CJ Eller

Classical Guitar by Training, Cloud Engineer by Accident

There's a site stewarded by Austin Wade Smith called Feral Earth that revolves around ecology. A site about ecology? Not quite. A site powered by ecology. I'll let Feral Earth explain:

I am a solar powered server. All ecological behavior which controls access is measured within 1 mile of my hardware. Nearly all is within 3 meters.

I am an ecosystem, serving through the interplay of water, air, sun, earth, and AWS (Austin Wade Smith). I am an instrument of ecology intimacy.

Visit the site and see which links happen to be open. It happens to be raining where I live, but is it raining where Feral Earth is? No. Just being able to ask that kind of question suggests a different relationship with the web, one that Smith envisions in a tweet:

Imagine an internet respiring at the rhythm of solstices, tides, rain storms, and eclipses. Nourished by sunlight. Not the numb office park we’re accustomed to but something animate, haunted… a symbiont.

An internet respiring at the rhythm of nature. Such a possibility made me want to do my part for my personal site. Even if it's powered by the numb office park, it didn't have to follow its numb logic. I'm starting simple. Track the sunrise & sunset in my area. Get the current time. If the current time is during or after the sunrise and before the sunset, show the home page of the site. If the current time is during or after the sunset and before the sunrise, show a message of text instead.

Now I find myself more mindful of the sun as I continue to tinker with the site. It never occurred to me before as I used and created on the web. But I think that is what makes Smith's idea of the feral web so intriguing. The web can feel isolated from the world around us, sometimes to a point of debilitation. However, whether your site is powered by solar panels or by a data center, there are many ways we can make the web respire at natural rhythms.

Adam Grant's Think Again: The Power of Knowing what You Don't Know. Good book. Been chewing on a passage from it lately. While I'm going to quote Grant, it's actually a quip from a student in that we'll turn our focus on:

When students confront complex problems, they often feel confused. A teacher's natural impulse is to rescue them as quickly as possible so they don't feel lost or incompetent. Yet psychologists find that one of the hallmarks of an open mind is responding to confusion with curiosity and interest. One student put it eloquently: “I need time for my confusion.” Confusion can be a cue that there's new territory to be explored or a fresh puzzle to be solved.

“I need time for my confusion.” Woah. Where can we make time for our confusion? What can help us make time for our confusion?

Blogging perhaps?

Why does this sound oddly refreshing? Perhaps because blogging can be perceived as being a knowledge driven – write about what you know or just learned about or find interesting. That is hard to do, hence the hesitation, blogging infrequently if at all. If I were to be honest, I feel like confusion consumes me more than any knowledge I possess.

So why not write about that?

The problem is that the bewilderment feels more difficult to write about. It can't be wrapped in a pretty bow, stamped with a thesis, backed by supporting arguments. Confusion clumsily exists, warts and all, unfinished, unflinching. But perhaps that's the kind of blogging I resonate with already. Huh.

As I go from working on programming problems on my laptop to fiddling with a piece on the classical guitar, there's a through line that I couldn't articulate before rewatching the documentary based on guitarist Marc Ribot's work, The Lost String. (highly recommend both the documentary and music of Marc Ribot)

Therein, Ribot unearths the through line I fumbled with for so long:

When you learn on classical guitar, it's a way of working where you learn to take a big problem and learn to break it down into a thousand tiny problems and solve them one at a time. Classical guitar pieces are physical freaks of nature, I mean people shouldn't be able to do that kind of thing, and they do it by breaking it down into tiny steps and learning very slowly. So it's a certain approach that you can use elsewhere.

I've been mulling over a question from Tom Critchlow's “January 2022 – Map of Inquiry” (source): “How do we get more people blogging?” As Tom writes,

Networked writing relies on… the network! I have a variety of friends and contacts that I wish blogged more. How to encourage / support and nurture more people writing online […]

This is a tangle of a question. A singular thread of it I hadn't thought of before was revealed to me by Laurel Schwulst's lovely post “To write, I first must world” (source). Therein, Laurel brings up the distinction of calling writing spaces a “notebook” rather than a “blog.”

While perhaps easily overlooked, this naming them “notebooks” is important. Traditionally a “notebook” is something you have multiple of … in the paper world, you often have different notebooks for different purposes. Whereas a “blog” feels like you have only one and it’s this monolithic thing. So inherently notebooks are less precious and more context-specific than blogs.

Going the notebook route is a clue to how I was able to convince myself that blogging / writing, despite feeling like an alien, was okay and fun.

