Faruk At.eş


Archive for 2009

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The Killing of the Comments (Well, Almost)

In working on my own design for farukat.es, I've gone back and forth a lot over whether or not to allow comments when I go live with it. A blog typically comes with comments, but that's not always true: one of my favorite blogs, Daring Fireball, does not have comments and it works out perfectly fine for it.

Then the other day, I kind of figured it out: comments are like the post-game discussion in the locker room. Sometimes you get fantastic game analysis in there: what went wrong, what went right, what to do next. But when all is said and done, that discussion is not what matters: what matters is the game you played, and that's it.

In writing a blog, the game is your post itself, and the comments are the locker room talk. There may be valuable discussion in that talk, but more often than not it's where to go for dinner or drinks. It's an often-tangentially related conversation between two or more people that may or may not enhance the value of the post, but it comes with a couple of major caveats. Before looking at those, though, let's start out with the upsides of having comments on a blog:

  • They can produce very insightful, interesting discussion
  • They (usually) can be as long as needed, allowing for great argument elaboration

That's kind of it. They're two very strong points in favor of comments, to be sure, but only two nonetheless.

A third upside one could consider, if you're the type, is that comments encourage return visits to the site. I personally see it as a downside as it dilutes the reliability of unique visitors being actual unique visitors (if you return to the site from work and home just to see if there are new comments since yours, you're considered to be two unique visitors). I'd be happier knowing a more definite 200 unique people read my post than anywhere between 50 and 300 people did, but your mileage may vary (greatly).

Now, let's take a close look at the various downsides to having comments on your blog:

  • The Internet Fuckwad Theory effect is true if you allow anonymous comments
  • Forcing people to sign up for your site (or use OpenID) raises barrier to entry significantly
  • Comments often detract from the main post itself
  • If you run a popular enough blog, you risk having to deal with "First!" and similar bullshit
  • As much as interesting discussion can happen in comments, more often than not the level of debate isn't exactly stellar, reflecting negatively on the host blog
  • Having to moderate comments can be too time-consuming for many, and not moderating at all may not be an option

Clearly, there's a fair few things to say against allowing comments on your blog. Everyone who owns a blog will feel slightly differently about this, but this is my blog and the above is my perception of comments.

When I stacked them against each other, I looked at alternatives to the far too simplistic comments yes/no question, and settled on using Twitter for comments instead. Now, below each post on this site, you'll find a link that points to Twitter.com and, if you're logged in, will pre-fill the textarea with a few bits of data that establishes a relation between tweets and the blog post. This is an experiment for the time being, but it may well become a permanent solution.

With that in mind, let's look at how using Twitter for comments fits into all this:

  • Twitter is not entirely anonymous; sure, you can create a bogus Twitter account in under a minute or so, but people afraid of using their identity will likely not go through all that hassle just to leave a Twitter comment for a blog post somewhere else
  • Twitter separates the comments from the main post, leaving the integrity of the post intact and the focus pure
  • Nobody is going to post "First!"s on Twitter; you wouldn't do that to your followers (or they'll all leave you) and "First" is no longer a sticking point: search.twitter.com shows newest posts first, pushing any "First" comment down right away
  • Twitter, sadly, does not encourage thoroughly elaborated comments or discussions. 140 characters (minus my name and the post's ID number) is just too limiting
  • There's plenty of inane debate on Twitter as is; it wouldn't make a lick of difference if some of it is in regards to a blog post

And now, for the biggest argument in favor of using Twitter for comments:

  • People are already using Twitter to comment on blog posts

That's right: posting a tweet reply to some as an effective blog post comment is common practice. WhenDouglas Bowman redesigned his site, he received more comments on Twitter than on the announcement post itself. I myself often get people commenting to me on Twitter about something I put on my blog. So, from that perspective, nothing will really change — it's just the encouraged (and only) method of commenting from now on.

What about the people who don't have a Twitter account? For them, and anyone who has more to say than just a small 130-character snippet, trackbacks and pingbacks will continue to be supported on the site. I'm all in favor of responding to somebody's blog post by writing a post on your own blog, and Twitter is effectively that: it's a micro-blog.

