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Betteridge's Law debunked
Usability on mobile is getting worse.

Although apparently people are getting better at understanding what a hamburger menu is.

Competing in an actually efficient market is terrible
It looks like (fingers crossed) my job in 2016 will involve making life easier for mobile app developers. I don't envy them, honestly.
The likely end state is the web becomes a niche product used for things like 1) trying a service before you download the app, 2) consuming long tail content (e.g. link to a niche blog from Twitter or Facebook feed).

This will hurt long-term innovation from a number of reasons:

1) Apps have a rich-get-richer dynamic that favors the status quo over new innovations. Popular apps get home screen placement, get used more, get ranked higher in app stores, make more money, can pay more for distribution, etc. The end state will probably be like cable TV Ė a few dominant channels/apps that sit on usersí home screens and everything else relegated to lower tiers or irrelevance.

2) Apps are heavily controlled by the dominant app stores owners, Apple and Google. Google and Apple control what apps are allowed to exist, how apps are built, what apps get promoted, and charge a 30% tax on revenues.
- The Decline of the Mobile Web

So despite the massive growth in mobile usage "it has gotten harder, not easier, to innovate on the Internet with the smartphone emerging as the platform of choice vs the desktop browser" and as a result VC firms (or USV at least) are less interested in taking risk there. A year and a half later they see more of the same.

But maybe better app discovery - potentially via models for using apps that don't require an install - can help.

Things discovered over lunch in Stinson Beach

Product managers vs accessibility, part two


Worse is better
Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit - all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided. Itís the sound of failure: so much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart. The distorted guitar sound is the sound of something too loud for the medium supposed to carry it. The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat that releases it. The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.
- Brian Eno, A Year With Swollen Appendicies (via)

omg the web is alive

Tech news sounding increasingly desperate
forlorn headlines from the Verge

Thinking about getting a 'FUCK PROP 13' tattoo on my forearm

"We have no fucking clue how to simulate a brain."
We canít simulate the brain of C. Elegans, a very well studied roundworm (first animal to have its genome sequenced) in which every animal has exactly the same 302-neuron brain (out of 959 total cells) and we know the wiring diagram and we have tons of data on how the animal behaves, including how it behaves if you kill this neuron or that neuron. Pretty much whatever data you want, we can generate it. And yet we donít know how this brain works. Simply put, data does not equal understanding. You might see a talk in which someone argues for some theory for a subnetwork of 6 or 8 neurons in this animal. Our state of understanding is that bad.
Dirty Rant About The Human Brain Project

Why everything is terrible now, tech giants edition
The history of the Internet and mobile is that in many categories the winner takes most of the market ... Lately, weíve been wondering if there is an end to this pattern on the Internet and mobile. We think it is possible that an open data platform, in which users ultimately control their data and the networks they choose to participate in, could be the thing that undoes this pattern of winner takes most.
Blog post on AVC: Winner Take Most

Also some discussion in the comments about whether the pattern of startups rapidly growing into giants is over; maybe we're stuck with the giants we have and the innovations they deign to give us. Unless those open data platforms emerge ...

I don't know my history well enough, but I wonder how often mature, siloed markets have become standardized.

  • Messaging: email started open & tiny; grew huge. Email sticking around but some of this usage going to service-specific messaging
  • 1-1 chat: started proprietary, went open, now back to proprietary
  • Group chat: started open with IRC, center of gravity now proprietary
  • Publishing: AOL replaced by tiny/open http. Maybe going back to proprietary with Instant Articles
  • Cloud storage: WebDAV is dead; iOS's storage provider API does standardize/commoditize this to an extent
  • Identity: OAuth kinda ... services that want users to be able to log in via OAuth still need to decide which identity providers they want to support, and often they decide to go Facebook-only.

Reckonwrong is running things right now. If you don't know ...

It's funny how Valley types can simultaneously believe "we're far-seeing geniuses who have nothing to learn from the chattering class" and "well nobody knows what will really work, let a thousand flowers launch." Wait am I about to write a thinkpiece

Data as radioactive waste
Another Maciej talk: Haunted by Data

I wonder what Jason Scott thinks about all this (I know there's difference between private user data and public web pages, most of the time.)

