Smartphone Devolving: How I Unplugged & Reengaged

Mike Caprio 6 Replies

Hang On, Are You Crazy? You Don’t Own A Smartphone?

It’s true. I will no longer be taking part in the coming Singularity.

Several weeks ago, I gave up my Android Samsung Galaxy S3 and found myself needing a new phone. The lovely folks at my telecom provider deemed me unworthy of an upgrade, and I needed a new phone really quickly, so I simply asked them: “What’s the cheapest phone I can get?” As it turned out, my one and only option (other than a $300 termination fee) was to buy a Samsung Gusto featurephone for $150. That’s one hundred and fifty dollars. We now live in a world where the phone with the least functionality and no removable SIM card costs about as much as one week of a net minimum wage salary.

(For those playing along at home, YES, going from a smartphone to a featurephone is in fact considered an “upgrade”. Luckily I was able to get a $45 discount after grousing on the phone for 45 minutes – never let them tell you they can’t give you discounts, always ask!)

DEVO envisions smartphone evolution Kurzweil style. ULTIMATE GLASSHOLES??

DEVO envisions smartphone evolution Kurzweil style. ULTIMATE GLASSHOLES??

Anyways, all that aside, I’m clearly bucking all the trends by abandoning the smartphone life. Here are some choice tidbits from a recent mobile device infographic:

  • By the end of 2013, there will be more mobile devices on Earth than people; more than 2 billion mobile devices will ship globally this year.
  • Over 1.2 billion people access the web from their mobile devices.
  • 28.85% of all emails are opened on mobile phones.
  • 44% of cell phone users have slept with their cell phone by their side so that they didn’t miss a notification.
  • 36% of shoppers search for other store locations on their phones while shopping in store.

But I really did give this decision a lot of thought. The thing is, I do still own a mobile device; I have an iPad mini wifi (and I breathlessly wait every day for the next jailbreak version) that I bought earlier in the year at a nice discount. And this brings me to the first, and most significant reason for “devolving”…

Reason 1: Duplication Of Tablet Functionality

I sat down and enumerated all the things I actually did every day on my smartphone. It turned out that I could do just about all of these things and often even do them better on a tablet or laptop, and these were the biggest factor in my decision to stop using a smartphone:

1. Read email

This was what I did the most on the smartphone; every time it rang or buzzed or displayed a notification alert, I checked it. And I checked it ALL THE TIME. But the thing about email is, it is about 85% garbage (which I have really learned lately from using the Gmail Category Inbox, most of my emails aren’t worth reading). I also found myself always checking work email on off hours, which, honestly, is not how anyone wants to live their life. To the point though, email is absolutely something that is a better and easier experience on a tablet, so that was taken off the table as a consideration.

2. Monitor social networks

If I’m being honest, this is probably the thing I really did most on my smartphone; the screen was almost always displaying a timeline, either Facebook or Twitter. Having already deleted my Facebook account, I really only checked Twitter. I follow tons and tons of people and frequently get a lot of @ mentions and replies; I had even turned on mobile notifications for a few folks, and this all added up to a buttload of notifications on a near constant basis. But, again, there were better experiences available on the tablet for social networks.

Interestingly, status updates for both Twitter and The Facebook are built into the featurephone, even though it takes a few button presses to get there. Since I have unlimited texting, I set up tweet forwarding to SMS, so I’m sending and receiving tweets all the time anyways – no phone smartness necessary.

twitter-evolve

3. Check in on Foursquare

This is something I do miss a bit, as I was fairly compulsive about checking in to places. I can still do it on tablet, but as I only have an iPad wifi edition, and I don’t take my iPad everywhere, it doesn’t really do the job. But I don’t particularly want to have an iPad with a cell network connection now… I’m starting to like the constraint on my Internet connectivity while I’m mobile. More on this at the end of the post.

4. Locate my position on a map

Another obvious application – GPS, phone network, touchscreen, these work great with a mobile device… and they work better on a tablet. I can even use location awareness on the featurephone, which honestly doesn’t even seem much like a featurephone given that it can do a lot of other stuff.

