keep your site top-ranked in Google, so when your fans search for your hits, they find your music long before they find bonkersforlyrics.com or iMyFace. We give your fans easy ways to share your music with their friends, and we give you gorgeous tools that reveal exactly how your music is spreading, so you can fan the fire.

In the years since, Bandcamp has demonstrated time and time again the sincerity in its commitment to artists through programs like “Bandcamp Fridays,” when the service waives its cut of artists’ revenue (ten percent on physical releases, fifteen percent of digital.) In 2017, the company donated a Friday’s share of proceeds to the Transgender Law Center in response to the Presidential Administration’s proposal to ban trans people from serving in the U.S. military. This year, throughout the Coronavirus pandemic, the company has repeatedly brought back the program in recognition of its impact on independent artists, and the results have been profound. On March 20th, for a specific example, $4.3 million worth of purchases was distributed.

Unlike Spotify, Bandcamp is a profitable company, and has been for nearly a decade. In Dubber’s interview, Diamond explains their financial origins:

In 2007/2008 we took a little bit of VC funding and then focused on getting to profitability. So we did that and got there in 2012, and that’s helped us maintain the mission, maintain the vision that we’ve had for the company for a long time.

Also in contrast to Spotify, Bandcamp explicitly invests in less popular, fringe content, through its online publication the Bandcamp Daily:

The mission of the Daily, it’s our editorial arm, and it’s just to highlight this incredibly diverse world of music that’s on a site where anybody can upload anything. And the result of that is that you have weird subgenres and a lot of music, I think, that wouldn’t necessarily be covered anywhere else.

Bandcamp has long demonstrated an anthesis to the business models technology companies have been so criticized for upholding and has done so in relative obscurity from the media. In his interview, Dubber asks Diamond one of the primary questions prompting the creation of this essay: “how come Bandcamp doesn’t get mentioned in all these press articles about music services?” In answer, Diamond offers his own business decisions out of “[his] personal preference:”

I like the idea that Bandcamp hangs out in the background and just makes all of this stuff work, and also, hopefully, helps the artist promote themselves, and it’s not about “Bandcamp, Bandcamp, Bandcamp.”[^2]

As a Tastemaking enterprise, Bandcamp has combined magazine-style editorial publishing with user-created content in the form of Collections – which allow listeners to display music they’ve purchased on a customizable web page – and Artist Recommendations, which extend from a creator’s Collection to those who follow them. This system has demonstrably lead to community and cultural wellness by genre via responsible commentary and selection from curating creators with authority, while still profiting its parent company tremendously. Bandcamp has grown from four to seventy employees in its 13-year lifespan, while helping artists earn $634 million as of December 2020. In the music industry, it is unquestionably an outlier. Diamond inadvertently explains Bandcamp’s success in response to a question from Dubber on the company’s comparatively slow pace in terms of technological features (emphasis mine:)

Deciding what to work on next, that has always felt like the easiest part of the job because it’s whatever benefits artists the most. Because the way Bandcamp makes money is if artists make a lot more money, so that’s what we try to spend every day doing.

The solution to the “debacle” of streaming music, then, is not necessarily charity or socioeconomic revolution. It would seem that all it takes is a sincere investment in the real people who create music.


[1] While Bandcamp set out from the beginning to make it easier for artists to publish music, getting music on Spotify has always been a grueling process.

[2] I fully intended to quote Kaitlyn Tiffany on how organizations only get tech media attention if a significant amount of capital is involved in some form, but I haven’t been able to find it. I’ll certainly come back and add it if/when I do.

#software #music

Digital Leaves

Purposing a disciplined effort to reflect on those tech products which have remained too fair and/or too good to catch the attention of the alarmists in us, recently.

I've never been a big fan of holidays, nor do I think Thanksgiving should be a federal one, given its shitty, undebatably imperialist origins, but these opinions are entirely inconsequential. Regardless of how I feel, Thanksgiving will remain as pervasive as ever in the spaces around me, so I thought I'd change things up this year and actually participate in a substantial way. I did my best to travel back to a vastly less complicated self, letting all of the crud that's accumulated atop my love of computers in the past twenty years: wokeness, adtech, Obama wearing VR glasses, etc... When I thought the Native Americans were glad to see white people because they gave them guns and horses and assumed people made things because good ideas were the apex of currency. When I was able to respond to new software discoveries by screwing around aimlessly without wondering if they'd been stolen entirely from a handful of talented developers lacking in the resources and know how required to protect their ideas in the face of Microsoft's ruthless Embrace, Extend, Extinguish crusade.

