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"Tell the chef, the beer is on me."
It’s 2016 and this is my first blog post of the year. I’m writing it on this blog that served me so well for almost 13 years. The domain, which I bought after realizing that that’s what the grown-up blogs do, was the first domain-name I bought, but it definitely wasn’t the last.
The second one I bought was for a web-service that lived only in it’s concepts, which in itself were not far more than a few notes scribbled in a text-editor. No surprise it never came to fruition. I kept the name for a year, then realized it was a bad idea anyway and slowly let it lapse.
The next ones I bought were kept for longer. When the tumble-log craze of the mid 2000s came, I bought intrepidlytrite.com. Back then I thought it was a fun idea to jot down the notes, quotes, pictures and whatever else I stumbled upon on my travels through the web. I attached it first to a tumblr account, then a soup.io account, but after years of rather willful neglect more or less forgot about it. Still, I kept it around, attached it to a few other blog ideas I had, which again, rarely ever made it off the ground.
At the end of the last year, I let this one lapse too. Compared to my ill-fated webservice, I felt some hesitation when I decided not to renew it. It had belonged to me for a while and even though nothing great came of it, ever, I liked the name (even though I don’t anymore think it’s as witty as I thought it was). But I simply saw that I had too many domains.
It’s a funny thing with domain names. As with the two above, they’re always the first thing you buy when you have a great idea. Getting projects off the ground is hard, thinking up domain-names isn’t – it’s actual fun! And once you’ve bought it, you attach it to a blog or a “coming soon” service and feel elated. The rude awakening comes a few weeks, months or years later when you realize that you’re still paying for this name that never went anywhere.
It’s not always that tragic, though. Another of the names I bought was medienschelte.at, a media-watchblog I founded with a friend in the mid-2000s. The project went strong for three years, until we both one day noticed that we’re sick of reading crap newspapers. But the site is still up, for posterity’s sake and as a vigil to the accumulated weeks I spent going through said newspapers finding crappy stuff they wrote in their crappy articles. Finding these things wasn’t exactly fun, but it was satisfying in the way popping a pimple feels. But I am digressing.
Earlier last year I made the decision to consolidate my online-outfits. I conceded to the cold, hard truth that most of the blogs I had running were being shamefully neglected and in order to remedy this, I’d have to find out which ones I still needed, which ones I didn’t and which ones I could easily transfer into this blog right here.
After a bit of hemming and hawing, I finally decided that my tech blog would have to be the first one to go and imported all my old posts into this blog. You can now find those under the category tech-stuff. Ironically, that’s how the tech-stuff posts started out, and for some reason I deemed it necessary to create a separate blog for all the things focusing on the tech world. Nowadays I’m more relaxed about it, so if someone reading up on my favourite podcast app happens to read about my visit to the Styrian alps, I don’t have a problem with it.
The next blog I’m planning on incorporating into this blog is my food blog. The name deathbymartini.com, as a play on death by chocolate, was fun when I came up with it, and even though I still like it, I feel it’s run its course. Also, when I created my food-blog, there was still some fun in it. Today it’s yet another niche that’s less about the initial topic and more about how to make money writing about that topic; a tendency that will befall every successful niche sooner or later.
Within my own kingdom of blogs that will leave me with the dukedom of colordisco.com, which I suspect will soon be incorporated into this blog as an aside category.
Then, there’s still hemmer.tv, a hidalgo of sorts and a domain I bought on a whim and which will probably at some point helm my broadcasting empire. But that, as so many other of my projects, will have to wait until the world is ready for it. Until then, the domain is parked somewhere on my webhost’s server.
I have to admit that while getting rid of domains is instilling a feeling of sadness akin to giving away a dog you’ve had for years but can’t keep anymore because you’re moving into a place that doesn’t allow dogs, it’s also kind of liberating (sorry, dog). I can concentrate on the actual content and I don’t have to face the fact that whatever projects I had in mind buying these domains have failed or never gotten off the ground. Also, it’ll be cheaper.
It’s been a while since I wrote end-of-year lists, but in light of my re-emergence on this very (digital) soil, I’ll give it a shot this year. I’m taking my liberty with the sorts of things I award in this blog, so don’t be disappointed if I won’t write about my favourite colour of the year (it’s goldenrod, though, as always). Well, here goes, in no particular order:
Best book of 2015 I started reading but will probably still be reading way into 2016
This one is easy. It’s From Dawn to Decadence, an all-encompassing cultural history of Europe from 1500 to the present day. Written by eminent French-born but ultimately US historian Jacques Barzun. He had a rather illustrious career as an historian, wrote numerous books on a number of wildly different subjects (one about Baseball, as well). The book has been co-opted somewhat by conservatives in the US, probably because Barzun is a bit of a cultural pessimist. Unarguably, though, the book provides a clear, concise and wildly entertaining insight into what shaped Europe and ultimately all the other countries across the globe. It’s filled to the brim with insights and aha-moments. Barzun wrote this book at the end of his life (he lived basically through all of the 20th century, and then some). Asked how long it took him to write the book, he just said: “My whole life.” I like that.
The reason why I haven’t finished it yet is either because I like to savour every singly word, or maybe because I start ruminating about what he writes and consequently fall asleep. You choose.
