18/8/2022

WordPress's Uncertain Future and the Promise of ClassicPress

Almost a decade ago, I launched a tech blog in Brazil called Manual do Usuário (“User’s Guide” in Portuguese). Since its inception, it is published with WordPress, one of the oldest CMS — a content management system — and by far the most popular on the web today: it’s estimated that 40% of active websites use it nowadays. WordPress is open source, works well, there’s almost nothing to complain about.

In December 2018, Automattic, the company behind WordPress, released version 5.0 with big fanfare and a radical change: Gutenberg, a new, very visual post editor based on content blocks instead of text.

Gutenberg changes the writing process a lot. If before I was presented with a text area with some formatting buttons at the top when writing some post — a kind of simplified Word —, now it was possible to manipulate the whole appearance of the content using these blocks.

This was not a very well received change. To this day, the Classic Editor plugin, which restores the Word-style editor used until WordPress 4.9, is one of the most popular on the platform, with +5 million active installations and a five-star (top) rating.

Automattic doubled down on Gutenberg in early 2022 by bringing to WordPress 6.0 a thing called Full Site Editor: now, in addition to posts, someone could design the entire site with blocks/Gutenberg. WordPress moved even further away from being a mere blog or text-based publishing tool to become… I don’t know, anything other than that.

With Gutenberg, Automattic — which, it should be mentioned, runs a commercial operation based on WordPress, WordPress.com — decided to pick a fight with DIY and more modern rivals, notably Squarespace and Wix. Not by chance: these have achieved great recognition and a lot of users (and money) in recent years, because they are easier to handle for non-programmers.

And it is indeed easier to make a custom site with Gutenberg, but at what cost? For me (a person who can’t code, but can deal with simple HTML and CSS, by the way), the biggest hurdles are the added complexity when writing anything with blocks and the “dirty” code Gutenberg generates when displaying the site to visitors. (I care a lot about this “invisible” part of the site. I’m not the only one).

WordPress’ new direction alienates a significant portion of its user base. At the very least, those 5 million who use Classic Editor by this day. Maybe we aren’t the most profitable users, but we’re a crowd that, in many cases, has relied on this tool for a very long time to earn our living or just to maintain sites that are doing just fine without Gutenberg, thank you. This is my case: Manual do Usuário has been around for almost a decade.

At the moment, WordPress meets the needs of a site like mine because it is still possible to neutralize much of the excesses that Gutenberg brings to the system using a lot of workarounds in functions.php. Until when? I don’t know.

All WordPress development is dictated by Gutenberg, both within Automattic and in the ecosystem, by third-party developers of plugins, themes, and solutions. This creates apprehension in those who don’t get along with the blocks and would rather do without them. WordPress community support has always been stellar, but it started to fade into something sparse for those out of the blocks train.

The Classic Editor, for example, was supposed to be discontinued at the end of 2021. It got an extra year of support due to its popularity. At the end of 2022, will it be abandoned? I don’t know.

Even a simple site like Manual do Usuário has several dependencies with the chosen CMS. After all, it’s a huge archive that was published on the features, limitations and possibilities of WordPress. Migrating to another tool is always an option, not infrequently a traumatic one that leaves after-effects.

That’s why I’ve been looking fondly at ClassicPress. In 2019, shortly after WordPress 5.0 was released, a group of developers decided to stay in version 4.9, forking the main WordPress into something new. ClassicPress was born.

In three years, however, progress has been slow. Making matters worse, the bureaucratic part and the internal dramas of ClassicPress’ project continue to distract everyone from what matters, from writing code.

At the end of June, the two developers leading the ClassicPress Initiative, the non-profit company responsible for the project, left under heavy criticism. A new group took over with the mission to regain enthusiasm and move the project forward.

It’s not an easy job. Automattic’s structure (and money) are on another scale of magnitude. ClassicPress Initiative is still counting the pennies to pay operating expenses. On exit, the former directors said there was USD 352 left in the company’s bank account.

Even in this not-so-promising scenario, it would be great if ClassicPress thrived. The new management has opened a crowdfunding initiative to cover expenses. Manual do Usuário, in my capacity, has become an early supporter.

It is not yet time to migrate my site to ClassicPress, however. The project is too raw for my needs and current dependencies, and ClassicPress new board still has to figure out fundamental issues, such as deciding to maintain compatibility with WordPress plugins or going for a complete break.

One day, if things go well, I’ll migrate. My fear, however, is that that day will come before rough edges are polished, when WordPress becomes something incompatible with Manual do Usuário, with what it was at the beginning until the fateful version 5.0 at the end of 2018.

