Thursday, 3 July 2014

Endless Possibility

Jonathan Gourlay wrote an article, Being and Nothingness and “Minecraft”, wherein he captures the essence of the Minecraft experience:

No video game before Minecraft has presented the player with a world as simple, beautiful, and engaging as a box of random Legos or wooden blocks or loose change or sticks or shells… toys whose only purpose is to soak up human consciousness and light into being upon a human whim.”

The sun is setting, so I need to get inside before the creepers come. Fear is essential to action, after all. Life would be dull without creepers.”

There is no goal, no point, no reason at all in this godless universe for playing Minecraft. But then, there is no point to playing with blocks either. There are things you can do with blocks. There are things you can do in Minecraft. You can find an elusive saddle in an underground monster lair and use it to ride a pig. But you don’t get anything — no badge or narrative or points to spend at an online store — for riding a pig. Pig riding is an end in itself. When you have accomplished it, that is simply how you chose to live your Minecraft life. Quit to title. You are your life and nothing else, pig rider.”

Even with the updates and changes to Minecraft, there is still a refreshing feeling and sense of excitement when you load up a new world. The sun is overhead, the landscape is untouched, and the world is yours to shape. Simple, elegant, wonderful.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Social Disengagement

Two weeks ago, I wrote about deactivating my Facebook account, as well as Instagram, in an effort to reclaim some time and eliminate additional distraction from “social” networks that were not adding any enhancement to my life. I kept a Twitter account active and also kept the LinkedIn app installed on my iPhone. Then I installed the Tumblr app so I could use it as a link blog and catch-all since I did not want to relegate my web site to that task.

Now, the Twitter app has been deleted from my phone. The Tumblr app and account have been deleted also. As my experiment with leaving Facebook progresses, I feel less compelled to use any of these social networks. They feel far less valuable to me compared to my past interactions. Perhaps some might argue that Twitter is the only place to truly get breaking world news before anyone else, but honestly, I’m not that interested in having my eyes glued to a feed to “find out first” when I have my own life to live. Seconds are precious. Time will consume our lives no matter what we do, so we should make the most of that time.

I have decided that any link I think I may want to refer to in the future is best stored in Pinboard, out of the way yet easily accessible and archived forever. If I find that I have something more to say about a link or an article that I read on the Internet, then the appropriate place is right here. If I am going to devote some of my fleeting time to writing about something, I should own it and host it myself.

As an aside, one of my issues with Tumblr is that while it makes it easy to publish any media quickly to the web, it is still an insidious social network that causes me to follow others’ tumblogs and compulsively check feeds which for me defeats the whole purpose of using it in the first place.

Twitter is not what it once was for me. Actually, I am not quite sure what it ever was other than a place to engage in some witty banter with Internet and real-life friends, but that has been lost over time, and now I would rather engage in face to face conversation with friends.

I am done with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr. Will I stay in retirement from these networks? I hope so, although I have a friend who jokes that this is just my usual social network hate phase and that it will pass in a month or two. I hope not. I hope it lasts for a long time.

A bigger concern for me is that so many web applications and sites have begun to rely on social networks for their authentication services that they may become increasingly difficult to avoid altogether. Many sites still offer to let you create an account with them, but most offer Facebook, Google, and Twitter as authentication options. I can appreciate the simple beauty of single sign-on authentication and the simplification of infrastructure and operations for companies that accept these other authentication methods, but I personally don’t want to have to maintain an account with any of those companies.

It’s a matter of trust. I might agree to use your service, but I will not use your service if you force me to use a Facebook or Twitter account to access it. I no longer trust those companies with my information, so I definitely do not want to use them as an authentication method for other services. In addition to that, I don’t think that social networks are the new way to engage people. In fact, traffic metrics prove that search is still the single largest driver of traffic. For my sites, RSS and e-mail also drive a large amount of traffic in. When I tried to use Facebook and Twitter to engage people, there was little to no traffic from those sites.

