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Mastodon shows its stripes

There’s a new (2015) trans flag making the rounds over on Mastodon, an early ActivityPub platform.

The trans flag with a black stripe in the middle.

It was created by Raquel Willis in 2015 to raise awareness to the tremendous amount of violence black trans people face. Trans people in general have it bad, but it’s so much worse for them.

Some people on Mastodon, me included, pointed out that the black stripe replaced the white stripe. It was handled with as much tact as can be reasonably expected from people who feel like they’re being excluded. The context, I now understand, is that it’s there for black trans people to carve out space in an identity they’re made to feel excluded from.

Without context, it wasn’t clear this flag was an option for people who needed it, rather than an attempt at replacement. Yes, the former is the charitable thing to assume, but…well. My whole point here in this article is that something about the medium of short posts discourages charitable interpretations by allowing little room for context.

People reacted to these expressed worries about the misunderstood intent of the flag the way people do when strangers criticize something they like. I think this was inevitable and driven by the nature of the medium. People imported all their toxic behavior from Twitter, and so we get the same messes.

I did it too. Mea culpa.

Here’s the problem with Mastodon, and Tweet/toot-length posting in general: there is no room to build up to a point, so all you get is points. Punchy, context-free points.

“You can’t not know what the white stripe means!”

“Anyone who has a problem with the black stripe is blocked.”

“I always had my suspicions about them, and this confirms it.”

And on it goes.

There is a problem in the binary trans community of trying to exclude nonbinary people. It’s real. See: the whole ContraPoints fiasco. She didn’t mean to, but the unintended reads of her now evolved-away-from treatise on identity vs. perception (“The Aesthetic”) and some bad tweets (Never Tweet) led to a lot of binary trans people going mask off about what they think of nonbinary people. That’s the context we see the stripe change in lacking any other information.

So, lacking the context possible in a longer form medium, the gut reaction to seeing the nonbinary/gender-noncomforming representation on the trans flag replaced feels like an attack.

The nice thing about a spacious medium like a blog is I can reassure you that Raquel Willis is part of a writers’ collective for trans and nonbinary people and has said strongly pro-nonbinary things on Twitter. I have no doubt she’d have a problem with someone using her variation on the trans flag to exclude nonbinary people. I don’t think she meant to do what a lot of us worried about when we first saw it.

Without that context, though…

I can see why someone would get their hackles up. I sure did, and had to walk it back when I realized this whole thing might be impossible to discuss in a medium of short posts. And, you know, racism is a huge problem, and it was imported to Mastodon along with all the other toxicity, so people are on guard. Any criticism of the flag, no matter how well-intentioned, can look a little racist. In exactly the same way that swapping out our stripe, and that’s canon, can look a little sus.

It would be nice if people on both ends of it made charitable assumptions, but we’ve all dealt with enough people being exactly what we think they are that it feels dangerous to do otherwise. So it’s two groups within a group assuming the worst because they feel like they have to.

This whole situation on top of all the others made me doubt that Mastodon is going to end up much better than Twitter. I can’t decide if the toxicity that puts people on edge is endemic to the medium or if it’s just spilling over from Twitter refugees treating it like Twitter.

Anyway, black trans lives matter.

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The thing that gets you to the thing

Music as I treated it the last several years was a series of stepping stones to what I really wanted to do: photography. An album sale here, a patron there, and recently members here.

There’s a quote in one of my favorite TV shows, Halt and Catch Fire:

“Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.”

Joe MacMillan (played by Lee Pace), Halt and Catch Fire

Music was the thing that got me to the thing: photography. I had a lot of hobbies and interests, but picked music to carry that weight because:

  • I’m good at it.
  • I’m fast.
  • I don’t burn out on it easily.
  • Selling it doesn’t bother me the way it does for other hobbies.

And that worked out…mostly. Even after all that, it finally took a lot of gifted money to finally get there. I was burned out, ready to give up. But you know what? Had I paced myself and paid attention to my physical and emotional state, it would feel less like a Pyrrhic victory. I got the camera, but now I can’t look at my music tools without wanting to curl up into a little ball.

I mainly got the MIDI keyboard for the Lite license. Once I seriously burned out, I just couldn’t touch it. Opening Live filled me with dread. Even going back to the roots to play with LMMS or Reaper with some cheesy free software synthesizers just made me sad.

The burnout will pass. I hope. I miss making music right up until I try. Right now I’m focused on learning to use this camera while using this blog to turn my experiences and perspective into something useful for others.

If you ever decide to follow my path and turn one of your easy to sell hobbies into money to get you somewhere else, be prepared for the possibility that it’ll take longer than you expected. I had to bust my butt at it for years releasing hundreds of hours of music just to have enough saved from it to even think about buying a camera. Now I’m absolutely fried emotionally on the subject of music.