5. Find other locations and get directions to them on a map

Same as above. It’s very convenient to be able to estimate travel times and to search Google Maps or Foursquare for the next place to go in the area. Local and mobile go together like peanut butter and jelly. There’s a ton of growth left in this space, I’m excited to see where it goes; but I still think it’ll go better on tablets than it will on smartphones.

6. Take photos and post them online

This is the thing I really need a new solution for. The main problem for me has been that smartphone cameras JUST PLAIN SUCK. You can’t really use them in low light – not being able to control aperture, shutter speed, or exposure means you’re not using much of a camera. So having a smartphone didn’t actually give me what I wanted anyways: a real camera that will just let me upload photos directly online; thankfully we’re finally seeing a bunch of wifi “smart cameras” hit the market. (I wonder how long it’ll take before our cameras start getting cracked / rooted?)

Reason 2: Cheaper Phone Service

So now after all that, we come to the second reason – cash money. The base charge for cell service for a featurephone is somewhere around $35; for your typical smartphone with a reasonable data plan, it’s upwards of $110 or so. Of course with all the other hidden fees and taxes and tariffs and every other ridiculous charge the telecom people can think of to charge you, you end up paying another $30 a month no matter what… but I’ll still save between $800 – $1000 a year. That’s a pretty obvious point and doesn’t need a lot of elucidation.

Reason 3: Government Surveillance

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I’ll assume that you’re completely aware that the National Security Agency is recording every single electronic signal you produce and consume; some people alive today have had their entire lives – phone calls, texts, emails, EVERYTHING – recorded by the NSA. The FBI can activate the microphones on your smartphones and computers, and can turn on any cameras without the little light coming on to tell you they’re recording. Some parties with the resources of a nation-state have created computer viruses that spread between computers using speakers & microphones, no Internet necessary; it’s theorized that high frequency sound is used to make computer viruses airborne even between computers not plugged in to a network and between computers with different operating systems. I wish I could bold and underline that last statement three or four times because it totally blows my fucking mind.

(Yes, I am the guy who has taped cardboard over the camera holes on my devices.)

Maybe it is a bit paranoid to be concerned about governments monitoring me. Is it also paranoid to be worried about Apple or Google or Facebook or any of a thousand different giant multi-national corporations rooting every computer I own to collect data on me or otherwise figure out if I have broken any of the provisions of their ridiculous End User License Agreements?

The smarter my phone is, the easier it’ll be for governments and multi-nationals to spy on me. I kind of like being able to take the battery out of my phone to make sure that it’s actually turned off (even though it might still be possible to record me and buffer it for sending later when I plug the battery back in). That’s something, isn’t it?

So How Has It Been Going?

I have to say that my day-to-day life has really changed for the better. I don’t feel like a Cro-Magnon. Every time I show my featurephone to people, I usually get “oohs” and “aahs” or some other form of encouragement or applause. Interesting how people simultaneously claim to love their smartphones, yet also hate their dependency on them!

I feel that I’m now more aware and conscious of my surroundings. And I mean REALLY aware and conscious – I feel the passage of time more, I feel more alert, I notice things that I’m pretty sure other people aren’t noticing. It also seems like I’m watching other people around me a lot more… and they all seem to be looking down at their mobile devices. If I really, truly need to have computing power, I can always take the iPad with me and get WiFi access anywhere in the city (Starbucks is EVERYWHERE). I love not being a slave to notifications; but at the same time, I can still get important information via SMS and Twitter.

On a related note: I recently spent about $100 buying and tricking out a RaspberryPi. I now have a highly mobile open hardware computer with a camera, and I can also plug any kind of custom electronics I want into it. Combined with a wireless keyboard, a mouse, a wifi adapter, a powered USB hub and a Mophie juice pack, I have a free and open computing platform that I can code on that is practically wearable computing. I’ve even got it running a VNC server so I can use my iPad mini as its touchscreen display.

