On the allure of Quora and plans for a new brainwagon future.

For several years, this blog was my major creative outlet on the Internet.  Facebook was founded in February of 2004.  Twitter was founded in March of 2006.  But I was already using WordPress to scribble down random bits of flotsam and jetsam as early as July 21, 2002.    Over the next fifteen years, I’d write 4,211 posts about random stuff of interest.  At my peak I’d get maybe 300 views of my stuff per week.  The topics were wide ranging and eclectic, which basically matched the way my brain works.  I concentrated mostly on geeky stuff.  For a while there was a lot about podcasting (and I recorded 100 episodes of my own “brainwagon radio” mostly while commuting).  I posted a lot about amateur radio.  I wrote little bits of code.  I tinkered with Arduinos.   I talked about cryptography and computer graphics.  I scribbled notes to myself about things that I thought I’d need to remember, like how to use ssh to do tunnels through my firewall.  I read and passed on notes about people who built their own CPUs.  I took photographs.  Occassionally, I’d write a little about politics, or announce the release of a movie that I had worked on.

You never knew what you were going to get.

Some 300 or so people a month visited my blog.  Those were the real viewers: WordPress was pretty good at getting rid of the 760,000 (and counting) attempts to inject content spam onto my blog.

But in 2015 I suffered an injury to my neck that laid me up for a few weeks with terrible back pain and arm weakness.  It recurred in 2016, even worse.  I ended up having to have two different injections in my C6/C7 vertebrae, and was in constant pain through my left arm, which became really weak.  I was out of work for 60 days.   As I sat around recovering, I discovered Quora.

Quora is a question and answer website. Anyone can create an account and ask and answer questions on a wide variety of topics. I was stuck at home. Injured, bored, and unable to do very much without making myself ache, I started to read and answer questions. At first, it was mostly about stuff I knew about: computer graphics, astronomy, and telescopes. But since I was sitting at home, I was also watching a lot of political news of the day, so I started answering questions about that as well. The run up to the election in 2016 gave me lots to think about, and I had lots of time.

I didn’t think too much of it at first. Then I had my first answer that received one thousand views. Pretty soon, I had answers which received one thousand upvotes. People started to follow me. I reached one hundred followers. Then one thousand. Then five thousand. As of today I’ve got about 7,200 followers, and over nineteen million views, and written around one million words spread out over 6,785 answers.

It was obvious to me that Quora was a much more powerful platform than my blog ever was. I received Top Writer status for both 2016 and 2017, and they sent me a nice laptop bag to proclaim my status.

I have to say that this appealed to my ego, and as a result, it began to dig into my time that I normally would have spent on my blog, which slowed to a trickle over the last six months. It’s not that I haven’t done anything interesting and Quora is taking 100% of my time. I upgraded my soldering equipment to include a hot air rework station and a better soldering iron. I started to import lots of cool modules and stuff from China and play with them. I ordered a kit for a 3D printer and built it.

But I had stopped writing about the things that I do, and instead spent that time answering questions about stuff which mattered less to me, but which were (apparently) interesting to more people.

Over the holiday break, I began to consider where this state of affairs had led me.

Yes, it’s flattering to get comments and followers. It’s easy to add your voice in the form of opinion or indignation, and in a political environment where you feel like you need an outlet, it can be quite attractive to use easy outlets like Facebook, Twitter or Quora to vent.

But it’s not really what I want to be doing. Or at the very least, the amount of effort that I am placing in that area is out of proportion to its importance.

My blog was about stuff that I liked and stuff I was doing. It was intended to be half documentation and half inspiration. The documentation was often for me: to remind me of the stuff I had learned and might need again. The inspiration was to get others to look into the same sort of things that I like, and to come talk to me about them.

Quora doesn’t serve either of those purposes, but it is taking all of my time. So, I’m trying something new in 2018.

I’m trying to dedicate just thirty minutes of my day to do something and write about it on my blog. It doesn’t matter what it is. It might be a recommendation for a book I enjoyed. It might be projects I’m working on. It might be a review of some tech product that I found especially useful. It actually doesn’t matter what it is. It will begin with something I’m doing or thinking about, and something which I think might be worth sharing. If any of my old readers (or any new ones) find anything interesting, I’ll hope that you’ll follow my blog and comment. I’ll probably work on ways to make sure that it is as easy as possible to do so, and I might even start thinking about using a platform like YouTube to do interesting and engaging stuff. But my goal is to get back to discussing the stuff that I find fun and interesting.

