Code, nerd culture and humor from Greg Knauss.

Ten years ago today — ten years! — Stating the Obvious ran an essay I wrote called “My Ass is a Weblog.”

If the name doesn’t make any sense to you, that’s because it’s a now-impossibly-obscure joke based on another now-impossibly-obscure joke. Alas, the actual contents of the piece have aged just about as well. Time is a brutal editor, and the past decade has rendered “My Ass is a Weblog” true in only one way: they’ve both gotten gigantic.

In the article, I claim that this new “weblog” nonsense, while useful in its niche, wasn’t deserving of all the hype that was being heaped on it. How could it be? People were claiming that weblogs — the word “blog” had been coined in early 1999, but I couldn’t bring myself to use it yet — would upend journalism, reach millions, bring people together, drive people apart, change the world. Blogs weren’t just a future, but the future. Blogs!, went the proponents. Blogs! Whatever that ultimately means!

Ha!, I spat. You naive, optimistic nincompoops. Ha.

Over the years, I’ve eaten my share of crow about “My Ass is a Weblog” — starting from its first anniversary — and all of it is justified. Out of everything I’ve ever written, this one essay is the most profoundly, spectacularly wrong — wrong in spirit as well as specifics. If anything, the most naive, optimistic nincompoops were too timid.

In fact, it’s how wrong “My Ass” is — and you can write your own joke here — that has given it life long past what it would have earned otherwise. Anybody remember my devastating takedown of WAP? No, of course not. Nobody’s writing books about the history of WAP. Nobody cares.

But blogs… Those of us who were wrong about blogs are cultural curiosities, the same way that those who cling to newspapers or the second Bush Administration are cultural curiosities — as oddballs and idiots who willingly stand on the wrong side of history. Heck, I’ve earned the title “dead horse” many, many times, but “My Ass is a Weblog” is the only reason that the Wall Street Journal called me one. Um, hooray? Yeah, sure: Hooray! You need some historical example of short-sighted, self-satisfied chimp? I’m your man.

Weblogs won, happily rolling over the petty doubts and even pettier cynicism of people like me, rolling over everything that could have kept them from becoming what they have become, both good and bad. Today, a decade on, I know countless people who have made their reputations from blogs, made their living from blogs, made their friendships from blogs, made their marriages from blogs. Blogs have figured into almost all our lives the way that schools and neighborhoods have, the way friends and coworkers have, the way good books and bad TV have. They’re integral to who we are, what we’ve become.

Blogs!, go the proponents, this time as valedictory. Blogs! Whatever that ultimately means!

And there’s a lesson in that. Passion won, enthusiasm won, being in the right place at the right time with the right tool won. World-changing won. I think that cynicism has a better record than anybody is willing to admit, but the people who created weblogs and the software that makes them go — and the list is too deep and too wide to even begin counting them here — won. And I’m glad for it.

My ass is a weblog, and somebody, somewhere, might want to hear what it has to say.

In a fit of inspiration that results in either elaborate new home decor or a child, my wife recently replaced the two-decade-old biohazard-level carpet in our living room with hardwood floors. My contribution was nodding compliantly and helpfully noting that every piece of dust, dog dander and loosed human skin that used to sink into the old carpet was now plainly visible, in great wide swaths, a billion little grey dots on deep brown.

And that’s why we got a Roomba.

Or, rather, that’s the excuse I used to get a Roomba. I mean, I could replace the previous paragraph with “And that’s why I vacuum every day” or “And that’s why we continue to live in filth” but, come on, the cost of the Roomba was some fractional percentage of what we blew on the floor and it’s a freakin’ robot. In my house. Doing my unquestioned bidding, as long as my bidding involves vacuuming.

Which, somewhat disturbingly, it often does.

The Roomba works astonishingly well. It doesn’t do a human-good job, but for day-to-day cleaning — picking up whatever the combination of kids, dogs and 1960’s central air produces — it’s perfect. It’s too loud to run automatically in the middle of the night — “There’s someone in the house! And they’re dust-busting!” — but if you let it go while you’re out on errands, you came back to a cleaner house. Which is a pretty great trick.

And so I love the Roomba… mostly. I mean, it’s great and all, but… Geez. How do I say this? It… It sort of creeps me out. And not just in the way that something that cleans without complaining creeps me out.

This turns out to be not unfamiliar territory for robots.

“The Uncanny Valley” is shorthand for the revulsion that human beings feel when watching Robert Zemeckis movies. Or, rather, for when you’re watching computer animation or robots that come close to looking like humans, without actually getting all the way there. The jerky movements. The dead eyes. The inevitable malfunction and ensuing horrific slaughter. We love our robots R2-D2 adorable, not as walking corpses.

