An RSS Conversion Site

I’m toying with building a site that would aid people who use RSS entirely for things that they scan through but don’t need to read (nor care if they miss parts of) in transitioning from RSS.
The notion is that every site (exclusive of personal blogs, really) that has an RSS feed that updates regularly almost certainly also has a Twitter feed, potentially an App.net feed, or a mailing list, or some combination. Email lists stink for frequently delivered routine stuff, but many of the RSS feeds I follow, I’d be better off getting a monthly newsletter than daily headlines.
While I have problems with Twitter having clamped down on behavior that software clients from third parties can engage in, it’s still very useful and there are many Twitter accounts that are effectively the same as the RSS feed. (The difference is really the preview, but I mostly scan headlines in RSS. Some Twitter clients did — do any still? — let you see a Web preview of anything included in the message.)
App.net isn’t yet of a scale to replace RSS or Twitter feeds, but it added a free-by-invite tier perfect for announcement accounts, since the free accounts may have unlimited followers (but only follow up to 40 others). App.net allows robust use of its API for interaction, and thus I wouldn’t be surprised if sites gear up for the slight expense or trouble of paying $100 per year for an App.net developer account and pushing out one or more RSS-like feeds there.
If I built a site, I would let people add mappings: Web site name, feed name, sub-site URL (main site if not a subsite), feed URL, Twitter account equivalent, App.net account equivalent, and a URL pointing to a mailing list.
Then people could upload OPML files or lists of feeds and this site would spit out the equivalents. Needs to be crowdsourced, although it’s possible I could write a scraper that would pull down some of the information itself.
I’m not sure I have the chops or time to do this at the moment, as it requires a decent form front end to update data. (The back end, I’m solid on.) I’d also require moderation, so that people couldn’t just post nonsense or overwrite good information with new, bad information.
Thinking on this.

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The Sanctity of Logic

I got into a long debate a couple of nights ago with a self-identified Catholic pro-lifer, Suzanne Fortin (@Roseblue), who has an answer for every question as to why same-sex marriage shouldn’t be allowed. None of them rely precisely on legal precedent; rather, they seem to stem from a specific set of historical values, a reading of what “natural” means, and an insistence on a property that only a pair of men and women can share.
I spent hours engaged with this woman partly because I wanted to know exactly what people who maintain this line of reasoning are really espousing. Here’s what I came away with.
She was game, almost so much that I thought she might be a troll, making up stuff to confuse those of us who support the notion of government not intruding on personal decisions about who we love and how our children are raised in safe environments. I appreciate that we had a long and civil, if tense, discussion that ultimately involved dozens of other people, including a woman in a same-sex relationship who has given birth to five children, and another who lost the ability that afternoon to ever have children, and was outraged at Fortin’s statements.
Here’s what I learned from her, if you’re trying to understand the thinking of religious fundamentalists on the issue. This is apparently a bit of catechism among people who think like this and it starts with three principles.

  • Complementarianism requires a man and a woman in marriage.
  • Heterosexual monogamy is natural, while homosexuality is not.
  • Procreation is the basis of marriage.

The first is a complicated wrapper of things, and I didn’t quite understand the term as she used it. It means that men and women were created differently by her supreme power and only when matched as a gender-differentiated set can a marriage be valid. (She left out in her discussion all the issues associated with this concept about men being “rulers” and women being suitable only for bearing children and household operations which is associated with this concept in theology.)

It’s clearly and repeatedly the basis of a lot of dispute over the future of marriage as a secular institution, even though the principle is theological. If you either disagree about a creator god or you don’t believe that one’s private religious beliefs should be the test for how civil rights are handled, then it’s irrelevant. Even if one finds legal precedent that cites it in America (or elsewhere), there are plenty of things one can find in old laws related to theology that have been ruled unconstitutional or that faded away over time.
The second point is fascinating, as Fortin asserted repeatedly that male-female unions are natural. But her “natural” is about natural law. She links in her Twitter stream to this essay, which starts with the assertion of a specific (capital G) creator god, which is in this context the Christian God, and more to the point, her Christian God (not one of the many thousands of variant beliefs that involve Jesus). This is part of the religious notion that without a god, there is no morality, and thus we exist in a vacuum. Without a foundational principle, we will all act without any restraint as if we were all demons in hell.
What’s interesting here is that in our discussion, I pointed out that homosexuality is commonly found in nature, and that there is an increasing body of evidence that finds a biological basis for homosexuality (and other spectrums of body identification and blurred boundaries) in human beings.