Best Horror film I probably won’t be ever be watching with my girlfriend
Let Us Prey. I’m cheating here a bit, simply because I think it’s the best horror film I’ve seen this year, period. But it really isn’t one I’d be watching with my girlfriend. Not that she’s squeamish, but the level of Hellraiserishness is simply not her kind of horror. Apart from that, though, I think she might actually like it. It’s set in a quiet Scottish town, it features an incredible female protagonist who prevails even in the face of utter chaos and fuckedupness.
The film is rather flawlessly made by director Brian O’Malley, not least because of his DOP Piers McGrail, who did such a stellar job. The whole thing is rounded off by Steve Lynch’s Carpenteresque score. In fact, the opening sequence alone is worth the admission for this one.
Best horror film I did watch with my girlfriend
Babadook. That, too, is quite easy. I think it was the most lauded horror film of the last year and a half, and I can see why. Uncanny, terrifying on so many levels and great for doing impressions. “Ba Ba Dook!” finally replaced “Kagutaba!” to freak each other out (the latter by the way coming from the 2005 film “The Curse”, which was quite a shocker too).
Best horror film (save the other two above)
So yeah, I like watching horror films. So please excuse this final one. It’s called It Follows, and it’s one of those films that even though it doesn’t make sense all the time, feels just right. It’s a not so subtle, but still convincing parable about the, sometimes quite tangible, horrors of growing up. Again score and camerawork are spot on as well.
Best Film Festival I was invited to act as a juror on
Easy, that was of course the Vienna Film Festival Viennale! I loved having the opportunity to watch roughly 30 films in ten days (in the theatre, mind you), and then being able to actually, hopefully, help a film getting an Austrian release. The film we (my four great co-jurors and I) chose was the one by Portuguese filmmaker Carlos Saboga called “A Uma Hora Incerta”. I wrote about the film and why we chose it on my historical consultant blog. Read it!
Best five weddings I went to this year
I’d say the best five wedding were the ones I went to this year. So yeah, all weddings were great, none like the other. We spent nights drinking in the middle of Viennese Donaupark, in a Palais on the outskirts of Vienna, near an old water-mill in the Upper Austrian countryside, in a wine-cellar again at the outskirts of Vienna and finally right underneath a Viaduct again at the outskirts of Vienna (there’s a pattern there somewhere). As I’m actually quite a fan of ties, but am actually not forced to wear them on a daily basis, I was happy to finally have good reason to wear ties. Here’s one of them.
Best food I ate
I like to eat a whole lot. Currently not reflected in my food-blog, because I just haven’t had the time to write pithy comments about food. I do take a lot of pictures of my food, still. Picking out a single dish I had over the course of the year is amazingly difficult, if not even possible. Always one to shy away from a hard task, I’ll just go ahead and post some of my favourite dishes here. You decide which one I liked best.
Best language I learnedProof!
SPANISH! I finally got real about using Duolingo. I’d started up courses a few years back, went through a bit of Spanish, Swedish and French. This year I decided to go all the way, at least with one of those languages. It turned out to be Spanish. I finished the whole course after five or so months, and now I’m just tirelessly repeating what I learned. Because hey, according to the Duolingo Owl, that’s how you learn a language. I’m by no means really good at it, but I’m good enough at it for now. Which is exactly what I wanted.
Best indie-game festival I visited
There’s a lot of indie-game developers in Austria and the neighboring countries. Especially for those in the Eastern European countries, champions and chances to network are needed. Radius Festival, originally a London-based games expo, does just that. In July 2015 it came to Vienna, and I got to meet some very interesting people in the process. There’s loads of great people making games in Austria and the neighboring countries, and events like these are great to foster that talent. Since I’m at it, have a look at Games Austria, a non-profit organization that is very active in that area. In February, they’ll even host their first real conference. So go there and have a look.
Best Podcast I became a part of
Well, I didn’t have a favourite one for the most part of the year, but then in late September my friend Daniel of Codinghistory fame approached me. Asked if I wanted to, I said yes, and two weeks later we had our first episode up. Ever since then we’ve been going strong, currently at episode 14, I think. The whole thing is called Zeitsprung (astute readers of this blog might have seen me mention it elsewhere already), it’s about stories from history and quite entertaining. Also, you’ll learn a whole lot of stuff and since we always publish the latest episodes on Sundays (or early Mondays), it’s the best thing to start off your week. And you’ll be able to tell cool stories at the water-cooler (like about that one German-Spanish bastard who happened to become one of Spain’s most famous heroes). A small caveat: the whole thing’s in German, so if you don’t understand it, you’ll have to wait until we make some English versions of the show (might happen sometime).
Best way to end this blogpost
It’s been a great year, and I did a whole lot of things that made me enjoy it, whether I managed to cram those into one of my “best of” categories or not. I finally started reading more, learning more, enjoyed more time with my girlfriend and my parents and met loads of new people. I started writing more, and even though it might be to the detriment of those people who feel obliged to read my ramblings because they’re my family and friends, I think a blog filled with new life is a great thing.
And who knows, maybe, a few thousand years in the future, when the AI-humans have found a way to read the fragments they found on those hard-disks buried beneath the rubble of long lost civilizations, they’ll see this post and re-evaluate their decision to use humankind as batteries to fuel their virtually endless lives.
Have a great 2016!
Before I started writing more again, the latest blogpost on here was one about Christmas. Short and quite to the point. Despite its almost three year tenure as this blog’s top post, it failed to gain much traction. It might have been a marketing problem.