Forgive yourself for a moment and return there with me. Or perhaps somewhere else, if you need – wherever and whenever you last remember feeling genuinely enthralled with The Future of Computers. (Perhaps it was yesterday! If so, Gourd bless you. Never change.) Let's take ourselves back to kindergarten, before we knew anything about the rapid cyclical consolidation and monopolization within the technology industry that had already established itself as a trend, by then, when all we knew of the software we interacted with was contained within our most visceral reactions: I like Ask Jeeves because I like red and I like Jeeves. I vaguely remember when Google (the search engine) first broached the general awareness of my elementary school's computer lab. I'm fairly sure I even remember the sort of feelings that were elicited the first time I actually set eyes on the Google.com homepage: it looked so modern, then, compared to the rest of the web. (After two decades, it currently looks like shit.) Upon the first first query, it was immediately clear that Google was superior to any of the other search engines we'd been using.

This sort of encounter – with a service that significantly alters one's perception of a given set of tasks – is precious in our lives as users.

A few examples from my own using life which come to mind:

  • The first time I witnessed a Skype call.
  • Downloading and using the beta Evernote client on the school machines in Junior High.
  • The first album I uploaded on Bandcamp.
  • Discord's first public release.
  • The “moment” I first put a name to Markdown. (I'd been using bits of the syntax for years before I actually read the word.)
  • And most recently, exploring Notion as personal catch-all documentation software.

The atmosphere of elation about the future on which I so often lament has been replaced by wariness for most of us – from Californian software developers to tractor-hacking farmers. Now, the conversation is saturated with CEO appearances before legal committees, corporate memo leaks, and somber interviews. Of course, I have unquestionably contributed more than my share. In fact, I wish I could be twice as critical in twice the written volume, and I believe the tech media industry to be far too culturally-embedded within Silicon Valley to be nearly critical enough. For this holiday, though, I think a respite from the negative is worthwhile and essential. I know it is for my personal sanity, at least.

A week ago, I shared this Google Form and asked you to reflect with me on the “really great” software/services you have encountered in your using life built by “technology companies who's business ethics align toward the benefit of us users and who's products are well-priced (or free!)” As of the time of this writing, nearly 80 responses have been recorded on the form, itself, and several more via comments on Hacker News. I deeply appreciate your participation! They're far from predictable, too – I've ended up learning a lot. The very first submission was for Logos Bible Software, which has quite a fascinating history. I feel like those less-secular of us go unexposed to theological software without participants such as the human who submitted this one (thank you, human!,) and end up missing out on an entire segment of software development. Having studied The Good Book in a very much analog fashion through Lutheran school, I wonder in retrospect how software solutions could've changed the experience.

I have never received this volume of feedback in my prompts before, nor have I ever really seen a reason to close any of them to responses, so I'm going to take a blind shot at the dartboard and plan to close the form on New Year's Day, 2021. Until then, please feel free to respond in any way you'd like and/or view all the live answers in this very bad spreadsheet full of these very good responses. (My apologies – I have absolutely no idea how to use Google Sheets.)

Software Thanksgiving Cloud


ⓣⓗⓐⓝⓚⓢ

I originally intended to go into relatively extensive detail for each of the entities on my own Most Thankful For list, but I do have to actually stop somewhere, so the commentary on these isn't remarkably insightful or educational. It is genuine, though, which is worth something, I hope.

1. Bandcamp

Yes, I have tirelessly promoted my essay about Bandcamp's holiness for years now, but I have done so with good reason: here is a for-profit technology company which is building a one-of-a-kind product that invests directly in independent artists. I spent a whole summer scouring The Web looking for a single misstep or controversy and found absolutely none.

Over the course of this super link-laden journey, we’d consider the alarmingly hypocritical possibility that it’s been overlooked by mainstream conversations only because it has so long operated in the precise manner we claim is so hopelessly absent from its neighbors in its deliberate, principled, and innovative journey towards a transparent, progressive vision.

2. OBS

Before OBS (Open Broadcaster Software,) streaming video was an absolute mess that usually involved paying for or pirating some proprietary software. Remember Ustream? Good God...

OBS is the streaming video equivalent of Audacity and GIMP: an extremely powerful, infinitely-malleable set of tools that allow one to take full advantage of their hardware to capture and/or stream video and audio.

Typora - Gitbooks Slate Theme

3. Typora

There's a file entitled “My Darling, Typora” sitting in my essay drafts folder, currently, which describes this text editor as “the perfect writing software.” (See its notes page on Notion for more.)