The word “blog” can have this connotation of polish, of putting our words on a singular framed canvas to be displayed at a global art exposition. No wonder there's an entropic force to maintaining one. This is why Laurel's notebook framing is a refreshing contrast to the stage fright evoked by thinking of a blog as “this monolithic thing.” Using a notebook evokes a sense of looseness, of letting ideas out where ever they may and connecting them in the process. A blog can be like that, there are many already that follow this approach. I suppose it just needs to be echoed to others as a viable approach, myself included.

And look, there are blogs with polished thoughts. Less like notebook and more like a collection of thoughtful essays. Those blogs I deeply admire as well. I suppose the notebook reframing, as Laurel states, is more of a matter of convincing yourself that blogging is okay and fun. That's all that matters no?

We complain about information overload, and yet we also get an almost eschatological thrill from the glittering glut, as if the acceleration of communication and the bandwidth bursting density of the datastream can somehow amplify the self and its capacities.

There's something about this passage from Erik Davis' Techgnosis: Myth, Magic, & Mysticism in the Age of Information — how engaging in information overload is compared to a thrill. An acknowledgement of the riches we get from the web and, at the same time, an acknowledgement of its gravity upon our psyche. Both delight and caution in the cup that runneth over. This feeling is out there. I found this post from Alejandro called “The Weight of the Clipboard” (source) that articulates it so well:

It feels more like an invisible weight that can be felt through every idea and keystroke. Through every executed action, like something you can lose, something you need, something missing from the stream of data you’re writing.

Tom Critchlow also gets at the feeling in this post:

I spend all day long slinging URLs around. Mostly, when I copy and paste a URL it’s treated as a string of characters. But you and I know that a URL is heavy. A URL is a representation of a blog post, or a product I want to buy, or a hike I want to go on, or an Airbnb I’m going to book.

The invisible weight that Alejandro and Tom describe reminds me of the bandwidth bursting density of the datastream Davis mentioned earlier. How do we manage the deluge of digital detritus in a way that both respects its weight and acknowledges this innate desire for information foraging. To quote Davis again,

Information gathering defines civilization as much as food gathering defines the nomadic cultures that preceded the rise of urban communities, agricultural surplus, and stratified social hierarchies. From the moment the first scribe took up a reed and scratched a database into the cool clay of Sumer, information flow has been an instrument of human power and control [...]

From cool clay to svelte silicon, its information gathering all the way down. “Opening tabs and browsing the web is essential to task completion.” Tom mentions in his above post. “Tab sprawl is a symptom of a basic task: web foraging.”

Speaking of tables, I've been looking into Tom Critchlow's Electric Tables lately as a way to deal everything mentioned above. It's interesting how Tom uses similar language to describe this project — Electric Tables as a way to respect the gravity of a URL while allowing for more nimble foraging of them. Such a description parallels my experience so far.

The cup still runneth over, but at least the runover is being caught somewhere this time.

There's a striking passage from a collection of nonfiction called Between Eternities by Javier Marías'. It's from a piece called “Air-ships,” which explores the act of anthropomorphizing objects:

We live in an age that tends to depersonalize even people, and which is, in principle, averse to anthropomorphism. Indeed, such a tendency is often criticized, erroneously and foolishly in my view, since that “rapprochement” between the human and the nonhuman is quite natural and spontaneous, and far from being an attempt to deprive animals, plants and objects of their respective selves, it places them in the category of the “humanizable,” which is, for us, the highest and most respectable of categories. I know people who talk to, question, spoil, threaten or even quarrel with their computers, saying things like: “Right, now, behave yourself” or thanking them for their help. There's nothing wrong in that, it's perfectly understandable. In fact, given how often we travel in planes, the odd thing about our relationship with them — those complex machines endowed with movement, to which we surrender ourselves, and that transport us through the air — is that it isn't more “personal' or more “animal” or more “sailor-like,” if you prefer [...] That's what I would like to see, less cool efficiency and more affection [.]

I find it curious that Marías mentions computers as an example of anthropomorphism, because there's another type of computer that defies such characterization — the cloud, or, as Robin Sloan calls it (and what I prefer), the slab.

The slab makes saying things like “Right, now, behave yourself” feel strange. We're not talking about a laptop at your desk. It's a data center in a discrete location you access from a laptop. Who knows what part of the data center you access. The slab is an amorphous thing.

Could the slab be anthropomorphized?

