Tuesday, April 25, 2017

So You Want to Make a WordPress Site?

I'm a backend and operations developer by trade. I spend most of my days working with NoSQL databases and automating infrastructure. I have basically zero skill at making websites or doing any sort of web design. So when I decided to create a web service as a side project, I naturally looked for the easiest approach possible. That brought me to WordPress, a platform I know a bit about but never worked with at any length.

And several weeks of hilarity ensued.

Some highlights:

1. Plugins

Holy Christmas is it annoying dealing with plugins. I didn't even need that many too. Just support for multiple languages and paid memberships. My goal was to avoid having a mess of dependencies that end up draining the app's performance (it's all on one server).

The annoying thing is that even the more popular plugins are not terribly well documented. You end up breaking part of your app after changing the config and then find you have to dig through forums for half-answers. Some plugins offer support if you pay for a PRO version, but even then you can end up waiting days for answers or being referred to a forum post from 2009.

2. Backups

I found out the hard way the importance of backups early on when a config change with the SSL plugin borked my site completely. I am using Amazon Web Services for hosting with a WordPress AMI. My backup strategy had just been to take an image of the server once a day. It worked well enough, and with my load balancer and R53 settings it was only a couple of minutes of downtime to relaunch on a new instance if needed. There are some plugins available as well for backups such as Duplicator, but it was also a pain in the ass to set up.

3. Contractors

I ran into an annoying bug with two language plugins I needed to make the site function in English and Japanese. Rather than fight with it myself I decided to put out an ad on Craigslist and see if a more experienced web developer couldn't solve it for me. The first ad I put on Craigslist Tokyo did not get much response - only about 3 replies, none worth pursuing. I then put an ad on Craigslist San Francisco (which was a pain in the ass to do from Tokyo since they require verification with an American phone number, so had to hack around that shit) and in a day I proceeded to get over 100 responses.

How do you sift through 100 emails for a minor WordPress job? I don't have time to thoroughly vet and interview these people. It tempts your not-so-nice instincts. I knew I didn't want to deal with someone who couldn't speak English, so I was tempted to just delete all the "weird" sounding names. My better angels prevailed (I applied the golden rule; Japanese people might think my name is weird, so, you know) and I did actually click on every response in my inbox. I quickly deleted dozens upon finding emails that were incoherent, unrelated to my ad, sent by middlemen, or just otherwise creepy / shady in other ways.

I narrowed it down to 10 that met three specific preferences: 1. It was a single person instead of a team. 2. They had included links to their previous work. 3. The email itself was short, professional, and didn't have too many typos.

Of the 10 I responded to, 5 never got back to me. 1 insisted I call him on the phone. I told him that I always do Google Hangouts because I like to look into the other person's eyes while I ask them some simple technical questions. He wasn't crazy about it but I felt justified given my experiences with contractors. He did the video call. I asked him what SSH is (I did some custom PHP work on this app so the contractor had to be prepared to mess around in a shell session). He started explaining SSL instead. I told him that gently and he tried again, clearly demonstrating he had no idea. I thanked him for his time. He sent three more passive aggressive emails over the following days.

Of the four remaining, three ended up wasting my time. One guy interviewed well, so I gave him access to the git repo and admin console. He messed around for two days then said he had no idea what to do. The other two washouts did the same but were faster about it. The last dude ended up solving the problem in about an hour. I kept him on to do more design work and bug fixes. Pretty cool guy.

Also, I deleted the ad days ago but I am still getting inquiry emails. Some people email multiple times too. I now sympathize a bit with employers that don't send a reply to rejected candidates. (some of whom also demand an explanation!)

tl;dr - Hiring contractors is a pain and it may be faster to just solve the issue yourself.

Moral

WordPress really isn't so bad. If you're building a site from scratch it can cut a lot of the headache. Just know what you're getting into and plan carefully. I know for certain that if my app makes any money, I'll be migrating away from it. Would love to hire a developer full-time and maybe use RDS for the data layer since it simplifies backups.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Musical Interlude: Five 'Blue' Songs

1. Rhapsody in Blue - George Gershwin


To this day one of my favorite compositions. A brilliant example of modern storytelling through song. Simple, evocative melodies combined with powerful orchestrations in the form of a classic piano concerto - it just works so well. Endlessly enjoyable and always makes me a bit nostalgic for New York, my home town.