From another recommendation I wrote:

Typora is an infinitely-customizable markdown editor spanning all platforms that's managed to become my primary word processor (and I'm someone who demands a lot from word processors.) It's immensely powerful in all the important ways – my use over the past two years has stress tested it with both enormous (100,000+ words) and extremely complicated (100+ images and embeds) documents. It's able to export even these chunkos to any format you can imagine instantaneously and never crashes.

From a comment I made on The Information's notetaking software comparison:

Typora is a Markdown editor with left sidebar file sorting, very much like Bear (several available themes can make it look actually identical, in fact,) but without its native iCloud-based file syncing. It is cross-platform, open-source, and definitely more powerful, though.

The Typora theming community has been especially on-point, as of late. In the screenshot embedded above, it's wearing the Slate variation of H16nning's Gitbook theme, which is by far the most beautiful configuration I've yet to see the editor in.

4. GIMP

The GNU Image Manipulation Program – which just celebrated its 25th anniversary last week – is one of the most powerful tools in its space and perhaps the number one exemplary example of open source software to cite when explaining the concept for the first time. I have used it my entire creative life for all manner of tasks and evangelized it plenty, but it wasn't until I returned to college this Fall and took advantage of Adobe's student discounts that I had an opportunity to thoroughly explore its proprietary nemesis, Photoshop.

What I found was indeed a very powerful piece of software, albeit as arrogant as ever in its stubborn commitment to the original keyboard shortcuts set by default and other legacy artifacts, though not one I would compare to GIMP, necessarily. This shouldn't be breaking news: as far as I know, there are billions of posts comparing the two going back to the beginning of the written word. My personal conclusion: I can accomplish much more, much faster with GIMP in every single one of my own use cases.

5. Audacity

I was browsing some FOSS-related article aggregation page a few weeks ago when a post caught my eye: “Audacity exceeds 100 million downloads.” In reflection, I realized in that moment that perhaps no other single piece of software has been so thoroughly present in my “workflows” across all sorts of projects through the years, largely because of its God-sent Truncate Silence feature, which I have used to remove silence from audio files for as long as I've been working within the medium, basically. Every podcast episode I have ever published has passed through Audacity for this reason and others, as have voiceovers, high school punk band demo tapes, personal voice notes, and more.

Until OBS came along, Audacity was where all recorded audio started for myself and my creative friends. It was Audacity that captured (and caused, technically) the death of my friend's soundcard in audio form during the recording process for Hamura, the first Drywall album, back in October of 2011.

Fucking around in Audacity through the years has led to some halfway creative results on my part, including “SLOWED 'N' THROWED” Hilary Duff tracks and legacy Windows sounds remixes. I still use it for every episode of End User and have recently created a macro for remastering Drycast episodes. (A big feat for me and reflective of Audacity's ingenuity.) As far as I know, there are zero competitors, proprietary or not, which can replicate Audacity's particular usefulness as an audio utility.

NeoCities Interactions

6. NeoCities

Shortly after I discovered NeoCities last Spring, I signed up to be a Supporter for $5/month, not necessarily for the additional storage or bandwidth, but because the project immediately sounded like one I was personally obligated to uplift. Parimal Satyal's essay “Rediscovering the Small Web,” along with the design of the website which delivered it, inspired me to make another attempt at building an HTML site by hand. So far, davidblue.xyz obviously borrows heavily from his CSS, but looking at the code itself was vastly more pleasant than one would expect. Recently, during the course of writing an academic research essay, I found myself listening to interviews with its founder, Kyle Drake and reading articles from its debut in 2013, which prompted me to take even further advantage of my account.

The Drywall Website

Last week, I moved my inactive automotive blog (dieselgoth.com) from a Writeas blog to a purely-HTML NeoCities website with disturbingly little friction. (I challenge you to spot any differences.) After discovering a backup of the original Drywall Website deep within my old files, NeoCities was the only reasonable host on which to archive it. After I'd finished uploading, I fell down what the youth call a “rabbit hole” of discovery, mesmerized by what I found on page after page of NeoCities' site browser. I did my best to save the best finds by following them within the sites dashboard and have since set up a Best of NeoCities GitHub repository with my absolute favorites among them archived thanks to wget.

Trust me when I tell you that some of the best web design, ever can be found on NeoCities. What's even better: after my deep dive, I was pleasantly surprised by strangers commenting on what I'd found! Replying in a timely, substantial, and genuine manner seems to be a hallmark of the community: my (rather verbose) question regarding the well-manneredness of publishing such an archive without permission in the community Discord I discovered just this morning was almost immediately met with encouraging replies.

