inessential by Brent Simmons

NetNewsWire Status: Almost Beta

We’ve got just three things still to do before we hit 5.0b1:

One is a bug — when searching, a refresh or sync can end search mode.

Another is kind of a documentation thing: we need a set of sample AppleScript scripts. These will help people learn how to script the app — and it will also give us the chance to exercise the scripting support more thoroughly.

The third thing is to write the Help book and publish it on the web. Luckily I’m a pretty fast writer and I’ve written NetNewsWire Help books before. I’ll probably start with an older version and revise it for 5.0.

I think we can get to 5.0b1 some time in July — but, if we don’t, it’s because it’s summer and people are in and out due to vacations and ball games and cookouts and rock-and-roll shows. We’re super-eager to ship, but living life comes first. :)

No Algorithms Follow-Up

(This is a follow-up post to No Algorithms.)

Joshua Emmons made the point I was trying to make, but more explicitly:

Tweet 1:

Brent is making a subtle point here:
1. Algorithms weigh signal.
2. In the domain of engagement, outrage and anger mask all other signals.
3. These signals are fatiguing. As Outrage: 5 is normalized, Outrage: 10 is now required to move the needle.

Tweet 2:

1. and 2. mean it’s not the algorithm’s fault. There’s no way to write an engagement algorithm that doesn’t select for outrage and anger. But 3. means anything that incorporates such an algorithm actually makes us worse people.

This is key: it’s not the motivation — selling ads — that turns algorithms bad. (But, yes, selling ads makes a company pretty keen on these types of algorithms.)

This may not be true of music, movies, and other things, but when it comes to news, outrage and anger swamp everything else.

It’s also not an issue of UI. If there’s any way, implicit or explicit or both, of signaling engagement, it will tend toward rewarding outrage and anger. And this gets even worse, not better, if you add data from what your friends and peers like.

Trust

Maybe, though, I could do better. I kind of think not, because I think the problem is a bug in human nature. But let’s say I believed I could do better.

Should I?

For one thing: how much better does it have to be? I think an algorithm that radicalizes far fewer people than it might otherwise is not a good call. Better is still harmful.

So here’s the thing I keep coming back to: I think of NetNewsWire as almost a kind of ideal public utility. As such, it should be completely trustworthy — you should never wonder if it’s leading you down some path or other you didn’t intend or foresee.

There are plenty of other apps in the world — every app is part of an ecosystem — and this one doesn’t have to solve what I think may be an unsolvable problem. I’ll leave that to other people.

Instead, it should be one place for news that you can absolutely trust. Articles come in, and NetNewsWire sorts by time, and that’s it. That’s solid.

Old Bloggers and New

I like to read what people write about RSS readers.

One of the themes goes something like this: “I used to use an RSS reader, then I stopped, years ago. I decided to try it again — so I imported my old list of subscriptions. Over half the feeds were gone or no longer updating! Pour one out for RSS.”

Here’s the thing: blogging is like any other human activity — some people stop and other people start. It’s natural.

And: nobody ever said your favorite bloggers would continue forever. It’s okay to miss your old favorites! I miss mine.

But here are a few examples of current blogs that I like that you might like:

There are plenty more.

No Algorithms

I’ve been asked a few times about using algorithms in NetNewsWire to bring articles you wouldn’t otherwise have seen — from outside your feeds list — to your attention.

I’ve also been asked a similar question about using algorithms to bring articles — from inside your feeds list — to the top based on the likelihood that they’ll interest you.

I’m not going to do either.

Why

These kinds of algorithms optimize for engagement, and the quickest path to engagement is via the drugs outrage and anger — which require, and generate, bigger and bigger hits.

This is what Twitter and Facebook are about — but it’s not right for NetNewsWire. The app puts you in control. You choose the sites and blogs you want to read, and the app reliably shows you their articles sorted by time. That’s it.

My hypothesis: these algorithms — driven by the all-consuming need for engagement in order to sell ads — are part of what’s destroying western liberal democracy, and my app will not contribute to that.