2. Blue Train - John Coltrane


I played clarinet and saxophone up through college. As a former jazz man Coltrane of course was a big inspiration. He wasn't just a great soloist; he was also a great writer and arranger. Blue Train, the title track, was written by him. I loved playing this song because of the double time sections on top of a fairly simple blues progression. Lots of fun for improvisation. That whole album is great thanks in no small part to Coltrane's creativity and the other very talented musicians he had with him (Paul Chambers on bass, I believe).

3. Blue - Yoko Kano


Cowboy Bebop is one of those animes for which I am unapologetic fangirl. I'll acknowledge it has some flaws, but music is not one of them. From opening theme, "Tank," to ending credits music, "Real Folk Blues," every episode of that show has brilliant original songs. "Blue," is one of the most powerful. The children's chorus really gives it a big boost, as Patrick Bateman would say.

4. Blue Moon - Frank Sinatra


I love Sinatra. I mean who doesn't? Blue Moon is an old standard but Sinatra really did I think the iconic version of it here. It has just the right blend of comfy jazziness and melancholy. This song practically made Fallout: New Vegas for me (well, this and Big Iron). I still love sniping death claws with the anti material rifle while this song is bumping.

5. The Beautiful Blue Danube - Johann Strauss II


Strauss is, of course, the undisputed waltz master. The Blue Danube is easily the best known, though it isn't my personal favorite of his. I always preferred the melody of Viennese Blood. Emperor Waltz is also amazing. Yet the Blue Danube endures I think because it is just so well-structured and memorable. I find myself listening to it frequently on plane trips and long train rides. It always puts my mind at ease and makes me want to do a waltz class with wifey.

Honorable Mentions

Blue Velvet - Bobby Vinton
Kind of Blue - Miles Davis (whole album)
Blue Skies - Ella Fitzgerald
Don't Fear the Reaper - Blue Oyster Cult (lol cowbells)
Blue Moon - The Marcells (another popular version)

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Startup Opportunity: The YouTube Advertiser Meltdown

So YouTube is having some trouble with advertisers of late

Many channels are seeing their revenues plummet as big companies pull their ads out of fear they will be shown in more controversial videos. I have spent the last few months exploring some of these more extreme channels and I sympathize with companies that don't want their products featured in videos about "race realism" or how illegal immigrants are ruining America. Strictly speaking it isn't censorship when Youtube removes a channel for being politically too extreme. Still, we should ask ourselves how comfortable we are with large corporations essentially setting the terms of acceptable political discourse by pressuring media platforms into banning unpopular opinions.

The problem now is more widespread than just a few companies focusing on a few political extremists. Several of the biggest media companies are now pulling ads. H3H3 did a video recently suggesting that this issue is not just about companies protecting their brand, but really more about the old media trying to undermine Google and internet advertising generally (the original video was taken down recently due to mistake in their reporting, but the above link covers their general thesis).

Regardless of the advertising companies' endgame Youtube's response has been, shall we say, unfortunate. The LGBT restricted mode fiasco did not do them any favors. It speaks to their tricky position. Some brands may indeed not want to associate with LGBT content. However putting LGBT videos in their own restricted little box is discriminatory.

So how do we resolve this dilemma? Some argue that content creators should just try to find other outlets. There is the extreme anti-copyright view that all art and content should be free anyway, and creators should make money through other means. I do not agree with this. Talented Youtubers should be able to earn a living from their work I think. But how do we allow them to get compensated for attracting viewers with quality work while giving companies control over their brands?

I see two ways forward for the internet and its creative class:

1. A smarter advertising-based model.

2. A model that does not rely on advertising.

Approach #1 is likely much easier. Youtube need not take a sledgehammer to the problem by blocking controversial channels about right wing politics, veganism, or LGBT issues. As the Guardian article shows that's only going to piss people off and lead to inane debates about censorship (omg free speech! omg they're a private company they can do whatever! omg!). The thing is, alt-right, vegan, and LGBT videos, get lots of views, and likely there are many advertisers that want those eyeballs. Dating sites, gardening tools, gun companies, for example. Give companies more targeted ways of shilling their products exactly where they want, and the advertising revenue game can continue as before.