Anyway, it’s that time of the year again, so tomorrow will be Christmas Eve, where at roughly seven at night my family and I will be entering the living room, marvel at the tree, sing songs, read poems and stories, then embrace each other and wish each other “Merry Christmas” and then we’ll give each other presents and then put on some water for the traditional sausages, which we’ll soon crowd around the kitchen table to eat (the living room table will be covered in wrapping paper, presents, cookies), after which we’ll all just find us a place to sit somewhere and nurse the rest of the beer from the sausage dinner (some maybe a cup of tea) and start reading in one of the books we’ll have received, while my mother, who’s by now the only one who still does, will announce it’s time for her to go to church for the Christmas service, a second after which she’ll ask who would drive her there, because parking there is always a pain, and either my sister or I will give in (I think it’ll be me), so after I’ve dropped her off I’ll get back to reading in one of my new books (my mother will probably return by foot fifteen minutes later because according to her the church was just too full, but really I think she just found it to be too cold and wanted to go back to reading in one of her new books), and in between I’ll get up over to the big basket filled with cookies and pick out my favourites until I’m full, tired and ready for bed, which is in one of the two rooms that evolved out of the cowshed my parents converted when they moved in, so they’d have space to host their children, not just, but especially for events like these, and since it’s not connected to any central heating, I’ll put another log or two in the iron stove heating the room, and then get under the covers, making sure no feet are peeking out because this room has the tendency to release any and all warmth as soon as the last log has been turned to ash, which will probably happen roughly an hour after I’ve fallen asleep, happy and content, even though my face isn’t covered by the blanket, meaning I’ll wake up with an icy nose.
Next night we’ll have turkey.
One of the things that’s been irking me for the last couple of years is how easy it is to just throw a thought out there, just a single line of something, and have people read it and react to it. Why has that been irking me, you ask? Isn’t it great to have something like that? Well, yes! Yes, it is. But the way it works right now, you’ll have to do that using platforms like Twitter and Facebook, because hey, nobody reads blogs the way they did anymore.
In the early days (I sound like an old guy, and funnily enough, in blog years I probably am), people plugged feeds into their feedreaders and they read this stuff they way we go through our Facebook or Twitter streams today. Back then you could actually get away with writing smallish, rudimentary blogposts, because people would see them. Today, most people read blogposts that have been linked by others. It’s how the attention economy works, after all.
And now try and remember, when was the last time you had someone post a link to a blogpost that consisted of not more than 140 characters. Exactly (if your answer was “well, I can’t actually recall”. If your answer was “Yesterday, the day before and actually every single day of my life” you’re not my target group for this article. Go and have a look at my tech articles archive instead)!
Anyway, yes, Twitter and Facebook helped democratize publishing, but they also made sure that fewer and fewer people use blogs to transport their pithy comments to the masses. My gripes with that are the same as I’ve pointed out a couple of times: your comments, your content, you don’t control them. The discussions and whatever interaction happens, they belong to the platform. Which in the short run doesn’t seem like a problem, but as soon as a platform shuts down, for example, you’re shit out of luck. All your insights, your claim to Internet fame, they go up in smoke.
So what can be done about it? I’m not sure.
I’ve dabbled with the idea of creating self-hosted tumblelog-style blogs. While they can sufficiently recreate the notion of just posting quick and dirty little updates, they can’t replicate the effect Twitter has. As always, you need to post where people see it and will have enough impetus to react to it. That works on platforms where people already have the option of commenting on all and sundry (sometimes to the detriment of discussions, mind you).
The thing is, that even happens with real, actual, longer blogposts. Founded by Twitter-founders, Medium.com, a plattform for actual longer texts, has taken off in the last few years. In the end, it’s not much more than a hosted blogging platform, but it makes it so easy for everyone to post and comment, suddenly people with perfectly healthy blogs decide to start posting there (or maybe just cross-post their content). It’s understandable, because again it’s a platform that makes sure that your content will be more widely read than when you post it on your own blog (unless you’ve already got a loyal following).
Another way to do this would be to use decentralized twitter-like software (like status.net). The problem here is that for one, nobody uses it, and two, it’s a bit of a pain to set up (admittedly, number two is probably the cause for number one). So that doesn’t work either.
One solution I think is still rooted in the history of WordPress. Sometime during the early 2000s, someone came up with what they called asides. Basically, people saw the need to be able to post things that could do without having to look for a title, categories, tags and the like. This turned into tumblelogs later on, but the solution before that was creating a category mainly geared at these sorts of posts. The term “asides” was coined (by Matt Mullenweg of WordPress fame himself), and today, that’s actually a separate post-type in most WordPress themes.
That’s a good thing, the only problem is, that while most themes allow you to categorize your posts as “aside”-types, the way they actually display them is usually nothing to write home about. This theme, for example, doesn’t do much with it (it might do something with it in the feed, but I don’t think so).
Then again, the whole thing isn’t really about the layout of the site, it’s still very much about the convenience of not having to visit all sorts of blogs just to see a short little post about how much someone loves the new season of Fargo (spoiler: it’s really good). Maybe the times of the blog as your social media one-stop-shop are over and the best you can do is let all your tweets flow into your blog’s sidebar or some such thing. I’m not sure, but I personally like the idea of having my own social-media hub far too much to stop thinking about it. So I won’t. And you’ll maybe see another lengthy blogpost about ephemera like this rather sooner than later.
