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Diagnostics everywhere!


For a long time, I’ve believed that diagnostic skills are incredibly important for software engineers, and often poorly understood.

The main evidence I see of poor diagnostic skills is on Stack Overflow:

  • “I have a program that does 10 things, and the output isn’t right. Please fix.”
  • “I can’t post a short but complete program, because my code is long.”
  • “I can’t post a short but complete program, because it’s company code.”

I want to tackle this as best I can. If I can move the needle on the average diagnostic skill level, that will probably have more impact on the world than any code I could write. So, this is my new mission, basically.

Expect to see:

  • Blog posts
  • Podcast interviews
  • Screencasts
  • Conference and user group talks

In particular, I’ve now resolved that when I’m facing a diagnostic situation that at least looks like it’ll be interesting, I’m going to start writing a blog post about it immediately. The blog post will be an honest list of the steps I’ve been through, including those that turned out not to be helpful, to act as case studies. In the process, I hope to improve my own skills (by reflecting on whether the blind alleys were avoidable) and provide examples for other developers to follow as well.

There’s a new “Diagnostics” category on my blog – everything will be there.

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10 hours ago
Newcastle, United Kingdom
1 day ago
West Grove, PA
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Let's Encrypt Everything


I'll admit I was late to the HTTPS party.

But post Snowden, and particularly after the result of the last election here in the US, it's clear that everything on the web should be encrypted by default.


  1. You have an unalienable right to privacy, both in the real world and online. And without HTTPS you have zero online privacy – from anyone else on your WiFi, from your network provider, from website operators, from large companies, from the government.

  2. The performance penalty of HTTPS is gone, in fact, HTTPS arguably performs better than HTTP on modern devices.

  3. Using HTTPS means nobody can tamper with the content in your web browser. This was a bit of an abstract concern five years ago, but these days, there are more and more instances of upstream providers actively mucking with the data that passes through their pipes. For example, if Comcast detects you have a copyright strike, they'll insert banners into your web contentall your web content! And that's what the good guy scenario looks like – or at least a corporation trying to follow the rules. Imagine what it looks like when someone, or some large company, decides the rules don't apply to them?

So, how do you as an end user "use" encryption on the web? Mostly, you lobby for the websites you use regularly to adopt it. And it's working. In the last year, the use of HTTPS by default on websites has doubled.

Browsers can help, too. By January 2017, Google Chrome will show this alert in the UI when a login or credit card form is displayed on an unencrypted connection:

Additionally, Google is throwing their considerable weight behind this effort by ranking non-encrypted websites lower in search results.

But there's another essential part required for encryption to work on any websites – the HTTPS certificate. Historically these certificates have been issued by certificate authorities, and they were at least $30 per year per website, sometimes hundreds of dollars per year. Without that required cash each year, without the SSL certificate that you must re-purchase every year in perpetuity – you can't encrypt anything.

That is, until Let's Encrypt arrived on the scene.

Let's Encrypt is a 501.3(c)(3) non-profit organization supported by the Linux Foundation. They've been in beta for about a year now, and to my knowledge they are the only reliable, official free source of SSL certificates that has ever existed.

However, because Let's Encrypt is a non-profit organization, not owned by any company that must make a profit from each SSL certificate they issue, they need our support:

As a company, we've donated a Discourse hosted support community, and a cash amount that represents how much we would have paid in a year to one of the existing for-profit certificate authorities to set up HTTPS for all the Discourse websites we host.

I urge you to do the same:

  • Estimate how much you would have paid for any free SSL certificates you obtained from Let's Encrypt, and please donate that amount to Let's Encrypt.

  • If you work for a large company, urge them to sponsor Let's Encrypt as a fundamental cornerstone of a safe web.

If you believe in an unalienable right to privacy on the Internet for every citizen in every nation, please support Let's Encrypt.

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267 days ago
Newcastle, United Kingdom
268 days ago
West Grove, PA
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Accountability for What You Say is Dangerous and That’s Okay

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[Note: I offered Maaret Pyhäjärvi the right to review this post and suggest edits to it before I published it. She declined.]

A few days ago I was keynoting at the New Testing Conference, in New York City, and I used a slide that has offended some people on Twitter. This blog post is intended to explore that and hopefully improve the chances that if you think I’m a bad guy, you are thinking that for the right reasons and not making a mistake. It’s never fun for me to be a part of something that brings pain to other people. I believe my actions were correct, yet still I am sorry that I caused Maaret hurt, and I will try to think of ways to confer better in the future.

Here’s the theme of this post: Getting up in front of the world to speak your mind is a dangerous process. You will be misunderstood, and that will feel icky. Whether or not you think of yourself as a leader, speaking at a conference IS an act of leadership, and leadership carries certain responsibilities.

I long ago learned to let go of the outcome when I speak in public. I throw the ideas out there, and I do that as an American Aging Overweight Left-Handed Atheist Married Father-And-Father-Figure Rough-Mannered Bearded Male Combative Aggressive Assertive High School Dropout Self-Confident Freedom-Loving Sometimes-Unpleasant-To-People-On-Twitter Intellectual. I know that my ideas will not be considered in a neutral context, but rather in the context of how people feel about all that. I accept that.  But, I have been popular and successful as a speaker in the testing world, so maybe, despite all the difficulties, enough of my message and intent gets through, overall.

