CJ Eller

Thinking about tools for thinking about thinking

An entry in the Bandcamp Blogging Bandwagon. Join in here.

There's something to having friends who make things that you can enjoy on a daily basis. Their work recreates an ambient presence of who they are and what they mean to you. I am grateful to have friendships with musicians, and during these times it means more now than ever to support them.

Today, Bandcamp is waiving their revenue shares for sales of artists' music. Prompted by this, Tom Critchlow announced “The Bandcamp Blogging Bandwagon”, an urging to bloggers to share Bandcamp artists' work for the day to drive discovery & interest to indie artists. As Tom puts it,

In these times we need cozy blogging structures and we need support for independents more than ever.

In light of that I am going to go through the shelf in my online living room and recommend some of my friends' music on Bandcamp. These are people who have meant a great deal to me but who I feel I've neglected due to distance in many forms. For one, we are all scattered across the country. For another, I took a different career trajectory — going from studying for a Doctorate in Music (classical guitar performance to be specific) to working in software. This shift alienated me from the music scenes I was once a part of, let alone not playing as regularly as I used to.

So may these recommendations not only be an homage to these musical friendships but a reinforcement of them. Even if I don't reach out as much as I used to, may this gesture not only help them a little but also encourage me to get back in touch. Times like these remind you of what's most important. As Bix illustrated, you can still be social with social distancing. And that's especially true with those you care about who you feel distanced with.

Someone to Ride the River With

Great bluegrass/folk style music from great friends. I know Terence and Jamie from my time at grad school. Both had a warmth to them that was inspiring to say the least. I learned so much of how to be a musician and a person from Terence. The least you can do is buy their music. This album in particular is with a phenomenal supporting band — crazy mandolin and extremely tasteful bass playing. (Link if embed takes a while)

Nancy

This band was a bit of a surprise to me — Terence & Jamie of the above band are joined with three other friends in an indie-alternative-folk band that's a blast to listen to. The same great songwriting of STRTRW with an awesome electric sound. Two of the three joining them are good friends of mine too — Galen & Denver. I studied classical guitar with Denver and Galen & I organized this crazy music series called “The Wheel.” The concept of it was that, instead of a set list of performing acts, people would spin this giant wheel created by Galen that would determine who the next act would be. There were also spots on the wheel for out-there musical challenges that mixed things up. (Link)

Maxwell Denny

Whenever I find someone who also likes The Bad Plus & John Zorn, I know we'll be good friends. I met Max while in grad school, him being an undergrad at the time. His musical tastes and experimental bent made him a kindred soul. I got to be a part of a lot of fascinating performances of Max's music. One which I'll never forget was providing dynamic music for a short play with two other guitarists. We also organized a monthly series of concerts at a local art gallery for a year. So many wonderful memories of that too — from quirky singing circles to beautiful classical music. His music is adventurously inventive. (Link)

Hudson Abadeer

This is from my good friend Ryan. Been grateful to jam with him on many occasions and be in a couple of bands with. The crazy thins is that he's an amazing drummer, one of the best that I know, but this project his singer-songwriter stuff. I got to see this project progress into some amazing music that to this day I still hum to myself. Even his guitar playing has gotten to a point that I wonder how he comes up with some of the riffs to his tune. It's sort of been on a hiatus but I hope he continues it one day. Maybe I'll have to talk to him about that. (Link)

If using a search engine can be like drinking from a fire hose, Internet surfing using a Web ring is like sharing a cup of tea with a group of strangers who are batty about a favorite hobby, like collecting Australian emergency-squad insignia.

— Tina Kelley , “Surfing in Circles and Loving It” (source)

Let's get one thing straight. Firehoses are useful. If you aim that concentrated blast at a fire then it more than likely will quell the flames. I feel this way with social media, especially Twitter. Bix phrases it well here:

Here’s what I’ve realized: for the things I get out of Twitter, Twitter is very good at those things. For example, quick but in-depth input and information from experts when overwhelming bits of news are happening. Experts I would not otherwise known or have heard about; that’s a service I can use.

