A look at back at what wasn’t in the headlines this year.
Friday, December 16th, 2022
Monday, November 7th, 2022
When Dan wrote this a week ago, I thought it sounded very far-fetched. Now it sounds almost inevitable.
Wednesday, October 19th, 2022
Guess which format is going to outlast all these proprietary syndication formats. I’d say RSS, which I believe to be true, but really, it’s HTML.
Wednesday, July 20th, 2022
Subscribing to newsletters
I like reading RSS feeds. I’ve written before about how my feed reader feels different to my email client:
When I open my RSS reader to catch up on the feeds I’m subscribed to, it doesn’t feel like opening my email client. It feels more like opening a book. And, yes, books are also things to be completed—a bookmark not only marks my current page, it also acts as a progress bar—but books are for pleasure. The pleasure might come from escapism, or stimulation, or the pursuit of knowledge. That’s a very different category to email, calendars, and Slack.
Giles put it far better when described what using RSS feeds feels like :
To me, using RSS feeds to keep track of stuff I’m interested in is a good use of my time. It doesn’t feel like a burden, it doesn’t feel like I’m being tracked or spied on, and it doesn’t feel like I’m just another number in the ads game.
To me, it feels good. It’s a way of reading the web that better respects my time, is more likely to appeal to my interests, and isn’t trying to constantly sell me things.
That’s why I feel somewhat conflicted about email newsletters. On the one hand, people are publishing some really interesting things in newsletters. On the hand, the delivery mechanism is email, which feels burdensome. Add tracking into the mix, and they can feel downright icky.
But never fear! My feed reader came to the rescue. Many newsletter providers also provide RSS feeds. NetNewsWire—my feed reader of choice—will try to find the RSS feed that corresponds to the newsletter. Hurrah!
I get to read newsletters without being tracked, which is nice for me. But I also think it would be nice to let the authors of those newsletters know that I’m reading. So here’s a list of some of the newsletters I’m currently subscribed to in my feed reader:
The Whippet by McKinley Valentine:
A newsletter for the terminally curious.
Sentiers by Patrick Tanguay:
A carefully curated selection of articles with thoughtful commentary on technology, society, culture, and potential futures.
Policy, ethics and applied rationality with an Irish slant.
How science shapes stories about the future and how stories about the future shape science.
Adjacent Possible by Steven Johnson:
Exploring where good ideas come from—and how to keep them from turning against us.
Faster, Please! by James Pethokoukis:
Discovering, creating, and inventing a better world through technological innovation, economic growth, and pro-progress culture.
undefended / undefeated by Sara Hendren:
Ideas at the heart of material culture—the everyday stuff in all our lives
Today in Tabs by Rusty Foster:
Your favorite newsletter’s favorite newsletter.
Thursday, February 3rd, 2022
This is a great combination of rigorous research and great data visualisation.
Sunday, January 9th, 2022
From Patrick Tanguay:
A list of small micro-publishers — most of them run by one person — putting out great content through their websites, newsletters, and podcasts.
Monday, January 3rd, 2022
Some welcome perspective on healthcare, conservation, human rights, and energy.
Tuesday, November 23rd, 2021
Prompted by my post on tracking, Chris does some soul searching about his own use of tracking.
I’m interested not just in the ethical concerns and my long-time complacency with industry norms, but also as someone who very literally sells advertising.
He brings up the point that advertisers expect to know how many people opened a particular email and how many people clicked on a particular link. I’m sure that’s right, but it’s also beside the point: what matters is how the receiver of the email feels about having that information tracked. If they haven’t given you permission to do it, you can’t just assume they’re okay with it.
Tuesday, November 16th, 2021
The idea that it’s alright to do whatever unethical thing is currently the industry norm is widespread in tech, and dangerous.
It stood out to me because I had been thinking about certain practices that are widespread, accepted, and yet strike me as deeply problematic. These practices involve tracking users.
