Tim Hunkin is a cartoonist, for fourteen years he authored a weekly strip for the Observer titled ‘The Rudiments of Wisdom‘, in which he poured over facts on the inner workings of everything. That was back in 1973.

He’s also an engineer and an artist, he’s built public artworks (such as the water clock in Neal’s Yard, near Covent Garden) and runs two penny arcades filled with funny home made arcade machines. The Novelty Automation in London, and The Under the Pier Show in Suffolk.

In addition, he’s the author of ‘The Secret Life of Machines‘, aired between 1988 and 1993 on Channel 4. ‘The Secret Life of Machines’ was an educational television series that stemmed from his previous work on the comic strip. He co-presented it with Rex Garrod.

During its eighteen episodes Tim and Rex enquire over the functioning of all kind of machines — from appliances like vacuum cleaners, sewing machines, refrigerators, the television all the way to the central heating system and the combustion engine.

They take everything apart, they slice stuff in half, they fiddle and break things in an attempt to see how these machines came to be, what kind of knowledge they rely upon, how they work or react when things go wrong.

It’s a pretty unique show, not merely informative. The episode on washing machines ends with a trembling pyramid of machines rescued from the scrapyard. The one covering the central heating system features a life-size working model of one which starts leaking water everywhere. In the secret life of the vacuum cleaner, piled up vacuums fitted with pyrotechnics fly and spark like rockets.

I watched them doing all of this and I couldn’t not notice how much fun they were having. The tribute Tim wrote in 2019 when Rex passed away gives a snapshot of how they worked together:

I learnt an enormous amount just watching him. He seemed to do everything in unconventional ways. When his guillotine got blunt, he didn’t send the blade away to be sharpened or even remove it from the machine, he just ran his angle grinder along the edge. Watching him use the lathe was particularly memorable. He always ran the spindle too fast and cut too deep, things I would never dare do myself, but it gave me a feel for the limits of what was possible. When things were going OK he always delivered a constant stream of bad jokes.

The days were always entertaining, he was so sociable there were always visitors and lots of tea breaks. Then there were the daily trips to Sackers, the local scrapyard. Here we would sift through the latest stuff to arrive at the yard and strip any parts that looked useful. The scrapyard was central to Rex’s life, he could never resist getting ‘useful stuff’ for free. Long before anyone talked about global warming and recycling, Rex just thought the scrapyard was a source of bargains and that companies were fools for throwing the stuff out. Perfectly working machine tools, full sheets of aluminium and stainless steel, hi tech factory automation modules, brand new milling cutters – we never knew what to expect, but there was always something.

All episodes are (or will be) available on Tim’s YouTube channel, with added commentary at the end of each video to review what’s changed since filming. ‘The Secret Life of Machines ‘ is the kind of TV production that I think today could solely exists on YouTube.

More than thirty years since it aired Tim is back with a new project, explaining things and making things. The new video series is called ‘The Secret Life of Components‘:

In the past, when people asked me how to learn practical skills, I’ve told them they just have to make things badly to start with but to keep going and they will improve. I made things badly for the first half of my life. However, I now learn a lot from watching practical youtube videos and realise that they can teach the sort of informal tips that used to be part of traditional apprenticeships. So I’m delighted to be contributing to this wonderful new learning resource! I hope my videos, each about 45 minutes long, are entertaining enough to be fun for beginners, but also detailed enough to be useful for pros.

Omar Rizwan’s browser extension that mounts your browser tabs as folders and files on your computer:

This gives you a ton of power, because now you can apply all the existing tools on your computer that already know how to deal with files — terminal commands, scripting languages, point-and-click explorers, etc — and use them to control and communicate with your browser.

Lori Emerson, back in 2013:

My talk today is concerned with a decade in which we can track the shift from seeing a user-friendly computer as a tool that, through a graphical user interface (GUI), encourages understanding, tinkering, and creativity to seeing a user-friendly computer that uses a GUI to create an efficient work-station for productivity and task-management. […]

What concerns me is that ‘user-friendly’ now takes the shape of keeping users steadfastly unaware and uninformed about how their computers, their reading/writing interfaces, work let alone how they shape and determine their access to knowledge and their ability to produce knowledge. […] The result is a “seemingly sovereign individual” who is mostly a devoted consumer of ready-made software and ready-made information whose framing and underlying mechanisms we are not privy to.

