Wrapping up National Blog Post Month

Between writing a blog post almost every day and going back to the beginning of this blog and re-reading stuff I wrote over twenty years ago, it’s been a bloggy month over here!

I only missed two days. I can live with that. I’ve blogged more this month than I have in years, and that was the whole goal.

My big learning from this experience is that social media really killed my blogging. If you look at the first few years of posts, I sometimes posted multiple short posts in a day and maybe one longer thing a week.

Now, I never write short posts. They’re all longer than a paragraph, and that’s what blogging means to me now, which I think is misguided and too inspired by more “professional” blogs. This is my personal space, and I should use it to post whatever inane nonsense is on my mind. It’s not a diary, but it is kind of a public journal of what I’m thinking about – a perennial first draft of things that might become something more professional in the future.

I need to give myself permission to post the first draft (sorry in advance), and be OK with it living forever(ish). Because that’s what blogging should be – the great empathy engine of the web. It’s our thoughts, our selves, out there for anyone to stumble across and get a glimpse of our lived experience. Whether you’re me, a cishet white male with serious dad energy, a writer in Minnesota, or a famous sci-fi author in Ohio, your life is worth talking about. Your thoughts are worth sharing.

I probably won’t post once a day, but I’m hoping I make blogging a habit again. Fingers crossed!

Mid-caffeination Mastodon Thoughts

Derek Powazek posted this on Mastodon yesterday:

An actual use for machine learning that I’d want: a bot that records all the posts that cause me to block someone, saves them into a db, and then automatically hides posts that match above a certain threshold.

Derek on Mastodon

I love a good brain exercise, so I’ve been thinking about it, and I don’t actually think this is that hard, and is very possible using tools you already need to run Mastodon in production.

I might play with actually implementing this during my week off around cooking and family time, but if someone else wanted to do it, this idea is 100% free.

To enable search in Mastodon, you have to install and use ElasticSearch. It has machine learning goodies in it already like nearest neighbor and vector search.

Basically, we should be able to build a very personal spam/block bot for Mastodon given some training data (posts that pushed you to block someone) and some fiddling about (which is the hard/fun part).

Right now, there are no dates on blocks in Mastodon (I haven’t checked the schema yet to see if they’re there but not returned), and you can’t see which post “triggered” the block. I think that could be added fairly easily – or at least something like “Add this to Blockbot” to use it to train the bot.

Mastodon doesn’t really have a plugin architecture yet, so I’m not sure if this should be a standalone app that sits alongside your running Mastodon instance or a feature – I’ll probably try it as a feature to get familiar with Mastodon.

Basically, we take “blockworthy” posts, index them, and then use that to compare posts to the blocklist to get a semantic distance. Once we have the distance we can start manually testing for accuracy and tweak settings until we get something close to a “block score”. Users could then say, “yep, don’t show me anything with a block score greater than 1.5” and ta-da, a little robot janitor is just cleaning up your feed for you. That’s probably computationally intensive to do on every post, but I think you could apply it to people you don’t follow who reply to you to weed out the worst Reply Guys and riff raff.

You could also have community-wide block bots that are trained on a communal collection of blockworthy posts. It could help get around rigid blocklists by allowing targetted removal of replies from timelines instead of blocking whole instances.

It could also be used for finding good stuff too… Imagine something that found you people who post things like you do and brought them to you. It could be used as an “attract” bot as well.

I think ideally, it could be used like left and right handed whuffie. When you come in contact with a profile, how alike and how different are your posts from theirs’? Do we agree on anything? Are our disagreements strong enough, and on topics that are sensitive enough, that I probably don’t want to engage with them? Then it’s more informative than just a robot going out and sweeping up my replies.

Yeah, this is hand wavey, but a lot of this stuff is just built in to ElasticSearch already, so it’s not like we have to invent anything (yay, because that’s hard). We just have to assemble it and feed it enough data.

It should be fun, and I think it could be helpful, especially for folks who get inundated with awful replies.

And if you beat me to implementing it, that’s great! Then it’ll be out there in the world and we can all play with it!

Sunday night’s alright

Especially when you don’t have to go to work the next day! I spent this weekend recovering from all the people time from the work trip, and unpacking.

