Categories
Short Stories

Life Magic

Sami walked through the dark valley formed by two of the World Tree’s roots. Grass crunched under his paws, and he could smell mint from the illuminated green veins that ran through the roots. As he walked, he ran his paws along the coarse, warm walls and felt the pulse of the Tree.

He came to a clearing where the roots lifted into the air, forming a ceiling of dark red wood, smooth, almost polished. Leaves of all colors covered the gaps, painting dots of light over the concrete floor of the Keeper’s chamber.

“Hello, Sami.” The Keeper approached as a swarm of rainbow insects. Sami took a step back as the buzzing swarm approached, but the mint smell got stronger as it did, and it calmed him. The swarm swirled, taking the shape of a fox. The swarm walked to Sami, around, then back to his front. It turned into a fennec fox, identical to him.

“Hi. How do you know my name?”

“The Tree experiences everything. But your name is all it would tell me. I’m not familiar with your species.”

“Fennec fox. We come from the desert.”

“Ah. Cute species. Why do you seek me?”

“Knowledge.”

“Why?”

“To learn more about the world.”

“Why do you want to learn more about the world?”

“I’ve heard of magic.”

“Are you not happy with your abilities?”

“It’s not that. The Tree keeps me happy and healthy. But I desire more.”

“Sami…Sami, Sami, Sami.” It walked closer, until its muzzle almost touched Sami’s. “What you are is ambitious. Be honest.”

Sami looked away, then back. “Yes. I want power.”

“For what purpose? Do you know why the Tree takes such care in deciding who to trust?”

“Someone with your power could destroy the world.”

“What? Oh my, yes. But under no circumstance will your capabilities ever approach mine. I earned the Tree’s trust with a hundred years under its tutelage. Then I worked my way up through the different manifestations of the Tree’s power, enhancing and proving my capabilities and wisdom. I only became Keeper a hundred years ago. What will you do with the power the Tree grants?”

“I want to explore the Tree’s Gift. To see all there is to see.”

“Exploration!” The Keeper glowed and pulsed, then returned to the fennec form. “This ambition is healthy and reasonable. Life is best when it moves and changes. Why do you need power for this? The Tree rarely involves itself in the motion of life, and it has all the power in the world. Yet life still finds its way around.”

“Safety. Like you said, the Tree rarely involves itself. I want to protect myself from dangers as I explore.”

“Dangers. What dangers? If you die, your consciousness merges with the Tree. The value of your life experience and unique perspective adds to the whole of life.”

“By that reasoning, the value of my death rises the longer I live, and the more I experience.”

The Keeper turned back into a rainbow bug swarm and flew out of sight, but Sami still heard its voice. “Good answer. You now have the ability to summon these creatures and create a specter of any kind of life you can imagine. Use it wisely.”

Categories
Short Stories

Origin Story

“Ladies, gentlemen, valued et cetera. You’re probably wondering why I’ve called you here. I-“

“Get to the point.”

“Well I hoped to be a little more dramatic about such an important revelation.”

“Let the revelation speak for itself.”

“Fine. Adam, come on out and skip to the question and answer portion.”

Adam walked out on to the stage and froze once he got a look at the university auditorium filled to its 1,000 person capacity.

“It’s ok, they don’t bite.”

One of the doctor’s students stood up. “What is it? It looks like a man in a fox suit. I didn’t know you were a furry.”

“What? No, I’m not a…well, I am a furry, but this is no man in a fox suit. This is the best of a human combined with one of nature’s sharpest creatures. I named him Adam, after my late pet fox. Now, before we get to your questions, I have a little speech.”

“Will this be on the final?”

“No. Yes. Maybe. Look, just listen.”

“I think we’d all rather hear what he has to say.”

“Fine. Adam, you’re up.”

Adam took the podium. “Questions?”

“Did the doctor create you as a sex slave?”

“No.”

“Then why did he create you?”

Adam thumbed through his notes to the prepared answer. “Humans have all but eliminated physical labor through automation. Now the main limitation on progress is the human mind. Not anymore.” He turned the page on his notes, and tried to speak, but…

“Any thoughts about enslaving the human race?”

“The doctor made me promise not to enslave or kill anyone before he let me out of the cage.”

The audience gasped. “He keeps you in a cage? I’m reporting this to the ethics committee.”

