January 2019

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

For many years — decades, maybe? — it seems like we’ve all been in a rush to be done with the previous year and to get on with the next. This year doesn’t feel much different, especially at the global level. In politics, authoritarianism continues to rise, and global alliances continue to fracture. In technology, we continue to make systems that are exploitable by those that want to bend the world to their will. And, we still can’t manage to decide what we’re doing about climate change, even though we’re unquestionably into uncharted territory now, except for all the people that still consider it an open question which is a whole different problem.

Yet, despite the potential for despair, the central message of Hans Rosling’s Factfulness book is what’s on my mind right now:

It turns out that the world, for all its imperfections, is in a much better state than we might think. That doesn’t mean there aren’t real concerns. But when we worry about everything all the time instead of embracing a worldview based on facts, we can lose our ability to focus on the things that threaten us most.

As a species, we know more about everything than we ever have. We can find and use facts to advance ourselves. We have better tools than ever. Science works, even as it helps us discover and leverage things that are stranger and more amazing than ever. Shit in the world is getting real, but we’ve got more tools to bring to bear on it than ever before. We just have to do it.

For the new year, I hope that all of us do a better job using facts to figure out what is really important to focus on and then to bring the willpower to follow through.

00:00 UTC
Lena Leventi at a cafe in Thessaloniki.

When I was wheeled into an emergency room in Frankfurt over a year ago, the physician who coordinated my care through those critical minutes before surgery turned out to be from the same city in Greece as my wife. Not only was this incredibly reassuring for Katerina since they were able to speak in Greek about what was going on, but we found that we had other connections through people that Katerina has known from her childhood.

Fast forward a year, and we were able to meet up with Lena in Thessaloniki for coffee and get to know her as a person, not just as a badass doctor. It’s so great to be able to get to know your heroes, especially when they’re partially responsible for you still being alive.

00:59 UTC
Wednesday, January 2, 2019
Glitch No. 1. Along the Thessaloniki waterfront.

Take an iPhone while riding (not driving!) in a car. Start a panoramic shot while the car is in motion and let the iPhone use the car’s motion to paint the frame. Don’t try too hard to smooth out any bumps and certainly don’t try to avoid streelights as they go by. The result is a lovely glitchy view of the world that’s entirely the result of a computational process doing the best it can with the input you give it.

15:07 UTC

Tim Cook has written a letter to shareholders revising Apple’s guidance for the previous quarter. The big surprise — other than providing a revision to advice in the first place — is the reason that Apple lowered their expected revenue:

…we did not foresee the magnitude of the economic deceleration, particularly in Greater China. In fact, most of our revenue shortfall to our guidance, and over 100 percent of our year-over-year worldwide revenue decline, occurred in Greater China across iPhone, Mac and iPad.

Wow. Just wow. Every single bit of the decrease in revenue is attributable to one market. Then comes the kicker:

We believe the economic environment in China has been further impacted by rising trade tensions with the United States.

The economic impact of the current administration’s actions is kicking in. I doubt this will be the last we hear of this.

21:40 UTC
Thursday, January 3, 2019

“Hey,” she says, “can you show me what you’re doing? Every time I see you working on your site, I see a black window with some mumbo-jumbo in it.”

“That’s the terminal,” I reply, “and this the command that builds the site. It launches a process to build the stylesheet and another to build the pages. And over here in this window is where I write.”

“So, um, why don’t you use Squarespace or something like that?”

“Because I’m a geek and I want control over what I’m doing. Besides, these are all technologies that I’ve been interested in now for a long time, and it’s good practice.”

“Can you tell if somebody has made their own site or not?”

“Not if you do it right, although there are always clues. Little details that probably only matter to a small number of people. Dorks like me.”

“Oh. OK. I think I’m going to go back to bed.”

07:30 UTC
Friday, January 4, 2019

On a recommendation from Brian Ketelsen, I signed up for a Coder.com account, and I’m seriously impressed. It’s a Linux shell running in a container with a Visual Studio Code instance that runs in your browser. It can scale on-demand up to 96 cores for when you need some serious development horsepower.

It’s still in alpha, and I’ve found a few rough corners, but it’s already usable and is damned impressive. In fact, I’m writing, testing, and posting this post from Coder.com in my browser.