I’ve been listening to podcasts, on and off, for the better part of ten years now and while in the early days it was quite a bit cumbersome to get your latest episodes onto your portable player, nowadays it’s one of the easiest things out there. Not least due to a plethora of apps and services that help you with just that. After using quite a few of them, I’m now quite sure that the best is Pocket Casts. It’s available for not just Android and iOS, but Windows Phone too (for the 1%ers, so to speak).
The UI is easy on the eyes, it’s fast, it syncs everything between whatever device you want to use it on and best of all, it’s even got a web interface (which you can see above). But hey, that’s not all. Here’s their very own feature list:
Variable speed is something I’m quite fond of. While, for example, I really enjoy Hardcore History’s Dan Carlin and his way of telling history, I sometimes am pressed for time and it’s absolutely possible to listen to him at twice the speed.
A word about the web version: while it’s not free, it’s only 9 USD, and they let you try it out for free for 14 days. I tried it for a few minutes and bought it. Because hey, it’s a steal.
And by the way, I’ve also made the jump from listening to creating and am now part of a podcast myself. It’s called Zeitsprung, it’s about history and I’m one half of it. The other half is my friend and longtime co-conspirator Daniel of Codinghistory fame. So if you do install Pocket Casts, make sure to add us to your queue.
Mailbox was a rather innovative approach to e-mail inboxes, allowing people to do fun stuff like deferring mails and having them return to their inbox at a pre-set, hopefully more opportune time.
Carousel on the other hand was an app that worked like a phone’s gallery, allowing users to share their pictures with friends and family. It was a good app, even though it wasn’t, even by a long shot, the only contender in the field.
So what did both those apps have in common? They both belonged to Dropbox, the massively successful service that allows people to upload their files to a remote server, both as a backup and collaboration tool.
Carousel was announced only about a year and a half ago, and to me it was a rather logical kind of thing to have for Dropbox. Dropbox has facilitated the automated upload of pictures taken with your smartphone for a while now (I think it actually was the first service to do that – now everyone and their grandma begs you to allow them to upload your pictures into their cloud – from Google Photos to Facebook and Flickr). It made sense then to have a mobile app that worked well with the pictures uploaded to Dropbox, simply because Dropbox’ own mobile app didn’t let you do much with your photos.
Mailbox, on the other hand, was a bit of a head-scratcher. The app saw light as the product of a company called Orchestra, and as Wired noted two days ago, Dropbox bought the app before it was even fully released (according to them for a whopping 100 million USD). I never saw why users of Dropbox would want to use an e-mail app, simply because Dropbox bought it. But, some people did like it.
Now, a few years later, Dropbox realized that they weren’t really interested in offering these kinds of services anymore, and both of these apps will see their early demise in February and March respectively.
Admittedly, for the companies that get bought and taken along for the ride, even if it ends prematurely, it’s not that bad. Because, hey, early exit and maybe even a job on the side at the company that bought them (at least until their options get vested). That’s not too shabby. For the actual users of the products: well, tough shit.
Instead, Dropbox says they want to focus on Paper, a service that’ll be integrated into their service and promises to provide new ways of collaboration (it’s currently in a closed beta). Definitely a nod towards their enterprise goals, even if it’s to the detriment of the above apps more geared towards their consumer clientele. As to its actual use: Really too early to say, but I gotta tell ya, there’s already a ton of collaboration tools out there, and Dropbox will have to fight an uphill battle to actually get customers to use it over the likes of Google Docs, Microsoft Office 360 and the plethora of smaller tools that basically do the same thing. Abandoning smaller, but well-liked apps for that seems like a gamble. But again, if it doesn’t work out, they’ll probably just shutter that too in a year and a half.
But, that’s not all: there’s other examples of add-on services that get shutdown after a short while. I’m not even going to start with companies like Google or Yahoo!, simply because they’ve sunset so many apps and services, it would make this already unbearably long blog post even longer.
Let’s look instead at a company of similar size (and popularity) as Dropbox: Evernote! Evernote is this great behemoth of the note-taking services. And it’s that for a reason. It’s multi-platform (even though it steadfastedly refuses to support Linux), it innovates at a reasonable pace and it’s just hugely useful for anyone who likes to collect notes, texts, ideas, pictures or simply whatever you want to throw at it. So, in 2011 Evernote created an add-on service called Food. Right on time, no? The foodie-craze was just sweeping across the lands and instagramming meals was the hot new shit. I, too, loved the service. You could take and store pictures of your food, but you didn’t have to share them. Instead the app would find out where the pictures were taken (geo-location, yeah!), and then you could archive all that in your Evernote account. It was great for someone who liked remembering when and where they ate what, without having to abandon their careful craftet anti-social persona. Through the years it underwent a few iterations, and got the added functionality of becoming something like a centralized recipe vault. I wasn’t too much into that, but still, I liked the effort.
And then, in August this year, Evernote announced they’d shut down the app. Not surprisingly, their main reason cited was their desire to move more towards the workplace and business uses of Evernote. To hell with the pesky consumer and their obsession with food. It’s time to focus on those yummy spreadsheets instead!
Now, don’t get me wrong, I see where these companies are coming from. Once they reach a certain size and their Armada chests are filled with all that investor money, they go and either develop or buy apps that might work with their core service. I like that they do, because I, like most of their customers, trust these services to provide a good product, so they get my trust when it comes to all that other stuff they want me to use.