Aim the concentrated blast of Twitter at some subject and it will surprise you with insight. But what happens when you decide to drink from it? Same as what happens with a firehose. There's a disconnect, something that Bix touches on later in his post:

What I’m missing from my internet experience is that thing I’ve talked about over and over, on and off, since I started blogging again: that sense of place.

When I think of that sense of place, I think of sharing a cup of tea. Not with a group of strangers but rather with a small group of like-hearted people. I can also imagine not being with anyone at all, sitting with my cup of tea within the cozy recesses of my home. This warmth comes from drinking tea. It's restorative and intimate act, whether you are with people or not. I think this is what Tom Critchlow is getting at in the preface to “Blog Patterns” (source):

This post is a retreat from the crazy world into the domestic cozy self-care of fiddling with my blog.

I think this is what intrigued Tina Kelley about Web rings. Here were these tight knit communities of sites loosely connected by hyperlinks that embodied a coziness distinct from search engines. They had sense of place that Kelley could only describe as if you were having a cup of tea. There is, like Tom put it, a sense of self-care from fiddling with a blog. The same could be said for contributing to a forum or creating a web app on Glitch.

I think we need more cups of tea than drinks from firehoses.

Part of what makes contributing to a Discourse forum a genuine joy for me is the writing experience. Many worthwhile opportunities in my life have stemmed from using this forum software. Why? Of course it was the communities, the social aspect I’ve written about again and again. But I want to give the software some credit here. Discourse’s editor made writing up topics and replies pleasurable, enabling me to participate in communities that I never thought I’d be a part of, in ways I couldn’t anticipate. This gratefulness led to an interesting question.

If you like the Discourse editor so much, why not publish to your blog from it?

So this post here is the product of an answer to that question. I created a simple Glitch app that takes advantage of Discourse’s nifty webhook feature. When the app receives a webhook, it takes the text from the Discourse message and posts it to my Write.as blog. But how does it know which message to publish to your blog? Because a webhook is a fire hose of data coming in. This webhook in particular was set to trigger at a Post event. That means every time a post is published or deleted or updated, the webhook will send each post’s data to my Glitch app. Every post action that happened on the forum – a fire hose indeed. So I needed to write some code that would find a droplet from the cascade of water coming from the hose.

My solution? Give the app some if/else logic. If the message sent from the webhook was authored by this user (me) and the message has this title (“Message to myself”), then take the message’s data and make a blog post from it. If not, then don’t do anything with the message. This specificity allowed me to then play around with the message data so that it formatted correctly on my blog.

The app still has some kinks to work through but I thought it exercised a curiosity of mine – being able to publish to my blog from any editor. There are so many text editors out there, each for different purposes and with different strengths to boot. Why not be able to craft some connective tissue in-between so you can publish to your blog from any where? Why not create a hypertext polygraph?

What tends to get lost in our world is membership, which is neither solitary nor anonymous.

This point from Alan Jacobs' How to Think is prescient for the web. I sometimes feel like I am both screaming into the void and a drop in the ocean. Jacobs uses a prescient passage from C.S. Lewis' “The Inner Ring” to explain membership further:

How true membership in a body differs from inclusion in a collective may be seen in the structure of a family. The grandfather, the parents, the grown-up son, the child, the dog, and the cat are true members (in the organic sense), precisely because they are not members or units of a homogenous class. They are not interchangeable. Each person is almost a species in himself [...] If you subtract any one member, you have not simply reduced the family in number; you have inflicted an injury on its structure.

Lewis' definition can also apply to other tight-knit groups. “Each [person] is accepted for his own distinctive contribution to the group: if it were less distinctive,” Jacobs writes, “it would be less valuable.” Membership respects your individuality while not leaving you completely isolated. Membership respects you as a unique contribution to the group rather than as another body in the crowd. Between solitude and anonymity stands membership.

