Some Reflections on Twitter & WordPress: 2022

You may have noticed that I have been posting to cafebedouin less lately. It is partially because I have been more involved in using Twitter. Why?

One thing I like about Twitter is that it is a larger, socially constructed version of the kind of thoughts that we have moment to moment. Reading the timeline is like dipping into this stream. Tweeting is adding to it, and opening yourself up for a feedback loop, where your thoughts bring up thoughts in others. There’s an interesting interplay that happens, which I think is what makes the platform appealing.

But, it is also hard not to notice that it also features a lot of outlier perspectives. Perhaps it is a function of who I follow on Twitter, but there seems to be a lot of trans folks on Twitter. On one level, this must be great as a trans person. You can interact with people that are struggling with similar issues. You can feel seen, or at least not alone when you may be the only trans person in your real life social circles.

And what is true of the trans community is also true of others. Twitter is one of the places I engage with other people that use cryptocurrencies. I don’t know anyone that thinks about cryptocurrencies in my day-to-day life. It’s either not there, or invisible to the degree that it might as well not be there.

WordPress, and blogging generally, is a fundamentally different medium. It is a way to think more formally, or at least note, ideas. Maybe flesh them out into something fuller. It is a kind of workshop or garage, where you experiment and see what is right for you. How do you view the world? What do you care about? WordPress is the essay you write, whereas Twitter is more of a conversation.

Conversation and writing can both transform our lives. But, they are really different activities and modes. Conversation is thinking, in the moment, with others. Writing is more, thinking in the moment, with ourselves. But, when you extend the time frame, conversations feed into writing. Writing can feed conversations, and in some versions, writing can also be a formal conversation, where colleagues discuss a problem in their field and raise different, relevant points with the hope of achieving some larger understanding. But, the difficulty and the amount of work that goes into that kind of conversation, to explore ideas that, hopefully, have lasting value is not how many of us spend much of our time.

But, I think the real value of these kinds of conversations is that it widens our experience and helps us to retain what is good and valuable. Much of what we think is neither good nor valuable.

I’d argue that much of the conversation that is happening on Twitter, even after acknowledging it has value in expanding our experiences and perception, is wounding. Maybe this makes us stronger. Assuming that we can recover and not too much damage has been done. But, I’m not so sure that’s the case. I think people talking about their struggles with mental health, chronic illness, unpleasant interactions, and the usual suspects of various X-isms maybe causing a kind of death by a thousand cuts, where we expand our concerns so wide that they don’t have any depth. Is it any wonder that if you try to wrestle with the demons of the whole world, that you run the risk of being overwhelmed?

I haven’t come to any conclusions yet. I’ve grown to like Twitter. I particularly like that it offers a window into different experiences, such as the problems women, people of color, or other groups face that I might not have any experience with.

But, there’s also limits. You can kind of listen in on the experience of a mother, a computer security specialist or whomever. However, it is an experience, removed. You might argue that it is no experience at all, no better than what you knew before Twitter. I don’t think that is right, but I do think it is not an unqualified good. In fact, the overall effect might be a net negative. It may not even be possible to bring it to a net positive, and if it is, it probable requires approaching Twitter with discipline, knowing what you want to get out of it, which is kind of antithetical to the medium.

All of this is a long way to say that I took a bit of a dive, and I think I’m good for now. I’m going to spend a little less time on Twitter. It has a place, but it should probably be a small one. I might take a deeper look at Mastodon sometime soon, just to see how it is qualitatively different, as some articles suggest.

cafebedouin.org: 2021 Year in Review

Top 10 Most Viewed in 2021

Posts That Deserve More Visibility

Reviewing the posts I wrote this year, I’m pretty happy with a lot of what I’ve written. I think the post Write: More Frequently, Less Long is a good thing to keep in mind for the coming year. I posted about the same as last year, 408 rather than 418 in 2019. However, the word count for the year went up to 89,691 from 58,705. It may be better to be briefer.

In the main, you can probably expect more of the same in the coming year.

cafebedouin.org: 2020 Year in Review and Looking Ahead to 2021

In 2020, I posted 418 entries with a total of 58,670 words (most of which are quotes of someone else). There were +8750 views by +6,400 visitors to cafebedouin.org. Most of the views are concentrated either on the main page or the most popular posts, these had 100 views or more:

My favorite posts of the year:

In 2020, I posted once a day, which seems like the right amount. It encourages me to write or find something new to think about every day.