This week is all about getting ready for Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday. It’s all food, no presents, and being thankful. I love it.

I hope you have a good week, and a good holiday, if you celebrate it.

Yep, Mastodon is Good

I just read Mastodon is the Good One, and I agree. I left Twitter about two weeks after it was announced that Mr. Billionaire was buying it, because I knew that I couldn’t stay (and I’m not psychic, but it’s going about as well as I expected it out). I’d been less active on it for a while, but that was the breaking point.

I joined Mastodon shortly after to try out the fediverse (if none of that makes any sense, read the article and then come back). I’ve been a big fan of interoperability for a long time (fun fact: I helped build a feed reader at AOL back in… 2002, and was at the first meeting that resulted in the Atom feed format). Also, don’t ask me how many domain names I’ve registered for hypothetical fediverse projects (hint: it’s more than one).

Mastodon’s been great for me. I know there are issues, especially with inter-instance conflicts – but day to day, that doesn’t affect my experience (because I don’t follow a lot of people involved in those conflicts so they rarely bubble up). I’ve found most of the people I most enjoyed interacting with on Twitter on it, have really fun conversations with people, and it’s generally a lovely place to spend some free time.

So, don’t be scared! Try it out! And if you like it, consider joining a paid instance like the one run by the omg.lol folks (that’s where I am).

(And hooray, this is my first post in my first attempt at NaBloPoMo – let’s see if I can keep this up)

My Intentions for 2023

I don’t do resolutions. I don’t remember who I first got the idea of doing intentions from, but I really like it. It just feels better than BIG RESOLUTIONS that I inevitably fail. Intentions are things I’d like to do in 2023 but don’t have the same weight or guilt associated with them. So… here they are, my intentions for 2023.

Write more. I signed up for Bring Back Blogs, which means I’m committing to write at least three things here in January (this is one of them, so two to go!). With me less in love with social media than ever, especially the “big” ones, and my fascination with the fediverse (more on that later), it’s time to write more, think more, and revive the blog!

Read more. I think I only finished two books in 2022. I started a bunch, but unless I was trapped in an airplane, I didn’t make time to read books. I think it’s partly because I literally read all day every day at work, but that’s just an excuse.

Contribute to an open source project. Work keeps me pretty busy code-wise, but there’s so much interesting stuff going on in the distributed social world, that it’s time to do something with it. I’m keeping my expectations pretty low for this one, but I expect I’ll at least help with bug fixes and documentation on some interesting fediverse project like mastodon (or maybe I’ll start a federated ficly).

Get out of the house. I almost don’t care what shape this comes in. The pandemic turned me into a full-on hermit to the point that leaving the house now is fairly rare. That needs to change. It could just mean riding my new ebike regularly, or going out to dinner with Jen more often, doing community things, or… something else altogether. We’ll see.

Travel more. We’re empty nesters now! We’ve already got a couple of trips planned for this year, and I want to do more! I want to go back to Europe and explore some places I haven’t been yet. Stay tuned.

I had three or four other things I was going to add here, but this feels like enough.

The Gun is Fear

The shootings in Buffalo and Texas have wrecked me – and I can’t keep watching the same old arguments fly by in screenshotted tweets in Instagram stories.

It’s all so predictable and isn’t going to change anything. And that makes this grief feel worse.

This thought keeps pinging around in my head and it won’t go away. It’s not fully formed yet. But it’s something like this…

America was built on fear – fear that Europe would come and take it from us; as slavery was ending, that all of these people we’d imported and enslaved would rise up and do us in, and then fear of immigrants and the “others”.

So, we built the biggest military in the world. We have the most overly funded police forces in the world. We made rules about who could vote and who could come here, who could marry who, and where they could go.

We wrapped our fear in laws and religion and called it culture.

We have more guns than people and the mere presence of those guns (the facts are irrefutable, but I know that won’t stop you) is why so many thousands of people die by them every year. Just having a gun in your house, yes, even you “responsible” gun owners, makes you many many times more likely to die by gunshot.