What I can’t let go of is my responsibility to my audience and the community at large to speak the truth and to do so in a compassionate and reasonable way. Regardless of what anyone else does with our words, I believe we speakers need to think about how our actions help or harm others. I think a lot about this.

Let me clarify. I’m not saying it’s wrong to upset people or to have disagreement. We have several different culture wars (my reviewers said “do you have to say wars?”) going on in the software development and testing worlds right now, and they must continue or be resolved organically in the marketplace of ideas. What I’m saying is that anyone who speaks out publicly must try to be cognizant of what words do and accept the right of others to react.

Although I’m surprised and certainly annoyed by the dark interpretations some people are making of what I did, the burden of such feelings is what I took on when I first put myself forward as a public scold about testing and software engineering, a quarter century ago. My annoyance about being darkly interpreted is not your problem. Your problem, assuming you are reading this and are interested in the state of the testing craft, is to feel what you feel and think what you think, then react as best fits your conscience. Then I listen and try to debug the situation, including helping you debug yourself while I debug myself. This process drives the evolution of our communities. Jay Philips, Ash Coleman, Mike Talks, Ilari Henrik Aegerter, Keith Klain, Anna Royzman, Anne-Marie Charrett, David Greenlees, Aaron Hodder, Michael Bolton, and my own wife all approached me with reactions that helped me write this post. Some others approached me with reactions that weren’t as helpful, and that’s okay, too.

Leadership and The Right of Responding to Leaders

In my code of conduct, I don’t get to say “I’m not a leader.” I can say no one works for me and no one has elected me, but there is more to leadership than that. People with strong voices and ideas gain a certain amount of influence simply by virtue of being interesting. I made myself interesting, and some people want to hear what I have to say. But that comes with an implied condition that I behave reasonably. The community, over time negotiates what “reasonable” means. I am both a participant and a subject of those negotiations. I recommend that we hold each other accountable for our public, professional words. I accept accountability for mine. I insist that this is true for everyone else. Please join me in that insistence.

People who speak at conferences are tacitly asserting that they are thought leaders– that they deserve to influence the community. If that influence comes with a rule that “you can’t talk about me without my permission” it would have a chilling effect on progress. You can keep to yourself, of course; but if you exercise your power of speech in a public forum you cannot cry foul when someone responds to you. Please join me in my affirmation that we all have the right of response when a speaker takes the microphone to keynote at a conference.

Some people have pointed out that it’s not okay to talk back to performers in a comedy show or Broadway play. Okay. So is that what a conference is to you? I guess I believe that conferences should not be for show. Conferences are places for conferring. However, I can accept that some parts of a conference might be run like infomercials or circus acts. There could be a place for that.

The Slide

Here is the slide I used the other day:


Before I explain this slide, try to think what it might mean. What might its purposes be? That’s going to be difficult, without more information about the conference and the talks that happened there. Here are some things I imagine may be going through your mind:

  • There is someone whose name is Maaret who James thinks he’s different from.
  • He doesn’t trust nice people. Nice people are false. Is Maaret nice and therefore he doesn’t trust her, or does Maaret trust nice people and therefore James worries that she’s putting herself at risk?
  • Is James saying that niceness is always false? That’s seems wrong. I have been nice to people whom I genuinely adore.
  • Is he saying that it is sometimes false? I have smiled and shook hands with people I don’t respect, so, yes, niceness can be false. But not necessarily. Why didn’t he put qualifying language there?
  • He likes debate and he thinks that Maaret doesn’t? Maybe she just doesn’t like bad debate. Did she actually say she doesn’t like debate?
  • What if I don’t like debate, does that mean I’m not part of this community?
  • He thinks excellence requires attention and energy and she doesn’t?
  • Why is James picking on Maaret?

Look, if all I saw was this slide, I might be upset, too. So, whatever your impression is, I will explain the slide.

Like I said I was speaking at a conference in NYC. Also keynoting was Maaret Pyhäjärvi. We were both speaking about the testing role. I have some strong disagreements with Maaret about the social situation of testers. But as I watched her talk, I was a little surprised at how I agreed with the text and basic concepts of most of Maaret’s actual slides, and a lot of what she said. (I was surprised because Maaret and I have a history. We have clashed in person and on Twitter.) I was a bit worried that some of what I was going to say would seem like a rehash of what she just did, and I didn’t want to seem like I was papering over the serious differences between us. That’s why I decided to add a contrast slide to make sure our differences weren’t lost in the noise. This means a slide that highlights differences, instead of points of connection. There were already too many points of connection.

The slide was designed specifically:

  • for people to see who were in a specific room at a specific time.
  • for people who had just seen a talk by Maaret which established the basis of the contrast I was making.
  • about differences between two people who are both in the spotlight of public discourse.
  • to express views related to technical culture, not general social culture.
  • to highlight the difference between two talks for people who were about to see the second talk that might seem similar to the first talk.
  • for a situation where both I and Maaret were present in the room during the only time that this slide would ever be seen (unless someone tweeted it to people who would certainly not understand the context).
  • as talking points to accompany my live explanation (which is on video and I assume will be public, someday).
  • for a situation where I had invited anyone in the audience, including Maaret, to ask me questions or make challenges.

