seanmonstar

Apr 19 2013

Tech sites covering the Boston bombing

The Boston Marathon news is certainly a tragic thing, but to read about it on The Verge felt shockingly out of place. I wasn’t alone. MG Siegler on the coverage of the Boston bombings on tech sites:

Rather than directly send their readers to other places doing actual reporting, these sites all wrote at least one post (and in the case of Mashable, something like a dozen shameful posts) simply embedding, copying and pasting, or rejurgitating others’ information. And guess what they all got as a result? Pageview gold.

It seems the editor-in-chief disagrees, but then, of course he would. Still, his argument seems obtusely wrong:

We have never thought of ourselves as a “tech” site (and certainly not a “blog”).

Ohhhhh rrrealllyyyy? Not a tech site, you say? Strange, how when I hit the home page, the “sections” show me “web”, “gaming”, “apps”, “Apple”, “Android”, “mobile, and the like. What’s their About page say?

The Verge was founded in 2011 in partnership with Vox Media, and covers the intersection of technology, science, art, and culture.

Not tech? Alright, I get ya. Clearly, The Verge is about technology culture. Being a person who likes technology, and all that. But, you say the intersection. I used the think that meant “when a story touches on all of these subjects”, but now I’m less certain.

Instead, his argument continues:

We think of ourselves as a news site which covers the culture of now (for lack of a better term), the world at this moment, as it is — what matters to people who live and work in 2013.

So all the people who live in 2013 are interesting in the Asus Taichi tablet? Or that a Twitter exec didn’t say no to a ‘Twitter Home’? Or Facebook hiring a Maps manager?

My wife lives in the same century as I do (I have to assume), and she doesn’t care about any of these things. I care about them though. I also care about how Barcelona is doing in the Champions League, and how much I have to pay in taxes, but I wouldn’t expect to find anything about those on The Verge.

I do see that how I (and much of the world) would be interested in the Boston bombing. We’re also probably interested in what’s currently happening in Egypt, and how the North Korea situation is proceeding. But I don’t see anything about those on the Verge, except where they point out when insane world leaders take to Twitter. Interesting.

The Verge home page also had a huge box the same day of this timely article: “Staying safe: how can we find and defend against explosives?" Say what? I came to read about tech. Sorry, not tech, but things interesting to a technologist. This is just a second article taking advantage of our human fear of blowing up.

In the following days, they have indeed had several articles about the tech related to the Boston situation, and that seems fine. Still, when it’s not your field, simply link to the people who do report in that field. The same way we wish the LA Times would just point at a tech site instead of blabbering about something they don’t understand.

Nov 14 2012
Oct 29 2012

An Expandable PC

Recently, there’s been this idea that we’re in a “post-PC” era. That the PC is no longer relevant, it’s all mobile now. I’d argue that the most “PC” PC I’ve ever had is my phone: it’s a computer I have on my person at all times. And while I agree that our PCs are now these hand-held devices, I’ve always loved having my monster desktop ready to crunch all computing challenges I could throw at it.

As computers have gotten smaller, we’ve also seen that desktop computer performance doesn’t need to improve any more. When friends ask me what to look in for a laptop, I tell them the processor and such don’t matter; look for battery life, weight, and quality of input devices (keyboard and trackpad). We just don’t need more power to answer our email, click on Like buttons, watch cat videos, and fill out spreadsheets. The power on hand-held devices, however, is starting to reach that threshold where it’s adequate to do everything as well.

So when I see other people mention the same ideas bouncing around in my head, I’m sure we have to be getting close:

Jeff Atwood:

Our phones are now so damn fast and capable as personal computers that I’m starting to wonder why I don’t just use the thing I always have in my pocket as my “laptop”, plugging it into a keyboard and display as necessary.

David Pierce:

I can drop my Series 7 tablet into a dock, add a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard, and connect a monitor — poof, I’ve got a full-fledged dual-monitor setup going. When I want to go somewhere, I just pick the device up out of the dock, and walk out the door tablet in hand.

