“Twilight of Democracy”

Here’s what’s good about Anne Applebaum’s new book: it’s anecdotal in all the right places.

Note the soft carpet of my living room and the greasy fingerprints on the cover.
That’s realism for ya.

This is a book that attempts to explain the authoritarian turns across Europe and in the United States, and Applebaum, as you’d expect from her, provides a convincing, well-reasoned and insightful explanation as to why they are happening. And since she’s a well renowned international journalist and a wife to Poland’s former minister of foreign affairs, she’s been at the center of many of the important political events of the last decades (hence the anecdotes). It’s a very good book, well worth a read if you’d like to get a better understanding of what’s going on with the world, and it’s so up-to-date that it even covers the beginning of the pandemic.

One caveat though: Applebaum is what American political scientists would call a neoconservative, and thus her view of the events of the last 20 years is McCainy a bit. It’s not wrong and I’d say she keeps relatively neutral. But if you want a very different take, try Monbiots “How did we get into this mess?”—a worse book, but a somewhat fresher (i.e. left wing) view on things.

Ah and one final note: this book is short. Not too-short short, but short enough for people like me who use Piketty as a monitor stand. Digestible, that’s the word I was looking for. This book is digestible for software engineers.

VS Code

The best, most entertaining and immortal topic in software engineering is back! Editor Wars!

After reading Roben Kleene’s blog post I realized that I’ve been using VS Code all-day every-day for over a year now. I’m not willing to admit it because in my mind I’m a die-hard (n)vim user, but the reality is this: VS Code is brilliant. Kleene makes many great points about key ingredients of VS Code’s success (popularity/MS backing, plugin ecosystem, client-server architecture), and you should read his post.

Then today I read about “modernizing” Emacs, I saw the discussion on HN, and this comment in particular made me think:

I think VSCode is more than yet another editor, it’s more than what Textmate and Sublime were. There are two major reasons.

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We should cherish email

Recent launch of Basecamp’s Hey service made me realize how much I love email. Their pitch is actually on point:

Email gets a bad rap, but it shouldn’t. Email’s a treasure.

Damn right it is.

Email is a set of open protocols. We can argue about the “implementability” of IMAP clients and such, but it remains the only widely used, open communication system we have on the internet. XMPP was supposed to become its equivalent for instant messaging, but failed, and no other protocol took its place because it’s in no messaging platform’s interest to give its users freedom of choice. There are multi-protocol messaging apps, but they are essentially UI hacks. Even Twitter, which arguably isn’t an IM, is gradually limiting what third party clients can and cannot do.

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Non-classical music playing guide for classically trained musicians

I went to music school as a kid. Ages 7 to 13 I studied classical violin and basics of music theory. I played in duos, trios, and orchestras. Even as a college student, despite my amateurish skills, I’d still find decent orchestras I would join and play many concerts with. All this, despite my slight disdain for classical music with its pompous ethos and pretentious audiences. I stopped playing after moving abroad about a decade ago, leaving my violin behind me, thinking the music performing chapter of my life was over.

Imagine my surprise when some years later I found myself jamming cave music with my friends, now a software engineer at the age of 34.

What if you are, like me, a classically trained musician who’d, too, like to indulge themselves in cave music? What’s your path? And how hard would it be?

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Over-tinkering

The other day I’ve been looking at a Raspberry Pi 4 that’s been laying around, thinking of what to do with it. I quickly googled around how to setup AFP on it, so that I could put it by the router, connect all the portable hard drives and just use it as my “stash drive” from any device in the house. A tiny NAS-like thing.

