It's Time to Leave Twitter

13/12/2022

It was predictable that Elon Musk’s Twitter would become an unhealthy environment, but it was surprising how quickly it deteriorated. This, added to the despicable, sometimes criminal ideas of its new owner, leads us to the only possible outcome: it is time to jump ship, to leave Twitter.

The reasons are many, all documented in Twitter is Going Great, a real-time coverage, timeline format, of the permanent catastrophe that Twitter has become.

Last weekend, Musk managed the feat of offending, with just one post, the United States’ top health authority in the fight against COVID-19 and all trans people.

In another instance, he made unfounded accusations that Yoel Roth, an executive who headed Twitter’s safety department, had advocated pedophilia in his phD thesis. (This is not the first time Musk has accused opponents of being pedophiles without any shred of evidence.) It was a lie, a retaliation. Days earlier, Roth had resigned and publicly criticized Musk.

You can tell from this and other news that Twitter is controlled by an extremist with an inflated ego, someone dangerous and ill-intentioned, and who happens to be the richest person on Earth. There is no way that this can work.

Not that I believe that all the services and products I use are controlled by people who are well-meaning or at least in line with my beliefs. It is just that, in the case of Twitter, the rottenness became explicit; the rancid smell, unbearable.

Some say that it is valid to swallow your pride and stay in hostile environments in order to “occupy the space” and not give it up to the “other side”. This is nuts. In the fight between progressives and conservatives — in any dispute that takes place on Twitter, in fact —, there is only one possible winner: Twitter itself, now inseparable from Elon Musk, its sole owner.

To be there is in itself a defeat for us, a victory for Musk and his erratic agenda. I don’t want to be a part of that.

A week ago I wrote a farewell to Twitter. I was in doubt. Then I read that the Platformer newsletter, the outlet that has given the most scoops in covering Musk’s Twitter era, has decided to leave Twitter. It was the push I needed.

In January 2008, when I signed up for Twitter, my first post there was something along the lines of “If you can’t stand them, join them…”. Not anymore.

Discuss @ Hacker News.

The Content Machine Revolution

30/11/2022

There is a revolution happening on the Internet and you haven’t noticed it. That’s okay, that’s the point. Artificial intelligences (AIs) capable of producing readable and coherent text, incredible images, and even videos are among us and already create much of the content that appears in our wanderings around the web and on social media.

We are living the machine revolution — of content.

Systems like OpenAI’s GPT-3 create long form text from commands or short sentences. A few days ago, Meta launched a version fluent in academic writing, Galactica, to the horror of experts, worried about the instrumentalization of this new tool to give a tone of legitimacy to half-baked theories.

In recent years, startups have been founded on the promise of convincing texts with the push of a button. They are already used in the day-to-day operations of many other companies, as Christopher Mims revealed in his column in the Wall Street Journal.

“It is probably impossible that the majority of people who use the web on a day-to-day basis haven’t at some point run into AI-generated content,” said Adam Chronister, owner of a search engine optimization (SEO) studio.

These startups — SEO.ai, TextCortex AI, Neuroflash, among others — address a “pain” of small and medium-sized companies that, with tight marketing budgets, have until now resorted to human copywriters to produce superficial articles as part of their customer acquisition strategies.

These are articles created from searches to other articles available on the web, repackaged with SEO techniques, whose goal is to be well positioned in searches on Google and other search engines to, in the end, sell a product or service. Preferably for as little money as possible. In short, the content production industry.

Researcher Kate Eichhorn, from MIT, is fascinated by content as an object of research. So much so that she wrote a book, entitled Content, to rescue the origins, classify and, in the end, try to define this term, which is so elastic and that, in recent years, has become part of our daily lives, even becoming a profession, the infamous “content creator”.

Her vision of content is not the most encouraging:

The rise of the content industry is the ultimate expression of neoliberalism. Under the logic of neoliberalism, everything—politics, desire, sociality, art, culture, and so on—is reduced to mere nodes in the market economy. Reducing all forms of cultural production to content not only conveniently erases the specificity of different types of cultural production but also effectively ensures that all types of cultural production can be easily substituted for each other and exchanged. After all, all content is part of a single and indistinguishable flow.

It’s a very interesting little book, this one by Kate. In the conclusion, when addressing automation, Kate acknowledges that “content and the content industry are here to stay; in fact, much of the damage has already been inflicted”.

The author talks about “resistance” as a remedy to the flood of empty content, about valuing what is made by people like us, with any intention other than to sell and/or circulate (which is the same in content logic). Nothing that will curb or stop industrial scale production, but a healthy resistance, still possible.