Think about this for a second: There is no such thing as a free / libre smartphone. We can install different operating systems on computers, but phone service providers are making it more and more impossible to use “their” phone (the phone YOU OWN and should be free to do whatever you want with) on another provider’s service. Smartphones are not phones, they are artificially limited and restricted mobile computers. They should be as free and open as every other computer can be. I should be able to write programs on my mobile computer!! Also of note: I cannot remove the SIM card from my Samsung Gusto featurephone – it has none. Meaning I CANNOT move it to another provider; I am once again trapped in the anti-consumerist fascist economy cage.

I bought the RaspberryPi because it’s a mobile computing platform that doesn’t tie me down to a hardware provider or force me into a corporate owned garden with any hardware and/or software (app store) walls. I’m not limited to any particular operating system. Because the software and hardware are all free and open to scrutiny, it’s a little more likely that there aren’t any crazy backdoors built into it that governments or malicious corporations can access. I’m actually pretty excited for the Kano project, which has totally blown out its Kickstarter goal.

I plan to keep on keeping on with my featurephone – what do you think? Can you live without your smartphone? Have you really thought about what you do with it, or tracked your actual usage of it? Maybe it’s worth a look!

Hackathons, For Love And Money

Mike Caprio 13 Replies

If you work in software development, you’ve no doubt heard of the concept of a hackathon: a marathon event (sometimes continuing through the night, with little to no sleep) where participants attempt to cobble (or hack, or jerry-rig) together a solution to a perceived problem or challenge. The term “hack” has a rich history and many meanings; in this case, it has nothing at all to do with penetrating computer security. Hackathon hacking only refers to playfully exploring the limits of what is possible and coming up with innovative (often kludgy) solutions to interesting problems.

The State Of The Hack Union

Hackathons arrived on the tech scene in 2005 (according to my esteemed colleague Jon Gottfried), but their influence was truly felt by around 2007, with the advent of mobile computing devices, the rise of powerful rapid application development frameworks, and the increased use of APIs (interfaces for exchanging data between systems) to make mashups (the act of combining various APIs and other libraries and features together into a new “app”). We’ve seen incredible innovations – entire startup businesses and wholly new industries – popping up all over the place, bolstered by these intersecting technology trends.

If you keep tabs on tech industry gossip, you may have heard about Salesforce and their Dreamforce conference, and how their million dollar hackathon has changed the landscape for events of this kind. They recently awarded their prize money, but few people are really impressed with the outcome. This ought to surprise no one; hackathon “scandals” are nothing new, and have occurred with greater frequency. Tech companies of all kinds have profit motives – they want to harvest the output of developers at their hackathons to make money. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but it’s important to realize how different hacking for money is from hacking for love, how different the end results often are, and how people are going to feel about this kind of thing happening over and over.

Why Hack?

What does it mean to hack for love? Developers hack for love because they mostly just love to build things. Essentially, creators of any stripe will make things simply for the pleasure of making them or for the satisfaction of building something awesome and new. People who hack for love are passionate about new tools and technologies, they want to improve their skills and learn from others, they want to show & tell and share what they do with everybody. The people who are at a hackathon to hack for money will often say things when they pitch like: “I’ve got a great idea for a business” or “This will be huge” or they’ll flat-out say the hack will make a lot of money and they’re hoping to find co-founders who will work for equity…

The love and money motivations almost always work at cross purposes. However, hacking for love does not preclude hacking for money; you can hack something amazing together and it can go on to make you money.  On the other hand, starting out with hacking for money does preclude hacking for love, because the money and profit motivation outweighs everything else. It doesn’t help that the prize purses are getting bigger and bigger – the phenomenon of itinerant hackers moving from hackathon to hackathon to earn income is a real thing. There are people out there who repackage hacks they’ve been working on forever (even when the rules say they have to write new code); they slap a couple of new features on it, and get judged on well-honed and oft practiced presentations… and they’ll win a few thousand dollars every weekend.  Not a bad racket.