I quickly realized there were some problems with my hard drives, namely that they all used different filesystems, so I spent a couple of hours (oh yeah) juggling data between them, formatting them onto reasonable file systems that both Linux and macOS can easily read, and setting them up as mount points for Netatalk to serve. I then started exploring other options for my photo library, which I was managing with iCloud at the time. I remembered that I strongly preferred Google Photos for cataloguing and managing albums and shares, so I figured perhaps it’d be a good opportunity to move all my photos there, and perhaps explore a backup system? You know, a backup for my backup, some software that fetches photos from Google Photos periodically (say, daily), puts them on one of the Pi’s external volumes for rclone to later pick up and store safely on b2. That’s when the clock showed midnight and my wife asked why wasn’t I going to bed yet.

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Sunk cost of my iPad Pro

In January 2019 I bought an 11-inch iPad Pro. It’s a magnificent piece of hardware that you can read many reviews of online. The screen is brilliant, the portability and battery life are unmatched, the performance is swift (until you’re trying to perform a long-running CPU-intensive operation, that is).

The iPad Pro was always meant to be my “personal computing” device. I don’t really code in my free time anymore, so issues of not being able to run VS Code on it are not my issues. I do some music production, lightweight photo editing and I write, that’s all I require from my personal computer. (ah yes, and the “occasional Netflix”) So at first glance the magnificent iPad Pro should be amazing, shouldn’t it? Turns out that for me, it wasn’t, for many tiny reasons. Tech reviewers sometimes refer to this as “the 10%” of things you need to be able to do on your computer, because indeed the iPad Pro can often handle that 90%. Yet even with iPadOS (aka iOS 13), which made it much more a real computer than any previous software upgrade, there’s still a ton of things that it either doesn’t do well, or doesn’t do at all. I agree with Gruber: the iPad didn’t fulfill the potential that was always in the hardware itself, even after 10 years of being on the market.

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Back on WordPress

After some years of self-hosted statically-generated websites, I am back with the love of my life that is WordPress.com. Reasons are as follows:

  • I deal with technical problems 8 hrs a day. I don’t want to troubleshoot CI, AWS, SSL or whatever other issues that stop my website from being successfully built or deployed in my free time.
  • I cannot stress this enough but the new editor that WP 5.0 comes with is just amazing. I ❤️ it so much that I don’t want to be writing markdown anymore, even if it means I can’t compose my posts in vim. (does anyone really want to write blog posts in vim?)
  • WordPress.com’s personal plan is actually amazingly good value considering what you get for the money.
  • I’m not a designer, I can’t frontend well. Themes I was able to find for my static generators didn’t please me, and I want my website to look good.

So there, I’m not a hacker anymore. But hopefully I’ll become an amateurish writer again.

A false sense of security

Marc Andreessen writes about how ill-equipped the United States is to handle the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and concludes that it’s due to the fact that the America lost its ability to “build” things, be it medical equipment, infrastructure, or financial mechanisms that’d allow the federal government to support its citizens better.

There’s a particular paragraph that stood out to me and made me think about a particular lack-of-readiness aspect of COVID-19 epidemic, not only in the US, but all over the world and in particular in Western Europe:

We see this today with the things we urgently need but don’t have. We don’t have enough coronavirus tests, or test materials — including, amazingly, cotton swabs and common reagents. We don’t have enough ventilators, negative pressure rooms, and ICU beds. And we don’t have enough surgical masks, eye shields, and medical gowns — as I write this, New York City has put out a desperate call for rain ponchos to be used as medical gowns. Rain ponchos! In 2020! In America!

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Walkability

I am slowly beginning to grasp the concept of “walkability.” It’s not about whether there are wide sidewalks (although there better be). Spending my second week in California I realize the absolute key part is whether you need to cross multi-lane streets/roads every 50 meters. Nothing kills the joy of walking around than having to stop all the time.

(hint: in Amsterdam you can usually just walk through the street without paying attention to lights, because there’s either no traffic, or the traffic will let you do that)

It also helps if I’m not the only pedestrian within a 5 mile radius. The other day a lady in a huge SUV pulled over to ask if everything’s ok because I’m walking down the street; she thought my car broke down and I needed help. 🤦🏻‍♂️