Musky Times

I wasn’t going to write anything about Elon Musk buying Twitter, because I mostly don’t care. But Robin Sloan, in his newsletter, which isn’t really a newsletter, because he just sends a link to a blog post (with a few added words), says this:

An industrialist intends to purchase Twitter, Inc. His substantial success launching reusable spaceships does nothing to prepare him for the challenge of building social spaces. The latter calls on every liberal art at once, while the former is just rocket science.

I wanted to quote that because I loved ‘just rocket science.’ The common expression, ‘It’s not rocket science’ has always mildly amused me, as a physics graduate. Because rocket science is relatively both simple and easy. It’s straightforward Newtonian physics. Mass. Acceleration. Forces. The physics is simple, the sums are easy.

You don’t have to go anywhere near even Special Relativity (still straightforward, if harder), General Relativity (much more complex), or of course anywhere close to quantum physics (frankly the most complex and confusing thing of all).

All of which is just to say that physics has more and less difficult areas. Rocket engineering, of course, is quite another matter. There you’ve got all sort of complex materials science, chemistry, end even — if crew are involved — biology, sociology, psychology. Those are much harder.

As far as common similes for the ease of something go, I’ve always preferred ‘It’s not brain surgery.’ If I think about it I’m amazed that operating successfully on a living human brain is even possible, and I bow my head to those who can do it. While hoping they’ll never have to go near said bowed object, of course.

Anyway, that would have been that for this post, except that I pasted the above quote from Sloan into a text editor. But it didn’t look like it does above. It looked like this:

An indus-tri-al-ist intends to pur-chase Twit-ter, Inc. His sub-stan-tial suc-cess launch-ing reusable space-ships does noth-ing to pre-pare him for the chal-lenge of build-ing social spaces. The lat-ter calls on every lib-eral art at once, while the for-mer is just rocket science.

Where did all those hyphens come from? They look like they’re non-printing characters. Ones that won’t show up when a web page is rendered, but are there in the source code. Why? I can only imagine two reasons:

  1. a deliberate ploy to make it harder to copy quotes, as I have done above. But Sloan is a pro-web kinda guy, as far as I can tell. It doesn’t seem like something he’d do.
  2. A glitch. An artifact of the software he used to create the post. It’s most likely that. Weird one, though.

Stranger still is that the character is not even a hyphen. As I discovered when I search-and-replaced it in BBEdit, it actually appears to be this: \x{AD}.

I don’t even know what that is. Some kind of hexadecimal representation of something. An invisible hyphen, presumably. Which I had to search-and-replace with actual hyphens to make them visible above. Looking at the source code, it’s written as the HTML entity ­, which the DuckDuck tells me is a ‘soft hyphen’.

All very odd.

I have positive feelings about Sloan, except for his closing image. I’ll risk another paste:

Yeah, but… of course you have to clap. Without wanting to get all metaphysical on you, if you don’t clap when Tinkerbell is dying, you’ve got no soul.


Mildly amusing that no one noticed the obvious mistake in my last post/tweet. Or they were too polite to say. It’s still visible on Twitter, fixed on my site.


Rational? Twitter, Micro.blog and Social Engagement

I had vaguely seen references to “ratios,” and was aware it was something to do with engagement on Twitter and elsewhere. But I hadn’t understood what exactly people meant by it. Then last night I saw a tweet in which someone said, “I accept I’ve been ratiod.” (Should the verb form rather be “ratioed”? Hard to say. Neither looks quite right.)

A search for understanding led me to this article on Know Your Meme. It tells us:

The Ratio refers to an unofficial Twitter law which states that if the amount of replies to a tweet greatly outnumbers the amount of retweets and likes, then the tweet is bad

and goes into some detail about the origin of the term.

It makes me sad to read that. Imagine an interaction system where, if people reply to something you say, that’s bad. Well, it seems we don’t have to imagine it: we can see it right here on the “social” web.

I like to get replies on Twitter or elsewhere. A reply means, to me, that someone has read what I’ve written, thought about it, and found it worth responding to. I’m aware that I speak from a position of some privilege, in that I’m not in a group that is likely to experience the mass abuse that many do. But something has broken down in our systems of interaction if getting replies mean what you said “is bad.”

I’m far from the first to have made that observation, of course.

But consider Micro.blog, the still-young social network based on blogs that I’ve written abut before. Micro.blog has replies, but it doesn’t even have the concept of likes or retweets/reblogs. If you read a post and want to say something about it — even just that you like it — you have to reply. With words, in human language.

It’s a much friendlier place than Twitter.

This conversation from the last day or two gives a good flavour of the kind of thing you can expect.

