November 27, 2022 9:38 AM

I Toot From the Command Line, Therefore I Am

Like so many people, I have been checking out new social media options in the face of Twitter's upheaval. None are ideal, but for now I have focused most of my attention on Mastodon, a federation of servers implemented using the ActivityPub protocol. Mastodon has an open API, which makes it attractive to programmers. I've had an account there for a few years (I like to grab username wallingf whenever a new service comes out) but, like so many people, hadn't really used it. Now feels more like the time.

On Friday, I spent a few minutes writing a small script that posts to my Mastodon account from the command line. I occasionally find that sort of thing useful, so the script has practical value. Really, though, I just wanted to play a bit in code and take a look at Mastodon's API.

Several people in my feed posted, boosted, and retweeted a link to this DEV Community article, which walks readers through the process of posting a status update using curl or Python. Everything worked exactly as advertised, with one small change: the Developers link that used to be in the bottom left corner of one's Mastodon home page is now a Development link on the Preferences page.

I've read a lot in the last few weeks about how the culture of Mastodon is different from the culture of Twitter. I'm trying to take seriously the different culture. One concrete example is the use of content warnings or spoiler alerts to hide content behind a brief phrase or tag. This seems like a really valuable practice, useful in a number of different contexts. At the very least, it feels like the Subject: line on an email message or a Usenet News post. So I looked up how to post content warnings with my command-line script. It was dead simple, all done in a few minutes.

There may be efficiency problems under the hood with how Mastodon requests work, or so I've read. The public interface seems well done, though.

I went with Python for my script, rather than curl. That fits better with most my coding these days. It also makes it easier to grow the script later, if I want. bash is great for a few lines, but I don't like to live inside bash for very long. On any code longer than a few lines, I want to use a programming language. At a couple of dozen lines, my script was already long enough to merit a real language. I went mostly YAGNI this time around. There are no classes, just a sequence of statements to build the http request from some constants (server name, authorization token) and command-line args (the post, the content warning). I did factor the server name and authorization token out of the longer strings and include an option to write the post via stdin. I want the flexibility of writing longer toots now, and I don't like magic constants. If I ever need to change servers or tokens, I never have to look past the few first few lines of the file.

As I briefly imagined morphing the small but growing script into a Toot class, I recalled a project I gave my Intermediate Computing students back in 2009 or so: implement the barebones framework of a Twitter-like application. That felt cutting edge back then, and most of the students really liked putting their new OO design and programming skills to use in a program that seemed to matter. It was good fun, and a great playground for so many of the ideas they had learned that semester.

All in all, this was a great way to spend a few minutes on a free afternoon. The API was simple to use, and the result is a usable new command. I probably should've been grading or doing some admin work, but profs need a break, too. I'm thankful to enjoy little programming projects so much.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: General, Software Development

November 23, 2022 1:27 PM

I Can't Imagine...

I've been catching up on some items in my newsreader that went unread last summer while I rode my bike outdoors rather than inside. This passage from a blog post by Fred Wilson at AVC touched on a personal habit I've been working on:

I can't imagine an effective exec team that isn't in person together at least once a month.

I sometimes fall into a habit of saying or thinking "I can't imagine...". I'm trying to break that habit.

I don't mean to pick on Wilson, whose short posts I enjoy for insight into the world of venture capital. "I can't imagine" is a common trope in both spoken and written English. Some writers use it as a rhetorical device, not as a literal expression. Maybe he meant it that way, too.

For a while now, though, I've been trying to catch myself whenever I say or think "I can't imagine...". Usually my mind is simply being lazy, or too quick to judge how other people think or act.

It turns out that I usually can imagine, if I try. Trying to imagine how that thinking or behavior makes sense helps me see what other people might be thinking, what their assumptions or first principles are. Even when I end up remaining firm in my own way of thinking, trying to imagine usually puts me in a better position to work with the other person, or explain my own reasoning to them more effectively.

Trying to imagine can also give me insight into the limits of my own thinking. What assumptions am I making that lead me to have confidence in my position? Are those assumptions true? If yes, when might they not to be true? If no, how do I need to update my thinking to align with reality?

When I hear someone say, "I can't imagine..." I often think of Russell and Norvig's textbook Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach, which I used for many years in class [1]. At the end of one of the early chapters, I think, they mention critics of artificial intelligence who can't imagine the field of AI ever accomplishing a particular goal. They respond cheekily to the effect, This says less about AI than it says about the critics' lack of imagination. I don't think I'd ever seen a textbook dunk on anyone before, and as a young prof and open-minded AI researcher, I very much enjoyed that line [2].

Instead of saying "I can't imagine...", I am trying to imagine. I'm usually better off for the effort.


[1] The Russell and Norvig text first came out in 1995. I wonder if the subtitle "A Modern Approach" is still accurate... Maybe theirs is now a classical approach!

[2] I'll have to track that passage down when I am back in my regular office and have access to my books. (We are in temporary digs this fall due to construction.) I wonder if AI has accomplished the criticized goal in the time since Russell and Norvig published their book. AI has reached heights in recent years that many critics in 1995 could not imagine. I certainly didn't imagine a computer program defeating a human expert at Go in my lifetime, let alone learning to do so almost from scratch! (I wrote about AlphaGo and its intersection with my ideas about AI a few times over the years: [ 01/2016 | 03/2016 | 05/2017 | 05/2018 ].)

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Computing, General, Personal

November 20, 2022 9:00 AM

Beautiful Ideas Deserve Beautiful Presentation

From Matthew Butterick, of Beautiful Racket fame:

I always think about—and encourage others to think about—how design and typography can complement the underlying object by finding a way to communicate its virtues. If your writing contains beautiful ideas, then your presentation of that writing should be likewise beautiful.

I am old-fashioned, perhaps, in feeling this way about software. A program that embodies beautiful ideas should itself be beautifully designed, and beautifully presented. The universe calls us in this direction.

The above passage comes from a charming essay on how Butterick ended up living a life of typography, in addition to his skills as a programmer and a lawyer. Spoiler: the title "Power, Corruption & Lies" refers not to any political intrigue but to an album by the rock band New Order.

Butterick is also one of the principals pursuing action against GitHub Copilot for violating the terms of the open-source licenses on the software it mined to build the tool. Sometimes, programmers have to deal with things less beautiful than the code we like to write, in order to protect that code and its creators.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Teaching and Learning