Approach #2 is more disruptive. The idea here is to give content consumers an easy way to directly compensate content creators. I like the idea of cutting out the corporate advertiser 3rd party since advertisers tend to influence creators in unfortunate ways. The problem with this approach is really more logistical. How do you make it effortless for consumers? Patreon is a good start. It still blocks "hate speech," and is suboptimal in some other ways. But I am glad they exist.

How do we make it even easier for consumers? Cable TV and Netflix are a good standard. I pay a monthly fee, some of it goes back to creators. But what about for Youtube, or blogs, or other content sources? Perhaps what we need is a browser plugin with a wallet that allows for microtransactions. It could charge a user a penny for every page load on a creator's blog. With sufficient adoption you could have thousands of creators being directly compensated by hundreds of thousands of consumers with no advertising middleman. I'm sure others could envision far better ideas than that.

So which is right, approach #1 or #2? Perhaps the answer is:


And that's why I titled this post "Startup Opportunity." Ultimately I don't think approach #2 can work by itself. Advertising is a fundamental type of human interaction. I make something. I want to sell it. I have to tell people about it. Advertising as a concept is not going away; there's just too much money in it. However if a startup can find a way to do it smarter and / or help creators not need it, I think they could make a lot of money.

I have some ideas for both approaches but I'm kind of busy with my other project at the moment...

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Random Thoughts III

The Politically Naive Alt-Right


I found it really interesting how quick so many in the Alt Right were to jump ship on Trump after his missile strikes on Syria. I too was disappointed because it struck me as rash and contrary to his espoused philosophy of reigning in America as the world’s policeman. Yet I was not at all surprised. Just as every president before him Trump will have to compromise occasionally. He’s playing the long game and cannot be some perfectly pure incarnation of paleoconservative nationalism. To see so many of his supporters become so outraged really speaks to how green these folks are about politics.

This is an area where the Left is much stronger than the New Right. How many leftists jumped ship on Obama when he betrayed them over and over and over again? Very few. They stood by their guy to the bitter end because they knew ultimately he was pushing their vision forward however imperfectly. The New Right would do well to learn from that. Agendas have to be implemented through imperfect people via imperfect systems. Don't be a hypocrite. Criticize policies that go against your principles, but when they are carried out by leaders you support, focus on the policy. Don't jump ship on the guy the minute realpolitik comes in to play and he fails a purity test. Any movement that abandons its leaders the minute they have to make some compromise is doomed to failure.

Review: Ghost in the Shell


As a huge fan of the series I decided to subject myself to this. It turned out to be not terrible, though my expectations are quite low for any PG-13 Hollywood cross-cultural adaptation. The visuals at least were quite strong. I actually like Scarlet Johansson too. She has this sort of breathy, curvy, effortless sex appeal that I really dig (see the bar scene with Bruce Banner in Age of Ultron for a simple example). Unfortunately I don’t think she was a good fit for the role of the Major. She came across as more confused than stoic. The script didn’t do her any favors either. Ghost in the Shell doesn’t work well as an origin story. They should have done what the recent Dredd movie did and just give us a day in the life of Kusanagi and her team. Also it needed to be bloodier and have more real nudity, both for fan service purposes and to draw more visual and thematic contrasts the way the original movie did. Did we not learn from Deadpool that R-rated superhero movies can work spectacularly?

Why Female Superheroes Wear Sexy Costumes


The goal of a superhero costume is to connote power. Humans perceive attractive, sexy women as having more power. A typical man is more intimidated by the cute barista at Starbucks than Hillary Clinton. Call it male privilege. Women respond similarly, though obviously not for the same reasons. The average woman is more jealous of a lingerie model than a female prime minister. Women more so than men know the power of sexiness. A sexy woman in the right place can bring down heads of state and change the course of a nation’s history. Subconsciously we all understand this. That’s the real reason Wonder Woman has to show a good bit of cleavage.

Al Pacino Speech from Any Given Sunday


Political movements need to keep in mind 3:44 – 3:54. Good response to the purity testing issue.