A Post you should probably expect soon: “NeoCities is 2020's Best Social Network.” Going forward, I'd like to digitize my poetry collection on NeoCities in the near future while continuing to otherwise brush back up on HTML and CSS – both of which I am also very thankful for, come to think of it.

Thank you again for your correspondence! May your Imperialism Day be a positive experience!

ʰᵉʳᵉ ᵃʳᵉ ᵗʰᵉ ᵈʳʸʷᵃˡˡ ʷᵉᵇˢᶤᵗᵉ ᵉᵃˢᵗᵉʳ ᵉᵍᵍˢ

DryBuy

#software

The Social Dilemma - The Founders on Their iPhones

The pop culture discussion of tech's greater issues missed in (at least) two major ways.

For those of us who've written about technology, generally, for quite a long time, any injection of the broader metaphysical/“ethical” conversation regarding the impact the industry has had/is having/is expected to have on our species into popular culture is inevitably an emotional event. The Social Network had an almost comical disregard for any potential function as a substantial critique of its subjects. Not that it's particularly supportive of that argument, but Mark Fuck, himself, recently said in court, essentially, that he didn't know what the movie was about. I'm not particularly sure, either. I suppose the dramatic film industry has no particular obligation to be critical of the times, but documentaries certainly should, in my estimation, and The Social Dilemma could've done better, in that regard.

First, the actively misleading: As thoroughly as I enjoyed Peter Campbell's casting as the master-manipulating triplets behind the dramatized young man's screen, the film's depiction of this very human invasion of privacy is blatantly false imagery. The Privacy Problem is not that Facebook or Google employees are directly and actively viewing and manipulating your use of their services in real time. In fact, it is ridiculously unlikely that human eyes will ever see your individualized information. One could go so far as to describe the whole film as “ridiculous,” as did one of my favs, Casey Newton:

The dramatized segments include a fictional trio of sociopaths working inside an unnamed social network to design bespoke push notifications to distract their users. They show an anguished family struggling to get the children to put their phones away during dinner. And the ominous piano score that pervades every scene, rather than ratcheting up the tension, gives it all the feeling of camp.

The Verge's official review of the film – written by Adi Robinson and as cited by Casey – is an important read, as well. Robinson makes use of some very intelligent language and cites some very interesting bits (including a Wikipedia article about a series of Hogarth paintings?) for The Verge's audience, who already knew all of this. What I hoped to do by writing about this at all was speak to those distinctly separate tech media – grandmothers, retirees, etc. – who are both directly affected by the subjects covered by The Social Dilemma and particularly susceptible to its delusions about “privacy” – a term which I would argue is not particularly relevant to the conversation. Personally, I define my privacy in a way that is not violated by the simple collection of “my data,” regardless of how detailed said collection may or may not be, but would be by individual examination with human eyes, which – while possible – is extremely unlikely if for no other reason than a lack of business incentive. While Google may have access to the data it would need to determine whether I am currently showering or not, there is absolutely zero monetary gain to be had in one of its employees (or outsourced contractors) knowing this.

Now, on to the notably missing: Perhaps most important to note before I go on is that the film was produced by – and directly promotes on several occasions – one particular organization, called the Center for Humane Technology, which notably has a .com rather than a .org domain... hm. Immediately after watching the film, I complied with its direction to its website, where I was specifically looking for “solutions” to the issues it presented. Aside from Wikipedia (sortof,) it neglected to mention the abundance of alternative organizations and projects who've been building against the adtech-funded web for ages – some for decades. Unfortunately, neither the organization's website nor the film's webpage list any of these alternatives, whatsoever, which personally leads me to believe the whole thing is bullshit, for lack of a better term.

The Social Dilemma Newsletter Prompt

The film essentially argues for a single choice: using social media and other adtech-sustained services, or not using them. What I'm here to tell you: you have a choice of services. For every single individual service criticized in the film, I guarantee there exists at least a handful of alternatives across a spectrum of sin. If you've followed my work for any length of time (you probably shouldn't still be reading,) you know I've advocated exhaustively for Mastodon – the open web, decentralized social network outpacing Twitter in every single way. Two years ago, I spent an entire summer arguing that Bandcamp is the only music streaming service who's business model benefits both platform and artist. I'm still finishing up a massive essay that discusses alternatives to Facebook, which has been an exhausting but educational journey, as you can probably imagine, namely that leaving a platform as all-consuming as Facebook for an open-source and/or federated alternative requires a certain amount of bravery. Essentially, the evidence suggests that the alternatives discussion is a particularly important one to me, as is finding a way to evangelize it that isn't immediately off-putting to “the average person.”

