Five Things

Four hundred and six days have passed since the previous "Five Things" post, though it certainly doesn't feel like so much time has elapsed. Between November 2018 and April 2020 there would often be at least one instalment per month, generally written from an iPad on a Sunday night while I waited for the boy to fall asleep12. While there's no plan to return to a weekly "Five Things" schedule, it's not something I'll rule out at some point in the future. That said, the reason for this stream-of-consciousness post isn't really the meta subject of the post itself, but some of the recent ideas that have been echoing around my head for a little while now.

Old Notes. New Appreciations.

While cleaning the home office the other day, I happened to open one of my old development notebooks. These are B5-sized books containing 250 pages of graph paper, and they're the perfect size for me to carry around, jot notes, sketch interfaces, plan APIs or databases, and record just about anything else I might need in a free-flowing fashion that is unbound by the constraints that limit most note-taking applications on computers. Without the flexibility of pen and paper, I highly doubt I would be able to write as much software … as counter-intuitive as that may sound. Looking inside, I saw some of the concepts that were being sketched out and considered right before I started building out the fifth version of Midori Core, which would eventually go on to power about two dozen different projects. Many of the ideas were rather different from what I had been doing beforehand, and some of them seemed downright impossible to implement at the time due to the way the MySQL database engine works. However, reading through the list, I was surprised to see how many of the ideas were not only part of v5, but had actively contributed to the success of the new version and are now indispensable. Support for SQL Server and PostgreSQL have certainly been game-changers, and the consistent API template makes developing a new set of functionality from scratch an absolute breeze compared to everything that came before. Then there's all the internal consistency checks and system validation ….

However, it's not so much the notes themselves that struck me, but what the notes made clear.

A Lack of Imagination

Over the last six months or so, I seem to have lost the ability to think up new things. Solving problems at the day job with creative solutions is still something that's done quite regularly, but it seems an incredible amount of time has passed since I've had a really interesting idea to think through. A lot of what I am occupied with – based on the contents of the current development notebook – is solving problems that people create for themselves … either wilfully or by sheer misfortune. A decade ago I would have several ideas on the go with regards to new projects that could be considered, slapped together, and tested. Today I have zero … and this really disappoints me. Where has my imagination gone?

Chasing Other People's Goals

Perhaps I've just been engrossed in other people's goals and haven't really sat down to think about what I want to do? Freelance work has started to pick up since the summer and there are now five clients that I am regularly communicating with. For this I am quite grateful. The day job also consumes about 50 hours of my time per week, which isn't bad given that the problems are rarely "urgent" anymore. Being able to take the time to really think a problem through before working on a solution is a luxury that many of us rarely have. Hopefully this relaxed pace keeps up for another couple of months so that the New Year holidays can be enjoyed without stressing over "all the things that remain to be done", as I have done the last three winters.

Still, it would be nice to have a new personal project to work on.

A Collaboration with Dad?

This summer I learned that my father's health is deteriorating quite rapidly. For a brief time, I thought I might have to arrange a flight back to Southern Ontario between the many on-again-off-again lockdowns in Japan and Canada. Fortunately, this has not been necessary, but the fact of the matter is that I have been thinking about the many stories my father has told me from his life as well as the ones we shared together. As the family historian, I would really like to have these written down to be shared across time, just as I did with my grandfather's journals at the very beginning of the 10Centuries project. While my father does like to write, he has never kept a journal. This means that if something happens, his stories can only be recounted by the people who knew him. I've been thinking that maybe this would be an ideal time to sit down with him, either in person or online, and record a series of podcasts. These would be made available to the family at a time when my father is comfortable having them released, and they would remain part of the 10C repository forever. If nothing else, this would be a good way to reconnect and get to know the man a little better, as long-distance communication does have its challenges.

Yet, as I think through how I would like to compile and present my father's life in a digital manner, the challenges I faced with my grandfather's journals echo in my head.

Is 10C the Right Tool?

The first version of the platform was about blogging. The second version was about blogging with immutable records and clearly-defined hierarchies, which made it possible for me to adapt decades of my grandfather's journals to a digital format without the tacky "solution" of uploading a bunch of scanned images. The third version … we don't talk about. The fourth version of 10C focused on ephemeral posts, podcasting, public APIs, and document formatting. The fifth and current version focussed on improving social posts, using "IndieWeb" HTML formatting standards, improving document formatting, improving privacy options, and overall speed. However, is the current version of 10C suited for a biography? My grandfather's archives read like a blog, because that's a format that I understood and could easily adapt the paper documents to. For my father, I'd like to do something a little more elegant. Something that is better in line with a biography that consists of pictures, text, and audio.

As I've alluded to yesterday and today, I've been thinking a lot about document structures. Since working on a couple of textbook delivery systems and learning management systems, I've developed a better appreciation for how educational materials consisting of varying digital assets need to be presented. I dislike using the term "multi-media", but this is essentially what modern textbooks have become. They're interactive, respond to touch, and a little more approachable.

Blogs show information chronologically, which makes sense given that's how we live. However, when we think about our history, we don't think about things in terms of days, but in groups of time. A holiday in a foreign land. The first week of high school. That summer when everything went "just right". Grouping blog posts can certainly be done, but it's often a clunky ordeal consisting of tenuous meta connections at best. An idea I've been toying with is treating posts as sections of a chapter, which reside in a book consisting of sections or volumes or any other means to represent a collection. A collection could also consist of additional collections, which have their own chapters and sections. This would be an incredibly hierarchical creation that could be as flat as a blog, with one single collection, or structured like some of the most complete biographies and autobiographies we see in libraries.

This is something that could be wedged into 10Cv5, but I wonder if it's the right way to go. The goal of 10Centuries is to act as a permanent digital repository of who we are for at least a thousand years. What I see today, however, is a social network with features like blogging and sharing links to articles from around the web with our remarks attached. While I am very happy to see a community of great people using the social aspects of the site, I do wonder if it would make more sense to split the project so that Nice is its own entity, and 10Centuries becomes focussed on the long-term objective of being a person's historical record. There would be overlap, of course, as well as integrations to facilitate communication between the two tools, but this could allow the two projects to evolve independent of each other, while continuing to fill the needs of the people who use the tools.

All of this is still in the air – and in the current development notebook – as a project like this would take time away from the conversations I would like to have with my father, but it's something I'm thinking about.

  1. Just like many younger children, he did not like going to sleep alone. Heck, he still doesn't. So I generally stay with him until he drifts off to sleep.

  2. Writing several hundred words from an ageing tablet – an iPad Air 2 from 2014 – is no longer my idea of fun, particularly now that the keyboard on iOS has made typos so much easier to create. That said, it has managed to survive three years as a daily machine at a school before it was passed to me, and I've used it for several hours every day since. iOS 15 has made it slow down quite noticeably, though.