But this is logically weak. She asserts that one form of coupling, to produce children (as if that is the only reason among animals and humans to copulate), is natural, while other strong bonds are not. Killing progeny is found in nature, she notes, but there she trips up. Her moral judgement is that killing one’s young is wrong (which society generally agrees, despite widespread behavior in India and China and elsewhere in female infanticide and abortion), but male-female procreation is good. She doesn’t back nature; she backs god-defined “natural law,” an entirely different thing.
The same principle is used, of course, to dismiss any construct that isn’t “natural” by that religious definition of natural. One could argue that all human-made technology and many modern constructs of society aren’t natural (even though they may be deconstructed into aspects of human behavior).
The third point is easier. She said, about 100 times in different ways, that because gay couples cannot have children together, they lack some special something she asserts is necessary to marriage. That something isn’t encoded in modern law: any male and female in most countries may marry without the intent nor ability to produce offspring. The only time you need a special something is when you invoke magic from the sky in which a marriage is a religious act rather than a secular one.
Her response to me and many others who asked where this puts infertile partners or couples, those who don’t want children, those who are too old to have children safely, those who are either adopted or adopt children, and those who use birth control, her answer was the same variation on this theme:

In every scenario presented, she said the theoretical potential of procreation overrides the fact that people were not or could not actually create a child.
When pushed, she started to offer blatantly magical thinking, positing that any fertility problem could be solved by medical science in the future, clearing up that problem, and any attempt to not have children didn’t matter because of this incredible potential.

Asked about using medical science, including the Star Trek-style notions she advanced, for gays was bad because there wasn’t a mom and dad involved. She declined or evaded answers about sperm donors for infertile couples, in-virto fertilization, egg donors, and other issues, but did say that surrogacy was bad for children.
On adoption, she repeated this, in this case directly insulting one person’s parents:

This doesn’t answer the question, either, about why and whether in her view adoption by people who cannot have children together may adopt and still be ok. She also noted that marriages that weren’t consummated could be annulled, which apparently fixes that problem.

The logical conclusion of her arguments would be:

  • Penis-vagina child creation is best. Failing that, any current medical intervention to get a married sperm and ovum together is just fine, including in-vitro fertilization and other techniques that involve no penis-vagina contact. Her position on turkey basters is inferred.
  • If you can’t have kids, either current procedures will allow you to have them, or some magical medical procedure will be invented to repair you, such as an artificial uterus. Even if there’s no cure, the fact that it could be cured means it’s ok.
  • If you don’t want to have any kids, the fact that you could, accidentally, makes your marriage legitimate in her eyes.
  • Lesbians can’t have children even if they give birth. Because those children, bereft of a married sperm-ovum combination, can’t have a loving home.

What’s odd is that her arguments have a strange eugenics tinge to them along with the religious. Because her worldview doesn’t require actual intercourse as the sole method of procreation, that means she’s concerned essentially about the combination of genetic material from marriage couples.
I asked her if she had heard of parthenogenesis. She didn’t reply.
I brought up anti-miscegenation laws, slavery, and other issues, noting that in years past her arguments about nature and historical practice were given in often exactly the same words, and we’ve moved on. Her response was that procreation was unique.
Later, I examined her full feed, and found that she’s a full-on bigot, not just a marriage-rights specialist, defending the rights of business people, including those offering facilities rental to the general public (not to members of a specific church or religion), to discriminate against gays, lesbians, and others because they don’t like the notion of homosexuality.

