12 June 2021

“Steal from the best” - looking at Cory Doctorow's and Dave Winer's blogs

Seeking inspiration, I have been looking at the blogging methods used by Cory Doctorow and Dave Winer, because they are both admirable writers and bloggers, and they both understand technological and privacy issues.

Cory Doctorow runs his pluralistic blog, where he writes daily, using the date as the title “Pluralistic: 11 June 2021”. Typically, under that title will be a list of “links”, each of which gets a permalink of its own. The first of these “links” is his main story. The second will be a links blog, with a few significant external links for the day; there is also a “this day in history” type section, and a “colophon”, with details of his public appearances, etc.

He seems to put quite a lot of time and effort into his blog, almost as if it were a daily newspaper column. His stories are always interesting and the subjects are often important and unusual. Whereas one can often find a newspaper or opinion piece to be interchangeable with stories in competing journals, some of Doctorow's pieces are quite unique, or have a unique perspective.

Doctorow's blog is written in WordPress(.org), with the Jetpack plugin, to allow follows and likes from WordPress.com's quasi-social network. The blog's organization and design would not win any prizes. I tested his blog using ELinks in the terminal ( a good test of backwards compatibility) and it is not really readable there. The blog is well connected to alternative and mainstream social media, with the exception of Facebook. He cross-posts to Tumblr and writes also on Medium. He offers email subscriptions through Mailman.

Dave Winer is the inventer of RSS news feeds and continues to be a software developer. He defines himself as a “proto-blogger”; he claims to have been blogging before it was a thing. His blog is Scripting News. The platform he uses is of his own creation, with features that are quite unique, such as expandable parts with additional information and clickable bookmarks to every paragraph. There's a lot going on in the background, and a fair bit of JavaScript, but when looked at in ELinks, it is perfectly readable. Like Doctorow, Winer's posts are also titled with the date “Friday, June 11, 2021”, but the subtitles are also permalinks (in the style: "http://scripting.com/2021/06/12/164446.html?title=fightingAutocracyWithMarketing").

Winer's posts are usually fairly short. He writes about politics, current affairs, tech issues, journalism, personal stories, sport, etc. He does not use tags. Winer is on Twitter and Facebook (maybe elsewhere to), though he does not expressly mention his social media connections in the blog or about pages. He does suggest direct messages through Facebook or Twitter as one of the ways to contact him. There's a very nice, custom-programmed email subscription for his blog posts, which faithfully delivers his posts, one-a-day.

Neither of these two men are idealists - they understand the intersection between democracy and technology better than most of us, but they are both pragmatic in their approach. Dave Winer rails against “silos”, but still uses Facebook and Twitter to get his message out: Google for his email and Amazon to host his services. Cory Doctorow sells his books without DRM, but still publishes them on Kindle. He writes his blog on his own self-hosted domain, but crossposts to Tumblr. He sends links to Twitter, and gives Automattic access to his data, for example.

I'm coming to see this kind of pragmatism as peculiarly North American. We are in the current anti-interoperability and intellectual property mess due mainly to the actions of American corporations, the laxness of US laws with regard to anti-trust, and, I think mainly the greater comfort that Americans feel with corporate behaviour and advertising. Compare Doctorow's satisfaction with Automattic to this German blogger speaking of the danger of incorporating Jetpack on your website: https://youtu.be/JtBsv-S-b2U . His indignation is visceral.

Both Doctorow and Winer acknowledge and respect the founder of the free software movement and creator of GNU/Linux Richard Stallman. But it has been pointed out that even Stallman does not understand the concept of freedom in quite the same way as Europeans.

The US, through the power of its corporations, rules the world, and only in recent years has Europe begun to fight back, with its GDPR and its successful suits against Google, Microsoft and other corporate giants. An internet regulated and controlled by the EU might end up giving Europeans less freedom than we have today. Various laws already constrain freedom of expression, while new laws are seeking to make content providers accountable for the material they host.

But looking beyond this, China is the new superpower that we all increasingly have to contend with. Its muscle is being felt everywhere. For example, it is in the process of establishing its own alternative internet, and wants to market it in Africa and elsewhere. It goes without saying that China's version of the internet is much less favorable to free-speech and much friendlier towards autocracy, so it will be a natural choice for dictators everywhere.

My blog

I'm happy to see that the theme I chose for it reads very nicely on every browser I tried with it, including ELinks in the terminal.

I found a no-effort way to provide a means of subscribing to it via Feedrabbit; that's a service that is based on the blog's RSS feed. One provides a link that looks like https://feedrabbit.com/?url=https://vikshepa.com/feed . That allows people to sign up for it through Feedrabbit's service. Anyone can sign up for ten free subscriptions in that way, and there is no advertising.

I looked at the privacy settings of my blog, and realised that I need to ditch Gravatar if I don't want it sending information to Automattic. The blog is already free of other trackers like Google Analytics, Google fonts, etc. Privacy Badger does not find any trackers, and the only cookies seem to be from WordPress, to recognize me when I'm logged in as the author, for example. I have disabled sign-ups and comments. My about page has information about social media, etc.

If I want to follow Doctorow's or Winer's example, I need to find a way of making permalinks to subtitles. That may be beyond the capabilities of the theme I'm using. (It is possible to use html bookmark links, like Stallman in his Political Notes.) On the other hand, I completely lack either of these men's ambitions for public recognition. I don't regard anything that I write to be of sufficient importance to grab someone's interest. I'm writing mainly for my own pleasure.

Links blog:

China rushes through law to counter US and EU sanctions - The Guardian

China previously had neither the economic power nor the political will to use legal means to retaliate against US sanctions. It now has both,” said Wang Jiangyu, a law professor at City University of Hong Kong.

China’s Uyghurs living in a ‘dystopian hellscape’, says Amnesty report - The Guardian

Forget the Peace Process, the Focus Now Should be on Restoring Civil Rights to Palestinians - CounterPunch.org

Pursuit of a chimerical Palestinian state that, in any foreseeable political situation, is not going to be more than a collection of beleaguered Bantustans, has become a culpable diversion from seeking equal civil rights and personal security for Palestinians.
A ground-breaking examination of an alternative option is spelled out by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the US/Middle East Project in a detailed study called Breaking the Israel-Palestine Status Quo. This proposes a rights-based approach, notably freedom for the Palestinians from dispossession and discrimination and the assertion of their right to freedom of movement. This would confront and seek to reverse what the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch have both denounced as a system of apartheid, enforcing inferior status on Palestinians.

Breaking the Israel-Palestine Status Quo - Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Unfair Use: Anti-Interoperability and Our Dwindling Digital Freedom - The Reboot

Free Speech in Europe Isn't What Americans Think - Bloomberg

Hate speech can only be banned in the U.S. if it is intended to incite imminent violence and is actually likely to do so. This permissive U.S. attitude is highly unusual. Europeans don’t consider hate speech to be valuable public discourse, and reserve the right to ban it. They consider hate speech to degrade from equal citizenship and participation. Racism isn’t an idea; it’s a form of discrimination.
The underlying philosophical difference here is about the right of the individual to self-expression. Americans value that classic liberal right very highly -- so highly that we tolerate speech that might make others less equal.
Europeans value the democratic collective and the capacity of all citizens to participate fully in it -- so much that they are willing to limit individual rights.