“The network is the computer”John Gauge

13:20 UTC

Cozying up with WSL

Thanks to a mysterious failure in my MacBook Pro while traveling for the holidays, I’ve been using a Windows 10 machine full time for almost two weeks. At work, I use Windows for email and Office365 apps, so it’s not terra incognita. It’s the first time in a long time, however, that I can’t just reach over for my Mac and use the setup I’m used to for working with code.

This has meant that I’ve gotten a chance to spend a lot more time with the Windows Subsystem for Linux. I was pretty excited by this when it was announced two years ago, even tho it was very much a first release, and it’s gotten so much better since then.

There are still some gotchas when using it with Windows GUI apps — such as when you want to use Visual Studio Code. It took me a while, for example, to sort out that I really wanted to put my source code at /mnt/c/source (aka C:\source) so that it was in an easy place to get to in both systems. And that while I wanted to use the Linux version of development tools like npm and ruby, I should use the Windows installation of git so that it can use the Windows Credential Store to cache passwords in.

Once settled in, it’s a pretty nice place to be. It’s, dare I say it, a workable Linux on the desktop. Not that it’s the Linux on the desktop that many of us wanted twenty years ago. But pretty good.

16:40 UTC
Saturday, January 5, 2019

George Dyson thinks that the digital revolution isn’t over, but has turned into something else:

Their models are no longer models. The search engine is no longer a model of human knowledge, it is human knowledge. What began as a mapping of human meaning now defines human meaning, and has begun to control, rather than simply catalog or index, human thought.

16:10 UTC
Monday, January 7, 2019

Today was my first day back at the office after the holidays, and I was finally able to take my damaged MacBook Pro into service. The initial prognosis is a dead motherboard. Not good. If that is indeed the case, that means all the data on the hard drive (which is soldered onto the motherboard) will be gone when they fix it.

Good thing that everything that I cared about on that machine is also in the cloud somewhere.

20:00 UTC

Pushed up a day thanks to a leak, GitHub has made unlimited private repositories available for developers on the free plan. Most people on the Pro plan probably have it because of wanting to have a few more private repositories. Now, there’s no need to pay for that.

What happens if you keep paying for the Pro? You can look at the pricing page for all the details, but as far as I’m concerned, the big reason to pay for Pro is having unlimited collaborators on a private project. If you don’t use this, then you can probably stop paying.

Unless, of course, you find yourself liking the new Pro features which arrive in the future. Whatever they might happen to be.

22:00 UTC
Wednesday, January 9, 2019

I took my iPhone into the Apple Store today to get its camera fixed. Somehow, one of the elements in this telephoto lens cracked over the holidays. The service people hadn’t seen anything quite like it, and I’m sure they’ve seen their share of weird stuff. Since there was no external damage and all the diagnostics checked out, however, Apple is fixing it under warranty.

Funny thing: on the way home, I almost got a ticket from a fare inspector on the train. I’d hadn’t thought it through that my monthly fare card was on my phone, which wasn’t with me. Oops. Luckily, the inspector accepted my excuse and let me off with a warning. Whew.

14:00 UTC

Only in Germany would they need to put a sticker on your dashboard reminding you of your new tires max speed when you switch them out for snow tires in the winter. Because, you know, the autobahn.

For my American friends, 210kph equals 130mph.

21:00 UTC
Thursday, January 10, 2019

I’m not a big fan of the currently fashionable “iPhones are bad, m’kay!” thinking. Yes, there are apps and social networks that are bad, but the technology itself is neutral. After spending a day without my phone while it was in getting a new camera module, however, I will admit that it was really nice spending some time away from it.

Sitting on the train, for example, with no magic device in hand was a treat. I just watched the scenery going by. The people getting on and off. The signs and graffiti. I enjoyed the space to think without somebody else’s thoughts jumping in at any moment.

I might have to do that again. On purpose.

15:00 UTC
Saturday, January 12, 2019

Now that the silly season is well done, maybe it’s time to go back and look at the second volume of of the National Climate Assessment (NCA2018)(https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/). While buried on Black Friday — presumably to keep it out of the news cycle — it’s endorsed by most of the executive branch’s departments and agencies, including the Defense and State Departments.

Without substantial and sustained global mitigation and regional adaptation efforts, climate change is expected to cause growing losses to American infrastructure and property and impede the rate of economic growth over this century.

It doesn’t get much more clear cut than that. The real debate isn’t what’s going to happen, but what we’re going to do about it.

