October 14-20, 2015

Will I get around to talking about micropayments by the end of this blog post? Stay tuned and find out. First, however, the week in review:

Wednesday the 14th was the day we learned about the new softball stadium that Duke is going to build in the big open field behind WXDU. It’s not actually a big open field — it’s a stand of mature oaks, many of them over three feet in diameter.

I’m told that they’re all willow oaks, same as the 20s/30s-era oaks that line the streets of Durham, all of which (we’re told) are going to die en masse sometime in the next half-dozen years. However, knowing that these beautiful & massive trees are elderly doesn’t make me feel any better about them being bulldozed sometime early next year.

I ranted about the bigger picture issue over on Facebook: too many of Durham’s urban trees are either like the willow oaks, about to be taken down all at once, or they’re on land that’s ripe for development in the current frenzy. One of my favorite aspects of living in Durham is being able to look around & see a stand of mature trees in at least one direction pretty much all the time. Not little street trees, not individual yard trees, but eight or ten or twenty trees together, all at least 30 feet high.

A decade from now, I’m not sure I’ll be able to say that.

Friday night I improvised a thick, noodle-heavy chicken soup for a friend who is ill, and then we went to see Abdullah Ibrahim and his group Ekaya. It was great, and kind of hilarious — Ibrahim would start riffing on the piano & the rest of his band would stand there trying to figure out what song he was leading into. Plus every couple of songs he’d call the musicians to the front of the stage, one by one, to take a bow. This triggered the standing ovation impulse in most of the crowd — I guess they couldn’t tell if it was the end of the or not & wanted to be sure they got in the de rigeur Durham standing O — which meant we wound up standing up 3-4 times before it was all over.

Saturday I spent half the day refactoring code & cleaning up git repositories because I had originally just checked everything in — including database passwords & stuff — under the assumption that I was never going to be showing any of it to anyone else. Turns out one of our new DJs is a software developer & he has naively volunteered to help.

Setting aside the retroactive repository hygiene I had to undertake, I’m also just generally mortified how terrible some of our code is. But after many years of telling my interns that I’m a terrible programmer, and having them still respect my opinions about things, I’m no longer quite so terrified to show my terrible code to other people. Plus it’s not all mine!

My reward was a trip to the theatre to see Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, which is part cold-war thriller, part Mr. Hanks Goes to East Berlin. There are a lot of speeches about the American justice system, but it never lets its didacticism completely bury it. For two solid hours it’s entirely engaging, at times gripping (plus the cinematography is gorgeous).

The last 10-15 minutes devolve into schmaltz, as has tended to be the case with Spielberg movies for lo these many years. We were picturing the meetings where Steven told Joel & Ethan Coen (who wrote the final drafts of the screenplay) that he was scrapping their ending & putting in something a little more mom + apple pie.

It’s still worth seeing. But if, at any time after the 2-hour mark, you start to sense things going all treacly, you can safely flee the cinema.

Monday & Tuesday we attended All Things Open, the annual open-source conference in Raleigh. As per usual, some of it was great, and some of it wasn’t. There were the professional conference presenters who had super-polished presentations that didn’t say all that much. There were the local amateurs who could’ve used some coaching. There were the people whose abstracts made it sound deceptively like their talks were going to be something other than walkthroughs of their (or their company’s) latest new tool/toy/library/widget. And the people who popped open a text editor & tried to live-code for 40 minutes.

And there were the people who were passionate about their topics, had put together great & funny & well-edited talks, and who taught me something. In that last category I’d put Christian Heilmann, Pam Selle, Lee Faus, Carina Zona, and Joshua McKenty. Next year, if I go, I think I may put less focus on topics, and more focus on figuring out in advance which people are known for being great speakers.

I’m realizing now that after two days of watching tech talks all day, I’m in no condition to write a long (or even short) essay about micropayments. Next time!


October 14-20, 2015

October 2-13, 2015

The first weekend in October was supposed to be Afropunk Atlanta, but the 8+ days of rain & the threat of flooding & hurricaning & whatnot led the organizers to cancel the whole thing. It is thus that I found myself driving to Greenville NC in a driving rainstorm with M to attend the North Carolina State Weightlifting Championship.

