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Tech

Affiliations

Patrick Rhone writes about why he used Amazon for affiliate links and why he no longer does so. He now favors a site called Indiebound, which serves to federate a group of independent bookstores and positions itself as the conscientious consumer alternative to Amazon.

In the post, Rhone quotes Dan J on the danger of using the ubiquitous e-commerce site for book recommendations.

The problem with linking to Amazon as a “safe default” is the same as the problem with just publishing your book on Amazon and calling it a day: it entrenches Amazon as The One True Place Where Books Are, and, while convenient, that’s not good… it’s not good for society to have one big private corporation responsible for distributing such a huge proportion of the collective written work of the human race.

This highlights a problem that pops into my brain every time I make a purchase from Amazon. Not only do I not want Amazon to own the market on books, I don’t want them to own the market on almost any category of consumer goods. I would rather they not be the leading retailer of apparel, furniture, electronics, vinyl records, hygiene merchandise or any other product groups.

When I was younger, Blockbuster Video was in its ascendency. As they grew, I watched a pattern emerge. When there were good, independent video stores in the same area, Blockbuster aggressively sent out coupons that offered excellent deals on rentals. They were enticing and certainly gave a customer reason to choose them over the competition. When, inevitably, the independent stores went our of business, the well of coupons from Blockbuster magically dried up. I witnessed this phenomenon play out a number of times.

I can’t help but think of the Blockbuster strategy whenever I can choose between Amazon and a viable alternative. The alternative would preferably be an independent business, but even another corporate chain is better. A chain or independent, hopefully, that specializes in a certain segment of products and that can build their business around enthusiastic customers.


I say all of these things as an Amazon shareholder who fully believes the market has room for a variety of retail establishments and that, despite that, Amazon will continue to grow.

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Tech

This Is The Way

The Mandolorian Unofficial Wallpaper

From Deviantart, a beautifully subtle Mandalorian wallpaper in an assortment of colors. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0.

Baby Yoda forever!

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Tech

Engineering Our Art

Image via Bruce Timothy Mans

Music is easier than ever to discover. Surely this is a triumph and yet, it makes me kind of sad when I think about how one doesn’t have to search out and find music in traditional ways anymore. Pitchfork and Rolling Stone may still be relevant, but you don’t need the encyclopedic knowledge of a music critic to tell you what you might like these days. Plug in some songs you already know you love, and have an algorithm feed you what else you will probably enjoy.

It really works, mostly. What the formula probably won’t tell you, that you should know, is that “Pale Blue Eyes” was the sonic template from which Mazzy Star was birthed. It won’t tell you that “Sex Beat” by Gun Club created the sound that was heard in many a Pixies song. You might figure some of those things out from recommended “influencers” lists, but it will be hard to put together an entire band’s catalog from the seed of some forgotten classic.

Turning art recommendations into a system is about more than just algorithms, though. If you feel like you just want to unwind, in addition to the “chill mixes” that all the streaming services feature, neuroscience has found the song that will most relax you. After listening to the song, “Weightless,” by Marconi Union, I can attest to the fact that the song is indeed, incredibly relaxing. They even have a ten hour version. With results this precise, it can be hard to argue with science.

This trend is not limited to music, either. New technology is even going to assess what audiences would like to see on the big screen. Warner Bros. is planning on letting AI green light their movies.

It works by assessing the “value” of an actor, estimating how much the film could make in theaters or streaming sites, and offering “dollar-figure parameters” for packaging, marketing, and distribution decisions behinds movies.

Human creative choices are not entirely out-of-the-picture, but data drives business decisions. They say lightning doesn’t strike twelve times, but based on the criteria above, don’t be surprised to see artificial intelligence recommend Die Hard 12. Thank goodness the Skywalker series is over because things could get a lot worse for that unfortunate family’s saga. You might even find yourself wondering what could go wrong with reconstituting a couple of dinosaurs from some ancient DNA to make a theme park, again.

As with many of the scientific and technological advancements, these things seem like mixed blessings. Computers can never replace humans in some areas, and creativity is certainly one of those areas. Tastes will never be an exact science. I like to think people are a bit too mysterious for that.

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Tech

Do You Like Me (check yes or no)?

Next week, Instagram is set to begin hiding like counts on posts in the US, according to this TechCrunch piece. The move is expected to hurt influencers on the platform, as initial tests in other countries showed that likes on posts went down when the counts were not displayed. The influencer economy is supposed to be a big part of what drives the platform. The speculation is that anything that hurts those influencers and their ability to use Instagram to build their businesses too badly will be rolled back.