These people had just seen Maaret’s talk and were about to see mine. In the room, I explained the slide and took questions about it. Maaret herself spoke up about it, for which I publicly thanked her for doing so. It wasn’t something I was posting with no explanation or context. Nor was it part of the normal slides of my keynote.

Now I will address some specific issues that came up on Twitter:

1. On Naming Maaret

Maaret has expressed the belief that no one should name another person in their talk without getting their permission first. I vigorously oppose that notion. It’s completely contrary to the workings of a healthy society. If that principle is acceptable, then you must agree that there should be no free press. Instead, I would sayif you stand up and speak in the guise of an expert, then you must be personally accountable for what you say. You are fair game to be named and critiqued. And the weird thing is that Maaret herself, regardless of what she claims to believe, behaves according to my principle of freedom to call people out. She, herself, tweeted my slide and talked about me on Twitter without my permission. Of course, I think that is perfectly acceptable behavior, so I’m not complaining. But it does seem to illustrate that community discourse is more complicated than “be nice” or “never cause someone else trouble with your speech” or “don’t talk about people publicly unless they gave you permission.”

2. On Being Nice

Maaret had a slide in her talk about how we can be kind to each other even though we disagree. I remember her saying the word “nice” but she may have said “kind” and I translated that into “nice” because I believed that’s what she meant. I react to that because, as a person who believes in the importance of integrity and debate over getting along for the sake of appearances, I observe that exhortations to “be nice” or even to “be kind” are often used when people want to quash disturbing ideas and quash the people who offer them. “Be nice” is often code for “stop arguing.” If I stop arguing, much of my voice goes away. I’m not okay with that. No one who believes there is trouble in the world should be okay with that. Each of us gets to have a voice.

I make protests about things that matter to me, you make protests about things that matter to you.

I think we need a way of working together that encourages debate while fostering compassion for each other. I use the word compassion because I want to get away from ritualized command phrases like “be nice.” Compassion is a feeling that you cultivate, rather than a behavior that you conform to or simulate. Compassion is an antithesis of “Rules of Order” and other lists of commandments about courtesy. Compassion is real. Throughout my entire body of work you will find that I promote real craftsmanship over just following instructions. My concern about “niceness” is the same kind of thing.

Look at what I wrote: I said “I don’t trust nice people.” That’s a statement about my feelings and it is generally true, all things being equal. I said “I’m not nice.” Yet, I often behave in pleasant ways, so what did I mean? I meant I seek to behave authentically and compassionately, which looks like “nice” or “kind”, rather than to imagine what behavior would trick people into thinking I am “nice” when indeed I don’t like them. I’m saying people over process, folks.

I was actually not claiming that Maaret is untrustworthy because she is nice, and my words don’t say that. Rather, I was complaining about the implications of following Maaret’s dictum. I was offering an alternative: be authentic and compassionate, then “niceness” and acts of kindness will follow organically. Yes, I do have a worry that Maaret might say something nice to me and I’ll have to wonder “what does that mean? is she serious or just pretending?” Since I don’t want people to worry about whether I am being real, I just tell them “I’m not nice.” If I behave nicely it’s either because I feel genuine good will toward you or because I’m falling down on my responsibility to be honest with you. That second thing happens, but it’s a lapse. (I do try to stay out of rooms with people I don’t respect so that I am not forced to give them opinions they aren’t willing or able to process.)

I now see that my sentence “I want to be authentic and compassionate” could be seen as an independent statement connected to “how I differ from Maaret,” implying that I, unlike her, am authentic and compassionate. That was an errant construction and does not express my intent. The orange text on that line indicated my proposed policy, in the hope that I could persuade her to see it my way. It was not an attack on her. I apologize for that confusion.

3. Debate vs. Dialogue

Maaret had earlier said she doesn’t want debate, but rather dialogue. I have heard this from other Agilists and I find it disturbing. I believe this is code for “I want the freedom to push my ideas on other people without the burden of explaining or defending those ideas.” That’s appropriate for a brainstorming session, but at some point, the brainstorming is done and the judging begins. I believe debate is absolutely required for a healthy professional community. I’m guided in this by dialectical philosophy, the history of scientific progress, the history of civil rights (in fact, all of politics), and the modern adversarial justice system. Look around you. The world is full of heartfelt disagreement. Let’s deal with it. I helped create the culture of small invitational peer conferences in our industry which foster debate. We need those more than ever.

But if you don’t want to deal with it, that’s okay. All that means is that you accept that there is a wall between your friends and those other people whom you refuse to debate with. I will accept the walls if necessary but I would rather resolve the walls. That’s why I open myself and my ideas for debate in public forums.

Debate is not a process of sticking figurative needles into other people. Debate is the exchange of views with the goal of resolving our differences while being accountable for our words and actions. Debate is a learning process. I have occasionally heard from people I think are doing harm to the craft that they believe I debate for the purposes of hurting people instead of trying to find resolution. This is deeply insulting to me, and to anyone who takes his vocation seriously. What’s more, considering that these same people express the view that it’s important to be “nice,” it’s not even nice. Thus, they reveal themselves to be unable to follow their own values. I worry that “Dialogue not debate” is a slogan for just another power group trying to suppress its rivals. Beware the Niceness Gang.

