You Don’t Need (To Complain About) Substack

“Our timing was nearly perfect—a mere two weeks after we wrote our joint essay, Substack had a huge controversy, and is now facing a backlash. Writers are thinking of jumping ship and looking for ideas for what to do next. I’ve been doing this without a net for a while, and I have a few thoughts on how it can be done.”

—Ernie Smith, “Newsletter, Untethered.” Tedium.co. March 19, 2021.

Basically, Ernie explains how to roll your own newsletter. If you don’t like Substack, Medium, or these other publishing platforms, you don’t have to use them. There are options, but many require technical expertise, which is what you are paying them not to learn so you can focus on writing.

Let me take a moment to comment, with the full understanding that no one cares what I think: The Substack “controversy” is nonsense. What they are doing is figuring out who could make money on their platform and removing the risk for these writers to try it out. I haven’t read up on who they made offers to, but is the world a more interesting place with Scott Alexander publishing Astral Codex Ten and Freddie deBoer being given a one year guarantee to build an audience on the platform and concentrate on writing? Probably. I don’t agree with the politics of either of these individuals. But, I do know that the modern media landscape doesn’t give them a platform, and it should. When we support a media landscape of diverse voices, it means you’re going to hear a lot of viewpoints you’re not going to like. That’s the price of a diverse landscape.

Of course, capitalism comes with incentives, and the incentives encourage extreme viewpoints. That’s what people will pay for.

If you want to promote conventional opinion, write mediocre poetry, share your hot tips on making money (or living your best life, nutrition advice or what not), then you get on a free tier of an online publishing platform. Or, if you are slightly more serious, you pay for the privilege and get a WordPress personal site or equivalent. And, if you are very good, relatable, extreme and/or lucky, Substack might approach you in a decade too. Good luck to you, if that’s what you want.

But, complaining how some company runs its business? Is Substack Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook or Microsoft? Do we want to talk about the relative harms here and why quitting Substack for some other online publishing or newsletter platform is a relatively cost-free form of virtue signaling? Want to guess how many people will read and heed Ernie’s advice rather than join the platform of the moment? Fractions of a percent. In other words, the objections about Substack and the migrating to another service with the same incentives is the kind of nonsense that characterizes left activism and is why so much of it has very little impact on the real world beyond soothing a few consciences and signaling we are good people at very little cost.

Rolling your own has a serious cost, in time and effort. Giving up Facebook, or one of the other feudal internet companies, also has a significant cost. But, leaving Substack to go to Buttondown? Who you fooling?

For a better argument, see Ben Thompson.

Thanks to Ernie for suggesting a few editorial changes to make it clear that rolling your own is not cost-free nor is it virtual signaling. It is a great way to control your creative output and foster independence. The challenge for publishing ecosystems is getting the tools to the point that non-technical writers can take advantage of them.

bash: Number of Days Between Today and Some Future Date

#!/bin/bash                                                        
                                                                   
printf -v date '%(%Y-%m-%d)T\n' -1                                 
echo $(( ($(date -d $1 +%s) - $(date -d $date +%s)) / 86400 )) days

Above is a bash script to output the number of days between today and some future date. Copy it into a file, e.g., diffdate.sh, into a directory, e.g., ~/bin/scripts. Then, enter the directory you saved it to and type to make it executable:

$ chmod +x diffdate.sh

Then, check your .profile to make sure something like this in it:

# set PATH so it includes user's private bin if it exists
if [ -d "$HOME/bin" ] ; then                             
  PATH="$HOME/bin:$PATH"
fi                                                                   

Then, run the script.

$ diffdate.sh 2021-06-01
70 days

I have to figure out the difference between today and some future date all the time for forecasting, and today was the day I finally bothered to figure out how to do it from the command line. I have to start thinking of ways to make shell scripts to do this little tasks that I go to the web for.

Fun With Fortune in Linux

Fortune provides a random quote or aphorism every time you open a terminal in Linux. I wanted to have a personalized fortune using zuihitsu quotes posted on this site come up whenever I opened a terminal. If you want to do something similar, here’s the procedure.

To check if you have it installed, simply type fortune into the terminal.

$ fortune 

This either returned a fortune or an error message. If you got an error message, then install fortune using the package manager for your system.

$ sudo apt install fortune-mod

Let’s create our own file of fortunes. I want to use my zuihitsu quotes I have posted on this site. This file is a text file that looks like so:

%
quote 1
%
quote 2
%
quote ...

There is a copy of the file available online.

If you have just a file with lines of quotes, this is easy to get into this format using emacs. Simply type: M-%, followed by c-q c-j Enter then c-q c-j % c-q c-j Enter. I like to check the replacements, so just keep hitting y to do the replacement and move on to the next one if it looks good. Save the file to the appropriate directory, which on Debian systems is /usr/share/games/fortunes, but can vary. For explanation purposes, we are going to assume the file was named zuihitsu with no file extension.

Note: If you are using the file above, just save it as a text file in your directory. Then, copy it to the appropriate system directory without a file extension.

Now, create a .dat file for the file you just made.

$ sudo strfile zuihitsu

Set the same permissions on the new files as the others in the directory. This just makes the files readable to groups and others.