This is exactly what I want. I love my smartphone, because it’s always with me. And I love my desktop because it’s so much easier to type on a full keyboard, have decent speakers, and use multiple big monitors. I don’t necessarily need the giant Tower part in the middle1. What if my phone or my tablet was the computer at my desktop, with all the useful peripherals plugged into it?

Microsoft’s Surface and Windows 8 feel like a prime candidate for this experiment. It’s still got Windows, so I can still do my usual work of testing in browsers, writing code, playing with git, and the like. There would be no obstacles to productivity even, since I’ll be using my laptop and monitors. And then, when I’m done, and want to go into the living room, or hang out in Starbucks to get my people dose for the week, I can just pick it up and go.

I realize that many people have been doing that with laptops for years, but I have never been impressed by it. I certainly don’t bring my laptop to the couch to casually use between commercials. And it’s extra space that is needed means I need more space (and a power cord) when I leave the house. Plus it weighs at least double, more like quadruple what a tablet weighs.

The Surface is now out, and while it remains to be seen if it is the right fit for this expandable PC, it certainly looks like the closest product yet. We’re not too far away from a time when tablets replace everything.


  1. I do, actually, since I compile code, and run massive test suites, and I don’t want those going any slower than they do. Plus, gaming. 

Oct 4 2012

Tent.io

With the recent actions of Twitter, there’s a lot of interest in finding the right answer to our social status. We realize that there is a great deal of importance to our shorter status messages, and don’t want them “owned” by a company that is more interested in its own well-being1 than our ability to share them. It’s part of our identity. It’s becoming increasingly fundamental, such that we’ve started to look elsewhere.

App.net isn’t the solution. Besides the points I made previously, App.net is in the same group as Twitter: it owns our status messages inside a vault, and we simply hope that it will be more trustworthy than Twitter was. That can’t be the right way.

As I said previously, we need a de-centralized open standard, like e-mail or RSS.

Enter Tent.io

Tent.io is a realization of that promise. I can run my own Tent server, and host and publish my own status messages on my own property. You can do the same. And our friends who aren’t as technically-savvy can use a hosted provider that’s perhaps offset by ads. We can all subscribe to each other, and see each others statuses, just like we currently can on Twitter.

The first client to consume this new Tent protocol is Tent.is. They describe the both of these like so:

Tent.io is a protocol like email, and Tent.is is a service like gmail.

Anyone can setup an account at tent.is right now. I could then setup a Tent server at tent.seanmonstar.com or something, and we could still follow each other seemlessly. This is huge. This is The Way forward.

Here’s an example with systems we already have: My friends can set up a blog on wordpress.com or tumblr, and I can subscribe to their RSS feed in Google Reader. In turn, I can host a blog myself, and my friends can subscribe to my RSS feed in whichever reader they’d prefer. This is what Tent.io is, but with less friction, a little more structure, and some privacy controls. It’s clearly much more than a simple Twitter clone.

You can continue to use App.net all you like2, but please realize that Tent.io is the real solution, one where a single company no longer owns our status and identity.


  1. To be fair, most companies must put their own well-being above everyone else, in order to survive. 

  2. It would be interesting if App.net were to switch their back-end and become a premium client for Tent.io. Pay to use it, because it’s a better client, or something. But then, it’s part of the solution. It’s helping make this de-centralized. 

Jun 22 2012

Social Lock-in

Imagine that you want to get a cell phone. Your friends and family are on Sprint, but T-Mobile is offering you a far better package. The phone they offer you has a more intuitive interface, their prices are more affordable, and they even have better signal in your area. Still imagining, Sprint and T-Mobile don’t allow cross-network communication. Sprint users can only call and text message other Sprint users. Same with T-Mobile. Unbelievable, right?

Yet, this is current state of social networks. With most people on Facebook, the choices of Google+ or Twitter or Diaspora or whatever don’t matter, since your friends won’t be on them. Since the networks don’t have any way to share data, such as posts or photos, between each other, no one can use a competing network, unless they’re entire family and group of friends move over. Each of those people also have the same barriers to leaving. Effectively, that leaves Facebook as the network monopoly.