Thoughts on MGTOW


I have read a good deal from anti-feminists and men's rights activists lately. One subset are the 'Men Going Their Own Way' movement. They are a group of men who refuse to have relationships with women largely because of unfair divorce laws and the belief that modern western women are corrupted. I find the movement interesting because it relates to what I have written about marriage previously and the problem of men not really having an incentive to pursue it. I sympathize with these men, especially those who have been through the hell of the family court system. I think MGTOW is a predictable response to problems with western culture. I also think it is perfectly logical as a temporary identity to allow a man to focus on self-improvement. I think where I would disagree is with those who think of MGTOW as a political solution.

The idea that men as a group will refuse marriage and then things will get so bad that the laws are changed and women come crawling back - this is an absurd fantasy. Large groups of men refusing marriage is not going to fix all that is unfair with gender relations. All it will do is create a vacuum that will be filled by more desperate men, foreigners, and eventually harsher government action. You can't fix a broken society by sitting on your hands and hoping things just get sorted out once everyone is frustrated enough. For MGTOW guys who just want to opt out and don't care about society, I really have nothing to say. But to those who think it is a viable movement for improving society, I would suggest they really examine that idea.

Ayn Rand Quote

The uncontested absurdities of today are the accepted slogans of tomorrow. They come to be accepted by degrees, by precedent, by implication, by erosion, by default, by dint of constant pressure on one side and constant retreat on the other – until the day when they are suddenly declared to be the country’s official ideology.

Review: Nier Automata


I really enjoyed this game. It has a great flow. The combat is really simple yet engrossing. I love the 'Bullet Hell' style combat as well as the hack and slash mechanics. The character designs are quite stylish and fun. The setting and story concept is also really cool. Yoko Taro's Drag-on Dragoon franchise is delightfully convoluted and audacious. Even when parts of it don't work you give it credit for its ambition. The Nier story makes for a great mix of sci-fi and fantasy. Automata leans more heavily toward the former. I was surprised how invested I felt in a story about androids and robots with no humans to be found. It is actually quite powerful. My biggest criticism is that I wanted more - more development of the antagonists and the Android world. The music is also fantastic. I'd give it 9/10 overall.

Keiyaku Kekkon Update

Finally ready to start user testing for the site. Going to recruit some folks this week to click through it in English and Japanese. Still some UI bugs to work out. It has been surprisingly difficult working out all the little kinks with menus and profiles and user messaging. I have developed a great respect for web developers. Making a really slick, nice website is not something that just happens. There are so many little choices you have to get right. Could still use help if any people are interested in the project.

Tyler Durden Speech


The most important thing he says here is that this is an age of spiritual war. He is right, particularly for those of us living comfortably in western first world nations. Our grandfathers fought in great wars on battlefields, in trenches, out in the wilderness clawing civilization out of a hostile untamed natural world. They braved natural disasters, disease, and all manner of physical suffering to build the foundations of our society, then generations later, risked swift, violent death on foreign battlefields to preserve our birthright. Now today we are called to protect and preserve that legacy, only the war now is not against nature or a foreign tyrant. Now the war is everywhere and nowhere. It is in the minds of our countrymen. It is in our cellphones. It is at the water cooler in our offices. It is in our classrooms. It is on our televisions. It is in popular music. It is in our churches. It is in the halls of congress. What nature and foreign dictators could not destroy, we may happily destroy ourselves.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Project Update

Keiyaku Kekkon

That is what I am calling it.

The Contract Marriage service.

Those are literally just the Japanese words for "Contract Marriage."

Functionality is pretty straightforward: You make a profile and a contract. The contract spells out the sort of marriage you want - specific roles, responsibilities, and expectations for the husband and wife. You can 'wink' at other users or send a 'proposal'. Recipients of proposals can then accept, reject, or counter. Kind of makes a game / business negotiation of it. Could be fun.

The site has been surprisingly fun to build. I went with a Wordpress server to start because it seemed like the easiest thing. There are a couple of dating site themes that are easy to play with too.

The tricky part so far has been the user interface (UI) and the design. I had to get help with some Craigslist contractors for those. I found a really good web designer to help with pictures and getting rid of that cookie-cutter Wordpress look. Also had some help with a few features that required some PHP hacking. I feel the same way about PHP as I do the washlet in a Japanese toilet. I respect its usefulness but prefer not to be in a situation where I need it.