$ sudo chmod o+r zuihitsu
$ sudo chmod g+r zuihitsu
$ sudo chmod o+r zuihitsu.dat
$ sudo chmod g+r zuihitsu.dat

Following the rest of the directory. I added a symbolic link.

$ sudo ln -s zuihitsu zuihitsu.u8

You should be able to test it now.

$ fortune zuihitsu

Assuming that worked. The final thing to do is to have your preferred shell call this when it runs. I use bash, so I added the command above to my bash_aliases file. From then on, it will pull a random quote from the zuihitsu file every time you bring up the terminal.

Bonus: Did you know the original fortune-mod fortune collection is available as a EPUB?

Interactive Fiction: ink & inklewriter, et al.

“* inklewriter is an easy-to-use online tool to write basic interactive stories.

* ink by comparison is a more powerful narrative scripting language that is primarily designed for professional game development, though it can also be used to write and share choice-based interactive fiction. It is also surprisingly easy to learn, though for ease of use it’s hard to beat inklewriter!

https://www.inklestudios.com/ink/

h/t to Interconnected and the post “Filtered for some text-based virtual realities.” I could have easily made posts for

The whole post is gold for anyone interested in what’s going on and the tools in current use with the interactive fiction community. My knowledge of the tools stopped at Inform 7.

Revisiting the ASUS C201

Two and half years ago, I came across libreboot. I was looking for a linux laptop and came across this bit on the ASUS C201 page:

“This is unlike the other current libreboot laptops (Intel based). In practise, you can (if you do without the video/wifi blobs, and replace ChromeOS with a distribution that respects your freedom) be more free when using one of these laptops.”

ASUS Chromebook C201, libreboot.org. 2017

At the time, I was focused on exploring what it would mean to have the most free laptop available, and it led to the post: “Freedom & Limits: The ASUS C201 with libreboot and Parabola Linux.” The net: the machine did not have a reliable way to be free to the level of passing the requirements of the package of “your-freedom” and still be usable. The main problem is that it didn’t have a functional web browser and updates tended to bork the machine. I managed to get Arch, Parabola and Devuan linux installed on the machine. However, the installations kept breaking for various reasons, maybe half the time due to user error and half because ARM versions of the distributions were problematic for one reason or another.

In July 2019, I tried PrawnOS. It’s a nice distribution of Debian that actually was able to install to the computer’s onboard drive, which I couldn’t figure out how to do with the previous distributions. It provided a working system. Still, it really did not have a web browser that worked, I think it was still using Dillo. So, I left off at this point, happy to have learned something from the exercise.

A few days ago, I tried turning on the C201 again. I found that the distribution wouldn’t update. The documentation at github suggested I should reinstall PrawnOS. Easy enough.

I had already done the work of removing the security screw, upgrading the BIOS to libreboot, and had the machine in developer mode. If you aren’t there yet, then refer to the libreboot documentation and get to the point where it says Debian, Devuan or Parabola. Then, come back here and install PrawnOS instead.

To install PrawnOS, get the most recent release, which is available as a binary for people like me that don’t want to build from source. I tried using the browser Dillo on the C201 machine, but it kept timing out. So, I turned to wget.

$ sudo apt-get install wget
$ wget -c url_to_most_recent_release

Once you have the release, you need to copy it to the SD card. If you aren’t sure, you can always take out the SD card, run lsblk, then put the SD card back in and run lsblk again. The additional blk device is your SD card that you plug into /dev/$SD_CARD below..

$ sudo dd if=PrawnOS-*.img of=/dev/$SD_CARD bs=50M status=progress; sync

Then, you turn off the device, reboot and hit CTRL-U quickly at the menu to boot off the SD card. After booting, it gives you a prompt. Type in root, there is no password. Then, you are given a root prompt. Type:

# InstallPrawnOS

At this point, I was really blown away by how much this has been improved since the last time I have tried installing PrawnOS to this ASUS C201. PrawnOS is a Debian-derivative, with an encrypted partition. I typically do this with every linux install, and it was nice that it was built into the process. It offers sane defaults, such as using xfce4 over gnome, since gnome seems to have problems when used on an ASUS C201 machine. It also gets more pragmatic about freedom. Freedom is useless if it means you aren’t free to do something fundamental to using a computer, like browse the web.

So, PrawnOS includes Firefox-ESR, which the Free Software Foundation doesn’t consider free because it implements digital rights management technology. However, it is essentially required in order to use a computer normally. PrawnOS makes the pragmatic choice.

After I went through the set-up process, I was able to install emacs and add-ons. I did have some trouble updating the machine, whereas xorg threw configuration errors, but nothing that made the machine unusable like I have encountered in the past. I also continue to not be able to use the touchpad. However, for Chrome-level computer use, email, web browsing and so forth, the ASUS C201 seems like it could be a viable machine.

Coveillance

“Increasingly powerful surveillance tools have shifted the power dynamics between people and institutions. To address this new dynamic, we’ve been creating a toolkit, in collaboration with the ACLU of Washington, that demystifies surveillance technologies in Seattle in the historical context of structural inequities in the United States.”

https://coveillance.org/