warpedvisions.org

ESSAYS, HOW-TO ARTICLES, AND GENERAL MAKERY BY BRUCE ALDERSON.

I have a reminder on my TODO list that haunts me weekly:

Problem: I’m not writing.

Sometimes I snooze it, sometimes I check it off. Sometimes I start to draft something and then I lose interest. I leave the task on the list as I really should be writing more. I enjoy writing and writing is good for me.

There are a bunch of things getting in my way, but honestly I haven’t felt like myself for a few years, almost a brain fog. Working from home during lockdown was emotionally draining. Work itself is challenging enough that I don’t always have much left at the end of the day. Even my non-work life has thrown a few curveballs. But the most frustrating thing is that I have been struggling with imposter syndrome.

The first time I heard the term imposter syndrome was only a few years ago. It was around the time I started to focus more time managing engineers and less on system design and coding. I’m a good people manager and I’ve led many teams through many releases, but my core skills have always been in software. When switching to engineering management and product management I started to feel less confident.

Software is much more predictable than people stuff. I like that it’s easy to see immediate results with software, and it’s easy to prove out approaches using facts, maths, and code. I also just love the process of designing and building software. It’s been a dream of mine since I was a kid.

Managing people, on the other hand, is much less predictable. It takes longer to see results. People and processes are more difficult to measure. And at the end of the day, managing people is another level of abstraction away from making software. There are many parts of managing people I enjoy, especially when I can clear distractions, advocate for people struggling to make changes happen, and help people learn and grow.

I shifted over to product management last summer. It’s a lot closer to building software, and I can apply my experience of system and design to bridge product thinking and engineering. I feel far more productive and my confidence has improved.

But I’m still not writing.

Well, that’s not entirely true, the problem is that I’m not publishing. I have dozens of essays started that I either lost interest in or wasn’t happy with. I have also been noodling on a number of product ideas, specs, and logs. I enjoy that writing, but I haven’t felt like any of it was worth publishing. Again, there are a number of reasons I haven’t liked anything I’ve written, but at the root of it is that I haven’t been writing about what I love. My writing hasn’t sounded like me for a while. Somehow I lost my voice and my confidence.

Earlier this year I moved my site from one service to another. As part of the process I reread every essay I had published in the last 20+ years. I liked some of what I saw, but there was a lot of it I wasn’t proud of. Some of it was rushed, some of it sounded arrogant, and some of it was just outdated. It felt good to pare down my essays to my favourites, but it left me with a lingering feeling that maybe I shouldn’t be publishing my stuff. I mean, what do I know?

And that’s imposter syndrome in a nutshell. For me it feels that I’m not as good at what I love to do as I thought I was. It feels like impending failure. It’s watching my confidence slowly ebb away, which feeds back into how I perceive myself. The effect is amplified by working remotely, watching myself on Zoom calls while I lead teams through sprints and projects. There are very few things as demotivating than watching yourself, feeling awkward, and watching yourself become more awkward.

Every once and a while I am lucky enough to be reminded that I am not a failure. I use these reminders to reset my perspective. I try to also remember that most people will feel imposter syndrome at some point, and that encouraging and reminding others that they are fantastic is a great way to lead.

I find trends in style guidelines interesting, especially when shared style guides lag language usage in the wild. I have observed a shift in headline style from Title Case to Sentence case in the majority of commercial publications online. I've also found a general improvement in clarity from the most reliable publishers, mostly due to well understood in house style guidelines.

Common headline formats

There are for general formats used for headlines today, with some publications using multiple methods depending on the feed source.

  1. “Sentence case” is used in most established online publications in 2022.
  2. “Title Case” Lags in Usage
  3. “Start Case,” Or Tabloid Case, Also Lags In Usage
  4. “ALL CAPS,” THANKFULLY ALSO LAGS IN USAGE”

Headline case sample, February 2022

Chart tracking top 25 publications in US, Canada, and the UK.