I understand that debating with colleagues may not be fun. But I’m not doing it for fun. I’m doing it because it is my responsibility to build a respectable craft. All testing professionals share this responsibility. Debate serves another purpose, too, managing the boundaries between rival value systems. Through debate we may discover that we occupy completely different paradigms; schools of thought. Debate can’t bridge gaps between entirely different world views, and yet I have a right to my world view just as you have a right to yours.

Jay Philips said on Twitter:

I admire Jay. I called her and we had a satisfying conversation. I filled her in on the context and she advised me to write this post.

One thing that came up is something very important about debate: the status of ideas is not the only thing that gets modified when you debate someone; what also happens is an evolution of feelings.

Yes I think “I’m right.” I acted according to principles I think are eternal and essential to intellectual progress in society. I’m happy with those principles. But I also have compassion for the feelings of others, and those feelings may hold sway even though I may be technically right. For instance, Maaret tweeted my slide without my permission. That is copyright violation. She’s objectively “wrong” to have done that. But that is irrelevant.

[Note: Maaret points out that this is legal under the fair use doctrine. Of course, that is correct. I forgot about fair use. Of course, that doesn’t change the fact that though I may feel annoyed by her selective publishing of my work, that is irrelevant, because I support her option to do that. I don’t think it was wise or helpful for her to do that, but I wouldn’t seek to bar her from doing so. I believe in freedom to communicate, and I would like her to believe in that freedom, too]

I accept that she felt strongly about doing that, so I [would] choose to waive my rights. I feel that people who tweet my slides, in general, are doing a service for the community. So while I appreciate copyright law, I usually feel okay about my stuff getting tweeted.

I hope that Jay got the sense that I care about her feelings. If Maaret were willing to engage with me she would find that I care about her feelings, too. This does not mean she gets whatever she wants, but it’s a factor that influences my behavior. I did offer her the chance to help me edit this post, but again, she refused.

4. Focus and Energy

Maaret said that eliminating the testing role is a good thing. I worry it will lead to the collapse of craftsmanship. She has a slide that says “from tester to team member” which is a sentiment she has expressed on Twitter that led me to say that I no longer consider her a tester. She confirmed to me that I hurt her feelings by saying that, and indeed I felt bad saying it, except that it is an extremely relevant point. What does it mean to be a tester? This is important to debate. Maaret has confirmed publicly (when I asked a question about this during her talk) that she didn’t mean to denigrate testing by dismissing the value of a testing role on projects. But I don’t agree that we can have it both ways. The testing role, I believe, is a necessary prerequisite for maintaining a healthy testing craft. My key concern is the dilution of focus and energy that would otherwise go to improving the testing craft. This is lost when the role is lost.

This is not an attack on Maaret’s morality. I am worried she is promoting too much generalism for the good of the craft, and she is worried I am promoting too much specialism. This is a matter of professional judgment and perspective. It cannot be settled, I think, but it must be aired.

The Slide Should Not Have Been Tweeted But It’s Okay That It Was

I don’t know what Maaret was trying to accomplish by tweeting my slide out of context. Suffice it to say what is right there on my slide: I believe in authenticity and compassion. If she was acting out of authenticity and compassion then more power to her. But the slide cannot be understood in isolation. People who don’t know me, or who have any axe to grind about what I do, are going to cry “what a cruel man!” My friends contacted me to find out more information.

I want you to know that the slide was one part of a bigger picture that depicts my principled objection to several matters involving another thought leader. That bigger picture is: two talks, one room, all people present for it, a lot of oratory by me explaining the slide, as well as back and forth discussion with the audience. Yes, there were people in the room who didn’t like hearing what I had to say, but “don’t offend anyone, ever” is not a rule I can live by, and neither can you. After all, I’m offended by most of the talks I attend.

Although the slide should not have been tweeted, I accept that it was, and that doing so was within the bounds of acceptable behavior. As I announced at the beginning of my talk, I don’t need anyone to make a safe space for me. Just follow your conscience.

What About My Conscience?

  • My conscience is clean. I acted out of true conviction to discuss important matters. I used a style familiar to anyone who has ever seen a public debate, or read an opinion piece in the New York Times. I didn’t set out to hurt Maaret’s feelings and I don’t want her feelings to be hurt. I want her to engage in the debate about the future of the craft and be accountable for her ideas. I don’t agree that I was presuming too much in doing so.
  • Maaret tells me that my slide was “stupid and hurtful.” I believe she and I do not share certain fundamental values about conferring. I will no longer be conferring with her, until and unless those differences are resolved.
  • Compassion is important to me. I will continue to examine whether I am feeling and showing the compassion for my fellow humans that they are due. These conversations and debates I have with colleagues help me do that.
  • I agree that making a safe space for students is important. But industry consultants and pundits should be able to cope with the full spectrum, authentic, principled reactions by their peers. Leaders are held to a higher standard, and must be ready and willing to defend their ideas in public forums.
  • The reaction on Twitter gave me good information about a possible trend toward fragility in the Twitter-facing part of the testing world. There seems to be a significant group of people who prize complete safety over the value that comes from safety over confrontation. In the next conference I help arrange, I will set more explicit ground rules, rather than assuming people share something close to my own sense of what is reasonable to do and expect.
  • I will also start thinking, for each slide in my presentation: “What if this gets tweeted out of context?”

