What’s the Deal With Mastodon Instances?

an ai-generated image of a cartoon mastodon using a laptop
In light of Elon Musk opting to go a different path from my recommendations, Twitter is managing to fall into a state of chaos at a rate that’s frankly impressive.

A lot of Twitter users are jumping ship to Mastodon. It’s familiar to Twitter users. You write short posts (we call them toots) and you follow people. But structurally, the network and moderation models are very different.

Mastodon Does Things a Little Differently

If you want to join Twitter you get an account on Twitter itself. If you want to join Mastodon there is no one Mastodon; there are many instances of Mastodon.

That’s not as unfamiliar as you might think. If you want an email address there isn’t a single company you get an account with; instead there are lots of email providers. And no matter which email provider you pick, you can email anyone else with an email address, and they can email you. Mastodon is kind of like that too.

Picking an Instance

So, the short story is that you can sign up on any instance you want and you’ll be on Mastodon.

If you go to joinmastodon.org they have a directory of instances you can browse, and you can pick a general-purpose instance and you’ll probably be fine.

Mastodon instances are run by volunteers who aren’t paid, and the people who run them have to pay server bills. I recommend that you kick them a few bucks every month to help with the expenses (if they seek donations).

Hell, if you wanted to you could even host your own instance, just like you can host your own email server. It’s well-documented and there’s even Mastodon hosting as a service.

Timelines

There are three different main timelines on Mastodon: your home timeline, the local timeline, and the federated timeline.

The home timeline works like classic Twitter. It’s a reverse chronological timeline of toots from people you are following. That’s one characteristic of Mastodon that helps make it less toxic; you aren’t being pushed content by some algorithm; you are in control of who you see toots from.

The local timeline is a timeline of all the toots from all the people on your Mastodon instance. If you joined an instance centered around a particular community or interest, this might be useful to you. If you’re on a more general-purpose instance like mastodon.social, this will feel more like a firehose of toots.

Mastodon instances can choose to federate with each other as well. When your instance federates with another instance, your federated timeline will include toots from your own instance, and all the other instances yours federates with. If, for example, you’re a member of an instance for people interested in retro gaming in Portland, your instance might federate with other instances that are centered around retro gaming.

Federation doesn’t affect who you can follow and who can follow you, though!

One Account? Or Many?

I initially made an account on mastodon.social because I just wanted to get my feet wet with Mastodon and my way of thinking about it worked was similar to how I thought Twitter worked.

But I do have more than one account now, and my secondary accounts are in smaller communities centered around specific things.

One of the things I always liked about Twitter was that when I followed people I primarily followed them because of a single shared interest but over time I’d get to learn more about some of their other interests. So with that in mind I don’t think you should compartmentalize your personality into different accounts, but if there’s a particular topic you want to get really deep about, it might make sense to join an instance focused on that specific thing. And you can always boost (equivalent of retweeting) your toots from specific instances if you want to share it with your more general audience.

Moderation

One of Twitter’s major points of weakness has been moderation, and moderating Twitter has been difficult in part because there is only one Twitter for the entire world to use.

An ideal Mastodon ecosystem consists of a large number of instances, each of which has a small number of users. These instances get to set their own rules for what is acceptable and what isn’t, and by not having too many people, it’s not too burdensome to moderate.

I like Mastodon because most of the instances don’t tolerate far-right bullshit and racism and that kind of thing.

And if someone comes along and does make an instance that does tolerate that (and it happens), instance admins can completely block the entire instance in one fell swoop.

In practice this works pretty well, and it does a good job of accommodating differences in values. Whereas big singleton social networks like Facebook and Tumblr are not friendly to nudity and sexually explicit material, there are lots of Mastodon instances that are just fine with it, and you can have an account on there without worrying constantly about moderators (and people on a stricter instance can still follow you, if they choose to). This more closely resembles how human networks work, where different groups have different social norms.

Moving Instances

an image from Arrested Development where Michael Bluth proclaims he is out of this family

You know all the times that Twitter pissed you off and you said “okay, I’m done with Twitter” and then you were back next week because all the people you knew were on Twitter still and didn’t follow you elsewhere?

On Mastodon, you can move instances with relative ease. Not all your data moves perfectly right now, but you can move frictionlessly to a new instance without losing your social graph.

So pick an instance and don’t overthink it! It’s not a permanent decision.

Uncategorized

The Freestyle Libre 3 Puts the “Continuous” in “Continuous Glucose Monitor”

Having diabetes is no fun, but from early on my favorite coping mechanism has been to try to combine managing my diabetes with my affinity for technology and cool new tools and gadgets.

When I had my first appointment with my first endocrinologist, I thought I was ahead of the curve when I said I had ordered a snazzy finger stick blood glucose monitor that had a companion iOS app. She immediately responded “no, I’m going to give you something better,” and she handed me a prescription for a system called FreeStyle Libre.

And it was indeed better than fingersticks. Instead of pricking your finger many times a day and getting a single number, you could, at the time, prick yourself once with a sensor applicator that stuck a sensor on your arm with a little filament that went just beneath the skin (it sounds scary and the needle does look intimidating, but most sensor insertions are painless, though sometimes they sting just a little). And in exchange for that one prick and inconvenience of having a sensor on your arm, you could tap a reader device on the sensor and immediately get a chart showing the last 8 hours of your glucose readings.

Managing diabetes is a game of constantly watching numbers, and knowing your blood sugar trends, so Freestyle Libre was indeed way better for me. Instead of just seeing that my blood sugar is 190 an hour after a meal, I can instead see how high my blood sugar was before the meal, how steeply it rose, and whether I can expect it to go up more or if it’s coming back down.

The first Libre sensors I got prescribed were downright primitive. You had to replace them every ten days, you had to wait 12 hours for the sensor to “warm up” and be able to give you readings, and you had to use the proprietary little reader device so it was another thing to carry around. Still, though, it was quite sophisticated at the time.

And it’s only gotten better! Not long after I started using the Libre sensors, their iOS app got approved in the US, so I could use my iPhone’s NFC reader to tap the sensor and get a reading. And soon after that, the FDA allowed Abbott to sell the sensors to be used for the full 14 days with a 1 hour warm up period, just like the European Libre sensors had always been.

