Matt

nature, language, dogs, software, music, the inexplicable, and the moment.

I arrived in Japan six days ago. Tired from a 10-hour flight after a night-long layover in Calgary, I wandered wide-eyed around Narita airport looking for an ATM — I'd read before coming here that I'd need cash in most places. After buying a subway ticket I didn't need, I eventually found the right ticket counter and the right train into Tokyo.

I don't like to plan a lot when I travel. Not knowing where I'll sleep on any given night frees me up to chase whatever presents itself as I wander around an unknown place. But as the train started to cross the landscape I realized it was 5pm and dark already — and I was tired. So I started looking up hostels near my train's destination, Nippori Station, on Google Maps. I found a decent-looking one, found the directions to get there, and decided to walk instead of taking the subway, to get my first taste of the country.

I checked in at the hostel, left my bag, then headed out for food and a toothbrush. Again I consulted Google Maps to find a nearby convenience store, and then happened upon a restaurant along the way. When I got back I worked on my laptop in the lounge area, striking up small conversations with a guy from Australia and one from California. One mentioned a small town called Gujo out near Nagoya that he said we shouldn't miss. I Googled it and kept the tab open on my laptop for later.

The next day I woke at 5:30, and it was already starting to get light outside. Failing to fall back asleep, I Googled around on my phone to figure out where I wanted to hike — my only real goal for the trip. I found a few articles about trails in the Kita Alps, and kept each one open in a separate Chrome tab. I looked up directions, and saw it'd be a 1.5 hour train ride, a long wait until morning, then a 2.5 hour bus ride to the trailhead.

When I got off the train at Nagano Station I looked for a place to leave my backpack and work for a bit. I found a few neat things to see in the area, again keeping each open in a separate Chrome tab. As I headed for each destination, I'd regularly check the tabs I had open to find exactly how to get where I was going, and later close them when I was done.


That night, the idea came to me for a new app. This whole time I'd been keeping track of various destinations and things to do with browser tabs. They're perfect because they contain all the information you need for one general task, and once you're done with it, one click gets it out of sight. As someone who doesn't want to have his eyeballs in his phone while traveling, this is great.

But it also meant I had to search through 67 tabs on my phone when I needed a piece of information — and then maybe I actually had the tab open on my laptop. So I wanted a simple app that would keep a running list of links, and let me clear them away as I no longer needed them. It would be nice to be able to save them offline, too.

As I thought about implementation: mobile Chrome doesn't let you consistently do third-party actions in one click. There are custom tabs for Android apps, but then I'd have to change my browsing habits just in case I find a link I want to save. Also, creating an entirely new browser app just to get this functionality seemed ridiculous.

Then I realized what it should be: a bookmarklet. It still wouldn't be ideal on mobile, but it'd work on any device and integrate directly with the browser.

So I spent an hour throwing a prototype together. It has two components: the bookmarklet / save link page, and a list of your saved links. You answer two questions about the link when saving it: When? (either now or next) and What? (either go or stay). Then the list shows links organized under the answers to those questions, in descending priority (now: go is first), and each has a “done” button next to it, to tap when you no longer need the information. This way the list becomes a concise jumping-off point of only the most important information you need. When you finish visiting a place and want to go on to the next one, you press “done” on the former, and immediately have the next place waiting for you, right there in the list.

The working title for the project is さまよう (samayou — “wander”) and you can try it out here. As always, it works instantly — no sign up required — and keeps everything saved in your browser. So far it's been pretty nice, but next I'll probably add simple list sharing so you can use it across devices. Let me know how you like it (or don't) if you try it out!

the writer ... speaks to the intellect and heart of mankind, to all in any age who can understand him.

— Thoreau

The great philosopher Mark Zuckerberg once claimed, “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly. Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” Even pretending for a moment he's not in the business he's in, I have to disagree.

As I've written about before, having multiple identities for yourself is key to keeping a separation between your public and private life, especially when it comes to the very public by default web. It gives you privacy control that's independent of the software you're using, and if enabled and utilized in the right way, lets you have very nuanced control of the mass broadcasting you do online.