And I agree with Jacobs – membership tends to get lost in our world, especially on the web. Am I truly a member of a Facebook group? Am I truly a member of a forum? Sometimes you get a semblance of membership but leave with a counterfeit experience. Other times you get membership where you least expect it. Jacobs, for instance, mentions how he found membership in a motley of “like-hearted” folks on Twitter:

I had chosen to interact with people (on Twitter) who had very little in common except that I knew – from experience – that they wouldn't write me out of their own personal Books of Life if I said something they strongly disagreed with. That is, I am confident that I am a member (in the organic sense) of a curious little online body, and that has been a real encouragement to me. Sometimes I even try out writing ideas on them – typically only a few are able to answer (they have lives), but when they do answer I know it'll emerge from genuine thought, not merely emotional or visceral reaction. These people, again, are not necessarily like-minded, but they are temperamentally disposed to openness and have habits of listening – and in that sense are wonderfully like-hearted.

This example brings home the point that while technology can facilitate it, membership is social at its core. How can membership be encouraged? How can one build membership within a group? It doesn't matter if you're on Twitter or on an obscure forum. Such questions require a personal touch, a commitment to striving for true membership as opposed to false belonging. It also requires a dash of prudence – does one have to strive for membership all the time, with everything and with everyone? When is it and not appropriate?

These questions cannot be solved by a bug fix or a new web framework. But that's the point. I am reminded of a sub-header in Darius Kazemi's Run Your Own Social that sums this up:

Social solutions to social problems

I've been recently enjoying Dino's Game Log, a series of posts where he documents his video game sessions. Reading these posts come at a time for me when gaming has turned into a frustrating hobby. That frustration comes from the competitive nature of a team-based multiplayer game I play – Overwatch. Win-loss ratios swing wildly from session to session. Sometimes you'll lose five games straight before winning one. Those lows can be particularly brutal. Why do I choose to spend my free time playing a game that makes me do anything but relax? But I know it's not the game – it's me. My competitiveness sucks any joy from the experience.

And that's where Dino's Game Log came in. There's an awareness in them that serves as a refreshing contrast to my own toxic attachment to the game's outcomes. I only cared about my win-loss ratio during each session. Nothing else. But here was Dino making observations about mechanics and highlighting moments in the games he played. Reading his posts felt like seeing what I should focus on when I play. Not what's out of my control but what's within it – the little wins, fascinating patterns, subtle mechanics. Those are within the power of observation. All I need to do is be intentional about writing them down, about thinking them through like I would anything else. There's a power to writing things down. If it can work with certain facets of our inner and outer life, why not with video games?

I intend to write about each gaming session in my paper journal. It will be an interesting experiment to see if knowing I will write about the session will attune my mind to focus on things other than the win-loss ration. Maybe then gaming will be what it was suppose to be all along – leisure.

An alternative future of Twitter's Bluesky Project could lie in the history of magnetic recording tape. Let me try to explain.

In the early 1930's, Clarence Hickman, a Bell Labs engineer, was developing magnetic recording tape. This was what would be the underlying technology of answering machines, cassettes, video tape, and soon after the hard drives of computers. So what happened to this invention? Tim Wu explains in The Master Switch:

What's interesting is that Hickman's invention in the 1930's would not be “discovered” until the 1990's. For soon after Hickman had demonstrated his invention, AT&T ordered the Labs to cease all research into magnetic storage, and Hickman's research was suppressed and concealed for more than sixty years, coming to light only when the historian Mark Clark came across Hickman's laboratory notebook in the Bell archives.

Knowing the importance of the magnetic tape now, why did AT&T stop all research? Because, as Wu explains, they saw it as competition to the telephone:

More precisely, in Bell's imagination, the very knowledge that it was possible to record a conversation would “greatly restrict the use of the telephone,” with catastrophic consequences for its business [...] In sum, the very possibility of magnetic recording, it was feared, would “change the whole nature of telephone conversations” and “render the telephone much less satisfactory and useful in the vast majority of cases in which it is employed.”

