Feed housekeeping

I finally remembered that I’d been using FeedPress for, er, feed stuff (remember RSS?) on the original Coyote Tracks, and I’ve updated it to pick up the feed from the new site instead. So if you were one of the couple hundred people who’d been reading posts that way, hi!

Since the new blog merges what was Coyote Tracks and my rarely-updated writing blog, Coyote Prints, you may get more than what you want here. If you only want tech posts, you can subscribe to the tech category feed. If you only want writing posts, you can subscribe to the writing category feed. (You can get a feed for any of the categories by going to the category page itself, if you really insist.)

And, if you’re following this as a link from Goodreads (hi?), note that the Goodreads blog is only pulling from the writing category.

Last but not least, if you’re subscribed to the Tumblr feed directly somehow (tracks.ranea.org/rss), you’re going to get what’s cross-posted to Tumblr, which is going to be mostly tech but probably kind of random.

Cotton, hay, and rags: giving bias the veneer of rationality

As you’ve surely heard by now, a mid-level engineer at Google—he’s anonymous, so I’ll call him Mr. Rationalface—wrote a memo called “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber” in which he argued that “differences in distributions of traits between men and women may in part explain why we don’t have 50% representation of women in tech and leadership. Discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive, and bad for business.” (His words, not mine.) In response, recently former Google engineer Yonatan Zunger wrote the simply-titled “About this Googler’s manifesto,” in which he argues it’s manifest bullshit. (My words, not Zunger’s).

Between the time I started writing this and now, news has come out that Mr. Rationalface has been fired. I’ll come back to that.

I’ve been thinking about responses I saw on Hacker News to Zunger’s piece. The most common defense of Mr. Rationalface’s thesis was to restate its core premise: This whole drive for diversity rests on the premise that there’s no difference between men and women, but the falsehood of that is apparent to even the most casual of observers.

This is a common rhetorical trick I see in this particular corner of the internet (i.e., rationalists who want to rationally prove that PC SJW WTFery is irrational): restate the opposing premise incorrectly, then commence a full frontal assault on the restatement. Of course there are biological differences between men and women; who claimed otherwise? Mr. Rationalface proceeds from here to assert the following totally objective, non-sexist truths:

  • Women are more open toward feelings and aesthetics, while men are more open to ideas.
  • Women have more empathy than men, while men have more interest in systematizing.
  • Women are gregarious and agreeable; men are assertive!
  • Women are more neurotic, with higher anxiety and lower stress tolerance.
  • Women are irrational, that’s all there is to that! Their heads are full of cotton, hay, and rags!

Whoops! While the first four are from Mr. Rationalface, that last bullet point was from noted academic rationalist Henry Higgins.

A fairer way to state the “pro-diversity” case is more like, some perceived differences between men and women used to justify associating higher-paying professions with men are rooted in dubious stereotypes. And we can test whether there’s prima facie evidence for that by looking at the actual history of software engineering. In the early days, it was women’s work: it was seen as more like filing and typing than math and logic—the hard stuff was the hardware. But by the mid-1970s, it was men’s work. But the work hadn’t changed. What changed was the perception of the work: society started to consider it high-status white collar work rather than low.

I know that—irony of ironies—I’m trying to rationally analyze an argument that is, at its heart, not about rationality at all. It’s about reclaiming ground in the Great Culture War. If the gender disparity in the engineering workforce at Google reflects something broken in their culture, it demands a solution that involves taking action one might call “affirmative.” PC! SJW! Cthluhu fhtagn! So don’t even allow the possibility that the problem is in the culture. If the problem isn’t in the culture, it must be in women. The solutions offered must involve working with and around Essential Feminine Nature.