Most interesting part to me:
But Nature is full of self-modifying, interlocking systems, with interdependent variables you can't isolate. In these vast data spaces, directed iterative search performs better than any amount of data mining.

My contention is that many of you doing data analysis on the real world will run into similar obstacles, hopefully not at the same cost as pharmacology.
Reminds me of something I've heard from multiple people working on data-driven stuff in consumer web stuff: "every variation performed worse than the baseline."

"Directed iterative search" I'm pretty sure means "We'll just try them óand if they don't work ó why then we'll just try something else."

Slothrop's assignations

Leisure Town
Someone's still paying the server bills for this mothballed, dark, amazing web comic, and it looks good on a phone, too.

Leisure Town

Have Gmail only filter messages not sent directly to me
This was surprisingly hard to figure out. Maybe this will help somebody.

1. Go to Settings and under Inbox choose to override filters for important messages
2. Create a filter from:me to:me and choose "Always mark as important"

This will make sure messages sent directly to you end up in your inbox, even if you have another filter that would normally archive it.

Yesssss more workflow tools

Open-source Audioscrobbler clone

I still don't know why I care about my listening history (although's event recommendations have been great.) This also imports your existing history from

Waiting on Valencia to get into a Severed Heads show, a gorgeous lowrider glides past bumping hip-hop.

Make tiny web pages on your phone

Images, text, links, with a public URL. Add a safe subset of Javascript and you have Hypercard.

Social networks we need and don't have
  • A social network for artists - share some stuff publicly, talk privately, have more control over your online self-presentation than you get from Facebook. Arguably demand here is why a terrible site like Ello got traction.
  • A social network where you share stuff with friends. No, not Facebook, I don't want to share with everyone I've ever met. I'm talking about sharing with a smaller set of people in a more private space. What if Path was a good idea but was five years too early?
  • Local social networks. Facebook groups are doing a non-terrible job here sometimes, but Facebook might be the wrong baseline - makes more sense for this to be public by default. Maybe a Twitterish local social net?

The counterargument being "how many social networks do you want to be a part of?" but seems to me that any time people find a congenial space (cool people, or people with useful information to share) they're eager to jump in. "People" here probably skews toward more active/savvy types, and I don't know how large that segment is, but they're probably the users most likely to make you money if you care about that kind of thing.

Things I'm skeptical about that are maybe actually okay
  • Natural language interfaces
  • Centralized social networks
  • "the death of the filesystem"

Still terrible: the impact of illegible UIs and constant unnecessary UI changes on older users.

Two punctures, one failed tube, and Daniel pulled through all the tough parts

Another good post about WeChat
When One App Rules Them All

WeChat has millions of "official accounts" - they're described as "apps within apps" here, but the author goes on to clarify that they're really web pages. Pages that WeChat gives APIs to handle payment, access to location, messaging - think of the amount of dev work it would take a typical mobile site or app to recreate that. Then think of how much more cumbersome and risky it feels to hand out credit card info or your email address to another site with janky UX and unknown data handling policies. As someone with a bias toward decentralization, it's terrifying how much more sense it makes to have a single provider mediate interactions this way.

What happens if Android tries to build in the same set of capabilities in at the OS layer? Or lets you swap in and out different identity/payment providers?

Brian Eno on walking away from success
"Now, the workaday everyday now, always looks relatively less glamorous than the rose-tinted then (except for those magic hours when your finger is right on the pulse, and those moments only happen when you've abandoned the lifeline of your own history.)" - via

Not sure why, but this song's been in my head recently:

Doing It For Themselves
Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox recording

Don't look under there
The Verge's web sucks (HN comments)
Just to put this in some rough perspective: Assuming I had a 1GB / month data plan, I could visit sites like The Verge about 3 times per day before I hit my cap. If I'm lucky, some or most of this will get cached between requests so it won't be quite that bad. In fact, another report tells me that a primed cache yields 8MB transferred - so maybe 4 visits per day.
Relevant to my day job. Unfortunately.