Magnetic recording tape was thought to undermine AT&T's entire foundation as a business. No wonder its development had to be stopped dead in its tracks. So this makes me wonder about Bluesky, Twitter's attempt to create a decentralized protocol that the platform would adopt as the flagship client. On the surface, it's quite different than Bell's magnetic recording tape. Twitter has been quite public about it (Jack Dorsey and other Twitter execs publicly announcing the project and fielding questions/feedback) as AT&T were not. But that publicity is shrouded in vagueness. We don't know how far ahead the project is, let alone if it has left the vaporware stage of abstraction. This leaves one much to wonder about the future of this project. I can't help but think of an alternative timeline based on the principles of AT&T's decision to neuter the potential of Hickman's magnetic recording tape. Wu, again, sees this as the double-edged sword of centralized innovation:

[...] AT&T, as an innovator, bore a series genetic flaw: it could not originate technologies that might , by the remotest possibility, threaten the Bell system. In the language of innovation theory, the output of the Bell Labs was practically restricted to sustaining inventions; disruptive technologies, those that might even cast a shadow of uncertainty over the business model, were simply out of the question.

On the surface one can see, even on a minuscule level, how a decentralized protocol would undermine a centralized platform's business model. Of course that leads to speculation of Twitter pivoting from social infrastructure to algorithmic curation. But part of me cannot shake what Wu calls the Kronos Effect – a company devouring anything that could lead to its own usurpation, whether from internal or external sources. So an alternative reality of Bluesky could be that it stays permanently in vaporware limbo. If Bluesky becomes a reality in this alternative reality, it may just be a neutered version of the initial vision – something that safely reinforces Twitter's business model without the potential disruptive power a decentralized protocol would have in an open system.

Who know's what will happen, but if reading The Master Switch has taught me anything so far, it's that the Kronos effect can work in many ways and know no bounds.

Lately I have been reading books exclusively from the local library. This presented a strange predicament. I have to constantly restrain myself from the usual habit of making notes in the margins. Curbing this marginalia presented me with a different yet familiar way of remembering a book's content.

I resorted to finding a passage, copying it into an editor, and mulling it over. Then I would write around the passage until a composition started to form. The piece would then be published on a personal or internal work blog. In doing this I found myself having a better impression of what I found interesting in reading the book than mere marginalia ever provided. But then it hit me. Marginalia wasn't useless. If all I did was make notes within in a book, I couldn't remember a thing. It was only when that marginalia was used in published content did I better recall a book's content.

Why was this the case?

Oliver Sacks' posthumously published The River of Consciousness contains a fascinating essay on Freud's early neurological research. Sacks hits upon a development in Freud's early writings – realizing the strong connection between memory and motive:

At a higher level, Freud regarded memory and motive as inseparable. Recollection could have no force, no meaning, unless it was allied with motive. The two had always to be coupled together [...]

This relationship accounts for strange lapses of recollection:

The inseparability of memory and motive, Freud pointed out, opened the possibility of understanding certain illusions of memory based on intentionality: the illusion that one has written to a person, for instance, when one has not but intended to, or that one has run the bath when one has merely intended to do so. We do not have such illusions unless there has been a preceding intention.

I often feel a variation of this on Twitter. My intention is to remember the content of a tweet, so I retweet or favorite it. Soon I find myself forgetting what the tweet even contained in the first place. This was an illusion of memory based on the supposed motive in the favorite and retweet. My memory could not keep up with my intentions. How odd then, that the relationship between memory and motive feels stronger with blogging. The motive of writing about what you've read somehow reinforces your memory of it. I've seen this sentiment expressed elsewhere on the web, especially in this post from Bix:

One thing I've noticed lately is that if I save links to blog about rather than links to “read later” (and they are right when they ask how often it seems like we are saving links to forget to read), I end up not only reading more of them but also creating a record of having done so.

This difference between “links to read later” and “links to blog about” can be explained by this relationship between memory and motive. “Links to read later” creates the illusion of motive. Memory, however, lags behind, becoming the “links to forget to read.” On the other hand, “links to blog about” creates another mode of intentionality, reinforcing the memory of what one reads. That tighter loop creates more opportunities for reading, more opportunities for blogging.

But what is the motive behind blogging? Reasons abound, but I think Sacks gets to the core of it in another essay in The River of Consciousness, “The Creative Self”:

What is at issue is not the fact of “borrowing” or “imitating,” of being “derivative,” being “influenced,” but what one does with what is borrowed or imitated or derived; how deeply one assimilates it, takes it into oneself, compounds it with one's own experiences and thoughts and feelings, places it in relation to oneself, and expresses it in a new way, one's own.