But it’s the argument style that leaves me fascinated, the same style employed by many of his defenders, and a style that echoes through GamerGate, the Sad Puppies and other geeky outposts in the Great Culture War. If I may engage in some stereotyping myself, it’s an argument style beloved of folks who are mostly white, mostly male, mostly under 30, and mostly a little too sure of their razor-sharp logic. I don’t think this kind of guy gets redpilled because of deep-rooted anxiety over losing white male privilege—I think they get redpilled because it’s just effin’ cool to be told you’re one of the few people smart enough to see reality as it is, rather than buying into the conventional wisdom that traps all the other sheeple. This is why so many fringers, from anti-vaxxers to white supremacists, construct elaborate, nearly-logical theories built on a stack of unexamined premises. This is obvious to the most casual of observers, so let’s move on, they say, while the rest of us sheeple are making the time-out signal and saying wait, what?

Isn’t it obvious when premises are false? Isn’t this willful—and malicious—ignorance? Sometimes. If we’re honest with ourselves, more often than not. But the more boxes you tick on the cis-het-white-male line, the more advantages you get for no actual work on your part. You have, if I might be so bold, a rational self-interest in supporting arguments that those advantages are immutable nature, and attacking arguments that they’re uncomfortably squishy social constructs. To paraphrase Upton Sinclair, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his social status depends on his not understanding it.”

So about Mr. Rationalface’s firing. If I were his manager, would I have canned him? I admit I’m not comfortable with hey, it’ll only chill the speech we don’t want; you can’t know that only the “right” group of people will take away exactly the message you intend to send. (Exhibit A: Hacker News.) But as Yonatan Zunger noted, a substantial number of Mr. R’s (former) coworkers were likely furious; he might as well have scrawled Does Not Work Well With Others, Especially Wimmen across his face with a Sharpie. From a—dare I say it—coldly rational standpoint, Google HR gets a firestorm no matter what, but keeping him risks a second, bigger firestorm when he shoots his mouth (or text editor) off to a coworker again.

I looked back at Hacker News briefly on the day of his firing and saw, well, what I expected. This is an outrage! This proves all the author’s points! This was not the anti-diversity manifesto the SJWs are claiming it is, it’s a well-written, polite, logical argument! It definitely had the appearance of logic, and it was debatably civil. But from its mischaracterization of the “pro-diversity” arguments through its “you’d agree with me if bias wasn’t blinding you to my truth” conclusion, it was precisely what its critics claimed it was. It’s easy to say Mr. Rationalface lost his job for not kowtowing to liberal groupthink, but sometimes a burning bridge is just a burning bridge.

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A new home

Over the years, I’ve ended up with multiple “presences” online:

  • The original Coyote Tracks, hosted at Tumblr
  • “Coyote Prints,” an attempt at a writing news-ish weblog, generated with Jekyll
  • My Ranea.org website, made with a hacky homebrew static site generator
  • The occasional foray onto Medium

That’s not even inclusive of earlier attempts at this, like a LiveJournal and, before that, a very simple bloggy thing that worked by putting files with names like 1999-01-01-entry.txt in a specific directory that were picked up by a small PHP script. (That was back in the days when PHP was just used to embed bits of interactivity in HTML pages, just like that, which is something it’s pretty good at. I’m pretty sure I was doing that in early 1998, which by some measure might make me one of the earliest bloggers, or would if there had been just one damn person reading my home page.)

While this hodgepodge of bloglike objects had good intentions—separation of concerns, trying new platforms, keeping up with the cool kids—it’s become too unwieldy. The decision where to post is sometimes kind of arbitrary. Many of the people who read about my writing are interested in tech; while the reverse isn’t as true, I’d actually kinda like to expose some of my tech audience to my writing, especially stories that involve techy things.

A bigger concern, though, comes down to fully controlling my own content.

This isn’t a new concern; Marco Arment was writing about owning your identity back in 2011. Some blogging services let you bring your own domain—Tumblr does it for free, which is why you go to tracks.ranea.org instead of chipotle.tumblr.com—and others, like WordPress.com, let you do it for a modest charge. Medium makes it possible, but only for publications (and at a fairly high cost); many other services don’t offer this at all.

So: Welcome to coyotetracks.org.

But while owning your online identity is necessary, it’s not sufficient: you need to own your content, too. I don’t mean that in a legal sense—despite the headless chicken dance the internet goes through every time somebody changes their legal boilerplate, no reputable service ever has or ever will tried to steal your copyright. I mean it in an existential sense.