As I wrote last year, “I still would like to move to a format where half the posts are in a Foucault hupomnemata-style, i.e., ‘to capture the already-said, to collect what one has managed to hear or read, and for a purpose that is nothing less than the shaping of the self.’ It strikes me that the Zettelkasten Method is essentially the same thing.

Perhaps the evolution here is to use the WordPress format and write short commentary posts on a daily or weekly basis to capture ideas, and then try to thread them together into a more formal page that incorporate these bits into a monthly essay. Anyway, I think this is the direction I’m going to explore in the coming year.

Alain’s Propos

“”Years later he recalled how he wrote the propos: each evening, he would sit down before two sheets of paper, knowing before he started that the last line would be written at the bottom of the second page., and that within the confines of those two pages he would write a piece which, if he succeeded, would have ‘movement, air and elevation.’ He also knew that he would make no corrections, erasures or changes; since the piece would be published the next day, he did not have the niceties of anguished composition. He saw the bottom of the page approach, and ruthlessly suppressed every idea that was not germane to his theme. ‘The final barrier approached as other ideas began to appear; they were repressed; but, and I don’t know how, they succeeded in filling out the principle idea…The result was a kind of poetry and strength.”

-Robert D. Cottrell, Introduction to Alain on Happiness by Alain. Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1973.

I’ve mentioned Alain‘s writing over the years in this blog. I greatly admire his short essays that were composed in this way. I have thought that it might serve as an interesting experiment to try his method, which seems well-adapted to the blog format.

It also taps into the Foucault’s hupomnemata, where the act of writing for yourself or others serves as a vehicle for transformation. Technically, it’s a memory aid. In our writing, we are marking out pathways of thought. These pathways help us transverse certain areas quickly. But, it is also how we make ways of thinking our own, a shaping of ourselves using the collective thoughts of humanity.

So, the goal here is to take a quote or some idea and write a short little essay, and do it daily, more or less. I’m going to try to do that through the end of 2020 and see how it goes.

Cracker Country

I met someone recently. And during the course of conversation, we discovered we grew up around the same area. The conversation went along these lines:

  • Stranger: I’m from X.
  • Me: Oh, really? I grew up near there.
  • Stranger: Where are you from?
  • Me: The Y/Z area.
  • Stranger: Don’t take this the wrong way, but we used to call that, “Cracker Country.”
  • Me: *laughs* There’s probably some truth to that when you and I lived there [a long time ago], but it’s probably less true now.

Everyone involved in this conversation was white, whatever that means.

The Y/Z area was a place in the gap between rural and suburban. It used to have large blocks of pastureland for cows. They have since been converted into a suburban landscape. I remember a school dance that featured a “hoe down” as a theme. It was telling choice, walking a fine line between irony and actuality.

It was a town of the middle and lower classes that was white, which is true even today. I have no memories of any black people in my school or in the area. Issues of race were, and in many ways still are, invisible.

I shared this exchange with a family member from that area. They took it “the wrong way.” They found “cracker” offensive. My reaction to the term is closer to this one in the Gawker. It doesn’t bother me at all.

But, why? What is the difference? I don’t live there. I didn’t feel like I belonged when I was there. I left when I came of age and never returned. Maybe it doesn’t bother me because I don’t identify with the place.

But, would it be different if I still lived there? What if I were someone with stereotypical “cracker” interests? What if I attended a Baptist church? Loved fishing, hunting and/or shooting at the range? What if I worked construction or raised cattle for a living?

Conversations on race and class are always complicated. The closer you are to a stereotype, the more you’ll resent that stereotype. The other side of intersectionality is that the lower someone is on an axis such as class, the more they will focus on other axes, including white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, etc. to help increase their social standing.

OpenBSD’s Guide to Netiquette

The OpenBSD’s mailing list page netiquette section is excellent. It is a distillation of how to communicate online, i.e.:

  • Plain text, 72 characters per line [or simplest formatting available]
  • Do your homework before writing
  • Include a useful subject line [or headline]
  • Trim your signature
  • Stay on topic
  • Include important information
  • Respect differences in opinion and philosophy

Using only plain text is extreme outside of email. But, the idea that formatting should not get in the way of content is good. Know what you are talking about. Help others to understand. Give them all the relevant information. Trim out anything that does not move the discussion forward or is confusing. Treat everyone with respect.