Once I finally launch this site properly (using my own design, my own HTML + CSS + Javascript and my own Django back-end), if this experiment works out well enough, this new comment policy will become a built-in part of the site. For now, there's two links at the bottom of a post.

Let's see how it works out.

MacHeist: To Sum Up

function MacHeist(developer, product, customer) {
	if (developer == "Held at gunpoint, made to include product") {
		return ('pity' || 'outrage');
	} else if (product == "appealing") {
		return customer+1;
	}
	return;
}

Forgive the JavaScript, but Objective-C was a bit too verbose for this.

The Religion of Battlestar Galactica

SPOILER ALERT

This entire post presumes that you have seen the entire final episodes of Battlestar Galactica! I will discuss aspects of the series’ finale that would be huge spoilers for you if you haven’t yet seen it. You’ve been warned.

Ready?

After four exciting years, Battlestar Galactica has come to an end. The series wrapped up most of all unanswered questions and plot lines and concluded a story that has captured the hearts of millions. It was quite a gratifying end to the show for me, but that wasn’t so much the case for every other fan. It appears that many have taken issue (see the comments) with the direct religious answers the show has used for its most fundamental story lines. Whilst I was fully aware of these religious subtexts as I watched the final episode, they did not bother me in the slightest.

Now, the people who know me quite well know that I was born and raised in a Muslim family; a Turkish Muslim father and a Dutch Christian mother who, somewhere along their marriage, changed her faith to become a Muslim—entirely of her own choosing. My father never pressured her, it was her own interest that drew her towards Islam. This powerful tolerance towards religion and independent choice was embodied in my upbringing; as soon as I grew old enough to understand religion and form my own opinion of it, my parents let me make those decisions for myself and never pushed a specific religious belief onto me. This quickly led to me growing up not feeling like I was a Muslim, even though to this day I still practice some Muslim principles—albeit entirely by personal choice and preference, and not by Muslim influence.

Even so, I wander this Earth not feeling like I belong to any single known religion. I’ve looked into various religions over the years but have come to my own conclusion that I value factual, empirical evidence far too much to feel at home with any of the religions our society has. On the other hand, I don’t consider myself a full-on atheist either, because we have no empirical evidence thus far that the Big Bang was not invoked by a “higher being” or something like that. What I do believe, however, is that the existence or presence of god, multiple gods or the absence of gods entirely, is pretty much irrelevant compared to what you do with your own life. That’s a broader subject for another time, though.

So how does this relate to Battlestar Galactica and its fairly religious series ending? Well, knowing my position on religions and god or deities of any kind, you’d probably be very surprised that I enjoyed the series’ religion-dominated end as much as I did. I twittered, directly after seeing it, that it was a satisfying end to me. And it’s true; I didn’t mind Kara’s disappearance into thin air or Gaius’ and Caprica’s Angel-or-Demon preposition. I didn’t mind the Kara-dove metaphor, or that most of all the events were simply part of “God’s plan”—including the uncertainty of our future.

To better understand why I, a person so decidedly detached from religion, would really enjoy, without hesitation or distaste, such religious answers to plot questions in a Science-Fiction series, it’s worth taking a detour to look at Xenogears. For those unfamiliar with it, Xenogears is a video game created by Squaresoft in the late ‘90s. An interesting detail: it is said that Xenogears was almost not released in North America at all, due to its controversial religious content.

The relevancy is that Xenogears is one of my all-time favorite games and, on top of that, it is the second-most favorite story I’ve ever come across, right after Star Wars. Surprising? Perhaps. Unexpected? Much more so. I may not be a big fan of religion but I seem to enjoy certain religious stories or undertones just fine. Xenogears is full of them, the Battlestar Galactica ending is full of them, and I loved both. How come?