Freestyle Libre 2 sensors became approved in the US a couple years ago, and they added Bluetooth support, but sadly the Bluetooth was only used for an alarm function to alert you that your blood sugar was going low or high; you still needed to use the app and scan the sensor to see the actual reading. I didn’t bother to upgrade my prescription; instead, I preferred to use the MiaoMiao device which I could attach to my Libre sensor and the MiaoMiao could send readings to a third party app via Bluetooth. I wrote about this awhile back. It’s a cool system, but the sensor is really bulky, and the company making it is China-based and support has gotten spotty (I got a new iPhone and the Tomato app won’t pair with the sensor).

Freestyle Libre 3 is the first major redesign of the Libre system.

The sensor is considerably smaller and thinner than the Libre 1 and 2. I was surprised at just how delightful this smaller sensor is. You’re substantially less likely to brush a doorway and have the sensor get painfully ripped off your arm now, and because of the smaller surface area, you should be able to flex your arm more easily without feeling your skin stretching against the adhesive. The new sensors are also more accurate, with readings deviating from a blood test by an average of 7.9% (though as Nerdabetic on YouTube explains, this new 7.9% figure is based on a different method of calculating MARD, but it’s still more accurate than previous models).

Seriously, this new sensor is so small it’s cute, and it feels substantially less obtrusive than its predecessors, which were already considerably more svelte than Dexcom’s sensor + transmitter.
a selfie where i'm showing of the diminuitive size of the new Libre 3 sensor

The packaging and applicator have also been redesigned to use less material. Instead of the applicator and sensor being in two separate packages, they’re combined into one. The materials still aren’t recyclable, though Abbott has a pilot program to keep these out of landfills. Sadly, although they aren’t going into landfills, they are just getting incinerated to generate electricity.

But by far the biggest change with Freestyle Libre 3 is how you use it to get readings: you no longer need to tap the sensor to get data! Instead, the sensor is constantly streaming data to your phone via Bluetooth.

This makes checking your glucose as easy as opening the app. Furthermore, it helps ensure you have continuous glucose data because of the constant wireless streaming. Whereas previously you might have gaps in data if you go more than 8 hours between scans, you now get 24/7 coverage.

That means if I had a carb-heavy dinner and knew it was going to be bad news and didn’t bother to check, the app is dutifully storing the data nonetheless, and I can look back and check the next day when I feel more courageous.

Unfortunately, the mobile app is the biggest weak spot in all of this.

The mobile app basically shares the same design as the original FreeStyle LibreLink mobile app, whose interface was designed to pretty much offer a 1–1 mapping of the interface of the physical reader devices.

a screenshot of the FreeStyle Libre 3 app showing a chart of blood glucose. The latest reading is 118mg/dL

Not that you can always judge a book by its cover, but this is the amount of effort put into redesigning the app icon for the Libre 3 app; you can expect a similar amount of rework in the app itself:

a screenshot of the LibreLink and LibreLink 3 app icons side by side, to illustrate just how little effort Abbott put into making a revamped mobile app for their new system

The app doesn’t write data to HealthKit, so you’re stuck with whatever charts the app itself provides, and you can’t centralize your glucose data with the rest of your health data.

The biggest disappointment is that although the redesigned sensors open up a whole new world of possibilities in terms of giving you new ways to watch your numbers, the app does nothing new; it just displays the charts without making you tap the sensor with NFC.

Dexcom has let you directly view glucose data on your Apple Watch for years. Third party apps I’ve used like Tomato and xDrip4iOS will display the latest glucose reading as an app notification badge, which is convenient.

But from a first party I would expect even more, like support for home screen or lock screen widgets that show the latest reading or a graph. Hell, there should be Shortcuts support too! How cool would it be to have a Shortcuts action that retrieves your current glucose and lets you use that with anything you can imagine making a Shortcut for?

Sadly, Freestyle’s app for the Libre 3 does none of those things. If you want to see the readings, you have to open the app, which will show you a chart that looks identical to past versions of the app.

Is that such a terrible injustice? Not necessarily (I’ve seen the finger stick tests people had to use in the 80s and I feel lucky). But it’s a travesty to see Abbott sitting on all of these new tools available to them to make glucose readings faster and easier to access than ever before. And it gets doubly frustrating when I’m reminded that the sticker price of these sensors is easily over $1000 a year (my copay alone is $75 for two sensors).

You might check your numbers 3 or 4 times a day if you open the app, which is pretty good. But if all you had to do was glance at your watch to check your blood sugar, you’d probably check it an order of magnitude more! Or if you have one of these fancy new iPhone 14 Pros with the always-on lock screen, it similarly has the potential to make your glucose available with nothing more than a glance.

For that kind of money this should be one of the most polished apps on my phone, and it should be first in line to take advantage of cool new features that come to iOS. And I know that these mobile apps are subject to regulatory approval too since they effectively are medical devices, but so are the Dexcom apps. There’s just no excuse for Libre to be this far behind, and if past performance is any indicator, we probably shouldn’t expect any features to be added to this app… whatsoever.

The app does support dark mode now, though, so that’s a plus:

a screenshot of the FreeStyle Libre 3 app in dark mode, showing a blood glucose reading of 182 after a higher peak that came after an afternoon of much lower sugars

Anyway, this app is either maintained by contractors Abbott is paying as infrequently and as little as possible to maintain the app, or I have no idea how their team of mobile developers spends its time. I’m hoping that xDrip4iOS or similar apps can close the functionality gap soon. #WeAreNotWaiting

If you are currently using a previous version of the Libre sensors, you can upgrade now if you’re in the US (it’s been in Europe for some time); just ask your endocrinologist to send in a new Rx. Libre 3 has the same cost as Libre 1 and 2, and Abbott will send you a coupon for a free FreeStyle Libre 3 sensor. If you use the free voucher, I recommend you call your pharmacy ahead of time to let them know that’s what you plan to do so they can correctly bill the voucher instead of your insurance company.

If not for the app missing so many easy wins, I’d be shouting about Libre 3 from the rooftops. Nonetheless, it’s really good! If you’re using the FreeStye Libre 1 or 2, upgrading is a no-brainer. You’ll pay the same cost and you’ll get a nicer, sleeker sensor with more accuracy, and you won’t be as likely to have gaps in your data. I seriously hope I’m wrong about the app getting new features and that Abbott might actually upgrade the app by itself with extra functionality.

Diabetes sucks, but tapping into my penchant for nerdiness helps me feel more like myself living with it. If you’re nerdy and diabetic (and you are fortunate enough to have good insurance if you live in the US), I recommend you try this approach too.

