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The Shape of Things to Come

Software may be eating the world, but we are shaping it.  What we do now—what we build, how we act, what we tolerate—will profoundly influence how society develops over the next few generations.

That’s not because what happens now will change you or me.  We’re unlikely to change much, if at all.  We’re set in our ways, most of us.

Our children are not.

What they see online will seem normal to them, just as what we saw growing up seemed normal to us.  And because there is no meaningful distinction between online and offline, what they come to accept as normal online will be seen as normal offline.

So the way we build our networks matters in the most profound possible way.  If we build networks that make it easy to abuse and harass, and make it difficult to defend against abuse and harassment, our children will come to see that as normal, even desirable.  Similarly, if we build networks where it’s hard to abuse and harass, and easy to defend against such attempts, that will become the norm.

System design is social design.  The question is, what kind of society do we want to design?

And the more important question is, when are we going to start?

This article was originally published at The Pastry Box Project on 2 September 2015.

Dislike

Facebook is emotionally smarter than we give it credit for, though perhaps not as algorithmically smart as it could be.

I’ve been pondering this for a few weeks now, and Zeynep Tufekci’s “Facebook and the Tyranny of the ‘Like’ in a Difficult World” prodded me to consolidate my thoughts.

(Note: This is not about what Tufekci writes about, exactly, and is not meant as a rebuttal to her argument.  I agree with her that post-ranking algorithms need to be smarter.  I also believe there are design solutions needed to compensate for the unthinking nature of those algorithms, but that’s a topic for another time.)

Tufekci’s piece perfectly describes the asymmetrical nature of Facebook’s “engagement” mechanisms, commented on for years: there is no negative mirror for the “Like” button.  As she says:

Of course he cannot like it. Nobody can. How could anyone like such an awful video?

What happens then to the video? Not much. It will mostly get ignored, because my social network has no way to signal to the algorithm that this is something they care about.

What I’ve been thinking of late is that the people in her network can comment as a way to signal their interest, caring, engagement, whatever you want to call it.  When “Like” doesn’t fit, comments are all that’s left, and I think that’s appropriate.

In a situation like Tufekci describes, or any post that deals with the difficult side of life, comments are exactly what’s called for.  Imagine if there were a “Dislike” button.  How many would just click it without commenting?  Before you answer that question, consider: how many click “Like” without commenting?  How many more would use “Dislike” as a way to avoid dealing with the situation at hand?

When someone posts something difficult—about themselves, or someone they care about, or the state of the world—they are most likely seeking the support of their community.  They’re asking to be heard.  Comments fill that need.  In an era of Likes and Faves and Stars and Hearts, a comment (usually) shows at least some measure of thought and consideration.  It shows that the poster has been heard.

Many of those posts can be hard to respond to.  I know, because many of the Facebook posts my wife and I were making two years (and one year) ago right now were doubtless incredibly hard to read.  I remember many people leaving comments along the lines of, “I don’t know what to say, but I’m thinking of you all.”  And even that probably felt awkward and insufficient to those who left such comments.  Crisis and grief and fear in others can make us very uncomfortable.  Pushing past that discomfort to say a few words is a huge show of support.  It matters.

Adding “Dislike” would be a step backward, in terms of emotional intelligence.  It could too easily rob people who post about the difficult parts of life of something they clearly seek.

Marvelous

I’m typing this as North America slowly unwinds below me, fleeing the rising sun that will still overtake us, light-headed and a touch giddy from a sustained shortness of sleep.  If this all sounds a little bit familiar, you’re right, and thank you for following my meanderings over so many months.  Anyone can write, but not everyone is read, and it’s always an honor.

I’m not going to write about my obsessions this time, at least not directly.  But as it happens, I’m watching a movie about someone else’s obsession: Tim’s Vermeer.  In short, it’s about the inventor of Video Toaster and Lightwave, Tim Jenison, and his quest to figure out how Johannes Vermeer did what he did so incredibly well.  Tim hypothesizes that Vermeer used high 16th-Century technology in a novel and long-forgotten fashion.

