Archive for June, 2019

Advice for new bicycle commuters

Photo of my bike and yellow backpack

I started biking to work last summer, around 8-10 miles per day. Overall it’s been a big boon to my health – I’ve lost weight, I feel happier, and I have a new hobby to geek out over. But there are some lessons I wish I had learned earlier, so in this post I’m going to offer some advice to new cyclists.

Note: I’m not a doctor, a physical therapist, or even a big expert on cycling. So take my advice with a grain of salt.

Gear

You don’t need a lot of expensive gear to be a bike commuter. I used a 20-year-old hand-me-down mountain bike for my first few months, before I decided I was serious enough to want an upgrade.

The most important thing is safety: flashing lights, bright colors. If you’re going to be biking alongside traffic, you want to be visible in all conditions: daytime, nighttime, dusk, etc. If you don’t have a brightly-colored backpack, get a backpack cover that’s bright yellow with reflective strips. As a bonus, it will keep your backpack dry.

The second most important thing is comfort. I really like the dorky bike shorts with padding on bottom, because they reduce saddle sores, but you can also just use regular gym shorts. You don’t need special bike shoes, but you may want to use a different pair than you wear throughout the day, because they will get sweaty and stinky. In the winter, make sure to have gloves, a scarf, and a hat that will fit under your helmet.

Safety

I’ll say it again: flashing lights, bright colors. Some cars will treat you with respect, but a lot of drivers are just distracted or lazy and won’t see you coming. Deck yourself out like the yellow Power Ranger, and even then don’t assume that cars will see you.

Traditionally there are hand sigals for left turns and right turns. I don’t use the “bent elbow” left-hand signal for right turns, because I assume that no driver has seen that signal since the 1930’s. You’re better off just pointing with your right hand.

If you’re on a road without a bike lane, or if there’s barely any shoulder, then try to make it clear that you don’t want to be passed. Otherwise if you keep too far to the right, then drivers will take it as an invitation to pass you, even if you’re just inches away from their rearview mirror. Drive in the middle of the lane if you have to. Better to slow down someone’s commute than to be roadkill.

Look behind you when you merge left. Practice it if it’s hard to ride a straight line while doing so. I prefer this to using a rearview mirror, because it makes it really obvious to drivers that I’m craning my neck and so they should watch my movement.

If you can alter your route to include more dedicated bike paths and bike trails, then do it. Adding a few extra minutes to your commute is worth the peace of mind. Plus, you’re trying to get some exercise, right?

A bike path in the woods

Health

Biking has a lot of health hazards, but I’m just going to talk about the ones that affected me.

If you get drop bars, make sure you’re using them correctly. I made the mistake of over-using the lower position (“I’m going so fast! I’m a real cyclist now!”), and it really did a number on my wrists. I ended up with a lot of chronic wrist pain until I learned to do it right. It’s better now, but I can’t do push-ups anymore.

Basic advice: use the middle “Atari joystick” position for 90% of your ride, use the upper position on uphills (to lean back and get bigger lungfuls of air), and only use the lower position on downhills, when you want more control over your brakes and a bit more speed. Try to work your core muscles so you’re not putting weight on your wrists, and switch up your position occasionally.

Get a bike fitting. Yes, it can be expensive (mine ran $150), but it’s way cheaper than physical therapy. They’ll adjust your saddle height, your handlebar position, and everything else for maximum comfort. This can prevent all sorts of back and wrist pain. I wish I had done it earlier.

Have fun

Keep at it. Drink lots of water. Don’t feel bad when you get passed by 60 year-old dudes with gray beards – instead, think about how someday you could be that silverfox!

The other cyclists you see on the road are, statistically speaking, likely to be more hardcore than you. They probably spend a lot more time cycling – hence why you see them. So don’t feel bad about getting passed.

If there’s a particularly nasty uphill on your route, just think to yourself, “It gets a little easier every day.” Because the truth is, it does! Pretty soon you’ll be shaving time off your commute, and you may even find that it’s faster than other modes of transportation. (For me, cycling actually beats the bus, especially in bad traffic.)