(Oh, and to those who compared me to Donald Trump… Can you even imagine him writing a post like this in response to criticism? BELIEVE ME, he wouldn’t.)

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291 days ago
Newcastle, United Kingdom
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All Is Simple Parts Interacting Simply

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In physics, I got a BS in ’81, a MS in ’84, and published two peer-reviewed journal articles in ’03 & ’06. I’m not tracking the latest developments in physics very closely, but what I’m about to tell you is very old standard physics that I’m quite sure hasn’t changed. Even so, it seems to be something many people just don’t get. So let me explain it.

There is nothing that we know of that isn’t described well by physics, and everythingthat physicists know of is well described as many simple parts interacting simply. Parts are localized in space, have interactions localized in time, and interactions effects don’t move in space faster than the speed of light. Simple parts have internal states that can be specified with just a few bits (or qubits), and each part only interacts directly with a few other parts close in space and time. Since each interaction is only between a few bits on a few sides, it must also be simple. Furthermore, all known interactions are mutual in the sense that the state on all sides is influenced by states of the other sides.

For example, ordinary field theories have a limited number of fields at each point in space-time, with each field having a limited number of degrees of freedom. Each field has a few simple interactions with other fields, and with its own space-time derivatives. With limited energy, this latter effect limits how fast a field changes in space and time.

As a second example, ordinary digital electronics is made mostly of simple logic units, each with only a few inputs, a few outputs, and a few bits of internal state. Typically: two inputs, one output, and zero or one bits of state. Interactions between logic units are via simple wires that force the voltage and current to be almost the same at matching ends.

As a third example, cellular automatons are often taken as a clear simple metaphor for typical physical systems. Each such automation has a discrete array of cells, each of which has a few possible states. At discrete time steps, the state of each cell is a simple standard function of the states of that cell and its neighbors at the last time step. The famous “game of life” uses a two dimensional array with one bit per cell.

This basic physics fact, that everything is made of simple parts interacting simply, implies that anything complex, able to represent many different possibilities, is made of many parts. And anything able to manage complex interaction relations is spread across time, constructed via many simple interactions built up over time. So if you look at a disk of a complex movie, you’ll find lots of tiny structures encoding bits. If you look at an organism that survives in a complex environment, you’ll find lots of tiny parts with many non-regular interactions.

Physicists have learned that we only we ever get empirical evidence about the state of things via their interactions with other things. When such interactions the state of one thing create correlations with the state of another, we can use that correlation, together with knowledge of one state, as evidence about the other state. If a feature or state doesn’t influence any interactions with familiar things, we could drop it from our model of the world and get all the same predictions. (Though we might include it anyway for simplicity, so that similar parts have similar features and states.)

Not only do we know that in general everything is made of simple parts interacting simply, for pretty much everything that happens here on Earth we know those parts and interactions in great precise detail. Yes there are still some areas of physics we don’t fully understand, but we also know that those uncertainties have almost nothing to say about ordinary events here on Earth. For humans and their immediate environments on Earth, we know exactly what are all the parts, what states they hold, and all of their simple interactions. Thermodynamics assures us that there can’t be a lot of hidden states around holding many bits that interact with familiar states.

Now it is true that when many simple parts are combined into complex arrangements, it can be very hard to calculate the detailed outcomes they produce. This isn’t because such outcomes aren’t implied by the math, but because it can be hard to calculate what math implies. When we can figure out quantities that are easier to calculate, as long as the parts and interactions we think are going on are in fact the only things going on, then we usually see those quantities just as calculated.

Now what I’ve said so far is usually accepted as uncontroversial, at least when applied to the usual parts of our world, such as rivers, cars, mountains laptops, or ants. But as soon as one claims that all this applies to human minds, suddenly it gets more controversial. People often state things like this:

I am sure that I’m not just a collection of physical parts interacting, because I’m aware that I feel. I know that physical parts interacting just aren’t the kinds of things that can feel by themselves. So even though I have a physical body made of parts, and there are close correlations between my feelings and the states of my body parts, there must be something more than that to me (and others like me). So there’s a deep mystery: what is this extra stuff, where does it arise, how does it change, and so on. We humans care mainly about feelings, not physical parts interacting; we want to know what out there feels so we can know what to care about.

But consider a key question: Does this other feeling stuff interact with the familiar parts of our world strongly and reliably enough to usually be the actual cause of humans making statements of feeling like this?

If yes, this is a remarkably strong interaction, making it quite surprising that physicists have missed it so far. So surprising in fact as to be frankly unbelievable. If this type of interaction were remotely as simple as all the interactions we know, then it should be quite measurable with existing equipment. Any interaction not so measurable would have be vastly more complex and context dependent than any we’ve ever seen or considered. Thus I’d bet heavily and confidently that no one will measure such an interaction.