I can’t help but picture the 15-year-old — or 45-year-old — who’s never programmed before, and who reads a little bit about Ruby on some website and is intrigued and wants to try learning it.

Maybe they have a thing they want to do, or maybe they’ve always just been curious about programming and this seemed like a nice way to start.

Are we going to ask that person to figure out how to install Ruby? If there are one-click installers out there, are we going to ask them to figure out which one is actually reputable and safe?

Curiosity like this is one of the ways new developers are made. I worry that the less the Mac is tinkerable out-of-the-box, the fewer developers we’ll get.

Or: we’ll only get certain kinds of developers — the ones of the right age and background who can go get a CS degree.

Direct and Indirect Interfaces

The iPhone is the first — and only? — direct interface that is both great and hugely successful. It’s direct in the sense that you touch things directly on the screen.

The first time I used an interface even remotely like that was the first time I ever sat in front of a computer, sometime in the ’70s — it was a PLATO system at the University of Delaware. (Elementary school field trip FTW.)

But it took a long time before the technology advanced to the point where direct interfaces could be a mass-market thing.

Indirect Interfaces

Even though we have this wonderful thing of touching directly on the screen, indirect interfaces are still everywhere. If you have a hardware keyboard connected to your iPad, you’re using an indirect interface with iOS.

And of course there’s the digital crown on the Apple Watch, the remote you use with your Apple TV — and the keyboard and mouse or trackpad you use with your Mac.

Indirect interfaces are part of the future of computing. The future is diverse and complex, and indirect interfaces are a necessary part of the future — because I’m not going to get up and touch my TV screen.

I remember when potato chips were potato chips. Then one day barbecue-flavored chips came along. Then sour cream and onion. Now you can get potato chips of all kinds! It’s crazy, but people have their favorites. The future is like potato chips.

The Mac

The thing about the Mac is that it’s always used via indirect interface. When you have a hardware keyboard and a precision pointer that takes very little energy to move, then you can do things that would be non-ergonomic for a direct interface.

You can have giant monitors — and even multiple monitors — and whip that pointer from place to far-away place with little effort. You can make targets smaller, due to the precision, which means you can make information and controls quite a bit denser. You can put features in menubars, because menus are much easier to get to and navigate using an indirect pointer.

Though this kind of interface is roughly as old as those early touch-screen PLATO systems — and therefore mature, and therefore boring to a lot of people — there’s still so much to be said for the efficiency that it provides. You can see more, and do more, with less physical energy. For eight hours a day, five days a week — if not more, for some people — it matters.

There’s a cognitive cost, I think, but it’s paid up-front and then ingrained, and most of us have forgotten how we learned to use a Mac in the first place. (I was almost certainly older than you when I first started using a Mac, and I only kind-of remember.) (You also have to learn iOS, too.)

And many iPad users see the benefit of indirect interfaces — plenty of people ask their iPad app-makers to provide full control via keyboard. They want to be able to navigate everything without having to touch the screen. I get it! It totally makes sense. I want that too.

But here’s what I think: the future does include machines that are built, like the Mac, entirely around the idea of indirect interfaces. There will be enough people that value efficiency that this isn’t going to go away.

There are, of course, plenty of tasks that are truly best-suited for an iPhone or an iPad. Absolutely. But for many productivity tasks, the force-multiplication that an indirect interface provides makes a big difference to many people.

You may value other things. You may move between both worlds pretty easily. Different people like different kinds of potato chips — but sour cream and onion doesn’t have to disappear so that barbecue may thrive.

Brett Terpstra writes about how scripting runtimes are being removed from the Mac in the next OS release.

This is actually distressing, and not that much attention has been paid to this.

I’m one of those people who just use whatever’s on the system. I don’t think I’ve ever installed a different version of Ruby, and I don’t even know how.

But the ability to run Ruby scripts is hugely important to me — for one thing, this blog is generated by a set of Ruby scripts running on my Mac.

Impostor Syndrome

In the introductory episode of the Xcoders podcast last night, Liz and Jared talked a little bit about impostor syndrome.

