The Fall of the House of Gates?

Fully reckoning with Bill Gates means not just focusing on how he treats women—vital as that is—but also confronting our own deep-seated worship of wealth and hardwired belief in hero narratives.

I remember the Bill Gates that emerged from the antitrust trial of Microsoft in the 1990s, and books that came out subsequently from people who’d been at or around Microsoft in the 1980s and 1990s. In one way or another, he has been working to remove that image of himself from the public consciousness ever since.

Unfortunately, as the article above points out, we still have a tendency to lionise smart, successful people and overlook their other deeds. Even when those deeds become the thing they’re best known for.

Mozilla have been teasing a new look for their Firefox browser for a while, so I decided to download and install the latest version to see if the hoopla was justified.

To be honest, I’m not seeing any great difference. Yes, it may be faster under the hood, and perhaps more streamlined on the surface, but what struck me was how little they’d actually changed things.

I guess I’ve been spoilt from using Vivaldi as my primary browser since last year. While Vivaldi is based on Chromium, the team behind it have put a lot of effort into making it more personal through the features they’ve added. I’m not just talking visual customisation, but the ability to change things like handling of browser tabs, keyboard and mouse gesture shortcuts, and Web Panels that let you open a second website in mobile view alongside the page you’re currently viewing. Heck, they even let you increase the size of the user interface!

Is there anything Firefox has that I miss? Their Containers system for sealing certain sites and services (Facebook, YouTube) so their cookies can’t follow you to other places — that was something I used a lot. Per-site zoom settings was also helpful. But other than those, Vivaldi pretty much covers everything I need.

And I have to also say, with a heavy heart, that my faith in Mozilla has diminished over the past year. Their focus has drifted a lot, and while their commitment to web standards and user rights appears, on the surface, undimmed, it is painfully obvious that they’re only still keeping the lights on because Google needs to point to a ‘competitor’ to try and stave off increasing scrutiny from regulatory authorities.

I think it would be great if the teams at both Mozilla and Vivaldi (and Brave and DuckDuckGo, for that matter) could work together to not only improve the browser but form a united front to break Google’s hold over it. As things stand now, there’s a real possibility that Google could still force through technologies like FLoC that exist primarily to reinforce their dominance, simply because so many people use Chrome. Neither Microsoft nor Apple seem interested in anything other than protecting their corners, and while the latter talks a good talk about privacy that only extends to those within its ecosystem.

That doesn’t mean that I want Mozilla to throw in the towel on their browser technology, any more than I’d want Apple to throw away WebKit. We need that diversity. I remember only too well the stagnation that occurred during the several years that Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 6 stayed put on millions of PCs, and I don’t want the web to be reduced to only what serves the interests of Google and their partners.

Cyan Magenta Yellow Butts

This is the best Illustrator bug ever and I hope they never fix it.

Apparently this has been in Adobe Illustrator since at least 2014, and that app has been rewritten at least once since then, as I recall.

Quite why Adobe haven’t hired Peggy to stress-test Illustrator to find all the bugs still lurking, I don’t know. She is probably one of only a few people outside of Adobe itself who regularly push the app to its limits.

The OSS bubble that is and the blogging bubble that was

Baldur Bjarnason:

Google Adwords changed all of that. That, as well as free weblog hosting, fuelled the blogging bubble. You wrote a blog using a weblog system that came with decent SEO baked in (semantic structure and cross-linking, that’s all you needed back then). Most of your traffic came from Google’s search results. All of your revenue came from Google’s Adwords. It became profitable to churn out indistinct pap that passed as informative to fill Google’s search engine results, so people did.

The weblog ecosystem was built entirely around extracting value from Adwords. For a few, it was a springboard to launch something else. A few writing careers got off the ground. But the vast, vast majority was just Adwords. Weblogs as social media? A sideshow. Weblogs as a unique medium? Incidental.

Even outfits with paid subscriptions, like MetaFilter, relied on Adwords and had to course-correct once Google popped that bubble.