But if no, if this interaction isn’t strong enough to explain human claims of feeling, then we have a remarkable coincidence to explain. Somehow this extra feeling stuff exists, and humans also have a tendency to say that it exists, but these happen for entirely independent reasons. The fact that feeling stuff exists isn’t causing people to claim it exists, they exist, nor vice versa. Instead humans have some sort of weird psychological quirk that causes them to make such statements, and they would make such claims even if feeling stuff didn’t exist. But if we have a good alternate explanation for why people tend to make such statements, what need do we have of the hypothesis that feeling stuff actually exists? Such a coincidence seems too remarkable to be believed.

Thus it seems hard to square a belief in this extra feeling stuff with standard physics in either cases, where feeling stuff does or does not have strong interactions with ordinary stuff. The obvious conclusion: extra feeling stuff just doesn’t exist.

Note that even if we are only complex arrangements of interacting parts, as social creatures it makes sense for us to care in a certain sense about each others’ “feelings.” Creatures like us maintain an internal “feeling” state that tracks how well things are going for us, with high-satisfied states when things are going well and and low-dissatisfied states when things are going badly. This internal state influences our behavior, and so social creatures around us want to try to infer this state, and to influence it. We may, for example, try to notice when our allies have a dissatisfied state and look for ways to help them to be more satisfied. Thus we care about others’ “feelings”, are wary of false indicators of them, and study behaviors in some detail to figure out what reliably indicates these internal states.

In the modern world we now encounter a wider range of creature-like things with feeling-related surface appearances. These include video game characters, movie characters, robots, statues, paintings, stuffed animals, and so on. And so it makes sense for us to apply our careful-study habits to ask which of these are “real” feelings, in the sense of being the those where it makes sense to apply our evolved feeling-related habits. But while it makes sense to be skeptical that any particular claimed feeling is “real” in this sense, it makes much less sense to apply this skepticism to “mere” physical systems. After all, as far as we know all familiar systems, and all the systems they interact with to any important degree, are mere physical systems.

If everything around us is explained by ordinary physics, then a detailed examination of the ordinary physics of familiar systems will eventually tells us everything there is to know about the causes and consequences of our feelings. It will say how many different feelings we are capable of, what outside factors influence them, and how our words and actions depend on them.

What more is or could be there to know about feelings than this? For example, you might ask: does a system have “feelings” if it has some of the same internal states as a human, but where those states have no dependence on outside factors and no influence on the world? But questions like this seem to me less about the world and more about what concepts are the most valuable to use in this space. While crude concepts served us well in the past, as we encounter a wider range of creature-like systems than before, we will need refine our concepts for this new world.

But, again, that seems to be more about what feelings concepts are useful in this new world, and much less about where feelings “really” are in the world. Physics call tell us all there is to say about that.

(This post is a followup to my prior poston Sean Carroll’s Big Picture.)

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311 days ago
Newcastle, United Kingdom
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Facebook Versus the Media

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Facebook found itself in the middle of another media controversy last week. Here’s the New York Times:

The image is iconic: A naked, 9-year-old girl fleeing napalm bombs during the Vietnam War, tears streaming down her face. The picture from 1972, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography, has since been used countless times to illustrate the horrors of modern warfare.

But for Facebook, the image of the girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, was one that violated its standards about nudity on the social network. So after a Norwegian author posted images about the terror of war with the photo to Facebook, the company removed it.

The move triggered a backlash over how Facebook was censoring images. When a Norwegian newspaper, Aftenposten, cried foul over the takedown of the picture, thousands of people globally responded on Friday with an act of virtual civil disobedience by posting the image of Ms. Phuc on their Facebook pages and, in some cases, daring the company to act. Hours after the pushback, Facebook reinstated the photo across its site.

This, like many of Facebook’s recent run-ins with the media, has been like watching an old couple fight: they are nominally talking about the same episode, but in reality both are so wrapped up in their own issues and grievances that they are talking past each other.

Facebook Owns Facebook.com

Start with the media. Aftenposten Editor-in-chief Espen Egil Hansen wrote an open-letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg that was, well, pretty amazing, and I’m not sure that’s a compliment:

Facebook has become a world-leading platform for spreading information, for debate and for social contact between persons. You have gained this position because you deserve it. But, dear Mark, you are the world’s most powerful editor. Even for a major player like Aftenposten, Facebook is hard to avoid. In fact we don’t really wish to avoid you, because you are offering us a great channel for distributing our content. We want to reach out with our journalism.

However, even though I am editor-in-chief of Norway’s largest newspaper, I have to realize that you are restricting my room for exercising my editorial responsibility. This is what you and your subordinates are doing in this case.

Actually, no, that is not what is happening at all. Aftenposten is not Facebook, and Facebook is not “Norway’s largest newspaper”. Accordingly, Facebook — and certainly not Mark Zuckerberg — did not take the photo down from Aftenposten.no. They did not block the print edition. They did not edit dear Espen. Rather, Facebook removed a post on Facebook.com, which Aftenposten does not own, and which Hansen admits in his own open letter is something freely offered to the newspaper, one that they take because it is “a great channel for distributing our content.”

Let me foreshadow what I will say later: Facebook screwed this up. But that doesn’t change the fact that Facebook.com is a private site, and while Aftenposten is more than happy to leverage Facebook for its own benefit that by no means suggests Aftenposten has a single iota of ownership over its page or anyone else’s.