Poke around the film's official website a bit and you'll discover a variety of heavily-branded “resources” for “taking action,” all awash with a certain irony, including a fucking Bingo game (hosted on Google Drive, no less,) which the site actually suggests you post on your Instagram story! Also under the “Take Action” vertical are links to Moment CEO Tim Kendall's tips for reducing your screen time, the “Data Detox Kit,” which advocates for Firefox as the private browsing solution (among an indigestibly huge link tree,) a “Join Now” button, and – most ironic of all – a link to download the “Ad Observer plugin,” in order to “share with researchers the ads you see on social media as they work to expose micro-targeting techniques & hold political advertisers accountable.” In other words, the very same data collection the film condemns, albeit for the “Online Political Transparency Project” instead of the greater adtech monstrosity.

The Social Dilemma Bingo

No, it's not a scam. Using The Markup's shiny new Blacklight tool, I found thesocialdilemma.com to be entirely free of any malicious tracking aside from the inevitable accompaniment to their Google Drive embeds. (Here's the report in full.) All at once, we can be virtually certain there is no malice in this particular destination, at least, which leaves... incompetence? I'm afraid so. It is not revolutionary to suppose that the people who conceived of these ruthlessly effective systems of adtech and figure out how to implement them in the real world – regardless of what they believe now, or then – that these folks should not be our first call when we're searching for “solutions.” You know this, they know it, and they explicitly acknowledged it at least twice in the film, itself, and yet the fact of it remains.

Would you care to guess what Chapter 1 of the Digital Detox Kit is about? I can't imagine you'd be correct... Under the heading “CONTROL YOUR SMARTPHONE DATA,” step 1 is literally just renaming your phone:

At some point, you may have “named” your phone for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or both – or maybe the name was automatically generated during setup.

This means that “Alex Chung’s Phone” is what’s visible to the Wi-Fi network owner and, if your Bluetooth is turned on, to everyone in the area who has their Bluetooth on as well.

You wouldn't announce your name as you enter a café, restaurant, or airport, so neither should your phone.

Now, I've always considered the ability to change a computer's name an immense privilege. My first “real” computer's name was Clementine, then there was Bertha, two Sophies (probably my favorite traditionally female name, so I excuse myself,) Silas, Linus, Uel, Jehoshaphat, Temba, Knot, and now Hildur. My iPhone 8 Plus' name is Gravel. However, I realize that most users could care less, and I think that's completely rational. Technically, suggesting you change your phone's common name to that of “your favorite television character” (Hildur Odegard is my favorite character in Fortitude, so...) is not bad advice, even within its own privacy-centered argument, it's just that it's ridiculously low priority (or should be) compared with doing just about anything else along this vein. A conundrum is presented: I cannot imagine these people sitting down and seriously jotting down “change device name” as step 1 in their strategy, but I also cannot fathom an incentive for them to expend such effort facetiously or maliciously. Again, incompetence/ignorance is the only remaining explanation.

Firefox for iOS Notification A notification I received while literally typing this out.

I have to backtrack, now, and confess that I did find an “Alternative Apps Centre” within the Data Detox Kit, which contains some genuinely smart recommendations like ProtonMail, Riot, Signal, and DuckDuckGo surrounding a bunch of privacy-enhancing browser extensions. However, the “detox” seems to have been lost at some point along the way. No amount of privacy (yes, I do think it's hilarious that I can freely refer to “privacy” as a commodity with a positive quantity) can detoxify one' social media addiction. The savvy reader notes the “Supported by Mozilla Firefox” badges all over the website and asks me “well, what did you expect?” My answer: something “more” than promotion, I suppose.

I suspect this is another case of don't go to those who created the problem for the solution. More privacy is a more tangible vector upon which to “innovate” than simply putting down the fucking phone, but the interviewees in the film at least touched upon a very important insight in that regard: turn off all your notifications. I genuinely believe turning off all notifications is a good way to proceed, especially if this film (or anything else, for that matter) has made you feel uncomfortable about your relationship with your phone. I realized that I'd somehow allowed YouTube to clutter my notifications unconsciously for years, which is disturbing. In general, the apps who's notifications I'd probably value the most (Bandcamp!) are the ones who use the feature the least/the most subtly.