Some people believe that anonymity itself brings out the worst in people, or that having different “faces” for different social contexts implies dishonesty. Yet there is nothing inherent about anonymity that says it has to be used for bad things, just as there is nothing inherent about cars that says they must be used for fleeing a crime scene. Anonymity may offer the bully new ways to bully, or the liar new ways to deceive others, but the tool itself is existentially meaningless and lacks an intrinsic purpose.

So it's not explicitly the hammer's invented shape that defines its uses (though it certainly helps). Rather it's the history of people using hammers to nail things; of people lending and selling hammers to people who just need to nail something; of it being used for little else other than nailing. If, however, one day people started using it as a murder weapon, and then traded them with other murderers, and encouraged others to use hammers to murder, so much to the point that hammer ownership was criminalized or heavily regulated, the hammer's meaning will have changed to “murder weapon.” In that extreme hypothetical case, many people could lose out on the ability to hang pictures on the wall or build houses just because certain people hijacked the hammer's use case and caused larger problems with it.

In short, it's all how we use it. I believe digital anonymity can create more good than harm, and that's why I built software that supports it. And in three years of running Write.as, we've had to take exceedingly few technical measures to stop abuse. Otherwise, the product's design and social cues like read.write.as are enough to grow a vibrant, welcoming community without real-life identities.

When this and many similarly-minded products exist, you easily see that Zuckerberg's idea that “having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end” is fueled by ulterior motives and not empirical evidence. Facebook's business model rests on us divulging a picture of our entire selves so we can be accurately targeted for ads; if we don't subscribe to that, they have no more product to sell. The stakes for him are high.

So if we want to see an internet with strong personal privacy and individual freedoms, we need more products and services that encourage it. We need businesses that defend it and give it a good name. We need fewer companies building products on the premise that privacy is quaint relic of the past, and fewer CEOs spreading narratives that mislead us into accepting their misguided vision for the future.

I could've published these thoughts pseudo- or anonymously and not lost any integrity, because we know that integrity doesn't mean telling every reader your professional history, what bands you like, what you did last night, or which political candidate you like. Rather, ultimately it's individual ideas and the actions they inspire in a person that determine who they really are.

All-in-one electronic devices separate us from the real world, “connecting” humans only digitally.

A smartphone isn't unique, novel, or interesting these days — especially when it comes to saying something about a person. It doesn't prompt spontaneous conversations in the real world. The same isn't so with a book, where you can make public what your mind is doing, and even what you're interested in, to your immediate surroundings.

Single-purpose devices or objects are also more valuable than sharing “statuses” on Facebook or Twitter, because those platforms lack context and broadcast your life to a broad audience that thus couldn't care less. Without situational context, and with insular networks of people enforced by inflexible computer logic, it's near impossible for interesting, fulfilling chance encounters with new people as you go about your life.

I realized this when I was reading a paper book at a restaurant today. A waiter came up and said, “That's a great book.” We had a short conversation about the author and other books he'd written. This conversation would never have happened if I was reading it on my phone or e-reader.

As always, before inventing or adopting new technology, question what tangible problems it solves, and pay attention to little lovely forgotten aspects you might have to give up in the process.

Today, people like me write commands into documents that gets put through a program that translates them into things that the little electronic sprinkles in your computer can understand and use to make it light up and do things.

Computers, which is what I guess people born in the 20th century used to call our expensive Lite Brites, and a term I'll now use to include iPhones and TVs and internet-connected ovens, do what humans tell them. When people like me write software, we have to decide what to tell the computers; Should the screen turn red, or green, when someone presses a button? Today the whole tell them what to do process is so complex you might need hundreds of people just to figure it all out. It's like making a movie, really. And all throughout the process, people you don't know in some office somewhere are making little decisions that come together to make what you see on Facebook and Snapchat and that little screen on your Keurig machine.

I find it interesting to think of software as a person — a robotic third party watching over and facilitating your interactions with other humans. Facebook's news feed and Google's search results are each like doting parents, never wanting you to leave home and always telling you what's best for you. Snapchat is the crazy, artsy friend who you can never quite decipher, except that it loves parroting tabloid headlines. More literally, each piece of software / “app” treats you a certain way.