This is not much of an issue for me on macOS, but I can point at two platforms where optimising for excessive simplicity is having a negative effect:

iPadOS. After a four-year hiatus from iPads, I gave them another shot and bought a Pro last year. The device itself is great, iPadOS not so much. Fairly often I find that ideas that work well on the iPhone (such as the paradigm of the single full screen app) are hurting my productivity on iPadOS. On some occasions, the textual land of the Terminal would be less hostile than the convoluted chain of dances I’m having to perform between apps.

Social media. The tendency across platforms in recent years has been to lower the barrier of entry for expression by making it effortless to produce content. TikTok is based on this idea: everything, on it, is a remix. Saying is made easier by giving the user content templates to choose from. Rather than expressing ourselves, we are picking out of a set of options. This often results in a collection of reactions to the viral topic of the hour. Few of those would have value or attract interest outside of the platform which produces them.

A small app to open old iChat logs (.chat and .ichat files). When upgrading to Big Sur I realised the new Messages.app can’t open them anymore. Not that I need to frequently, or ever. Recently though I was tidying up my archive and found a folder with unreadable past conversations. This fixes it.

I tweaked Mail — viewing options, toolbar and so on — as Manuel suggests here and I got to a pretty happy place. I’m now thinking of all the time I wasted trying out clients redirecting my emails to an ever growing network of servers, when all I needed to do was change the settings of Mail.

Anyway. Still not as good as Sparrow.

The Scott Alexander saga

The New York Times:

It was nominally a blog, written by a Bay Area psychiatrist who called himself Scott Alexander (a near anagram of Slate Star Codex). It was also the epicenter of a community called the Rationalists, a group that aimed to re-examine the world through cold and careful thought.

In a style that was erudite, funny, strange and astoundingly verbose, the blog explored everything from science and medicine to philosophy and politics to the rise of artificial intelligence. It challenged popular ideas and upheld the right to discuss contentious issues. This might involve a new take on the genetics of depression or criticism of the #MeToo movement. As a result, the conversation that thrived at the end of each blog post — and in related forums on the discussion site Reddit — attracted an unusually wide range of voices.

The New Yorker:

Alexander, who prefaces some of his own posts with an “epistemic status,” by which he rates his own confidence in the opinions to follow, thought the media, too, should present its findings in shades of gray. […]

Alexander’s role in the community is difficult to encapsulate—an e-book of his collected S.S.C. posts runs to about nine thousand pages—but one might credit him with two crowning contributions. First, he has been instrumental in the evolution of the community’s self-image, helping to shape its members’ understanding of themselves not as merely a collection of individuals with shared interests and beliefs but as a mature subculture, one with its own jargon, inside jokes, and pantheon of heroes. Second, he more than anyone has defined and attempted to enforce the social norms of the subculture, insisting that they distinguish themselves not only on the basis of data-driven argument and logical clarity but through an almost fastidious commitment to civil discourse. (As he puts it, “liberalism conquers by communities of people who agree to play by the rules.”) If one of the bedrock beliefs in Silicon Valley is that the future ought to be determined by a truly free market in ideas, one emancipated from the influence of institutional incumbents and untainted by the existing ideological polarities, Slate Star Codex is often held up as an example of what the well-behaved Internet can look like—a secret orchard of fruitful inquiry.

Elizabeth Sandifer:

My contention is that Siskind’s [Scott Alexander] prose—which I view as representative of a larger style—works through a sort of logorrheic beigeness. Siskind is good at giving readers the sense that they are being intelligent—that they are thinking about serious issues at considerable length. In practice, he says… not quite nothing, but very little, at least on a moment to moment basis. Instead he engages in a litany of small bullshits—shoddy arguments that at their best compound into banality, but at their worst compound into something deeply destructive, all made over such length that smoking guns are hard to find, which is of course the point.

Tyler Cowen on the rationalist community:

Well, I enjoy all those sources, and I read them. That’s obviously a kind of endorsement. But I would approve of them much more if they called themselves the irrationality community. Because it is just another kind of religion. A different set of ethoses. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but the notion that this is, like, the true, objective vantage point I find highly objectionable. And that pops up in some of those people more than others. But I think it needs to be realized it’s an extremely culturally specific way of viewing the world.