I hope that you will find it so too, and come back again soon.

brainwagon.org should now redirect to use HTTPS

I set up a plugin so that trying to access https://brainwagon.org should now automatically redirect to use https and the HTTPS protocol.   If anybody has any difficulty with pages, drop me a quick comment here, or a note via twitter (@brainwagon) and I’ll try to see what’s up.

Coming soon: my review of Google WiFi, plus my experiences with the Anet A8 3D printer.

Happy New Year!

Well, I have decided to do a little well needed maintenance on the blog.  I installed an SSL certificate so my blog will now be available via HTTPS, and played around a bit with a U2F Zero dual factor authentication key.   My goal for the New Year is to try to spend 30 minutes every day working on my blog, which I am going to take from the entirely too much time I’ve spent on Quora.   Stay tuned for more stuff to come.

I’m not dead…

Hey gang…

It’s been quite some time since I posted anything here. Apologies. I have had a lot going on for the last sixty days or so, most dramatically a herniated disk in my neck. I am improving though, and have some backed up ideas for blog posts, so stay tuned, and I promise over the next day or two you’ll see some posts about some small computing projects I’ve managed to tinker with between bouts of pain medication.

A tease of future topics:

  • My early experience with the Kickstarter project Modulo, created by former Pixar colleague Erin Tomson, including an unboxing video and my first impressions
  • Experience setting a home theater setup using Kodi
  • Some new hardware from China

Stay tuned!

Boring statistics re: brainwagon

Okay, today is February 6, which means that my revolvermap that you can see over in the left margin has been up one entire year. Right now, it’s showing 148,950 visits since it’s inception. I suspect a couple of thousand of those are actually me, but I’m pretty happy that so many people stumble their way to my blog in that time. Over that same time period, Google Analytics reports 126,340 visits, 96,891 unique visitors, and 387,172 page views. The traffic to my blog has been pretty constant: around 300 views per day, with five or six blips caused by links from hackaday or Reddit. About one in four visitors are returning: the rest are new visitors. That seems pretty cool to me: reaching nearly 100K people with something I wrote seems oddly empowering.

But here’s the reality check. My most popular post: Viewing a V4L webcam with mplayer: a little throw away post I did back in 2007, giving the options that allowed me to show video from a V4L webcam using mplayer. It accounts for a little under 2.5% of all the hits to my blog. Two postings on the Fuji Real 3D W1 camera sum to actually a greater percentage (right around 3%). My Downside of Arduino is about 1.41% of all hits, mostly courtesy of a brief mention and flurry of activity from Reddit. My Hellduino project and my Arduino n’ Gameduino Satellite Tracker came in virtually tied at 1.16% and 1.15%, respectively.

What am I to make of all this? Well, I’m not quitting my day job anytime soon. 🙂

Addendum: Tomorrow will be February 7, 2012. This marks the completion of twenty years of work at Pixar Animation Studios. To all those who I’ve worked with over the span of the last two decades, thanks for helping provide one of the most stimulating work environments I could imagine, and for letting me play a small role in the history of animated films.

Q: Should blogs make font choices for you, or not?

I’ve been making some minor tweeks to the excellent 1024 px WordPress theme that I started using a few weeks ago. I found a small issue with the CSS for images that are supposed to be center (a priority mistake meant it didn’t work) and I’ve made a few other minor tweaks. I finally got around to considering some questions regarding fonts, and I thought I’d ask you, my readers, give me the benefit of your opinions.

The 1024px stylesheet listed Verdana, Tahoma, Arial, and sans-serif as the search order for fonts. Not a bad list really, I think Verdana is an excellent screen font, with excellent legibility and good weight. Since my eyes have become somewhat presbyopic, and I spend a great deal of time reading stuff on screen, I’ve become somewhat more sensitive to these kind of issues.

But there are a couple of problems with the defaults.

First of all, Verdana and Tahoma (which are truly excellent, it must be said) aren’t really universal. I believe that they are installed by default on Windows and Mac OS, but not on most of the Linux installations that I have seen. On most Linux boxes, I end up using Dejavu Sans as a substitute.

If you don’t have either Verdana or Tahoma, this theme falls back onto Arial. I do have Arial installed on most of my systems, because lots of things need Arial or Helvetica. But here’s the thing: Arial is really ugly. It’s not pretty even in print, but it’s just wonky to use on screen. Sadly, this is what I get a lot of the time.

And, of course, if you don’t have any of those three, it falls to the browser default sans-serif, whatever the system default is, or whatever you’ve chosen.

Okay. So, I thought that perhaps i should just leave it up to you. I’ve all the font selections from the theme’s stylesheet. Whatever default you configure is what you get.