Thinking about things this way helps us understand our relationship with software. Which “friends” do we spend our time with? Do they treat us like they're our only friend we'll ever have and we will be missing out on so much if we left them (Facebook)? That we'll never get a job without their help (LinkedIn)? Do they tell us what they're thinking inside (open source), or do they purposely obscure and stay tight-lipped about their intentions?

This also applies to the humans making the software, and this is what sparked this thought today. I thought about how I could add a warning on Write.as that prevented people from accidentally moving posts between blogs, to help protect people from potentially revealing their alter egos. For example, if I have a pseudonymous blog called Jimmy's Life and accidentally move this post there (and leave it there), you'd know I was “Jimmy.”

So I wondered, do I as the user want a “friend” that constantly has to warn me to not do that? Do I want to have to rely on “someone” to keep things straight for me? Do I want someone telling me “what's best”? Or do I want the freedom to use my brain and move things around exactly how I see fit?

The software-writer can literally choose either and rationalize it any way they want. And for this I decided no, it's not a good feature. If Write.as is anyone's “friend,” it should default to trust, and afford users the space to do what they want. That's why it doesn't guilt-trip you for unsubscribing, for example, and makes it easy to export your data. Like any human relationship that comes to an end, all we can hope is that we both grew in some way from having met.

As we anthropomorphize computers more with voice-recognizing assistants and chat bots, the disbelief in us actually interacting with humans every time we touch a screen or click a mouse will fade. We as users should push for software-friends with wisdom and empathy. And we as developers should encode some wisdom with every command we commit to silicon.

Privacy means many things. It's not so much a constant state as a fluid, moving process. It grows and shrinks depending on environment, people around you, and how you wrangle it. But ultimately, privacy is about power.

Privacy, on a personal level, means the power to choose what you reveal about yourself. When you post a photo of the food you ate for dinner on Instagram, you reveal a small piece of what your whole night might've entailed: the friends you saw, the conversations you had, the thoughts you were thinking. The information you don't reveal is information you get to retain for yourself, in a place no one can touch. By keeping the full story to yourself, others can't later laugh at any mistakes or criticize any thoughts you don't want them to. Instead of someone, for example, laughing at you for dropping pasta sauce on your shirt, you can keep the power in your hands by not revealing that moment.

Your environment also plays a role. In the physical world, we can get privacy fairly easily: we can leave a room full of coworkers to answer a phone call, we can close the bathroom door to pee, we can stay in our house to get away from the pedestrians and traffic outside. In the physical world, we can easily separate ourselves from the people we don't want invading our privacy by generally moving our legs in the right direction.

The internet, on the other hand, doesn't have this intuitive ease. I remember as a kid “wandering” the internet, talking to strangers on AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) chat rooms, diving into any weird site I found, and doing whatever the equivalent of “Googling” was in the late 90's. Though I hadn't seen many cities, in retrospect it was like I was wandering some big city as another anonymous inhabitant out of millions. No one was following me around; I felt free to explore.

Today, with some light reading of current events, it's easy to feel restricted — the NSA is on Google, or Facebook is mining your data, or ads are tracking you all over the place, like some creepy guy that keeps following you as you wander the web's streets. It feels like living in a city where they've installed cameras on every street, corner, alleyway, store, church, and house. Where are the private spaces anymore? Where are the bathrooms where you can pee in peace? Your power, and ultimately autonomy, is weakened when anyone seeks to invade your privacy.

The solution for the web isn't quite like “walk away” in the physical world, but takes many forms. For one, after sharing a few Facebook posts we start to learn how to share certain things and not others — that control of what you reveal that I mentioned before. But there's another low-tech way to preserve your privacy online that was obvious when I started using the internet, but has since faded with the rise of “real name” social networks and “building your online brand” (or whatever current advice is). You create a fake name, i.e. a pseudonym.

