The Mastodon Experiment

I mentioned in my Blog Resolutions 2021 post that I have become somewhat dissatisfied with the whole Twitter experience. I don’t see a lot of blog traffic coming from there and I don’t get any real reader interaction at all. What I do see on Twitter is a lot of posturing and baiting. All I really want to do is announce when I post something and to address readers’ questions and feedback. Instead, more often than not, I get distracted reading others’ posts and the subsequent commentary, and pursuing pointless arguments with people who are not at all interested in hearing another point of view. This is why I started seeking other channels of communication and focusing on quality instead of quantity.

At the recommendation of a (real-life) friend, I created a Mastodon account to see what life is like on a federated social-media platform. It’s been a month, and so far, I love it! I still don’t receive a lot of feedback, but I also don’t have a huge following yet. The interactions I have had so far, though, have been much more meaningful. There is some real potential here, but perhaps I should start with a short explanation of what Mastodon is.

What is Mastodon?

In short, Mastodon is a microblogging software package that works much like Twitter. It allows you to publicly post short messages called Toots (as opposed to Tweets). Toots are limited to 500 characters and can include links and media. Unlike Twitter, Mastodon is not a private, centralized service, but is Open Source software, which means anyone can download and install it on a host. This is called an “instance” in Mastodon vernacular. While instances can operate in a stand-alone fashion, they are intended to be interconnected via the Internet, so that everyone has access to the same content across the federated platform.

The default Web interface is divided into several semi-customizable columns, so you can keep an eye on different streams of Toots called “timelines”. The “Home” timeline shows your own Toots and the Toots of those you follow. There are also columns for “Local” and “Federated” timelines that allow you to see Toots from those two scopes as well, and all timelines are filterable. Finally, there is a Notifications column that displays your Toots that have been favourited or boosted (comparable to the like and retweet functions in Twitter), as well as mentions and other information. There are also several mobile apps from which to choose, the most popular being Tootle (not sure if that is pronounced toot-ul or toot-lee).

Its also worth mentioning that Mastodon is a member of what is called the Fediverse, a collection of software platforms that communicate on a common set of protocols, such that content can be shared (to some extent) on any of the member platforms. Peertube, for example, is a federated video-sharing platform similar to YouTube. There are also multiple microblogging platforms available, so if Mastodon isn’t to your liking, it is potentially possible to reach a Mastodon audience from a different service in the Fediverse.

Your Instance Matters!

The instance you join matters — a lot! I cannot emphasize this enough. Those who say otherwise, in my opinion, do not fully grasp the concept of federation. Instances are typically themed, though some are regional. You want to sign up on an instance that includes a large(ish) number of other people who are interested in discussing the same things you are. This makes the Local timeline far more valuable. For example, as a blogger, I joined an instance for writers, so that I could converse with and learn from other writers. Trying to make good use of Mastodon by reading only the Federated timeline and all of its random posts does not seem to me to be a viable strategy. On the flip side, if the instance is reasonably small and you can be adequately engaged on the Local timeline, there is less need to follow others on the same instance and your Home timeline can remain streamlined.

It is also important to review the rules before signing up, as each instance has its own. The general understanding is that as long as you don’t break the rules of your instance, you won’t be kicked off or put in “jail” (if Mastodon even has such a function). Given what we have seen during the 2020 U.S. election season, this arrangement should have obvious benefits in terms of political free-speech over monolithic services that have the absolute power to censor any user who violates “community standards”. This is because the Mastodon user belongs to a community of peers who share the same values. The responsibility for filtering content is left with the user, and it is possible to block both individual accounts and entire instances.

There is no single, consolidated directory of instances, but there are many lists available online to help find the right instance for you. Mastodon.social is the “flagship” instance that was created by the developers of the platform and is probably still the largest with almost 540K registered users (~12.3% of the Mastodon population); however, that instance is no longer accepting new users.