It’s good advice for any kind of communication and for life. It’s relevant to writing an email, a newsletter, a blog post, an article or anything else you may do.

Semi-Auto Cut-Up: Another Offering (KJV)

Eat the congregation, together,
smite them afraid, blast vessels.
O ye dead life, mercy, semblance
of a kind, a measure of shadow.

But, they had no prophet, neighbors
and friends, children of fate, troubled
the Others, remember them not, no-name,
wilderness sacrifices, sore consumed.

Desolation came and passed, Death,
bare the enemy, dead, desolate,
good and great together into the land,
begat headstones, seeds unto the earth.

Father of water, turn thyself,
out to sea, high between, separate,
sing of the living, purify mouths
and soul, fetch their inheritance.

Surge, rain on the wise borderlands,
pull the stopper, flush the tidal womb,
from the unleavened, and the unclean,
reborn, another offering to be devoured.

Another A.I. assist using a recently trained neural network using the King James version (KJV) as the corpus. Since this is the first neural network I tried myself, I learned many valuable lessons. It took 2.5 days the first go around, and the result was unusable because of all the newline characters in the original text. I didn’t realize that the text would have to be pre-processed or what it would entail. I plan on writing a post about the process of making Project Gutenberg texts usable as writing with the machine co-authors.

Also, there is a point to be made about the inherent class obstacles in learning and using neural networks. The differences from having a dedicated machine running the right hardware is the difference between waiting days to train a new model or a few hours. On the other end, speed also limits how big of a data set you are willing to start with. The KJV is about 5MB, and it took 2 days. Robin Sloan’s pre-trained text is around 123MB. Spending 24+ days to train a model is a serious barrier to entry.

Lessons Learned from the Hemingway Editor

As an exercise, I tried rewriting an essay I wrote for this blog, Ergot on Rye, in the Hemingway editor. I learned that my writing in too academic. It is too hard to read. Expressions need to be simpler. I need to use fewer qualifiers.

The Hemingway editor helps me break down some of those learned habits. It also has direct to WordPress publishing capability. But, it’s only available for Windows and MacOS. writegood-mode in Emacs might be an alternative on Linux.

Below are quotes from the first few paragraphs, followed by their rewritten counterparts. The difference is quality is obvious.

Original:

“tl;dr: Ergot is a forgotten plague that teaches a lesson about the cost of ignorance, and perhaps, offers another one on the price of sanity and the value of a little madness. (1,620 words)”

Rewritten with the Hemingway Editor: “tl;dr: Ergot is a forgotten plague that teaches a lesson about the cost of ignorance, and perhaps, offers another one on the price of sanity and the value of a little madness. (1,620 words)”

“This is a cautionary tale about ergot. Ergot is a fungi of the genus Claviceps that is a parasite of grains — primarily rye, but also triticale, wheat, barley, sorghum, pearl millet and rarely, oats. It has two major effects: (1) hallucinations, often with convulsions or epileptic symptoms, and (2) constriction of the blood vessels in the extremities that lead to gangrene and/or death. Generally, it is one or the other, which predominates likely depends on ergot genetics and the alkalinity of soil in which it grows. Other symptoms include strong uterine contractions (making it an effective abortifacient), nausea, seizures, high fever, vomiting, loss of muscle strength and unconsciousness. Its active ingredient is lysergic acid, a precursor to lysergic acid diethylamide or LSD. Historically, tens of thousands of people have died, been disfigured, or gone mad from ergot poisoning. Today, it is controlled and very rarely effects anyone.”

Rewritten with the Hemingway Editor: “This is a cautionary tale about ergot. Ergot is a fungus. It is a parasite of rye. But, it also grows on triticale, wheat, barley, sorghum, pearl millet and rarely, oats. It has two major effects. One, it causes hallucinations, convulsions and seizures. Two, it constricts the blood vessels in the extremities causing gangrene and/or death. Which effect happens depends on ergot genetics and the alkalinity of soil in which it grows.

Ergot also causes abortions, seizures, fever, vomiting, loss of muscle strength and unconsciousness. Its active ingredient is lysergic acid. Lysergic acid is a precursor to lysergic acid diethylamide or LSD. Ergot poisoning has mutilated, driven mad or killed tens of thousands of people. Today, it very rarely effects anyone.”