If you clicked through that link you’ll have seen that it appears to be — and is — on the blog of the user who made the original post. The responses appear as blog comments. But while every Micro.blog user has a blog, you don’t have to interact with it as a blog if you don’t want to. You can do it all through the Micro.blog app or one of the third-party clients, or just the Micro.blog website, where you can see the same conversation.

Similarly, you can see all my posts here, as well as at their natural home.

It’s well worth a try if you’re looking for a less toxic social-media environment.


"Thread" Dread

I don’t mind people posting a tweetstorm, wherein they have a lot to say and do so via a series of linked tweets. I think there are better ways to do it; better places to host medium-length pieces of writing,1 but whatever works for you.

And of course I don’t mind other people tweeting a link to the top of the thread and urging others to read it.

But I really don’t care for the habit of doing so while saying nothing other than, “Thread.”

I mean, come on, people: if it’s worth linking to, it’s worth writing few words to tell us why you think we should read it.

This post could fit in five or six tweets. I suppose I should have posted it that way. Except #OwnYourContent.


  1. Actually the typical tweetstorm is probably still quite short. ↩︎


The Origin of the Bitface

Things go quicker than you think. This tweet post1 was inspired by a tweet, and I thought it wasn’t too long ago. But in fact it was April last year.

My friend Yusuf’s tweet inspired me to finally write about the term “biftace” and why I chose it and what it means. Actually I thought I had written this before, but it seems not.

So a long time ago, when I was first thinking of a name for my blog — before it even existed, indeed — I thought about the way the press used to refer to teachers working “at the chalkface.” The analogy with miners at the coalface was probably originally meant to disparage the labour of teachers as being less than that of miners. I’m guessing here, but considering the term seems to have originated in tabloid journalism, and tabloids tend to be disparaging of anything intellectual — though to be fair, they haven’t exactly been friends to miners either, over the years.

Anyway, I quite liked the term, and wanted to come up with something similar to refer to my own industry, that of programming. I tried out one or two for size, at least in my head. “Byteface” felt more accurate (it’s rare for an application programmer to care to much about bit-level things, and I mainly write Java, which compiles to bytecode); but it didn’t feel right.”Codeface” would have been another, but again, didn’t feel right.

“Bitface” did feel right, and so an early version became “The Bitface Diaries.” I don’t think I ever made that live.

When I started my Livejournal (which nowadays is just one of my syndication targets) I went with “Tales from the Bitface,” which I still like. And then when I decided to set up my own site I went with “A Labourer at the Bitface,” which harked back to the original impetus for inventing the word, and also alluded to my support for the Labour Party.

Which means I’m considering a rename now, as I consider my future in said party. But that’s another blog entry.

The conversation with with Yusuf was about hardware, which is not what the term was about. But I never worked out what we should call working with hardware in similar terminology.


  1. Post! This post, not this tweet. ↩︎


Success for Micro.blog

Manton Reece’s Kickstarter campaign for Micro.blog, which I wrote about before, was successful. In fact very successful. He made his stretch goal, which means he’ll be able to employ a part-time Community Manager for the service, which should help with the kind of abuse that we’ve seen on Twitter over the years.

So congratulations to him. And as a backer I look forward to getting the devilgate username shortly.

Not that I’ll actually need a username on the site, I don’t think, as I expect to be using it to post short entries here, syndicated to Twitter. But it won’t hurt to have it. If only to stop someone else masquerading as me, like on Ebay.1


  1. OK, they’re not actually masquerading, but last time I looked (a long time ago) there was a more-or-less dormant account called devilgate, which wasn’t me. I mean, unless it was, and I had somehow set it up using an email address that I no longer have, or something. ↩︎


Probably a Good Time to Download Your Twitter Archive

This Bloomberg article may not be entirely serious, but it is, you know, Bloomberg:

There’s a strange idea circulating among Mexican currency traders. Well, more of a joke really. But there’s a certain logic to it.

It goes like this: Instead of spending its precious reserves to defend the peso, Mexico should just buy Twitter Inc. — at a cost of about $12 billion — and immediately shut it down.

The idea being that it would be the easiest way to stop the Trumpet tweeting negative things about Mexico.

I don’t know, he’d just find another forum, no doubt. Shit, in a week’s time he’ll be able to put whatever he wants on Whitehouse.gov.

[T]hat the idea was even raised in jest shows how just how frustrated Mexicans are that their economy and the value of their savings are at the mercy of the seemingly random musings coming in 140-character bursts from Trump’s Twitter account. It’s a sentiment that presumably would be shared by U.S. investors in companies like, say, General Motors Co. or Lockheed Martin Corp., but in Mexico, the pain, and the accompanying despair, appear to be on a much greater scale.

A lot more than Mexico is at the mercy of those “seemingly random musings.”