“Don’t you people have a sense of humor?”

“You’re being kind of an asshole.”

“Blame the doctor. He made me.”

The audience broke out in laughter.

Categories
Short Stories

Wonder

I used to look up into the night sky and wonder. Then I went there. Among the trillions upon trillions of stars, none had that kindred spirit I longed for.

I found a machine civilization, a sentient black hole (I called him Phil, which he enjoyed very much), and others that, despite all my progressive leanings and wish to understand, were completely alien to me.

The machines had advanced statistical models based on extensive exploration, and as far as they could determine, Earth was home to the only life that resembled Earth life in the slightest. They were delighted when the strange animal landed on their homeworld, and quickly assembled an ambassador whose form was based on the average of all the people they found in my ship’s database.

Determined to find someone like myself, I set off for the void past known space, to see if there was anything beyond. The machines, the black hole, and all the good friends I made there admitted (with some approximation of embarrassment) that they’d never considered such a journey, and helped me build an appropriate craft.

I zipped across the expanse for weeks, increasingly convinced the next ten billion light years would be much like the last.

Then someone said hello.

Categories
Articles

What ActivityPub means for musicians

The gist for people not extremely online: ActivityPub is the latest in a series of protocols aimed at letting different technologies speak with each other. It’s like HTTPS, which brought this post from my web server to the program you’re reading this in. Below that is TCP/IP, and different protocols at the ISP level like DNS and BGP.

Yeah, it’s a lot of acronyms. It’s enough to know that ActivityPub is a protocol that typically runs on HTTP, and it’s gaining steam where previous protocols in the same category like XMPP and OStatus got little traction outside tech circles.

For musicians, this means you will soon have options beyond Facebook and Twitter. Independent developers are hard at work on tools that handle events like Facebook, music like Soundcloud, short posts like Twitter, and things you probably never thought of. They all speak the same protocol.

Right now, it looks like what you do now but…distributed. It’s nice because there are enough people on the ActivityPub network to be seen, but not so many that you fall below the noise floor if you aren’t relentless.

There’s a typical pattern in technology.

  • Someone makes a technology that does the thing people already do, but different.
  • Early adopters rush in because hey, new thing!
  • Everyone else struggles to understand it. They usually compare it to earlier, failed efforts to replace the current thing. They’re right 99% of the time.
  • The tools people use for the old thing turn user-hostile and try to keep people from leaving as the new thing takes over. Twitter got an early start by killing off its developer ecosystem. They know how this goes.
  • Thousands of posts appear on the new thing in the theme of “I’m glad I made an account and kept a presence here early!”

Most people who already find adequate success on Twitter and Facebook will struggle to justify the time and effort, but it’s coming. ActivityPub is happening.

Right now there are a few main platforms that run on it. For example: Mastodon, Pleroma, PixelFed, Nextcloud. It’s tempting to assert that these will be the thing but, historically speaking, they probably won’t be. There are too many issues and splits for them to last.

The platforms that carve out new frontiers like this always end up a footnote. Ask the average internet user about Usenet, or AOL, or any of the vanguard of Web 2.0.

That sounds like I’m saying “don’t bother.” What I’m actually saying is “don’t repeat the last mistake.” Yes, go make a Mastodon account. Make one on Pixelfed. Find a Funkwhale or PeerTube instance. Write your novel on write.as. Organize an event on Get Together. You can benefit from it now, but make sure you have a way to tell people where you are once better tools sprout up in the ruins of the ActivityPub vanguard.

Categories
Articles

Patreon’s Future

It’s easy to say Patreon’s fate was sealed the moment it took venture capital (VC). It’s widely understood that VC locks a company on a trajectory with three possible outcomes: acquisition, IPO, or yet another “our incredible journey” shutdown. The received wisdom is that all of Jack Conte’s sincere pleas for patience and trust are meaningless because he no longer ran the company once the VCs got in. As someone currently relying on Patreon for more than bare sustenance, this was…deeply troubling.

Patreon lets you export your patrons, email included, but not connect directly to Stripe. They aim to be a full-service creative destination, and giving you a way out doesn’t serve VCs who see a half billion dollar valuation. I’ve been around the e-block a bit and know exactly how it goes when companies get destination ambitions. See: AOL, Twitter, Facebook. All three followed the same path of closing off ways for third-party tools to access the services while they ate a growing market. Patreon hasn’t done that yet. Watch for it.