“The gay.”
The irony in a Catholic and a woman lecturing others on tolerating discrimination based on a personal belief about that class’s worthiness to exist does not go unnoticed. I would recommend to her a trip to the 1900s in New York City (as a Catholic man) or the early 1950s anywhere in America as a woman of any religion.
Three bits of humor, too.
First, she lives in Canada, which has had marriage equality for years. She said several times that heterosexual marriage is the only kind every allowed worldwide. A little myopic (and increasingly untrue), especially in her backyard.
Second, we had this discussion the day after it was revealed that prominent Republicans had signed to an amicus brief to the Supreme Court (the signatories now number over 100), which is deciding whether a proposition in California to overturn a California Supreme Court decision is constitutional. Major businesses have now also signed on.
Third, she asserts polygamy is fine, though inferior to monogamous marriages. But apparently, she doesn’t follow the issues of polygamy through to their logical conclusions, nor how polygamy is practiced in its many forms historically and currently.
Many people wondered why I bothered. But I wasn’t so much looking to convince her, but to understand the shape of her logic, because so many people clearly believe similar things.
What became clear is that her appeal to nature was “natural law,” a religion-derived interpretation; her invocation of a sometimes magical “potential for procreation” in theory and not in fact a derivation of Catholic thinking and never encoded in American law in this way as a marriage requirement or basis; and her dismissal of adopted parents (but, weirdly, not children) among other characterizations that she finds very few marriages actually meet her test for approval.
If you believe procreation is a blessing bestowed by the, a, or some god(s), you won’t hear any complaints from me. The process and results are a secular miracle if not also a religious one. But when you define that miracle as a protected right that you want to enforce on everyone else, you are the one at odds with the way in which secular society works.
She’s a bigot and lacks empathy. It’s worth understanding her point of view, as we continue to need to counter it to increase the amount of love and happiness in the world.

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Silver Linings MacBook

How geeky am I? Lynn and I went to see Silver Linings Playbook last weekend. I’d heard it was good, quirky, and raw at times. The first 15 minutes I was concerned that I might hate it. But then it all snapped together when Jennifer Lawrence appears. She and Bradley Cooper have great chemistry, and the film is full of both tropes (meet cute-ish, etc.) and anti-tropes (some very raw and honest moments in which truth is being spoken).
But the thing I found most amusing is that as the movie progressed, I was more and more confident that it was shot in 2008 and left in the can. The iPod generations shown and a house-wide iPod drop-in system that Cooper’s friend installs. Lawrence’s white MacBook and iPod speaker dock of that era. Nobody has an iPhone (which would have been mostly outside the socioeconomic and technical interests of the movie’s main characters). People are still using flip phones.
They must have shot this in 2008 and left it sitting around, right? But why do the actors not look younger?
We leave the movie and I look it up. The movie was made from a book that tracked the football season and the Eagles performance in 2008. Of course. Lynn and I don’t watch sports, so some of the events that year would be absolutely memorable to football fans or anyone who follows sports with anything like attention. The movie kept the timeframe the same.
We laughed at ourselves. At least half or more of the people watching the film would immediately have understood from the football what year it was. I looked at the tech!

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Get the Name of the Bit

I’ve written before about the concept of “get the name of the dog” in reporting. This is an oft-repeated maxim of Roy Peter Clark (who got it from the St. Petersburg Times). When you’re reporting first-hand, details matter, and readers demand them. If you tell a story involving a dog and omit his or her name, they notice, and the story’s incomplete.
I had a “name of the dog” moment while reporting on the Voyager missions recently for The Economist. I’ve got a piece going up online soon at the Babbage blog based in part on an interview with the mission’s chief, Edward Stone, who has run the project since its inception in 1972.
He mentioned that the most recent true glitch was a “flipped bit” in the memory of Voyager 2. They dumped the core, downloaded it (a neat trick at 160bps and 18 billion kilometers), figured out the problem, and reloaded the software. This happens even on earth due to cosmic rays, silicon expansion, and other random facts. It’s remarkable the Voyagers haven’t had more of these.
But I realized when I got back to Seattle from Pasadena, I didn’t know what state the bit had flipped between. Get the name of the dog. I found NASA’s log on the matter, and, sure enough, they report that the bit flipped from 0 to 1. It’s in the story.
Now, the state of a bit and the name of the dog aren’t the same thing. But reading that a bit flipped from 0 to 1 is more specific and more concrete than reading that a bit “flipped.” It also explains what happened to less technical readers: a value changed and they know what values were involved.
No, I didn’t get the memory location. This isn’t a 1980s BYTE magazine article.