So that’s it for my newbie cycling advice. Cycling is fun, it’s good for your health, and it’s good for the environment. Plus, the more you normalize it, the more you encourage other people to brave the car traffic and try cycling.

Mid-2019 book review

Photo of books on a desk

The news from this year’s book review is that I have belatedly decided I’m a fantasy fan. Even though I had read The Lord of the Rings as a teenager and the entire Song of Ice and Fire series (including the “Dunk and Egg” prequels) in my 20s, I still somehow thought of myself as “above” the glossy paperbacks with their scowling wizards and soaring pegasi. Well, the veil of self-delusion has lifted. Bring on the pegasi.

The other news is that I’m breaking 2019’s book review into two posts. There are just too many books to cover. (Famous last words! My reading velocity is going down as the summer starts to heat up.)

Quick links

Fiction

Non-fiction

Fiction

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

A haunting, beautiful book. I’d never considered myself a big fantasy fan, but somehow this one really stuck with me. I decided to read it because of this Atlantic article, and I’m glad I did.

I think what sets this one apart is that, while books like Harry Potter or the Narnia series are about childhood and its relationship with fantasy, The Last Unicorn is about growing up and growing away from fantasy. In the book, people have forgotten about unicorns or can’t see their horns. Some of them look upon the unicorn and start crying even if they don’t know why.

The book is ultimately about loss – loss of childhood, loss of innocence, loss of childish fantasies – as well as regret. It’s a very profound and moving book. Oh, and the author has a real gift for language; the book is filled with beautiful poetry to paint its fantasy world. Anyway, read it.

The Magicians Trilogy by Lev Grossman

I decided after reading The Last Unicorn that I should start taking fantasy books a bit more seriously. So I picked up The Magicians, and quickly devoured all three books in the trilogy. The whole series is great, although for slightly different reasons than Unicorn.

At first glance, Magicians comes across as a mash-up between Harry Potter and Narnia, but with some decidedly adult elements thrown in. At times I burst out laughing at the incongruity between the magical situations that the characters found themselves in and their wry commentary on it. These are fantasy novels for people who think fantasy novels are a bit silly.

In the end, though, I think Magicians is actually closest in theme and tone to The Dark Tower by Stephen King. It has the same sense of taking old fables and tropes and turning them into something gritty and believable. It’s a fantasy world seen through a dark, ironic lens. But it’s also a great piece of storytelling. Well worth the read.

On the Beach by Nevil Shute

I needed one last piece of post-apocalyptic fiction for the road, before switching over to the wizards and unicorns.

This one tells a good story, although ultimately I don’t find its depiction of a world waiting to die very believable. I just find it hard to imagine that, in the face of a nuclear dust-cloud descending inexorably towards Australia, that an entire continent would decide to go the “stiff upper lip” route and carry on as usual, pretending as if Armageddon wasn’t on its way.

Societal breakdown and anarchy seem more likely to me, although I guess that might be hindsight talking. This book was written in 1957, well before post-apocalyptic fiction had really settled into its groove and the Mad Max-style mohawked warlords had become staples of the genre. So it gets points for trying – I’m sure this book spooked a lot of people back in the days when fallout shelters and “duck and cover” drills were still a thing.

Radicalized by Cory Doctorow

I loved this book. I’ve been reading Cory Doctorow’s blog posts for years, and I’m surprised at what an effective storyteller he is. Think Black Mirror, but funnier and less bleak.

The two short stories that stood out the most to me were the first – about a toaster oven that refuses to toast “unlicensed” bread – and the third – about cancer survivors radicalized by an online forum.

The first story in particular feels plausible in a disturbing way, and it cuts to the core of some of the concerns I’ve expressed about the ways that technology can be used to take more power away from those who are already powerless. For instance, consider this (true) story about renters in Brooklyn who are unable to stop their landlord from installing face-recognizing cameras. This story shows that Doctorow’s DRM toaster isn’t so much a vision of the future as it is an extrapolation of present trends. Which is what good science fiction is all about.

