homage for the holidays Posts


Homage for the Holidays: Pobal - Twitter Link Aggregation

by phildini on December 16, 2014


I think this week's Homage for the Holidays solidifies my status in the Andy Baio fanclub. My card is in the mail, I'm sure.

Not too long after XOXO, I saw a link on Andy's twitter to this site called BELONG. I wasn't sure what I was looking at, at first. It looked like collection of interesting links pulled from twitter and aggregated. I got the impression that it was links from people Andy follows, but I've never really known anything about how it was constructed until I was researching this blog post. (The most Andy seems to have talked about it is in this Product Hunt listing.) BELONG is a collection of interesting things shared by people Andy thinks are themselves interesting.

Let's talk about what it does, or at least does for me.

BELONG shows me a set of viewpoints, lets me peek into world views that I'm not sure how else I would've been exposed to. Product announcements, interesting articles, discussions on race and class and gender and equality - BELONG mixes all of these into a half-daily-ish digest that serves me better than any 'social news' site I've seen. I've been turned off Reddit almost completely this year, the Hackernews echo chamber is wearing thin in some places, and once a week is about all I can deal with my Facebook feed. Yet I check my twitter, and BELONG, multiple times a day.

I began to wonder what my own twitter feed would look like if it were given the same treatment as BELONG, so I built one. It's called POBAL ( an Irish word for community) and you can find mine under my pebble.ink account.

Let's talk for a brief moment about what POBAL is, starting with some techno-babble. Feel free to skip to the next paragraph for a tl;dr. POBAL is a python script, a shell script, an html template, and a cron job. The POBAL script, triggered to run every hour by cron, pulls tweets from my twitter feed, figures out which ones have links, fetches the titles for the pages being linked to, and renders a nice list to html. The links are (currently) weighted by one-half the number of favorites plus the number of retweets. The algorithm may change as I play with it more. All of the code, minus the one line of cron, lives in the POBAL github.

So: POBAL is a collection of interesting links from my twitter.

You're welcome to POBAL it as you see fit. If you'd like to use this but don't want to do the setup, I'm hoping to get POBAL to a point this week where others can have their own easily. You're welcome to ask me for help, and I will lovingly take feedback (my design sense is probably atrocious, and the logo was generated from a Python art program). Pull requests also welcomed.

This is in many ways the project that really inspired Homage for the Holidays, and the one that I will probably use the most. There's something indescribable about seeing what your network is sharing with you. You begin to get a sense of the caliber of people you follow, what your network cares about, and by extension what you care about. I've been using POBAL for about 24 hours, and it's already prompted me to take a good hard look at who I'm following, and the quality of what they're adding to my life. I've followed some others, and unfollowed some dead weight (mostly corporate twitter accounts).

But the other thing about seeing all the best links from your twitter listed out is that they get harder to ignore. Social media isn't really ephemeral, in that nothing ever actually dies, but the way we consume it often is. Pulling the materials being shared out of the stream-of-consciousness context forces you to look at them more critically, to evaluate what normally drifts past your eyeballs. In the best case, it exposes you to thoughts that make you and those around you better human beings.

POBAL is not BELONG. The code is different, the algorithm is different, the design is different (way worse, most likely) but the spirit of gathering news from your network how you want is there. That makes it a decent homage, I think. If I'm feeling grandiose, BELONG is a facet of the new oral tradition we call social media, of which POBAL is an imperfect mirror. If I'm being more realistic, POBAL was just fun to build and a kick to use.

Hope you enjoy.


Homage for the Holidays: Pebble.Ink

by phildini on December 9, 2014


I'll admit, the next Homage for the Holidays post is kissing the line between "homage" and "abject copy".

Here's the backstory. A couple weeks after XOXO 2014, Internet's Paul Ford started a project called tilde.club. You should go read the original post about the project, but here's a quick tl;dr: Tilde.club is a delicious piece of nostalgia from the beginning of the world wide web. Every member gets shell access, email to other members, and small piece of web real estate.

I feel like "nostalgia" may not be the right word to describe tilde.club, because that word has become a little overloaded. The explosion of pixel-art games and the social conservative rhetoric of a return to simpler times has added a context to "nostalgia" that can leave a bad taste in the mouth. This is a little unfortunate, because things that are older are not necessarily bad. (see above re: pixel-art. Some fabulous examples there.)

A better word might be "ownership". Being a member of tilde.club means you have a little slice of the web that is yours, you can put whatever you want there, make it look however you like. While owning a chunk of the web may sound like no big deal, and in fact I would wager that most tilde.club members have their own dedicated web presence elsewhere, there's a fundamental difference.

Having your own space on the web, on a server you own or rent with your own domain name, is like having a massive plot of land a few hours outside of town. It's yours, you can do whatever you want with it, but you have to push people to come over and visit. Having a space in tilde.club is like leasing an apartment in the trendy new complex on the town square. You can still do almost anything you want with it, but your neighbors are all in shouting distance, they're probably really friendly, and you can see what their places look like as well. And, because the place is run by Internet's Paul Ford, a lot of people are always dropping by to visit.

That's the setup, here's the homage. I applied, and did not get into, tilde.club. This mildly bummed me out a bit, until I realized that I possessed the materials to build my own. So I did. I spun up the cheapest Digital Ocean box that they make, installed apache with user directories turned on, and opened it up to friends. It's called Pebble.Ink

Now, I want to open it up to. As of today, if you're a member of Pebble.Ink, you get shell access, email forwarding, and you're own little slice of the web to do whatever you want with. More features will be coming soon, including (possibly) the ability to run rich python and php apps.