13/8/2022

A basic property on the outskirts of the metaverse and other cool links

Every Saturday, I publish a list of cool, interesting, or funny links I gathered through the week. If you enjoy it, please subscribe to the newsletter. Thanks!


— Rita Wu, a Brazilian futurist, talking on TV about getting married and buying a small property on the outskirts of the metaverse for USD 5k (in Portuguese). This could be a skit on The Office show.

— A robot gymnast really good on the fixed bar. (The video is from 2015.) Rebeca Andrade, beware!

SpongeBob’s computer based on Raspberry Pi. H/t Cesar Cardoso.

— Lucas Pope, the creator and solo developer of Papers, Please, tells the meticulous process of adapting the game for tiny screens.

— Crisis in high society: almost every Ferrari manufactured since 2005 will have to undergo a recall due to a defect in the brake fluid reservoir.

— We are fools and Google knows it: search for “dog” or “cat” and click on the paw print on the right panel to be surprised.

Apps and sites

FreeTube is a good way to watch YouTube videos withought having to deal with YouTube’s official apps or site. Free and open source, for various platforms. H/t Ricardo Silvério.

— A bunch of services and tools for early stage startups.

Fockups is a site with templates for mockups in adverse conditions. Because the world isn’t as perfect as many mockups pretend.”

— Microsoft has opened up its set of 3D emojis. On GitHub and Figma.

ExplorerPatcher is one of those utilities that profoundly changes Windows (“debloater”). Its distinguishing feature is that it works on Windows 11. Use at your own risk!

Batteries for Mac app displays in the menubar and widgets the real-time status of your Apple and Beats devices’ batteries. USD 9, for macOS.

Organic Maps is an offline map app based on OpenStreetMap data. Free, for Android and iOS.

U1KE is a digital ukulele made of 1 KB of JavaScript.

10/8/2022

I went all in spreadsheets for personal finance

The obscure, weird app that I had been using for five years to record my financial transactions failed to import data from the old phone to the new one. I took this as sign: it was time to move onto a better solution.

Personal finance doesn’t need to be complex, yet it’s only useful with a pinch of automated calculations, consolidations, and charts. I started researching for a new app with low requirements: something simple, that allowed me to enter my transactions (expenses and income) and review them at the end of each month or specific period.

I downloaded almost every app of this kind available in the App Store. I didn’t like any of them*.

Then I remembered the good’n old spreadsheet, the software that keeps the corporate world running. Why not give it a shot?

Sometimes an advantage, sometimes a nuisance, the fact is that spreadsheets are super malleable, unlike personal finance apps. One frustration I had with the app I used to use, for instance, was the absence of a filter monthly expenses of only one category. On the other hand, the unlimited possibilities of spreadsheets can be paralyzing and, for those who are not familiar with its formulas and functions (which is my case), intimidating.

A little skeptical, I created a new spreadsheet and started recording transactions of the current month, one by one, row by row, in five columns: date, account (savings, wallet, credit card etc.), category, to/from, amount, and comment (optional).

Once this was done, I started messing around with pivot tables. In a few clicks and with some look ups at the documentation and YouTube tutorials, I had in front of me consolidated data of the month’s expenses, divided by category, all pretty, exactly the way I always wanted. Also, I found the function SUMIFS, which helps to make more specific, permanent filters, very cool.

Filters are also nice. When in the future, inevitably, I have to complain about wrong invoices and undue charges with the phone company, for example, I can quickly create a filter with its name in the to/from column to see, there, all the history of payments made.

Charts? Nothing too difficult. Finally I have at my disposal the evolution of expenses in a single category, which I missed in the weird app I used before. It allowed me to see the damage that going out to eat a lot in February caused to my budget and that, despite the incessant food inflation in Brazil in 2022, we have been able to maneuver the groceries (“Mercado”) list and keep this budget more or less stable.

Chart of groceries and eating out expenses in 2022.

I have already transferred all the data from this year to the spreadsheet and will do the same with previous years, bit by bit. Could I try a direct import? Yes, but I am taking advantage of the manual work to recategorize transactions in a simpler structure.

Restaurant expenses, for example, I used to split it into three categories: “Eating out”, “Delivery”, and “Cafes”. Now I have consolidated them all into “Restaurants”. I think it is important to adjust the detailing to keep it useful without making the work of recording overwhelming.

I’ve flirted before with the idea of recording expenses in a spreadsheet. That time, I failed. This time, it looks like I’ll succeed. I attribute the success of my last attempt to this article by Denisa Blackwood, a data scientist who is not a fan of spreadsheets and who only made peace with them when using Numbers, the “Apple’s Excel”. It’s nicer indeed, but Excel would do just as well — and is probably more powerful than Numbers.