I recently repurposed an old Raspberry Pi 3 (model B+) I had laying around the house into a retro gaming machine, using RetroPie. I’m not into gaming — I haven’t owned a console since the Game Boy Advance — but I enjoy the music and visuals of old games, I find them relaxing. More specifically, I’ve been having much fun playing EarthBound.

(I have another Raspberry Pi in the house set up with Pi-hole, blocking any incoming ad at source. I rarely have issues with it except when I bought a Samsung TV: the T&Cs weren’t even loading. Serves me well for buying from a company which delivers ads in their user’s home screen).

Stuart Frisby:

Both Sketch & Figma have support for using component libraries, but the experience of using them feels far less central to the design process than they need to be. Finding and using a component in a library is how I think 90% of design work should begin. Right now, the discoverability of components, and the lack of support for including rich documentation which explains how and when to use a component place a barrier between a designer, and the systems created to make them efficient.

Knowing from CSS how easy it can be to inherit a property and reuse classes, I find the management of symbols (with all of that nesting) to be cumbersome. The design tools we have maximise for flexibility and freedom of the designer. I would gladly sacrifice some of that in favour of a better awareness of the conventions of the medium I’m designing for (breakpoints, flex, grid behaviour, box model, etc.).

In most cases, what makes the most sense is to move as quickly as possible to the browser: pixel perfect designs are never going to be of much value, as they’re always just a stepping stone to get elsewhere. Treat them as you treat documentation and other assets.

Big Medium:

A Sketch library—or any collected drawings of software—can be a canonical UI reference only when the design is first conceived. Once the design gets into code, the product itself should be the reference, and fresh design should work on top of that foundation. It’s more important that our design libraries reflect what’s in the code than the reverse. Production code—and the UI it generates—has to be the single source of truth, or madness ensues.

Robin Rendle:

It bothers me that writers can’t create audiences on their own websites, with their own archives, and their own formats. And they certainly can’t get paid in the process. (Although yes, there are exceptions).

This. I love the newsletters I’ve subscribed to — but I love them because of their content, not their format. There is not a single one of them that I wouldn’t prefer as a blog. Blogs are better under every aspect — it just makes so much more sense to publish content in a way that’s reusable, searchable, linkable, and so on.

And I’ve come to the same conclusion as Robin, newsletters exist because they’re easy to subscribe to. It’s one click, two if they’re asking you to verify your email. How do you subscribe to a blog? RSS, right. I’m a big fan of RSS, but first you need to explain what it is, then how it works, then pick a reader — it’s just not as simple.

To me, newsletters look like an accident of the monopoly of a few platforms, in the sense that they provide a channel devoid of algorithmic sorting or filtering. But they aren’t better than the web. Were we to have built a subscription functionality in the browser (RSS but for everyone), they’d occupy a less central space.

But — here we are, in a world where to subscribe to content it either needs to belong to a network or else it will be delivered to me via email. Again, quoting Robin:

[W]riters choose a newsletter service like Substack because the business model is straightforward. I just sort of wish this infrastructure was built into websites themselves. […]

The web today is built for apps — and I think we need to take it back.

It’s gotten harder, rather than easier, to put something online without going through a platform.

These are not freedom of speech issues

We frequently bring up the right of free speech where issues of amplification are concerned.

All media is an exercise in prioritisation. We’ve seen again and again during these years that it’s possible for Facebook to tweak its algorithm to modify what bubbles through the newsfeed of its users:

Typically, N.E.Q. (a ranking it assigns to news publishers based on signals about the quality of their journalism) scores play a minor role in determining what appears on users’ feeds. But several days after the election, Mr. Zuckerberg agreed to increase the weight that Facebook’s algorithm gave to N.E.Q. scores to make sure authoritative news appeared more prominently. […]

It resulted in a spike in visibility for big, mainstream publishers like CNN, The New York Times and NPR, while posts from highly engaged hyperpartisan pages, such as Breitbart and Occupy Democrats, became less visible, the employees said.

They simply choose not to: viral content pays the bills. More so than speech, it’s attention that we’re fighting over.