Surprisingly, a small number of top publications use multiple formats for headlines. This is likely due to differing requirements by different news engines and stylistic choices between different levels of design hierarchy.

Other types of letter case were not in use in any of the sampled publications.

Does letter case even matter?

The way that text is formatted changes how we read it, even if subtly. It hints at what is important, what isn't, and the way the words play back in our brains. It can speed up or slow down our comprehension, and even give a phrase a sense of style.

For example: I read different types of headlines in my head using different voices, which for me hint at an increasing level of ridiculousness:

  1. Sentence case: a conversational summary, the way that a Dan Rather might preface a story with.
  2. Title Case: starts to sound like a 1950s radio or film announcer reading a headline. I imagine J. K. Simmons (from Spiderman) reading these, or the more classic David Kaye (from Disney's UP) reading as a Newsreel announcer. This one feels fun.
  3. Start Case: progresses towards a 1950s newsie hawking daily papers on the street corner.
  4. ALL CAPS: is the full-on satirical version of 3 that is loud and abrasive, unless the font size is toned down.

There are legitimate uses for each style, from portraying a serious tone, to adding emphasis, and then towards the less serious satirical style used by many tabloids. The texture of how we break down headlines is affected by the case, punctuation, and language too. These are interesting design tradeoffs we can consider when defining a brand or publication style.

Deviation from the AP and other traditional guides

There is a difference between the more traditional style guides and what we're seeing online in 2022. The divide trends towards more clarity and less hyperbole to reinforce trust in a a publication. I suspect that at least part of the motivation is that Sentence case is simpler to write in an online world, requiring significantly less training and editorial time. I also believe that, generally, Sentence case is easier to scan quickly.

It's important to remember that there are many language style guides (at the time of writing, this list is missing the CP guide). Guidelines help define a voice for various types of publications, and those differing voices are important.

The Associated Press continues to recommend the long running standard Title Case for headlines:

In AP style, headlines capitalize the first word, proper names, or proper abbreviations, verbs, pronouns, adjectives, and adverbs. (source)

The Chicago Manual of Style also continues to recommend a variant of Title Case (though their standard is behind a paywall).

Canadian and British styles differ from the classic US styles, mostly focusing on Sentence case (in both the CP and OED), which explains my strong bias towards it. The muted style reads evenly, and the gradients of choppiness in the more capitalized formats starts to feel less balanced as it graduates to ALL CAPS.

I find that switching case mid-thought delays how we parse phrases as we read. That flow is important to how we perceive meaning. Letter case, combined with language and punctuation affects how we perceive the summary intent of a headline. Balancing these carefully and intentionally is an important part of any brand or publication feel.

Headlines are the tip of the iceberg

As you dive into the various style guides, the devil is certainly in the details. A cheatsheet for the Canadian Press Stylebook lists various correct and incorrect word usages, spellings, and letter case. Each style guideline has a long list of exceptions and special cases, and editors spend many years becoming intimately familiar with their brand's feel and flair.

I find the rules around human language fascinating. We're transporting thoughts between humans with varying efficiency and purpose. We have the ability to play with the various toggles and levers to accomplish this teleportation of thought. It's absolutely magical ✨.

This is the 40th evolution of warpedvisions.org. It's now running on WriteFreely, hosted by Write.as. WriteFreely is a minimalist writing platform built on Go, LESS, and plain old vanilla Javascript. It's a speedy platform that feels nice to write in.

This is also the 40th Warped theme. Not all 40 versions made the light of day, mind you, but I've hacked together all of these themes as a sort of playground of tech and design approaches. The process of building out a theme for a platform tells you a lot about the platform.

It turns out that the process of designing a theme for a site forces you to think about what you're trying to say and how you want to be seen. I decided that I needed a place to write that didn't get in my way, presented simply and clearly.