In a more optimistic vein, Arvind Narayanan, professor of computer science at Princeton University, draws a parallel between writer AIs and the calculator in the classroom environment.

As computer-generated text become compelling, inexpensive, and pervasive, our relationship with this medium changes. How can this shift be exploited to the benefit of us, the flesh and blood people?

Students have already figured out that AIs write well and have started using them to do school lessons, especially the boring and meaningless “write five paragraphs on the benefits of biotechnology” (his example), which teach nothing about writing, critical thinking, nor biotechnology.

Since the texts generated are somehow unique, it is not as easy a cheat to detect as the infamous Wikipedia copy and paste. Even if all students in a class use the same AI, each will have a different, unique text to present to the teacher.

For Arvind, the change that is needed is similar to the introduction of the calculator — at first despised in the classroom, then incorporated, and now indispensable. Resistance is useless, we will have to adapt. This may even prove to be a positive thing:

In some cases, the point of assigning an essay is to teach writing skills or critical thinking. The availability of language models has not obviated these skills. […] [T]here are many ways to change the exercise so that the tools aren’t helpful. These changes take advantage of inherent limitations of language models that are unlikely to be fixed soon.

Let’s make no mistake, though. In the day-to-day pressure, content-generating AIs will be used willy-nilly to produce whatever they can. Laziness, that all-too-human feeling, almost always wins out, and industry incentives will be increasingly tempting.

In recent weeks, general-purpose applications have launched their AI systems, such as Canva and Notion. Google already helps the user write emails, LinkedIn suggests pre-defined and contextual messages in conversations and comments.

Kate explicitly says that resisting is not a “neo-luddist” act, but… maybe it is? It is easy to envision a near future in which people who write their texts by themselves, without the aid of an artificial intelligence, will be seen as eccentrics, craftsmen of the word.

There will be less space, it’s true, because you can’t compete with machines in volume, and that’s what content is all about. Back to Kate:

So, what is the content industry? In essence, it is an industry that generates revenue from the production and/or circulation of content alone. The content in question sometimes conveys information, tells a story, or entertains, but it doesn’t need to do any of these things to circulate effectively as content (again, consider the Instagram Egg).

When thinking about content, I always remember this funny column (in Portuguese) by Ricardo Araújo Pereira in which he gives a scathing critique of the internet — the kind of thing a machine probably couldn’t do; or maybe it could, after devouring Ricardo’s columns:

For example, whenever someone who writes, sings, or acts says they produce content for the Internet, I get a little bit of a chill.

Never in the entire history of the world has a winemaker said that he produces content for bottles, because the winemaker respects wine too much to say such a thing. Not least because he is not particularly dazzled by the existence of bottles. Yes, bottles are useful, but it’s the wine that matters.

However, there are artists who have such admiration for the Internet that they are satisfied to say that they produce content for it.

We continue steadily in the production of wine, I mean, words.

Discuss @ Hacker News.

On Substack Centralization

15/11/2022

Time and again we get the feeling that human history is doomed to the same old script over and over again, only with slightly different characters and contexts.

A few years ago Substack emerged as a prime destination for weekend writers and people who want to take the radical act of writing longform text on the web seriously. Not by chance: it is an easy-to-use, fancy, and ever evolving tool. Most importantly, it is totally free unless you charge for your newsletter, and there is no pressure to charge for it at all.

It’s not a surprise, then, that a centralization on Substack is underway. Besides seeing more and more newsletters with addresses ending in substack.com, my attention was drawn to the phenomenon by this post from Erik Hoel (at his Substack page!). In it, Hoel extols some of the alegedly decentralized features of Substack, its network effects, and the growth potential it unleashes in newsletters of all sizes.

It’s not unlike what happened on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and what happens in parallel on TikTok. Produce your content there, on a powerful yet easy-to-use third party platform free of charge, in exchange for people’s attention. Or else, you end up in a situation like Medium’s, which seems to pivot every six months, leaving a trace of confused and disapointed writers behind.

This works well until the day the platform starts wanting to capitalize, to realize its promise (of profits). Then your reach collapses, and if you want to communicate with people who have followed/subscribed to your profile at some point in the past, you need to pay.

Substack is still in the growth phase and has a cool, anti-social media vibe. At heart, it’s a classic startup, with USD 80+ million raised in four rounds of investment by firms like a16z, Y Combinator, and Quiet Capital — the usual ones.

For all the good that Substack does (and it’s quite a lot), the balance of concentrating active web and email writing in a startup only tends to the negative. Because it’s only a matter of time before the writers’ belching begins. When it does, the next Substack better be ready. These turnarounds are usually abrupt and destructive.