Don’t do it the way I did it. Don’t get desperate. Don’t pump out 30 things a week for a month every few months hoping something clicks enough to make it all worth it. Pace yourself. You don’t want to be ruined for that hobby on the other side.

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Normal wasn’t okay.

The commentor class keeps talking about going “back to normal” once the covid-19 pandemic is over. They come with checkmarks on Twitter and tickers in the lower third. To them, this is nothing but an exception, and everything was fine before.

This new precarity they see is only sudden in its reach and scale. Most people I know were still not stable after the post-2008 recession was officially over, if they ever were. If this is your first time worrying about the future, your best bet is to find someone talking about what’s actually changed.

So the question is: who should you listen to?

You could find some market opinion person, but they’re the same people who fixate on single digit percentage movements in the stock market while tens of millions of people are one paycheck from losing it all. I saw a screenshot of CNBC with Jim Cramer going wild over a rising Dow while the ticker mentioned millions of people freshly unemployed. I don’t think anyone making six figures (or more) can understand this situation enough to have a useful opinion on it.

I don’t have anyone specific to recommend, but I can offer some heuristics for identifying credible people:

  • People who talked about the need to decouple healthcare from employment before this crisis brought the health insurance and health care system’s failings into stark contrast.
  • People who talked about the need to address systemic injustice before now. There is a reason groups deemed “essential” during this crisis, like retail workers, are chronically underpaid.
  • People who advocate for justice reform. Prisoners are being forced to make PPE and hand sanitizer while underpaid and unable to afford it. Prisons charge them for most things. Look into the 13th amendment and the so-called reforms of the ‘80s and ’90s, then look at the demographics of prisons. The injustice doesn’t start with prison labor.
  • Just about any queer person. This one is unreliable since, as always, class tends to beat identities. Caitlyn Jenner endorsed Donald Trump in 2016 because she’s a rich Republican, and that’s what rich Republicans did at the time. No amount of “I didn’t know!” after the fact can undo the damage.

Generally, anyone who understands why “back to normal” is so absurd to so many people is a better source than any so-called market expert in the media. The severity and precarity of this pandemic is a symptom of long-broken systems, often intentionally so. You can eventually go back to a normal that worked for you, but you’ll be back here in 10 years if you ignore the sinkhole forming under the house.

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Stargate Atlantis and Universe, in retrospect

I rewatched Stargate: Atlantis for the first time since its 2004-2009 airing. I remember the furor over its cancellation in favor of Stargate: Universe.

I originally defended Universe. It rode Battlestar Galactica’s coattails, but I thought it had potential. Now, rewatching Atlantis, I get the anger. Universe is fine as a typical network TV science fiction show. It rides the line between reality TV and space opera.

Universe is fine as a generic space opera. Not good, not bad. The final scene of the final season was great TV and made me hopeful it would get another season. As the show that murdered Atlantis, it’s the worst thing ever. Atlantis is so good! I thought expedition leader Dr. Weir was an annoying, overbearing character when I first watched. Now I have a broader view of the space opera genre.

Watching Star Trek: Voyager’s Captain Janeway, another leader in a similar situation who made similar hard choices while far away from familiar social and legal structures, gave me a fresh perspective on what it takes to keep a crew together far away from home with hostile aliens at every turn. Voyager ended three years before Atlantis started, but I didn’t watch it until recently.

Universe had no intentional leaders. It had a temperamental lead scientist who felt like a defective clone of Battlestar Galactica’s Baltar. The military lead was a sanded down version of the cliche military tough guy of the Stargate movie with none of charm or tact of Colonel O’Neill. Neither of them led half as well as some of the side characters did. Atlantis had John Sheppard and Dr. Weir, each one a perfect evolution of their SG-1 counterparts, Jack O’Neill and Dr. Carter. Universe improved with time, but it was doomed long before.

Universe ended with a cliffhanger that gave hope for a renewed show with a real leader. Eli was one of the most developed characters and could easily have taken over, and he was poised to as he stared out the window at the expanse between galaxies.

And he was never heard from again. Boring. Back to Atlantis and dreaming of what could have been.

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Distrokid Review: It’s about what I expected

Note: DistroKid replied to a few points! See below.

Note 2: This review is from 2018, but should still be accurate.

I was skeptical about DistroKid, the music distribution service that’s quickly making a name for itself. The guy behind it likes to tout the fact that the founders of his main competitors have endorsed his service. Any kind of high profile recommendation makes me immediately suspicious. The fact that the website is nearly devoid of details did not help.