The theme is based it on my previous (and ageing) WP theme. I dialled back the colours and complexity a bit so that it fit better with the platform, and dropped the Google web fonts to promote better privacy (and because I was being lazy). The process forced me to relearn vanilla JS, and I ported a few simple helpers from my old sites as part of the process.

About WriteFreely and Write.as

I immediately liked the writing interface. It's minimal and in Markdown (optionally at least). The app stays out of your way, while allowing some basic CSS and Javascript theming. Write.as allows you to host 3 sites at the Pro level, and offers domain name mapping, basic pages, tags, and some publishing mojo.

The entire import and build took me about a week of evenings, maybe 10 hours to import the top 60 or so posts from my old site and set up a new theme. The process was as simple as exporting WordPress posts as text, reformatting as proper Markdown, and pasting them in by hand. It is possible to script the upload using their CLI tool, but I wanted to review each article I added so I could fix the formatting and adjust the site CSS.

I did end up having to script some Markdown cleanup as the combination of 17 generations of WordPress posts and Pandoc produced some funky Markdown. The biggest issues were around wrapped lines, extra image tag formatting, and indentation that didn't work well with Write.as. Most of these were repairable with simple regex substitutions, but a few had to be fixed by hand.

What's next for Warped?

I haven't written much over the past few years. Most of this was the shift to working from home, and some of it was related to starting a new job and building out a new business unit.

I've been itching to write and find my voice again, but WordPress was getting in my way as I just want to write. The last straw was a botched WordPress upgrade that required fixing some old plugins, realizing my theme needed work to support current WordPress tooling, and the general annoyance of how unproductive writing in WordPress is for me.

I've been playing around in PICO-8, working on some generative art ideas. Lua is a fun little language that feels a lot like something between BASIC and JavaScript. Lua isn't my favourite language, but it's fun at the small scale. PICO-8, however, is a fantastic little game engine (or “Fantasy Console”) that has all of the feels of the 80s.

First tests

I started with a Minecraft style terrain generator, but as 2D tyles:

It was a fun attempt and performed reasonably well that I filed away under maybe later.

My second attempt was a stamp generation tool, that defines some simple verbs and nouns for generating art, and applies it to coloured tiles:

The third test evolves on the previous and improves the performance significantly:

I'm working on taking the basic concepts from these tests and building a Swift/iOS version that adds some interactivity. We'll see how that goes!

#pico8 #weblog

I've been using Pico-8 as a virtual playground for playing with generative art ideas. Pico-8 is a highly constrained virtual machine that behaves a lot like a personal computer from the 1980s. It has a fixed colour palette, limited memory, limited screen size, and a simplified programming model using Lua. The constraints make it a great place to scale down ideas and quickly finish demos and prototypes.

This week I'm toying with generative art ideas, starting with a tool that stamps the screen in various patterns. I'm hoping to evolve these prototypes into a general plotter library, but for now I'm focused on making things that look cool, as a way to play in generative code again.

One of my demos this week is a GTIA style plotter that simulates a weird 80s graphic chip that drew wide pixels, but coloured in a way that produces some fun random patterns:

#pico8

One of my art projects last year was an attempt at nerdy art in a retro PCB style:

The idea was to use traces and board shapes to make something fun. After some hours of sketching and vector work I liked the results, but found that the general look isn't as interesting as I thought it could be. That's how art goes sometimes; idea, reasonable execution, and fizzle fizzle. And that's okay.

#Art

I set up a new dev laptop for myself over the Christmas holidays. I took the opportunity to burn down my old environment and to survey the 2021 tool landscape, which included testing out various terminals and setups, editors, and fonts. This year I discovered Fira Code, a tidy little monospace font that supports ligatures.

Ligatures are two or more letters (or graphemes) that can be combined to make a single glyph. The result of combining letters into these ligatures can make complex syntax a bit easier to read, especially if you are familiar with the notations the concepts are based on.