The first problem is that even the terminology I’m using would be rejected. When you track users on your website, it’s called analytics. Or maybe it’s stats. If you track users on a large enough scale, I guess you get to just call it data.
Those words—“analytics”, “stats”, and “data”—are often used when the more accurate word would be “tracking.”
Or to put it another way; analytics, stats, data, numbers …these are all outputs. But what produced these outputs? Tracking.
Here’s a concrete example: email newsletters.
Do you have numbers on how many people opened a particular newsletter? Do you have numbers on how many people clicked a particular link?
You can call it data, or stats, or analytics, but make no mistake, that’s tracking.
Follow-on question: do you honestly think that everyone who opens a newsletter or clicks on a link in a newsletter has given their informed constent to be tracked by you?
You may well answer that this is a widespread—nay, universal—practice. Well yes, but a) that’s not what I asked, and b) see the above quote from Design For Safety.
You could quite correctly point out that this tracking is out of your hands. Your newsletter provider—probably Mailchimp—does this by default. So if the tracking is happening anyway, why not take a look at those numbers?
But that’s like saying it’s okay to eat battery-farmed chicken as long as you’re not breeding the chickens yourself.
When I try to argue against this kind of tracking from an ethical standpoint, I get a frosty reception. I might have better luck battling numbers with numbers. Increasing numbers of users are taking steps to prevent tracking. I had a plug-in installed in my mail client—Apple Mail—to prevent tracking. Now I don’t even need the plug-in. Apple have built it into the app. That should tell you something. It reminds me of when browsers had to introduce pop-up blocking.
If the outputs generated by tracking turn out to be inaccurate, then shouldn’t they lose their status?
But that line of reasoning shouldn’t even by necessary. We shouldn’t stop tracking users because it’s inaccurate. We should stop stop tracking users because it’s wrong.
Thursday, September 16th, 2021
Writing the Clearleft newsletter
I think it’s a really good newsletter, but then again, I’m the one who writes it. It just kind of worked out that way. In theory, anyone at Clearleft could write an edition of the newsletter.
To make that prospect less intimidating, I put together a document for my colleagues describing how I go about creating a new edition of the newsletter. Then I thought it might be interesting for other people outside of Clearleft to get a peek at how the sausage is made.
So here’s what I wrote…
The description of the newsletter is:
A round-up of handpicked hyperlinks from Clearleft, covering design, technology, and culture.
It usually has three links (maybe four, tops) on a single topic.
The topic can be anything that’s interesting, especially if it’s related to design or technology. Every now and then the topic can be something that incorporates an item that’s specifically Clearleft-related (a case study, an event, a job opening). In general it’s not very salesy at all so people will tolerate the occasional plug.
You can use the “iiiinteresting” Slack channel to find potential topics of interest. I’ve gotten in the habit of popping potential newsletter fodder in there, and then adding related links in a thread.
Imagine you’re telling a friend about something cool you’ve just discovered. You can sound excited. Don’t worry about this looking unprofessional—it’s better to come across as enthusiastic than too robotic. You can put real feelings on display: anger, disappointment, happiness.
That said, you can also just stick to the facts and describe each link in turn, letting the content speak for itself.
If you’re expressing a feeling or an opinion, use the personal pronoun “I”. Don’t use “we” unless you’re specifically referring to Clearleft.
But most of the time, you won’t be using any pronouns at all:
So-and-so has written an article in such-and-such magazine on this-particular-topic.
You might find it useful to have connecting phrases as you move from link to link:
Speaking of some-specific-thing, this-other-person has a different viewpoint.
On the subject of this-particular-topic, so-and-so wrote something about this a while back.
The format of the newsletter is:
- An introductory sentence or short paragraph.
- A sentence describing the first link, ending with the title of the item in bold.
- A link to the item on its own separate line.
- An excerpt from the link, usually a sentence or two, styled as a quote.
- Repeat steps 2 to 4 another two times.
Take a look through the archive of previous newsletters to get a feel for it.