There is an explanation for this apparent disconnect. The defining thing about both Battlestar Galactica andXenogears, as well as the various other stories I like with religious influences, is that they’re not preaching one specific religion. They don’t preach a particular doctrine or faith, but perhaps more importantly, they all leave enough room for you to form to your own interpretation and ideologies. Battlestar’s ending may allude that it’s all part of God’s plan, but at the same time it very explicitly says that the law of averages means the outcome of this “cycle” of our civilization remains undetermined. You’re open to extrapolate in whatever direction you choose to or prefer. I have my own interpretations and they don’t include any deities, but someone else’s might. A particularly insightful analysis of this very principle comes from Annalee Newitz of IO9:

In fact, BSG makes a pretty passionate case for human self-determination. The humans of the 12 colonies have all used science to create life, in the form of cylons. And although those cylons are humans' downfall in the short term, they turn out to be humanity's salvation in the long term. They're the creatures humans must merge with in order to take civilization in a new direction. Looked at from that perspective, humans on Earth today are the genetically-engineered (or simply engineered) creation of an earlier species. They prove that our species is not the result of some kind of divine intervention, but is quite emphatically the result of scientific intervention mixed with a little random evolution.

So say we all? No, and that’s the beauty of it: we all have our own interpretation of it. You get to decide for yourself.

What is Twitter and Why Would I Use It?

Twitter. “I’m Twittering that!” “Let me add you on Twitter.” At-replies. Direct Messages. Tweets!

Most likely, you have heard of Twitter in some way or another by now. You might even have signed up but been otherwise unable to really make sense of it. So what is Twitter, and why would you care to use it?

This is the first of seven articles in a series about Twitter, tailored towards people who are not yet avid Twitterers or who may simply not have heard of it before. If you already know all about Twitter, this first article is designed to be a reference for you to point to when people ask you about Twitter and you don’t feel like explaining it (again and again and again). If you don’t know much or anything at all about Twitter, read on.

While the first article is an introduction to what Twitter itself is, the other six articles are meant to be of interest to both new and old Twitterers. As time goes by and things change in the world of Twitter, these articles will be updated and revised. Similarly, if you have comments or ideas to contribute to these articles, please let me know.

  1. What is Twitter and Why Would I Use It?
  2. Using Twitter: From Web To Phone To Application And More
  3. Common Twitter Idioms and Important Security Practices
  4. Interesting Uses and Applications for Twitter
  5. What Kind of Twitter User Are You?
  6. Twitter for Celebrities and Celebrity-fans
  7. Twitter Is Not A Competition (And Here’s Why)

1. What is Twitter and why would I use it?

Twitter is a communication platform, first and foremost. This sounds vague and generic so allow me to elaborate for a bit. It is a free service that, more than anything ele, has made it incredibly easy for large numbers of people to communicate unobtrusively with each other. I’ll talk more later about why the unobtrusive part is crucial, but first let’s look at what Twitter is on a surface level.

The origin story of Twitter tells that it was initially conceived as a means to inform friends of interesting happenings in the simplest possible way: a single text message, 140 characters in length, was all you’d need to send. It was also all you could send, forcing you to keep your verbosity low and your message to the point.

Since its conception, Twitter has evolved dramatically. By the time it went public, Twitter had become the service that asks you just one simple question:

What are you doing?

Using Twitter thus became a matter of simply answering that question each and every time you were doing something of interest. This obviously left it very open to every individual’s own interpretation: some people twitter about what they are eating for lunch, others only twitter about things they suspect their followers to find interesting.

When describing Twitter to someone else, the lunch example always raises an eyebrow here and there. “Why would anyone care what I’m eating for lunch?!” is the response I’ve received most often. The answer is indeterminate. Suppose you’re eating a really fantastic sandwich for lunch today: if you twitter about howamazingly good that sandwich is, it would be of interest to people who follow you and live in the same area. They now might want to go and see for themselves just how good that sandwich really is. What’ll happen then is that they may respond back to you, starting a message with an @ and your username (“@KuraFire where are you eating that sandwich??” would be an example @-reply to me) and thus opening up a conversation.

This is where one of Twitter’s core competencies shines through: it enables conversation very easily and quickly between two or more people.

Our example was simply that of a lunch delight, but Twitter is used to communicate and converse about anything and everything. What’s even better is that since you can see the responses of people you follow to people you don’t follow[1], you can see conversations happening with strangers and join in if it’s something you’re interested in or have a strong opinion about. This happens very often on Twitter and it’s a great way to see people discuss sometimes important subjects.

UPDATE May 31st, 2009: Twitter currently changed this behavior and now you can't see those conversations. They've announced plans for more control over this behavior, but as yet have not implemented anything new. (end update)

An important side note: if you think this “listening in” on other people’s conversations is voyeuristic, remember that they were public discussions from the get-go: if those people wanted to have a privatediscussion, they could have chosen to send Direct Messages to each other instead or exchange email / IM information to take the talk off of Twitter.