The apps that are lovingly crafted with Glitch are powered by the slab. The hand crafted blogging software I use is powered by the slab. Many things on the web I cherish are powered by the slab. Does that make them depersonalized all of a sudden? No. The slab's cool efficiency is imbued with human affection.

It makes you wonder though. Earlier I used “the web” and the slab in the same sentence. Is the web our way of anthropomorphizing the Internet, which is technically a broad network of computers?

The great thing about external brainstorming is that in addition to capturing your original ideas, it can help generate many new ones that might not have occurred to you if you didn't have a mechanism to hold your thoughts and continually reflect them back to you. It's as if your mind were to say, “Look, I'm only going to give you as many ideas as you feel you can effectively use. If you're not collecting them in some trusted way, I won't give you that many. But if you're actually doing something with the ideas — even if it's just recording them for later evaluation — then here, have a bunch! And, oh wow! That reminds me of another one, and another,” etc.

This passage from David Allen's Getting Things Done makes me think of blogging as such a mechanism for holding your thoughts and continually reflecting them back to you.

When I took a break from posting here, I understated blogging's function as an external brainstorming system. Only after a week & a half of blogging again, my mind races with ideas that wouldn't have occurred to me if I didn't have a place to hold my thoughts.

I think about Tom Critchlow's question in his Januray 2022 – Map of Inquiry — “How do we get more people blogging?”

Networked writing relies on… the network! I have a variety of friends and contacts that I wish blogged more. How to encourage / support and nurture more people writing online.

Could blogging as an external brainstorming system be one part of the puzzle for encouraging people to blog? Makes me wonder about David Allen's above characterization of the mind but geared towards blogging:

“Look, I'm only going to give you as many ideas as you feel you can effectively use. If you're not collecting them in some trusted way like on a blog, I won't give you that many. But if you're actually doing something with the ideas — like posting them on a blog — then here, have a bunch!”

Omar Rizwan's TabFS is always humming in my mind — browser tabs as a file system, the state of a tab always reflected in the files inside a folder on your laptop. What does that give you? Omar answers this:

[N]ow you can apply all the existing tools on your computer that already know how to deal with files — terminal commands, scripting languages, point-and-click explorers, etc — and use them to control and communicate with your browser.

Now you don't need to code up a browser extension from scratch every time you want to do anything. You can write a script that talks to your browser in, like, a melange of Python and bash, and you can save it as a single ordinary file that you can run whenever, and it's no different from scripting any other part of your computer.

A script that talks to your browser in a melange. All I can think of is digital bricolage when I read this, and honestly that's what scripting with TabFS is like.

I can relay an example to you from the other day. For a while I wanted to have a website blocker of sorts in order to focus on writing. But here's the thing — I either need to download a browser extension for a SaaS solution like Freedom or stand up a web proxy like Squid on my laptop or a Raspberry Pi. Neither option gels with me. Where's the middle ground? Kludging together some Bash together that sorta does the same thing1 That's at least where I'd have the most fun.

It's fascinating how the TabFS paradigm of files & folders changes how you approach the problem of a website blocker. Instead of focusing on a URL to block a site, you key in on the title of files. Instead of blocking a website, you need to remove the file of that tab. Instead of having a browser extension or server running, you have a script in the background going on an infinite “while” loop.

Below is a first pass on this website “blocker” idea:


# Website "blocker" using TabFS

# TabFS folder — using the by-title subfolder

# List of websites to block
block_list="Twitter YouTube"

while true
  # Grab the tabs
  tabs=$(ls $dir)
  for tab in $tabs 
    # Go through the sites in the block list
    for site in $block_list
        # If there's a match with the site and the tab, close the tab
        if [[ "$tab" == *"$site"* ]]; then
          rm "$dir/$tab"
  # Wait 10 seconds before going through the process again & again & again...
  sleep 10

It could definitely be refined, but the script works just fine for me in its current state. Hell, I'm using it right now so that I don't get sidetracked while writing this. But that's the beauty of something like TabFS, where embracing the melange on your computer can go a long way.

Recently I had a draft of further thoughts on digital bricolage accidentally cross-post to Twitter. In any other circumstance I'd delete the tweet, continue to refine the draft, publish it to my blog, and then cross-post it. Not this time. There's some digital bricolage here.

Going through iterations of drafts until a “final draft” is what we learn in school. That line of thinking extends to how I write on the web. Only when a piece is in a “final draft” state do I share broadly (ie: published as a post to my blog, that post shared to Twitter).

