All posts by Matt

Next to the very real news of the Spectre and Meltdown CPU issues, it was lovely to come across Ken Shirriff's story of getting past password protection on some old Xerox Alta disk packs from the 1970s.

As further proof for why 2018 is going to be the year of blogging, two of the comments are from people who actually know about the old disks!

"I designed chips at PARC as a summer intern. You have a couple of disks from Doug Fairbairn, who was also in Lynn Conway's group."

and

I'm flabbergasted. That's my Alto disk you broke into!

The APL stuff is surely related to some work I did with Leo Guibas, showing why lazy evaluation would be a really good idea for implementing APL: see Compilation and delayed evaluation in APL, published January 1978. (That paper gives me an enviable Erdős number of 3, since Leo is a 2.) I'm sure it's not a complete APL implementation, just a proof of concept. It happens that my very first part-time job at PARC, in 1973, involved writing decision analysis software in APL — on a timesharing system!

Given the AATFDAFD hint, I'd guess the real password is ADDATADFAD. This derives from a project I did with Jef Raskin at UCSD in 1974. (He mentioned it in this interview.) The Data General Nova we were working with produced some garbled message with ADDATADFAD where it should have said ADDITIONAL, and it was a running joke ever after. Strange, the things that occupy some brain cells for over 40 years.

Thanks for an amusing blast from the past.

— Doug Wyatt (Xerox PARC 1973-1994)

Morten on Gutenberg

Morten Rand-Hendriksen's talk and demo on Gutenberg from WordCamp US is an excellent overview of where it is, where it could go, and some VR stuff thrown in there for fun. Definitely worth the watch.

Books in 2017

Here's what I ended up reading this year, in roughly chronological finishing order. (I usually have 3-4 books going on at once.)

A fairly random selection, and hopefully I can get a few more in next year.

Post-Verbal Language

James Beshara has a really interesting read on how communication will change and evolve in a post-verbal world, namely one where human/brain interfaces like Neuralink can more directly transmit thought between people than the medium of language allows today.

After reading the essay I wonder if people's thoughts or the neural pathways they activate, if they could be directly transmitted into another brain, would actually make any sense to someone else with a unique internal set of pathways and framework for parsing and understanding the world. The essay assumes we'd understand and have more empathy with each other, but that seems like a leap. It seems likely the neural link would need it own set of abstractions, perhaps even unique per person, similar to how Google Translate AI invented its own meta-language.

Today idea-viruses that cause outrage (outrageous?) in today's discourse  have been weaponized by algorithms optimizing for engagement, and directly brain-transmitted memes seem especially risky for appealing to our base natures or causing amygdala hijack. But perhaps a feature of these neural interface devices could counteract that, with a command like "tell me this piece of news but suppress my confirmation bias and tribal emotional reactions while I'm taking it in."

State of the Word, 2017

I really enjoyed connecting with the WordPress community in Nashville this previous weekend. On Saturday I delivered the State of the Word presentation alongside Mel, Weston, and Matías. There's always a post-event buzz but I definitely noticed a change in tenor of people's thoughts on Gutenberg after the presentation and demo. The video is above, check it out when you get a chance.

Adam Robinson on Understanding

This is a long quote/excerpt from Adam Robinson I’ve been holding onto for a while, from Tribe of Mentors. Worth considering, especially if you strive to work in a data-informed product organization.

Virtually all investors have been told when they were younger — or implicitly believe, or have been tacitly encouraged to do so by the cookie-cutter curriculums of the business schools they all attend — that the more they understand the world, the better their investment results. It makes sense, doesn’t it? The more information we acquire and evaluate, the “better informed” we become, the better our decisions. Accumulating information, becoming “better informed,” is certainly an advantage in numerous, if not most, fields.

But not in the eld of counterintuitive world of investing, where accumulating information can hurt your investment results.

In 1974, Paul Slovic — a world-class psychologist, and a peer of Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman — decided to evaluate the effect of information on decision-making. This study should be taught at every business school in the country. Slovic gathered eight professional horse handicappers and announced, “I want to see how well you predict the winners of horse races.” Now, these handicappers were all seasoned professionals who made their livings solely on their gambling skills.

Slovic told them the test would consist of predicting 40 horse races in four consecutive rounds. In the first round, each gambler would be given the five pieces of information he wanted on each horse, which would vary from handicapper to handicapper. One handicapper might want the years of experience the jockey had as one of his top five variables, while another might not care about that at all but want the fastest speed any given horse had achieved in the past year, or whatever.

Finally, in addition to asking the handicappers to predict the winner of each race, he asked each one also to state how confident he was in his prediction. Now, as it turns out, there were an average of ten horses in each race, so we would expect by blind chance — random guessing — each handicapper would be right 10 percent of the time, and that their confidence with a blind guess to be 10 percent.