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A Million Podcasts

Apparently, appearing on Jeopardy makes you podcast-popular. I appeared on seemingly endless podcasts from October to December.
Here are a few highlights:
The Incomparable: All about my Jeopardy run, along with discussions of the game-show genre, especially Andy Ihnatko’s favorite, The Amazing Race.
The Talk Show with John Gruber: we talked Jeopardy, my job at The Magazine, Microsoft’s Surface, Apple job shuffles, and more.
Horace Dediu, the smartest mobile industry analyst, runs Asymco, but has a podcast called Critical Path. He launched a second one with interviews called High Density starting with yours truly. I explained some of the economic issues with Jeopardy, told him what I know about how The Economist works, and discussed modern journalism.
Marketplace Tech Report had me on to talk about algebraic data packet oversampling (seriously), but they also quizzed me about my game show experience.
David Sparks and Katie Floyd invited me on to Mac Power Users, where we got into workflow and my favorite apps for getting things done — as well as Jeopardy.
Unrelated to all these, I launched a new podcast series, The New Disruptors, about how creators and producers use new technological means to connect with audiences. It’s an eclectic show bound together by talking to people about making things and ideas for themselves. I’ve put out five episodes so far in the weekly series.
If you’d like to hear me quote Lauren Graham in this NSFW outtakes portion of The Incomparable in her role in Bad Santa, listen.

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What a Year

So many societies have myths that basking in one’s good fortune will result in some kind of evil (or sometimes good) force bringing down hell and damnation and boils and plagues upon you that it worries me to recount what a great year 2012 was.
But it was. And I can’t resist.
This year Ben turned 8 and Rex turned 5. Ben is a math whiz and in 3rd grade, and Rex started kindergarten (well prepped by his preschool), and learned to read. Ben and Rex are learning to swim, and Rex mastered a bike without training wheels. They are amazing fellows, great companions, and exhaust us thoroughly (as they should). Their sweetness cannot be measured in any units I know.
Lynn and I had a really wonderful year, our 15th together and our 10th married. We continue to learn and grow together and explore new challenges as the kids get bigger and we need more outlets for our own distinct interests. She’s become one of the best social dancers in Seattle, and helps organize regular dance events and support her dance friends in many ways.
Lynn’s brother Michael and his wife Kathy have the most delightful child anyone could imagine, and then they went and had another! Jordan, the older, welcomed Maggie, his little sister, in October. Lynn went to spend a week to help with Jordan before and after Maggie’s birth, and I had the privilege of a trip in November taking care of the easiest baby in the world and her nearly equally easy older bro. I love them all to pieces, and am glad they are so close by.
Susan glennI started the year off interviewing my friend Susan Orlean on stage at Macworld|iWorld, the current name of the venerable Mac conference. She’s a hoot and a good sport and a real techie geek at heart. (Also a fabulous writer. Get her Rin Tin Tin. It’s not just about the dog; it’s about how we lived in America. It came out in 2011, and it’s a lovely book with lots of resonance, humor, and surprise.)
I wrote some books this year. Take Control of BBEdit, about the program I live in most of the day for writing, editing, and programming. Take Control of Messages in Mountain Lion, the chat app that baffled everyone, and I tried to decipher. I also did a thorough revise of Take Control of Networking and Security (now covering iOS 6) and Take Control of Your 802.11n AirPort Network.
I wrote about 100 articles for the Economist’s Babbage blog — not an exaggeration. I write twice weekly, and I think I’m above 250 since I started doing so in 2010. I also had a few in print in the Technology Quarterly section, notably a biographical sketch of Chris Soghoian.
In February, I traveled east for a few days with several dear old friends from my time working at the Center for Creative Imaging. One of our number was bit by her dog just before her trip, and couldn’t join us in South Portland, Maine. I also had a quick visit to Camden, where the Center had been located to see some other old friends. It was great to catch up and reminisce, drink wine, and eat great food. It’s a sign of age when you realize you’ve known people dearly now for longer than the age you were when you met them.
Lacquer Disc Cutting System
In May, I went to D.C. to see my friend, Matt Bors, an editorial cartoonist, receive the Herblock Foundation Award, the first time an alt-cartoonist had won. Matt won the Sigma Chi Award and was one of two finalists for the Pulitzer. He also later did a successful Kickstarter campaign (with, ahem, some advice from yours truly) for his first collection of cartoons and essays. While in D.C., I did interviews at the Folger Shakespeare Library and Library of Congress’s audio section. On a later trip to Montréal, I stopped over in D.C. to take a drive out into rural Virginia to where the Library of Congress keeps its audiovisual materials in carefully maintained vaults and handles conservation. (The story I wrote about Matt was one of about 18 stories for BoingBoing last year, too. They picked three among their best stories of 2012.)