It wasn’t for Numbers, specifically, but the approach, which she calls “minimalist” — and I, less controlling —, that I succeeded this time. A big hindrance in the previous one was that I, used to the workings of that old app, was trying to reconcile my spreadsheet balance with the actual ones, manually.

Not that it is impossible, but reconciliation makes the work much more difficult and prone to errors. On any given day, that monthly dollar bill that changed a few cents due to exchange variation throughout the day generates a misalignment that may be really hard to find and fix. It was always maddening when something like this happened; most of the times, I recorded a transaction called “Adjustment” with the amount difference and that was it.

In the new spreadsheet, with Denisa’s approach, I only control expenses. The consolidation I leave aside, using another spreadsheet I created for tracking my assets monthly. They are related things, but not necessarily inseparable — at least I think so.

As a side effect, I was able to uninstall the finance app of my phone and protect the spreadsheet with a miles long password. I don’t do as many transactions per month (less than a hundred) and I am in front of a computer almost every day, so it is feasible to leave it to those times.


* Actually, I quite enjoyed GreenBooks and ended up having to decide between this app and spreadsheets. Decided to go with spreadsheets, but… maybe an app in the future?

Discuss @ Hacker News.

8/8/2022

Maybe Amazon do want to know where you placed your sofa

The fallout from Amazon’s $1.7 billion purchase of iRobot has analysts and industry insiders dismissing fears that Amazon is buying a shortcut to consolidate data from consumers’ houses.

In Bloomberg’s technology newsletter, for example, Brad Stone said he thinks that “the idea that Amazon wants Roomba’s help mapping the inside of your home is absurd: Amazon does not care where you’ve placed your sofa.”

On Twitter, Benedict Evans echoed the sentiment:

The general point that perplexes me about threads like this is the idea that anyone wants to know trivial and random details about your life - that this has any economic value. “Amazon will know where your furniture is!” No, it won’t, but why on Earth would it care?

Perhaps the co-founder and current CEO of iRobot could help us understand? From a 2017 Reuters interview of Colin Angle:

There’s an entire ecosystem of things and services that the smart home can deliver once you have a rich map of the home that the user has allowed to be shared.

At the time, iRobot had just made its Roomba robots compatible with Amazon’s Alexa. In the interview, Angle floated the possibility of sharing home maps with the three technology giants — Amazon, Apple, and Google —, a service that would be free of charge.

The advantage to iRobot in these arrangements, in the executive’s vision, would be to connect the Roomba robots to as many other companies as possible to make them more useful at home.

The reaction was quite negative, which led Angle to a damage control tour. In another interview, this one with Mashable, he emphasized the fact that data from houses gathered by Roomba robots is only sent to the cloud and would only be shared with third-parties with user’s consent, but he also didn’t rule out selling it in the future: “We have not formed any plans to sell the data.”

So, yeah, maybe this is indeed a point of concern?

Discuss @ Hacker News.

6/8/2022

Embraer's new turboprop airplane and other cool links

— Embraer revealed its next turbopro airplane, the TPNG. It’s due to start flying in 2027.

— LinkedIn’s 20 most popular courses are available for free until the end of August.

Pokémon’s phone has been updated and now boasts two cameras, like (almost) every good modern phone.

— Insta360 has a new webcam, called Link, with a feature similar to that of Apple cameras that “follows” a person in the frame. USD 299.

A suitcase that resembles (and fits like) Lego pieces. For now, just a concept.

— The 1kB Club is a select group of sites that weigh less than 1 KB. So far it has four members.

Apps and sites

Papers, Please was released for phones (Android, iOS).

— This guy built a dictionary app from scratch. Why? None of those available worked the way he uses dictionaries. The app is Wordnote Dictionary (Android, iOS) and here he told its making of.

Emery’s proposal is ambitious: tie together your tasks, appointments, and thoughts in one app. For USD 4.50 per month.

Banish is a Safari extension that removes those annoying requests from sites like Reddit to “install the app”. For iOS, USD 1.90.

LibRedirect is an extension that redirects you to privacy-friendly front-ends when you access social media sites. For Chrome and Firefox, free.

Blurred is an app that fades background windows and the desktop so you can better focus on the window you’re working on. For macOS, free and open source.

CyberChef is the developer’s Swiss Army knife: over 300 common operations presented graphically. Free.

Material You Color Theming extension changes the colors of windows and other UI elements according to the wallpaper in use, just like recent Android versions. For Gnome, free.

— Avoid using CAPTCHAS. If you must, use mCAPTCHA, an open, free and privacy-compliant solution.