In the process of making his case, Tim not only reverse-engineers the technique, he decides to recreate Vermeer’s studio, employing 3D CAD modeling and visualization, not to mention computer-driven lathes and mills and routers to build the furniture to exacting precision.  It’s a fascinating contrast to the constraint he sets himself of only using materials that would have been available in the 16th century for the room and the painting itself.  He puts a piece of wood into an industrial tool the size of a 1970s DEC mainframe and sends it commands to fashion a chair leg in the style of 16th-Century Europe, and then picks up a pestle to grind the pigments for his paint by hand.

In the end, he produces a painting that bears all the hallmarks of a Vermeer, a very close copy of The Music Lesson, even though Tim has never studied or even practiced painting of any kind.  In the process, he uncovers a clue in Vermeer’s original, something not noticed in the 350 years since its production, that provides very strong evidence he’s gotten it right.  It’s a really fascinating story.

And there I sat, seven miles above the earth, moving at a significant fraction of the speed of sound, watching the whole story unfold on my iPhone 4S plugged into a compact charging device, the movie streaming over wifi from a media server stowed away somewhere in the airframe.  Far above me, a constellation of beacons circled in polar orbit, helping to keep the plane on course and on time as it hurled itself through the thin air.

Bathed in marvels, I watched a man who had birthed or helped birth some of those marvels resurrect a forgotten marvel and produce a marvel of his own.

Then I cued up Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, because the antics of an anarchic sentient raccoon are never not funny.

This article was originally published at The Pastry Box Project on 2 August 2015.

Medium Trials

Originally published at Medium on July 30th, 2015.

Yesterday, I decided to try importing a story to Medium. I’d hunted around for a way to auto-post to Medium from WordPress, which runs the blog portion of meyerweb (the rest is mostly HTML, with a little PHP here and there), and hadn’t found one. Then I found the “Import story” feature on Medium and thought, Sure, why not?

So I tried it out on my most recent post, which also happened to have some code in it, as my posts sometimes do. The process was, as anyone who’s used it can tell you, very simple. Paste in a URL and the content gets sucked in.

Well, except for code blocks.

Everything was imported without incident except the Javascript. That seems like a metaphor for something.

I’d structured the block with a pre element, as I always do, and yet the line-breaking was stripped away. It looks like my indentation tabs were preserved, but without the linefeeds, they didn’t have nearly the same utility.

The real problem is that the importation of the code block stopped cold at the first <, dropping the rest of the code on the floor. Now, I admit, I didn’t escape or entity-ize the character in my source, and maybe that was the problem. Still, I feel like an import tool should be a little smarter about things like less-than symbols on import. Otherwise, how many less-than-threes will end up as just plain threes?

Fortunately, the fix was simple: I went back to the original post, drag-selected the whole code block, copied, went back to Medium, drag-selected the mangled code, and hit ⌘V. Done. It was properly formatted and no less-than terminations occurred.

Today, I’m experimenting with writing my post on Medium first, after which I’ll repost it at meyerweb. This is likely the only time I’ll do it in that order, given my experience over here. Captions are deucedly hard to edit (at least in my browser of choice, Firefox Nightly), the apparent inability to add simple decorations like border to images, and the apparently intentional, active enforcement of single-space-after-sentence even when editing annoy me deeply. (Yes, that’s how I roll. Let’s not have the spacing argument here, please.)

I can see why Medium appeals to so many. It’s pretty frictionless, a lot more so than almost any other tool of its kind I’ve used. I mean, my WordPress install is pretty frictionless to me, but that’s because I invested a lot of time customizing it to be that way. Much like my browser, mail client, and other essential tools.

So anyway, that’s what I found during import and authoring on Medium. Here’s hoping this posts properly, and without the stray “in” that’s somehow shown up in my post, and which I can’t select, mouse to delete or otherwise remove through non-Inspector means. If only I could prepend an “f”!

It didn’t show up when I posted, fortunately.

P.S. I discovered this was the title just before publishing. It was supposed to be just “Medium”. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Everything Looks Like a Nail

I have recently, perhaps inevitably, taken up woodworking as a hobby.  It’s just clichéd enough to be credible, isn’t it?  Web, wood, maybe it’s in the leading “w”.

A programmer friend and I get together Wednesday evenings to try our hand at what is currently best described as rough carpentry.  The usual reason to take up a “physical-world” hobby like woodworking is to “get away from the computer for a while, man!”  But of course we pull out our iPhones to use as calculators, look up techniques, or find online tools that can help us.  The laptops stay indoors, but computers and the internet still smooth our way.