And yet, I’m not happy with that either. It appears (for instance) that on Mobile Safari, the default is always a serif font, and you can’t change it. That’s not very good: I think serif fonts are virtually by definition harder to read on screen. Mobile Safari does support Verdana. I could actually make a special style sheet just for my blog, but that seems to be a slippery slope.

So, the question is: do you think web page authors (and in particular, blog authors) should make font choices for you? If so, what choices are reasonable? If not, are there drawbacks?

Feel free to leave a comment below.

Addendum: Okay, I shifted back to specifying fonts. By default, mobile browsers like Safari on the iPad and iPhone seem to resort to a serif font, which on a tiny screen is simply not a good idea. The list I came up with was Verdana, Tahoma, DejaVu Sans, and then whatever “sans-serif” is. Arial is just too ugly to use.

Hackaday Comment Policy: We’re cleaning up

I am a long time reader of Hack A Day. It’s a great website, and often details projects that I find interesting well before they are picked up on other sites. It also tends to drive significant amounts of traffic to sites mentioned, so it’s good publicity for many interesting objects.

But lately, their comment section has become a complete and utter cesspool. I’ve read hundreds of comments over the last few months which fall into predictable categories…

  • You’re stupid.
  • Your project is stupid.
  • Why didn’t you do X?
  • That isn’t a hack.
  • Your grammar/spelling is wrong.
  • That video is fake, nobody could do X.
  • Any of a number of racist, sexist, and idiotic comments which decorum prevents me from reproducing.

I don’t see any of these kinds of comments as helpful, useful, informative, or inspiring.

To their credit, it appears that the Hack A Day crew are beginning to realize that this kind of stuff does nothing to enhance their brand and are taking steps to correct this.

Hackaday Comment Policy; We’re cleaning up. – Hack a Day

My own blog policy is simple (and given the relatively low number of non-spam comments, pretty easy to implement): be nice. If your postings aren’t nice, then they aren’t going to stay. I can handle disagreements and dissent, but if you can’t do it in a civil way, you can post your comments on your own blog and link back to me. I won’t mind. My blog is like my virtual living room. I wouldn’t allow anyone to come in and act like a complete buffoon in my house, and I’m not going to pay for the web services that lets them do so in my virtual living room either.

And arguing that some kind of “free speech” should be the rule is not going to fly either. You are entitled to your own free speech, but I don’t have to pay for it or promote it. You are free to pursue your own free speech using your own resources, but you don’t get to volunteer mine.

Some people have asked that come kind of comment voting system (like that employed on Slashdot) could be employed. I’ll merely say that I don’t read Slashdot anymore precisely because gaming of their comment system has reduced its utility considerably. It’s never been clear to me that such systems can be engineered to even reduce, much less eliminate, the kinds of negative comment trolling that I’ve been seeing.

Here’s my advice: if you think that a particular project on Hack A Day (or brainwagon or any other site) is deficient in some way, then get off your duff, make a better project, and publish it. Lend your own expertise to the discussion, and help elevate everyone’s game. That’s what the web should be about.

Oh, and keep up the good work, Hack A Day.

Nine years of blogging…

Glancing to the side bar, it appears that today in 2002 was the first post on my blog.

This should be post number 3,690. I’ve had 2,286 comments. I’ve used 110 category tags. Over the 12 months, Akismet has removed 193,915 spam comments, and there have been 798 pieces of “ham”. The peak month for spam was November, 2010, where I received 35,764. As the result of that pain, I installed a RECAPTCHA plugin, and spam levels decreased to around eight thousand pieces per month.

Those are the statistics.

So, what’s the state of brainwagon? I’m posting somewhat less than in past years, but usually with less recycled links. When I do post links to the blog, I’ve been better at adding some value by presenting links to similar projects or other information that might prove interesting. I’ve begun to try to do more of my own original projects, and trying to use YouTube video more effectively. I’m also using Twitter more effectively. I’m meeting more people online, and trying to engage more completely.

Overall, I think brainwagon is going rather well. At times, it seems like shouting in a dark, empty room, but there are at least signs that some of my neighbors are listening.

Happy birthday, BrainWagon.

Addendum: The WP Post Words plugin allowed me to count the words written in all my posts:

Time for some blog maintenance…

My blog may be unavailable for a short time today as I perform some needed upgrades. If all goes well, any down time should last only a few minutes. Don’t despair! I’ll be back shortly.

Addendum: Upgrade seemed to go smoothly and without any problems. If you are experiencing any strangeness, try refreshing this page. If you still have difficulty, try sending me an email and letting me know of what your issue is.