But…

It’s okay. I signed up. Paid my $19.99. Found out the basic plan didn’t include some things I wanted, like setting prices and release dates. You get a grace period where you can get a refund and upgrade, so it’s not too bad, but I do wish they’d mention that up front.

Uploading your music for distribution to stores is pretty straightforward. You select how many tracks you want, upload to each slot and fill out details, add your cover, choose your stores, and send it on. This is where we hit the first problem.

Their uploader is…bad. It works, as long as your connection is reliable. Mine wasn’t at the time. If your connection goes out during upload, it just stops and never retries. It doesn’t save any of your information, so you have to put it all in again. Blech. What is this, 2004?

Aside from that, it’s about what I expected. They have a referral program. I sold one subscription within 20 clicks, so either I got lucky or they’ve done a lot of work refining their sales copy. It’s one of the few affiliate programs that won’t make you feel like slime. Payments take too long. Months is just not reasonable in 2018.

Spotify and Google Play were the first to get my music up. iTunes came next. Tidal was extremely late: emails telling me they got my music up came in six months after I submitted it. All the publicly shared music sales reports I’ve found show a steep dropoff after iTunes, Google Play, and Spotify, so it barely matters.

DistroKid does what it says it’ll do on the sales page: sends your music to the stores, gets you paid. Simple. However, I cancelled my account once I got my last payout. Patreon is working better for me: make music, post it to people paying monthly, repeat. I make almost as much in a month here as I did in almost a year on DistroKid.

While my DistroKid account is inactive, you can still get a 7% discount with my referral link.

Update: DistroKid responded when I posted the review on Twitter.

  • Tidal wasn’t late getting music in the store. The email I got was from when DistroKid turned on a new thing to get updates from Tidal, so I just never got a notification before.
  • The uploader is a direct connection to AWS. I understand they want to limit how much they hold on to before sending it off to the stores, but at least saving all the metadata would be handy. Upload problems probably aren’t all that common, so it may just not be worth the engineering effort.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Leveling up my music theory

If you told me in 2010 that I would start 2020 working on a sonata in notation, I would definitely ignore you. I’d tell you there’s no way I could do it. All those lines! Who can remember it all? What even is a sonata? Ridiculous.

Well.

Gay Babies Doing Fine Anyway (bass clef lines)

Always Checking Email, Gaily (bass clef spaces)

Every Good Bean Deserves Foxes (treble clef lines)

Foxes Are Cute Eeeeeeee (treble clef spaces)

I’ll need to figure the others out, but this will take me far.

I got this Udemy music composition and film scoring course bundle on sale and it quickly improved my music. The film scoring part will be especially helpful. I’ve wanted to get into making theme music forever, but it’s hard to piece together a real understanding from random blog posts and videos. The author also gives steep discounts to people who buy it, and I really dig his style, so that opens up a lot of potential expansion on a limited income.

As I watched the videos and put the things I learned to work, so many things I was on the brink of understanding clicked. For example: the diatonic chord progression. This is where notation helps a lot. I had trouble understanding the relation between chords and scales with a piano roll. I could see their shape, but I didn’t understand chord notes are just scale notes separated by three keys (as in piano). I kind of got this when I realized I could fold keys (as in scales) in Ableton Live and see there’s an equal number of spaces between notes in chords, but I still didn’t get 7ths, or chords that are diminished and augmented.

MuseScore’s piano roll view helpfully shows the relation:

Every single one of those can be the root of a chord. I recognize the shapes on the roll, but now I understand them in the notation. They have the same shapes on notation even if one note lands on a flat or sharp—usually black keys.

That also finally helped me understand what key signatures and relative keys are about. Since the shapes stay the same, you only need to know which notes get a flat or sharp. G major and E minor are the same notes (for example), but they start from different places. So if I want to memorize the scales and modes (and I do), I don’t need to start by memorizing every note in each one. I can just remember which keys are flatted and sharped, which keys share notes, and let the memorization unfold on its own while I jam on my keyboard. And since chords look the same, always, you only need to know which notes are flatted or sharped by looking at the key signature.

This also led to me getting the circle of fifths. You go to keys adjacent to the one you’re writing in to find off-key chords—the chord/chords that the two keys don’t share—to add a little life to your progression. I use an app called Piano Companion Pro that shows you all available chords in a key and even lets you build progressions to export as MIDI files. I don’t export; I set whole notes in MuseScore, type out all the root notes, then build the chords on it. Ctrl and an arrow key will move it up or down an octave if it’s too high or low. It’s faster than moving exported MIDI files around.

I’m not even halfway through the videos as I write this. More to come in the new year! Stay tuned, and get on the Patreon goodness for discounts.