I’m not completely bought into the idea that influencers are as strong a driver of engagement on Instagram as they are assumed to be, but to be fair, I haven’t looked deeply at the data. However, I know that the move will be good for teenagers who view posts as popularity contests and delete photos when they don’t achieve a certain like count, for fear of embarrassment. I appreciate the fact that those who are steering the Instagram ship are taking steps that account for the mental health of its users.

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Tech

Chipping Away At Democracy

There has never been a better time to quit Facebook, after the company recently revealed a policy that formalized the ability of politicians to lie in ads on the platform. Techcrunch writer Josh Costine called the move a disgorgement of responsibility. The web publication has another piece by Costine, calling on Facebook, and other tech companies, to ban political ads altogether. The ban would hold until they can come up with a coherent policy that doesn’t erode democratic freedoms by inundating the populace with misinformation.

No one wants historically untrustworthy social networks becoming the honesty police, deciding what’s factual enough to fly. But the alternative of allowing deception to run rampant is unacceptable. Until voter-elected officials can implement reasonable policies to preserve truth in campaign ads, the tech giants should go a step further and refuse to run them.

The formalization of the policy accepting misinformation in ads came after the campaign of Joe Biden called on Facebook to remove ads promoting false claims about him that were made by the Trump campaign. Facebook refused to take the ads down, abdicating any responsibility for their veracity.

In response, the campaign of Elizabeth Warren posted an ad blatantly lying about Mark Zuckerberg endorsing Donald Trump.

Costine writes, in the TechCrunch piece, that “It’s easy to imagine campaign ads escalating into an arms race of dishonesty.”

I’ve always stayed away from Facebook, watching from the sidelines as the company has made a series of bad decisions, every one seemingly worse than the previous. However, I did go back to Instagram a couple of years ago after quitting when they were originally purchased by Facebook. Now, I am now rethinking my relationship with that platform, especially after my recent push to consolidate my web presence at my own site. I am under no illusions that as many people would go to my personal site to see my photos as see them on Instagram, but more limited exposure seems a reasonable price to pay for principles. After all, I’m not selling anything.

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Tech

Cause Célèbre

In a break from my normal habit of avoiding hot takes and only sticking to what is room temperature or below, I wanted to write a bit about the uproar of the week. Specifically, the NBA, that proud bastion of social justice rebellion in recent times, ceding their moral high ground for the irresistible attraction of oodles of Chinese yuan.

Part of the name of this weblog has to do with my intention of capturing ideas being echoed around the blogosphere and there have been many people weighing in on this subject on their blogs. Alan Jacobs took on the subject is several blog posts, like this one.

If nothing else, this whole shameful display should put an end, once and for all, to the ridiculous idea that there is some natural and intrinsic connection between democracy and capitalism. There very obviously ain’t. When shareholders and the bottom line are not benefitted by democracy, then democracy gets flushed down the toilet. American big business has firmly decided for a totalitarian regime and against people who want democratic freedoms. The business of America really is business after all.

The quote, and the piece, are not just centered on the NBA, but also around ESPN/Disney and Apple, as well. After all, many corporations that are making grand gestures for social justice are also heavily entrenched in a totalitarian state that has over a million people in concentration camps.

Along with the increased scrutiny over where these companies choose to exercise their influence come some pretty fair questions about proportionality. Jason Morehead has a nice round up of opinion pieces about how many companies have fought hard for progressive causes suddenly grow mute when much larger human rights abuses are committed in countries in which they do big business.

It’s almost like trusting American corporations to do what’s morally right, not just when it’s easy and results in good PR but also when it’s inconvenient, unpopular, and they risk losing lots of money, is a bad idea. Who knew?

Apple has no problem filing an amicus brief against a cake maker, but don’t expect them to risk a kink in their massive supply chain anytime soon, no matter how righteous the cause.

This issue isn’t even limited to private corporations, though. The state of New York joined the NBA in boycotting North Carolina over bathroom provisioning, while also almost simultaneously making is just short of illegal to boycott other countries for human rights violations. How one state can reconcile boycotting another state over bathrooms while seriously restricting the right to protest, say, people’s houses being bulldozed in another country, I’m not sure I will ever understand. This all happening under the auspices of a constitution that guarantees the right to free speech makes everything even more ridiculous.