The weather was actually quite nice on the day of the event, albeit muggy as hell. Greenville has a very nice convention center. I have never lifted a weight in my life, but dating a weightlifter has turned out to be comparatively painless, inasmuch as the meets are indoors and they’re actually fun to watch. Plus nobody seems to mind if you just sit there & read a book instead. It’s one of those sports that’s all about the insides of the athletes’ heads.

After we got home, we went to see The Martian. On the one hand, it was a very well-made distillation of the book, preserving the highlights & teasing out the suspenseful bits to showcase.

On the other hand, it was in many ways a total betrayal of the thing that so many nerds loved about the book, namely that it’s essentially a 400-page treatise on problem-solving under duress. There’s a *lot* of that still in the movie, but folks who haven’t read the book will perhaps be alarmed to learn that for every innovative jury-rigged solution showcased in the movie, there are 50+ more in the book.

(This also means that the book can be tedious going if you’re looking for things like characterization & taut plotting — but man, if you like MacGyver and those 10 minutes in Apollo 13 with the duct tape, you’ll love this book.)

The rest of the week unspooled comparatively uneventfully — I had taken Monday off to fly back from Atlanta, so I went ahead & took it anyway, and spent the day continuing to slowly plow through some coding that needed doing for WXDU. (it was harder than I thought to find a WYSIWYG editor that would spit out markdown on the backend — apparently markdown nerds are a little too pleased with how easy they think it is to learn their flavor of markup, so WYSIWYG doesn’t even cross their minds.)

We’ll not discuss the 90 minutes I spent on 15-501 on Thursday evening. It’s amply documented on Twitter.

Saturday night we had tickets to see the new production of Antigone at UNC, with Juliette Binoche (51) playing Antigone (generally accepted to be around 15). This is the same production that premiered at Brooklyn Academy of Music a couple of weeks ago, from the new Anne Sexton translation.

There were a ton of problematic elements (not least the age mismatch), but I nevertheless found myself totally drawn in. The translation is spare, elegant, not particularly “poetic” but still beautiful. The staging worked well. Could have done without the hugely distracting use of the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” as overpowering closing music/image/moment. Made no sense. I had a visceral reaction to it because it’s a brilliant piece of music, but that overrode whatever I had been feeling a moment before.

Did I ever write about seeing Sicario? Apparently not. I don’t even remember when we saw it. It was thoroughly competently made and kind of abhorrent. It’s all very Paul Schradery: here’s the drug war up close, here’s our lady FBI agent who still has a shred of human decency, here’s the wringer we’re going to put her through until she learns that human decency is an outmoded concept. Blah blah blah. Dudes make the most tedious movies when they think they’re being edgy.

Tonight we saw Goodnight Mommy, an Austrian horror/suspense movie whose uniformly good reviews mostly just illustrate how starved the nation’s critics are for marginally interesting horror. This has actually been a pretty solid year for indie horror — between It Follows and The Babadook, we’ve had at least 2x as many solid flicks as one might have expected. A third would have been overkill.

Goodnight Mommy covers some of the same ground as The Babadook — single parent, weird relationship with the kid, things spiraling out of control. The difference, at least for me, was that I picked up on The Big Twist within the first five minutes of the movie, and I think that skewed my perception of the whole rest of the thing. Plus, FYI, there’s some pretty unsettling torture in the last third which I wasn’t expecting & wasn’t prepared for.

We’re not watching the first Democratic debate tonight. I can’t bear the uniformly terrible questions, the stilted format, the candidates parroting their talking points into the camera. I’ll catch the highlights on the internet tomorrow. It’d take quite a bit to dissuade me from voting for Bernie Sanders, inasmuch as I’ve been an admirer of his for ages & ages.

Coming soon (probably this weekend): the results of my preliminary investigation into a couple of interesting micropayment platforms as an alternative to ads on The Internet. Spoiler: Not quite there yet. But very interesting.

October 2-13, 2015

How I use Twitter

If you’re reading this, I may not be writing this for you. If you’re on Twitter already, follow more than a handful of people, and check Twitter at least once a day, I’m probably not writing this for you.

Twitter just launched this feature called Moments, which is its latest attempt to figure out how to make itself appealing to the billions of people who don’t use it. There are something like 300 million people who *do* use it, but the logic of late Capitalism requires endless growth or the risk of being accused of Not Doing It Right, so . . . they’ve added a thing that’s basically the same as the “Trending Stories” thing on Facebook, the one that always wants to tell you about some celebrity’s selfie with a bucket of chicken or whatever.