In Other Minds, Peter Godfrey-Smith makes a fascinating distinction in the way squid and baboons communicate. It serves as a surprising way to understand our own methods of communication, especially on the web.

Compare the baboons with cephalopods. In baboons the production side of their vocal communication system is very simple. There are only three or four calls. An individual's choices are limited, and a call will reliably follow interactions of a particular kind. The interpretation side, though, is complex, because calls are produced in ways that allow a narrative to be put together. The baboons have simple production, complex interpretation.

The cephalopods are the opposite. The production side is vastly, almost indefinitely complex, with millions of pixels on the skin and a huge number of patterns that might be produced at each moment. As a communication channel, the bandwidth of the system is extraordinary. You could say anything with it — if you had a way to encode the messages, and if anyone was listening. In cephalopods, though, social life is much less complicated than it is in baboons, as far as anyone can tell. Here we have a powerful signal system, but most of what is said is going unnoticed [...] But it's also true that with all the chatter, all the mumbling of the skin, a lot of what is going on inside is made available on the outside.

Godfrey-Smith tackles the communication comparison from a matter of production & interpretation. Both the cephalopods and baboons exemplify the vast bandwidth of communication we are capable of each and every day online.

Sometimes our online tools give us a limited means of production but a high degree of interpretation. I am always amazed at how Twitter can produce complex reactions from a couple hundred characters. How you can say something might be constrained, but how it can be interpreted isn't. This wide range can also lead to the vitriol we see on these kind of platforms – from people taking statements out of context to amplifying hateful messages. I find myself in a state of exhaustion as I try to comprehend the 280 character tweets as they scroll by on my feed. Such little footprints of communication can set our brains off.

On the other end, there are tools similar to the cephalopods – complex in what is said but little interpretation going on. I sometimes feel like personal blogging can be like that. You can display as much or as little of your interior life as you want, in whatever form you want. A post has more bandwidth for production than a tweet. However, unlike a tweet, the experience of blogging is extremely personal by default. What Godfrey-Smith said of the cephalopods can be said for blogging — a lot of what is going on inside is made available on the outside, but whether anyone interprets it can be hard to tell. And one could say that comments and replies are there to add that layer of interpretation, bringing the baboon-like communication systems to a blog. But there's something to the experience of communicating on a blog that feels satisfying even when nobody is there on the other end to interpret it – more akin to a personal journal.

We need both ends of the communicative spectrum. But let's not forget the power of those channels of communication that allow us to be expressive to an audience of one – ourselves. There's something to be said about interior communication on the web. It might sound antithetical to what the web is, but I think there's an imperative to having unnoticed systems of communication going on online.

If you go back to 1917, you'll find the seeds of ambient music in a strange set of instrumental pieces by French composer Erik Satie he coined as “furniture music.” Here's how he describes it in the manuscript notes:

[Furniture] music completes one’s property. It’s new; it isn’t tiring; it’s French; it won’t wear out; it isn’t boring!

Rather than an artistic statement, Satie included what could only be considered as a parody of a sales pitch. This was sonic upholstery that he was selling. But, as composer Stephen Whittington comments, that was the point (source):

[I]n order to fulfill its function, furniture music must not attract undue attention to itself and must offer no encouragement to those who might attempt to listen to it. It provides musical ‘objects’ for use, not ‘works’ for interpretation.

Furniture music, in other words, was supposed to serve as a sonic utility humming in the background, not as a work of art to be admired. Apocryphal stories about the debut performance (during the intermission of another performance) tell of Satie berating the audience for sitting down to pay attention to his furniture music. They were supposed to get up and go about themselves as any other intermission.

I am reminded of Satie's furniture music because of a recent piece on the Are.na blog from David Reinfurt and Eric Li (source). Therein they explore how the principles underlying ambient music could provide an alternative path for software to take:

What if you took these ideas and applied them to software? Software might create a social network that exists quietly in the background, rather than commanding your attention via shrill notifications or gamifying the experience with rewards such as likes. This software might not ask you to perform as much as it would facilitate awareness. It might reveal affinities and foster concentration. (After all, it’s easier to concentrate in a library than in a shopping mall.) This might be a place for collective research, a place to think in public.