The Freedom of the Internet

Unfortunately, Hansen’s letter gets worse:

The media have a responsibility to consider publication in every single case. This may be a heavy responsibility. Each editor must weigh the pros and cons. This right and duty, which all editors in the world have, should not be undermined by algorithms encoded in your office in California…

The least Facebook should do in order to be in harmony with its time is introduce geographically differentiated guidelines and rules for publication. Furthermore, Facebook should distinguish between editors and other Facebook-users. Editors cannot live with you, Mark, as a master editor.

I’ll be honest, this made me mad. Hansen oh-so-blithely presumes that he, simply by virtue of his job title, is entitled to special privileges on Facebook. But why, precisely, should that be the case? The entire premise of Facebook, indeed, the underpinning of the company’s success, is that it is a platform that can be used by every single person on earth. There are no gatekeepers, and certainly no outside editors. Demanding special treatment from Facebook because one controls a printing press is not only nonsensical it is downright antithetical to not just the premise of Facebook but the radical liberty afforded by the Internet. Hansen can write his open letter on aftenposten.no and I can say he’s being ridiculous on stratechery.com and there is not a damn thing anyone, including Mark Zuckerberg, can do about it.1

Make no mistake, I recognize the threats Facebook poses to discourse and politics; I’ve written about them it explicitly. There are very real concerns that people are not being exposed to news that makes them uncomfortable, and Hansen is right that the photo in question is an example of exactly why making people feel uncomfortable is so important.

But it should also not be forgotten that the prison of engagement-driving news that people are locking themselves in is one of their own making: no one is forced to rely on Facebook for news, just as Aftenposten isn’t required to post its news on Facebook. And on the flipside, the freedom and reach afforded by the Internet remain so significant that the editor-in-chief of a newspaper I had never previously read can force the CEO of one of the most valuable companies in the world to accede to his demands by rousing worldwide outrage.

These two realities are inescapably intertwined, and as a writer who almost certainly would have never been given an inch of space in Aftenposten, I’ll stick with the Internet.

Facebook is Not a Media Company

One more rant, while I’m on a roll: journalists everywhere are using this episode to again make the case that Facebook is a media company. This piece by Peter Kafka was written before this photo controversy but is an excellent case-in-point (and, sigh, it is another open letter):

Dear Mark, We get it. We understand why you don’t want to call Facebook a media company. Your investors don’t want to invest in a media company, they want to invest in a technology company. Your best-and-brightest engineers? They don’t want to work at a media company. And we’re not even going to mention Trending Topicgate here, because that would be rude.

But here’s the deal. When you gather people’s attention, and sell that attention to advertisers, guess what? You’re a media company. And you’re really good at it. Really, really good. Billions of dollars a quarter good.

Let’s be clear: Facebook could call themselves a selfie-stick company and their valuation wouldn’t change an iota. As Kafka notes later in the article Facebook gets all their content for free, which is a pretty big deal.

Indeed, I think one of the (many) reasons the media is so flummoxed with Facebook is that the company has stolen their business model and hugely improved on it. Remember, the entire reason why the media was so successful was because they made massive fixed cost investments in things like printing presses, delivery trucks, wireless spectrum, etc. that gave them monopolies or at worst oligopolies on local attention and thus advertising. The only fly flaw in the ointment was that actual content had to be created continuously, and that’s expensive.

Facebook, like all Internet companies, takes the leverage of fixed costs to an exponentially greater level and marries that with free content creation that is far more interesting to far more people than old media ever was, which naturally attracts advertisers. To put it in academic terms, the Internet has allowed Facebook to expand the efficient frontier of attention gathering and monetization, ruining most media companies’ business model.

In other words, had Kafka insisted that Facebook is an advertising company, just like media companies, I would nod in agreement. That advertising, though, doesn’t just run against journalism: it runs against baby pictures, small businesses, cooking videos and everything in between. Facebook may be everything to the media, but the media is one of many types of content on Facebook.

agreement; that, though, ruins his point.

In short, as long as Facebook doesn’t create content I think it’s a pretty big stretch to say they are a media company; it simply muddies the debate unnecessarily, and this dispute with Aftenposten is a perfect example of why being clear about the differences between a platform and a media company is important.

The Facebook-Media Disconnect

The disconnect in this debate reminds me of this picture:


Ignore the fact that Facebook owns a VR company; the point is this: Facebook is, for better or worse, running a product that is predicated on showing people exactly what they want to see, all the way down to the individual. And while there is absolutely editorial bias in any algorithm, the challenge is indeed a technical one being worked out at a scale few can fully comprehend.

That Norwegian editor-in-chief, meanwhile, is still living in a world in which he and other self-appointed gatekeepers controlled the projector for the front of the room, and the facts of this particular case aside, it is awfully hard to avoid the conclusion that he and the rest of the media feel entitled to individuals’ headsets.

Facebook’s Mistake

Still, the facts of this case do matter: first off, quite obviously this photo should have never been censored, even if the initial flagging was understandable. What is really concerning, though, was the way Facebook refused to back down, not only continuing to censor the photo but actually barring the journalist who originally posted it from the platform for three days. Yes, this was some random Facebook staffer in Hamburg, but that’s the exact problem! No one at Facebook’s headquarters seems to care about this stuff unless it turns into a crisis, which means crises said crisis are only going to continue with potentially unwanted effects.