So in round one, with just five pieces of information, the handicappers were 17 percent accurate, which is pretty good, 70 percent better than the 10 percent chance they started with when given zero pieces of information. And interestingly, their confidence was 19 percent — almost exactly as confident as they should have been. They were 17 percent accurate and 19 percent confident in their predictions.

In round two, they were given ten pieces of information. In round three, 20 pieces of information. And in the fourth and final round, 40 pieces of information. That’s a whole lot more than the five pieces of information they started with. Surprisingly, their accuracy had flatlined at 17 percent; they were no more accurate with the additional 35 pieces of information. Unfortunately, their confidence nearly doubled — to 34 percent! So the additional information made them no more accurate but a whole lot more confident. Which would have led them to increase the size of their bets and lose money as a result.

Beyond a certain minimum amount, additional information only feeds — leaving aside the considerable cost of and delay occasioned in acquiring it — what psychologists call “confirmation bias.” The information we gain that conflicts with our original assessment or conclusion, we conveniently ignore or dismiss, while the information that confirms our original decision makes us increasingly certain that our conclusion was correct.

So, to return to investing, the second problem with trying to understand the world is that it is simply far too complex to grasp, and the more dogged our at- tempts to understand the world, the more we earnestly want to “explain” events and trends in it, the more we become attached to our resulting beliefs — which are always more or less mistaken — blinding us to the financial trends that are actually unfolding. Worse, we think we understand the world, giving investors a false sense of confidence, when in fact we always more or less misunderstand it.
You hear it all the time from even the most seasoned investors and financial “experts” that this trend or that “doesn’t make sense.” “It doesn’t make sense that the dollar keeps going lower” or “it makes no sense that stocks keep going higher.” But what’s really going on when investors say that something makes no sense is that they have a dozen or whatever reasons why the trend should be moving in the opposite direction.. yet it keeps moving in the current direction. So they believe the trend makes no sense. But what makes no sense is their model of the world. That’s what doesn’t make sense. The world always makes sense.

In fact, because financial trends involve human behavior and human beliefs on a global scale, the most powerful trends won’t make sense until it becomes too late to profit from them. By the time investors formulate an understanding that gives them the confidence to invest, the investment opportunity has already passed.

So when I hear sophisticated investors or financial commentators say, for example, that it makes no sense how energy stocks keep going lower, I know that energy stocks have a lot lower to go. Because all those investors are on the wrong side of the trade, in denial, probably doubling down on their original decision to buy energy stocks. Eventually they will throw in the towel and have to sell those energy stocks, driving prices lower still.

 

Tim Ferriss’s new book Tribe of Mentors is out. I have finished it already, and can say it’s really excellent and I even liked it more than Tools of Titans even though I’m not in this one. 🙂 As I said in a message to Tim:

I learned a lot from it, took a ton of notes to follow up on, and wrote down about twenty more books I have to read.

When I look back over the last 25 years, in some ways what seems most precious is not what we have made but how we have made it and what we have learned as a consequence of that. I always think that there are two products at the end of a programme; there is the physical product or the service, the thing that you have managed to make, and then there is all that you have learned. The power of what you have learned enables you to do the next thing and it enables you to do the next thing better. — Jony Ive

From the Wallpaper article on the new Apple campus.

New Backpack: Aer Fit Pack

As an interim update to my 2017 gear post, I'd like to strongly endorse the Aer Fit Pack 2 as my new primary backpack, replacing the Lululemon bag I suggested before. It has better material, much better zippers, a logical design, more pocket distribution inside, and it's cheaper! I put this bag and its predecessor through all the rounds, including taking it to Burning Man, and it's been a champ. If you're reading this and work for Automattic, this bag is also now available as an official choice for your bag and it'll come embroidered with a cool logo. (Previously we only offered Timbuk2.)

[Gauguin] was penniless and adrift, trying to paint his way through the devastations of his dying marriage, his rejection by the cliques of the Parisian art establishment, and the precarity of his friendship with Vincent van Gogh, who shortly before Christmas had assaulted him with a razor and, after Gauguin’s departure that evening, used the same blade to cut off his own ear […] Despite the promises of the name, it can be a challenge to find actual olives at Olive Garden.

Probably my favorite food writing I've read this year is Helen Rosner's comprehensive review of Olive Garden for Eater.

Matias Ventura, the lead of the editor focus for WordPress, has written Gutenberg, or the Ship of Theseus to talk about how Gutenberg's approach will simplify many of the most complex parts of WordPress, building pages, and theme editing. If you want a peek at some of the things coming down the line with Gutenberg, including serverless WebRTC real-time co-editing.

Facebook Dropping Patent Clause

I am surprised and excited to see the news that Facebook is going to drop the patent clause that I wrote about last week. They’ve announced that with React 16 the license will just be regular MIT with no patent addition. I applaud Facebook for making this move, and I hope that patent clause use is re-examined across all their open source projects.