Companies with dreams of dominating (or saving) the world have four stages:

  1. They start out as a way to get somewhere and connect with people. Patreon connects creators with supporters’ bank accounts in a secure way.
  2. Then they become a destination, one of many points of interest along the way. Patreon has enough accounts that it’s easiest for a supporter to go there when they want to support someone even if the creator has a presence on sites like Ko-fi or Gumroad.
  3. Then they become prisons as a source of relief and prosperity turns into an obligation. Patreon is on the road to this stage. It isn’t yet so bad that people hate it, but most creators on there see that something is wrong.
  4. Something else comes along to remind people of what they lost, and the company rarely survives without losing most of its market. See: Ko-fi, Gumroad’s under development membership platform, or Substack.

Every company had an AOL keyword in their ads. Then it was a Twitter handle or a Facebook page. You already see Patreon pages mentioned in YouTube videos and podcasts.

Patreon is at stage 3. No one ever knows what #4 looks like even if they can make educated guesses.

Categories
Articles

More Satellites Than Planes

It’s about 9PM on the first of April, 2020.

Georgia’s governor just issued a shelter-in-place order after a March that saw new global covid-19 cases rise from a couple thousand a day to over 70 thousand daily.

The order ends on April 13th. It may be too late to stop a major outbreak, but it seems like the the people at the top are catching up. Cities, counties, events, and many states paid attention sooner. Maybe he’ll extend it when he realizes things aren’t getting better on the 13th.

Between the weeks of thick clouds and my anxiety about going out for a walk amid an outbreak, I haven’t seen the night sky in a while. The steady stream of planes to and from Atlanta is missing. I saw a lone, dim speck of light float by, but no telltale blinking lights. A satellite. A digital check of overhead planes confirms it’s not just the clouds getting in the way. Whether it’s the order or a weeks-long normal, I do not know.

Almost as quiet is the nearby highway. I blamed my stopped up ears at first, but I heard one car go by every few minutes.

I’m concerned, but optimistic. Good luck, everyone. Wash your hands, dab when you cough, and keep six feet away. I see one plane overhead as I finish this draft. There’s hope.

Categories
Articles

A yarn about software development culture

Note: This is a republished version of an article from an old blog.

Richard Stallman resigned and/or was pushed out of the FSF, depending on your alignment.

People put up with his behavior because he helped start the free software movement. But after a point you have to wonder: how many potential contributors were put off because software development as a culture makes excuses for great men with underdeveloped interpersonal skills?

I have a theory that people in tech who tolerate this behavior can’t imagine doing anything else. Dealing with this kind of behavior takes time and energy, and risks becoming a pariah. So they optimize! They live and breath code, and can’t imagine that someone would be drawn to it and not feel such a pull that they would put up with anything to be a part of that culture. From that perspective, avoiding difficult conversations—minding that their interpersonal skills might also be lacking even if they see the problem and want to say something—is a rough optimization so they can focus on code and intellectually stimulating conversations.

Unfortunately, like all premature optimizations, avoidance of conflict leads to more problems than it solves. Not everyone who would make a great developer sees it as their only option. Many see the culture and run off to the less toxic cultures around one of their other hobbies. Like knitting: oft-mocked by toxic people, but just as technically challenging as any software project. If you think debates over code licenses get loud, try knitting pattern licensing.

This culture put me off going further into tech for a long time because the pull wasn’t strong enough to make the value proposition compelling. Instead, I went to music. I put up with irritating EDM bros because I love listening to and making electronic music even if it drives me to want to quit sometimes. And, I’ll admit, I avoid taking people aside to talk about their behavior because I’ve been burned so many times doing that. I could be better about this.

This kind of situation is even bad for a person pushing people away. Making excuses for their behavior denies them the opportunity to grow and learn to make sharp critiques in a way that makes the recipient learn and feel better about the work they did in the process of making the subject of critique.

Time for a personal story!

I used to make a lot of bad, lewd puns every time a chance presented itself. A friend pulled me aside and said they appreciated my humor, but felt like my misses took away from the hits because I had no filter, no standards. By realizing they were right and doing the work to step up my pun game, I was happier and made a lot more people groan.