Pseudonyms give you power in a new way. Instead of using software to keep your posts, messages, and photos “public” or “private,” everything is public, or rather, who cares if it's public. It doesn't matter because when done right, your posts or messages are missing information that ties that data to your real identity. When you pick a pseudonym, like monwetuf (generated from a calendar I was just looking at), Googling for that pseudonym doesn't bring up public records, your résumé, or your Facebook profile. You choose which environments to use it in and how to separate your online activity. Maybe my friends from school call me monwetuf, so I use that name on social media profiles. Maybe my ham radio friends know me by yadatu so I host my hobbyist site at yadatu.com. You're not dependent on a platform's benevolence and it having good privacy controls when you can control the power yourself.

Many of us have been living parts of our lives on the web for a while. It's the world's best communication platform that, for better or worse, doesn't work exactly like meatspace. But we can adapt. We can build services around pseudonyms—like reddit, Hacker News, and Write.as—and even wrangle back our power from the large indoor malls that are Facebook and Twitter, all with very analog tactics. Privacy is not dead, dying, or even wounded. Its waters are only flowing differently, and it's up to us to adjust to the current.

With only a couple hours of sunshine

the things you do with your day become more important. Morning comes slowly, without a specific beginning or end; sometimes playing canvas for cosmic radiation from some far away exploded star; and you know you have to do all you can in less time than you're used to at home, 30° south of here.

cosmic radiation

“Growing up” is one of those societal constructs advertised to us from an early age. We saw it in the cartoons we watched, toys we played with, and the adult humans around us — all “grown up” themselves.

But growing up is a very abstract concept. If I look at my own life, I can point to some aspect and say I grew up at some point in time. I could look at another and say I'm still growing up there. (Am I doing it right?) But for most, this idea is grounded in the expectations others set upon you.

In the US, the doctor recommends you get a job, buy a house, find a spouse, have some kids, and retire. Our culture reinforces this through our TV shows, our ads, our news, our magazines. And each accomplishment along the way continues this reinforcement with a celebration. Bought your first house? Congratulations! Get engaged? Great! Each milestone makes you feel good, and is one step closer to realizing your full “grown up” self.

Of course, none of this inherently bad. Self-sustainability is always good, as in getting a paying job. But once you can cover your basic needs (food, water, shelter), I think it's safe to declare you've “grown up.” Because part of being grown up means getting to decide what being grown up means. Want a family? Go make it happen! Rather not? Cool! You're a grown up! Do what you want! The important thing about growing up isn't “growing up,” but forming your own expectations for yourself so you can personally gauge how well you're doing in life.

Some people (like me) romantically dream of throwing out all the unnecessary things we've accumulated over the years and going off to live in the woods, or live off the land; to have a peaceful environment, or even to toil a bit.

It's a nice dream. But many people don't do it. We've already adapted; we're busy reveling in modern life. We like our houses and our things; our conveniences and our connections to one another. Because through all our invention, mankind's greatest is that of complete and utter comfort. We don't have to hunt or gather. We get to enjoy a cool room on a scorching hot day. We get to travel long distances with little physical effort. And we have really comfortable seats. We rarely end up leaving because our desire for comfort outweighs our desire to discover new uncomfortable things.

And it's an important realization. Thoughts of going off to live in the woods, or to work on a farm somewhere across the ocean, can take up a lot of your time. You think about what it might be like, and how wonderful it would be — almost as if you're looking for that last reason you need to go do it. But you're never really committed to it, and you usually realize there's actually something else causing the thought in the first place. The sooner you realize what that something is, the sooner you can focus that longing on improving your current place in the world, instead.

It was a warm night in late 2014. My day job hadn't provided me with any value outside of paper money in several months, and I was getting the itch to build a completely new thing. In recent months I'd heard my boss talk about Go (golang for you search engines) and how nice it was. I knew PHP, but had recently found Node.js in my last product, LunchTable, unrewarding. So a new backend language to learn appealed to me.

I've also loved writing for a long time. I never planned to make Yet Another Text Editor, but around this time I'd noticed how many people were using pastebin.com to essentially blog. Medium was also the hotness du jour, so I thought, what if I made pastebin look good?

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