In this case, however, the mistake of sharing a draft broadly creates a moment for rethinking things, for a different approach to emerge. Maybe loose thoughts could be published as these one-off anonymous posts and shared via social media? Who knows, but it gets me thinking.

Seymour Papert & Sherry Turkle allude to how bricolage scrambles the natural order of epistemology:

The bricoleur scientist does not move abstractly and hierarchically from axiom to theorem to corollary. Bricoleurs construct theories by arranging and rearranging, by negotiating and renegotiating with a set of well-known materials.

Digital bricolage is the swift rearranging and renegotiating of materials and practices, the speed of which can come before any clear thought of what it is that you're doing emerges. That happened to me with sharing my draft. Before I knew what I was doing, the post got shared. A different perspective on sharing my writing on the web began to emerge.

This is what Papert & Turkle are referring to — digital bricoleurs construct theory through play, not the other way around.

Tugging on the thread of digital bricolage brought me to a wonderful paper by Seymour Papert & Sherry Turkle called “Epistemological Pluralism.” (source)

Papert & Turkle tug on the anthropological origins of bricolage, extending it to the digital.

[Anthropologist Claude] Levi-Strauss used the idea of bricolage to contrast the analytic methodology of Western science with what he called a “science of the concrete” in primitive societies. The bricoleur scientist does not move abstractly and hierarchically from axiom to theorem to corollary. Bricoleurs construct theories by arranging and rearranging, by negotiating and renegotiating with a set of well-known materials.

If we take Levi-Strauss's description of the two scientific approaches as ideal types and divest them of his efforts to localize them culturally, we can see both in how people program computers. For some people, what is exciting about computers is working within a rule-driven system that can be mastered in a top-down, divide-and-conquer way. Their structured “planner's” approach, the approach being taught in the Harvard programming course, is validated by industry and the academy. It decrees that the “right way” to solve a programming problem is to dissect it into separate parts and design a set of modular solutions that will fit the parts into an intended whole. Some programmers work this way because their teachers or employers insist that they do. But for others, it is a preferred approach; to them, it seems natural to make a plan, divide the task, use modules and subprocedures.

On the other end? The digital bricoleur:

The bricoleur resembles the painter who stands back between brushstrokes, looks at the canvas, and only after this contemplation, decides what to do next. Bricoleurs use a mastery of associations and interactions. For planners, mistakes are missteps; bricoleurs use a navigation of midcourse corrections. For planners, a program is an instrument for premeditated control; bricoleurs have goals but set out to realize them in the spirit of a collaborative venture with the machine. For planners, getting a program to work is like “saying one’s piece”; for bricoleurs, it is more like a conversation than a monologue.

Programming as a conversation full of midcourse corrections, associations, and interactions. This strikes such a chord with me. I wonder if it has something to do with a musical background that inclines one towards the bricoleur approach. Papert & Turkle got me thinking as much when their paper delves into a student named Robin and her own approach to computers.

A classmate, Robin, is a pianist. Robin explains that she masters her music by perfecting the smallest “little bits of pieces” and then building up. She cannot progress until she understands the details of each small part. Robin is happiest when she uses this tried and true method with the computer, playing with small computational elements as though they were notes or musical phrases. [...] [S]he is frustrated with black-boxing or using prepackaged programs. She too was told her way was wrong: “I told my teaching fellow I wanted to take it all apart, and he laughed at me. He said it was a waste of time, that you should just black box, that you shouldn't confuse yourself with what was going on at that low level. “

Robin and I are one and the same in this regard. My experience has too dealt with taking music apart into smaller phrases and then stitching them together into a piece I perform. This way of thinking for music bleeds into coding — breaking a script into even smaller executable phrases and then stitching them together into something I use on my laptop.

While I didn't have people pestering me about my approach like Robin, I did that plenty myself. As someone who only started working with technology in their late 20's with 0 experience in programming and only a degree in classical guitar to their name, I worried that my background would be antithetical to learning about how to program and manipulate technology. It sure as hell wasn't a mathematical background or an analytical approach that a computer science degree would cultivate. How would I fare? How would I survive?

And you know what? It turns out that I could do just fine. Not in spite of my background but because of it. Papert & Turkle make this crucial point:

The computer can be a partner in a great diversity of relationships. The computer is an expressive medium that different people can make their own in their own way.

This bears repeating — the computer can be a partner in a great diversity of relationships, whether you come at the computer from a mathematical perspective or musical one, whether you approach programming as a digital bricoleur or a meticulous planner.

That can be the freeing flexibility of the computer.