Nevertheless, it is a fairly well recognized problem that Twitter only really makes sense to most people after they’ve been using it for a while, and have accumulated a list of people to follow that in some way provides some intrinsic value. And Twitter has struggled for years to figure out how to help bootstrap new users to this point more quickly.

I myself have quite a few Facebook friends who have joined Twitter, announcing on Facebook “well, I have joined Twitter, and I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do next, but I guess you can follow me at __________.” This guide is for those people, as well as the rest of y’all who haven’t even gotten that far.

So this may or may not be how I use Twitter, but it may be useful notes on how one might get started using Twitter, in the form of an unordered list of assertions.

  • Following people is cheap (i.e. free), so follow as many people as you want. See something retweeted by someone else that looks interesting? Follow the person who tweeted it. See someone’s twitter handle on the side of a bus or something? Sure, why not. I’m assuming Twitter has tools for finding some initial set of people to follow. Use them. If not, just follow me & on most days I’ll probably tweet (and retweet) more than you really want to read. @rossgrady. I’m easy to find.
  • Unfollowing people is also cheap. You get notified when someone follows you, but you don’t get notified when someone unfollows you. I tend to follow liberally and also unfollow liberally, particularly if someone tweets a lot & a significant percentage of their tweets are not interesting to me. Feel free to unfollow me after a day or two.
  • Follow your friends. If they’re like my friends, they’ve largely abandoned Facebook, so you’ll find them on Twitter or you’ll have to actually talk to them in person.
  • Follow random strangers. On Facebook that dynamic is weird — I rarely accept friend requests from people I haven’t met in person — but on Twitter that’s the norm; it’s expected. Nobody will think twice if you follow them without knowing them in any way. Some sage at some point said “Facebook is for people you know; Twitter is for people you want to get to know” or something like that, and that’s at least part of it.
  • There is absolutely no requirement that you follow people who follow you, or vice versa. None. Courtesy exists in many forms on the internet, but the mutual followback isn’t one of them. I currently have 1831 followers, and I follow 710 people, which is probably about 2x as many people as I should be following. Following any more than around 500 people can become kind of a chore, depending on how often they tweet.
  • Check it once a day, or check it 100 times a day. Your call. Some people (myself included) have this probably unhealthy need to see every tweet that crosses their timelines, so my morning ritual includes scrolling back to the last tweet that I remember from bedtime the night before, and then reading forward until I’m caught up. There is absolutely no reason to feel compelled to do this, so if you don’t, all the better.
  • Depending on the mix of people you follow, Twitter might be some or all of the following things: Joke city; reliable news before the major networks have it; minutiae about the daily lives of friends & strangers; strange micro-fiction (which may or may not be labeled as such); inside jokes from various subcultures; press releases about new music/art/film; shop talk; endless political opinion; glimpses into the lives/worlds of people very different from yourself; sports scores; random dictionary words; pictures of cute animals.
  • Always follow at least one cute animal account.

Getting started is hard; there’s no question about that. If I were starting over, I would begin to build my list of people to follow with some from each of the following categories:

  • Local journalists (several)
  • National journalists (not many)
  • Favorite musicians (a handful)
  • Friends (all of them you can find, to begin with; delete later, guiltlessly, as needed)
  • Experts in your professional field of endeavor
  • People who write about, or otherwise share, your avocation(s)
  • Your three favorite restaurants
  • The local movie theater & concert venues
  • Cute animal accounts (seriously, SO worth it)

The crucial next step is to read regularly, and make mental note if you find yourself enjoying the tweets of someone you don’t follow, being retweeted into your timeline by people you do follow. You can set your own mental threshold (mine is probably around a half-dozen (or more); for starters yours should probably be like three); if you see more than that many tweets of interest from someone you don’t follow, then click their name & follow them. Simple as that.

You are always welcome to give up anytime. But I would probably suggest that it’s worthwhile to hang in there until you’re following at least 100 people, and have spent a few weeks reading and getting used to the zeitgeist of the whole thing.

I was going to make a list of people who would be good starter follows, but as I scroll through my timeline I’m not convinced that I could wholeheartedly recommend anyone I follow in that capacity. Yet I love them all. Thus is the nature of Twitter.

How I use Twitter