It should also be noted that censorship alone doesn’t work in an information-dense society. As Zeynep Tufekci wrote a couple of years ago:

The most effective forms of censorship today involve meddling with trust and attention, not muzzling speech itself. As a result, they don’t look much like the old forms of censorship at all. They look like viral or coordinated harassment campaigns, which harness the dynamics of viral outrage to impose an unbearable and disproportionate cost on the act of speaking out. They look like epidemics of disinformation, meant to undercut the credibility of valid information sources. They look like bot-fueled campaigns of trolling and distraction, or piecemeal leaks of hacked materials, meant to swamp the attention of traditional media.

Until value will be assigned by counting likes, and recency will triumph over accuracy, there’s little hope that the quality of the information surfaced by social media will improve. However, it wasn’t just the algorithm here that abdicated to its responsibility to keep the public informed. Newspapers, radio and television spent the last four years constructing their narration of the events from something someone has said on Twitter.

Blocking only tackles the tip of the iceberg, the obvious abuse. The solution will eventually have to include rethinking how content is prioritised and how importance is distributed. The noise we experience on these platforms is a direct consequence of the logic of said platforms. Speed and ease of replication — the ability to take an utterance from an account with 10 followers and re-cast it to millions of strangers by clicking a retweet button — aren’t just features but an objective. Viral content pays the bills.

I made a new tiny website to keep track of what I’m reading and to annotate what I found to be interesting in those books. The domain is inherited from a tumblr I no longer update (because I do not enjoy tumblr the platform anymore).

I built it with 11ty, currently my favourite static site generator. It feels really lightweight, and vanilla; it’s refreshing to find a lightweight way to build simple sites in a land crowded with frameworks. I tried Gatsby.js a while ago and — just my personal opinion here — it really felt like I was fighting against the web when all I needed was putting together a few html documents.

There’s a simple way to generate pages from external data in 11ty, so initially I had it set up to retrieve the books from Goodreads. Given where Goodreads seems to be going, though, I switched to just using markdown files.

(Aside: I’m trying Netlify for hosting and Fathom for analytics — so far they’re great.)

No. Paul Ford, talking with his 2000-self:

’00: You keep saying that. How does HTML work now?

’20: It’s pretty simple, you define app logic as unidirectional dataflow, then fake up pseudo-HTML components that mirror state, and a controller mounts fake-page deltas onto the browser surface.

’00: How do you change the title tag?

’20: You can’t.

As Tom MacWright suggests, there are two web: a document web (the original vision of the web), and the web of apps. Front-end developers complain about CSS’ logic, and people like me twitch when they see CSS-in-JS.

I posit that this dual-nature is part of what gives the web its magic. But it’s also a destructive force.

The magic is that a simple blog can be creative expression, can be beautifully interactive. This one isn’t, but I’m just saying – it’s possible.

The problem is that the “document web” is often plagued by application characteristics – it’s the JavaScript and animations and complexity that makes your average newspaper website an unmitigated disaster. Where document websites adopt application patterns they often accidentally sacrifice accessibility, performance, and machine readability.

From a profile on the New Yorker that I only just now had the ill-fated idea of reading:

Andreessen is tomorrow’s advance man, routinely laying out “what will happen in the next ten, twenty, thirty years,” as if he were glancing at his Google calendar. He views his acuity as a matter of careful observation and extrapolation, and often invokes William Gibson’s observation “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Jet packs have been around for half a century, but you still can’t buy them at Target. To smooth out such lumps in distribution, Andreessen disseminates his views via every available podcast and panel discussion and CNN interview slot: he’s a media soothsayer, Andreessen the Magnificent. He also tweets a hundred and ten times a day, inundating his three hundred and ten thousand followers with aphorisms and statistics and tweetstorm jeremiads. Andreessen says that he loves Twitter because “reporters are obsessed with it. It’s like a tube and I have loudspeakers installed in every reporting cubicle around the world.”

That is exactly why I do not enjoy social media at all anymore. Turn the amplification off. Enough with the loudspeakers. Enough with the Marc Andreessen kind of takes.

It’s fascinating how a single guy can embody everything that is wrong with startups and their funding system:

Such tests help a16z determine whether the founder is a mercenary who wants to sell the company within four years, which will cap a16z’s return at 5x, or a missionary, determined to change the world. “At the same time,” Andreessen said, “we’re not funding Mother Teresa. We’re funding imperial, will-to-power people who want to crush their competition. Companies can only have a big impact on the world if they get big.”

What an adorable human. Thanks for making the world a better place, Marc.

Advices from the Wikipedia community on how to handle having made a mistake with public consequences.