"in China ... WeChat is the web"

Okay divide by two given this guy's motivation to pump Kik's valuation but still.

Less breathless very interesting look at Chinese mobile UI patterns.

Pick your battles
I asked: 'I wonder if there's ever been a software company that said "you know what, we're going to do everything slowly. 100% stop and smell the roses pace." But did a good job at what they did do.'

Well ...
In the late í90s I got a chance to tour the legendary Massachusetts computer company Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC, later bought by Compaq), and the difference in culture was remarkable. There were people at DEC who had been working on threading (the manner in which operating systems manage concurrent sets of linear processor instructions) for twenty years. Half the people had PhDs in their areas of specialty. Corners were never cut to release something earlier.

Ah, I thought. This is why Microsoft won.

The once and future king
Motherfucking Website. Write once, run everywhere.

Wonder what actual commercial sites try to hew close to this. A lot of the world is going the other way.

Great moments in product management
Scene: videoconference to discuss design of new dependencies feature
Me: I should warn you, I have a fourteen-year-old CS degree and I just went on Wikipedia.
My tech lead: (sighs deeply) Let me guess, topological sort.

Ulysses annotated online
  • Infinite Ulysses (crowdsourced, some dodgy shit)
  • The Joyce Project (not crowdsourced, UI not as slick, why do I have to hover over a word to see if it has an associated note)

Finally a startup idea I'm excited about
Uber for a grizzled old cowboy to meet you on the pier where you're staring at the sea and the slate-gray sky and say "she's not coming back, you know."

When stress looks like calm
Hidden stress

"When deeply stressed, I become even more serenely calm and unflappable than usual. It happens gradually. Iím a fairly laid back chap usually, so nobody (including me) notices the change. I shrug a few things off. I donít let things get to me, but over time I can end up letting things slide that I have no business letting slide. Or absorbing bullshit that I should be challenging and confronting. Or, worse, failing to help other people when I should."

Style on the web: hyperlinks
Writing Hyperlinks: Salient, Descriptive, Start with Keyword

Tagent: the concept of a hyperlink is overloaded. It seems weird that by default links to completely different domains are represented the same way as links to a paragraph on the current page.

Supporting women in geek communities

Software as an endless stream of cards from everywhere
The End of Apps As We Know Them

Lots of people trying to figure out what replaces the "grid of apps" approach to mobile. This article is a pretty good extrapolation of trends we're already seeing - first we had notifications. Then we had notifications you could interact with. Eventually, maybe, you'll get so many notifications you can't deal with all of them - and here PMs start salivating at the idea of being able to apply machine intelligence to the problem of what you need to look at next. (If I didn't invent the phrase "product managed to death" I don't want to know about it.)

What this approach under-emphasizes, I think, is user intent as an unpredictably evolving thing. We'll definitely get better at inferring your intent from your schedule, from your past behavior - but in a deep way user intent will always be impossible to model well. It's arguable how much this matters: most people have a daily routine, a set of boundaries they rarely go beyond. So maybe we'll be uncannily good at this most of the time. Maybe we'll even be able to model people's desire for novelty along different dimensions to keep their stream stimulating (although it's funny that we talk about stream optimization as a solved problem given how primitive efforts are today.)

But what's the UI for expressing intent above the level of a card in this model? Text or voice control, maybe, but that's just a modality. What kinds of intents - or preferences, or states - could be expressed that the system would be able to incorporate into its model? If I want something that isn't "find me X", are we back to a grid of app icons?

From: Paul Ford
To: Virginia Heffernan
Subject: wanted you to know
i had nothing to do with that article in gawker. yes your piece had problems, but you deserved better and it was wrong of them to bring your past into it.

Saving this forever in case I need the lulz.

Just Checking In

Locking the web open
The graybeards are gazing into their palantirs, warning of doom to come. The architects are looking at how their plans for the agora are being subverted by the walls the wealthy and powerful are building. Protocols are being designed, spells are being cast, all to keep the web ungovernable. The efficacy of magic, however, requires collective belief. Do users want to live on a perpetual frontier, or will they prefer the safety of the walled gardens of mobile apps, Facebook, WeChat, and Line?