Discuss @ Hacker News.

Mastodon is harder than Twitter, and that's ok

12/11/2022

The exodus from Twitter, ruined by Elon Musk, would be more intense if the main alternative emerging in this turbulent period, Mastodon, were more user friendly. Not that it’s rocket science, but the friction of using it, especially its onboarding, has disheartened some.

Mastodon exposes one of the two great assets of big tech: ease of use. One of the obsessions of Silicon Valley companies is to remove obstacles between their offerings and the users, even if this means compromising other important but “annoying” aspects, such as privacy.

Mastodon’s model is Elon Musk-proof. No billionaire would be able to buy the network because it’s decentralized and its code is open — it belongs to everyone and no one at the same time.

This huge advantage has, as a side effect, a slightly more complicated onboarding: instead of a central entity, which host the whole signing up process, content and everything else, Mastodon is a “network of networks” that communicate with each other. The first step, then, is to find one of these networks (instance, or server) that is accepting new users.

The concept is similar to that of email, although today this sector is quite concentrated in a few big players — Google and Microsoft, in particular.

When you create an e-mail at Gmail, you can talk to people on other “servers” such as Hotmail or Yahoo Mail.

By creating a profile on… I don’t know, masto.donte.com.br, you can talk to people on mastodon.social. (These are both Mastodon instances/servers.) The logic is similar to that of e-mail.

As I said, that ease of use is one of the trumps of big tech. The other is free (as in free beer). Almost every free (as in freedom) alternative will impose one or the other drawback, be difficult to use or requiring payments. Sometimes, both at the same time.

E-mail, by the way, is a great example of the Silicon Valley’s free advantage. It’s possible to get rid of Gmail and Outlook/Hotmail, two great free email offerings. Setting up your own mail server is very complex, hence the best way is to hire a managed service — which, unsurprisingly, will charge a monthly fee.

Fastmail, Tutanota, Migadu, Proton, Zoho: there are plenty of offers, all of excellent quality, all paid. Is it worth it? I think so, so much that I have been paying for my e-mail for more than five years. Is it for everyone? Not at all.

We live in a big tech world. Apart from all the problems that their predatory and careless business models generate, these big companies have changed the public’s expectations about digital services. They have hitchhiked services that were once restricted — by technical difficulties or financial barriers — to literally billions of people.

In this big tech owned world, there is still room for other ways of thinking, handling and exploring technology, but these will increasingly be seen as eccentricities.

It is significant that Mastodon has hit 1 million active users in the wake of Musk’s erratic decisions, but 1 million users is a drop in the ocean that is Twitter, with a quarter of a billion users. And even with that tiny base, specialized Mastodon instances and hosting services are overloaded.

Nevertheless, I’d like to end with a positive message: using Mastodon and migrating your email to smaller services are worthwhile endeavors. Vital, I would say, if we want to have the chance for a plural, diverse, open Internet — as it should always be. Hopefully, we will see more initiatives like Signal, which manages to offer an easy-to-use and free application, maintained by a structure with no for-profit or hidden goals.

For the rest, Mastodon will probably never become a Twitter — in terms of reach and influence — and this is fine. The important thing is that it and similar projects exist; that there are alternatives for those who, for whatever reason, crave healthier digital media.

Discuss @ Hacker News.

How To Remove All Blocks-Related Stuff From WordPress

7/11/2022

With each new version of WordPress, it becomes more obvious that the future of the platform is in Gutenberg/its blocks metaphor.

I really don’t like blocks, and this poses a problem to me. The most promising alternative to WordPress, ClassicPress, is far from the desired level of maturity for more demanding scenarios, such as my Portuguese blog, Manual do Usuário.

For now, it is still possible to suppress all blocks-related stuff from up to date WordPress installations. I have gathered in this post all the hacks needed for this purpose. They have been tested up to the brand new WordPress 6.1 and, as far as I know, completely eliminate the block-related assets and calls.

There are only three steps:

Friendly plugins

Two plugins are essential for removing the blocks from the “back-end”, the administrative/restricted part of WordPress: Classic Editor and Classic Widgets.

Just install them to get back the classic editor and the classic widgets. (In the latest versions, the classic widgets have been replaced by… blocks.)

“Duotone” SVGs

Starting with WordPress 5.8, it became possible to edit images with two color tones from block editing. It’s a nice effect, but even if you don’t use it WordPress loads some SVG files at the beginning of the code, right after the <body> tag.