Glenn Fleishman 6459I’m burying the lede, as it’s said, because in August, I flew to Los Angeles to tape my appearances on Jeopardy! I had auditioned in August 2011, and was called in January to tape in February — right during my trip with my buddies. I asked if I could tape at a later date, and I was lucky enough that they called again in July. I went to L.A. for two days, won two programs, and earned $30,000. Not bad for about an hour’s (on-air) work. I provide links to several articles I wrote in this other blog post. The shows aired in October, and I had a fun viewing party at a local sports bar place with dozens of friends and their kids.
During the summer, I launched a crowdfunding campaign for a book that would explain the ins and outs of…creating crowdfunding campaigns. Yes, I was serious. Within a week or so, I realized I’d made some mistakes in rewards and focus, and decided to pull it down and retool.
XOXO: Studio NeatThat led directly to a podcast I launched in December called The New Disruptors that was also sparked by attending XOXO, a remarkable event in Portland in September. Both XOXO and my podcast are about the new tools that connect creative artists and producers with audiences. The New Disruptors is a weekly interview program on the Mule Radio Syndicate, and it’s a lot of fun. I’m enjoying the focus on creativity and inspiration. (The show may lead to revising my crowdfunding book campaign and relaunching it.)
After XOXO, I went to speak at Çingleton Deux in October in Montréal. A nasty cold kept me from exploring the city much, although the old town is rather gorgeous, but I hung out with many old and new friends from the Mac community. The event was for developers and interface designers, but about the things one can think about in making software rather than about writing programming code. (My presentation and a video of me giving it will be up on the site at some point.)
NewImageAt Çingleton, I met Marco Arment, the creator of Instapaper, who had just launched The Magazine, a fortnightly non-fiction publication available only in iOS 6 and only by paid subscription. It’s a fascinating attempt to make a sustainable publication with fresh material. I pitched myself as editor shortly after Çingleton, and Marco took me on. It’s a part-time gig, and an enormous amount of fun assigning out articles (with a good pay rate, even) and working with writers to bring their voices out in the stories they write.
This was a year of podcasts, too, in which I appeared on innumerable ones, many after winning Jeopardy, including John Gruber’s The Talk Show. As in previous years, I appeared many times on the geeky podcast The Incomparable, including hosting an episode about Futurama and co-hosting one on dragons.
I continue to work hard on TidBITS, a Mac publication that now has the record of being the longest-continuously produced Internet-only publication after an Irish newsletter shut down. Going strong since 1990, we launched paid memberships in late 2011, and had a tremendous response that allowed us to fund more writing and development. I handle server operations and programming, and write regularly — about 70 articles of varying lengths in 2012. (TidBITS also publishes the Take Control books that I mention earlier.)
I’m sure I’m leaving plenty of things out, as impossibly packed as my schedule already sounds.
Life is quite wonderful on all fronts, and 2012 may be my vintage year. Subsequent years will have to work hard to live up to it, but I think I could take some quieter times ahead without complaint.