Uncategorized

Twitter: Now what?

AI generated drawing of Elon Musk with a Twitter bird on his shoulder
Apparently Elon Musk officially owns Twitter now.

Twitter’s easily my favorite social network. It’s always fit in with how my mind works (at least when I use it with clients like Tweetbot). I’ve often found community on Twitter, and Twitter is influential and consequential. Revolutions have taken place because of Twitter. Before news is news, it’s often on Twitter.

And now it belongs to rich dipshit Elon Musk. Though if it makes you feel better, he’ll probably become less rich because of this acquisition!

Twitter has been severely mismanaged for its entire existence. They famously procrastinated on a business model until finally settling on “I guess we should put ads in things.” In the early days people almost exclusively used Twitter via mobile apps made by third parties, but then Twitter got increasingly developer hostile and pushed third party apps away, presumably to help make it easier to put ads in things (though they are coming back around lately to third party Twitter experiences). They’ve gotten more and more bloated as a company, and they’ve struggled to articulate a stance on content moderation, though in reality it’s played out as being uncomfortably permissive toward Nazi types.

Twitter’s Future: The Icanthascheezburger Three-Point Plan

Elon’s got his work cut out for him (which is unfortunate given how many CEO jobs he juggles). Even though I really don’t care for him, I do care about Twitter, so the consulting wing of Icanthascheezburger is laying out this simple three-point plan:

Improve the Financials

Twitter bleeds money. They have only turned a profit in two of the last ten years. Musk is quite wealthy on paper but actually isn’t particularly cash-rich and probably will want to get Twitter in the black in the next year or two.

a table of Twitter's net income since 2010. They lost money every year in figures ranging from $67 million to $1.6 billion

And he’s hinted as much; he’s talked a big game about firing as much as 75% of staff, and that’s probably coming from a feeling of sticker shock, but also for Twitter’s size, 4600 employees is a lot and it would make sense to learn the ins and outs of the company and strip down to the bare essentials, then build from there. The strategy worked pretty well for Steve Jobs when he took over Apple. Of course, Steve Jobs was smart enough not to run his mouth with some estimated number of jobs he planned to cut before he even took the wheel.

And as of press time, it seems Musk isn’t troubling himself to learn what teams are doing before firing them wholesale.

Admit What Twitter Is and What It’s Good At

To boil Twitter down to its purest essence would be to describe it as a relatively small, relatively unstructured microblogging platform, where people build up their communities by hand-picking the people they want to follow. It’s a place for information junkies because the content is so concise that it’s almost a stream of consciousness. It’s deeply candid and honest.

And Twitter has spent most of its post-IPO years doing its very best to resist that.

a cringe-worthy screenshot of a Twitter survey asking the reader how they associate a bunch of finance brands with gender equality

I don’t blame them; Twitter’s not a mass market product like Facebook, or most mass media. That’s why so many news sites take a single tweet and turn it into a 500-word article. Twitter is opinionated in how it works, and it caters to those information junkies who want the raw discourse injected right into their veins. Information travels around Twitter before it becomes news. It’s a primary source where you get the word directly from important people, not filtered through a PR person.

This Twitter is extremely valuable (and I think Musk correctly understands that), but it’s not valuable in the sense that Facebook got valuable. Twitter is a tool of massive cultural importance and consequence, but it’s not a network that will have billions of ad revenue-generating users, and for it to become that it would have to become something fundamentally different.

Twitter needs to do what Apple did post-Jobs returning, and what Crocs did a few years back: go back to basics and focus on what it’s best at.

But unlike Apple and Crocs, Twitter has to reckon with the issue that core Twitter was never a financial success, and that has to be solved for. I firmly believe it’s a solvable problem; the world clearly wants a thing like Twitter to exist.

Some ideas for how to accomplish this:

  • Make some staffing cuts, ideally without being a huge dick about it (show gratitude, explain the strategy of righting the ship, and give the departed good severance to show goodwill and ensure you can recruit new people)
  • Investigate how to simplify Twitter from a technical perspective so that it can be maintained with fewer engineers and less infrastructure (rumor has it that Twitter is inefficient in both team size and amount of infrastructure it runs to keep Twitter afloat)
  • Make Twitter apps feel more fast and lightweight, and easier to navigate
  • Invest heavily in Twitter Blue (the paid Twitter experience). I would set a goal to make 10–20% of Twitter’s users paid users, and price it so that paid users’ revenue was enough to keep everything running. Make the features in Twitter Blue super compelling and worth forking over money for. Make Twitter Blue an ad-free experience which is literally the biggest feature people ask for. Add power user features.
  • Monetize Twitter’s API, either charging developers to use it, or having third party apps that end users use also get advertising (for non-paid users). It’ll incentivize Twitter to keep investing in the API, and as the API gets better that will incentivize developers to make more cool new things on Twitter’s platform
  • As a corollary to monetizing the API, do revenue sharing with developers making Twitter apps for users. If you make a 3rd party Twitter client, serve up ads from Twitter and get a cut of that ad revenue, or a cut of the Twitter Blue subscription revenue. This will incentivize more great apps and add more Twitter users.
  • Make more features available through the API. Twitter power users are often using third party clients, and it’s good to give them access to new features.
  • Fix community management and content moderation. It stunts your growth if nobody feels welcome joining Twitter because you were tripping over yourself trying to make sure that assholes and Nazis feel welcome. There isn’t an anti-conservative bias on social networks (if you actually measure it, it’s the opposite). Hire lots of smart humans, build good tools for those humans to work well, and give the humans good, sound policies to enforce.

Build on Initial Success Once It’s Achieved

Twitter’s been trying to build out a bunch of new stuff over the past couple of years in the hopes that one of them will have traction and catch on and presumably make Twitter money. The problem is that new products like Twitter Spaces are the kind of thing you make when you have a successful and profitable core product and you want to expand. Twitter hasn’t yet made its core product profitable.

Musk has hinted that he wants to turn Twitter into an “everything app” like WeChat. That’s a dumb idea. Now, I get why a rich dude might salivate at the idea of making a super monopolistic piece of software that everything else is built on top of and dependent on, but WeChat really only took hold in China because, well, it’s China. Facebook tried doing it with Messenger awhile back and it kind of fizzled out.

But once Twitter finds financial success, then it’s a good time to start experimenting with totally new things. Hopefully these are things that actually build on Twitter’s core, not shitty attempts to make a copy of another social network that’s currently growing.