This sort of “professional hackathon hacking” is one of the things that started to drive me away from “mainstream” hackathons a couple of years ago. It drove me nuts to see people showing up with already coded projects, or “idea people” coming simply to get other people to build products for them for free. I became especially riled when someone asked me to mentor for a so-called social good hackathon sponsored by a major telecom corporation, and not a single one of the people pitching ideas was actually interested in doing social good of any kind – they were there to pursue their own self-interests and prize money.

 

However, hacking for love does not preclude hacking for money; you can hack something amazing together and it can go on to make you money.

 

In 2011, despite having become a bit disillusioned by hackathons, I found myself on board the NYC StartupBus and thought: “this will be a fun and crazy hackathon road trip, and I don’t really care about how it all turns out, so I’m just going to enjoy myself.” But as it turned out, by happy and fortunate circumstance, I found myself in the right place at the right time, because StartupBus is all about hacking for love.

The people who self-select and go through the vetting process to get on board StartupBus are completely nuts about hacking – and I’m not talking about just coding either, I’m also talking about designers who push the envelope with their techniques, and biz dev types who know how to work the systems and how to hack relationships and do great customer development. Buspreneurs are the crazy ones who really do “think different”. And when we all come out the other side, we’ve become part of something bigger, we’ve honed our skills and built up our confidence, and we’ve learned things about ourselves and about what we’re capable of.

This is why people who are passionate about hackathons get upset when “unsportsmanlike” things happen at this kind of event. People who are doing it for fun are competing with themselves and with time – they want to build something from scratch and see how much they can accomplish, or rapidly ramp up on a new language, and see what cool things they can do. So when they see others repurposing old code, or submitting their company’s product for entry with an API tacked on to it, or the corporate sponsor goes and changes all the rules and constraints on them, they will understandably get upset.

In Conclusion…

I’ll close this blog post with a coda on the recent acquisition of Hacker League by Intel / Mashery. I’ve been a great fan of Mashery for some time now, they’ve been a terrific supporter at many of the hackathon events I’ve organized, mentored, and attended. Mike and Abe are friends of mine, and I’m quite happy to see their side project turn into a nice little exit for them. (Check that previous link to a Pando article (Jon’s slide deck, too) which has some nice graphs and charts showing the growth of hackathons)

My great hope is that Intel will do the right thing and let Mashery and Hacker League continue on unchanged. It’s really important for those who hack for love to keep using free and open tools to keep working on civic and social good projects – like the world’s largest hackathon, the NASA International Space Apps Challenge, which needs to be able to use tools like Github to share their free and open source output with the entire world.

I’m very happy to see Swift working on Major League Hacking, because it’s clearly being done out of love just as Hacker League was.  I remember when some folks in the API Evangelist Mafia were talking with me about it a year and a half ago, but that conversation fizzled out pretty quickly – so it’s nice to see someone taking the concept forward.  It’s also my hope (especially since it’s academic focused) that the MLH becomes more like collegiate sports than professional sports, that it becomes more about learning, building community, and advancing the state of the art over becoming more about competition and leaderboards, and winning titles or money. It’s really important to keep that amateur / professional split to maintain the love / money separation of concerns.

Why I Deleted My Facebook Account And Returned To Blogging

Mike Caprio 2 Replies

This article originally appeared in Torque Magazine; image credit goes to Torque.


A Little Bit Of History

Facebook is no different from Glitter Gulch

Dis-Like

This WordPress blog is the latest incarnation of my online identity; I’ve had a web site operating continuously for roughly 20 years, but I didn’t start to post regular updates online until “blogs” became a thing. I remember encountering the memepool weblog for the first time in the late 90s, the earliest instance of a site I can think of that had collaboratively posted links in a pure timeline format. I don’t think anyone would claim that Slashdot was a blog, even though it’s always been a collaboratively curated links site; Slashdot always felt like it was more about news and conversation than pure content, the evolutionary path that would eventually branch off into the 4chans and Reddits of today.

