• A Dreary Day

    “Why so dreary? It’s not as if the world is ending.”

    It was an innocent enough question, but the answer was complicated. Outside, the sky was bright, lined with a few puffy clouds. They looked inviting, as if beckoning one to climb in and relax awhile. If she didn’t know better, Fabina would have thought sure, no way was the world ending. But it was ending, and she was the only person who knew it.

    “Seriously, you’re lost in thought and I’m right here, are you okay?” Piper was one of those friends who could read between the lines so well it felt like she was reading your mind. She was the kind of friend you’d want to have along to witness the end of the world.

    Fabina let her gaze drop from the clouds and looked at her friend. “The world is ending, Piper. We need to get out of here.”

    Piper stared at her. “How long have we got? Oh, and when were planning on telling me?! You’ve been holding out, girl.”

    “A week, if we’re lucky.” Fabina took a sip of her coffee and smiled. “I figured I’d tell you, oh, a minute or so ago. When you were ready.”

    Piper rolled her eyes. “Some sage you are. Come on, let’s go. Sounds like we’ve got some work to do.”

    Fabina laughed and fished for her keys from her bag. “You’d better not spill my coffee on the ride. We’re gonna need it.” The two friends got up from the table and headed out the gate.

    “Whoa, this is yours? Never pegged you for a biker. Damn, this is nice.” Piper admired the gleaming blue road bike with purple and red-hued flames curling along the side.

    “I figured since we didn’t have much time left around here, I might as well get around in style. You like?” Fabina sat down on the side of the bike, then suddenly kicked her legs up and did a full two-seventy spin before straddling the bike. She wagged her eyebrows at Piper and started the engine. “You got moves like that in you? I’m only friends with people who do, so you’d better. And you’d better not do a stupid cartwheel.”

    Piper grinned at her, then turned away. Suddenly, she spun the coffee mug and tossed it into the air, then dove into a back handspring. She effortlessly launched herself into the air and with a slight twist landed cleanly astride the bike. “Your coffee, madame,” she said as she caught Fabina’s mug. “Not one dropped spilled.”

    Fabina grinned with a sigh and shook her head, feeling better knowing she didn’t have to go it alone. She revved the engine a few times, and marveled at its power. Piper tapped her shoulder. “Where to?”

    “The sunset,” Fabina said. “It’s almost time.”

  • IMG_7141

    A Day in the Life in Albuquerque, NM. Taking some time out in the morning to visit the tree downstairs and bask in its splendor.

  • I finally took the plunge and am trying out LinkedIn to see if it helps make connections for my indie businesses. Step one, outside of setting up a profile, was turning off most email notifications and disabling all ad tracking. Good grief with all the invasive ad tracking.

  • Rest in Power, RBG. May we all use our powers for good the way you have. You will be missed, and you will never be forgotten.

  • Step Away From the Algorithm

    I started out this post with a sentence I didn’t expect to: I wrote I’ve been a user of Goodreads for many years now. I didn’t say “I’ve been using,” or even “I use”. Goodreads, of course, is a service which ostensibly acts as a social network for people who enjoy reading, and for many years, I think it served that purpose for me. Of course, like so much in the digital age, I started out using a different service, called Shelfari, which was eventually bought by Amazon. Amazon did what monopolies love to do and bought Goodreads later too, eventually merging the older acquisition Shelfari into the newer Goodreads.

    I’ve recently learned that there’s unrest in the Goodreads community, largely because the site has been left nearly untouched for years now. It’s not too hard, given what we’ve learned about big tech companies, to see why. For Amazon, the real benefit for owning Goodreads has almost nothing to do with users, and likely everything to do with all the data those users generate. I’ve started to think of it this way: I think I use a service to keep track of something, in this case my reading habits over the years. The company in question uses that services for something else: to turn something I thought was tangible into a data point and turn and directly advertise to me in increasingly specific ways. Here’s some books from your “want to read” list that are suddenly on sale, one email says. People who liked this book also bought this other book, says another.

    For Amazon, owning Goodreads mean they can access all that information and tie it directly to your Amazon account, giving them yet another place to directly advertise to you.