I can’t really predict what these things might be; Twitter has to figure this shit out for themselves. But the new features need to be Twittery.

I can’t quite define what I mean here, but I’m thinking of things that are lightweight, fast, and concise. They’re things that embrace the open web (like how tweets are accessible via public URLs, making them easy to link to and find and otherwise interact with). Good Twitter features add frictionlessnes to things, like how hashtags made it super easy to quickly jump into public conversations about things, or how quote tweets made it super easy to add some extra perspective to someone else’s thought (or mercilessly roast them). Veer too far from that, and you’re fundamentally making a different product. And it wouldn’t be bad to do that, but don’t do it under the Twitter moniker; spin up a totally new brand and app name, and experiment there.

What About the Rest Of Us?

Yeah, so I really didn’t mean to write this post as an unsolicited advice column for Elon Musk; I just couldn’t help but dig into and enumerate Twitter’s many misgivings.

But what are we to do?

I have severely mixed feelings. I think Twitter was getting short shrift on the public market and theoretically benefits from being private, but I have serious doubts about Elon Musk’s ability to run this company well (and given that Twitter engineers were told yesterday to print out all of their code for Tesla engineers to come review, it’s confirming my suspicions that Musk likes to act before thinking).

But for now, I plan to stick around, assuming nothing super disruptive happens to the way I experience Twitter. I use Tweetbot to scroll through Twitter, and it’s been solidly consistent, always showing me a chronological feed of tweets from exactly the people I follow and no one else. Twitter is special; it’s the only place where I can follow all these specific people I care about following and see what they have to say.

But it’s really important to me to keep investing in communities that use truly open tools.

This blog is itself one such thing; it’s built on the open web and it’s totally under my control. It’s not really much of a community, though.

I’m on micro.blog, though I’m not that active on there. I’m on Mastodon too, though I’m not that active on there either. I am an ardent RSS user and I follow a ton of blogs, most of which are independent. But I would like to see more people who are less tech-oriented to be making blogs again. And I love the open web because it’s easy to me to make my own little media bubble of exactly the things I care about, free of the bullshit of modern sites.

The problem with apps like Mastodon and Micro.blog (and others like Diaspora and countless other sites that sprung up) is that although they can be drop-in replacements for Twitter from a tech perspective (in the sense that they are apps for short-form microblogging on the web), Twitter isn’t its apps and APIs. The heart and soul of Twitter is the community, and it would be nigh impossible for me to get everyone I follow to move to one of these other sites. It would take a mass migration of some sort, which I don’t see happening unless Twitter really fucks shit up (which they totally could!).

Jack Dorsey has talked about making Twitter a protocol that Twitter is itself a member of, which would be really cool if it actually happened. That would mean I could move to apps run by people who aren’t Twitter while still being able to connect to people on Twitter, and it would be simpler to convince people to migrate off Twitter since they wouldn’t have to lose touch with followers or followees. I’d love to see this, and I actually feel like it’s more possible now than ever before now that Twitter is under private ownership, but I struggle to see how Twitter finds financial success in a world where Twitter is one network of many that are just like it and interoperable with it.

But despite what paperwork may say, Twitter still belongs to the masses, and because Twitter’s financial value hinges on the masses continuing to show up and participate, I don’t feel hopeless.

Keeping My Twitter Receipts in DEVONthink

Previously, I discussed a custom-built app I made called Receipts, which can convert tweets into Markdown files for me to archive and catalog. Now let’s talk about how I use DEVONthink to actually catalog them!

These Markdown files are just files sitting in folders on my Mac (the folders aren’t organized by anything in particular but I do split them up as they get big), and I have DEVONthink set up to index folders on my Mac, as opposed to actually importing them into databases as copied items.

I’m actually quite a big fan of using DEVONthink like this with files. The files themselves are the canonical source of truth, but DEVONthink gives me more organizational power. I can organize and search in DEVONthink, and most importantly, I tag tweets in DEVONthink. An added bonus: because the tweets are just Markdown files on my Mac, when I tag them in DEVONthink, those tags are added to the underlying files and are visible in the Finder too, and vice versa.

Armed with these tools, I tag the shit out of tweets.

Seriously, I have over 1000 tags:

screenshot of Script Debuger app showing that I have 1083 tags in DEVONthink

And they range wildly. I have some highly generic tags like funny or good news, some that are of a more specific genre like called out, and some are oddly specific, like frugal but secretly wealthy (which refer to those “financial advice” articles you always see about how some 25 year old survives NYC on $25k a year and once you dig past the “I don’t have a Netflix subscription” you find the more salient “my parents pay the rent” lede that got buried in there). I have some tags for specific people (the elon musk tag has gotten pretty full).

I save up batches of tweets to tag. That’s partly because I am not very on top of things, but also this ends up working nicely because patterns sometimes emerge in the tweets, especially with breaking events.

Having tags for specific viewpoints or theses is really useful, because the tags become de facto lists of things, and I now have lots of very specific lists of things, like instances of bad takes about covid, or things that aged poorly, or people as things (e.g. Noel Fielding as cakes, Sir Patrick Stewart as Vacuum Cleaners, Tilda Swinton as libraries, etc.)

Some unsolved problems do remain. One thing DEVONthink lacks (that I really miss about Evernote) is the ability to search text in images. A lot of tweets are images of text or at least contain text that’s not otherwise in the tweet (like images of comics). AI text recognition is getting better so I could perhaps update Receipts to include text annotations of images in the tweet file, but I’d like for that to remain either as metadata as opposed to file content, or just be a thing that DEVONthink can natively search. Alas.

Now, the biggest question: Has this actually helped me do what I set out to do?

Sometimes!

In reality I don’t talk as much on Twitter as I used to, so I don’t really need to show up with receipts all that often. It’s nice to have them at the ready in private discussions, though.

I’ve been in conversation with friends and they’ll mention that Andrew Cuomo isn’t all that bad, and I can pull up my cuomo is trash tag and very quickly point out years worth of shitty behavior on his part.

One of the first tags I made, Doesn't Violate Community Standards, was me trying to put a name to a pattern I saw a lot on Twitter: when vulnerable people reported people harassing them on social media, the response was often that the person “didn’t violate community standards,” yet conversely vulnerable people would often get punished quickly for small and innocuous infractions. I knew it happened a lot, and even when I favorited tweets talking about it to save for later I’d lose track. Actually creating a named tag and tagging tweets with it now makes it possible for me to show a clearer picture of this issue and be backed by actual instances of this happening.