The Big Picture

If you think Mastodon is small, then I you’d be correct. There is a bot that periodically sends out a graph showing the current usage and the latest one (assuming it is accurate) shows a total of ~4.4M users and ~1,270 active instances. Compared to the reported daily Twitter usage for January of approximately 190M users, Mastodon is tiny, a mere 2.3% by comparison.

But again, what good is reach if your audience is numb to your message? Tweet overload is undoubtedly a thing. The social media scroll is a productivity killer and rarely does much for motivation. Why not join a community of people with common interests who are willing to interface with you and who will actually see your messages?

So, to be blunt, bigger isn’t always better. We humans are limited in capacity and don’t scale well. It is healthier by far to thrive in a “rightsized” pond than to merely survive in an “upsized” ocean.

The End of Twitter?

While Mastodon and the Fediverse in general appear to be a step in the right direction in solving many of the Internet’s privacy and free-speech problems, the concept is relatively new and slow to spread. The masses demand a platform that is ‘easy’ and ‘safe’ to use, and are drawn to those that are trusted by their friends, churches, and schools, by the stores where they shop, and even by their dentists and hairdressers. It’s not called “mass appeal” for nothing. And they are seemingly content with following the mainstream news outlets and their favorite celebrities, and may not be all that interested in meaningful conversations with complete strangers. And that’s ok, but it also means that Twitter and the other Big Tech platforms will continue to have a major presence in the social media marketplace. Personally, as much as I’d love to kick Twitter to the curb for (if for no other reason than) it’s lopsided censorship policies that favor only certain political ideaologies, I do see some value in keeping a token presence there, and I have established a few online relationships that I would admittedly miss if I were to leave. But, if my experience continues to go as well as it has in the past month, I will likely drop Twitter as my primary form of communication in favor of Mastodon.

February 18, 2021: Established Titles, Rickrolling 2021

Established Titles

Now you too can own an estate in beautiful Scotland and earn the title of Lord or Lady at the same time. Or at least that’s what the folks at Established Titles claim. They are selling one-square-foot plots of land on a private estate for a mere $49.95 per Lord or Lady, and two-square-foot plots for $89.95 per couple. The site makes it clear, however, that improvements are not allowed on the land, as the intention is to preserve it’s natural beauty (i.e. it’s a nature preserve). It does not mention any actual transfer of title. Some people claim it is a hoax, but it seems like a novel way to fund a preserve…or maybe help someone pay off a mortgage or something.

Rick Astley in 4K 60FPS

As of two weeks ago, Rickrolling just got a lot more fun…or, at least a lot nicer looking anyways. Rick Astley’s iconic video, Never Gonna Give You Up, has been remastered in 4K 60FPS, and it’s pretty darn good! Honestly, this may have been the first time I’ve ever watched it all the way through. If anybody tries to pull this one over on me again, I hope it’s the 4K version. Check it out here on Youtube.

Pecan Coffee: Katz Texas Hill Country Pecan

Katz is a small coffee roastery located on the northwest side of Houston, Texas near the intersection of U.S. 290 and Loop 610. There is also a retail shop at that location. Their Texas Hill Country Pecan is available in both regular and decaf. They also have two flavored coffees, Chocolate Turtle Pecan and Winter Candied Pecan. Only the regular Texas Hill Country Pecan was tasted for this review.

Since 1919, the pecan tree has been the State Tree of Texas, and pecans have been exported since the Civil War. There are 254 counties in Texas. Pecan trees grow natively in over half of them. The Texas State Historical Association’s Handbook of Texas, in it’s article on the pecan industry, lists the counties that led in pecan production in the 1970s and 1980s. Due to the name of this coffee, I thought it might be interesting to see how many of these counties were actually in the Texas Hill Country.