“Historians have speculated that lysergic acid in ergot may have been converted into ergine by boiling ergot-infected rye for an extended period of time. This process matches historical recipes for kykeon, which was the drink culminating a religious fast in the Eleusinian Mystery cults and perhaps used in other mystery cults as well. While there is some archeological evidence for the existence of rye after the Bronze Age, it did not become a widespread food staple until the Middle Ages.”

Rewritten with the Hemingway Editor: “Boiling ergot-infected rye for an extended period of time converts it to ergine. This matches historical recipes for kykeon. Kykeon was drunk at the culmination of religious fasts. Eleusinian Mystery cults used kykeon in their rituals. People ate rye after the Bronze age. But, it did not become a widespread food staple until the Middle Ages.”

“Rye is a grain that grows on marginal lands. During the High Middle Ages (1000-1250 C.E.), there was a population boom and expansion that put pressure on the food supply, and as a result, rye was seeded in the winter to provide a bonus and/or nurse crop for more extensive agriculture. With the increased eating of rye by the population, the effects of ergot became more widespread and notable. For example, possibly the first example of a dancing plague in the historical record is a 1021 C.E. incident in the German town of Kölbigk:”

Rewritten with the Hemingway Editor: “Rye is a grain that grows on marginal lands. During the High Middle Ages (1000-1250 C.E.), there was a population boom. The expansion put pressure on the food supply. As a result, planting rye in the winter provided a bonus and/or nurse crop for more extensive agriculture. With more people eating rye, ergot poisoning became more widespread and notable. For example, the first example of a dancing plague is in a 1021 C.E.. It happened in the German town of Kölbigk:”

“Except for the apocryphal year punishment, these outbreaks of dancing mania closely match the descriptions of the Eleusinian Mystery rites after consumption of kykeon, which suggests a reaction to a hallucinogenic variety or ergot. Perhaps, the psychological effects lasted for a year because that’s how long it took the population to eat through their store of rye grain for that year? Whether this story is an accurate depiction of events or has apocryphal elements, it is clear that a widespread mania is preferable to gangrenous ergotism. The first major documented case of gangrenous ergotism happened in the Rhine Valley, in 857 A.D., but it recieved it’s common name of “St. Anthony’s Fire” during the 1039 C.E. outbreak in Dauphiné, France. The cause of ergotism, at that time, was unknown. It’s not hard to imagine that those inflected with madness from ergot would be seen as being possessed by the Devil and the gangrenous form as punishment for sin. To speculate, perhaps ergot had a role to play in religious purity movements such as the strict vegetarian Carthars and the subsequent Catholic crusades and inquisitions that were in response to it.”

Rewritten with the Hemingway Editor: “Dancing mania matches of what happens after consumption of kykeon. This may be a reaction to a hallucinogenic variety or ergot. It lasted for a year because that’s how long it took the population to eat through their store of rye grain. This story is may be apocryphal elements. But, it is clear that a widespread mania is preferable to gangrenous ergotism.

The first major documented case of gangrenous ergotism happened in in 857 A.D in the Rhine Valley. It received it’s common name of “St. Anthony’s Fire” during the 1039 C.E. outbreak in Dauphiné, France. The cause of ergotism, at that time, was unknown. People blamed the madness from ergot as possession by the Devil. The gangrenous form of ergot poisoning was punishment for sin. Ergot played a role in religious purity movements. The strict vegetarian diets of Carthars may have been in response to ergot poisoning. As the Catholic crusades and inquisitions may have been a response to were in response to it.”

Robin Sloan & Writing With The Machine

I am just so compelled by the notion of a text editor that possesses a deep, nuanced model of… what? Everything ever written by you? By your favorite authors? Your nemesis? All staff writers at the New Yorker, present and past? Everyone on the internet? It’s provocative any way you slice it.

I should say clearly: I am absolutely 100% not talking about an editor that ‘writes for you,’ whatever that means. The world doesn’t need any more dead-eyed robo-text.

The animating ideas here are augmentation; partnership; call and response.

The goal is not to make writing “easier”; it’s to make it harder.

The goal is not to make the resulting text “better”; it’s to make it different — weirder, with effects maybe not available by other means.”

Robin Sloan, “Writing With The Machine.” robinsloan.com. May 2016.