Leaving your phone in a different room while you sleep is a good idea, though it seems a bit excessive when you could just turn it off, instead. (Displaced from your bed or stone dead, your chances of making use of your handset in an emergency are about the same, I'd wager.) I suspect it's long overdue for a reboot, anyway. As far as “Email Addiction” goes, I suggest you first take an afternoon to go through your inbox and make use of GDPR's greatest gift: the single-click opt-out, most often found in very small text in a given email's footer. If you're really serious, unsubscribe from even the newsletters you do read and make yourself resubscribe to them. Make use of your preferred email platform's archives feature – or don't – but clear everything from your inbox itself. Mark it all as read. Then, you'll be ready to seek out other Email Wellness methodologies like the recently-trendy Inbox Zero.

If quitting social media cold turkey is not viable in your personal or professional life, a set daily time to check your notifications is a very good start. Yes, it's okay to announce on Facebook that you're taking a break from Facebook. There is a very good reason: accountability, to both yourself and your friends. If you are interested in the alternatives I mentioned before, genuinely contact me literally any time. My personal phone number is (573) 823-4380. I would be elated to discuss some of the services I've discovered with you.

My own advice on “privacy:” don't worry about installing browser extensions, or using a different browser for that matter. Aside from a password manager, there is no need to download or install any additional software to protect your information. All the “privacy tools” you need are already present on your device, and they mostly consist of geolocation settings. If you're an iOS user, you've already been confronted with them in the past few months. If you are still genuinely bothered by automated data collection unseen by human eyes, your only next step – if we're really honest with ourselves – is figuring out how you're going to go without the internet. Untracked browsing is no longer a realistic option.

#software #film

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.

Martin: 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.

View this post on Instagram

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

iOS 14 Custom Homescreen Collage

It is my privilege and my curse to write about every new major iteration to Apple’s mobile operating system, though I skipped iOS 13 last year, which was largely dominated by Dark Mode, the iPad OS fork, and Memoji – which I could care less about, honestly – and didn’t warrant my investment in a Full Post, I felt. The Photos app improvements were very welcome, but I’d departed from iCloud as my primary storage service, so I didn’t have anything relevant to say. iOS 14 is also mostly irrelevant to my own personal use, but represents a more abstract shift in design philosophy that I thought was worth commenting on. For myself, everything about it adds anxiety, beginning with the launch, itself, at Apple’s WWDC 2020, which I watched, live, and Tweeted extensively about.

I do not want to live on the Memoji planet.

My technology writing over the years has largely centered around my awe and confusion regarding what I've perceived as a divergent path from the future I once imagined. My closest guess as to this divergence's origin is the announcement of iOS7, with Apple's abandonment of skeuomorphic design in favor of an entirely new, “flatter” UX visual language, which I actually found quite jarring. In retrospect, though, of course I'm glad they did so. I thought this was an importat preface to any thoughts I have about today's WWDC Keynote – they will probably seem idiotic in a year or so (they might to you already.)

Thanks to The Big Beer Virus, this was Apple's first pre-recorded WWDC presentation (though the word “live” continued to be used on several occasions,) which made it especially surreal. During the wait for the Keynote to “go live,” the stream was occupied by an animated Earth from orbit. As the clock rolled over the hour's top, AURORA's “Daydreamer” faded in and we began to grow closer to this Earth, gradually revealing that it was covered with millions of floating memoji in various states behind their animated MacBooks. Like much of the event to follow, this scene became more and more anxiety-inducing as we grew closer to the mob (keep in mind that I've never really found memoji cute, unlike plenty of folks.) Eventually, we changed pitch dramatically and plunged through a hole in the clouds straight toward the incenter of the spaceship at Apple Park, through the door, down the staircase, and into a completely empty – but fully lit – Steve Jobs theatre, where Tim Cook emerged on stage and almost immediately began to address racism.

This disorganization of Craig Federighi's Homescreen shown in the presentation exemplifies the entire aura of this update: it’s complicated. The Verge’s Dieter Bohn receives this new complication positively in an excellent essay dedicated to the topic, divided into Widgets on The Home Screen, Jiggle Mode and Editing Pages, the App Library, and App Clips. (Yes, in many ways, linking to the essay makes this post redundant.)


That's what I wrote about WWDC. iOS 14 officially released five days ago, now, and folks are already showcasing some crazy homescreen modifications on Twitter in #ios14homescreen. I would go into detail, but I'm honestly not all that curious about the process, which is unusual. I hope more than anything that I am not loosing my curiosity or playfulness regarding iOS which not so long ago propelled an exuberant exploration of Shortcuts' capabilities during their early days as an integrated Apple property with the release of iOS 12.