But I recall that early on weblogs weren’t something everyone did – they were largely left to people who were excellent curators, or who had great connections or inside sources, or who generally knew what was going on in the world. I didn’t start blogging myself until the year 2000, when blogs tended more towards personal journaling; I joined Livejournal because all my friends were doing it, and were all migrating from posting to Usenet newsgroups and to groups within our private network / evolved BBS (the infamous gweep.net).

It wasn’t until the advent of so-called “microblogging” and “social networks” that I moved my personal journaling to Facebook, and then Twitter. I put quotes around “social networks” because I still feel that no one has truly nailed social networking yet. Facebook and LinkedIn have obviously gotten the farthest, but they aren’t social networking tools. Or, if I’m feeling generous, I should say they have only the most rudimentary social networking functions – so much more could be done to manage and discover more about one’s relationships! Regardless, I went to Facebook when everyone else did, and stayed for a number of years; but I recently (finally) decided to “cut the cord” and leave the network – for good.

Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

Like many others did in recent years, I dithered about whether or not to continue using Facebook. Over the years, I’ve migrated from system to system like so many other digital nomads: in terms of “social” I go all the way back to Sixdegrees, then Friendster, MySpace… and finally to Facebook. With an itinerant history like that, I always felt that at some point it’d be time to move on to whatever was the next thing; I just didn’t expect the next best alternative was going back to independent blogging!

Ultimately deciding to delete my Facebook account was a simple matter of weighing the pros and the cons of using and maintaining it.

Reasons To Stay

The most obvious reason to stay was that EVERYONE ELSE IS DOING IT. I could easily send messages to my parents now living in the Deep Southwest; keep tabs on them and the rest of my extended family while they were keeping tabs on me. Having access to a network that most people are part of is pretty great, especially when so many less techie members in my social circles are using it.

As one of those “full stack” unicorn-like software engineers who has to wear every hat at the same time, I also had some incentive to stay connected to the platform so I could continue to develop applications on it and be able to integrate other systems with it. This is especially true for building at hackathons and cobbling together quick apps with a lot of the foundation already built.

Events, invitations, and group pages were all something I wanted to stay on top of; people and local businesses now regularly use Facebook as a nexus for event planning, since everyone is on it and you don’t need to remember anyone’s email or phone number to communicate with them. My recent inclusion in the private YxYY Facebook group also gave me a sudden upswing in interesting activity and a lot more friend requests.

Facebook has become like Las Vegas – a glitzy wonderland of games and entertainment, all style and no substance, and almost nothing like a “social network” at all.

 

Reasons To Go

I’m sure that the first thing most of you think I’d talk about as a reason to go is the privacy violation issue; while it’s a real problem, and Facebook has no respect for anyone’s privacy, it’s also a moot point. There is no privacy left in the world – the NSA monitors everything you say or do, remember? Giant multinationals have mountains of data about every one of us. Privacy died decades ago, so it’s not really related to all this.

No, the things that bother me most about Facebook are the bugs, the inconsistency of the experience, and the constant involuntary upgrades. All the things that I want to read and access, Facebook goes to great pains to hide.

Sadly, on top of these things, Facebook has also eliminated just about all the reasons to stay that I listed above. The fact that they now actively hide posts and even comments from people, groups, and fan pages that I’m interested in, make the point that “everyone” is on Facebook moot, because now I don’t interact with everyone any more. Remember the “Facebook is going to start charging you” hoax / meme? It’s basically true at this point, because you have to either go through a ridiculous set of preference and option changes over and over, or you have to pay to get your posts promoted so that people can see them; and this makes groups and fan pages less useful too, because they end up having to pay to get their announcements out to their members.

As far as events go, they’re never at the forefront, so I often forget when things are happening – no calendar on my timeline page? Ridiculous. And now in addition to the events I’ve been invited to (many of which could easily be classified as “event spam” from promoters trying to get me to come to their marketing parties) I also get suggested events that I almost never care about and would feel weird about inviting myself to anyways. And the game requests… good grief, the game requests!