The Hill Country is generally understood to be the area north of San Antonio and west of Austin, bounded by Interstate 35 on the east, U.S. Route 90 on the south, and Texas State Highways 55 and 29 on the west and north respectively (map). Yes, it is hilly and there are several nice rivers and lakes to visit; but unfortunately, none of the top-producing counties fall within these boundaries. San Saba, Mills, and Comache Counties are just north of Texas 29, Bell County straddles I-35 north of Austin, and Guadalupe and Gonzales Counties are east of San Antonio. All of the other counties mentioned are in other parts of the State. Having said that, pecans do grow there, and plenty of small, local companies harvest and sell them or use them to produce other foods (pecan pie, anyone?). Tourism is a large part of the local economy in the Hill Country, so the pecans are probably worth more as ingredients than as raw nuts.

Enough with the pecan trees already! On to the coffee.

Katz Coffee is a regular offering in the bulk-bin coffee aisle at H-E-B Central Market stores in North Texas. As such, there is really nothing much to say in this review about the packaging, but that it is a common, wax-lined, brown bag with a white printed label. I have seen the roaster’s bag and label online and they are very nice. The name of the coffee is printed on what appears to be a rusty piece of metal, reminiscent of the State’s old-fashioned and starkly-simple black-on-white vehicle license plates.

In the interest of full disclosure, I did try this coffee twice before writing this post: in December 2019 and again in January 2021. I took fairly good notes the first time, but never got around to writing the review. When I found myself at Central Market in January, I decided to buy a few ounces of beans, just enough for a couple of cups, to spark my memory and perhaps report on any inconsistencies.

The beans are a medium brown with a satin finish. They are small and similar in shape to peaberry beans. It is worthy of note that there were no broken or chipped beans in my samples. When I first tried this coffee in 2019, I was surprised to find an actual pecan piece in the bag (though there was only one). In 2021, however, there were many more pecans, and I think this disparity had everything to do with uneven settling in the bulk bin dispenser. The aroma is amazing! It isn’t forced, but much more natural. The grind for this bean was uneven and best described as flaky. There was no loss of scent after grinding, but the grounds seemed to be lighter in color than the surface of the beans. This was consistent between the two trials.

Let’s start with the pour-over brew since that was the one with the best result. Light, reddish in color, and thin, the pour-over was very smooth and had a very natural taste compared to other brands (not syrupy at all). The aroma persisted through the brewing process. It had a clean finish with no aftertaste to speak of. The same brew, left to cool and poured over ice, was just as good. I was not impressed, however, with the brew from the French press. It was thicker and the taste was much harsher with a bite. Cream helped, but it was still overpowering. On ice, it was muddy and unattractive. So, I definitely recommend sticking with a pour-over or regular pot for this one.

The price did not change from 2019 to 2021, holding steady at $11.99 per pound (75¢/oz). At the time of this writing, the Katz online store offers 12 oz. bags for $10.95 (91¢/oz) and 2 lb. bags for $27.95 (87¢/oz), but shipping is only free on orders of $50+. This makes Central Market the best deal available for this coffee.

Journal vs. Diary

In my previous post on the various types of journals, I defined several categories, one of which was ‘diaries’. These are personal, auto-biograhical records of a person’s life usually handwritten in a bound “blank” book. Some of these books even have the word ‘Diary’ printed across the front cover; however, others may display the word ‘Journal’ or nothing at all, which begs the question, what is the difference between a diary and a journal anyway?

When posed with questions such as these, I always like to consider first the etymology of the word (or words) in question. The following are from the Online Etymological Dictionary (OED):

journal (n.)
mid-14c., “book of church services,” from Anglo-French jurnal, from Old French jornel, “a day; time; a day’s travel or work” (12c., Modern French journal), properly “that which takes place daily,” noun use of adjective meaning “daily, of the day,” from Late Latin diurnalis “daily,” from Latin dies “day,” from PIE root *dyeu- “to shine.”

diary (n.)
1580s, “an account of daily events, a journal kept by one person of his or her experiences and observations,” from Latin diarium “daily allowance,” later “a journal,” neuter of diarius “daily,” from dies “day” (from PIE root *dyeu- “to shine,” in derivatives “sky, heaven, god”); also see -ary.