Currently the newsletter is called dConstruct from Clearleft. The subject line of every edition is in the format:
dConstruct from Clearleft — Title of the edition
(Note that’s an em dash with a space on either side of it separating the name of the newsletter and the title of the edition)
I often try to come up with a pun-based title (often a punny portmanteau) but that’s not necessary. It should be nice and short though: just one or two words.
Tuesday, August 3rd, 2021
A Few Notes on A Few Notes on The Culture
When I post a link, I do it for two reasons.
First of all, it’s me pointing at something and saying “Check this out!”
Secondly, it’s a way for me to stash something away that I might want to return to. I tag all my links so when I need to find one again, I just need to think “Now what would past me have tagged it with?” Then I type the appropriate URL:
There are some links that I return to again and again.
Back in 2008, I linked to a document called A Few Notes on The Culture. It’s a copy of a post by Iain M Banks to a newsgroup back in 1994.
Alas, that link is dead. Linkrot, innit?
But in 2013 I linked to the same document on a different domain. That link still works even though I believe it was first published around twenty(!) years ago (view source for some pre-CSS markup nostalgia).
Anyway, A Few Notes On The Culture is a fascinating look at the world-building of Iain M Banks’s Culture novels. He talks about the in-world engineering, education, biology, and belief system of his imagined utopia. The part that sticks in my mind is when he talks about economics:
Let me state here a personal conviction that appears, right now, to be profoundly unfashionable; which is that a planned economy can be more productive - and more morally desirable - than one left to market forces.
The market is a good example of evolution in action; the try-everything-and-see-what-works approach. This might provide a perfectly morally satisfactory resource-management system so long as there was absolutely no question of any sentient creature ever being treated purely as one of those resources. The market, for all its (profoundly inelegant) complexities, remains a crude and essentially blind system, and is — without the sort of drastic amendments liable to cripple the economic efficacy which is its greatest claimed asset — intrinsically incapable of distinguishing between simple non-use of matter resulting from processal superfluity and the acute, prolonged and wide-spread suffering of conscious beings.
It is, arguably, in the elevation of this profoundly mechanistic (and in that sense perversely innocent) system to a position above all other moral, philosophical and political values and considerations that humankind displays most convincingly both its present intellectual immaturity and — through grossly pursued selfishness rather than the applied hatred of others — a kind of synthetic evil.
Like I said, it’s a fascinating document. In fact I realised that I should probably store a copy of it for myself.
I have a section of my site called “extras” where I dump miscellaneous stuff. Most of it is unlinked. It’s mostly for my own benefit. That’s where I’ve put my copy of A Few Notes On The Culture.
Here’s a funny thing …for all the times that I’ve revisited the link, I never knew anything about the site is was hosted on—
vavatch.co.uk—so this most recent time, I did a bit of clicking around. Clearly it’s the personal website of a sci-fi-loving college student from the early 2000s. But what came as a revelation to me was that the site belonged to …Adrian Hon!
I’m impressed that he kept his old website up even after moving over to the domain
mssv.net, founding Six To Start, and writing A History Of The Future In 100 Objects. That’s a great snackable book, by the way. Well worth a read.
Tuesday, April 6th, 2021
Receive one email a day for 30 days, each featuring at least one HTML element.
Right up my alley!
Monday, January 4th, 2021
A rant from Robin. I share his frustration and agree with his observations.
I wonder how we can get the best of both worlds here: the ease of publishing newsletters, with all the beauty and archivability of websites.
Friday, August 14th, 2020
Matt made this website to explain RSS to people who are as-ye unfamilar with it.
Monday, June 15th, 2020
A service that—amongst other things—allows you to read newsletters in your RSS reader.