Which they did because they had to: most of it was fraudulent. Fake clicks. Spam blogs. Link farms. Black hat SEO. The blogging economy was filled with bad practices all around. People today don’t appreciate just how rampant these practices were. Most of us didn’t notice because we were in our tiny corner, all reading the same few popular bloggers (an early version of the modern ‘influencer’). But outside of that corner, blogs were done for Google and paid for by Google. Outside of a small number of active commenters (many of whom were toxic as hell), the traffic these blogs had existed solely because it suited Google to give blogs a high ‘PageRank’. They had no meaningful community or engagement to call their own.

After a few years of buying into the hype, advertisers started to push back, forcing Google to clean up their index. That consisted of downplaying blogs and blog-like sites and purging spam-blogs and blog farms (many of which had been hosted on Google Blogger, natch).

The blog gold rush ended. The tools surrounding it started dying, hastened by Google sucking the oxygen out of the software ecosystem by acquiring, offering for free, and then putting on life support the core tools in the ecosystem.

FeedBurner and Google Reader were not victims of Google’s policies. They were the weapons Google used to ensure that the only player extracting value from blogging was Google.

That last paragraph (emphasis added by me) nails it.

Google ultimately only acts in its own interest.

The infamous ‘Google Graveyard’ of shuttered services and products is merely those things that Google developed that either were no longer of value to Google or could potentially weaken Google in the long term.

They clearly learnt the lessons from Microsoft’s antitrust trial in the late 1990s, presenting themselves as on the side of users and developers and cultivating their trust.

They wrote the playbook that Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft (oh, irony) and even Apple have since followed.

Bitcoin rival Chia ‘destroyed’ hard disc supply chains, says its boss

Matthew Sparkes, New Scientist:

Chia, a cryptocurrency intended to be a “green” alternative to bitcoin has instead caused a global shortage of hard discs. Gene Hoffman, the president of Chia Network, the company behind the currency, admits that “we’ve kind of destroyed the short-term supply chain”, but he denies it will become an environmental drain.

Translation: “It’s great, apart from all these problems, which we’ve decided aren’t our problems.”

The only thing ‘green’ about any cryptocurrency is how much money the punters will lose when the bubble bursts, and conversely how much those boosting said cryptocurrencies will pocket. The whole thing is not only a con, but a con that will wreck the planet in order to make a few folks even richer.

Over the last few years, I’ve gradually changed my dietary habits. Part of that was because, after my father passed away in late 2018, there wasn’t a need to cook big meals, and no desire to drink wine with them. We opted for smaller, easier-to-prepare meals with smaller portions, and also started cutting out other things like processed meat.

But a much bigger impetus came at the start of 2020, when my sister announced that she was going to try going vegan, initially for January. A few months later, both she and her partner had managed to adjust with any major issues, and decided to carry on with it. She had been vegetarian in the past, mostly successfully, although it was a particular challenge during the years she spent living and working in Italy. But her partner was coming to veganism head-on, so for him it was a much bigger shift. Hats off to both of them!

Lockdown restrictions, as well as panic-buying early in 2020, meant that initially we were just trying to make sure we had enough food to last us the week. But once things settled down a bit, we started to look at what we were eating and what the alternatives were.

(To be continued in future posts.)

Google Chrome product manager Janice Wong:

In the coming weeks, some Android users in the US on Chrome Canary may see an experimental Follow feature designed to help people get the latest content from sites they follow. Our goal for this feature is to allow people to follow the websites they care about, from the large publishers to the small neighborhood blogs, by tapping a Follow button in Chrome. When websites publish content, users can see updates from sites they have followed in a new Following section on the New Tab page.

Keeping a site’s RSS up-to-date will ensure Chrome can provide the latest content to users with this experiment. We will provide more guidance to web publishers as we learn and evaluate whether this feature will graduate from an experiment to a broader rollout in Chrome.

To say that this is a surprise would be an understatement. Google Reader both popularised and hampered RSS from its inception to its demise in 2013. Popularised by giving it the Google halo, hampered by overshadowing competition and inserting themselves into the protocols with their own alternative, Atom.

Thankfully, competition did appear again after Google left the stage, but of course the spotlight left with them, and Facebook and Twitter had already sucked up most of the potential users.

I spotted this news via a link to TechCrunch’s reporting on it. Titled “Google revives RSS“, it makes it sound like Google is doing us a favour by making it easier to follow site updates, albeit only as an experiment in Chrome for Android for now.