    For me, my use of Goodreads over the past few years was partly to keep track of what I was reading, and partly to take note of other books I might enjoy. I also liked its annual goals feature, which encourages you to set a goal to read a certain number of books each year, and offers a convenient way to track your progress. Every single Goodreads email I receive gets promptly deleted, since it’s mostly a daily reminder of what friends are reading on the site, and how I have the same two books listed as ‘in progress’. Logging into the site recently, I was promptly met with a note that I was behind on my reading goal, and that I should catch up. I’m not behind, it turns out, I just hadn’t bothered with the chore that updating Goodreads has become.

    Ultimately, I use this very digital tool in a very analog way. If I happen to read on my Kindle, I never allow it track my progress there. It takes the enjoyment out of the process of reading, and it makes it yet another thing to track and gamify. Sometimes that’s fun! See my enjoyment of annual book challenges above. But at the end of the day, it’s actual work for me to update, and Amazon gets to reap the rewards.

    In learning about the unrest among Goodreads users, I’ve also learned about a new service called The Storygraph. It’s an interesting concept, but ultimately its faith in an algorithm takes away the best part of books to begin with: the human connection. The books I’ve most enjoyed reading have come from either people I know, or references within other books that made me want to explore further.

    It’s clearer than ever that nearly everything we use online can be reduced into data. If we let it, that data will be hoovered in an instant to help and used to try to sell us more, or further track us wherever we go. I love the idea of a social place to share books, but now, I hope we collectively push back. Let’s use journals, digital or analog, to track lists privately. Let’s write and make videos about books like my friend Ashley. Let’s connect the dots between books in interesting ways like Austin Kleon, or keep a whole page of our websites dedicated to what we read like Patrick Rhone. Let’s go to local bookstores and get recommendations from people we meet there, or from staff who have all sorts of interests and reading backgrounds. If you want to go social, micro.blog has an interesting way to view books people are talking about within the community.

    Personal websites and blogs are the most analog forms of the Internet we have left. They’re the places we can go which we can decide what they look like, what we feature, what we want to give our attention. They’re random and weird and interesting, and they’re the best place we have on the Internet to keep things that way.

    For the algorithm, users are the tool to achieve their end. The more you use (input), the “better” it gets at its job. Its job, though, is to keep you there and keep your attention and keep you buying. It doesn’t care what connection you made, philosophy you learned, or new idea you had as a result of what you read. But a human will. Whether that human is someone you know, or someone whose site you read and you send an email, a sense of shared experience and humanity can happen. Let’s stop being users and get back to being human.

  • Learning Something New

    About a month ago, I realized that in the face of overwhelm, I was looking for any input I could to shift my thoughts elsewhere. The easiest and most readily available places, of course, are feeds. They do little to help, I realized, in part because they shifted my thoughts to too many other places In some cases, these feeds served to either fill time, amplify my anxiety, or provide new sources of anxiety.

    What’s interesting to note is that I took Instagram off my phone months ago, deleted my facebook account at the beginning of 2019, and almost never look at my twitter feed. And yet, feeds were finding me, whether in links from sites to twitter threads (which should be blog posts), or to searching for specific information there (even while signed out), since so many people post there.

    To try to address this, I decided about a month ago to spend more time each day reading books, and that if I was to spend time in front of a screen, I would either write or I would use my time to learn something. I opted for the latter, and decided I’d spend some time learning to code. I first tried Codecademy, which is nice but I found it to be laggy on my computer. After searching for alternatives, I decided to give freeCodeCamp a try. I’m very glad I did, since the lessons were short enough to complete in small chunks of time in the evening. I’ve done all the lessons for responsive web design, but haven’t yet completed the projects for it.

    While learning, I realized I wanted to make some improvements to my own web presence. And in my zest to do so, I found myself searching out other sites to learn from, then wanting to figure out how that was done and replicate it myself. It’s not a bad goal, but it’s also not a realistic one to accomplishing something. My search ended up being another feed, a new way to look at things, visually think about how they were designed, and then diving into source code to see, only to find myself lost amid thousands of lines of code and realizing how little I know. This was discouraging and, I realized last week, not as helpful a way to learn. I’d made no progress on any of the ideas I’d had that lead me down this path.