Fira Code in Nova

Fira Code has installation instructions for most platforms, though be aware that most editors have additional requirements to enable the automatic display of ligatures.

#Weblog

In the last year I read a lot less than normal, while at the same time I watched more streaming shows than I’m used to. I’ve been busier with work, in addition to what’s shaping up to be a crazy year. Stress and burnout kill my ability to focus on long form reading, which is something I’m working hard to counteract. Sometimes just forcing myself to read a book is the best medicine imaginable.


Books and other things in print. I am finding a groove of reading that embraces what’s available on the web and in electronic books. I used to feel weird about reading online, but now I see the huge value in small scale publishing. For example, there are veins of computing history on the web, where you can get lost for hours. Writing like this exists all over the web, and has all the feels of losing yourself for days in your local library.

I spent several weekends reading my way through my stack of Oliver Sacks books, including Hallucinations, The Mind’s Eye, and the classic The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat. I love reading about the brain, as it gets me thinking about how our thinking can fail us even in the best of conditions. It’s humbling to think about how our brain can break down.

I also read a book of stories about addiction (In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction) by local author Gabor Maté MD. I once met Dr. Maté on the downtown East side and have always been in awe of (and fascinated) by his work.

A friend gave me a copy of Masters of Doom, which I read over a weekend this Spring. The story of iD Software always inspires me to think about engine design. The tale of how Carmack and Romero escaped their humble origins maps closely to my own, which triggered a good deal of important and healthy introspection and nostalgia for me.

I read my way through several cookbooks this year, including Hamburger America, a compendium of classic American burgers. This is one of those books (and YouTube series) that changed how I think about a thing, as it turns out you can make great burgers using pretty much every cooking technique imaginable (i.e., there really is no single best way). I still prefer a good smash burger, but now have mad respect for pretty much any well considered approach to burger design. And yes, I do consider creating burgers a design problem.

I also read through Kenji’s The Food Lab. Read this book if it’s the only cookbook you’ll ever read. It uses science, experimentation, and good taste to put together a way to think about food. To me, it’s the distillation of all of the last few decades of chefs, and easily one of the most important books of my lifetime (thanks Kenji!). This book pairs well with a good IPA and both Ugly Delicious (David Chang) and The Chef Show (Favreau/Choi). These two food shows are also the best things to come out of this strange era.

I did re-read a few novels over the last 18 months, but nothing really stands out. I don’t really get into novels when I’m busy, which is on my list to improve over the next few years.


Essays and long reads. I read a lot more online this year. The web has hit a critical mass of great (but hard to find) writing, as well as an unfortunate pinnacle of garbage advertising and signup forms. I work past the absurdity of online advertising by using Instapaper. You can see what I’m reading here.

One essay that stood out last year was The Sinking of the Leviathan II, the story of a passenger vessel that sank off the coast of Tofino B.C. (a local fishing/vacation town). It’s one of those essays that will make you cry, so be warned.

There are hundreds of other essays that filled my year. I’m thankful for all of the crazy folks who take the time to write and publish online, even more so those who do so without ruining their sites with aggressive advertising.


Streaming movies and series. 2019 and 2020 have been the year of streaming for us here. There have been dozens of fantastic fictional and non-fictional adventures to explore during lockdown and our long Vancouver winters. I am thankful for all of it, and am amazed at the amount of effort humanity pours into the whole process of taking our minds on adventures.

A few things stand out for me:

  • Tales from the Loop (Amazon Prime) was filmed in Winnipeg and was our daughter’s first experience as a DIT. We watched in a few days, as any proud parents would. It’s at least a 6/10 (if not 7). It’s dark, weird, and filmed in a way that feels interesting.
  • WestWorld season 3 was just perfect. Somewhere between season 1 and the Matrix.
  • The Great British Bake-off was a bright light in this year of weird presidents and lockdown. People helping each other, creating things, and enjoying the process of learning together. The Canadian version was also pretty fantastic.
  • JoJo Rabbit was the weirdest, most uncomfortable, and funny thing I’ve seen in a long time. It took me a while to figure out if it was okay to laugh at Nazi jokes yet, but I think this one got the balance right. Absurdity sometimes deserves a poignant jab or two.