What is your blog’s business plan? Does it really need one?

It was a convenient time to renew my blog’s hosting plan over the weekend, so I made my payment and you can be assured that the brainwagon blog (which as many as a dozen of you inexplicably read) will be available for another 12 months. It got me thinking about the many bloggers I know who work on authoring and popularizing content as part of a business (or at least, a plan for business). I just spent $83 on hosting for the year, I got to thinking: what’s my business plan?

Well, the fact of the matter is, I don’t have one. It’s actually more than that: not only do I not have a plan, I have planned explicitly to not think of my blog as a business opportunity. It’s an expense, and isn’t expected to pay any financial dividends. Total costs in terms of name registration and hosting amount to about $100 a year or so.

So, why do I do it? Well, why do you plant flowers in front of your house? Sure, it probably does have some effect on the value of your house, but that’s only likely if you are going to sell your house in the near future. Yes, maybe it keeps a home owner’s association from complaining to you. But the real reason most people plant flowers is they like to garden, and it makes the place where they live a better, more beautiful place. You can thus view it as an investment of sorts, but not in the purely rational, economic sense of the word. It’s an investment in ourselves as well rounded and happy individuals.

The primary reason that I blog is entirely personal: I write about the things that interest me, and my blog serves as a diary of sorts. By reading my own posts in the “On this day…” sidebar, I can see what I was thinking about a year ago, and this often stimulates new explorations in the topics that I was interested in.

But there is another ulterior motive: I don’t see very many people blogging about these kinds of topics on a regular basis. I blog at least in part as a challenge and inspiration to others: if you’ve read my blog and found something neat, or like the approach that I take, my hope is that you will go ahead and start your own blog, on whatever topics you like.

I’m trying to inspire people to plant their own gardens on the Internet. Think of it as planting flowers.

It need not be expensive. In fact, I urge you to do it as cheaply as possible. As the saying goes, it’s no virtue to do with more what can be done with less. Every dollar you spend blogging about your interests is a dollar that you aren’t spending on what truly interests you, so minimizing the amount you spend on Internet means you can maximize what you spend on the good stuff. The $100 yearly expense I pay is about two cups of Starbucks per month, which seems entirely reasonable to me, but maybe times are tough for you, and you can’t swing that. You could do without your own domain name, and use free blog hosting like WordPress.com or Blogger, and link to videos that you host on YouTube or blip.tv. Host audio and podcasts on sites like OurMedia.

There is a slightly disturbing trend I’ve noticed where every interaction with our fellow man seems to be viewed as a business opportunity. Let’s face it: we can’t all make our livings selling our opinions to one another. I don’t view my readers as consumers or potential ad clicks. I seek to inspire and to be inspired by them. The payment I receive is in new thoughts and new ideas.

This is not meant to say that you shouldn’t monetize your blog. If you can make that model work, by all means, pursue that and good luck. But there are lots of ordinary people who seem to think that if they can’t make money on their blog, then they shouldn’t do it. My plea is ask people to think of their blog not as an economic opportunity, but an opportunity for communication, for inspiration, and for sharing.

What’s your blog’s business plan? Does it need one? I’d love to hear some different ideas (or even agreement).

Clarifying my thoughts re: Facebook and Twitter

I was listening to Leo Laporte and Steve Gibson’s Security Now podcast as I was commuting this morning, and found that Steve Gibson said something which clarified how I feel about Facebook and Twitter.

Lots of people are upset about Facebook privacy concerns. I’m not really among them. If I post something on Facebook, I pretty much understand that I’m publishing it and won’t have any control over where the information goes. And really, how could I expect any different? Facebook’s entire business model is to aggregate information about you and share it with others. They don’t want your information to be private, because they can’t do anything with your private information. Facebook entices you to register by not showing you what your friends are doing unless you do. And then, it entices you to add everyone in your email contact lists. It encourages you to type in information about who you are, when you were born, where you live, and what you are doing. By doing so, it can figure out all sorts of good stuff about you, and sell that information to others.

Facebook has the power to make us all celebrities. But that means that while we might get fans, we might also get paparazzi. Fame has a cost, and we should perhaps come to grips with it ourselves, rather than asking Facebook to do it for us.

That’s Facebook.

Twitter is almost the anti-Facebook. You can view anyone’s twitter feed without joining twitter. You can see who are following and who are followers of any Twitter user without becoming a twitter user yourself. To post, you need to register, but the only thing it asks you for is a username, and a “Full Name”, which could completely be a pseudonym. Everything about twitter takes place in public, so there is never any concern about privacy: you have none. They aren’t selling your information, because any advertisers could already get access to anything you post on twitter. Anyone can.