And, yes, OK, the Roomba doesn’t look anything like a person. But it does perform the function of one, and in performing that function, it enters an Uncanny Valley of Behavior.

The Roomba has a handful of different methods for covering a room while it vacuums. And, just by looking at the result, they work great. However the Roomba programmers picked these methods — and I can’t imagine that a group of nerds putting together a vacuum cleaning robot didn’t try every one they could think of — it all appears effective as the dickens.

But watching the Roomba run its routines is frustrating, in a way that watching a human vacuum isn’t. Or, rather, the way I presume that watching a human isn’t, because the only human I ever see vacuuming is me, in a mirror, and that’s incredibly frustrating.

Human beings, when they come across a patch of dirt — and, no, I don’t think that “patch” is over-doing it, not in my house — work the vacuum back and forth until all the dirt is gone. You’re there, you finish it. I don’t care how much you love your grid pattern, OCD Boy, you’re just not going to move on until the immediate area is clean.

But the Roomba will merrily roll right through the bad spot. Zoom. It comes back, eventually, following whatever commands its tiny little brain is giving it, and the floor ultimately gets clean. But watching it not behave like a human — and, yes, I do spend far more time watching the Roomba vacuum than I ever spent vacuuming myself — is… disconcerting.

It makes sense that the Roomba behaves differently than a person — it’s got a different design, with different strengths and weaknesses. But as robots make their way out of factories and into contact with the general population, there’s bound to be a disconnect, a brainstem-driven objection to how they go about doing what they do. They won’t look like humans — it makes no sense to design specialized robots to mimic the awkward shape of people — but they will be doing the work of humans, and doing it in ways that are alien to us, ways that that better suit their dumb, slow, nothing-but-time constraints. Ways that are going to seem creepy as hell.

With the rise of the robots, our world is going to be turned into an endless Uncanny Valley of Behavior. No matter how effective the machines are, some distant memory will crawl out of our lizard brain and insist that they’re doing it wrong. And we’ll squirm and fidget and ultimately get used to it and let the robots go about their business.

Because the alternative is doing the vacuuming ourselves, and there’s no way in hell I’m going back to that.

In ancient Greece, men created gods to reflect the natural world, granting personalities to the aspects of nature that confused or terrified them the most. Lacking a rational understanding of the actual order of things, these personifications helped explain the capriciousness and whimsy of the world.

Zeus rattled the sky. Poseidon called forth earthquakes. Ares created war and its cruelty. Aphrodite created lust and its cruelty.

With the rise of the scientific method, ascribing particular aspects of nature to individuals, to individual personalities, fell out of favor. While the result is a clearer understanding of the true nature of the universe, it’s maybe a little too prosaic.

So I’d like to propose that we start assigning personalities to our understanding of nature again, to scientific laws. There are archetypes that perfectly embody not only how the natural world actually works, but our fears about it, too.

My dogs, for instance, are the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

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Bad, entropy! Naughty! Bad!

I am not Lance Armstrong.

I am not a cancer survivor. I am not a Tour de France champion. I am not an inspiration to millions, a man who believes “in living every minute of your [life] with every ounce of your being.”

I’m a fat middle-aged guy with a dead-ending career who’s tired a lot. I forgot to shave this morning.


Lance Amstrong (L) and not Lance Armstrong (R).
Not Lance Armstrong is the one posing with a urinal.

But then I see a lot of fat, middle-aged, unshaven guys, and they’re all walking around with bright yellow LIVESTRONG wristbands, and I think, “Well, if they can be inspired to greatness by an exceptional individual’s story, can’t I? Can’t I?”

And the answer is, of course, “No. Don’t be stupid. Get back to work.”

So there’s obviously a need — a profound need — for more realistic goals for the rest of us. Overcome adversity? Break records? Change the world? Sleep with an apparently endless series of actresses and models?

I’ll settle for keeping the bathroom clean for a week. OK, five days. Three. Three days.

Dare to dream, people. Dare to dream.

Wristbands are easy, but actually living up to what they say is hard. So what’s the solution? No, not changing my attitude. Pfft. Who let you in? Change the saying!

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Introducing the DIEFEEBLE wristband, in ashen gray.

DIEFEEBLE, for when the sofa and a bag of Doritos looks a hell of a lot better than a bike ride in the rain. DIEFEEBLE, for leading that life of quiet desperation that you keep hearing about. DIEFEEBLE, for being too tired to even have sex, for Christsakes.

DIEFEEBLE, for the fat middle-aged guy in all of us.

wrist.png

Man, do I need a nap.