This paragraph from Frederic Lardinois’s piece made me raise an eyebrow:

A Google spokesperson told me that the way the company has implemented this is to have Google crawl RSS feeds “more frequently to ensure Chrome will be able to deliver the latest and greatest content to users in the Following section on the New Tab page.”

Huh, so you’re not actually following the RSS feed directly, if I’m reading this right. Instead, Google scans it for you and delivers the results to you through Chrome. Not unlike any of the other RSS aggregator services out there, but this is Google, who loves to track and gather data about people. Colour me suspicious.

It seems I’m in good company. Here’s Nick Heer:

It is, however, utterly hilarious to me that this is being billed as an “experiment”, as though following websites through RSS feeds is somehow novel. TechCrunch went a step further in its coverage […] saying only “diehard news junkies kept holding on to their Feedly accounts and old copies of NetNewsWire” after Google killed Reader in 2013. That link points to the Wikipedia article for NetNewsWire, as though it is some forgotten relic of a medieval Slavic population and not perfectly modern software. What else can we do but worship Google for its undying commitment to the latest and greatest open web standards?

And Gabe Weatherhead gets right to the point:

It does make me wonder what advertising scheme they are planning to shoehorn into their version of RSS that wasn’t possible 8 years ago.

Google has form when it comes to ‘improving’ the web. They introduced AMP a few years ago, a means for publishers to deliver information more ‘efficiently’ to users that just so happened to funnel everything through Google. Oh, and it was made known that publishers using AMP would rank higher in Google search. That was roundly condemned, and Google have now backed down. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they’re going to take another, this time by persuading publishers to switch from RSS to whatever Google suggests, which I’ve no doubt will benefit publishers (and Google, obviously) but not necessarily users or the open web.

The return of fancy tools

Tom MacWright:

Technology is seeing a little return to complexity. Dreamweaver gave way to hand-coding websites, which is now leading into Webflow, which is a lot like Dreamweaver. Evernote give way to minimal Markdown notes, which are now becoming Notion, Coda, or Craft. Visual Studio was “disrupted” by Sublime Text and TextMate, which are now getting replaced by Visual Studio Code. JIRA was replaced by GitHub issues, which is getting outmoded by Linear. The pendulum swings back and forth, which isn’t a bad thing. Some of the reasons for the last pivot – from complexity to simplicity – have been solved. Webflow fills a need, and produces better output than Dreamweaver did. Notion is more accessible to people who don’t know Markdown. VS Code is very helpful. Excessively helpful. It’s fine.

The same problems will crop up. In structured editors like Notion, the tendency to overstructure is common. Usually you’ll see a lot of structure – a table of nested pages with types, very particular formatting, a well-chosen icon. And then, after putting the structure in place, the content arrived and didn’t fit it. The columns aren’t filled in, or are filled with heterogenous information. The structure is encoded, but doesn’t reflect reality or doesn’t reflect how people actually thought about the information.

Webflow has buttons to add effects. It’s easy to add effects. Effects will be added, because there’s a button to add them. Everything for the next few years will slowly fade in as you scroll. I don’t know why. Stripe did it.

Fancy tools aren’t bad. Professional authors use Microsoft Word and they have the absolute courage, the phenomenal self-control, to never fiddle with fonts. I, however, don’t. Give me iA Writer to save me from myself.

I’ve run into this several times over the years. Dreamweaver was great for static websites, but it struggled with interaction, server-side code, responsive design. Evernote was great for ingesting information, but if you wanted to clean up text in order to make more sense of it, good luck! (I ended up using Sublime Text with a plugin to connect to my Evernote notes to do that.) Trello is really nice for planning, but with no real data portability I ended up recreating tasks from scratch when I decided to move on. (No, JSON ≠ data portability solved!)

And it’s not just apps where the pendulum swing has happened. I have bitter memories of Microsoft’s Small Business Server, which was super-helpful but quickly fell back to regular Windows, complete with obscure error messages, if anything went wrong.

Like most things in life, removing friction is good as long as it’s in moderation. Sometimes it’s helpful to actually think through what you’re trying to do.