There’s a reason for this phenomenon. The social networks do not want you to exit the walled garden, nor do the users want to leave them. Facebook would rather have me post an article on their platform than use my own site. Of course, I have tested that as well, and anything more than two short paragraphs in length is largely ignored by the Facebook crowd. If you’ve read this far, it is likely that you are an outlier on Facebook.

Facebook and Twitter do not make money if you leave their playground. Twitter is also not built for long form writing. There are apps and utilities that allow you to post long form writing to Twitter, but it’s a mess to read and attempt to follow such posts. Twitter is merely a haven for marketing and hashtags these days.

Tumblr is great if you like long scrolling pages of reblogs, notes, and likes for content that would normally not require the browser to draw a scrollbar, and the amount of hashtags on Instagram has become ludicrous. I love some of the photos, but the jumble of text is illegible and detracts from the entire experience.

At the risk of further insulting the hard work and years of effort that brilliant technologists put into building these fabulous web applications, I will wrap it up. It’s enough to say that I do not find value in these services any longer. If you do, that’s all well and good, but my retirement from them is part of a larger change in pruning the iPhone of inessential applications and time wasters.

It’s funny how the human mind works to spot information to the current task. As I have been going through this process, I happened upon the article, “Power Down”, by Jeremy Vandehey in my RSS feed reader. It is an excellent article and worth the 10 minutes or less it takes to read. For those of you who think ten minutes is too long to devote to reading, he provides a social network style summary:

TL;DR – We are on our phones too much. They were built to enhance our lives, not consume them. Be a human.

Simple, and beautiful. Don’t let these life enhancements steal your time and thereby your life away from you. Consider the value, if any, they add to your life and adjust accordingly. Go talk to someone face to face. Enjoy the flow of conversation and interaction. Be a human. Live.

Be well.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Vicarious Viewing

I want to buy the new Wolfenstein game. That’s want, not need. However, I don’t want to spend the money on it right now, because there are better things to spend my money on, and I know what would happen if I purchased it. It would not run well at maximum graphics settings on my current computer, so I would feel the need to upgrade components and thereby spend more money. In addition, I would be hard pressed to find time to play it, and I would end up not finishing the game and feel even worse about wasting money.

So am I to do? Enter YouTube. Yes, the same company that is planning to acquire Twitch.TV because they realize the value that videos of gamers playing video games brings them. There are tens of thousands — more likely hundreds of thousands — of people like myself who for one reason or another find enjoyment in viewing others playing video games. Getting more advertisements in front of those eyes means that Google can increase their potential ad revenue.

For me, YouTube is a money saver when it comes to games. I still buy the occasional game if I want to invest my time and money in it, but more often than not, I will watch a game being played by someone else when I have some downtime to fill. The beauty of it is that I can experience the game first hand, but like reading a novel, I can also skip to the ending if I so choose, or I can close the book and walk away if I decide I am not interested in seeing it through to the conclusion.

In the case of Wolfenstein, YouTube is allowing me to view, and play, vicariously though others, and that’s a Good Thing™.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Anti-Cloud Computing?

Over on Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow posted about the Adobe Creative Cloud outage:

As Adobe Creative Suite struggles with its license-server outage, stranding creative professionals around the world without a way of earning their living, a timely reminder: a cloud computer is a computer you’re only allowed to use if the phone company and a DRM-peddling giant like Adobe gives you permission, and they can withdraw that permission at any time.

I typically find Cory to be very insightful. I think he has a point here, but misses another point. True, renting cloud servers and applications, particularly ones that rely on DRM and license servers, is putting yourself and your money at the mercy of another person or corporation where you have little to no control short of taking your money somewhere else. I understand that he is speaking narrowly of renting cloud software versus purchasing licensed software to install directly on a computer that you own (although with Adobe’s phone-home licensing, this would still be an issue if you lose Internet connectivity enough when attempting to use their products).