The truth is that Facebook may not be a media company, but users do read a lot of news there; by extension, the company may not have a monopoly in news distribution, but the impact of so many self-selecting Facebook as their primary news source has significant effects on society. And, as I’ve noted repeatedly, society and its representatives may very well strike back; this sort of stupidity via apathy will only hasten the reckoning.2

  1. It should be noted that this is exactly why the Peter Thiel-Gawker episode was so concerning.
  2. And, I’d add, this is exactly why I think Facebook should have distanced itself from Thiel themselves from Thiel
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338 days ago
Newcastle, United Kingdom
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Instagram to third-party developers: drop dead

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I’M pretty much done with Instagram. I never loved it, but it’s where most of my friends looked for my photos, so I made peace with it as a platform—and continued to use poor, old, widely unloved Flickr for more serious photo sharing. Now, though, for all I care, Instagram can get bent.

There’s a lot you can’t do with Instagram natively, but clever third-party programmers have made the platform useful and enjoyable for people who wanted more. And now, that’s over.

Instagram lowers the boom

On June 1, Instagram severely restricted what any third-party Instagram application can do. Not only can third-party apps no longer provide the features Instagram’s API supports but Instagram itself doesn’t offer; they can’t even compete with the restricted feature set Instagram natively provides.

The change in rules applies to all Instagram apps, on every mobile and desktop platform you can think of. Among the new restrictions:

  • Third-party apps can no longer display the Instagram feed.
  • They can no longer display “popular.”
  • They can’t show the follows or followers of any user profile.
  • Or let you download images.
  • Or let you like or comment on several images at once.
  • Or let you block tags and users of your choosing.

Most users didn’t need these features to enjoy Instagram, but they made it a far richer program for those who did. Nor does it look like Instagram intends to provide the functions it has just prevented the third-party apps from offering. The old Twitter gambit—learn from third-party apps; change your own offerings to match theirs; then change your API—looks positively user- and business-friendly by comparison. (More on the Twitter comparison in a moment.)

Instagram: success through limitation

Now, I have no problem with Instagram offering a limited feature set. Most great apps reach mass appeal precisely by focusing on a restricted feature set, designed for one or two use cases. And clearly Instagram knows how to reach mass appeal.

Instagram’s lack of feature depth has not prevented it from serving its core base of teenage celebrity photo followers. It doesn’t prevent entertainers and brands from using the platform as a publicity and marketing vehicle. It doesn’t stop amateur swimsuit models and photographers from building fan bases on the fringe of mainstream use. Those are the users and use cases Instagram was built to serve, and it serves them well. Its lack of additional features has never hurt it with these users, and its decision to kill off third-party apps shouldn’t cost Instagram a single customer from among the target user types I’ve just identified.

But it bugs me enough to make me walk away.

There’s two things here: one, the functionality Instagram has taken away mattered to me as a user. And two, I don’t like what this giant, ludicrously successful company just did to a bunch of small companies run by independent developers. I mean, it’s not like these third-party companies stole the API from Instagram. Instagram offered it—and for the reason every successful product does: to let other companies extend its capabilities and increase its passionate fan base.

Makes Twitter look like sweethearts

Twitter, again, is the perfect example. In 2006, it began building a following among people like you and me, while offering a very limited feature set. In the next few years, it extended its functionality by learning from its users and by monitoring the innovations pioneered by third-party products like Twitterific, Tweetbot, TweetDeck, and Hootsuite—innovations that made Twitter more popular and more essential to marketers, journalists, and other professional users. Eventually Twitter bought one of the third-party apps and incorporated its features (along with features developed by other third-party apps) into its core product.

Today, with Twitter’s offerings more robust as a consequence of this third-party development history, there’s arguably less need for some third-party Twitter apps. That is to say, even power users can have pretty feature-rich Twitter experiences while using Twitter’s native app or its website. Nonetheless, the third-party apps still exist, still offer experiences Twitter doesn’t, and still earn revenue for their designers and developers.

As an extremely active Twitter user for personal and business reasons, I sometimes find Twitter’s website or native app sufficient to my needs; and at other times, I need the power a third-party app provides. I know that Twitter hasn’t always made it easy for third-party developers—and I was personally chagrined when significant changes to Twitter’s API killed a little free product a design conference I co-founded built strictly for the pleasure of our attendees. But, Twitter didn’t murder its third-party ecosystem, and it didn’t obliterate features that matter to secondary but passionate users.

And Instagram just did.

Goodbye to all that

Instagram certainly won’t miss me, and its decision makers won’t read this. Nor, if they read it, would they care. So this is about me. And a slightly sick feeling in my stomach.

Not because I even really need those extra Instagram features. Flickr, while it yet lives, provides me with far richer layers of experience and capability than even the most tricked-out third-party Instagram app could dream of. I always used Instagram under protest, as a poor cousin. I used it because people were there, not because I liked it. I like Flickr, even though posting my photos there is kind of like leaving flowers at the grave of someone whose name I’ve forgotten.

No, I feel queasy because I can’t decide whether Instagram is just a bully that decided to beat up the small fry independent developers, or (more likely) a clumsy, drunken giant that doesn’t feel the bodies squashing under its feet.

And we thought Instagram was over when they changed the logo last month.

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428 days ago
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