Taking a bite out of Apple

Returning to the issue of uneven corporate activism, it starts to get difficult to determine exactly what a conscious consumer is to make of his or her options. Picking up with Alan Jacobs again, who has a post that wrestles with how to handle the ethical implications of Apple’s decisions.

The other axis, that of ethics, is even more difficult. Apple’s Chinese entanglements massive compromise the ethical status of the company, and in more than one way. (Which is worse, obedience to the demands of the Chinese government or the exploitation of Chinese labor?) But Apple also deserves some praise for its commitment to privacy and its truly wonderful work in making its computers accessible to a wide range of users. I don’t know how to make an ethics spreadsheet, as it were, that assembles all the relevant factors — including comparisons to the available alternatives — and gives them proper weighting.

I believe that Apple is a particularly tough case here, because in so many areas (tablets, for example), there are simply no credible competitors. That’s not meant to be a commentary simply on the Apple products themselves, but also upon the ecosystem that exists around them. There is a very real paucity of third party software on other platforms, mostly because people using Android and Windows don’t tend to be software enthusiasts, who are willing to pay for well done products by independent shops.

My wife asked a good question regarding Apple, as we shopped for a new tablet that she can use for work: “How do you hold them to account, when your power is your purchasing power?”

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Tech

🎮 Bad North: I recently read speculation that, if the Vikings hadn’t hired themselves out as mercenaries and fought against each other, they probably would have taken over Europe.

Bad North gives you a chance to (hopefully) live through and save your people from a bloody Viking invasion.

Bad North is a charming but brutal real-time tactics roguelite. Defend your idyllic island kingdom against a horde of Viking invaders, as you lead the desperate exodus of your people. Command your loyal subjects to take full tactical advantage of the unique shape of each island.

The game is coming to virtually every gaming platform, so most people should have a chance to try their tactics against the invaders.

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Tech

This story on some potential upcoming changes to Twitter gives me hope that the folks steering the product are able to recognize that the platform is badly in need of repair and to consider some fairly big modifications. Removing the public like and retweet counts could potentially mitigate the mob-like atmosphere that pervades the social network.

Maybe Twitter can reclaim some of its former character?

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Tech

Micro.blog vs. Tumblr

A lot of people these days are worried about the demise of Tumblr. The product has changed hands a few times, and neither its Yahoo! parents or its Verizon parents seem to have paid much attention to it. M.G. Siegler took his concerns to his Medium blog, 500ish Words. In the post, he evaluates the current alternatives to Tumblr. What is most interesting, to me, is his quick dismissal of Micro.blog, the platform that hosts this blog. He writes, “And other things such as the newer Micro.blog are almost too spartan.”

Micro.blog started out fairly limited, but has steadily built on a solid foundation. Truthfully, that’s the way most software developers believe products should iterate. The rate of iteration for Micro.blog has been fairly aggressive lately. So while I might have agreed with Siegler a little more than a week ago, when his post was written, I no longer do. In the past week, Micro.blog rolled out major improvements that put it on par with Tumblr for personal blog hosting.

The most important of the new improvements was a most from being built on Jekyll to being built on Hugo, and with that, the inclusion of the ability to customize the design of your blog. This in itself is a huge step for Micro.blog, which previously allowed very limited customization options such as simple CSS overrides and footer design. Now blog owners are free to customize their entire themes, as well as share those customized themes with others on GitHub.

One ancillary benefit to the switch to Hugo, though, which I haven’t seen anyone on M.b. mention yet, is the ability to use Hugo shortcodes. Shortcodes elegantly allow for embedded content, the thing for which Tumblr is perhaps best known. They do so in a minimal way that fits in nicely with the markdown language that powers posts on Micro.blog. Previously, you could use embedded content on Micro.blog but it was not guaranteed to be responsive (a limitation of the Jekyll backend). Sure, you could embed a YouTube video, but switch to a mobile device and that thing would go right off the page. To properly handle embeds such as YouTube videos in Jekyll, you would have to install a plugin, something that wasn’t supported by Micro.blog. Even on Jekyll’s preferred hosting site, GitHub Pages, you would have to use a solution like this. In other words, such a common blogging use case as YouTube embeds was pretty challenging on the Jekyll platform. Now, many popular embeds (YouTube, Vimeo, Twitter and Instagram) are supported in Micro.blog by using Hugo shortcodes.

