New Year, New Blogs

Here are three clear thinkers whose blogs I’ve enjoyed discovering over the past year. Maybe you might like them too.

Tech

Julia Evans takes a complicated topic that she’d like to learn about, and just… goes and learns about it. Then she posts her findings to her blog, written in a really accessible way. She does this mainly for technical topics, but sometimes also tech leadership skills.

Completely true to form, she’s currently on a sabbatical from her job to write a profiler for Ruby. At the time of this writing, she’s publishing a weekly post on what she learned each week doing this project.

She also produces zines: short, handwritten, comic-book style explanations of technical subjects. I managed to get my hands on a paper copy of So You Want To Be A Wizard, which is a collection of tips about building up your problem-solving skills as a software engineer. The zines are also available to read for free on her website.

Julia Evans’ writing style is really what I aspire to on this blog, I just never knew it before. She takes complicated topics and demystifies them, and reading about them really makes you feel like you too can get your head around difficult things if you can just conquer your hesitation and dive in.

Politics

Benjamin Studebaker is politically a lot farther to the left than I am, and actually has written a certain number of articles that I strongly disagree with. There’s nothing that’s not well-thought-out, though, and sometimes it’s good to read things you disagree with.

However, I’ve learned a few things from this blog. One is what he calls “the core left-wing premise”: People’s actions are shaped by conditions. In other words, the left-wing approach to fighting poverty is to ask the question “How can we change the conditions in our society to make it possible for poor people to have the opportunities they need?” whereas the right-wing approach is to ask “How can we make poor people take responsibility for themselves?”

The most thought-provoking thing I’ve read here is the need to apply the core left-wing premise consistently — even to realize that we need to change the systems in our society that cause people to find various -isms (such as racism) attractive, and the -ists themselves will follow, whereas an aggressive approach will only cause the -ists to entrench their views. In Benjamin Studebaker’s words:

[W]hen we tell racists to “educate themselves” we’re no different from the conservatives who tell the homeless guy they see on the corner to “get a job”.

Media

Mike Caulfield has a blog that defies categorization. I’m calling it “media” because that seems to be the common thread. He writes a lot about one topic for a while, then moves on to another topic. (I’m actually cheating a bit because I got into this blog a few years ago when he was writing about Federated Wiki, then he moved on to the garden model versus the feed model, and on to shared resources. But it’s like a whole different blog every year!)

This past year he’s moved on to the topic of fact-checking and polarization on social media. It’s really worth going back and reading posts from the beginning of 2017, since there are too many good ones to put in just a list of highlights. The short of it is that he has written a lot about both the technical and social aspects about why ultra-polarized fake news is taking over social media platforms, why the companies behind these platforms have no incentive to change that, and the skills that we as consumers need to protect ourselves from falling into the fake news trap. One thing I especially appreciate is that he tries hard to be apolitical by including examples of fake news from all over the political spectrum.

He recently published a post of “Predictions for 2018” that in turn make me predict that his topic for 2018 will be clickbait content generated by machine learning algorithms…

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Rain in the Desert

My employer, FOM, held their yearly national physics conference again in the town of Veldhoven. It’s always a good opportunity to catch up with people and learn about whatever’s been going on recently in Dutch physics research.

This year, the chairman of the executive board, Niek Lopes Cardozo, opened the conference with a short speech. To my astonishment, he concluded by urging the conference attendees to use Twitter during the conference! This was underscored by two giant projected video screens out in the main hall, scrolling messages from the #FOMveldhoven stream.

How does one set about the task of tweeting about a physics conference? I’m all for getting physicists, who are among the most conservative of scientists, to use exciting new technologies, but in this case I was skeptical. It sounded to me like the proverbial Underpants Gnomes’ half-baked business plan:

  1. Use Twitter.
  2. ???
  3. Profit!

…coming the way it did, with little more explanation than “Tweet for Science!” Possibly there was some metaphorical idolatry involved too, as if a consultant had advised FOM that they needed to “leverage the power of social media” and then leaned back in expectation of managers bowing down before him.

I have the unfortunate habit that when I see somebody’s golden calf, I have to poke at it until it falls over. So I decided to plunge wholeheartedly into it, skeptically but with an open mind.

This was new ground for me. I did already have a Twitter account, although I barely post more than once a month. I use it mostly to read other people’s messages. I thought this would be a nice experiment to try and see what ways I could come up with to put it to actual useful use at a conference.

Unfortunately, the results were underwhelming. It was a lot of inane chatter that in my opinion was a waste of time to read and participate in. Neither can I say that my own messages were very scientifically newsworthy — and it follows from symmetry that if I didn’t think other people’s tweets were interesting then they probably didn’t think mine were.

Here’s what kinds of things went on:

  • The usual let-off-steam tweets about trains being late.
  • Lots of chatter in Dutch from FOM. Of course people are free to tweet in whatever language they like, but projecting tweets on a big screen at an international conference in a language that less than half of the attendees speak is not going to make them disposed to participate.
  • Tweets about Twitter itself: can we get #FOMveldhoven to trend, who’ll be the most active Twitterer at the conference, etc. Meta-conversation is the refuge for people who really don’t have anything to say.
  • Tweets about lunch.
  • People exclaiming which talk they were going to, or at, or had just visited. This was the first reasonably useful Twitter phenomenon at the conference. There were not really any people advertising their own talks, but I found out why that was when I went to give my own talk: I was too busy setting up my laptop and concentrating to get out my phone and type a message, and it would have been disruptive to the person who went before me anyway.
  • Tweets about dinner.
  • People repeating the statistic of how many people there were at dinner including someone who didn’t get the chairman’s joke that it was a “world record in Veldhoven” (one-horse town where the conference is held) and tweeted that it was a real world record.
  • Tweets about how fascinating the after-dinner talk was. I thought the talk was fascinating too. So much so, that I paid attention to the speaker while he was speaking. When I got out my phone afterwards, I was half-amused and half-shocked to see how many people had publicly claimed they were listening raptly on a medium that made it impossible for that to be true. (You’d think this was the nadir, but it wasn’t. Read on.)
  • A snide political remark from me about the junior minister of Education which I later thought better of and deleted. Not my proudest moment.
  • Drunk tweets from people in the nerd disco.
  • The absolute nadir: “Rain in the desert! I saw a beautiful girl at #FOMveldhoven” (later deleted) and “Is this being moderated? Beer and boobs #FOMveldhoven” Congratulations assholes, you’ve just undone more progress for women in physics than any “20% female professors by 2020” policy can do. And seriously, only a physicist could be so socially retarded that, instead of telling a woman she’s beautiful, he manages to tell hundreds of others they’re ugly.

I’m convinced that the lack of useful content is because nobody really knew how to put Twitter to work at a physics conference. For example, it didn’t occur to me to post the slides from my talk online until the day after it was over — but I was surprised that I was the only one who posted any slides at all! Twitter is a powerful tool, but it won’t work for you if you don’t know how to use it, and I don’t know how to use it. Apparently hardly anyone else did at this conference either.

Accordingly, following along with the conference on Twitter would have been nice if it hadn’t been shoved into our faces quite so much. Exhorting the attendees in the opening speech and projecting the tweets on a big screen makes people feel expected to join in. Feeling expected to follow along with it makes it all the more annoying when it turns out to be a waste of time. It should have been optional.

I’d like to amend what I tweeted near the beginning of the conference. I said, “Twitter isn’t magical. Tweeting random crap from a conference doesn’t automatically make it nifty.” Twitter can actually make magical things happen, but like most magical things in this world, you can’t just wave a wad of cash around and say “I’ma get me some of that.”