Nonfiction

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

A central fact about eating meat is that it’s much easier if you forget where it comes from. With this book I forced myself to take a hard look at where it comes from, and I found the results to be disturbing and appalling.

I don’t think it’s unnatural for humans to eat meat (my incisors are proof of that), but I do think that the modern factory farming system is immoral. It’s a form of industrial cruelty, systematized and magnified on a monstrous scale. Anyone who has owned a pet wouldn’t want it to experience even one minute of what these animals have to suffer every day of their lives.

If humans still did animal husbandry the old-fashioned way, on small-scale farms where the animals could live more-or-less decent lives, then I wouldn’t have a problem with eating animal products. What bothers me isn’t the way they die – it’s the way they live. Reading about the lives of egg-laying chickens and pigs in factory farms activates all my moral instincts and says in no uncertain terms, This is wrong. In fact, I think most meat-eaters would consider it wrong too, which is why they try to push it out of their minds.

I’d love to say that, after reading this book, I went fully vegan and never looked back. The truth is that I gave it a shot for a few weeks, found it too difficult, and then settled into a quasi-vegetarian/pescetarian thing, which is what I’ve been doing for the past decade or so anyway.

The main difference is that I have a better sense now of what kinds of foods actually reduce animal suffering. For instance: less dairy, more wild-caught fish. (I know; it’s surprising. Read the book.)

My relationship with food is still complicated, but at least this book has brought some facts and numbers to inform my decisions.

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells

I’ll admit: as recently as 2010, I probably would have described myself as a “climate change skeptic.” Not because I doubted the science (the consensus was clear at this point) but because I questioned whether the economic cost of combating climate change would outweigh the benefits of preventing it. India and China were rapidly developing – who was I to say that poor people in Kerala should live without air conditioning?

Like most everybody else, though, I’ve come around to the massive challenge posed by climate change. Living through two summer forest fires in Seattle, where people wore protective masks and the sky looked like a hazy Martian sunset, certainly helped change my mind. As did this book.

Before The Uninhabitable Earth I had also started reading Carbon Ideologies by William T. Vollmann. They’re good books, but honestly they’re so long and dense and meandering that it’s hard to recommend them to anyone but the convinced climate activist. If you’re really interested in the physics, the numbers, and the nitty-gritty, then these books are for you.

Wallace-Wells’s book is different. It’s short, it’s punchy, and it encourages you to actually envision a world after global warming, and to let it hit you at a gut level. I imagine a book like this will inspire some great science fiction (cli-fi?), which might do more to get people to care about climate change than all the facts and figures in the world. So for that, it’s a book I strongly recommend.

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

Kolbert’s book is another eye-opening look at humanity’s relationship with nature and where we fit into the grand arc of geologic history. I’ve had a longstanding interest in paleontology, and I find Kolbert’s defense of the Anthropocene (which is what this book amounts to) very compelling.

One thing that always puzzled me about climate change was why one or two degrees of average temperature, or a few percentage points of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, would really be such a catastrophic event for humanity. Wasn’t the carbon dioxide level orders of magnitude higher during the Mesozoic? Why would a few percentage points be our death knell?

What this book makes clear is that it’s not so much about the absolute numbers, but instead the rate of change. Earth has adapted to rapid changes before (such as an unlucky rendez-vous with an asteroid), but the recovery always takes a long time. Like, “longer than the human species has been around” long. Are we willing to trade 300 years of indulgence in fossil fuels for hundreds of thousands of years of getting the Earth’s ecosystem back on track?

If Wallace-Wells’s book hasn’t already bummed you out too much, then you should definitely pick this one up. It certainly helps put things in (geologic) perspective.

How to de-Google your Android phone

First, download a ROM from this Russian message board. It’s okay! You can totally verify the GPG signature. Allow yourself 30 minutes to remember how GPG works, then verify that forum poster LeetAndrej420 has indeed signed the file.

Next, root your Android phone. You will need to hold the volume-up and power buttons for ten seconds, then unplug from USB, then reboot a few times after you mess it up, then give up and download the Android dev tools.