Yesterlinks is a directory of interesting sites. “Remember when the internet was mysterious and exciting?”

4/8/2022

Apple's Marxist TV Show

A white man, short hair, sit on his desk, in front an old-fashioned computer, in an old-fashioned office environment.
Photo: Apple.

Apple TV+’s Severance is that kind of entertainment full of references to thoughtful, deep themes distilled into obviousness. No wonder (and, of course, not only because of this) it’s been so successful.

Even someone as ignorant as I am in Marxist theory can pick up on such influence in the show. Not so much on the viewer’s merit, though. It is that Severance kind of rubs this in our faces: the work is repetitive, mysterious, nobody there can see its result or even know what it is for, and employees give up their autonomy in a way that the owners of capital can only dream of today. It’s pretty much Karl Marx’s theory of alienation 101.

To those unaware, in Severance (the TV show) a mega-corporation, Lumon Industries, developed a brain implant capable of splitting someone’s consciousness into two: one exclusively dedicated to work, and one for everything else. Whoever goes through the severance procedure kind of becomes two people, whom everyone refers to as “inners” (workers) and “outies” (free, non-worker one).

The novelty is sold as the future of work, an easy and convenient solution to enable the utopian split between “real life” and “work life,” taken to an extreme there: when going down Lumon’s underground elevator, employees simply switch personalities and forget any memories from outside the company building, and vice versa.

Mark S., the protagonist played by Adam Scott, volunteered for the severance procedure after losing his wife in a car accident and burned-out at his job as a professor. It was the escape he found to mitigate the pain (at least from 9 to 5) and get back on the market.

Obviously, this arrangement doesn’t work for long. Two interconnected events trigger the suspicions and move the story forward: the arrival of Helly R. (Britt Lower), who from the first minute hates the “inner” life she sees herself stuck on and does her best to escape Lumon after Petey (Yul Vazquez), Mark’s former boss and friend, fired and “reintegrated” — i.e. reversed the severance procedure —, goes after the “outie“ Mark, to whom Petey is a complete stranger.

Along the way, Mark and his colleagues begin to discover the inhumane system they have subjected themselves to, the widespread corruption from their superiores at Lumon, and that the sky is blue. (It could just be a silly joke, this last discovery, but considering that the “inners” never go outdoors… maybe not?)

The macrodata refinement division’s office, where the four main characters work, resembles a typical 1980s American office — right down to the computers, with their monochrome CRT screens with keyboard and trackball attached.

Four office workers sit or leaning on desk offices, in an old-fashioned office, being observed by a standing man on the left.
Photo: Apple.

The aesthetics of this environment is a marvel in itself. And despite the visual strangeness and the anachronism — revealed in external scenes, outside the weird office and Lumon’s labyrinthine corridors, where tech and other things are contemporary —, the treatment of the employees is recognizable to anyone who has ever worked in an office, perhaps just a little more exaggerated. From the pathetic “perks” (although the “defiant jazz” scene is quite amusing) to the dumb bureaucracy, not to mention the micromanaging of the employees, it’s all there.

In that sense, Severance is perhaps the best joke that comedian, director and executive producer Ben Stiller has ever told: the show works perfectly as a self-parody of Apple, which publishes it on its streaming service. Apple, let’s remember, a company that built a USD 5 billion headquarters where employees bump into unsigned glass walls because ~aesthetics and creates barriers for WFH despite the increase in productivity and quality of life of employees, both of which was proved true during the pandemic.

That Severance is available only on Apple’s streaming service is both a fine irony and a declaration of the overwhelming victory of capitalist logic over other ways of thinking, a logic capable of swallowing everything, even the sharpest criticism, and regurgitating a sleek product with a price tag attached.

In the universe of Severance, the Severance show could just as well be released on a Lumon streaming service. Even a Steve Jobs-like leader they have: the spirit of Kier Eagan, the beloved founder, is present all the time as a guide and an inspiration to the obedient employees of the company.

The first season ends at the climax, but with a cheap and lazy cliffhanger, another symptom of the system in which the show exists — after all, you gotta keep those Apple TV+ subscriptions. And here we go, waiting a whole year to find out what happens in the already confirmed second season.

Unfortunately, all this transforming potential ends up being wasted by many people, judging by the comments on social media and reviews from the press, for whom apparently Severance is just a stylish, well paced science fiction set in a strange office. C’mon, even Apple itself, which vetoes sex, violence, and politics from a number of Apple TV+ shows, seems to ignore the extremely subversive appeal and political nature of Severance.

In the end, it’s like those people who complain that Rage Against the Machine’s music would be better if they left “political bs” out of it. Ignorance is bliss.

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