Overall, I judged Facebook a terrible user experience that I cannot control at all and was no longer worth my time. When I found that WordPress was a viable choice, I made one more Facebook backup and promptly deleted my account. I’ve not looked back since.

So Why WordPress?

When I read the Wikipedia article detailing WordPress’s history, I discovered that the free and open source (free as in freedom) blogging system celebrated its 10th anniversary this year. I feel like I should have known about this milestone, as I clearly recall encountering WordPress many times as I migrated again and again across communications platforms. Each time I remember looking at WordPress and thinking “It doesn’t have everything I want.” It was always something: it was too clunky to use, it didn’t have every desired feature, it was too hard to maintain and upgrade, and it was ALWAYS getting hacked. Like so many other free software projects, it needed time to build momentum – GNU/Linux wasn’t built in a day. Maybe it takes a good decade for a free software project to actually come fully into its own?

Regardless, this time I have come to WordPress and I have not found it wanting. There is no disputing WordPress’s online domination, just as so many other free software projects dominate the web. The variety of themes and plugins is overwhelming, making its capabilities quite extensive. Automattic’s Jetpack plugins sweeten the deal, with many tasty pieces of slick functionality, including analytics through registering the blog at WordPress.org. That I was able to import all of my blog posts and comments from all my other blogging platforms made it a complete no-brainer – the only frontier that remains for me is creating an importer to convert my Facebook export into WordPress Posts.

There is no disputing WordPress’s online domination, just as so many other free software projects dominate the web.

 

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll also say that I started looking at WordPress as a solution again because I was given the gift of a lifetime personal account with WPEngine. I was fortunate enough to take part in the inaugural Yes by Yes Yes event in Palm Springs, where WPEngine was the major sponsor and very generously provided attendees with lifetime signup codes for personal blogs. I’ve been extremely pleased with it so far, and feel very secure using their painless and seamless hosting services.

“Now What Am I Supposed To Do?”

You’re probably asking yourself: “Should I quit Facebook?” I don’t have an answer, you’ve just got to figure it out for yourself – it’s your prerogative. What are you getting out of it? Are you spending a lot of time using it but find yourself endlessly frustrated? Is all that time and energy you put in worth what you’re getting out of it? Are you concerned about government surveillance, inappropriate trust relationships with major multinational corporations, and endless privacy violations? Does it suck that you have no control over who gets to see your posts, and that you don’t have any say in whose posts you get to see?

To me, Facebook has become like Las Vegas – a glitzy wonderland of games and entertainment, all style and no substance, and almost nothing like a “social network” at all. And just like in Glitter Gulch, a seedy underbelly is throbbing beneath the flashing lights, a churning well of lost souls fueling its engine of personal financial and spiritual ruin. Facebook addiction is as real as gambling addiction. Visitors to both are constantly bombarded by advertisements and empty promises. Everyone using their facilities is constantly surveilled and totally monitored. Casinos in particular do everything they can to keep you trapped inside their walls and to foil your sense of the passage of time… try logging out of Facebook some time and clearing out all your cookies; you’ll see just how tall and thick their garden walls really are.

I will say that I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything important post-Facebook. I certainly don’t miss all the noise, ads, game requests, spam, and garbage bombarding me.

Douglas Hofstadter’s Impact On My Life – A Strange Feedback Loop

Mike Caprio 2 Replies

Douglas Hofstadter shakes Mike's hand

The blogger closes a loop, shaking hands with the author after having his copy of GEB signed, (photo credit to Mike Bridge, @michaelbridge)

Douglas Hofstadter is one of those people who is known but to a few, yet is celebrated greatly among that small number. He is a professor of cognitive science, and learned in physics and philosophy, but he is a celebrity among computer scientists, primarily due to being the author of the Pulitzer prize-winning book “Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid” (well, that’s where my story starts anyways).