To remove them, you need to create a theme.json file inside your theme directory and paste this small piece of code into it:

	"version": 1,
	"settings": {
		"color": {
			"duotone": null
                }
        }
}

functions.php changes

WordPress automatically loads various CSS files related to the blocks, even if you don’t use them. The best way to remove them is via functions.php, a file that your theme probably already has. (If not, just create it in the root of your theme directory.)

Add the following lines to remove files related to the blocks:

add_filter( 'use_block_editor_for_post', '__return_false' );
add_filter( 'use_widgets_blog_editor', '__return_false' );

add_action( 'wp_enqueue_scripts', function() {
	wp_dequeue_style( 'wp-block-library' );
	wp_dequeue_style( 'wp-block-library-theme' );
	wp_dequeue_style( 'global-styles' );
	wp_dequeue_style( 'classic-theme-styles-css' );
}, 20 );

Discuss @ Hacker News.

30 Years of ThinkPad

21/10/2022

Picture of a ThinkPad laptop's keyboard showing its red Trackpoint.
Picture: Patrick/Flickr.

The Wikipedia entry doesn’t specify the day, Lenovo celebrated on October 5th, but I think it’s still worth commenting on the 30th anniversary of the ThinkPad, one of the longest-lived computer brands ever.

In 2017, on the occasion of its 25th anniversary, I got a timeless booklet from Lenovo’s Brazilian office that details the history of the ThinkPad. How the ThinkPad changed the world — and is shaping the future is a first-person account by Arimasa Naitoh, known as the “father” of the ThinkPad, now vice-president of Lenovo’s PC and smart devices unit, helped by journalist William J. Holstein.

The ThinkPad 700C, the first laptop of its kind released to the public in October 1992, was an instant success. The quality of the device, far superior to rivals from Compaq and Toshiba at the time, paved the way for the reputation that this brand carries to this day, three decades and countless models later, for high quality and performance.

The ThinkPad laptops were conceived and for a long time developed in Yamato, Japan, where IBM had a facility. In the book, Arimasa talks a lot about this geographical arrangement (IBM was and is a North American company) and the transition to China-based Lenovo in mid-2000s.

The other thread running through the narrative are the innovations that, throughout history, have helped distinguish the ThinkPad from the ocean of laptops from other brands and cement its reputation as good laptops.

Stories such as the recurrent use of ThinkPads in space, thanks to a partnership with NASA, the infamous trackpoint (that little red ball in the middle of the keyboard used to control the mouse cursor) and the “butterfly keyboard”, which adopted an ingenious mechanism to provide a large keyboard without increasing the size of the laptop itself, are commented on by those who lived through it all from the other side, developing and dealing with mishaps that, judging by what we, the public, see, could not imagine were so intense.

A blonde woman in a room full of screen. Behind her, a ThinkPad laptop highlighted.
Picture: NASA.

This was perhaps what caught my attention the most: the level of stress and the amount of work that Arimasa reports from himself and his teams.

In 1988, during a stint in the United States to learn what IBM’s development labs were doing, Arimasa ended up helping the Boca Raton team solve an electromagnetic interference problem on the P70, a 9 kg (20 pounds) precursor to the ThinkPad that was being developed by Yamato’s lab.

The P70 was released on schedule and meeting the specifications set by IBM, which gave Yamato (and Arimasa) the credentials to tackle the ThinkPad project, commissioned by Harvard Business School. Suddenly, Arimasa found himself returning to Japan. He writes:

On our way to Japan, my family and I stopped in Maui [Hawaii] to stay a few days under the sun. We had a nice time with my daughter, who was about nine years old, and our son, who was three. Little did I know that this would be my last vacation for the next ten years. As the Americans say, I was jumping out of the hot pan and straight into the fire.

In 2022, now under Lenovo, which bought IBM’s computer division in 2005, the flagship of the ThinkPad line is the X1 Carbon, a laptop with all the best in the industry. Other models, such as the TXXX and Yoga lines, cater to different audiences in lower price ranges.

The ThinkPad has always been a stage for experimentation. It was the first laptop to bring several technologies — color screen, digital disks (CD, DVD), Wi-Fi, foldable screen. MoMA exhibits a unit of ThinkPad 701C (the one with the “butterfly keyboard”), a crowning achievement of this obsession for innovation.

With 200 million units sold, ThinkPad is one of the rare brands that, even after countless transitions and market turns, and without ceasing to innovate, has managed to maintain its original characteristics that have made it iconic.

Discuss @ Hacker News.

« Previous 6 of 10 Next »
🕸️💍