Robin Sloan hacked together some software to use a neural network trained against some corpus of text, e.g., Shakespeare, that then makes suggestions on how to complete sentences you write. He’s right that it doesn’t make writing easier. It makes it harder because it is essentially implanting non sequiturs into your writing that then have to be thoughtfully incorporated or erased. But, it does make your mind go off in different directions that would not occur if you were merely composing something on your own.

In order to try it, you have to install torch, torch-rnn, torch-rnn-server, the Atom text editor, and rnn-writer. It’s probably easiest to get it going on Linux or MacOS. The instructions are not entirely clear, and I failed to get it working the first time I tried. I made a second attempt yesterday, and I got it to work. The main thing is to go through all the instructions. Look for flags or how it can be done manually if it fails. I also didn’t realize that the torch-rnn-server requires git cloning and moving to the relevant directory in order to get the server to run.

Also, you should use the pre-trained model to make sure everything works first. Get the server running, connect it to your Atom editor and get a feel for the possibilities. However, you’ll probably find that the pre-trained model leaves quite a bit to be desired.

But, training up the model on a preferred text can take quite awhile if you are doing it on a consumer grade computer. I picked the King James Version of the Bible as my reference text, and I’m doing the training on an old laptop. By my calculations, it will take around 70 hours to train the model. It’s not a trivial exercise.

After trying the pre-trained model, it probably makes the most sense to try training the tiny-shakespeare.txt file included with torch-rnn-server, as a first walk-through of training up your own neural network from a specific text. This way you aren’t spending several days training up something you aren’t sure is going to work.

After that, take a look at Project Gutenberg. I can imagine using a neural network trained on years of our emails, Montaigne, old slang dictionaries, or Grimm’s Fairy Tales to different affect on our writing. There seems like a world of possibility with this approach.

Good luck!

Amazon & The Cultural Landscape of Books

The small print publisher 404 Ink’s discussion of their finances, particularly the portion on the cost to small press publishers to have their books sold via Amazon, is a bit of an eye-opener. On some level, I was aware that the discounts that Amazon is able to offer on books had to be squeezed from authors and publishers (but apparently not distributors). But, I was not sure of the exact scope.

I’m imagining a publisher like Dorothy selling Sabrina Orah Mark’s Wild Milk. On the publisher’s website, it is $16.00. On Amazon, it is being sold for $14.87. If we assume a similar distribution like 404 Ink’s, then:

  • Printing cost (9%): $1.44
  • Royalty to author (12%): $1.60
  • Share to distributor (12%): $1.92
  • Share to publisher (9%): $1.44
  • Share to Amazon (60%): $8.48

So, the $1.13 difference between Amazon and Publisher prices is 7%, which Amazon offers as part of a package with Amazon Prime, free delivery and so forth to create a price sensitive, captive book market that buys primarily through them. But, even with the 7% off they are still making 13%, or $2.08, more on a $16 book than a traditional book seller.

And let’s be real about mom and pop book shops. Books selling have been dominated by the likes of Walden’s, Borders, Books-a-Million and other chain book stores for decades. I don’t really care if Amazon puts them out of business. But, there are still independent shops that are trying to carve out space in the cracks, promoting books that are not in the cultural mainstream. The problem is that there are not many cracks that Amazon isn’t in.

There’s also a large question about our cultural output. If there is no room for an independent publisher or book store to make a living doing that kind of work, and publishing houses like Dorothy are doing vital cultural work in promoting emerging women writers, what happens to those writers? Do they stay at their technical writing jobs, in the corporate cubicle, etc. and never produce any work? Or, do they end up channelling their creative energy to generate page views, followers and what not, hoping there’s a life to be found, like salt sprinkled in a wound?

There’s an argument here, beyond the standard argument about the feudal internet, the Rating Rabbit Hole, and so forth that we should pay the extra $1.13, buy directly from publishers, and consider this a tax to support diversity in our cultural landscape. Because every time we buy from Amazon rather than directly from these small publishing houses, we are voting with our dollars to essentially destroy the very stories we are showing we are willing to buy, just to save a small fraction of the cost. It’s a tragedy.

Of course, you could argue that if there is no money to be made on Amazon, then these small publishers will turn to alternatives, such as print on demand, and they will develop a market outside of Amazon. This is true, and it is happening. But, relegating a large portion of our cultural output to the long tail is also an exercise in diminishment. The diversity of the long tail will be a function of the amount of effort we put into creating it, and the first step is to stop using Amazon to buy books.