If I know exact text matches for a tweet I’m trying to remember, it can be super quick to find it in DEVONthink now. It’s not perfect, though! One day I was searching for a very specific tweet and I even knew the specific word being used in the tweet and I failed to find it because it never imported correctly. Luckily, I also remembered who tweeted it so I used Twitter’s advanced search to find the original tweet, and i made sure it imported.

But the actual benefit of keeping receipts on Twitter has been deeper than “let me find this tweet fast”. I found that the ritual of going through the most notable tweets in my timeline and tagging them later is really useful for me. It helps me see connections between things better, and the ritual of tagging gets me in the habit of putting a name to the tweets that have something in common. It helps remind me of recent events. And in many cases I get to enjoy a laugh from earlier in the week once more.

Receipts is also useful as a tweet archive. Tweets can sometimes disappear, and knowing that my computer can instantly archive a tweet to my hard drive is comforting, because sometimes really valuable things get deleted from Twitter for various reasons, from copyright issues to the tweet author growing to regret tweeting the thing.

Once you’ve amassed a big enough collection of this content in DEVONthink, the database becomes sizable enough that it’s its own sizable body of knowledge. It’s something that you can explore and go spelunking in, finding nuggets of information. You can look through tweets that you liked in July of 2021 to see what mood you and the world were in that day. If you were really interested, you could do some analysis on the data and look and see if there are correlations between tags.

I think it’s a really nice reward for what amounts to a handful of minutes of work every week.

Keeping the Receipts on Twitter

an AI-generated image of a receipt with the Twitter bird on it
For years I had this frequent frustration where I wanted to reference a tweet, but then after the fact I couldn’t find it to save my life.

To try to make this easier on future me, I started getting in the habit of favoriting every tweet that I remotely thought was interesting. This was nice, but I quickly discovered that it’s actually really difficult to find favorited tweets after the fact, in part because Twitter sorts them by the date the tweets were written, not when you favorited them.

Eventually this became a big enough annoyance that I reminded myself that I can program so I decided “fuck this, I’ll build my own thing.”

But also, like any good developer, I have a keen sense of the amount of effort that goes into making even a seemingly simple app. Also, like any good developer, I’m really lazy.

As such, it was my goal not to try to reinvent everything. I already had an app for cataloging information: DEVONthink. And I trust DEVONthink to handle tagging and shit for the thousands of tweets I’d want to bookmark better than I’d trust anything I can cobble together in my spare time.

So all I had to do was get tweets into a format DEVONthink could index, and I was golden.

Then it came to me: what if I converted tweets into Markdown files? Turns out, Markdown is a great way to represent tweets. You can embed images and videos, and Markdown also has a way to quote blocks of text, which is absolutely perfect for quote tweeting.

So, I built a small app called Receipts. It’s a good mix of being over-engineered and under-engineered, but its purpose is to import tweets and convert them into Markdown files.

Receipts can download entire tweets, including their attached photos and videos. Receipts will also recursively download quoted tweets, as well as all of their attached photos and videos.

Receipts runs on my Mac. I have an app called Hazel watch a Dropbox folder for new files. Whenever I want Receipts to save a tweet, I add a file to this Dropbox folder. The file’s content is simply the URL of the tweet (and if I have a batch of tweet URLs I can stick them all in one file). Hazel will see the new file, tell Receipts to import the tweets, and then move the file to the processed folder.

Making text files and saving them into a Dropbox folder is tedious, so I made a few tools to simplify this.

I already had a massive back catalog of favorited tweets from over the years, so I downloaded my Twitter Archive and grabbed all those tweet URLs to backfill receipts. A lot of old tweets 404ed, but my import script handled that okay. One other interesting issue: Twitter didn’t always natively support images in tweets, so back in the day, services like Twitpic popped up to fill that need. But Twitpic is long gone, so any old tweets I have that had image links to Twitpic were lost to the ages (and, of course, my script doesn’t read media from third party sites… yet).

Initially, my goal was for all my favorited tweets to automatically get catalogued. So I used an IFTTT recipe that would trigger whenever I liked a tweet, and save the tweet URL to my Dropbox folder. This worked well enough, but I ran into some problems with this.

I decided to settle on just explicitly marking tweets I wanted to save to Receipts instead of using favoriting. Now that Twitter notifies the author of the tweet that you favorited it, I actually prefer not having to favorite (especially since I’m not necessarily bookmarking tweets out of admiration).

I made an Alfred workflow that can take a tweet URL from the clipboard and save it to the Dropbox folder.

For my iPhone, I built an iOS Shortcut. It’s set up as a Share action, and it will save a URL to the tweet in a file in a Dropbox folder for you. This iOS shortcut also works on the Mac, but because macOS still doesn’t let you have shortcuts as share actions, I use Sharebot to make it possible to save a Twitter receipt from the Share menu.

At this point, I just need to get them into DEVONthink, which we’ll talk about in a future post.

If you read this and you thought “wow, this sounds like a reasonable, well-designed piece of software and I would like to run this on my own computer,” fork it on GitHub and start playing around with it!

Uncategorized

MagSafe is a Seriously Underrated iPhone Feature

an illutration of iPhones using MagSafe accessories
Full disclosure: I’m an absolute sucker for products with robust accessory ecosystems baked into their design (have you seen my Apple Watch band collection?), and so of course I’m going to like this.

Fun fact: if you’ve got an iPhone 12 or later, it’s got MagSafe.

Maybe you didn’t even know your iPhone had it. But it’s there, and it’s delightful.

Simply put, it’s a circle of magnets on the back of your iPhone that lets you attach accessories to it, including accessories that can charge your phone.

And like a lot of things Apple does, that sounds really mundane, but through really good execution it’s an enjoyable and (dare I say) whimsical feature.

It’s a great way to wirelessly charge your phone. Qi charging has been a thing since the iPhone 8 (and it still is a thing) but with MagSafe, it holds the phone in place so you don’t wake up to find your battery’s at 8% because you set it a half inch too far to the right on the charging pad the night before. There are even MagSafe battery packs you can use on the go to give your battery a boost without an unsightly cable connecting your phone to a portable battery pack.