So what exactly is my problem with what’s happening? Doesn’t it make sense that a company would focus on these parts of their businesses that promise the most profit? Sure. But in the case of Dropbox and Evernote, who were built on the trust they received from their consumer-base, I feel side-lined as one of those consumers myself, the above mentioned trust in them abused. In the case of Evernote’s Food, I actually spent time curating my collections, which now barely exist somewhere deep inside my Evernote archives, never to be looked at again, but still there, resentfully lingering in this worst kind of user created content limbo.
But hey, at least I wrote another blogpost, bumping my total number to 996. And in contrast to Mailbox, Carousel or Food (the app, not the actual sustenance), this thing here won’t go away anytime soon.
Looking through my logs, I realized that some of the things I wrote on here many years ago still get quite some views. And sometimes it’s for the funnest of reasons. I wrote about a tinfoil-wrapped chocolate figure called “Krampus” eight years ago. I didn’t dare to hope back then that in 2015 a film about said Krampus would be released, prompting scores of people looking for more information on that little fella. But alas, here we are.
Looking through my logs I also noticed that I wrote a whopping 994 posts on here (not including this one). In light of my rekindled love for this platform, I’ve decided to write the remaining five (after this one) to end the year on a high note. So, expect at least five more posts here (after this one) until the end of this year. Don’t expect them to be the pinnacles of my literary output (but don’t be surprised if they are, you never know).
I have a thing for using apps that seemingly make my life easier, but which ultimately just take a large chunk out my day. And I mean every day.
Here’s an example: A few days ago I was notified by Remember the Milk, my goto todo-list app, that my pro account is about to run out. So, being the fickle customer that I am, I started checking out similar apps, to see whether some of them were cheaper (not that their price tag of $25 is exceedingly high) or had more features (of which I usually use about 10%) or were maybe a tad prettier (yeah, sorry).
Now, in my heart of hearts I know that in the end, it doesn’t really matter what app I use. As long as I can put in some tasks and then mark them as done, all is well.
But I get easily dazzled by the promise of work done more efficiently, so I suddenly think that having a desktop app for Windows 10 is super important (Wunderlist and Todoist have those, RTM doesn’t).
Or I can’t get over the fact how smooth Todoist’s natural language processing is, even though I’ve never actually wanted to add a task that said: “Pick up my dry-cleaning every second Monday starting next Monday” (Todoist would totally know how to parse this, RTM and Wunderlist would struggle).
Or I’m thinking that Evernote, the heap onto which I throw everything, hoping it’ll all just magically not turn into utter chaos (it doesn’t), needs to be integrated with my todo-list. RTM has Evernote integration, and even though I get easily confused by having tasks both in Evernote and in RTM, and have therefore rarely used it, I suddenly think I probably couldn’t live without it anymore (Wunderlist and Todoist integrate with Evernote via intermediaries, like IFTTT, but that’s a tad cumbersome).
Now, all this research into a little app that could probably be replaced by some pen and paper, but I’m not even done yet. Since I’ve been an RTM customer for a few years now, I’ve grown somewhat attached to the company. They’re those good people from Australia who started out with this dream of creating a great todo-list app and who am I to stand in their way over lack of a Windows 10 client?
Wunderlist, on the other hand, was bought out by Microsoft recently, and if the purported numbers are correct, they’re now millionaires. I don’t think they’ll need my money (which might be the reason why their free plan has all the features of their pro plan, minus some extra wallpapering. I give them that).
So in the end, I’m back where I started. I’ll stick with RTM, despite their shocking lack of a desktop client (seriously, what an oversight). I’ll pay them their money to get all the pro features (of which I’ll use 10%). And I’ll feel good about it, because I know it’s the right thing to do.
PS: If you can’t decide on a new todo-list app, drop me a note. I now know everything about them. Everything.
I’m a big fan of self-hosted software, testament to which is a project called Self-hosted web I started a few years ago. Admittedly, I haven’t reviewed a whole lot of new software there for a while, but I still like the idea that one can host software on their own space on the web (and I encourage you to take advantage of it).
Still, there’s great hosted software out there, and then there’s software out there that just kind of bridges the gaps between hosted and self-hosted. Most prominently, that’s WordPress.com. It’s the company founded by the creator of the actual blogging software WordPress, which can still be downloaded and then installed on your own space, but instead of doing this, WordPress.com hosts your blog on their space.
In addition, they publish the Jetpack plugin, a sort of swiss-army knife of a plugin you can use with your self-hosted instance of WordPress. It connects your blog with their WordPress.com servers, thereby allowing you to do all sorts of interesting things like managing several self-hosted blogs from one central command, including updating plugins, or looking at your blogs’ rather detailed statistics.
It’s a great piece of software, but as I mentioned above, your blog is now sort of a hybrid between self-hosted and hosted. And I have to admit, I don’t mind that much. My content is still on my own server and while I can make use of the services provided by the WordPress.com servers, I still retain full ownership of whatever I create on my own space.
This is quite in line with the whole spirit of WordPress, considering the self-hosted instance of WordPress (found, btw, at WordPress.org, instead of .com), has been open-source all along. Matt Mullenweg, above mentioned mastermind behind all this, posted a detailed blogpost about his intentions behind the rewrite here. To quote him:
A lot of people thought we should keep this proprietary, but throughout my life I’ve learned that the more you give away, the more you get back.
Which just goes to show how utterly cool this man is.