With this built-in “network effect,” there is no way to compete. It doesn’t matter if Google+ or Twitter improve their own systems. It’s too difficult to attract people to leave The Facebook, since their friends might not be convinced to make the move also. So everyone sits where they are, and Facebook is free to have an inferior product, because they’ve already won.

Both Twitter and Google+ have better websites and mobile applications, but none of that matters, because of the Facebook lock-in.

Apr 27 2012
Feb 8 2012
Nov 8 2011

var that = this

I used to think say you should use that in the question “What variable should I name this for closures?” This was because self is already a variable that points to window. However, I’ve since revised my opinion on what is a good variable name in this case.

I now find that and self to be too vague.

Instead, I think the variable should be named after the Class that you are currently coding in. As always, it’s easier to explain with code:

var PackageController = new Class({

    doSomething: function() {
        var controller = this;

        someEl.addEvent('click', function(e) {
            controller.react();
        });
    }

});

The reason is because once you start delving a couple nested functions deep1, I find myself sometimes wondering if I bound that to the value I wanted. This way leaves little to wonder about. And since you read code far more than you write it, best to write the most readable code you can.


  1. I know, some of that can be solved by moving the functions to named methods on other objects, but you’d be lying if you said you never happened to have a function for a .forEach loop, and then another inside for an .addEvent, or something similar. 

Aug 4 2011

Good Things Come to Those Who Ask

Maybe you’ve heard the saying “good things come to those who wait.” That’s all well and good, but I’d like to take some time point out that good things also come to those who look for them. I changed jobs at the beginning of this year, and several people I know were curious as to how I managed it. It’s because I asked. I sought. For months.1

In and Out

Most of my professional life has been like this. At my first job, I happened to work at In’N’Out. I thought I was going to be in the service industry for the rest of my life. It was my living, and every pay raise meant more of a living. It took me 4 months to get 3 promotions. The next promotion took longer only because the skill required was much tougher. There were some other employees around me that would complain and murmur. Most of them had been working there for much longer than I had, and yet I quickly passed them by. They had no idea why I had gotten promoted so quickly.

I asked for them.

In order to get promotions, you had to work on the next skill. You had to be good at it (which only really took hard work), and you had to have a manager write up a review. You needed 4 passing reviews to be eligible for the next promotion. So every day, at a less busy hour, I would ask my manager to put me on the next station, and I would ask for a review. They would often forget to pay attention enough to give me a review, but since I would ask so often, I rather quickly gained all my reviews for each level. The other employees? They just sat around, some working hard, some hardly working, thinking that the manager would one day put them on the next position. They thought they’d get their promotions eventually, by waiting.

Entering the Tech World

Eventually, I started to wonder if I could put my programming knowledge to use in a professional way. I scoured Craigslist, and eventually found a nice listing that didn’t require me to have a degree, instead only requiring that I pass some programming challenges. I showed up and passed all the challenges. However, the CEO was busy, and didn’t pay much attention to my application status. So, I called the executive assistant of the office, and asked to remind the CEO of my application. Every day. Finally, one of those days, the assistant replied back that my persistence paid off: the CEO had considered my application, and was preparing an offer letter.

'Expect to be a slave'

Fast forward a little, and I was at my previous company. I loved it there. The guys rock, and my job was almost always interesting. Only a few things about it killed me. It tried to be a SaaS company, and I had done a lot of work on that application. I love application development. However, since the revenue from the subscriptions revenue was growing too slowly, the company had to revert to servicing clients to pay the bills. That meant my job had largely changed from application development to brochure website CSS development. I personally find that less interesting, and the clients tend to be frustrating. At the same, while we had put a lot of work into the software platform, very few people were using it, and hardly any were appreciating it.

I spoke to someone during the summer of last year about wanting to be in a different place professionally. I had hopes and dreams about how we as a company (myself included) could focus on areas that would make us better, and have more fun at the same time. I was advised that I’m young, and I’ve got several years to go before I should expect to be at a good place. I’m in the years of having to slave away. That isn’t the first time I’ve heard such a notion.