But charging is only half the fun of MagSafe. When I’m cooking and I want my recipes at eye level, I have a MagSafe wall mount on the cupboard (this is also perfect for FaceTiming when cooking). There’s also a wall mount on my bathroom mirror. I’ve got a little MagSafe stand on my desk that I can stick my phone on too (perfect for the new iPhone 14 Pro with its always-on screen).

And the latest addition to my MagSafe accessory collection? PopSockets. The original ones stuck to your phone with adhesive, but MagSafe is a perfect way to be able to use PopSockets without the commitment of actually sticking one to your phone.

And therein lies the beauty of MagSafe. It lets you have accessories for your phone, but you’re never super committed; you’re just a satisfying magnetic click away from swapping one thing out for another, so you can pick what’s important to you in the moment. Need a little battery boost? You got it. Planning to do a little drinking tonight? Stick a MagSafe case on your phone for peace of mind (and then put another MagSafe accessory on the case!). Want to save pocket space? Ditch your wallet tonight and stick a MagSafe one on your phone†.

And what I really love is that MagSafe accessories will work from phone to phone (except maybe with your phone case). That means you can amass a collection of goodies for your phone with confidence that you can keep using them several iPhones from now, even if you want to jump from the iPhone 13 mini all the way to a Max sized phone.

†Also: PopSockets themselves have hot swappable PopTops so you can change up the way your PopSocket looks at a moment’s notice. Accessories for the accessories? Yes, please!

Uncategorized

Thoughts on the Supreme Court and US politics lately

It’s been silent on icanthascheezburger for awhile now, but after this week it feels necessary to speak a little bit about the state of political affairs in the US, because they are troubling.

Naturally, a series of SCOTUS decisions are at the top of my mind, and this week’s decisions were especially sad to hear, most of which was the widely anticipated overturning of Roe and Casey.

But it isn’t just about Roe and Casey, or specifically about abortion rights (which, for the record, icanthascheezburger has consistently been a staunch supporter of; Roe was a baseline and Americans deserve far more robust access to abortion than even under Roe). It is about a level of extremism from a far-right majority of justices that is troubling.

The legal reasonings that are leading to recent SCOTUS decisions involve performing levels of mental gymnastics that make no sense, and are wildly full of hypocrisy. Clarence Thomas recently stated that in light of the overturning of Roe, other watershed legal decisions should also be revisited on the same basis, such as Obergefell (which asserted the constitutional right to marrying someone of the same sex), yet by Clarence Thomas’s own same reasoning, Loving should also be overturned, yet he was silent on that, as it would affect his own marriage.

If you’re interested in hearing from an actual legal scholar about this trend of “originalism” used by conservative justices, constitutional law professor Elizabeth Joh discussed this recently in an episode of her podcast in the context of 2nd Amendment rights.

In a functioning democracy there would be cause for optimism, especially given how low Americans’ confidence is in the Supreme Court right now. The branches of government are designed to check each other’s power, and at the moment that responsibility falls on Democrats, but they seem to lack the will to do anything. Adding more justices to the courts is an option. Adding term limits for justices is an option. Adding more pathways to curb corrupt or illegal behavior on the part of justices is an option, and Democrats seem uninterested in any of those things.

Democrats also seem uninterested even in legislative remedies to SCOTUS’s rulings. Congress could codify Roe (in fact, it was one of Obama’s campaign promises, then he decided it wasn’t a priority once he was in office and Democrats controlled both houses of Congress). Congress could do more to strengthen agency powers to protect public health by explicitly empowering agencies to protect against infectious airborne-spread diseases like COVID by enforcing wearing of masks in the workplace or during air travel.

And they don’t.

Instead we get lukewarm platitudes and vague calls to keep voting. For now, Democrats’ strategy seems to be to be content to let Republicans become increasingly extremist and hellbent on destroying beloved institutions, and pushing Americans to pick mediocre Democratic candidates because it minimizes harm (and in the case of the 2020 election, failing to even do that).

Instead Democrats will let heartbreaking events go by and use them as nothing more than a segue into a fundraising email seeing if you could just kick in $50.

As Republicans gear up with increasing attacks on LGBT people, Hillary Clinton insists that it’s a distraction for Democrats to get caught up in all that, suggesting there are bigger fish to fry. What bigger fish are there to fry than to ensure the right for people to exist?


Lest I just start ranting, I do believe that we’ll come out of a lot of this. We eventually will get a less extremist Supreme Court and when we do, it will likely overturn a lot of these bad decisions. I worry about how many more bad decisions America needs to endure until then.

Democrats need to change their strategy. We need to get rid of the old guard that continues to act like Republicans are their temporarily misguided friends across the aisle and replace them with people who understand that they are fighting a party of cynical extremists that are happy to destroy democratic principles to get what they want, and act accordingly. Or if we wait long enough, the old guard will die out and younger generations can finally get a chance to represent Americans for once.

Best case scenario, Democrats change course, they grow their support, and we can make progress fast. Decent case scenario, Democrats are slow to adapt, but Americans now see how consequential presidential elections are with regard to the long term consequences, and we get on track to building a Supreme Court composed of people who are more representative of American values and who will interpret the Constitution more sensibly.

Worst case scenario, no one learns any lessons. Democrats try the same shit and hope that “at least I’m not the Republican, vote for me” continues to win them elections, Americans decide “no, not electing Democrats because you’re ineffective and don’t deserve power,” and despite a lack of majority support and despite the fact that they aren’t doing what the majority of Americans agree with, our government somehow keeps slipping further and further right-wing, destroying institutions until America becomes a country characterized entirely by inequality, concentration of power, and extremist Christian theocracy.

Uncategorized

Back to the Mac

Five years ago, Apple did something incredibly out of character: it invited a bunch of tech journalists to a round table discussion, admitted to making some serious mistakes, and pre-announced upcoming products.

It was a somewhat bleak time to be a Mac user. While the iPhone was getting yearly improvements, Mac design decisions felt deeply out of touch with people’s needs. The latest MacBook Pros regressed in serious ways, sacrificing useful ports, functionality, and a functioning keyboard for a slightly thinner laptop with a Touch Bar that it turned out nobody actually wanted.

No one really minded Apple’s aggressive minimalism on more consumer-y products; it was even welcomed. The MacBook Air was a successful computer. Pro users, though, were getting less satisfied with what Apple had to offer for them. There were laptops with unusuable keyboards that couldn’t even plug into conference room projectors without an adapter. The Mac Mini had gone years without an update. And most embarrassingly, the Mac Pro, introduced in 2013 by Phil Schiller with the now-infamous line “can’t innovate anymore, my ass”, had not gotten so much as a spec bump in those four years, leaving people to wonder if it was ever getting refreshed at all.