So why exactly would I use it?

The reasons for using Twitter are as bountiful and varied as the possible uses of Twitter itself. First and foremost, it is a great way to simply stay in touch and keep up to date with friends and family, providing of course they, too, are on Twitter. The more of your friends and family you get onto Twitter, the more valuable it becomes to you and them.

Small announcements about your personal life are the core of what goes on in Twitter, but sometimes even big announcements are made either solely or first on Twitter: anything from wedding engagements, pregnancies, job landings or losses and more.

If you’re still really wondering why anyone would care to read what you’re doing, what you’re eating or where you’re heading to, you’re asking the wrong question. Twitter isn’t about why, it’s about what. Additionally, asking yourself the question “why would anyone be interested in what I’m about to post to Twitter?” is the wrong way to go about it: instead, you should ask yourself “will anyone be interested in what I’m about to Twitter?” — or, and this is equally valid: don’t bother asking yourself anything at all, and Just Twit It. Ahem.

The beauty of Twitter is that you can be as free as you want to be with it, and people and companies have taken full advantage of this, in many fantastic, positive ways. For instance, Amazon has a Twitter account whereto they publish Daily Deals; various metropoles’ public transport systems have Twitter accounts to update status for its lines: San Francisco BART, New York City’s MTA, London Underground and I’m sure many more like it. And this is just a tiny sliver of a sample of all the useful things found on Twitter; more about them in the fourth article in this series, “Interesting Uses and Applications for Twitter.”

Chosen Ones Only

Another beautiful thing is the aforementioned unobtrusiveness of Twitter: everything on Twitter is opt-in and opt-in only. You choose who or what you follow, and what you see is only that and nothing else.

In other words, your Twitter stream—the amalgamation of updates from the people, companies and/or services that you follow—is completely and entirely under your control and no-one else’s. There is no real “spam” on Twitter because why would you bother to follow an account that only spams generic updates? You wouldn’t, and as a result, spam has no meaningful success on Twitter. Spammers can only reach the people who choose on their own accord to listen to them, which isn’t a very compelling tactic for the spammers.

As a user, you can keep in touch with all your friends but unlike with e-mail or instant messaging, you only have to do this when you feel like it. When you have time, you can choose to spend a couple of minutes seeing what’s new on Twitter, and get up to date that way. An important aspect to remember is that Twitter isn’t e-mail: you don’t have to read everything people post to it.

If you come from an IM and e-mail heavy environment, it may take some time to get used to this, but you’ll probably be following a fair amount of people soon and discover that trying to “keep up” with Twitter is impossible. That’s perfectly fine; you’re not supposed to. Twitter is great precisely because of that; after all, nobody really wants to know everything that you’re doing, but it’s nice to be able to check in from time to time to see what you’re up to.

Next in the series

In the second article of the Twitter series, I’ll go in-depth on all the various methods you can use for Twitter, as there are many. Meanwhile, make sure to Sign Up for Twitter and start twittering! And if you’d like, you can find me at twitter.com/kurafire and start chatting away at me—perhaps to let me know what you think of this article. I’m always happy to hear suggestions.

Coming up next: Using Twitter: From Web To Phone To Application And More

  1. You can disable this if it bothers you or if you find your followers to be too chatty to people you don’t know or care about. Twitter has changed their rules and as of right now, May 31st, any @replies to people you don't follow yourself are not shown in your main stream. You can see them on the individual's profile pages, still.

The Accessible Mac

Martin Pilkington of M Cubed Software:

Unless we experience something or are affected by something personally, we usually don't care about it as much as we know we should. Try closing your eyes and doing something. Odds are you'll end up opening your eyes for a peek at some point. You're lucky to be able to do that, some people can't.

I've not got a disability that limits my ability to use the computer and don't personally know anyone with one, but I do have a strong sense that we should all be treated equal and have equal opportunities. When we can do something to help someone else and it is very cheap or very easy to do, then we should do it. Making accessible applications can be very easy and not take too much time, but can make a world of difference to some people.


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