It's odd to think of software existing quietly in the background. But so many things already do this all the time — especially furniture. A chair does not beckon for your attention, asking you to sit on it all day. It just sits there in your living room, patiently waiting for when you want to use it. That's what made Satie's furniture music so scandalous. Music was supposed to actively listened to. That's why you went to a concert. So what exactly was music that was supposed to be ignored? What we now know as ambient music.

There are a lot of software projects out there working towards creating ambient places that reveal affinities and foster concentration. I am optimistic for a world of software that is more like furniture and less like Skinner boxes.

“What is the middle ground between real-time chat and blog posts?” wonders CJ Eller. “Between synchronous and asynchronous communication?” I don’t mean to be flippant but I confess that literally my immediate response to this was, “Twitter.”

This response from Bix has me thinking about how Twitter is testing a feature in that would expand the types of conversations that can occur on their platform. A TechCrunch article explains the four options Twitter is coming up with to “tailor 'replies'” on a tweet:

[A]nyone can reply, only those who a user follows can reply, only those tagged can reply, or setting a tweet to get no replies at all. (Goodbye, needing to make space for “don’t @me.”)

The second and third option in particular would allow for the kind of conversation that I referred to in my previous blogchat post – not only a middle ground between the synchronous and asynchronous but an ability to have public conversations constrained to a particular group of individuals. This development came from internal discussion about how discourse worked on Twitter. Suzanne Xie, “head of conversation” at Twitter, talked about the genesis of these reply options in the above TC article:

“We thought, well, what if we could actually put more control into the author’s hands before the fact? Give them really a way to control the conversation space, as they’re actually composing a tweet? So there’s a new project that we’re working on,” she said. “The reason we’re doing this is, if we think about what conversation means on Twitter. Right now, public conversation on Twitter is you tweet something everyone in the world will see and everyone can reply, or you can have a very private conversation in a DM. So there’s an entire spectrum of conversations that we don’t see on Twitter yet.”

Built in its current state, Twitter leaves out parts of the conversational spectrum. Of course any communication tool does this. You cannot see body language on the phone or hear tone of voice in a letter. But what Twitter leaves out is something much different than a particular social cue. It leaves out, as Xie mentioned, the author's control of the software before using it. With Twitter you can be either completely public or private. Sure, you can have a private account allowing only your followers to interact with your tweets, but intentionality on a granular level cannot be attained. That intentionality is, as Bix wrote about a Warren Ellis thought experiment, what truly makes communities on the web:

The problem isn’t so much public-versus-private accounts as Twitter’s lack of tools for user-driven community building. The test-balloon of being able to control the extent of conversation on one’s own tweets at least partially considers this, but one of the things we lost in the cultural gold rush to social media was the primacy of intentional and circumscribed communities.

These are the limitations of discourse in a space when compared to a place. With blogchains and blogchats amongst other experiments, the point is to bring the conversation back into the realm of place, to create nuance that one finds in a place, where we can converse the way we want to in a tailored made environment for “us”, whatever “us” may be. Robin Sloan beautifully articulated this in his post about a chat app he made for himself and 3 other family members, “An app can be a home-cooked meal”:

And, when you free programming from the requirement to be general and professional and SCALABLE, it becomes a different activity altogether, just as cooking at home is really nothing like cooking in a commercial kitchen. I can report to you: not only is this different activity rewarding in almost exactly the same way that cooking for someone you love is rewarding, there’s another feeling, one that persists as you use the app together. I have struggled with words for this, but/and I think it might be the crux of the whole thing:

This messaging app I built for, and with, my family, it won’t change unless we want it to change. There will be no sudden redesign, no flood of ads, no pivot to chase a userbase inscrutable to us. It might go away at some point, but that will be our decision, too. What is this feeling? Independence? Security? Sovereignty?

Is it simply… the feeling of being home?

The feeling of being in a place.