It was feeling like Apple no longer wanted to build computers for demanding pro users. Instead they seemed hell-bent on making a computer that adhered to some sort of minimalistic Platonic ideal; a Mac not only hampered by its hardware, but perhaps soon to have its software get even more restricted until the Mac was less a computer and more an appliance like an iPad. Some even feared that the Mac’s own days were numbered, and that Apple’s future might actually be focused more on the iPhone, which dwarfed the Mac and sales, and frankly, attention from Apple.

In April of 2017, though, Apple brought together a small group of tech journalists to ensure them, and by extension, Mac users, that Apple had not taken its eye off the ball with the Mac. And in this meeting, they laid out a vision for what they were working on for their pro Mac users: specifically, a new Mac Pro, and a new iMac geared toward pro users that would be coming later that year.

They were uncharacteristically candid about some of the troubles they ran into with the 2013 Mac Pro (semi-lovingly referred to as the “trash can” Mac Pro); specifically, they found themselves backed into a “thermal corner”. This Mac Pro had a triangular core that had a CPU and two GPUs. But later GPUs put out a ton of heat, and that design apparently couldn’t move out any more heat than it already was. Apple had no path forward to make faster or better models of the Mac Pro.

Not only that, but pro users really didn’t like the Mac Pro much. It was suitable for some kinds of pro users, like ones who just needed a lot of compute power, but other pro users relied heavily on specialty hardware that would typically be installed in PCI card slots which the 2013 Mac Pro lacked. Apple’s response to this was Thunderbolt 2 but it went over with pros like a lead balloon; it would lead to clunky setups and just overall wasn’t considered suitable.

Apple shared zero specifics about what these new pro Macs would have to offer. There was a fleeting mention of pro users wanting “modularity,” but Apple made no clear commitment to what that actually meant.

So we waited.

As promised, Apple released the iMac Pro later that year, and it was exactly as advertised: an iMac, targeted toward pro customers with more pro-level hardware, but still an iMac at heart.

Later, Apple released a revamped Mac Mini and users rejoiced. There was much concern that this was going to get the same kind of super-minimalist treatment that the MacBook Pro line got, but it didn’t. Instead, the back of a 2018 Mac Mini had ports aplenty (including USB-A as well as USB-C Thunderbolt 3 ports), and could be generously configured. It felt like Apple was finally starting to come correct here. In 2019 they finally updated the aging MacBook Air to have a Retina display, another well-received update.

And at WWDC 2019, we got to see a glimpse of their vision for true pro-level computing: the 2019 Mac Pro.

If you follow my blog you know my deep love for the 2019 Mac Pro. Apple gave pros everything they wanted (provided they were willing to show up with some serious coin to buy the machine). It wasn’t just modular; it was the most upgradeable Mac Apple had released in close to a decade. It doesn’t just have upgradeable RAM, it can be upgraded to up to 1.5 TERABYTES of RAM. It can be configured with up to a staggering 28 cores.

It was a love letter to pro Mac users everywhere, and Apple proudly told the world “the Mac is back” (not that Apple PR would ever admit it was gone in the first place).

Apple has since then continued steadily pushing out a stream of Mac computers that show that they really get what their users want. They finally redesigned their laptops to get rid of the worst laptop keyboard ever, and then in 2020 they started selling computers with their own custom silicon.

Apple is letting the Macs be themselves for the right users once again. The MacBook Air remains light and affordable, but the new 14“ and 16” MacBook Pros are decidedly a little chunkier looking, and they can pack a wollop when it comes to computing power.

And most recently, Apple released the Mac Studio, a desktop computer for demanding studio users that easily dwarfs most Mac Pro configurations in CPU and GPU performance.

You might have guessed this was Apple’s new high end pro desktop, if not for the fact that John Ternus mentioned ever so casually that there still remained one more Mac to transition to Apple Silicon: the Mac Pro.

Over the course of the last five years, Apple executed not just one turnaround, but two: it renewed its commitment to making great and appropriate computers for pro users (with a substantially better understanding of what it means to be a “pro user”), and they once again moved the Mac to a new processor architecture, barely skipping a beat.

Now we need a similar revolution, but for Apple’s software frameworks.

But that’s a topic for another day.

Thoughts on Yesterday’s Apple Event

a diagram of an M1 chip next to a diagram of an M1 Ultra chip that's about 8x the size
Apple announced a handful of new products at today’s event, including a revamped iPad Air, a revamped iPhone SE, and a brand new Mac called the Mac Studio, along with a companion Studio Display.

All of these products are great, but the Mac lineup so far is left with these super strange gaps now.

Apple’s chip strategy

All of the Apple Silicon chips for Macs have thus far been based on just one system on a chip. The M1 chip is a variant of the A12 chip found in the iPhone 12, and this chip went into Apple’s first Apple Silicon Macs, the MacBook Air, the 13" MacBook Pro, and the Mac Mini.

Now, the M1 chip is great in these machines, but for the higher end stuff we need more power. Rather than designing separate chips for all these different use cases, Apple made the clever move of essentially gluing a bunch of M1 chips together into bigger chips that have more cores and memory and memory bandwidth. This approach is referred to as a chiplet approach.

This is really economical for a lot of reasons. First off, it saves a fortune on chip design because you’re really just designing one system on a chip. Also, making bigger chips is harder because not every chip comes off the wafer working at 100%. That means it’s harder to get these bigger chips because it requires that you have several chips adjacent to each other that are all good. But if you have one that’s bad, that’s okay, because if all the others are good, you can use those in cheaper machines, or even if you have a chip that’s good but one core is bad, you can deactivate that core and still get something for the chip.

Since most of the computer-y parts of the computer are on this chip, most things about Apple Silicon macs scale up with how big the chip is. That means that the M1 Pro supports double the memory of the M1 and has double the memory speed, the M1 Max doubles the M1 Pro’s, and the M1 Ultra doubles the M1 Max’s still (which really makes “Max” seem like a short sighted moniker for that chip).

Mac Pro: “That’s for another day”

After unveiling the M1 Ultra, John Ternus hinted that now just one Mac remains, the Mac Pro, and like a tease, he just said that’s for another day.