If you've been paying attention to the tilde.club story, you probably noticed that other people had the same idea I had, and started their own versions. This put a damper on my plans somewhat, but I'm charging forward. I have not added Pebble.Ink to that list, although I plan to try and do so soon. I'm not using the official tilde.club puppet script, either.

I would be thrilled to have you along for the ride. Check out Pebble.Ink for more info, and watch this space for updates.


Homage for the Holidays: from Portland get XOXO

by phildini on December 2, 2014


This is the first Homage for the Holidays project. It may help to read the previous blog post for context.

Let's follow the logic train on this one. XOXO was awesome, and inspired me to want to do projects not for fame or money, but just because they were interesting to me and hopefully pushed the envelope in some way. I started by looking at what the organizers, Andy Baio and Andy McMillan, had done previous to and alongside XOXO for inspiration. Digging through Andy Baio's profile, I found his work with Inform 7, and Playfic.

Briefly: Inform 7, often shortened just to Inform, is a language and tool for creating and running interactive fiction. If you think you don't know what interactive fiction is, think back to really old text based games - "go north you are eaten by a grue" type stuff. Playfic is a site where you can run and play interactive fiction works in a web browser. Playfic was created by Andy Baio, because he wanted to -- well, I'll let him tell it:

Andy loves interactive fiction and wanted to make a game, but found it to hard to share his work-in-progress online. In an epic tale of yak shaving, he built Playfic before writing his first game.

From the PlayFic Website I deeply empathized with this level of yak shaving, and Playfic/Inform seemed like a great way give homage to one of the people who had inspired me. Additionally, in my head Inform and I had unfinished business. If my education had gone according to plan, I would have taken a course on interactive fiction (a subject that really excites me) and spent three months doing a deep dive into Inform. My school career didn't exactly follow a linear path, so I never got a chance to play with Inform.

Until now.

Here is what I have done, although started may be a better word. I have rebuilt, as much as possible, the XOXO 2014 experience in Inform 7, hosted on Playfic.

The project is called "from Portland get XOXO".

Is it finished? Nope, although I'll be working on it more this week, and posting updates when I can. What is there is the bones, including pretty much every major location and most of the events from the four days of fun.

What would I like to happen? Well, mostly I want people to play it. And have a reaction to it that hopefully isn't boredom. I also want people to change it, make it better, make it crazier, basically take what I've done as a base and push the limits of it.

So I've put the whole thing in a github repo, and I am actively soliciting issues and pull requests. Anyone who contributes will get my eternal thanks, and a call-out on twitter plus this blog.

Play it, have fun with, and make it your own.

Thanks, and look for more updates about the project this week, plus more Homage for Holiday posts in the coming weeks


There's No Place Like Homage for the Holidays

by phildini on November 30, 2014


Update 2014-12-08: Pebble.Ink, the second Homage for the Holidays post, is up.

Update 2014-12-01: The first Homage for the Holidays project is up.

Over the summer, on my first trip to Portland, I read the book Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon. If you do something that could remotely be considered creative, I highly recommend you check out the book, and his more recent Show Your Work.

Reading Steal Like an Artist, then returning to Portland for XOXO in September, helped drive home a lesson that my Game Design professors tried to teach me in college, but that I rejected: The best way to expand your creative horizons is to copy work you like, preferably with your own take on it.

When I was in school, I didn't see the value in trying to copy what someone else had done. That didn't sound 'creative enough' to me, partly from ignorance and partly from arrogance. Maybe more than partly from arrogance. It's also 100% possible that I just didn't care enough about games to try and emulate the ones that interested me.

So I graduated, started an engineering job, and was quickly exposed to the fact that those who are best at what they do often succeed because they've learned from the mistakes and successes of those who have come before them. And the best way to learn from someone is try and do what they've done.

I got a double helping of this when I tried to build my own Content Management System - basically a glorified blogging system - for The Adventures of Captain Quail, a webcomic run by myself and my incredibly talented artistic partner. I went into the project thinking that I'd have the whole thing together in a month, tops. A year later, there's still more I want to fix about it. Did I need to build a CMS? Is mine any better that what else is out there? Probably not. But the lessons I learned in building it I'm not sure I could have learned any other way.

This is where I've learned the value of building things that are directly or indirectly influenced by others: You get a tiny insight into what they've gone through, and can use that to make your own work better. I think this was, in many ways, a subtheme of this year's XOXO: That nobody produces great work in a vacuum, and the projects that seem most original or creative can be traced to specific influences from the creator's life.

So, reading Auston Kleon's book and going to XOXO and thinking about what I've discovered in the past year that really excites me, I'm embarking on a project I'm calling Homage for the Holidays. Every week, starting December 1st, I'll release a new project directly inspired by something I've seen this year that I thought was awesome. I'll be posting about them here, and right now the projects I'm planning to release will be available on the web. I'll try to document everything that happens with them, and the source materials for all of them will be freely distributed online.

Most of the projects I'm planning will be collaborative by nature, and I would be thrilled and grateful if people wanted to work on them with me, but I'd also love to see other people run their own homages. Tell me about them, and I'll link them here.

Thank you to everyone who's provided me with inspiration this year. I hope I can spread that to other people this month.

See you on the 1st!