Other great streaming things:

  • We also greatly enjoyed a few Canadian shows this year, including Schits Creek (for its soft and thoughtful look at relationships and growth), Kim’s Convenience (as it felt so oddly Toronto to us).
  • The Chef Show was 100% fantastic. Favreau and Choi made me appreciate the small things in the kitchen (and we all spent a lot more time in our kitchens this year).
  • Ugly Delicious reminded us all of how good food is more important than beautiful food. I still post food shots to instagram for future memories, but it’s all about the flavor and history, and of course finding the delicious in a thing.

There were so many other fantastic streaming things. Series and miniseries are the new movies these days. Being able to disappear into a universe for 10-20 hours is an amazing and greatly privileged thing to do.

#MediaDiet

2010 has come and gone. I've shipped a few projects, each a number of times. I've registered dozens of domain names and dropped a few of the older ones. I've started (but not finished) a dozen spare time projects. I've had hundreds of new ideas, and a few of them were even interesting. I've learned a lot, but not enough (it's never enough). I've expanded my horizons and gotten stuck in ruts. I've gained weight and I've lost weight.

But in the end none of that matters. The real question is, what have I learned?

I'm overworked.

I don't like it, I have a choice, and yet I do it anyway? WTF? Working as much as I do gets less done with poorer quality. The prolonged, unproductive stress is a quick path to burnout and apathy, both of which are the enemy.

There are holes in my knowledge and experience.

I need to spend time learning around the stuff I work on every day, and study things I haven't used for a while. I must grok more. I must not rush past the details I don't need now, as I'm missing out on a universe of useful things.

I don't contribute enough.

I need to get involved in a more recent OSS project and post more of my personal stuff to Github. I also need to get back to teaching programming.

I need focus.

Simpler, polished, less fat, and finished. I need to pick fewer projects and complete them, while still taking time to play with new ideas. New ideas are handy for learning new things, and polish and shipping develop my endurance. A lot of what I need to learn is how to say, “No, but ...” more tactfully. And sometimes I just need to say, “Fuck off.”

I need to breathe in as much as I breathe out.

The rate I make stuff has to be met with feeding my inner maker, and the pace of both needs to be tempered with rest and exercise. Wax on, wax off.

Me time.

I get a lot done when reflecting and day dreaming. Even taking the time for a long lunch is a good investment. I need to slow the fuck down and feed myself and my muse. Skipping lunch to work? Why do I do this?

Great tools really matter.

They're the difference between a bloody knuckle and a perfect build. Why did I spend so long using crappy commodity hardware and fix-it-yourself software and systems? I must continue to hunt down and use good tools, stepping around the piles of shit that are out there.

Great people matter even more than great tools.

People are multipliers, and I need to work with the people who are both positive numbers and much greater than one.

I am wrong more than I'm right.

The real trick is learning to figure out which is which. Take commuting for example, it sucks a lot less than I remembered. In fact, I really enjoy it. Remembering that I'm wrong makes it possible to see it when I am.

And over everything else, don't lose the passion.

I love the rush I get when I finally grok something interesting, the insane joy of starting a new design, the comfort I find in crafting software the right way, and the feeling I get when I finally ship something.

#Weblog

I was looking at buying a set of PFEIL carving tools this year, but was holding off as they're pretty pricy. I expanded my search a bit and found a similar set from a local Canadian company, Lee Valley Tools. They're hardened steel with a comfortable wooden handle. They sharpen easily (and keep their edge well), and feel like they will last a lifetime. They're also ⅓ the price of the PFEIL tools.

$49 (CAD) block carving tools at Lee Valley Tools

#Art

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