Independent Microblogging

Twitter is great in many ways, but it’s far from problem-free. (Thought experiment: if Twitter hadn’t existed, would Trump have got elected?)

The abuse and lack of tools to combat it are of course the major ones. Lindy West’s Guardian article on leaving Twitter is only the latest such.

But another problem is the old one of owning your own words. Of controlling the platform on which you publish. I’ve posted briefly about this before (though that was Google, rather than Twitter). Sure, Twitter isn’t likely to go bust and delete everyone’s tweets without any warning. But you never know when they’re going to change a policy, or change ownership, or make some other change that — deliberately or not — shuts down your access, removes your entire history, or otherwise lessens or removes the experience.

There have been attempts to build open alternatives, such as Diaspora, but I confess that I’ve only ever come away from it confused.

It would be better if there were a simple way we could all publish to our own sites, but still get the benefit of Twitter’s network. Say hello to Micro.blog a new approach from Manton Reece, blogger, podcaster and developer.

It should allow us to post Tweet-style short posts on our own sites, and also send them to Twitter. Which may give us the best of both worlds.

As well as developing the service and the app, he’s writing a book about the subject of indie microblogging, and has a Kickstarter going to help him out. It’s worth offering a few bucks if you’re at all interested in the matter.


Intrusive login options

I’ve not really had many dealings with the Huffington Post, but I thought I’d drop a comment on this piece about a cover versions album of Nirvana’s Nevermind. The writer, Michael Vazquez, describes himself as being ‘part of the generation that just-missed Punk’, and goes on to say he’s 45.

Thing is, I’m just a year older, and I didn’t miss it. I lived right through it. Not, it’s true, at its bleeding, safety-pin-punctured heart.1 But still, I was aware of it, was introduced to the music by friends, listened to Peelie. Formed bands, for god’s sake, which is what it was really all about.

I can only conclude that Vazquez was a late developer.

Anyway, my point wasn’t about that, it was about commenting at the Huffington Post. You have to be registered to comment; fair enough, that probably keeps the spam down a bit. There are a number of login options, as is common nowadays: Twitter, Facebook, a dropdown for others.

I tried the dropdown and chose to use my Google account. A popup pops up, saying, ‘This site wants to know your email address and your contacts.’ Email address, fair enough, that’s normal for registering at most places. But my Google contacts? I think not.

I cancelled, tried Twitter. ‘This site wants to see your contacts, add contacts, post tweets…’ Get, as we say in my part of the world, tae fuck!

Oddly, it asked less of Facebook; but I can’t be bothered going back to check exactly what.

In the end, not wanting to be thwarted, I registered with them by giving them a username and my email address, in the old-school way. Obviously I unchecked the ‘Please spam me’ box.

Is this normal behaviour nowadays? Certainly seems odd to me.


  1. Copyright (c) Cliches-R-Us, 2011. ↩︎


Election Tweets 'n' Stuff

Thirteen years ago we had champagne ready for the overall majority (though we opened it when Portillo's seat went). This year might look more like what Warren Ellis says:

Shopping list for watching the election tomorrow night: beer, nuts, whisky, methadone, humane cow-killing bolt gunWed May 05 19:52:55 via web

More sensibly, my friend Stuart says:

I'm not voting for them but if Labour lose, its supporters should take heart from the fact that the UK is better than it was in 97 #ge10Wed May 05 19:24:56 via TweetDeck

which is a good point. Britain’s not broken; it never was. Just its electoral system.

Here’s something I said about that a while ago:

Hey, the Tories: Society _isn't_ broken, and if it is, it's partly the fault of your witch-queen & her regime.Tue Sep 30 16:37:55 +0000 2008 via Echofon

I’m having fun with this tweet-embedding thing.


Embedding Tweets

There's a new way to embed tweets in blog posts. Here's one of mine to try it out:

My nine-year-old daughter confuses 'Conservative' with 'sinister'. Out of the mouths of babes & little children...Mon May 03 19:36:25 via Tweetie

Looks pretty cool, actually. Go to Twitter’s “Blackbird Pie”, or get a bookmarklet.


I really need to post more

But these days, if I try to write a post of more than 140 characters, I get a strange, compressed feeling.  Things start to slow... down...


Without Twitter, how will we know what's happening?

[Twitter](http://twitter.com/) seems to be down at the moment - or at least, it's not accepting tweets, and I can't log in at the website. But how do we know what's happening without Twitter to tell us?

Edit: back to normal now. I’m @devilgate, of course.


Too long gone

Man, it's been a long time since I posted. I blame Twitter.

You could always follow me there, if you don’t already.

Also my OU course. Which, ironically or not, is on Creative Writing.

Incidentally, if brevity is the soul of wit, then Twitter ought to be hilarious.