The First Step of The Loop

I came to GEB a little over 20 years ago, some time around the late Summer of 1994, at a time when my life was very much in transition. My friend Eric Markham had lent me his copy, a tenth anniversary edition, with a bookplate inside it indicating it was a high school award to him for excellence in mathematics. Like so many others, I was immediately spellbound by the book – and it truly changed my way of thinking about the world.

At that time I was on the brink of academic probation. I had entered college in 1992 intending to be a physics major without realizing that I lacked the passion or skills to pursue a career in the field. For almost two years I failed out of nearly every physics course I signed up for, and it had thrown my grades into the toilet. Eventually it dawned upon me (after spending inordinate amounts time on the Internet and BBS systems, and staying up night after night on dumb terminals messing around in IRC and MUDs) that computers were the thing I was really interested in, and that I should switch majors to computer science.

It was at first a pretty tough row to hoe. I had only ever programmed in BASIC on a Commodore 64, and that was about eight years earlier; now I was suddenly thrust into a world of C and data structures, as I switched over midway through the year and had missed the intro comp sci courses. But as I took more courses and learned more about the fundamental theories of computer science and programming languages, I only became more and more fascinated.

The timing of Douglas Hofstadter’s book entering my life couldn’t have been better. Unfortunately, other tragedies occurred, and by the end of 1994 I found myself suspended from school and recovering from a car accident at my parents’ home. I turned all my energies towards doing the makeup work necessary to improve my grades. My newfound passion for the beauty and elegance and creative power of programming languages drove me back into my academic career. Looking back I can see now that studying physics was a quest for truth and beauty; I have always been on that quest, and writing software ultimately became another extension of it once I realized that code was beautiful and that the theories of computer science were full of truths about the universe.

The Second Step of the Loop

Fast forward about ten years – my career as a software engineer takes a number of interesting twists and turns. I ultimately find myself living and working on Cape Cod for what I believed was a cutting edge software company, building with a product that builds itself. CranBerry was a really interesting tool that created web apps using metadata in database tables – no code was ever generated, everything rendered on the fly in the browser. We used SQL to create the models, views, and controllers; DDL gave you all the “types” and lengths of data variables, and DML created literal views on the tables that were the display layer on a web page as well as the stored procedures that ran business rules.

But the best part about it was the app that let you build apps; it built itself from its own metadata, and would all come crashing down if you just tweaked one little field. Thinking about the meta nature of this tool and other applications of it brought me back to the recursion and loops in GEB. So I started thumbing through the book again and carrying it around with me, and that’s why I was reading it in a café in the West Village in New York City.

I had visited my sister and her wife in Greenpoint off and on for several years, and on occasion would attend parties in Bushwick. I always thought that New York was too big for me, too busy, too crowded. Back then I was actually afraid of getting lost on the subway and thought it was impossibly complicated. One of the only places I enjoyed going to at all in Manhattan was the West Village, which mostly reminded me of Boston. So when I came to visit, that’s where I hung out.

What I didn’t understand at the time about New York City was that the magic of the place comes from serendipity; specifically from the power of meeting interesting people at odd times in unusual spaces and establishing a connection that would never occur anyplace else in the world. And this is exactly what happened when a contributing editor of WIRED magazine by the name of Josh McHugh came by my table to sit and talk with me. Why me? Because I was reading GEB, and as he explained, in his experience people who read GEB were fascinating in some respect and worth talking to.

I felt like the coolest person on the planet. Chatting casually with a guy who wrote features for WIRED about everything under the sun; computers and technology, economics, government and politics, you name it. It’s not a stretch by any means to say that experience inspired me to keep coming back to New York City, and ultimately led to me moving here when it came time to pull the stakes up – I remember thinking: “Sure, I could go to Boston where the tech scene is jumping; but if I want to really live my life, New York has everything Boston has plus way WAY more.”

The Third Step of the Loop

Jump ahead about ten more years. I’d been established in New York for some time, and was now starting to make a name for myself in the tech scene. I became a part of StartupBus, changed my life again for the better, and helped grow our alumni community and otherwise do my part to nurture the entrepreneurial ecosystem of the city. I tried my hand at startup stuff, but ultimately that didn’t pan out – so I found myself working at About.com, after being independently referred for a job twice by folks working there. This of course led to my team becoming internally acquired by Ask.com during a reorg… and this led to me attending Strange Loop 2013, the programming languages conference named after the very concept Hofstadter had coined and written about in GEB.