Richard Stallman had to leave in 2019 because people made excuses for his behavior for decades. This could have been prevented anywhere along the way. Genius doesn’t matter if the vessel for that genius repels equal geniuses who feel like they have better options.

Categories
Articles

Lifestyles of the broke and nameless

It’s 9:06 PM. I’m staring down the barrel of another failed project. This whole nightmare started in 2009 when I graduated into an economy where all the once-valuable skills of my Network Administration degree (with a focus on Linux!) were now outsourced to “software as a service”—like Google Apps and Amazon Web Services—and to other countries where labor exploitation was more blatant. This was right after the economy went into a generation-defining nosedive. The economists claim the economy has seen a full recovery and then some, but I don’t know anyone who feels whole. Their definitions need work.

I accepted my path into IT was closed off and tried making a living online. I sold t-shirts. EBooks. Photo prints. I tried affiliate marketing and ads. I got an ad revenue check once. DistroKid paid for itself through referrals. Music is the closest I’ve been to a big score through album sales and Patreon. $60 dollars a month after years of sincere and consistent effort. At least it’s something.

But not really. It’s not enough to move for better job opportunities. All the “beginner” jobs here are taken by retirees who discovered the party and businesses they supported for decades screwed them over. I can’t even muster a “fuck you, grandma.” I’m not that bitter. Yet. Whine more about the “War on Christmas” as I pay for my toffee snickerdoodles. All while Republicans raid Social Security and FEMA for vanity projects like wars and walls, with the help of Democrats “compromising” right over the edge, then maybe I can learn to hate you the way you hate “millennials,” whatever that is. I’ve already resolved to use the self checkout next time and forever after. Blame yourself.

Categories
Articles

I listened to Joe Rogan’s podcast so you don’t have to

Here are all the things I’ve heard about Joe Rogan, mega-popular podcaster:

  • Nazi
  • Transphobe
  • Idiot
  • Genius

I finally gave in and had a listen to a few of his very, very long podcast episodes after Bernie Sanders called out his interview with Rogan.

The result is…he’s okay. Fine. Good. Doesn’t seem like a Nazi. Has some questionable opinions on trans women in sports, but isn’t quite on a level with people screaming slurs at trans women on Twitter. Some of his guests are, and I can’t mince words here, not good. I don’t believe in pure good and evil, but someone like Alex Jones tests that view. He practices malignant ignorance, and Joe has had him on in the last year.

It’s a value judgement. You have values, I have values. We all have lines we don’t cross. I suspect our lines and values are more similar than different. We can have a conversation here.

That’s what I don’t like about politics. Some people just refuse to own the fact that they have an ideology. “Trans rights are human rights” is, aside from being absolutely fucking true, an ideology.

And you know what? Even if you bristle at that slogan, I bet if we sat down and chatted about what it means, you would agree. We’re probably not that different once you get past the slogans and talking points.

I just don’t want to start this newsletter off by giving any impression to my many leftist friends that I wouldn’t stop a Nazi if they threatened any trans person. But I want everyone else to know that, despite some growing images of left-leaning people like myself, I don’t think everyone who holds an ignorant opinion on queer people (also like myself) is a goose-stepping fascist.

So this Joe Rogan guy, right?

He reminds me of Jack O’Neill, team leader on Stargate SG-1. Seems a little dumb, sometimes charges through good sense into bad calls, but his heart is in the right place. And he’s probably a lot smarter than he lets on. In another interview, I think the one with Penn Jillette, they talk about Joe’s past slide into conspiracy theories. He seems to be back to the fun, jokey-serious conspiracy theory nonsense of the ‘90s.

The kind that gave us Stargate.

But that’s not what most people care about in this post-Sanders endorsement world. People want to know if he’s a transphobe. In the strict, academic sense, his expression of his views on trans women in sports is transphobic. His words contribute to an environment that makes trans people unsafe.

By that definition, we’re all transphobes. I laughed at the “she’s a man, man!” scene in Austin Powers when I was younger and stupider. I laughed at the transphobia in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Like Joe, I realize now how transphobic it was. I don’t find this definition helpful outside contexts where everyone knows and agrees with it. You have to meet people where they are if you want to move them.