This may sound surprising, but In some ways, the new Micro.blog platform is actually superior to Tumblr when it comes to embeds. I say this as a formerly frustrated Tumblr user. I wanted to use a professionally designed Tumblr theme, but what I discovered was that embeds would behave differently on the front end of my blog than they would in the Tumblr dashboard. Some sites, such as Bandcamp, offer Tumblr-specific embedding options. Those options make the content appear correctly if you are a Tumblr user viewing it in the dashboard or if the blog is using the default theme. If you are using another theme, all bets are off for the majority of your viewers who are seeing the content in the front end of your blog. However, if you use standard embed codes, the content will probably look right on the front end of your custom theme, but it usually wouldn’t appear correctly in the Tumblr dashboard. This inconsistency caused me much consternation when I was an active Tumblr user. With a more standard set of embedding capabilities, Hugo and now Micro.blog provide a more consistent visual experience.

In his piece, Siegler also speculates on what a more contemporary Tumblr would look like.

It’s hard to know what a more modern Tumblr would look like — it would undoubtedly be mobile-first, but would it be better as a paid product these days? One major issue Tumblr had was a complete and utter failure to monetize. Ads seemed like a straightforward proposition, perhaps in a way similar to how they work on Instagram now. But for whatever reason, they never truly worked on Tumblr.

Could it be a right place/right time thing for a paid social network, truly free from advertising? There are certainly signs. Such a product would never get to Facebook-scale, of course. But it wouldn’t have to. And actually, shouldn’t aspire to. That never seemed to be the success state for Tumblr anyway.

Micro.blog is also close to what Siegler proposes as a “paid social network, truly free from advertising.” The social component that glues blogs together is actually free, but participated in most fully by using a Micro.blog paid, hosted account. Like the paid version of Tumblr that Siegler imagines, it will never get to Facebook scale, but it doesn’t need to in order to be compelling. The people who are using the platform are there because they are invested in it. The deliberate nature of the participation elevates the level of discourse in a way that isn’t, in my experience, matched on Tumblr. Not to mention that on Micro.blog, you don’t have to see repeated ads for situational teen sex games. Most months, that alone seems worth a few bucks.

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Tech

A Continuing Odyssey

_odesseysunset.png

This past week, Alto’s Odyssey, the sequel to the much lauded iOS game Alto’s Adventure, was released to positive reviews. Alto’s Adventure offers a take on the “endless runner” game that gives a snowboarder a vast natural playground for collecting coins and doing simple tricks. Odessey isn’t a brand new experience, but rather builds upon its predecessor in innovative ways.

What interests me about the Alto’s franchise is how people use the games in a therapeutic way. Several folks have written about Alto’s Adventure as a meditative experience and a treatment for anxiety.

Jason Kottke likens the experience of playing Alto’s Adventure with mediation.

I’ve played Alto’s Adventure a lot over the past year and a half. Like very a lot. At first, I played because the game was fun and I wanted to beat it. But eventually, I started playing the game when I was stressed or anxious. It became a form of meditation for me; playing cleared my mind and refocused my attention on the present. Even the seemingly stressful elements in the game became calming. The Elders, who spring up to give chase every few minutes, I don’t even notice anymore…which has become a metaphorical reminder for me to focus on my actions and what I can control and not worry about outside influences I can’t control.

The core of a meditative practice is directed focus on something. The most common object of focus is the breath. In mindful breathing, the mind is attuned to breathing, and when distractions inevitably arise, the mind is being trained to gently come back to the breath. In the Christian tradition of Centering Prayer, the practitioner learns to respond to distraction by mindfully bringing focus back to a sacred word. It is in these rituals that we can find a growing ability to let go of things that are not helpful and focus on the beauty and simplicity of the life that God has given to us.

For some, playing a game like Alto’s Adventure can be a calming substitute when meditation is difficult. Sameer Vasta writes about turning to the endless hills of Alto’s Adventure when he’s too keyed up to meditate.

I’ve been fairly open about my struggles with anxiety and depression, but I haven’t shared that one of my favorite coping mechanisms for my anxiety (at least, when it isn’t very bad, but still needs intervention) is to play zen mode on Alto’s Adventure. The repetitive motion, the serene landscapes, and the soothing music is often just what I need to center myself and recapture my composure.

The stigma of adults playing videogames seems to have been relegated to the past. Still, when gaming, I find myself occasionally wondering whether completing arbitrary tasks to satisfy a computer program is the best use of my time. When you start to look at gaming as being a possible avenue to better emotional health, though, the calculus starts to change a bit. Everyone needs a counterweight to the heavy demands of life in our modern world. Framed that way, $4.99 and some time reserved for fun seems like a pretty good deal.