Anyway, I’ve used that software for the last fourteen years, roughly, and I’m happy to see they are ever evolving. I’m in fact writing this post via their WordPress.com editor, which is connected to my self-hosted instance via their Jetpack Plugin. And while it takes away some of that spirit of doing things without having to rely on a hosted version of a software, it makes my life quite a bit easier (not least because this new editor is so smooth and fast). Which has always been the trade-off, but one I’m feeling happy to make at this point.
By the way, with their rewrite of WordPress.com, they also released a desktop app to manage your blogs, currently only available for Mac. If you’re a Windows or Linux user, though, you can sign up for a notification for when they ship that piece of software for your desktop too. I’m looking forward to that, and so should you.
It’s been more than three years since I last published anything about technology (it was a post where I expressed my distaste for Instagram on Android, a notion that persists to this very day). And even before that latest post, updates were sparse. Why? Well, the reasons are manifold, but I’ll try to outline a few of them for you here.
When I started writing about the social web, some 12, 13 years ago, every day was filled with wonder. On a daily basis someone, somewhere would come up with a new service I didn’t know I needed, but which turned out to be indispensable (at least for a while). The museum of modern betas used to be a daily visit. Things were interesting! They got kinda boring after a few years, probably once Facebook started to become the behemoth it is today. Services were bought out left and right, many died off, quite a few were acquihired and then some were sunset. What happened was a streamlining of sorts. Social networks faltered as Facebook grew bigger, and interesting companion services were gobbled up and integrated into the product (or simply ignored and hung out to dry). Yahoo! and Google did their part, trying to emulate Facebook’s success by buying into existing communities, only to let them whiter and (almost) die. Delicious, the initial social bookmarking service, was sold to Yahoo! in 2005 and has since then changed hands twice already. Yahoo! had not a single clue what to do with it and let it deteriorate until it was made obsolete by Twitter and Facebook a few years later. Looking at the website today is almost painful, considering what a thriving community it once fostered. The story isn’t an exception, but rather an example of what happened to user-driven services without a clear monetization-angle.
What also happened was mobile. Back in 2003, mobile wasn’t really a thing. The release of the iPhone in 2007 saw a rapid change in that area, with app reviews cropping up on Techcrunch, Lifehacker, Read-Write Web and all the other usual suspects. The advent of Android in Google’s hands opened up the market considerably, and after a while writing about tech meant writing less about revolutionary new web services, but about services that were confined to a small screen and therefore very specific in their application (it’s no coincidence they weren’t ever called programs).
Unforeseen, but inevitable, was the next phase of the mobile revolution: the walling off of the operating system, ultimately handing control of our devices back to the companies that produced them (or their OS). Sure, people can jailbreak their iPhones or simply install apps from third parties on their Android phones, but the move to a bottleneck that approves programs according to their own guidelines, often enough driven by financial interests, has long been made and will only ever stop once everything we do on our devices can be controlled remotely by whoever produces them.
It sounds like a conspiracy, but it’s nothing new. In the early days of computers, it was the kind of system that made huge profits for companies like IBM. You wouldn’t actually own the software on your hardware, you’d licence it. If you needed a software upgrade, you had someone from IBM come over and install it for you. The creation of the personal computer was a great step forward, and arguably helped build the groundwork for the creation of something like the world wide web and most of the fun services we are able to use today.
App stores like Apple’s, Google’s or Microsoft are the reemergence of this idea of having total control over what their customers install on their devices. And yes, they’re convenient. No need to update your software manually, they do it for you. And hey, no need to be afraid of malicious code, they check those apps before you use them. The downside is that every developer who doesn’t adhere to the often arbitrary rules of those app stores need to find other ways of distributing their software, ultimately unable to compete with those who decide to go the way of the bottleneck. For the consumer it means that whoever created their device has not only full knowledge of, but total control over what runs on these devices.
And you know what, that’s not even it. Microsoft released Windows 10 recently. It’s definitely one of their best iterations and the best thing: it’s free for all the users of Windows 7 and 8. Of course, now online services and more or less constant connections to Microsoft’s servers are so ingrained into the operating system that it actually needs a workaround to be able to create an account on your own computer without creating an online-account with Microsoft itself. All in the name of interchangeability of devices, cloud storage and other services like Microsoft Office 360, an office suite that you can now rent instead of buy (there’s that again). Money is now made with add-on services and subscriptions, which, conveniently, are served through their own store (over which they have full control).
I read Jonathan Zittrain’s book “The End of the Internet – and how to stop it” a while ago, and what he wrote about the dangers of having the Internet locked down by corporations and governments is actually more real than ever. And apart from a few valiant organisations like the EFF, not a whole lot is being done against it:
Our technologists are complacent because the ongoing success of the generative Net has taken place without central tending—the payoffs of the procrastination principle. Rank-and-file Internet users enjoy its benefits while seeing its operation as a mystery, something they could not possibly hope to affect. They boot their PCs each day and expect them more or less to work, and they access Wikipedia and expect it more or less to be accurate.
(You can read the whole book here).
A few years ago, in order to at least partly work against that development on the web, I created a website called “The Self-hosted Web”, where I try to showcase consumer-oriented software that is self-installed and self-hosted and will allow people to share photos, write blog posts or connect with friends without having to resort to hosted services. Needless to say, it’s an uphill battle, not least because it’s cumbersome to most and security issues are real and pressing. Still, I think it’s a good way to show people that what powers all these services they use daily is actually something that’s available to all of us to build upon.