Our decision to move away from React, based on their previous stance, has sparked a lot of interesting discussions in the WordPress world. Particularly with Gutenberg there may be an approach that allows developers to write Gutenberg blocks (Gutenblocks) in the library of their choice including Preact, Polymer, or Vue, and now React could be an officially-supported option as well.

I want to say thank you to everyone who participated in the discussion thus far, I really appreciate it. The vigorous debate and discussion in the comments here and on Hacker News and Reddit was great for the passion people brought and the opportunity to learn about so many different points of view; it was even better that Facebook was listening.

On React and WordPress

Big companies like to bury unpleasant news on Fridays: A few weeks ago, Facebook announced they have decided to dig in on their patent clause addition to the React license, even after Apache had said it’s no longer allowed for Apache.org projects. In their words, removing the patent clause would "increase the amount of time and money we have to spend fighting meritless lawsuits."

I'm not judging Facebook or saying they're wrong, it's not my place. They have decided it's right for them — it's their work and they can decide to license it however they wish. I appreciate that they've made their intentions going forward clear.

A few years ago, Automattic used React as the basis for the ground-up rewrite of WordPress.com we called Calypso, I believe it's one of the larger React-based open source projects. As our general counsel wrote, we made the decision that we'd never run into the patent issue. That is still true today as it was then, and overall, we’ve been really happy with React. More recently, the WordPress community started to use React for Gutenberg, the largest core project we've taken on in many years. People's experience with React and the size of the React community —  including Calypso — was a factor in trying out React for Gutenberg, and that made React the new de facto standard for WordPress and the tens of thousands of plugins written for WordPress.

We had a many-thousand word announcement talking about how great React is and how we're officially adopting it for WordPress, and encouraging plugins to do the same. I’ve been sitting on that post, hoping that the patent issue would be resolved in a way we were comfortable passing down to our users.

That post won't be published, and instead I'm here to say that the Gutenberg team is going to take a step back and rewrite Gutenberg using a different library. It will likely delay Gutenberg at least a few weeks, and may push the release into next year.

Automattic will also use whatever we choose for Gutenberg to rewrite Calypso — that will take a lot longer, and Automattic still has no issue with the patents clause, but the long-term consistency with core is worth more than a short-term hit to Automattic’s business from a rewrite. Core WordPress updates go out to over a quarter of all websites, having them all inherit the patents clause isn’t something I’m comfortable with.

I think Facebook’s clause is actually clearer than many other approaches companies could take, and Facebook has been one of the better open source contributors out there. But we have a lot of problems to tackle, and convincing the world that Facebook’s patent clause is fine isn’t ours to take on. It’s their fight.

The decision on which library to use going forward will be another post; it’ll be primarily a technical decision. We’ll look for something with most of the benefits of React, but without the baggage of a patents clause that’s confusing and threatening to many people. Thank you to everyone who took time to share their thoughts and give feedback on these issues thus far — we're always listening.

Update: This post received an incredible response from the wider web and open source community, and a few days later Facebook reversed their position.