14:00 UTC

Here’s a plot from the Azure Application Insights dashboard that I’ve set up to monitor my website. It contains ping test results that are run every 5 minutes from 16 data centers around the world:

Since I’m currently using Netlify to serve this site, it’s is really a test of how far away servers on their content delivery network (CDN) are from Azure data centers. Some of the best times (sub 30ms) are from West US, Australia East, Brazil South, and Southeast Asia. The worst is from Japan East, grouped together in that top line.

The data from these ping tests correlate with a separate group of tests that I use updown.io, another monitoring service, to run:

Maybe Netlify’s CDN needs a presence in Japan to even things up? Even so, I can’t complain. It’s so very much better than serving this site off a single server somewhere in the world without a content delivery network.

15:01 UTC
Sunday, January 13, 2019

Some startups are fed up with the growth at all costs mindset and are rejecting the model that’s been tech’s foundation. Essentially, they are telling venture capitalists to get lost, and are asking some profound questions along the way:

Would Facebook’s leadership have ignored warning signs of Russian election meddling or allowed its platform to incite racial violence if it hadn’t, in its early days, prized moving fast and breaking things? Would Uber have engaged in dubious regulatory and legal strategies if it hadn’t prioritized expansion over all else?

It’s hard to know for sure, but the culture a company starts with indeed continues to inform it for years and decades after.

12:50 UTC
Monday, January 14, 2019

Back in the late 90s when the portal wars were going strong, it seemed apparent that syndication was going to be the future of the web and RSS was going to be key. It didn’t work out that way. Sinclair Target writes about the rise and fall of RSS on Motherboard:

Regular people never felt comfortable using RSS; it hadn’t really been designed as a consumer-facing technology and involved too many hurdles; people jumped ship as soon as something better came along.

That something, for better or worse, was Twitter and Facebook. Their advantage: ease of use for the end user. As we try to imagine a stronger independent web again, we need to keep that in mind.

08:20 UTC

We’ll know that the iPad is really ready to take over from a laptop when it’s no longer a ridiculous process to get photos from an SD card directly into Lightroom. At least now there’s a Siri Shortcut that can be set up to do it.

It’s slightly less ridiculous, but I really hope we’ll see something better this summer when Apple announces their next set of OS updates.

09:00 UTC
Tuesday, January 15, 2019
The German Reichstag with Tiergarten in the foreground.

The weather in Berlin isn’t typical for January. Instead, it rather feels like permanent November. The temperature has been between freezing and 5ºC, and the skies have been grey. While it’s easy to get around town, it’s my least favorite weather for January. I’d much rather have the bright blue sunny skies that come when the temperature goes below -10ºC.

(For my American friends, that’s 40ºF and 15ºF.)

14:50 UTC

Katerina and I were riding an elevator on our way home after spending the day at her co-working space.

“Hey, weren’t you the one wearing a Microsoft hoodie and using a Mac upstairs?“ asked a guy that was on the elevator with us.

“Yeah… I was.” I kind of knew what was coming and looking forward to it.

“Well, is that you know, allowed?”

“Sure! At least in some groups. More people than you might expect use Macs at Microsoft. A lot of people in my group have one.“

“But you have to have Windows on it, don’t you?”

“Nope.“ He was confused by that, so I continued. “I do have a Surface laptop which I use for all the things I need Windows for. But I’m in the Azure group, and most of what I do is work with Unix.”

“But,” he said, just not quite processing, “isn’t that kind of weird?”

Yeah, but in a good way. I didn’t have time; otherwise, I would have remembered to mention that some people in my group use straight up Linux, and others even use Chromebooks and have PlayStations hooked up to their televisions.

18:45 UTC
Thursday, January 17, 2019

After three years on Medium, Signal v Noise goes indie again:

…we’ve grown ever more aware of the problems with centralizing the internet. Traditional blogs might have swung out of favor, as we all discovered the benefits of social media and aggregating platforms, but we think they’re about to swing back in style, as we all discover the real costs and problems brought by such centralization.

It’s great to see David, Jason, and company take their blog back again. For a long time, Medium seemed like a great place to be. The design and typography were lovely, their discovery mechanisms were pretty great, and boy can they drive readers to an article.

But… there’s no place like home.

06:50 UTC

Duncan Davidson is a software developer, startup advocate, speaker, book author, and photographer living in Berlin.