The basic app works but needs A LOT of polish and testing. I bought a domain and an SSL cert and I'm also putting together a YouTube ad. With luck the thing should be ready for an open Alpha period in about a week. It'll be totally free to use during that time as the goal there is just to see the site work properly and get feedback. After that there will be a Beta period with reduced price, and then a full launch with regular pricing.

I don't anticipate it being all that popular, but it has at least been fun to make. This is the first website I've built in a long time. It's a great change of pace from my day job down in the trenches with Cassandra databases.

I tend to get distracted a lot on side projects so I am glad that I could see this one through. It hasn't even been that expensive to bootstrap on my own either. Maybe I can find a business guy interested in becoming a cofounder and get him to focus on finding users.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Allure of Esoteric Knowledge

"It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it" ~ Aristotle

The last year has been quite the intellectual journey.

Since Trump's election I have been steeped in the world of alternative media. I have spent a good deal of time on Breitbart and /r/the_donald. I have spoken with race realists on YouTube. I have explored the 'Manosphere' and learned about the MGTOW, MRA, and PUA movements. I have read the arguments for white nationalism on sites like American Renaissance.

There is a phrase for entering this world: Taking the Red Pill.

The concept of the red pill of course comes from The Matrix. It represents Neo's desire to know the truth about the world, no matter how horrifying it may be. It is a powerful symbol that plays on an under-appreciated cognitive bias; the desire to know 'secrets.'

Relevant XKCD: https://xkcd.com/610/

We all want to feel special. We like to feel as though we understand secret, complex realities that most other people do not. In that sense I think the red pill is brilliant marketing. It has sucked a lot of alienated young people (mostly men) into various internet communities. Many are echo chambers that feed on people's resentment and help them rationalize their own dysfunctional behavior. Some red pill sites and thinkers are quite good though, such as Stefan Molyneux. While I disagree with many of his ideas he is clearly very intelligent and an excellent speaker. I support a few of the better personalities on Patreon and even had drinks with Black Pigeon Speaks one time.

Ultimately I think the red pill is a predictable reaction to the inequity wrought by technological change, mass immigration, globalism, and a disingenuous mainstream media. The narrative could only be centrally controlled for so long in the internet era. The continued effort to try to control the narrative has led to everything becoming politicized. Whether it is late night comedy, the NFL, the Oscars, a public school classroom, a Disney movie - there's always an agenda that's being pushed, and people are sick of it. This is also a big part of why Donald Trump won the last election.

I have found myself sympathetic to a number of red pill ideas. I agreed with race realist Tara McCarthy about the reality of genetic differences between races and the failure of the welfare state to help black America. As far as feminism and the MRA crowd, I had a somewhat similar experience to Cassie Jaye. There is more to criticize in contemporary feminism than I had realized. Furthermore, as I have written previously on this blog, I think Trump is right to try to secure the borders.

Having my own family I think has made me more socially conservative. When you're young and single it's easy to think, "Live and let live! Who cares what the guy next door is doing? It doesn't affect me!" Then you have kids and you start to take issue with stepping over used condoms and syringes when walking to the park. I suppose by moving to Tokyo I am not very different from the wealthy leftists who push social liberalism but then move to the richest, safest, whitest part of town possible.

Like them I greatly prefer living in an environment of high social trust. Living in Japan has been enlightening in that regard. Unmanned vegetable stands, six year-olds walking to school alone, internet cafes with free drinks and videogames, people saving their seats in clubs by leaving their smartphones on a table - no way could you do any of that back in NYC. Cultural homogeneity has its advantages, and it is far easier to maintain when you also have racial homogeneity. It has made me sympathetic to the Japanese preference for strict immigration laws to maintain essentially an ethno-state. Once you condone that right for one race, you have to wonder why it shouldn't apply to others.

Digging into all this alt-right / red pill stuff can feel like going down a rabbit hole. The important thing is to maintain one's ability to rationally and dispassionately assess ideas, be they "Red Pill" or "Blue Pill." You take everything with a grain of salt. You maintain your skepticism and demand evidence for any claim. It's also vital to distinguish between facts and preferences. Wherever you ultimately land philosophically, you want to at least be able to say you arrived there using reason and adhering to well-defined principles. (Certainly do not abandon the concept of principles)