A Very Special Episode
You know, I had been thinking I might be due for a clip show. With the recent spike in subscribers, let's have a recap to see what you've been missing.
Thank you to everybody who subscribed after reading and sharing my retrospective on Christopher Alexander. It is now the most-viewed issue of this newsletter. I’d also like to announce that Jorge Arango reached out to me to chat on his podcast some more about Alexander’s work and applying it to software and digital media. The podcast is excellent in its own right, so I recommend subscribing to him as well.
I thought this spike in subscribers would be an opportune moment to review what I’ve written so far. I’ll try to group the issues roughly by theme, then from there, go from newest to oldest.
Narrative and Facts
My mental model of communication goes something like: stories are for motivating (or for orienting), facts are for direction once motivated.
Indeed, I’m inclined to further distinguish between a fact and a state: a state (of affairs) can be overturned by a new fact, but a fact can’t be erased from history. A fact, after all, is something that happened. We are often (but not always) concerned with states—positions and momenta—rather than the facts that led to them.
Take the clichéd example of recipes on the Web: I don’t want to read 3,000 words about how your grandmother’s grandmother refined the perfect lasagna recipe, just tell me how to make it. Same goes for restaurant websites actually: if I’m here, I’ve already decided I want to eat at your restaurant—just give me the hours and the menu.
Stories, on the other hand, tell us why we should care about something. They are procedural, they involve people, events—often deliberate ones—and outcomes. As mythologies, stories also tell us why things are the way they are.
I’m interested in narrative because I continually underestimate the need for storytelling, because I have trained myself to infer a moral valence just by looking at the structures and dynamics of systems, and I routinely forget that other people have not incurred this self-inflicted wound.
I have come to think about the fact-narrative dichotomy in terms of “spaces”.
Phenomena space is the actual real world where things (facts, states) happen.
Rule space consists of regularities in the phenomena, to which we can attach enterprises like math and science.
Interpretation space comprises the stories we tell about why things are the way they are, who is to praise and who is to blame, and what to do next. This is where we all actually operate.
I mention this because watching the last few years unfold has completely inverted the way I think about the way we think. Once I believed that motivation was the result of a decision about how to act; now it’s pretty clear to me that the motivation comes first. Put this against the backdrop of asymptotically free flows of information, and you get the perfect dynamics for friction-free bullshit. I am keenly interested in bullshit, lies, misinformation, disinformation (these are different, after all), malinformation, the whole ménagerie.
In Le Petit Prince, I discuss the role of mythology and the stories we tell about ourselves, including a significant revision I made to my own personal mythology about what it means to have grown up “gifted”.
Fact-Checking is Table Stakes is about the econophysics of bullshit, and about how fact-checking doesn’t do the job people think it does.
Relationships With Software and the People Who Make It
Or perhaps I should say relationships with information, and information service providers in general. Anyway, I am deeply and painfully interested in the narrative (see?) around information technology, how it’s constantly presented as something new and bewildering, even though computers have been around for decades, and information has been around forever.
The information industry, broadly speaking, is positively bursting with material to think and write about. The fact that bits themselves are perfectly fungible but the informational content they carry is perfectly infungible—and often not substitutable—lends itself to interesting power dynamics, to say the least. The tech industry’s concierge culture, its let-me-get-that-for-you attitude, and its urges that you don’t worry your pretty little head about all this icky geeky technical stuff, is a recurring theme.
Also, the fact that “tech” has become synonymous with “crap to do with computers”, and the fact that there appears to be an industry dedicated to manufacturing “tech” which just means “using computers to do stuff”, with no regard for precisely what.
In the penultimate issue (if you don’t count this one), Radical Interoperability is a Political Agenda, I discuss a recent video I made about how designing information systems around open data is a deliberate departure from the Silicon Valley platform playbook. I then demonstrate with the quotidian example of liberating the calendar data for the local swimming pool.
No Stuck Boat Content, I Promise is definitely not about the Ever Given. Rather, it is about the goat rodeo that is NFT implementations, and a newish bifurcation in the organizational structure of software companies: “Product”.
Schrödinger’s Cloud is about how cryptocurrency and artificial intelligence are two capital-intensive uses for computers in a world where computation is otherwise dirt cheap. I also chronicle two contemporaneous high-profile information security breaches.
In Place, Space, Time, I discuss situated-ness and how digital technology pretends to be both everywhere and nowhere, when in reality it is always somewhere, and where it is matters. I note that indigenous cultures are extremely aware of this and are (in my opinion, the most) sophisticated in working this fact into their information systems.
What a Difference a Week Makes considers the GameStonk affair, and Robin Hood’s conduct during it, i.e., a tale of platform power dynamics. I then rant about how computers have been a part of everyday life for decades, and make more remarks about the work indigenous communities are doing in the data governance space.
Setting the Tone for an Anti-Platform is mainly another screed about open data.
Confluence: Ethics and Attention is about the soufflé that is advertising tech, and how “tech ethics” is really about more than just “tech”.
Eye of Newt and Stack of Sub, which is the first of these issues, is about platforms, newsletter platforms in particular, and the newsletter format itself.
Earning a Living in the Quaternary Sector
If we aren’t all aware, the quaternary sector of the economy comes after the tertiary one (services), and has to do with obtaining, configuring, and ferrying around information. My favourite term for this sector—which I could have sworn I read in an op-ed but appear to have hallucinated—is symbol-generating industries. This is everything from software to media to finance.