However, we are all subject to the whims of the telecommunications providers to leverage the Internet for applications and web sites. If Comcast decides to stop accepting my money as a customer, I have no other options to connect with the outside world. (That’s not entirely true. I could still use POTS lines for dial-up, and I believe Verizon may have a DSL option in our area, but the options are not comparable to cable connectivity.) And that is a real problem. As a customer of Comcast, I must maintain a tenuous balance between being irritated with their service (or lack thereof) and preventing them from becoming irritated with me for asking for the level of service that I pay them to provide.

I realize I cannot run my own telecommunications infrastructure, but I also realize that there is a real lack of competition in most municipalities, and that is a problem. Even the server I run this site on is a rented piece of equipment that is controlled by the hosting company I pay who in turn are relying on the services of their bandwidth providers. Let’s face it. The Adobe license server outage is a huge problem for a lot of people. It is also a great example of why service level agreements are so important, and why fault tolerant enterprise infrastructure is critical.

I don’t know the details of the license server failure, but Adobe needs to ensure that they correct the infrastructure failures to prevent this from happening again. In addition, they need to reimburse customers for the failure to meet their SLA. As for the telecommunications issue… well, Cory has written far more about that state of affairs than I have or ever will, but there is room for improvement. There is a fair level of certainty that the phone company will not take its ball and go home, leaving us with no connection to the outside world, but it is true that we are entirely dependent on them in the Internet age.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Tumblr Revisited

I deactivated my Facebook account at the beginning of April with the intent of taking only the month off as a sort of social media break. I also deactivated my Instagram account (it may as well be Facebook Photos). The only account that I kept active was Twitter, but I did my best to ignore it as often as possible. It’s ironic that I feel so loathe to delete the Twitter account altogether, but I also do not want to keep it active. I dislike the feeling of having a random open account just sitting out there on the Internet. It also makes it much easier to fall back into the habit of using it when it is there. So that is what addiction feels like. ;)

I have yet to reactivate my Facebook account as I do not miss it in the slightest. I have, however, reactivated Instagram, but only for the purpose of beta testing for Kidpost. I fully expect to jettison it again soon. I am disappointed that SmugMug is not one of the options for Kidpost, but I understand why. The API and the methods of posting to it are such that it does not exist as a sharing place for its primary function, unlike other sites like Flickr which are meant for sharing first and foremost.

It’s also disappointing that Facebook and Instagram are the only current options to test with on Kidpost. I suppose they are the easiest to interact with and to monitor, but I am so tired of Facebook. It’s stagnant, poorly designed, and a grand waste of everyone’s time. I’m even more disappointed that Dave Winer is actually embracing Facebook and funneling some of his content into it from Fargo. I don’t know if he is just trying to boost readership and engagement, or if he really feels that Facebook is the place to be, but it really reminds me of the old AOL web browser replete with keywords and a walled garden that promotes ignorance. That said, I am really starting to love Fargo and am even posting this to my site from Fargo.

So what’s this talk about Tumblr then? Well, I find myself repulsed by the hashtag, URL-shortened, random online-picture/video storage service laden jumble that is Twitter. While they have made interface improvements, supposed conversations get lost in the mix. My eyes tend to glaze over because picking out the relevant information from a 140 character post (the advent of multi-tweets, long-tweets, etc. have changed this as well). Enter Tumblr.

On Tumblr, there is certainly a fair amount of mess as well with reblogging, copious notes and likes, and multiple quote embedding, but on the whole, it is mostly clean, allows for more than 140 characters worth of commentary, has in-built hosting of images, videos, audio, etc. thereby removing the need for using an external service which may embed properly or may use its own redirect happy URL shortener, and combines the features of a blog, Twitter, and even some aspects of Facebook into one neat, customizable package. Also, they have a nice mobile application. Very nice.

As I tend to only post quotes and links for sharing and remembering on Twitter, and since it appears that Twitter’s tweet history has a time-based display limit, I find that Tumblr is a better place for these items. That’s not entirely true. My own web site is the perfect place for these items, but for the time being, I am not entirely sure I want to keep those items on my primary web site. I already have more external links here than I would prefer in ratio to posts of my own content. Of course, content for the sake of adding content is not good content, so there’s always that. If I have nothing to say, it’s better to say nothing.