Basically, I'm not going to do the full bit, this year, but I'd like to address some of the notes I did take throughout the past few months of the developer beta. Notably, there is simply far less to iOS 14 that's relevant to my life, personally, than any other release I remember, but that's okay. It's just a wee bit more difficult to motivate myself to talk about it. If there's one definite statement to be made about this release, it's that it is additive rather than transformative. As Dieter Bohn so elequently put it for The Verge:

For the iPhone, the overarching theme is that they're finally letting it get complicated. The home screen starts simple, but it can be complex if you want it to and Apple's also finally putting different elements on top of other elements so you can see Siri on top of your current screen instead of taking over the whole screen.

iOS and iPadOS 14 public beta preview: something for everybody” | The Verge

Yes, I do find the title of that article quite ironic considering what I just articulated to you.

The title of his penultimate review, additionally, includes the summation “Apple is finally lettting the iPhone homescreen get complicated.” Yes... Complexity. I'll be honest: I've actually had the opportunity to play around quite a bit with Android 11 thanks to Android Studio on my PCs, and I found it tremendously underwhelming as an alternative. On a virtual Pixel 3, the experience was functionally no more than a fucking material design-tasting, slightly varied execution of a smartphone operating system in comparison. I should disclaim, though, that these weeks with early iOS widget implementation – which represents quite a hefty chunk of this release's significance, I think we can all agree – have led me to the conclusion that I personally do not believe in widgets. Or at least – I do not have the usership vocabulary to even begin integrating them into my own handset-using life.[efn_note]I'd elaborate but honestly, who cares, really?[/efn_note]

To focus a bit, let's look specifically at a Gizmodo article published this past Wednesday: “17 Things You Can Do in iOS 14 That You Couldn’t Do Before:”

  1. App Clips: Oh boy... I'm so physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausted. Just gonna say no to that one.
  2. Add widgets to the home screen: I'm going to assume it's Android users who've stigmatised dynamic home screen widgets as a desirable outlet of development resources. I simply cannot fathom any bit of data which would be truly be constructively consumed there, as opposed to unlocking the device and navigating to whatever application it originated from. Perhaps I'm just old and slow.
  3. Send apps to the App Library: Directly related, actually. Still considering how I assume most folks actually navigate to applications that have been in folders or in secondary+ homescreens to date – that is, dragging down and typing a handful of characters into Spotlight search – I'm not sure an alphabetized listing of all apps is really that useful. I know I'm not alone on this one: iJustine expressed an identical assumption on an episode of her podcast, Same Brain.
  4. Hide some of your home screens: (I repeat the exact same argument.)
  5. Watch videos with picture-in-picture mode: Once again, I could definitely be showing my age, but what really constitues watching when you're talking about a fractional segment of a ~6 inch display? You may as well just be listening to the audio, right?
  6. Pin conversations in Messages: I'm afraid the text conversation pinning feature doesn't really apply to someone like myself, who literally never messages anyone but my girlfriend and my mom. All pinning the conversations accomplishes for me is the obfuscation of the handy in-line timestamp found in the normal list view.
  7. Mention your contacts in Messages: Jesus... And we're still using fucking SMS?
  8. Add more variety to your memojis: I still have not figured out how to actually use memojies, practically, so...
  9. Get suggested smart home automations: I'm sorry... What did you say? I'm not familiar with those words.
  10. Get to bed on time: Clarification: “iOS 14 works with watchOS 7 (or on its own) to help you get to sleep at the right time each night, with reminders and Do Not Disturb options.” If you were truly at all interested in not being disturbed or getting lots of sleep, you wouldn't have spent $300 on a machine to strap to your wrist who's primary function is to disturb you!
  11. Translate websites in Safari: Christ... Really? How have I not encountered an issue with this before?
  12. Search inside apps: There we go! The first item on this list that suggests anyone at Apple actually uses iOS!
  13. Get more detailed weather forecasts: Dark Sky acquision... All this one does is remind me that Apple's self-restraint could breach at any time and essentially the only competent mobile weather app ever devised could die or be molested into irrelevance.
  14. Use your iPhone as a translator: Well... Yeah... Anything that convenienctly allows me to reduce dependence on Google, I guess!
  15. Get more facts from Siri: ...lol
    “Apple says Siri knows more facts than ever before, though it hasn’t offered up any specific examples of something it knows in iOS 14 that it didn’t know in iOS 13—you’ll have to try and test it out yourself. According to Apple, Siri now knows 20 times the number of facts that it did three years ago, and we haven’t been able to catch it out with anything so far.”
  16. Get cycling directions in Apple Maps: No! Cut that out!
  17. Plan a journey in an electric vehicle: I'm not joking when I suggest that this fits perfectly into iOS 14's Anxiety Mode Enchancement theme: all this really means is We've added the new Apple Range Anxiety app!