Tuesday, April 28th, 2020
Monday, April 6th, 2020
Human consciousness is the most astonishing thing, and most of it happened in deep time, beyond the reach of any writing and most legends. Human experience, in general, is prehistoric. And prehistoric experience was just as full as yours and mine: just as deeply felt, just as intelligent, just as real. What we know of it is mostly from durable artifacts and graves. I’m thinking of the woman found near the Snake River, buried at the end of the ice age with a perfectly crafted and unused stone knife tucked under her head. I’m thinking of the huge conical hats, beaten from single pieces of gold and inscribed with calendars, found north of the Alps. I’m thinking of Grave 8 at Vedbæk, where a woman held her premature baby on the spread wing of a swan. These are snapshot that experts can assemble into larger ideas, but what they tell all of us is that we’ve been people, not just humans, for a very long time.
Tuesday, March 24th, 2020
RSS: now more than ever!
You get to choose what you subscribe to in your feed reader, and the order in which the posts show up. You might prefer to read the oldest posts first, or the newest. You might group your feeds by topic or another priority. You are not subjected to the “algorithmic feed” of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, where they choose the order for you.
Friday, March 20th, 2020
How are you doing? Are you holding up okay?
It’s okay if you’re not. This is a tough time.
It’s very easy to become despondent about the state of the world. If you tend to lean towards pessimism, The Situation certainly seems to be validating your worldview right now.
I’m finding that The Situation is also a kind of Rorschach test. If you’ve always felt that humanity wasn’t deserving of your faith—that “we are the virus”—then there’s plenty happening right now to bolster that opinion. But if you’ve always thought that human beings are fundamentally good and decent, there’s just as much happening to reinforce that viewpoint.
I’ve noticed concentric circles of feelings tied to geography—positive in the centre, and very negative at the edges. What I mean is, if you look at what’s happening in your building and your street, it’s quite amazing how people are pulling together:
Our street (and the guy who runs the nearby corner store) is self-organizing so that everyone’s looking out for each other, checking up on elderly and self-isolating folks, sharing contact details, picking up shopping if necessary, and generally just being good humans.
This goodwill extends just about to the level of city mayorships. But once you look further than that, things turn increasingly sour. At the country level, incompetence and mismanagement seem to be the order of the day. And once you expand out to the whole world, who can blame you for feeling overwhelmed with despair?
But the world is made up of countries, and countries are made up of communities, and these communities are made up of people who are pulling together and helping one another.
Best of all, you can absolutely be part of this wonderful effort. In normal times, civic activism would require you to take action, get out there, and march in the streets. Now you can be a local hero by staying at home.
That’s it. Stay inside, resist the urge to congregate, and chat to your friends and relatives online instead. If you do that, you are being a most excellent human being—the kind that restores your faith in humanity.
I know it feels grim and overwhelming but, again, look at what’s triggering those feelings—is it the national news? International? I know it’s important to stay informed about the big picture—this is a global pandemic, after all—but don’t lose sight of what’s close to hand. Look closer to home and you’ll see the helpers—heck, you are one of the helpers.
On Ev’s blog, Fiona Cameron Lister quotes the president of the Italian Society of Psychiatrists:
Fear of an epidemic is as old as mankind itself. In this case its effect is amplified by incomplete, even false information which has caused public confidence in our institutions to collapse.
She points out that the media are in the business of amplifying the outliers of negative behaviour—panic buying, greed, and worst-case scenarios. But she goes on to say:
It doesn’t take much to start a panic and we are teetering on the brink.
Not to be the “well, actually” guy but …well, actually…
That view of humanity as being poised on the brink of mass panic is the common consensus viewpoint; it even influences public policy. But the data doesn’t support this conclusion. (If you want details, I highly recommend reading Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another by Philip Ball.) Thinking of ordinary people as being one emergency away from panicking is itself giving into fear.
I guess what I’m saying is, if you’re feeling misanthropic about your fellow humans right now, try rebalancing your intake. Yes, it’s good to keep yourself informed about national and global events, but make sure to give plenty of attention to the local level too. You may just find your heart warming and your spirits lifting.
After all, you’re a good person, right? And you probably also think of yourself as a fairly ordinary person, right? So if you’re doing the right thing—making small sacrifices and being concerned for your neighbours—then logic dictates that most other people are too.
When this is over, I hope we will be proud of how well we loved one another.