In web terms, we’re past “hello world” and at about the point where we understand the basics of HTML and have set a few colors and faces with beginner CSS.  We could put up a single-column fan site if that were the goal, but not much more than that.  We’re still at the stage of making a lot of mistakes and not knowing if our problems spring entirely from not knowing how to use our tools, or also from not knowing enough to realize the tools themselves are deficient.  We’re figuring things out as we go, hitting up YouTube for how-to guides on just about everything.  Wikipedia may aspire to be the site of record for Things of Import, but YouTube holds the sum total of humanity’s practical knowledge, hidden amongst all the pop-star and cat videos.

A lot of the best practices map back and forth, too.  Planning ahead is a core competency, and the more you practice, the better you get at it.  Measurement is vital, and cleverness is as useful as it is dangerous.  The importance of quality tools can’t be overstated.  There are a lot of (very) specialized tools available, but you can get really far with the core set of flexible, time-honored basics.  As long as you have a boatload of clamps, that is.

The one major difference is that there is no versioning in woodworking.  It’s like building a project with only the “Save” command—no milestones, no repositories, no undo.  When you do something, you’re committing to altering the project with no take-backs.  If you get it wrong, you have to find a way to patch over the problem.  If you get it really wrong, you have to scrap what you just did and replace the botched part.  And if you get it really, really wrong, all you can do is scrap the whole thing and start over.

So far we haven’t had to scrap anything.  Our first couple of projects were the classic starters: a simple bookshelf, a firewood box, a more complex bookshelf.  For each, we’ve intentionally stepped up the complexity, a bit at a time.  The first bookshelf was just screwed together, but the pieces were all pretty much the right size and properly aligned.  The firewood box was also screwed together, but it involved angled cuts and hinges and sealant.  The second bookshelf involved a wood router in a variety of ways, both structural and decorative.

As in networking, we swore a lot at the router, but it got us where we needed to be.  Eventually, that is, once we figured out how to properly configure it and deal with its quirks.

I can’t deny that there’s a visceral satisfaction in picking up a hammer and whacking on a thing until it’s properly assembled, or disassembled, as the case may be.  There’s definitely a triumph in finding out you did all the measuring and cutting and aligning just right, much like the rush you get when your first major coding project does what you meant it to do, except more so because you’ve wrestled atoms into doing your bidding.  That’s literal orders of magnitude beyond wrangling electrons.

Our next steps are what I assume is the usual second phase: building a wood shop in order to learn how to use a wood shop.  We’re moving up to building fold-down work surfaces with tool storage, custom-fitted wood storage, and braced shelves.  That experience will enable us to move into other, more complicated projects.  Some we already have in mind.  Others will suggest themselves to us.  At every step, we’ll look for new skills to try and practice.

And that, I think, is the real ultimate goal here: to teach ourselves new things, to enrich our skill sets and create useful objects thereby.

So it’s pretty much like working on the web.

Well, except for all the staining.

This article was originally published at The Pastry Box Project on 2 July 2015.

The Guilt I Carry

Last year, in an effort to help him and many friends of mine struggling with the tragic death of Chloe Weil, I told Jeremy Keith I had let go of guilt over Rebecca’s death, and that was the truth.  I mourned, I had regrets, but there was no guilt, because there was nothing we could have done except what we did.  Her cancer and death was always going to happen, and the only thing—the only thing—we could have done to avoid it was to have never adopted Rebecca in the first place, thus causing some other family to experience all the joy and sorrow of her brief life.  I accepted that, and it brought some small measure of peace.

All that was true.  Almost all of it is still true…except for guilt.  That came back, seeping into me so slowly that it took me a long time to realize it.  When I finally recognized it for what it was, I realized it had been there for months.  I also realized it was a particular form of guilt: survivor’s guilt.  This came as a surprise, honestly.  As it’s usually defined, at least as I understand it, survivor’s guilt seems to be recognized in the parents of children who take their own lives, but not to those whose children die from disease or accident.

Last week, I published my first piece with Modern Loss to talk about this.  A brief excerpt:

If Joshua had asked why I was saying sorry, I would have told him I wasn’t apologizing because I felt guilty, but rather because I was sorry in the sense of sorrowful. Sorry he had to experience the death of his older sister, who died on her sixth birthday of aggressive brain cancer. Who had been gone just about 51 weeks on the day we had that conversation. Sorry she had been terminally ill, sorry the world is as harsh and unfair as it is, sorry his best friend in the world is dead.