I still like Tumblr, despite its foibles, but as far as I know it was never profitable on its own, it was never profitable for Yahoo, and it’s on track to never be profitable for Verizon. As for Medium, I love what it’s trying to do, or maybe I love what it was trying to last business model and not so much now, or maybe vice-versa, or maybe it was three or four business models ago. What other businesses call pivots, Medium calls Tuesdays.

I’ll circle back to that, but the upshot is that I decided I needed a POSSE: “publish own site, syndicate everywhere.” (Look, I didn’t make it up.) And that brings me to…WordPress.

I’ll be blunt: I don’t like WordPress. Internally it’s a dumpster fire, full of arcanely formatted non-OO code, bloated HTML, and a theming engine designed by bipolar squirrels.

So I looked at other things. I know there are ways to make static site generators quasi-automatic, that Matt Gemmell swears it’s faster to blog from his iPad with Jekyll. I’ve done it, with a system not too dissimilar from the one he describes. It works, but I don’t love it. I’m comfortable at a shell prompt, but I don’t want it to be necessary for blogging, especially if I’m on an iPad. (I’m moving back to the Mac for portable writing, but that’s another post.)

I also looked at Ghost, which started with some fanfare a couple years ago as a modern take on WordPress that focused back on blogging essentials rather than shoehorning in a content management system. Now they’re a “professional publishing platform,” and all their messaging is we are not for you, casual blogger, pretty much the opposite of their original ideology.

But I can publish to WordPress right from Ulysses. Or MarsEdit. Or the WordPress web interface, desktop app, or iOS app. The WordPress API is, at least for me, a killer feature. And its ecosystem is unmatched: I have access to thousands of plugins, at least six of which are both worth using and actively maintained.

So: I’m still finding my way. I’ve added a cross-poster which can theoretically post everywhere I want, although I’m not sure if I’m going to use its Medium functionality—I want to be able to vet what it’s posting before it goes live there, so I’ll probably just use Medium’s post importer. And I don’t want to syndicate everything everywhere: I want to syndicate selectively. (This post probably won’t even go to Medium, for instance.)

The semi-ironic footnote: I don’t know if this is really going to make me post more, when all is said and done. I’ve always been guilty of being more interested in building things than running them. But we’ll see.

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Form over Frolic: Jony Ive’s quest for boring perfection

Right now I’m sitting in front of a 27″ iMac. It’s the best computer I’ve ever owned, with a 5K display, high color gamut, 24 gigs of RAM and 512 gigs of SSD storage. It’s beautiful and minimalist, just like every iMac they’ve released since they switched to aluminum in 2007.

It’s also the least modifiable desktop computer I’ve ever owned. This trend also goes back to that aluminum iMac, in which—like today’s—only the RAM is user-upgradeable. (Since 2012, even that’s no longer true of the smaller 21″ iMac.) It’s hard not to ask: why is thinness the priority in all of Apple’s designs?

You know the answer: Jony Ive. It’s clear by now that he would like everything Apple produces to look as close to a pure pane of glass as he can make it, with minimal, unadorned metallic frames, as close to unbroken and symmetrical as functionality allows. And Ive’s team is perfectly willing to sacrifice functionality in pursuit of this goal. A female Lightning port is fractionally thinner than a female USB-C port, and now you know why the iPhone will never get USB-C ports. Sorry. You’re lucky the one-port MacBook’s one port isn’t a Lightning port. (I have it on good authority that was under consideration.)

This often gets portrayed as a choice between staying chained to legacy hardware and forging ahead to the future. But if you were using Macs a decade ago, do you remember the way the power indicator light on a Mac, both desktop and laptop, used to slowly pulse when it was asleep, as if it were slowly breathing? Or the way batteries on laptops, both replaceable and permanent, used to let you check charge levels without turning on or waking up the machine. Or, as recently as last year, the way power plugs changed color to show charging state. All of that—along with the illuminated Apple logo and, now, the cheerful startup chime—has gone away.