Complex human. Calling out transphobic nonsense. Not giving in to all the people yelling “transphobe!” and sticking to trying not to be one. Look past the ableism in the way he expressed it. We’ll all come around on not calling things insane some day.

This human is a conduit for ideas with no filter. He has lines and values that come into focus as I listen to episodes. My impression is that, by American political standards, he’s more left than liberal, and far from right wing.

I can see the appeal. His revised interview with Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, adds Vijaya Gadde and Tim Pool. This was probably one of the best interviews I’ve heard.

Vijaya Gadde is Twitter’s main law/policy/community person. She made a strong case that Twitter is listening, trying to do right. Jack stayed out of the way a lot, saying she needed to be at the front more on this subject as the person responsible for Twitter’s community.

Tim Pool is one of those people I would normally dismiss as an asshole. Asshole, probably, but I heard him. He’s your typical free speech absolutist. He has his lines, and those lines are informed by his ideology. He thinks, and Joe generally agrees, that removing people and content from platforms prevents people from making informed decisions.

He cites an example where a friend of his was going down the alt-right rabbithole by way of a right-wing personality. He wanted to reference a video on YouTube from that personality to show how bad they really are and where his ideas went, but the video was gone. He admitted he didn’t know why it was gone, but the point held: the video wasn’t available as evidence to steer that friend away.

That was actually kind of persuasive. A point of agreement! We might disagree on the solution. I think it’s better to demote the content and people and provide some informed commentary, then provide a path to the full force of their ideas with the benefit of that context. In the same way, I wouldn’t send someone to Joe’s podcast without pointing out some of the troubling people he has on. Context. Lines. Ideology.

I don’t think I would have understood all the viewpoints involved here without the format. The episodes are long. This episode (#1258) is three and a half hours. So long that everyone got out the usual BS, realized they kept repeating themselves, and chilled out enough to hash out their differences and similarities for a couple of hours before calmly conceding they wouldn’t fully agree with each other, but at least understood each other’s positions.

As I do, now.

Categories
Articles

That time I got two defective refurbished Nikon D3400s from Adorama

I have long wanted to get serious about photography. I used a Canon PowerShot SX100 IS until it died on me, and quit photography. I just didn’t have the money for another camera, and phone cameras were inadequate. You can see some of my limited good results with both here.

One day, I finally saved enough to get a proper DSLR in the form of a Nikon D3400 with the kit 18-55 lens, plus the vibration reduced DX 70-300 lens. Adorama had a great deal on a refurbished camera and refurbished lens. Everyone said refurbs were as good as or better than new because they had special attention from a tech at Nikon. That turned out to be false. I don’t doubt that every blog post and comment stating this was from someone who had a good experience and believed it to be true, but either I got a bad run or something changed.

The first camera had a big line up and down every image. Bad pixels. Hot pixels. Dead pixels. I don’t know. Adorama sent me a return label, and I shipped it off for a replacement. I had to spring for about $5 in packaging since I was only sending the camera back and the box was sized for it and the big zoom lens.

A replacement arrived around midday. I took a lot of great shots, and then I saw it. The faster the shutter got, the more obvious it was I got another defective camera. The picture was unusable by 1/1000 and almost completely black by the maximum shutter speed. Obviously, it’s not Adorama’s fault the camera was defective, but their support person said someone would check it before sending. They obviously didn’t do a thorough enough check. I was out about $10 for packaging this time since I already sent the big box back with the first camera.

I sent it and the lens back, and decided not to try again until I could buy new. By then, I was already pushing the return window on the 70-300 lens, and I couldn’t risk getting another bad camera to go with a lens I couldn’t send back anymore. To Adorama’s credit, they processed the returns and refund without fuss. The only problem was with the first camera where they processed it as a refund instead of a replacement, added a new order for the same camera, and I had to ask them to suspend it for a few days so the money could get back in my bank.

Who failed here? I don’t know. I do know Adorama no longer has Nikon D3400s, refurbished or otherwise, in stock as of this writing. The lesson not to put too much weight on what people say online cost me $15 and some time at the UPS store, and I consider it worthwhile.

If you like those photos I linked earlier and want to see more in the future, check out what I make now and help me get another camera. A better one. When it wasn’t obviously broken, I got enough use out of it to realize I would probably be happier with a mirrorless camera.