Sauron has his ring, Voldemort stands victorious, the Yankees win the World Series. Evil triumphs over good. And I have a technical problem.

A couple of weeks ago, on a lark, I wrote a Gresemonkey script to replace the Yankee logo on John Gruber’s Daring Fireball with something more appropriate. I didn’t encode the graphic into the script, instead calling it from a URL, so I could change it as time went on.

The Yankees enter the ALCS:

The Phillies win the NLCS:

The Yankees win the World Series:

All fine and good and totally on the right side of history and moral probity. Except that the baseball season is now over and my little joke should be over along with it, freeing Gruber to change his logo back to the one representing Communist China instead of something that crushes the human spirit. But, um, something like 1,500 people installed the script and because I hadn’t actually planned for mid-October, they’re still going to be requesting a graphic from my site every time they visit Daring Fireball. It’s installed software. You can’t make your users upgrade.

This isn’t an uncommon problem, especially off the Web. You release something, people adopt it, and only then do you start to realize the implications of what you’re now doomed to support for ever and ever and ever.

If I’d been smart — a reach, admittedly — I would have written the script differently, loading the replacement header independently from assigning it to the display, and then not doing the assignment if the replacement wasn’t available. This would have left the normal header in place if my version wasn’t there, with only a query and a 404 response traveling over the network. Elegant! And not what I did.

I had considered putting a date check into the code, to only replace the URL during the post-season. But that hard-codes something that could potentially change, which is always dangerous. Given what they keep doing to baseball, God knows when the post-season will be next year. It just felt wrong.

And so I’m stuck, serving thousands of 7K replacement headers to a site that no longer offends for a joke that’s over. Hijacking part of Daring Fireball in a fit of Yankee-loathing pique is fun, doing it permanently is bad form.

So, OK, absent a time-machine and good sense, there are a few possibilities about how to deal with this:

  • Ignore it. There aren’t that many hits coming from the script, and each only generates a small amount traffic. If I host a proper version of the DF header, nobody will know the difference, probably.

    This is the easiest option, as it’s already done and my hosting plan allows me hundreds and hundreds of gigs of bandwidth that I’m not using. But while ignoring a problem can make sense from a business perspective, the inelegance of it can also stick in my nerd craw like, oh, a Yankee’s World Series victory.

  • Set a long Expires header. Currently, the replacement graphic is only cached for the browser session, so that it will be re-queried often. I didn’t know when circumstances were going to change, and I wanted to be able to update the header as the post-season progressed. With the season over, I could set an Expires header on the image that would keep it locally cached in each visitors’ browser until late September 2010.

    And while this solution solves the network traffic issue, it still requires me to host a version of the normal DF banner, preventing Gruber from changing it arbitrarily, effectively continuing to hijack his site. And again with the hard-coded date issue.

  • Encourage people to upgrade or remove the Geasemonkey script. Ha. While Firefox extensions can be automatically upgraded, Greasemonkey scripts can’t. For a lot of Damned Fireball users, the only time they’ve ever visited my site was to install the script. They’re never coming back, and so would never see an upgrade notice. And even if they did, the vast majority of them would ignore it. That’s just the way users are.

  • Use an HTTP 302 back to the original banner. When the replacement logo is requested from my server, I can respond with a HTTP 302, pointing the browser back to the original, on Daring Fireball’s server. Since that version of the banner is already cached locally (from when the page was originally requested), the only network traffic incurred is the query and a 302 response.

    This “Found Elsewhere” idea is actually pretty good. It keeps the regular expiration of the graphic, so that it can be replaced should the Yankees ever luck into the post-season again, but it also doesn’t incur the traffic of constantly re-sending the replacement banner. It allows Gruber to do what he wants with his original banner since it just returns the browser to whatever was originally downloaded before the script ran.

In fact, this solution is almost as good as if I’d written the code right in the first place.

Which, in software, counts as a victory.

Four hundred million years ago, during the Paleozoic Era, Joanne and I had just celebrated our first anniversary and set off on our second vacation. We flew into Seattle, rented a car, and wandered north of the border, into the wilds of Canada. They used to allow that sort of thing.

We did all sorts of Canadian things on that vacation, including being nice to people we didn’t know, using the metric system and hating the Quebecois.

We saw lots of amusingly duel-labeled food, in English and French, including English muffins (“Muffin anglais”) and French dressing (“Vinaigrette fran├žaise”). At a supermarket in Kamloops, there was an open barrel of bar-b-que sauce (“bar-b-que sauce”), with little plastic jars set next to it and a ladle. I still have nightmares about what could have been at the bottom.