What may or may not be predictable about this space, is that funny things are happening in the econophysics around the exchange of work product. Because we’re talking about information of some kind or another, the variable costs to produce it are virtually nonexistent, meaning you don’t need a lot of capital. Likewise, outlets of all kinds are mushrooming all over the place, so there are a number of viable alternatives to going and getting a job. At the same time, pressure to compete in the job market has created the expectation for companies to compensate employees with stock, which among other factors has ratcheted up the screening of prospective hires. What this means is that it might actually be easier to earn a living in this industry by means other than a full-time job, if you can stomach the volatility.
This category also contains my experience from early last year, when, faced with the dilemma between completely overhauling my service portfolio versus getting a job, I rather stupidly chose the latter, thinking it would be safer. My conclusion is that I’m basically feral, and optimizations I’ve made over the last several years which are great for being a consultant, are probably maladaptive as a full-time employee.
It’s not that I’m “not a team player”, it’s that I’m more of a bank-heist-movie team player than a sportsball team player.
Also, can I say that I have never encountered the level of scrutiny I faced in those job interviews when pitching a consulting gig? Spend all that time and energy only to be told “yes, you passed the test, but we didn’t like the way you passed the test.” Forget it. Not worth the effort.
The Nerden of Dorking Paths briefly touches on my misguided attempt to get an ordinary jay-oh-bee before segueing into a thing I call opportunistic generativity, which is the tendency for my projects (personal or otherwise) to have interesting and valuable side effects.
Coasean Inversion talks about how in the quaternary sector, the transaction costs of getting a regular-ass job are higher than piecemeal contracting—something that, according to theory, shouldn’t happen.
Around Paying for (and Charging for) Content, includes a 2x2 (or more like a phase space) for considering content worth paying for. I consider open-source software as captured productivity offgassing. I then proceed to an anecdote of a distant ex-girlfriend’s encounter with the limits of monetization platforms.
Stuff I Did and Made
In addition to writing here and on my website, I also occasionally produce videos of talks, like:
A first draft of Linked Data is a Political Agenda (I am already planning a second),
Another rough cut of The Specificity Gradient (which I did off the cuff one night and would also be great to do a slicker version of),
Older material like Intentionally Intensional Information Architecture, which I actually presented in person, back when we did that kind of thing.
I also stream working live on Twitch from time to time—at least when my setup cooperates.
Other things I make relate closer to my actual job, which involves helping organizations make formal models of their processes and conceptual structures, and then representing those structures in interesting and valuable ways. So I do a lot of work writing specs, taxonomies and ontologies (said formal models). I also write proof-of-concept software, and I make custom simulations and other data visualizations.
The most conspicuous of these simulations—at least of the publicly available ones—is the one I talk about in a number of newsletters, which began with observing my brother’s work getting gigs as an actor, and how my process looked structurally similar, except with different parameters. So I set out to write a Generalized Pitching Simulator, which would model the process of pitching, getting, doing, and getting paid for gigs.
The goal of this project was to try to visualize the risk profile of different configurations of gigs, pitches, and payment terms. It produced some interesting results, but I had to walk away from it for a bit to think about a part of the model I wasn’t quite satisfied with.
Having originally designed the model to simulate my brother’s line of work, rather than mine, I made the payout part of the model a Pareto distribution, to simulate the small chance of a large return from his activity. I don’t do jobs like that, but I might eventually, and ideally I’d like to be able to represent a few different strategies all on the same timeline. But that’s gonna require me to rip up the floorboards on that thing.
The software I make, aside from these simulation toys, is typically libraries and infrastructure—stuff that is necessary, but largely invisible. Occasionally, I will make something app-like. This includes:
The Content Swiss-Army Knife is kind of like a laboratory for experiments around Web content management, which is slowly solidifying into a coherent tool.
Various-language incarnations of Mixup, a lazy markup generator that uses declarative and therefore addressable data structures instead of closures (seriously why??) to do its job.
The IBIS tool, which was also very much a laboratory that proved a bunch of important ideas, but is itself a monstrosity that desperately needs to be rewritten if it’s ever going to see daylight.
I don’t know, probably a bunch of other stuff. Go look on GitHub, I have dozens of projects there, and isn’t even all of them. And don’t let the lack of green squares fool you. They only give those out apparently when you commit to
The newsletters in this category:
In Back Just In Time To Close Out the Year, after a seven-month hiatus, I catalogue all the things I did in that time, including a case study of a project I took on, and my (of indeterminate duration) relocation to Toronto.
Anyway, that’s it. Somehow I thought there’d be more.
Well, there is more, I guess. Hundreds more things to read, on the website.
One final thing: I am commencing to begin to prepare to proceed to create some Premium Content™. Since my audience has a funny shape, I’m trying to decide which direction to take it:
Technical dispatches detailing how to do useful and interesting things. A big part of my professional schtick is that I read the esoteric documentation that you don’t have time for. This always yields interesting technique. I know that the only people who are going to care about this are software people, and particularly Web developers, but that accounts for a lot of you. (I may do this either way and just set it up as a separate newsletter.)
A chronicle of my ongoing odyssey of setting up infrastructure for my consulting practice. The observation here is that consulting deliverables tend to take the form of lots of documents that nobody reads, and I’d like to do something about that. The way I intend go about it is by making deliverables Web-first. This is an ongoing project and the idea would be to give you an insider’s view of my setup.
Or, alternatively, the other thing I was thinking of doing was to try to apply Christopher Alexander’s Fifteen Properties from The Nature of Order (or some analogue thereof) to the development of software and digital media.
This would probably happen on the order of once a month, for a competitive newsletterish fee. I invite you to reply to this e-mail, or leave a comment to voice your preference.