I’m most excited about is seeing how Apple plans to approach the Mac Pro with Apple silicon, because Apple’s going to have to approach that computer totally differently.

So far, everything Apple’s done has been predictable: they keep stacking up M1 chips in powers of 2, and the bigger chips go into the higher end machines.

And that scales up pretty well! If you take a doubled version of the M1 Ultra’s die, you end up with a machine that has a whopping 40 cores and 256 gigs of unified memory.

And that sounds like a lot, until I remind you that my puny little 12 core Mac Pro supports 3x as much memory as that, and the highest end Mac Pro supports a whopping 1.5 terabytes of RAM (which it doesn’t even have to share with GPUs).

Presumably, the Mac Pro will be a 2x version of the M1 Ultra, yes, but it’s going to need more than just unified memory to serve the pro users the Mac Pro is after. If Apple wants simplicity, they can make a Mac Pro that has this bigger chip, but also offers memory and PCI slots so you can add extra memory and GPUs. Maybe Apple will make some GPUs of their own design that you can install and have incredible performance. By default, these chips won’t be able to communicate with the CPU as fast as the memory and GPUs that are integrated, but I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Apple develop some sort of super fast interconnect that allows you to install more memory or more GPUs with very high bandwidth.

The Mac Lineup and its Gaps

Although John Ternus said that only one Mac product remains to be transitioned, in the meantime we have a very odd assortment of machines that have made the transition.

I was hoping to see a version of Mac Mini announced today that offered either M1 Pro or M1 Max processors (because I want a new Plex server machine), but instead we got the Mac Studio, which is a very high end version of the Mac Mini (and it’s big enough that it’s hard to call it “mini”).

But perhaps the most noticeable gap in the lineup now: large iMacs. Right now Apple offers a 24“ iMac that offers the M1 chip. But previously the iMac went as big as 27 inches, and for a time Apple even offered an iMac Pro that was their most powerful Mac for awhile. But for now at least, bigger and more powerful iMacs are absent from the lineup. Sure, you can buy a Mac Studio plus a 27” display, but in that case you’re looking at spending over 3 grand, whereas a 27" iMac could be had for under two grand in the past.

And these gaps are kind of unfortunate, because Apple has this processor architecture that scales beautifully from the tiniest Mac to some of the most powerful Macs available, and it would be simple to offer a variety of models to cover everyone’s needs.

I don’t think this gap is going to exist forever. Apple’s almost certainly making a bigger and more powerful iMac. I’m sure new models of Mac Mini will come out, and I also wouldn’t be surprised to see new Airs coming soon with the ability to have more than a max of 16 gigabytes of memory.

A year or two from now, I suspect the Mac lineup is going to have a steady progression from small and inexpensive to big and powerful, with plenty of options in between to accommodate every user.

The Apple Studio Display

I was so excited to see Apple enter the display market again in 2019 with their own display, until I realized that the display clearly wasn’t made with me in mind.

Since then, the rumor mill has been persistently stating that more consumer-grade Apple displays were coming, and I kept hoping we’d see something that offered the size and resolution of that beautiful 32" Pro Display XDR, but without the super expensive fancy features like the XDR support, and that included fancy things like a webcam (allegedly Apple didn’t put on in the Pro Display XDR because a lot of editing rooms don’t permit displays with cameras and that was a market they were targeting).

I’ve been sitting pretty with a pair of LG Ultrafine 5K displays for awhile now, but I’ve long been hoping to step up to something with more screen real estate. Apple’s new Studio Displays look really nice, but they are still the same resolution and size that has been available since the Retina iMac came out back in 2014.

Others complained on Twitter at a lack of things like ProMotion. I think ProMotion is great and I’ve been excited to see all Apple products get it since the iPad Pro added it, but I’m not sure ProMotion would necessarily even be feasible on a 5K display; the bandwidth needs would exceed what you could send over the Thunderbolt cable.

Apple’s approach to monitors in the last decade has stood out from the rest of the industry. Apple started putting Retina displays in Macs back in 2012 (and they put Retina resolution in a massive 27" display in 2014!) while the rest of the PC industry kind of just sticks it out with displays that are no bigger than 4K, mostly because gamers don’t want the extra resolution (it’s harder for their graphics cards to push that many pixels), and because most business customers just want to buy whatever’s cheapest that they can slap on people’s desks. This is largely why the LG Ultrafine displays have been virtually the only option for Mac users who wanted big external Retina-resolution displays. Apple tried to gently bow out of the monitor business in 2016 when they started making laptops with Thunderbolt 3 ports, but the industry didn’t follow with a plethora of high quality options. I’m really glad to see Apple own its own destiny again and make a display beautiful enough to go on my desk with my Mac.

I really was hoping to see Apple make something bigger and higher-res. I would have loved a 6K Studio display that was identical to the 27" Studio Display but just added a few extra inches, and I’d have been willing to part with a few grand to buy one (and let’s be realistic, probably two). I’ll continue to hold out hope.

Closing Thoughts

I’m really delighted at all the new things announced today, but I am bummed that none of them quite match up with things I was hoping to be able to give Apple money for.

The transition to Apple Silicon has been really enjoyable to watch, and I continue to be happy that I’m watching it from a really powerful Mac Pro that has plenty of headroom before I’m going to be worried about it.

Uncategorized

Spotify’s Joe Rogan controversy and things more important than that

I see a lot of takes on Twitter along the lines of “while you were going on about Joe Rogan and Spotify, happened.”

But the thing about Spotify is that they are a pretty replaceable service. It’s easy for us to stop giving Spotify money if we decide we don’t like that Spotify is giving a hundred million dollars of our money to Joe Rogan. We can replace Spotify with another good streaming service, and if we were using Spotify for podcasts, we can replace Spotify with one of a number of great independent podcast players.

We can’t individually put Spotify out of business but as individuals, we can cost them hundreds of dollars in lost revenue over the course of the next five years, and we can cost Spotify the network effects of us being on there, making Spotify less attractive to our friends who wanted to share tracks with us. And if we keep the conversation going, Spotify might feel the heat as their market cap shrinks considerably. And ultimately, maybe that will make Spotify think twice about its attempt to own podcasting by acquiring talent.

Joe Rogan isn’t the only issue facing the world right now, but for a lot of Spotify users, Joe Rogan was an issue that they were empowered to do something material about.

That’s kind of a rare feeling, and I bet it felt good.

Uncategorized