When I learned that Douglas Hofstadter himself would be giving the final keynote, I immediately retrieved my copy of GEB and packed it in a suitcase. I needed to have him sign it, although I had no idea whether meeting him would even be possible – turns out all I had to do was wait in the grand theater of the opera house, because he came right off the stage and on the floor. It all happened fairly quickly; he signed the book, and I thanked him for his work, and got away as fast as I could before I embarrassed myself by being an awkward nerd fanboy.

But it wasn’t until after the conference ended and I was walking away from the opera house directly behind Dr. Hofstadter that I had the sense of having gone through a loop myself; it wasn’t until I saw him walking ahead of me that I really thought about what an impact his writing had on me, and when I ran my mind back across all those threads of time and found them joined together at those crucial points by his book… Well, it’s just humbling when you consider how vast and connected the web of causality is. When you really stop to examine the impact we all have on each others’ lives, when you go down that rabbit hole and you realize just how much every decision we make affects everyone around us, you discover yet another profound truth, a truth just as vital as the ones found in maths and computation, in natural laws and in natural beauty – the system is everything, and everything is the system, and we only experience the smallest corner of it for the briefest time.

A Return to the Beginning

I came across The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows while I was at Strange Loop in St. Louis. I was feeling awkward and a little sad about feeling too socially inept to connect in real life with a person who I had only followed on Twitter (and had not even tweeted at). Another friend of a friend on Twitter replied to me after I described this feeling and told me about the word sonder. It fit perfectly, and now I find myself wanting to use the words sonder, sonderous, and sonderful more and more often. And look at Twitter, yet another web of webs that continuously produces sonder as we connect and disconnect with one another; it’s so great at illuminating more of the threads between us and lets us traverse more paths than we’ve ever been able to before.

I certainly felt most sonderful as I watched Dr. Hofstadter walk away; he surely didn’t realize that his work had led to our shaking hands that day. That feeling of sonder was only reserved for my side of the loop that had formed between us; his side was the execution, and mine was the consciousness of it.

So meta!

Black Cat Appreciation Day; Happy Friday the 13th!

Mike Caprio Leave a Reply

I Love My Black Cat!

Don’t fall prey to superstitions! General Gau asks that you remember that black cats need your help, because they are the least adopted from animal shelters, and when they do get adopted on dates like Halloween and Friday the 13th, bad and stupid people do cruel and evil things to them in the name of “black magic”.

Black cats are well known to be friendly, intelligent, vocal, loyal, and are excellent mousers. This is why medieval women brewers kept them as pets – to both protect their grain stores and to be loving companions. The misogynistic nobility and churches of the time decided they wanted a monopoly on brewing to control everyone’s drinking supply (no one could drink the water due to microorganisms; the only drinkable option was “small beer”). They thus proclaimed all non-guild (female) brewers to be heretics and persecuted them literally to death.

The medieval depiction of a female brewer; branded as a heretic by aristocrats and church officials and persecuted to death.

The misogynistic medieval depiction of a female brewer; branded as a heretic by aristocrats and church officials and persecuted to death. All she’s lacking is her brewing cauldron – note the black kitty!

Thus today we use the vile propaganda of long dead evil men to entertain our children at Halloween.  The icon of a woman with a tall pointy brewer’s hat to identify her amongst a crowd in the marketplace, a bubbling cauldron to make beer in, a broom for sweeping grains, and a black cat companion represents a “witch”. Black cats really got a raw deal!

So fight back against anti-feminists, religious zealotry, and general douchebaggery and adopt a black cat!

General Gau the black catGeneral Gau the black cat 2General Gau the black cat 3

Black Cat Appreciation Day is August 17th, but we celebrate it every day!