But not sorry out of responsibility or guilt. At least, that’s what I would have said, but I’d have been violating one of my basic tenets of parenting. Because I would have been lying to him.

You can read the whole thing at Modern Loss.  It’s a standard-length article, about 800 words.

I wrote it, in part, to understand myself.  But I published it in the hopes that it will help someone, some day, understand a bereaved friend or relative a little bit better…or possibly even themselves.

The Guilt I Carry

“Why are you crying?” I asked my son. He wasn’t actually crying so much as sniffling, but the expression on his face was enough to justify the question. He just shook his head, so I sat down on the steps, pulled him into my lap, and snuggled him close. You can still do that when they’re four years old.

“You’ve seemed sad this morning, buddy,” I said gently. “Can you tell me what’s wrong?”

“I miss Rebecca. She was the best big sister ever.”

I hugged him close, as if he were a life preserver, and at that moment he might well have been.  “She was, Joshua.  I miss her too, so, so—” I couldn’t speak for a moment.  The tears were running ceaselessly down my face, spattering both our shirts. He looked into my eyes and his own tears stopped as he searched my face with a kind of tender curiosity.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Joshua.  I’m so, so sorry. It wasn’t anyone’s fault.  There was nothing we could do. We did everything we could. We loved her, and made her life as wonderful as possible. That’s what we did.  Right?”

He nodded, still looking at me intently.

“Oh, buddy, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

If Joshua had asked why I was saying sorry, I would have told him I wasn’t apologizing because I felt guilty, but rather because I was sorry in the sense of sorrowful. Sorry he had to experience the death of his older sister, who died on her sixth birthday of aggressive brain cancer. Who had been gone just about 51 weeks on the day we had that conversation. Sorry she had been terminally ill, sorry the world is as harsh and unfair as it is, sorry his best friend in the world is dead.

But not sorry out of responsibility or guilt. At least, that’s what I would have said, but I’d have been violating one of my basic tenets of parenting. Because I would have been lying to him.

As the parent of a dead child, I experience survivor’s guilt. I know the term is generally defined to apply to people like those who survived the 9/11 attacks, tortured by the knowledge that they lived while others died. Those who make it out of plane crashes, or war zones. The friends and family of suicide victims, including the parents of children who take their own lives.

2010-01-xx

Father and daughter

I can assure you it also affects the parents of children who died of what we bitterly label natural causes. My daughter Rebecca had glioblastoma multiforme, something her genetics preordained and no medicine could hope to cure. Her last MRI, taken five days before she died, showed so many emerging tumors that the doctors didn’t bother to count them. There was, as I said to Joshua, nothing anyone could do to save her.

It doesn’t matter. I still ask myself what I should have done differently, as if there were some winning strategy I was too stupid or blind or arrogant to see. I tell myself that we all did everything possible, but I feel a profound sense of failure. This is the guilt surviving parents bear. Why did she die, and we live? How can we live with ourselves, knowing we failed to save her? For that matter, having failed at our most basic duty, what right do we have to call ourselves parents at all?

Parents are supposed to protect their children, even at the cost of their own lives. I remember the nights I lay in bed next to her sleeping form, my forehead lightly pressed against hers, silently begging any god or demon who might hear me to draw the cancer out of her head and into mine, to name its price if my life was not enough, the pressure of my desperation pounding in my temples.

Did I not pray hard enough, or fervently enough, or offer enough of a sacrifice? Did I not pay attention at the right moment, and overlook the treatment that would have saved her?

You may shake your head, assuring me I did all I could and then some, gently insisting I should be proud of what my wife, Kat, and I did, and how we made her short life the best it could be. Many, many people have done all that and more. I’ve listened to them, and told them I hear them and agree with them. There’s even some truth to my words. But only some.

Kat has it even worse. With her advanced medical degrees, she feels like she should have found a cure. She knows intellectually how ludicrous that sounds, the idea that in ten months she should have found a cure for an incurable disease, but in her heart she carries the guilt. I can tell her she did everything she could and then some, that she should be proud of what she did and how hard she searched for treatment and how she made Rebecca’s short life the best it could be. I do tell her that, and I believe every word.

But she does not.