After you figure out the Android adb and fastboot commands, you should see a friendly UI with green Courier text on a black background. Press the button that says, “I void my warranty and completely exonerate the OEM in the likely event that I am actually pwning myself by installing random software from the internet onto a tracking device I carry in my pocket every day.” But it’s okay. You trust Andrej, right?

Next you will need to install the “recovery” tool. Despite the name, this is actually the best way to brick your device. Luckily it is incredibly feature-rich, boasting 12 buttons on the home screen, including an “Advanced” button containing more buttons. These buttons will invite you to do things like “clear the Dalvik/ART cache,” which you totally know what that means.

When you download the recovery tool, make sure you get the right version for your phone! Of course, it’s not named after your phone’s brand name, but rather a cheeky internal name chosen by the OEM, like “bacon”, “cheeseburger”, or “mahimahi”. The professionalism on display from all parties should fill you with confidence.

You will download the recovery tool from a site called SickWarez.biz. Use GPG to ensure that it’s signed by Andrej.

Once downloaded, go into recovery mode and install the ROM, being careful to press the one correct button out of 12, like a game of Minesweeper that will brick your phone if you lose. This will also factory-reset your device, which is fine because all your photos and contacts are backed up to your Google account… ah, right. You’ll want to do something about that.

Assuming you have successfully installed the ROM without turning your phone into a $700 doorstop, you can now install apps. Thankfully there is F-Droid, which hosts all your favorite open-source apps. Wait, your favorite apps aren’t open-source? Well, at least it has Signal. Wait, it doesn’t have Signal?

Once you’ve installed the Yalp Store, which sideloads apps from Google Play in a way that may or may not be totally illegal and will get blocked by Google once they read this blog post and realize that it exists, you can now download some actually useful apps.

Thankfully, though, your personal data will be safe and secure from third-party developers, because these apps will not work. Be prepared for error messages like, “Please install Google Maps,” “Google Play Services required,” or “What kind of sicko has a Google phone without Google? What is wrong with you?”

After all this ceremony, you can now relax and enjoy your Google-free Android device. Note, though, that weather widgets, GPS, push notifications, and the majority of Android apps you rely on will not work. That said, there are some great note-taking apps! Plus SMS will still work. Good old SMS.

So now that you’ve successfully turned your $700 Android device into a glorified $30 Nokia flip phone, which may or may not be siphoning your passwords to a Ukrainian teenager, you can finally have a Google-free smartphone experience. Or you could just buy an iPhone.

One year of Pinafore

Screenshot of Pinafore showing a compose input

Pinafore is a standalone web client for Mastodon, which recently hit version 1.9.0. Here are some notable new features:

It’s been about a year since I first launched Pinafore. So I’d like to reflect on where the project came from, and where I hope to take it.

Background

In 2017, I was in a funk. I had stopped contributing to the PouchDB project largely due to burnout, and for various reasons I eventually left my job at Microsoft. In the meantime, I had become enamored of Mastodon and even contributed to it, but I was feeling restless and looking for a new project.

The Mastodon codebase is extremely well-written. I’m convinced that Eugen Rochko is some kind of savant. However, I never took much of a liking to React, and I found it difficult to fix some fundamental problems in the Mastodon UI, such as offline support or the occasionally jerky scrolling. I also really missed the single-column layout of Twitter (I was never a Tweetdeck fan).

So the idea came to me to create my own Mastodon web client. I had been working on web sites for years, but aside from some small prototypes, I had never built an entire web app by myself. This was an opportunity to test some of my ideas about how a web app “should” be, leveraging my experience in web performance and standards. Also, I wanted to teach myself about accessibility, which I had never really studied before.

I knew I wanted to use Svelte, because I agreed with Rich Harris and Tom Dale that JavaScript frameworks should focus less on being runtime APIs and more on being compilers. Incidentally, I was at the same talk by Jed Schmitt that Rich mentions in this video, and it blew my mind as much as it blew his. (The difference between Rich and me is that he actually went off and built a whole framework based on it!)

I started working on Pinafore at the end of December 2017, and released it in April 2018. So after 18 months of development, I’d like to consider where Pinafore has done well and where it can improve.