Brewster Kahle on creating a more secure, distributed web. Calling for a web that's distributed (storage, bandwidth, authentication), private and (this is new): versioned.

Maciej Ceglowski on making the Internet more human. The diagnosis is more precise than the prescription, but the diagnosis is valuable all by itself: clearly voicing our anxieties, showing how they arise from concrete developments pulling the net away from our values and aspirations.

It's not clear to me that the next wave of change is going to come from the last generation (which I count myself a part of.) But the web is going to stick around, and since the web is such a thick layer in the stack (it can be used to carry pure semantic data, or that plus presentation, or add application logic ... ) and is still the connector, we will probably never stop working to adapt it to changing capabilities, changing desires for what technologies have a home there and what we want to do there.

Anna Fisher
Anna Fisher

Facebook sharing pretty broken for sites with client-side rendering (like AngularJS)
another hack for the web server-side user-agent detection :(

Recently in California

Mersey Beats
I'm going to try something new in 2015: I'm going to write at least a little about every book that I read. (Ok, I'm going to try. This isn't a job.) I just finished "Tune In", the first volume of a projected three-volume history of the Beatles by Mark Lewisohn. It was really surprisingly fascinating and I want to try to explain why before all the images and impressions the book created fade from my memory.

Why do you care about those old men anyway?
I feel like an apologia for Beatles fandom is kind of required at this point. They're so central to the rockist canon, such a touchstone for the type of reactionaries who would dismiss hip-hop, techno and everything living and vital that I care about in music, that caring about them enough to read a book on them (three books!) seems suspect.

First, a generic defense of the study of history:it's not only not opposed to a progressive outlook, it's an important part of any understanding of the present. I say this as foundation-laying, I doubt any of the three people reading this would disagree.

Second, a more specific understanding of the Beatles - actually grokking their context, their rise, their loves, hates and ambitions - helps in understanding them as a specific group of people operating in a specific context, reacting to the music around them, expressing a particular Liverpool sensibility. All the talk about them as "timeless, central to rock history, giants" just obscures who they actually were and why they did what they did.

Finally, their rise coincided with - helped bring about - the rise of a new kind of music, a new youth culture, a new music industry ... every stage of their story so far involves people doing things no one had ever done before. Even if you think rock would have reached more or less the same place without them, a lot of things changed in the Sixties and the history of the Beatles is a fantastic lens for viewing it.

I'm pretty sure you were going to tell us about a book
It's engagingly written, a tiny bit amateurish in the best sense of the word, astoundingly well researched but wearing that lightly, and packed with memorable quotes and scenes. Lewisohn does well sketching milieu, and this is the foundation of the book.

Say something about the Beatles? anything
They weren't fantastic musicians, Paul maybe excepted. Fantastic singers and songwriters, yeah. But it's funny to think about how many people yearning tiresomely for "musicianship" put the Beatles at the top of their list.

They wanted to make black music. They had other influences, but when Little Richard told them they had that "authentic Negro sound" I can't imagine how happy they must have felt.

They were direct, funny, often assholes. Lewisohn keeps emphasizing how they refused to do anything that felt fake, that they were always true to themselves. He maybe hits that point too hard but you do finish the book feeling that part of their success came from aggressive disregard for what other people wanted or expected. I'm not sure that I would have been friends with John, but I would love to have spent time in his company. Even just reading the book you get inspired by how original his behavior - all of their behavior - was. You start to feel it's possible to live life less by rote.

Finally, when the group starts producing great work (they definitely didn't always) there starts to be a steady stream of little eruptions in the book, the Beatles doing something new and amazing. I'm not sure how much of this is their musical originality. Maybe Lewisohn could have done more to show how novelty comes from recombination - but he already does quite a bit of that. Maybe they had something.

Filed for future travel plans
Having a local cook you dinner when you're traveling sounds like a good idea.


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