And when Gibson put it this simply, it made me realize that I’m actually more interested in Twitter as a result. If I wanted to share private information, I already have the means to do so, and probably should do so with more thought than I really give Facebook. But if I want to share information publicly, having a bunch of privacy protections in place is unnecessary.

Musings on Blogging and Social Media

Over the last couple of days, weeks, and even months, I’ve been pondering my participation in various social media: mostly my efforts at blogging and podcasting, but also my participation in things like Facebook and Twitter, as well as the possibility of using things like YouTube. I thought I’d toss out some ideas and ask for some feedback, so if any of this resonates with any of you out there, please feel free to comment.

My first posting on the brainwagon blog occurred on July 21, 2002. Since then I have posted 3,418 posts about a wide variety of topics. I’ve viewed this blog as an outlet for some of my geekier interests: if you look through it, you’ll see some trends which ebbed and flowed: podcasting, programming (especially my Atari 2600 and checkers), mathematics, and of course my recent fascination with ham radio. You’ll also see a scattering of just links to blogs and news items that I found enjoyable. I made two conscious decisions: I wouldn’t monetize my blog with advertising, nor would I seek to become a “pundit”, a talking head whose job it is to render opinions from on high about what people should or should not be doing or thinking.

I’m mostly pretty happy with those basics, except for one thing: I don’t feel like I’ve helped develop a community of people who are interested in doing the same. My blog, as interesting as the subjects appear to be to me, doesn’t seem to be very inspiring to others, at least as far as I can judge based on comment and email feedback. (Yes, there has been some positive feedback, but not as much as I would like.)

I’m faced with two conclusions.

One is that I’m interested in stuff that nobody else is interested in. That’s certainly a possibility, a very strong possibility. But when I go to places like the Maker’s Faire, or even interact with some of my fellow geeks at work, it seems that there are people out there who are interested. If I extrapolate that to the entire country, there really must be thousands of people who are potentially interested in the kinds of things that I’m interested in. Heck, I found a website for a guy who is interested in two of my more eclectic interests (Egyptian hieroglyphics and checkers, of all things) so you people must be out there.

So, I’m left with my other conclusion: that I’m not reaching other people in a fashion which inspires them to respond and engage. I think that there are several possible reasons for that. I think there are basic questions about technology: am I doing all I can to maximize the effectiveness of what presence I do have on the web? Would more use of Facebook/Twitter be helpful? Or maybe YouTube/Vimeo/iTunes podcasting? Or is there room for a new kind of social media that works to generate the kind of community vision that I crave?

But frankly, I think the problem is more basic than that.

I’m basically one of those people who is mostly happy living inside my head. I have recognized and even relished in the idea that what I like is relatively rare and geeky, so I haven’t done a lot of work to actually build the real social bonds that connect me to other people who share my visions and interests. Thus, the problem isn’t at the root a technological one: it’s likely a problem of my own personality and behavior.

While I think that making any significant changes to my personality is probably out of the question, i do think that there are changes to my online behavior which could be achieved. Just as I am trying to convince myself that frequent exercise is good for me, I can try to “exercise” my own efforts in building social bonds based upon mutual interest and vision.

The other thing is to try to simply do more inspiring stuff, and figure out more dynamic ways to share it. Many of my software projects are still in the “not-ready-for-release” stage, but that’s kind of cowardly of me. If you read that I had developed some code that did something interesting, and that I’d release it someday, you’d be bored and uninspired. If however, I released it and let you play with it, that’s much more engaging. And if I showed how you could use it to do cool things (like, say, predict when the ISS is overhead and photograph it) that would be more inspiring. I should recognize that I have only a couple of minutes of your time at best to get you interested and thinking about the stuff I like, and that if I really want to get you on board, I’ll have to work harder at it. I guess that it boils down to a simple new thought:

Mark, expend some effort to engage your audience.

In conclusion, I’m interested in finding peers and mentors who have built the kind of online presence and community that I’m seeking. If you have a blog or podcast that you are proud of, or have used Facebook or Twitter to build an online community, or just have some reading on the subject that you have found useful, please drop me a note at brainwagon at gmail.com if you would be interested in talking to me about this kind of thing.

Thanks again.

WordPress Development Blog › 2.0.2 Security Release

There is a new security update for WordPress, which I’ve already installed without any serious mishap/problems. If you run WordPress, you might think about giving it an upgrade.

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Addendum: I’ve been having minor problems with the Dashboard in this release not displaying correctly.  I’m still trying to figure it out.