Success metrics

Pinafore doesn’t have any trackers on it, so I don’t know how many people are using it. Sure, I could use a privacy-respecting tracker like Fathom, but the Mastodon community is pretty allergic to any kind of tracking, so I’ve been hesitant to add it. In any case, I don’t really care, because I would work on Pinafore regardless of how many people are using it.

However, I do get a trickle of questions and bug reports about Pinafore, and the #Pinafore hashtag is pretty active. I’ve also heard from several folks that it’s their preferred Mastodon interface. The reasons they give are usually one of the following:

  • Accessibility: I’ve focused a lot on making Pinafore work well with keyboard navigation and screen readers. (Marco Zehe‘s guidance really helped!)
  • Design: the single-column layout of Pinafore is a key differentiator with the Mastodon frontend (although not for long).
  • Instance-switching: people who juggle multiple accounts on different instances don’t necessarily want one browser tab for each.

My favorite user testimonial, though, is from my wife. She told me, “I like Pinafore because it never loses my place in the timeline.” (Much of my motivation for working on Pinafore can be credited to “wife-driven development” – I like making her happy!)

So this confirms that I’ve achieved at least some of the goals from the Pinafore introductory blog post. Although notably, offline support is rarely mentioned, but I’ll get to that later.

Collaboration

Pinafore has also benefited from a lot of community contributions. I’d like to specifically thank:

And of course everyone else who contributed. Thank you so much!

There are some challenges with building a dev community around Pinafore. The app is implemented using Svelte v2 and Sapper, which unfortunately causes two downsides in terms of onboarding: 1) Svelte isn’t a very well-known framework, and 2) Svelte v2 is incompatible with Svelte v3, and there’s no upgrade path currently.

I’ll have to continue grappling with these challenges, but for now I’m very satisfied with Svelte v2. It’s fast, lightweight, and does everything I need it to. So I’m not in a big hurry to upgrade.

And oh yeah: Svelte really is lightweight. Pinafore only loads 32KB of compressed JavaScript for the landing page, and 137KB for the Home timeline. The total size of all JS assets is under 300KB compressed (<1MB raw). It gets a perfect 100 score from Lighthouse.

Screenshot of Lighthouse showing perfect 100 score in all categories, including Performance, Accessibility, Best Practices, and SEO

If you didn’t think I was going to brag about web perf vanity metrics, then you don’t know me very well.

Future plans

My first goal with Pinafore is completeness. Even though I’ve been working on it for over a year, there are still plenty of missing features compared to the Mastodon frontend. And although the gap has been narrowing, Mastodon itself hasn’t stopped innovating, so there’s always new stuff to add. (Polls! Blurhash! Keybase! Does Eugen ever sleep?)

Beyond that, I’d like to start focusing on features that make Pinafore a more pleasant social media experience. One of the virtues of decentralized social media is that we can experiment with features that give people control over their social media experience, even if it hampers addictiveness or growth. To that end, I’ve added a set of wellness features, inspired by Tristan Harris’s Center for Humane Technology. I’ll probably tweak and expand these features as feedback rolls in.

I’d also like to improve offline support. Even though Pinafore does have an offline mode, and even though it uses a Service Worker to cache static assets, it’s not very offline-first. Instead, it uses offline storage more as a fallback for when the network fails, rather than as the primary source of truth.

Given my background working on offline-first technology and advocating for it, I find this a bit disappointing. But it turns out that it’s really difficult to implement an offline-first social media UI. How do you deal with offline writes? How do you handle the gap between fresh content and stale content within the same timeline? These are not easy questions, and for the most part I’ve punted on them. But Pinafore can do better.

Conclusion

Pinafore is a passion project for me. It gives me something interesting to do on weekends and evenings, and it teaches me a lot about how the web platform works.

I also see Pinafore as an opportunity to provide more options to the Mastodon community, and to prove that you don’t have to treat Eugen as a gatekeeper for every minor UI tweak you’d like to see in Mastodon. Mastodon is decentralized; let’s decentralize the interface!

I have every intention to keep working on Pinafore, and I’m curious to know where you think it should go next.