We Called it Gutenberg for a Reason

Movable type was about books, but it wasn’t just about books. Ideas spread. Literacy spiked. The elite monopoly on education and government started to crack. Luther’s 95 Theses were printed on a press, rocking Europe, and he issued “broadsheets.” Broadsheets became newspapers; newspapers enabled democracy. The printing press ushered in social, political, and economic sea changes. Gutenberg changed everything. WordPress has always been about websites, but it’s not just about websites. It’s about freedom, about possibility, and about carving out your own livelihood, whether it’s by making a living through your site or by working in the WordPress ecosystem itself. We’re democratizing publishing — and democratizing work — for everyone, regardless of language, ability, or economic wherewithal. WordPress’s growth is impressive (28.5% and counting) but it’s not limitless — at least not in its current state. We have challenges (user frustrations with publishing and customizing, competition from site builders like Squarespace and Wix) and opportunities (the 157 million small businesses without sites, aka the next big market we should be serving). It’s time for WordPress’ next big thing, the thing that helps us deal with our challenges and opportunities. The thing that changes the world. Gutenberg. For those who don’t know we kicked off the Gutenberg project around the beginning of the year, I talked about it and we did our first public releases in June, and the team has been doing weekly updates of the public beta plugin that’s available for anyone to try out in their wp-admin. When Johannes Gutenberg’s press came out, people mostly used it to print the same religious text monks had been copying. It wasn’t until ten or fifteen years later that people started innovating and trying their hands at new kinds of writing, and the wheels of change started to spin faster. Now it’s WordPress’ turn to do the same. Gutenberg meets our challenges and opportunities head on while simultaneously benefitting everyone who makes a living working in the WP ecosystem. It’s about a lot more than just blocks. Our Gutenberg moves every part of the WordPress ecosystem forward: Developers and agencies will be able to create interactive templates that clients can easily update without breaking things or dealing with custom post types: Imagine a custom “employee” block that you can add to an About page that includes a picture, name, and bio. They’ll be able to replace most meta boxes, and they’ll get a chance to update old code or clients to work in this new paradigm. Plugin developers will be able to completely integrate into every part of WordPress, including posts, pages, custom post types, and sidebars without having to hack TinyMCE or squeeze their entire feature behind a toolbar button. Today, every plugin that extends WordPress does it in a different way; Gutenberg’s blocks provide a single, easy-to-learn entry point for an incredible variety of extensions. Some folks have already begun to port their plugins over, and are finding that they’re easier to build and have a much improved UI. I’m looking forward to highlighting those stories as we get further along and more people write about them. Theme developers won’t need to bundle tons of plugins or create their own page builders. There’ll be a standard, portable way to create rich layouts for posts and guide people through setup right in the interface, no 20-step tutorials or long videos needed. Every theme will be able to compete with multi-functional premium themes without locking users into a single theme or compromising their experience. Core developers will be able to work in modern technologies and not worry about 15 years of backwards compatibility. We’ll be able to simplify how menus, widgets, and the editor work to use a common set of code and concepts. The interface will be instantly responsive. Web hosts will have better signup rates, as Gutenberg opens up WordPress to an entirely new set of people for whom WordPress was too complex and hard to set up before. (Remember our goal: to democratize publishing.) Their churn rates will go down: they’ll stop bleeding customers to Wix, Weebly, and Squarespace, and fewer people will abandon their sites because it was too hard to make things look they way they wanted. Users will finally be able to build the sites they see in their imaginations. They’ll be able to do things on mobile they’ve never been able to before. They’ll never have to see a shortcode again. Text pasted from Word will get cleaned up and converted to blocks automatically and instantly. (I pasted the first version of this post from Google Docs and it worked great. 👌) They’ll start manipulating their sites in ways that would have taken a developer. They’ll be able to move from blogging to using WordPress as a CMS without missing a beat. Editing posts will just work; they’ll write more. They’ll learn blocks once, and then be able to instantly use and understand 90%+ of plugins. I could go on about how photographers will be able to create rich galleries, parallax images, and better portfolios, or how poets will finally be able to preserve whitespace as they write, but you get the idea. It’s big. It moves the WordPress ecosystem forward, but it also moves the whole web forward. Which is scary! Because change always is, and this is a big one. But a scary thing is usually a thing that leads to growth, if you can push through it. Ten years ago, agencies and developers worried that software like WordPress would ruin their business because clients wouldn’t need help updating their sites any more, and would maybe even just start building their own sites. But their worse fears didn’t come true — instead, it created new opportunities for everyone. (People were worried when the printing press was invented, too. A Swiss biologist warned against the “confusing and harmful abundance of books,” but I’d say it all worked out in the end.) This is not to say that nothing will go sideways with Gutenberg, or that people’s concerns about it are unfounded. Making something people want is really hard to do and easy to mess up — we definitely have in the past. I share many of the concerns or worries with today’s version of Gutenberg, and we’re working to mitigate them. Gutenberg will ship with WordPress 5.0, but the release will come out when Gutenberg is ready, not vice versa. We still have target dates to help us think about scope and plan for all the supporting documentation, translation, and marketing efforts, but we’re not going to release anything until Gutenberg is something the team working on it agrees is ready. And as we work, we’re listening: feedback on core and feature plugins gets read, heard, and considered. Every review of Gutenberg, even the rude ones, has a response. Seven months of vigorous and public debate, chats, tickets, and code changesets brought us to where we are today, and there will be  a fair amount more before we can present the Gutenberg vision in a mostly-complete state. I welcome it; apathy would worry me a lot more than disagreement or controversy. Creating great software will never make every person happy. We’re not creating The Perfect Product, we’re choosing a path between many good options, weighing all of the inevitable trade-offs that come from a change, listening, shipping, and then doing it all over again. Iterating. My life’s work is improving WordPress. I firmly believe that Gutenberg is the direction that will provide the most benefit to the maximum number of people while being totally in line with core WordPress’s philosophies and commitment to user freedom. So keep giving us your feedback, and let’s push through the fear together. It’s worth a little discomfort to change the world.
Yes, it is a press, certainly, but a press from which shall flow in inexhaustible streams, the most abundant and most marvelous liquor that has ever flowed to relieve the thirst of men.
Johannes Gutenberg
Thank you to the WP Tavern conversation that helped me write down many of these ideas, and Michelle Weber. This post started in Google Docs then revised in Gutenberg 0.9.