It was one year to the day after Rebecca’s death, the day that would have been her seventh birthday.The prayers were finished, the memories shared, and Kat and I sat in front of the newly-unveiled grave marker looking at all the stones people had set atop it in remembrance.

I had reached out to move one of the stones off the word “loved” when my fingers brushed the sparkling silver-blue granite of marker itself. Suddenly I was sobbing, blind to everything around me except Kat’s hand on my back as I hunched over, my hand pressed against the gravestone of my daughter.

“I’m sorry, Little Spark,” I sobbed to her gravestone. “I’m so sorry.”

“Why are you sorry?” said Kat gently. “You have nothing to apologize for.  You did everything you—”

I shook my head, tears sluicing off the inside of my glasses. I whispered it again and again: “I’m sorry.”

Of course Kat’s right, that I have nothing to apologize for. I know that. There was nothing any of us could do except what we did: Fight for her, and make sure her short life was full of wonder and love. I am proud of what we did, but I still carry the guilt of what I could not do: Save my child’s life. I still carry the guilt of what I do now: Continue to survive when my child did not.

I would give almost anything to be able to tell Rebecca how sorry I am, over and over, to beg her forgiveness for my failure to do the impossible. For letting her down, for violating her trust in me to fix everything, the way parents are supposed to.

Just as I begged Joshua his forgiveness, as he huddled in my lap.

This article was originally published as After My Daughter’s Death, On Guilt and Apologies at Modern Loss on 18 June 2015.  It has been edited for clarity.

Witness

I’m writing this as Game 3 of the NBA Finals is playing downtown, not knowing how it’s going.  The Cavaliers may be up by 30, or down by 30; it doesn’t actually matter to me either way.  I’m not much of a sports fan, truth be told.

But I am a Cleveland fan.

I’ve lived here more than half my life now, after a rootless early childhood and then a semi-rural upbringing.  I came here for college, way back in the late 1980s, and never left.  Never wanted to leave.  The opportunities were there, but I never took them.  When Netscape came to me and asked if I wanted to be a Standards Evangelist, I told them only if I could do it without relocating.  They said yes.  I told Google the same thing about a decade later; they said no.

Something about this city got into me, and didn’t let go.  We have our problems, sure.  You’ve heard some of them on the news.  Everywhere has problems.  I hope we can fix ours, and I hope other places can fix theirs.  Either way, I have long been proud to call Cleveland home, as I will for years to come.

Most of my friends are incredibly excited about the Cavaliers.  Deliriously so, some of them.  It’s pretty awesome to experience, even secondhand.  So I’ve been reading about how the first two games of the finals went, and in them, I recognized something very familiar.

From what I’ve read, pretty much nobody outside the 216 gave the Cavs any real chance in this series.  The Golden State Warriors were judged to be simply too powerful.  And yet, Game 1 went into overtime, where the Cavs lost steam and one of their star players to injury.  Everyone (outside Cleveland, that is) said that was it.  The Cavs made it a great game, they said, but being down to one star player was the end of their run.  After which, Game 2 went to overtime, and the Cavs won it by a razor-thin margin.

That’s Cleveland in a nutshell.

This is a city that is constantly underestimated and derided, but we already know our faults, and we know our strengths.  There’s a core of steel under the bruised and battered skin.  Just like the Cavs.  Down to one headline player, they managed to force overtime and pull a win on the home court of the team that everyone said they couldn’t beat.  The Grit Squad, they’re calling themselves now.  People are saying the LeBron has taken a team of players that shouldn’t be this good and made them into a force.  That may well be, and if so, LeBron stands to make far more as Coach James than he ever will as King James.

America loves an underdog, but it also loves to dump on Cleveland, so I have no idea how sports fans around the country have seen this series.  What I know now is that, win or lose, the Cavaliers have shown the rest of the country what this city is really like, and for that alone they’ve earned my respect.  I think they deserve the same from anyone who’s witnessed what they’ve done.

So Game 3 is underway, probably close to done or even finished by now.  I have no idea if it was another squeaker or a blowout, nor who won.  As soon as I publish this, I’ll go check on how things went.  For the sake of all my friends, I hope the Cavs made it a win in their first Finals home game—but however things turned out, I’m sure The Q was bedlam tonight as the fans celebrate not just being in the finals, but the spirit of the team that embodies this city I call home.

September 2016
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