This has become long and winding and probably disjointed, so here’s a TL;DR for your ADD riddled minds:
When I started blogging, the social web was in its infancy. Blogs were the outlets that allowed us to connect with friends and strangers, then came services and webapps that made it even easier. It was a great ride, adventurous and fun, until the success of the social web became its own deadliest foe. Services like Twitter and Facebook have long IPOed, their interests driven by stockholders. In the meantime the outlets we built ourselves have declined. Those blogs that are left, and arguably, there still are millions of them, are either marginalized or driven by a desire to be as profitable as possible. Which isn’t inherently bad. Who doesn’t like living off of what they like doing most? Still, with the constant demand to be able to monetize any- and everything, we are both eroding the fundamentals of the social-web and by letting them lock down our devices we are giving control back to corporations and ultimately governments.
What’s the solution, then? Hard to say in a general sense, but we can start by supporting organizations and companies that are interested in keeping the web an open and inclusive, instead of a closed and exclusive place. The EFF has been doing this for ages, the Freedom Box foundation is working on secure and safe communication, and despite having a commercial, hosted arm, WordPress is still the best open-source software for publishing your thoughts on the web.
On a personal level? I don’t quite know. I’m as complicit in this as the next person, with my accounts on hundreds of services, Windows 10 running on my computer, the Office 360 subscription I got for convenience and the fact that I’ll be posting a link to this rant on at least two social networks owned by large corporations. But at least I’ve written down my qualms with what’s happening and if you share my sentiments, we can connect on Diaspora and share cat pictures. Or something.
I recently went into the Styrian alps with my family and did some actual hiking. When I was younger, my father used to go hiking with me quite a bit. Being the lazy fuck that I am, I often wished I didn’t have to. That is, until after about an hour or so we sat down in some meadow, opened up my father’s huge, old backpack, got out bread, bacon and cheese and had a fantastic little snack. There’s something about that sort of simple combination that’s just so satisfying, especially when you’re an eight year old kid who feels like he’s famished after an hour of light hiking.
A few decades later, I’m finally realizing that hiking to a mountain-top (or whatever goal you might have) has other merits too. It’s exhausting, which in turn makes your time of idleness seem even sweeter. It’s meditative too: you can just trot on, letting your mind wander. Because, you know, there’s fuck all else to do when you’re on a mountain. Also, there’s nice views from the top. Don’t shoot me for saying it, but standing up there and maybe getting a glimpse of small houses, the odd car, maybe even tiny little people – it lends you a sense of perspective and affords you the realization how significant you are in relation to what else is out there (spoiler alert: not a whole lot).
The pictures below are from my hike with my brother, be prepared for many more posts about hikes with my girlfriend. Who was actually the one to convince me that I should invest in some good shoes. Sage advice.
Having decided to focus more on writing on my blogs again, I’m realising just how many I’ve created over the years (and subsequently neglected). Over the last two days, I did my inventory: updated plugins, themes, cleaned up the odd, erm, hacked installation and put them all under the roof of the rather handy wordpress.com centralized command.
All of those blogs had their very own raison d’etre, but now that some time has passed and I’ve grown somewhat tired of having to look after all these installations, I’m thinking about maybe consolidating them into one, maybe two roofs. I’m still torn about what to do with each of them, so I’d value your input.
That’s of course this blog right here. I started it, I think, sometime in 2000, then still without my own domain. Ha, I remember the invigorating feeling when actually accessing it under my own domain. What freedom! What self-expression! Its tagline “The Excitement of Boredom” was actually my own criticism of then prevalent blogging practice. I found most of them dull and thought I could be even duller. I stuck to it, for better or worse. If I’m consolidating my other blogs, this will be the hub. The stormgrass empire, if you will.
I used to write about technology a lot. Technology in the sense of web services and other consumer-oriented tech products. It was all done on my main blog, but I soon realized that the people who visit my blog to see updates about my personal life (mainly my mother) didn’t really care about the tech updates, and vice versa (currently most links there are broken, which I think is due to some rewrite rules I’ll have to figure out). Creating a separate blog seemed like a good solution. Today, I’m not so sure anymore. There’s a whole bunch of popular blogs out there that don’t have this strict dividing line and I find that rather charming. I’m thinking especially about Ninjas and Robots, the blog of Nathan Kontny, CEO of Highrise. The thing is, he’s got a voice, and that voice is carried through all of his posts, whether they’re technical or personal or whatever else. I do think I should strive for that.
Death by Martini
Yet another fork from my personal blog, this time one oriented towards food and eating and general gastronomical debauchery. I used to write about food a lot, used to post pictures about food a lot. Mind you, that was quite some time before the advent of apps like Instagram. When I realized that there’s actually food blogs out there, I wanted my own. And as it happened with so many of my blogs, after a while it seemed far easier to just post those pictures to Twitter or Facebook and be done with it. My qualms with this blog are similar to those I have with my tech blog. Keep it or incorporate it? I’m too much in love with the name of this blog to just let it go, but maybe it’s the right thing to do.
The self-hosted web
This is not so much a blog, but more of a project about the beauty of self-hosting consumer-oriented software. Think self-hosted Instagram, WordPress, social networks and the like. It was born out of the idea to not give all your content and especially all the discussions that happen around it to other companies. It’s alive, but I haven’t been as active there as I want. Since this really isn’t as personal as my other projects, and more geared towards becoming a community project, it’ll stay where it is. I am always looking for new software that fits this space, so if you’ve got any recommendations, do drop me a note.