Posted in Journalism, Rex | Leave a comment

Time Yells, and You Are There

TimeCover1992
I didn’t move to Maine in mid-1991 to take a job in which the art director of Time Magazine would call me up and scream impotently at me, but then we never know how life will play out, do we?
Once upon a time, Kodak built a teaching center for creative artists and professionals in mid-Coast Maine, one of the most beautiful places in the country. People came to take classes to help them navigate the rough transition between analog media and new digital tools, like photography. My job was to keep 100 Macs and all the peripherals running and help design courses that served thousands of students a year. We also invited up well-known professionals for special, lavish events. One of them was a regular Time Man of the Year cover photographer, Greg Heisler.
It’s hard to recall now but Time and the defunct Newsweek were respected publications in the early 1990s, closer to The New York Times and The Economist, before they moved towards being like People without People’s integrity and reporting skills. Time‘s Man of the Year was a press event in itself that made piles of money for Time with extra issues sold.
Greg was an incredibly nice guy, and we loved him in part for his devastating shot of George H.W. Bush that had graced the January 1991 Men of the Year cover. Called “The Two George Bushes,” Greg had arranged the shot meticulously “in camera” as two exposures with no digital work involved, to show Bush as a stinking liar. The White House was not pleased, and Marlin Fitzwater banned him from the press pool temporarily.
The 1992 Man of the Year was Ted Turner, and Greg asked (and our director agreed) to come to the center and spend days, which turned into weeks, producing a digital cover of Ted and hundreds of video frames grabbed from news events covered by CNN, such as the Gulf War. These frames were made as photographic slides—that was state of the art in 1991, thank you very much. Greg’s vision was of a globe comprised of gleaming TV screens cracked open to see the back-lit bodiless head of Turner emerging from within.
With the help of one of my staff, Jessica Simmons, a 17-year-old prodigy who a couple years later joined a top-drawer Manhattan design firm, Greg scanned photos and started to assemble using computers that were state of the art and crammed with RAM in 1991; the cheapest digital camera sold today likely has 100 times its computational juice. I kept attaching more and more bread-loaf-sized hard drives that stored hundreds of megabytes each. It all seems ludicrous these days, how much we did with what seem like pocket calculators now. (Do kids still have pocket calculators? And vinyl records?)
Several days in, Time‘s art director, who I will call “Bill,” flew up from Manhattan to check on progress. He arrives in Camden, Maine, decked out head to toe in newly purchased L.L. Bean gear. I’m surprised price tags weren’t still attached. He was a birder. He was delighted to visit and add to his life list. He took the three of us to dinner, which came to the whopping price of $80, and he paid with a $100 bill. Fancy. Seemed a nice guy. Was appreciative of us pushing the envelope. He flew back and started drumming his fingers on his desk awaiting the photo’s completion.
While Greg and Jessica worked nearly round the clock at a more and more frantic pace, the deadline to get the digital composite ready for offset printing grew ever closer. Bill became more agitated, apparently. Drives filled, software and computers crashed, files corrupted. The very real possibility that we couldn’t finish the work before it needed to be on press started to emerge.
And then I got the call. Bill had wrangled my number from the night watchman at the Kodak center, and phoned me at home. He had a large and choice vocabulary of words describing my incompetence and the state of things he had been talked into by supposed experts. He did go on.
I was rattled, but not too much: I had no financial or employment stake in the outcome. I was a worker bee, and he had my phone number! A classic case of finding the lowest man on the totem pole onto which to heap abuse. (The same thing happened a few years later at Amazon when a not-long-after-departed-for-personal-reasons director of marketing shot me an obscenity-laden email about my failure to do things that were entirely out of my control.)
I called Greg, Greg apologized, Greg called Bill, Bill stopped freaking out. A few more days passed, many Persian buns were consumed, but, in the nick of time, the file was flown to New York (it would have taken days to transmit it by dial-up modem at 14,400 bits a second; yes, keep laughing, children), and the presses rolled!
Greg was lionized for producing this digital masterpiece and rightly so. I think even Turner liked it. Days later a package arrived from Greg. It was a four-color proof of the cover signed by him with a thank-you note full of filthy plaudits tracing the entire border. I cherish it to this day. But I never heard from Bill again, who left Time not long thereafter. Not even an L.L. Bean gift certificate in apology.

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