I got a speeding ticket doing 14,421 mkph (which translated to 35 miles per hour, at then-current exchange rates) from a cop who stepped into the fast lane ahead of me, pointed at me, pointed at the side of the road and then stepped out of the way as I zoomed by. After I stopped, he walked over and wrote me up. I should have kept going, just to see if he would give chase by jogging briskly after me and going, “Beee-dooo. Beee-dooo.”

When we were in Victoria, we went whale watching out on Puget Sound. This mainly consisted of being encased in these comical environment suits to keep from freezing to death, racing around in an overgrown inner-tube hooked up to two gigantic outboard motors, and failing to see whales. After three hours, with faces stung red by needle-sharp spray, we decided to forgo the half-price afternoon run.

We ate cucumber sandwiches in a tea house, served by very English butling types, who vibrated with stiff-upper-lipped rage at having unruly Americans come in and improperly eat cucumber sandwiches.

And after all that touristy nonsense, we finally spent one wonderful afternoon just wandering around a leafy, sunny neighborhood in Victoria. We made random turns, found parks, sat on benches, and eventually came across a tidy house with a well-kept yard and two dozen birdhouses set carefully on the front fence. They were each solidly made, detailed without being fussy, and each had a small hand-written price tag hanging off a string. We picked the one we liked best, gave the nice man who wandered out our address and he shipped it to us a week later. It hung in the backyard for years, before finally succumbing to the punishing Southern California weather.

Last week, my wife was digging through a long-neglected envelope in a long-neglected drawer and came across a hand-stamped business card that had been slipped into the box the birdhouse came in.

birdhouse.png

The man’s name was Art Braaten. He might have mentioned it while we talked, a dozen years ago — I’ve long-since forgotten. But here he was again, unexpected, a little reminder of that great birdhouse, and that great walk, and that great vacation.

I searched for him, of course; it’s a reflex at this point. The Internet’s come a long way since 1997, and I found him almost immediately:

Arthur “Art” Lloyd Braaten
On Tuesday, March 2, 1999, Arthur “Art” Lloyd Braaten, late of Weyburn, passed away at the age of 75 years.

Mr. Braaten was sick when we spent our time with him, with the colon cancer that would end his life less than two years later. Near as I can figure, it was the last year he spent healthy, his last year in Victoria. He and his wife had their 40th anniversary then, and they remade their vows to each other. He built our birdhouse around that time, the last real chance he had to do what he obviously loved to do. He’s been dead for over a decade, and I just found out.

And that’s why I love the Internet. That small obituary — hosted on some cheesy advertising circular’s Web site, last modified in January 2001 — has sat out there, patiently waiting for someone to need it. Nearly ten years on, an idle curiosity prompted by some fleeting serendipity instantly brings it to me, and suddenly I know something I didn’t — something I should have no way of knowing, given time and distance — and I’m mourning a man who improved my life every time I looked out the window.

Our lives are being documented, in ways large and small and trivial and important, and it will all be waiting out there for anybody who has the inclination to find it. People rightly worry about the implications of all this — about what it means for privacy and for history — but right now, remembering Art and the birdhouse and what it was like to be part of a young couple on vacation in a strange and dangerous land, I can only be glad for it, thankful even, and hope that someday, someone will find this tiny story — last modified in November 2009 — and think fondly of me.

I dearly love my iPhone — in ways that are illegal in some states in the South — and I was in the Santa Monica Apple Store the other day to have its oil changed. The little switch that turns the ringer on and off had busted — in the most elegant way possible — and I wanted to see if I could get a new one.

Well, Apple apparently doesn’t make replacement little switches that turn the ringer on and off — if they did, they’d be $45 — and the nice hipster with the tattoos and piercings and fro-comb and disturbingly sunny helpfulness said he was just going to go ahead and give me a whole new phone.

Well. OK. I’ll settle for that.

So I handed him my phone and sat down and reached into my pocket to get my phone because I had ten minutes to kill.

My phone! My phone was gone! I slapped my pants pockets and my shirt and, oh no, oh no, oh— Wait. I just gave the Apple guy my phone. Right. Whew.

I just have to sit here for ten minutes, until they give me my phone back. So I reach into my pocket to get my phone and—

Dammit!

So I stand up and go play with the demo models.

Hi there! My name's GREG KNAUSS and I like to make things.

Some of those things are software (like Romantimatic and Buzz Clock), Web sites (like the Webby-nominated Metababy and The American People) and stories (for Web sites like Suck and Fray, print magazines like Worth and Macworld, and books like "Things I Learned About My Dad" and "Rainy Day Fun and Games for Toddler and Total Bastard").

My e-mail address is greg@eod.com. I'd love to hear from you!

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