Remember tumblelogs? Yes, exactly, the kind of blogs tumblr was designed after. In a time when Facebook was more of a, well, Facebook and less of a publishing tool and Twitter hadn’t yet taken off, tumblelog was the designated name for a kind of blog that could do without titles, categorization, tags and all that cruft, and let people concentrate on quickly posting stuff. Take note of this Lifehacker article from 2007 detailing the ins and outs of a tumblelog.
Intrepidly Trite was to be that kind of blog. I had it connected to Austrian soup.io for a long time, after that ran a couple of different self-hosted blog variants under the name. Today it’s a bare-bones WordPress installation I had created in order to turn it into my own photo-sharing site. Somehow it didn’t really fit, so I’m not sure yet what to do with it. There’s this beautiful open-source project called “Chyrp” out there, which is basically a tumble-log software to self-host. I might just use this for Intrepidlytrite if I feel the need to have my own tumblelog again. If I don’t, I might shutter the site altogether and just see what else I could use the domain for at some point in the future.
This domain was actually a joke. A couple of years back, companies had this tendency to create apps that were named after common words. There was “Color”, a photo app that sounded promising but didn’t take off, and there was “Disco”, a group messaging app by Google that got sunset basically right after its start. I thought it was a fun idea to get a domain name combining those two. Ironically, today both apps are gone but my domain is still here.
I finally used it to create yet another blog which I envisioned to be something more in the vein of a blog like kottke.org. An aggregator of cool stuff, mostly films, articles of note, videos. Not hugely personal, but simply based on the things I find interesting. As it turned out, I didn’t have enough time to keep it updated regularly. I’m not yet sure what to do with it. It somehow fits the “aside” category on a WordPress installation but could also work as a sideblog (similar to what Helge does here).
Speaking of Helge, his community blog called “Kobuk” is similar to what I and my friend Daniel had created quite a while ago. Medienschelte was a media-watchblog that detailed the systematic mis-information and error-riddled coverage by the two Austrian tabloids “Österreich” and “Kronenzeitung”. It hasn’t been updated in a long time and probably won’t ever be again. “Kobuk” does a good job with that and I do have to admit, reading those tabloids on a daily basis can be rather detrimental to your mental health.
Finally, this is a blog that hasn’t even started yet, but which is going to happen. I’m a trained historian and after working in social media and other rather technical jobs, I’m about to embark on a journey as a freelance historical consultant for TV, film and videogame productions. Hemmer.co will be the place where I’ll write about history, specifically history in the above mentioned products. Do keep your eyes on that (and if you need someone like me, don’t be shy to drop me a note).
So, here we go. The result of roughly 15 years of creating blogs and projects. The landscape of publishing on the web has changed drastically during that time and while blogs haven’t disappeared, they’ve either become neglected (like mine) or been turned into mainstream products that rival traditional publishing outfits on the web. Creating a blog that doesn’t strive to become a viable source of income seems somewhat outlandish today, which is one of the reasons why I think most people who just want to publish with the least amount of hassle simply do it via Facebook or Twitter. It’s due to that development that I find it rather important to revive my network of blogs and maybe, at some point, inspire others to do the same. Not for fame, money or glory, but simply because they can.
I’ve been blogging for more than 15 years now, and even though there have been gaps in output (most notably the current one which is somewhere in the three years region), I’ve always considered myself a blogger.
The last few years saw the emergence of a new kind of writing. Twitter, Facebook and a myriad of other services made it all too easy to forego the trusty blog and just go and take the easy route of throwing something, anything out there. Not a whole lot of thought, not a whole lot of effort, not a whole lot of anything is needed now to publish (and actually have it read – reading and consuming gets easier too once what you consume is bite-sized). It is what’s been heralded as the democratisation of publishing, and it did bring with it the upsides and the downsides associated with a leveled playing field. I, too, saw most of the upsides and disregarded the downsides. Soon the idea of having to write a blog post complete with title, intro, body and ending seemed like insurmountable obstacles to me.
I had forgotten though, that writing, especially mine, really only comes into its own after its been pondered, rewritten, pondered some more, saved as a draft and maybe even entirely deleted (and then written again) before being published.
While I enjoy writing short, pithy statements on Twitter, or posting pictures without context on whatever other platform, I think it’s time to start using this space (and all the other spaces scattered across the web) again and curb my usage of others. I have a feeling it might not be as difficult as I think, especially if I give myself the freedom to actually write things almost as short as I do on Twitter, once in a while.
I’m not promising world shattering insights (I never did post many of those even in the best of times), but I’m vowing to start putting some more effort into my writing. All the built-in motivators that usually push me to use social platforms (likes, replies, upvotes, favs) won’t be bogging me down, because I doubt even a fraction of those who read my tweets will actually stumble upon this place. So, no pressure there (I might be checking my website stats more, though).
In the vein of a rather old blogging tradition, I’ll also not put a whole lot of effort into making my posts not look like walls of impenetrable text. That said, I will post pictures, simply because I like taking and showing them off. Therefore, have a picture before I conclude this post.
I’ll leave you with this piece by Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan. He was imprisoned six years ago for blogging and when he was pardoned this year, he realized that blogging (and with it the whole ecosystem) was more or less gone. He’s the Rip van Winkle of blogging, which makes it an intriguing read and a convincing argument to go back to blogging and move away from the walled gardens of social networks.
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