As I left school, and headed into the working class, my father mentioned that right now I should expect to be a slave to my work, so that I could eventually be in place where I don’t have to. Friends, roommates, and colleagues have tried to pound this idea into me ever since, and I’ve just been too stubborn to believe it.

Moving On

After a severe car accident, the combination of the higher bills, my boredom, and uncertainty of my job security got me looking for a different job. I researched companies that I would love to work at, sent out resumes, customized cover letters, and did plenty of phone interviews. After several months of looking, I started to wonder if I should just stay content with what I had, because it takes a lot of effort to continuously job search.

Thankfully, I kept looking and asking, and found a new rockin’ place to work at Mozilla. I started contracting in January 2011, and hired full-time in April. I work on Add-on Builder, so my desire of making an application that many people use is satisfied. I work with very awesome people, and for a company who wants its products to be the awesomest they can be.

Don’t be afraid to ask

I don’t say all of this to brag, or say “look at me”. I want to give an example of how it is possible to get what you want. People who get what they want, get it because they aren’t quiet about wanting it. Don’t be afraid to ask about what you need to do to get to the position you want. Ask your manager what you could improve on to get a promotion. Or ask that company you’ve been eyeing to hire you. You have to assume you are a good fit for the job, and then ask for it2.


  1. What follows is a bit of life story, including only the bits where I asked and asked for something better. 

  2. It should go without saying, but I must say it anyways: you must also be hard working and decent at what you do. 

Mar 23 2011

Contextless Twitter Search

Marco outlines what’s so terrible about the Quick Bar in the Twitter for iPhone app, but it sounds more like a fair assessment of Twitter’s trending topics feature in general. The trending topics are simply words that Twitter has noticed are having an increased appearance in a short time period. Once in a good long while, when control of my wandering eyes is slacking, I see something that catches my attention in the trending topics. I click on it, curious about what all the ruckus is about. Since this ships me off to a global twitter search of the topic, I immediately scold myself and my wandering eyes. You failed me!

Twitter Search

The issue with Twitter search is that it is currently a real-time global shotgun of tweets; something I have never found useful. Most tweets are useless garbage, even tweets that I allow into my timeline. The reason I read them is for their context: I have similar interests to the people I follow, and so their short 140-character jabs make sense and sometimes even connect with me, my being. I have educated myself on many of these people, and therefore have come to enjoy seeing their tweets. When I search on Twitter, I never know any of the people whose tweets I’m barraged with, at a real time pace that no human could possibly keep up with.

Twitter search would be useful if it searched using the context of who I follow1. Only search the tweets of those “trusted” sources, and perhaps the tweets that they’ve retweeted, replied to, or maybe even favorited. These are tweets that I would care about, because if it’s information I’m after, I trust those sources to have spoken about the topic in the context of my interests. If it’s an opinion I’m after, I only want opinions of people whom I understand and can appreciate.

Google’s first attempt at using the social network’s data was with a super up-to-date widget of tweets that contained the same keywords as what you had searched Google for. Needless to say, they were a net negative, since all it served to do was frustrate and take up space in Google’s SERPs.

Google has recently started inserting web pages into the search results if that page has been tweeted by someone I follow. That is putting the context of people I vaguely know and trust, into my search results. That is something I can’t praise enough. @twitter: see @google.

Trending topics

In order for trending topics to mean anything to me, they would need to be given context, just like search should. Trending topics could be formed around all the activity of people I follow, plus the people they follow, just to get a bit more data for trending topics. For instance, log in to Twitter in the morning, and oh!, look-y there. In trending topics is how Amazon shot Lendle in the face. I would find value in that.

As it is, Twitter assumes I care what the the rest of Twitter has to say. I don’t. If I did, I would follow them.


  1. Twitter can keep its global search functionality under its Advanced search. I can see some uses, like when companies want to keep tabs on what anyone on Twitter is saying about them. It shouldn’t be the default, though. 

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