    Last week, to try to move the needle forward a bit, I decided to take another stab at doing some light customizations to my site here. I thought about simply using the custom CSS I’d slowly added to make those changes, or to try writing my own plug-in to do the same. But ultimately, I decided it might be most interesting to simply clone one of the micro.blog themes directly from Github and then customize it from there. This turned out to be both doable and fun, since it allowed me to start fresh and also not have to worry about any missing code specific to micro.blog. I opted to use the default theme as my starter, since it was the simplest of them all and so made my customizations easier. I did all my custom edits from within the editor on micro.blog, which is a bit slow-going for a novice like me, since I made changes gradually, and saved often in order to make sure those changes worked. In the end, it was time I enjoyed and I’m pleased with the site. For typography, I borrowed code from Brent Simmons for system fonts (his site is a great resource to learn simple, effective coding), and otherwise I simply changed some existing CSS and added a handful more to bring it to life.

    In the case of dark mode, I’d previously had that as custom css, and I brought that into my new customized theme and then refined it into something more colorful and fun. I’d eventually like to add a button so anyone reading can select their preference, but for now I’m going to leave it as is and focus on other projects.

    It’s a little thing, but it’s something that kept me going. I’m proud of it. And especially proud of the dark mode. Definitely check out the dark mode.

  • Something I’ve learned over the last few weeks of feeling stuck, in many aspects of life, is that staring at a feed, no matter the source, is the worst place to look to try to get unstuck.

  • The aim for simplification continues. This evening, I canceled my Adobe Photography plan. I’m very much out of the habit of photography lately, and there’s other tools that I can use when I want to, which don’t require a monthly fee.

  • It’s a weird feeling to send an email to a former employer’s IT team, from your inexplicably still-functioning employee email, to request that they remove some software from your computer since, you know, you don’t work for them anymore.

  • Fitbit and the Data Mine

    I got a Fitbit years ago as part of a workplace “health intitiave” and have used it on and off ever since. Being a bit concerned since Google entered a deal to acquire Fitbit (and thus, of course, all its data), I’ve stopped using it and have considered selling it off. Of course, there’s an online account to go with it, so I logged in and found my way to the settings so I could try exporting all my data. While I’m not so much concerned about keeping my data for myself, I was definitely curious exactly how they log that data.

    I more or less assumed that all data would be exported in CSV format, given that’s exactly how it states it will. I thought I’d see a table of each date logged, with the accompanying total steps for each day, similar to how it’s reflected in the app. It turns out, the data has only a handful of CSV files, mostly with any “challenges” between you and friends. Steps themselves are in .json files, and when you open them in a text editor, it turns out that there’s a log of the total number of steps for every single minute of every single day logged.

    A screenshot of a Fitbit export showing steps taken each minute from a day in December 2019.

    Keep in mind that my Fitbit is the now-discontinued Fitbit One, so it tracked just steps and stairs automatically, and sleep had to be manually started with the timer, and any exercise also had to be manually added in the app. I can only assume that those which are tracking heart rate and exercises are doing so in similar fashion. This isn’t necessarily to say that that’s a good or a bad thing (there are certainly some health implications and potential benefits there), but it should no doubt be more clearly indicated exactly how that information is going to be collected, storied, and ultimately used.

    I used to refer to my Fitbit is a ‘glorified pedometer’, but it’s clear now that it’s much, much more.

    Update: See this Fitbit blog post that uses collected (and relatively anonymized, given there’s regional information as well as gender and age information) data to look at how COVID-19 and related lockdowns have affected movement. To their credit, Fitbit’s privacy policy does indicate that it may do so, as noted by the following text (emphasis mine):

    We may share non-personal information that is aggregated or de-identified so that it cannot reasonably be used to identify an individual. We may disclose such information publicly and to third parties, for example, in public reports about exercise and activity, to partners under agreement with us, or as part of the community benchmarking information we provide to users of our subscription services.

    Still, if you ask the casual Fitbit wearer on the street, I imagine it’s a good bet that they have no idea their personal fitness tracker can be used in this manner. The findings are interesting, to be sure, and especially relevant given the public health needs. Still, we need better and much clearer consent when it comes to use of collection of data, both for how it’s collected (in my case, thinking it was just a daily count and discovering it was counter down to the minute, even in aggregate) and how it’s ultimately used.

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