I don’t have anything profound to say about it — just a few random notes…

There’s no developer bit in anyone’s DNA. I don’t have that bit — nobody does. There’s no such thing, and there’s no collection of genes that make you a real developer, either.

You don’t have to have a CS degree. (I didn’t even own a computer when I was in college. And I didn’t graduate.)

If you’re working on an app, you’re a developer. Period. Even if it’s not a stand-alone app; even if it’s some scripts. You’re solving a problem on a computer with logic and code — that makes you a developer. That’s all it takes!

Impostor syndrome goes away eventually. You just forget about it. The fastest way to get past it is probably to help other people.

It’s okay to admit that you have it. It’s been many years, but I had it too. :)

Xcoders Podcast

Liz Marley and Jared Sorge are the hosts of the brand-new Xcoders Community Podcast.

Last night they published the first episode, an introduction. Future posts will include interviews and discussions of interest to our community of developers, designers, testers, support people, and writers.

The podcast isn’t on iTunes yet, but there’s an RSS feed you can subscribe to: https://xcoders.org/podcast.xml

Special thanks go to Micro.blog! We’re using their podcasting support, which makes it super-easy to publish a podcast. Write a title and description, upload the audio file, and there you go. Keen. 🐣

On Public Betas

Person on Slack: “Public betas are up”

Me: “Bummer”

We go through this every summer. Public betas are a moving target, and they have bugs — and people think that app developers can fix any issue immediately.

If you need to get your work done — or, heck, even if you just expect your AirPods to work — you should install public betas on devices and machines that are not your main machine.

Even if you get extremely lucky and everything works with one release, the next public beta could change all that.

Also

Right now I don’t know of any bugs with NetNewsWire 5.0 alpha on the Mac public beta. But it’s so early, and I haven’t personally tested it.

The Omni Group just put up a blog post that recommends caution with public betas.

Our friends at Rogue Amoeba have tweeted about their apps not being compatible yet. (They’re working on it, of course.)

There’s a classic Merlin Mann tweet on the subject.

And… shouldiinstallios13publicbeta.com

One of my favorite moments of all The Omni Show episodes is in the episode with Lanette Creamer, whose cat Navani has been featured on the Omni microblog a couple times. (Here and here.)

From the transcript:

Brent: Nice. So does Navani have any hobbies, obsessions?

Lanette: I would say her top interest is murder, and it’s really a huge thing with her. She loves it so much that she will literally be purring while she is trying to kill and destroy things.

That’s kitties for ya. :)

The fact that DisposeBag is not a name in Apple’s Combine framework sparks joy. I was never, ever going to write code where that was a thing I had to read.

Thing you should know: Mark Boszko — my friend, co-worker, and producer of the The Omni Show — did a podcast called The Optical that dives into movie special effects, and it has some amazing guests such as Douglas Trumbull.

If you like movies, you should listen to these.

Seattle Xcoders Tonight: WWDC Topics

The Xcoders meeting tonight should be pretty great — we’ve got a bunch of lightning talks on new stuff from WWDC.

It’s the Woodstock of today. In later years, more people will claim to have been at this meeting than could have fit in the room. :)

In the Sweet Setup’s review of iOS RSS readers from last May, there’s this sentence that I love: “It’s perhaps ironic that Google Reader helped popularize RSS, considering the sheer horror of its interface design.”

NetNewsWire CI, New Technote

We now have continuous integration set up for NetNewsWire. I didn’t need it for a long time, when it was just me — but now that we have multiple contributors, it’s important.

We’re doing the app and the separate frameworks (RSCore, RSParser, etc.) the app uses.

Thanks to circleci for the service and to Joe Heck for setting it all up!

* * *

Most of my work, between now and shipping, is writing. Here’s a new technote: Why Reruns Happen.

* * *

We have had not one single crash report since 5.0a3 shipped. :)

(Yes, the app does have a crash catcher: no, we’re not relying on people finding the crash logs on disk and sending them in.)

Archive