All the price of progress, right?

A couple years ago, Shawn Blanc published a book about “how to make good things great” called Delight is in the Details. That phrase captures an essential paradox: we want our products to stay out of our way in everyday use, yet products that convert us from merely satisfied customers to fans have little touches that call attention to themselves in just the right way. When I start my Mazda, its display lights up with the words “Zoom Zoom” for just a few seconds. It’s stupid, but after six years it still makes me smile.

“Little touches that call attention to themselves” are the opposite of Ive’s guiding aesthetic. He creates beautiful objects you can appreciate as works of art. You can’t help but marvel at the lengths to which his team will go to make a perfect fusion of glass and metal, to craft UIs that appear to directly manipulate data, to make the hardware disappear while you’re using it. Under Ive’s direction, Apple delivers works which are closer to the science fiction future than any other major consumer electronics company. And yet his designs are relentlessly whimsy-free. There won’t be a moment that catches you off-guard and makes you smile. Ive’s work never aspires to make you giggle with delight.

Software doesn’t escape his penchant for austerity, either. The Ive era of software UX has been about flattening, removing, relentlessly stamping out skeuomorphism. The “traffic light” window controls are just circles now; the swirling barber pole progress bars are simple blue, with a subtle pulse; we don’t even get the little puff of smoke when we pull icons off the dock. I’m surprised the iOS icons still jiggle-dance when they’re in rearrangement mode. I’m not sure that it’s fair to say that we’re seeing a software analog to Apple’s quest for thinness, but I’m not sure it isn’t, either.

I’d hardly be the first one to complain about a perceived drop in software and UX quality, or to question whether Apple’s being a little too aggressive in dropping legacy ports. Yet it feels like that’s always been part of the deal, right? We’re taking away the floppy drive, or only giving you these weird USB ports, or sealing the battery in, but look at how cool we can make this thing now! It’s not like anything else on the market. It’s fun.

This iMac is the best computer I’ve ever owned, but nothing about it screams fun. The quirkiest thing about it is my mechanical keyboard, something Apple would never dream of making on their own these days. (So gauche.)

Yes, but you keep talking about the Mac line. The future is in iOS! Despite revealing myself in past posts as a Mac partisan, I think this is not only true but, overall, good. I’m a fan of that science fiction future, and it’s not one in which I see many people sitting down in front of 27″ monitors and keyboards for their computing needs—even if the monitors are holographic and the keyboards aren’t physical.

But man, talk about the “pure pane of glass” ideal, right?

The argument Apple is implicitly making is that computers—especially the computers of the future that the iPad typifies—are appliances. Appliances can be beautiful, but they shouldn’t exhibit frippery. They should be focused. We should prefer the Kitchen-Aid stand mixer to the plastic knockoff that does twice as much at half the price, because it won’t do any of those things well and it’ll fall apart in a year. (Besides, you can do all those things with the Kitchen-Aid, anyway; you’ll just need to buy some dongles.)

That’s all true. Maybe Ive knows best. But if you showed me a table with an iPad Pro, a Surface Pro, and a Surface Book on it and asked me to rank them in order of Cool Factor, I’d be hard-pressed to put the iPad at the head of the line. Microsoft isn’t trying for tiny-quirk delight, which is just as well (“It looks like you’re trying to add personality to your UX! Can I help?”), but they’re sweating small, thoughtful details. Apple sweats the details of manufacturing processes. That’s great, but it’s not the same thing.

Maybe—just maybe—a little frippery is okay, even if it adds a half-millimeter in depth to a product, or adds a touch of (gasp) skeuomorphism to the UI here and there, or allows a slightly less restrained, tasteful pigment on the anodized aluminum case. Injecting a bit of fun, even weirdness, to their computers in the late ’90s helped pull Apple back from the brink. It may be time for another injection.

Being Kitchen-Aid is a fine goal, but you know what? They sell that stand mixer in nearly three dozen colors.


Originally published at Hacker Noon.

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