David Blue's Guide to Columbia, Missouri renders surprisingly beautifully on a desktop browser.

Yes, there are examples of genuine progress. The Guides feature in Maps (seen above) probably could/should have been added a long time ago, but at least Apple executed it quite elegantly. I'm could've sworn sharing your ETA has been possible from within Maps since like... iOS 7 or something, but perhaps I was thinking of Waze. Wallpapers for CarPlay are one of those features that didn’t occur to me to want, but I did/do. Also – though my personal experience with CarPlay has been limited – I can definitely imagine more layout options (“Horizontal status bar”) will be useful in fringe use cases.

And that's it! All of my notes have now been crossed off! Now I can finally forget I ever spent time thinking about iOS this year... Gourd Bless.

#software

Broke Windows

An attempt to fix a Windows Insider Build issue led to soft-bricking my Surface Laptop 2.

I finally did it, ladies and gentlemen... I managed to break the Windows installation on my Microsoft Surface Laptop 2 to such an extent that it has been unrecoverable. I am currently borrowing my mother's MacBook Pro and waiting on a Windows 10 installation .ISO file to download so that I can hope to mount it correctly on the last, shitty USB thumb drive I still have lying around.

Fuck Grammarly

YEAH, THAT'S RIGHT BITCH.

I now suspect I began down this path a few months ago when I discovered Windows Insider Channels and rejoiced... As I've discovered that one can relatively easily find a beta version of virtually any piece of software, it's become a bit of a habit for me. More or less unconsciously, I’ve ended up with an application library full of Developer Beta and Nightly Build-type shit. I don't think there was/is a single web browser installed on that machine that is not the given entity's “Developer Edition” which – considering most of the regular installs allow you to opt into dev tools, anyway – seem like they might be redundant. I don't particularly care, anymore – I mostly just love their icons. Firefox Developer Edition's logo is a blue Firefox(!,) Edge Chromium Dev's is... more interesting than the regular version. Google Chrome Canary's icon is a surprisingly-tasteful variation of the company's usually-horrendous color palette.

What I'm trying to say is... I have continued upon this habit of opting for unstable versions of software in a sort of defiance against the common sense notion that relying upon them is generally a bad idea.[^1] I suppose I was just waiting to experience any consequences from such a decision, and well... Here they are!

It all began when my Surface's integrated webcam became invisible to all applications that used a video input – including Microsoft's own Camera app and OBS. It showed up in Device Manger, where I did the generally-recommended troubleshooting task of uninstalling it completely (including its drivers) and rebooting to force Windows to reinstall it. It did so successfully every time, to no effect on the original issue. I also went into the Surface's BIOS menu, where its hardware devices are explicitly listed, and disabled/re-enabled the camera, to no effect. Normally, the absence of a webcam function would be more or less irrelevant to my day-to-day workflow, but now that I'm partaking in “virtual” college courses, at least one of my professors has pressured me to appear on cam as soon as possible.

On Sunday night, I decided to revisit the problem with greater commitment, diving into a variety of deeper troubleshooting steps which I do not recall. The crucial one, though, was my decision to use the System File Checker tool (sfc /scannow) with the added instruction to fix whatever errors it found.[^2] This drove my dearest little laptop into a cycle of self-diagnoses which results in an option screen including “Reset PC.” After trying virtually every other option, I decided to try resetting, only to be met with connectivity error messages after pursuing the “Install via Network” option, leaving the use of a bootable Windows 10 recovery USB as my only choice, in theory.

Another problem now arose: my mother's MacBook Pro is the only other machine I have any sort of access to at the moment, and MacOS no longer supports the creation of such a bootable USB for Windows via the Boot Camp Utility any longer. Nevertheless, I tried to make one by downloading the correct OS ISO and mounting it via UNetbootin, which didn't work. I then called Columbia Computer Center, who very generously agreed to make one for me and only charge me for the drive itself ($10!)

Unfortunately, that one hasn't worked either, so I'm afraid I'm just going to have to take the thing to them... Stay tuned for the Final Verdict.

[1] This is why I’ve always downloaded the developer iOS beta releases on my actual, daily driver handset.

[2] I’m pretty sure it was “-f” but I’m not going to do the research to verify that… Sorry!

#software

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