Guns take bad moments and turn them into tragedy. Having access to a gun means that at your lowest moments you might not just drink yourself into a stupor or harm yourself, you could kill everyone you love – in a moment.

We take our fear, wrap it in the flag or camo, and call it patriotism. We arm it to the teeth so we never ever have to confront what it’s guarding: our own inability to face our collective fears.

Until we admit that fear drives our actions – that it drives all of our passion and drive around gun culture, it will not change.

The opposite of fear is love. We need to love ourselves, our children and our communities more than we fear them.

Give up the fear, and we’ll give up the guns.

A Small Part

No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity. We thus come again to the paradox that one can become whole only by the responsible acceptance of one’s partiality.

Wendell Berry

On Anger

I read this harrowing essay about being a woman on the internet at lunch today and it got me thinking (which is a sure sign of a good essay).

It reminded me of this episode of Plain English where he talked to Dan Pink about regret. The host makes a joke about how he’s wasted his time meditating because he was just pushing his emotions down instead of just feeling them. It stuck with me because he’s missed the entire point of mindfulness. The point isn’t to push your emotions back down inside you – it’s to process them so you can make progress. The more you do it, the easier it is to process negative emotions so you’re not carrying them around anymore in a leaky bag just waiting for them all to burst out and ruin your day.

How are these two things related? Being a woman on the internet means being assaulted constantly by angry men. These men seem to be angry about literally everything – that a woman dares to have an opinion, that a woman has an opinion they disagree with, that a woman is either too attractive, not attractive enough, or admits that she thinks she is attractive, or that a woman dares to exist at all.

It’s unacceptable that so many men feel like this is OK, or at least that there will be no consequences for their behavior that they do it anyway.

I also keep coming back to their anger, and how avoidable this all is.

All this anger… we don’t have to keep it. We don’t have to inflict it on other people. It takes work, but we can let it go. We can process it and be happier in the process.

Several years ago, I came to terms with the fact that I had what felt like a bottomless pit of anger that I was dragging around with me, and that it was keeping me from enjoying all of the good things in my life. I would be sitting at dinner, enjoying the company of my family, friends, whatever we were talking about, and some event from my past would jump out of the pit and I’d be right back there, seething. I bet no one could tell. I hid it really well – but I was miserable.

And when those angry visions came, you know what would embrace me, what would let me wallow in that anger? The internet. I could hop over to Twitter and find a whole bunch of fellow rage-filled folks and just inhale the outrage for hours, feeling more and more justified that this thing I hadn’t dealt with was worth being miserable about.

Outrage is so exhilerating, intoxicating… an easy hit of righteous indignation could keep me going for another half our of rage scrolling.

I knew it was a problem, but I had no idea what to do about it. I saw the documentary Happy several years before and the way they talked about meditation stuck in my head. Enough that I did some research, read a couple of books, but it never really felt attainable, or that I knew how to do it.

It finally clicked (yay therapy), and I finally started processing my bottomless pit of anger. I felt better almost instantly. Not all the way better, but it felt like I had a toolkit now for how to handle the rage when it came up like acid reflux. Now, I’m working on weaning myself off Twitter, because I can feel the pull of it

The point of mindful practice isn’t to stop feeling things. It’s to better process our inevitable emotions and put them to work towards making us happier. Anger is super useful in moderation. It can motivate us to be better, to ask to for better treatment. But, it’s poisonous when kept around.

I don’t have a tidy ending for this.

The root cause is anger, and if we could get the Angry Men of the Internet to deal with their anger and process it, then women could finally feel safe online, and in the real world.

If the Angry Men of the Internet can’t deal with their anger, then they should be removed from the conversation because this is a public health crisis. We have enough information now to know that anger, especially among men, is highly contagious. If we can’t cure the disease, we should treat the symptoms.

A Quick Friday Thought on Soft Power

I was talking to someone today about soft power, and an hour of me giving advice and workshopping things came down to:

  1. Build trust by working in the open and asking people for feedback. Praise them for their contributions, often.
  2. Talk to people and ask their preferred work style, and respect it.
  3. You build trust by delivering on what you say you will – repeatedly.
  4. And finally, do everything with kindness.

That’s it. That’s how you build influence and get things done without having hard power.