So, even though they come from different roots — dies and jour — they denote exactly the same thing: a daily record. The connotation, I think, can differ. To some, ‘keeping a diary’ is a childish thing to do. It sounds much more sophisticated to keep a journal. This perception varies by gender as well, whereas a man is far less likely than a woman to admit to writing in his diary every day, yet journals are kept by men and women alike. Is there something intrinsic about these words that cause this disparity?

Another interesting thing to note is that, though both definitions above seem to imply that a daily record is expected, many today do not put that into practice. Does journaling daily yield different benefits than doing so on an irregular or less-frequent cadence? Moreover, is there a difference in that expectation based on the word used to describe the book (diary vs. journal)?

These questions provide some avenues for future research, but in the meantime, I’d love to hear what others have to say. Please leave comments below.

Types of Journals

Before exploring the process and benefits of journaling, it seems necessary and prudent to take the opportunity to survey the breadth of items that can properly be called journals, to determine if there exists a minimum set of criteria that a journal of any type must meet as well as any natural categories into which they fall. The point of this exercise is to understand the nature of the prototypical journal and perhaps narrow the field of discussion for this series to specific kinds of journals.

Working Definition

To effectively categorize different types journals, a definition of what a journal is in the first place must necessarily be established and should be minimal enough so that a broad selection is available for evaluation. For the purpose of this exercise, a journal is defined as (1) any collection of (2) captured data (3) acquired over time and (4) recorded for future processing (5) to achieve a better understanding of a specified subject. To elaborate:

  1. collection – not just one, but many journal entries
  2. captured data – not restricted to qualitative data or any one medium
  3. acquired over time – entries are date/time stamped
  4. future processing – some purpose or reason for recording the data exists
  5. specified subject – may be a person or something else

All of the items mentioned in the remainder of this post meet these criteria. The first three are assumed in every case, and the last two, while never absent, help define the categories.

Categories

After writing the working definition, I created a list of items that fit it and I was intending to discuss each one briefly, but there were so many commonalities, that I decided to proceed directly to the categorization instead.

Diaries. Many people keep diaries, so this is probably the first type of journal that comes to mind. For anyone not familiar, these are auto-biographical records of a person’s life, traditionally hand-written in a bound book. Content is general and an entry usually includes a description of (including thoughts and feelings about) a persons’s experiences. The frequency of entries can vary widely by person. Some record a daily summary while others may only capture information about special occasions or inordinary life events. The intended audience is not fixed, though a high level of privacy is typically expected. A diary may be kept strictly for personal use and for a variety of reasons (as a tool for self-reflection or just to take an occasional stroll down memory lane) or they may be meant for consumption by others (e.g. to be passed down directly to future generations or used as an aid in the writing of one’s memoirs). Much of what we know about historical figures and events come from diaries.

Topical Journals. The journals in this category are also personal in nature, but instead of being general in content, they are narrowly focused on specific topics. Examples include professional/work journals, travel journals, reading journals, dream journals, prayer journals, most blogs, etc. The targeted nature if such journals implies some maturity in the practice of journal keeping. The author has some purpose or goal in mind. Frequency is dictated by the topic itself, but unlike diaries, the author probably has an intended audience. I want to cover some of these in more detail in later posts.

Planners. Can a daily planner be considered a journal in reverse? Events are recorded as reminders before they occur, which can provide insight about the author’s intentions and priorities in life. Planners are poor in biographical information unless they are also used to record notes about events, however brief they may be. Of course, planners are intended for personal use only, as they are viewed primarily as a planning tool (one exception being the shared online calendar), and they may be either general or specific in scope, examples of the latter being planners used specifically for work or school.

Logbooks. We now bridge the gap into journals that are not personal per se, meaning that the primary subject/topic of writing is not the author. For example, captains of ships keep log books to document the details of voyages and missions. Pertinent information would include dates of departure and arrival in various ports, details about the ship’s crew, cargo and passengers, descriptions of weather-related events and assessments of damage or loss, and anything else that may be of interest to someone who has a vested interest in the success of the venture. To this end, the logbook is never intended for personal use only, but is a matter of corporate or even public record. Of course, the captain’s (or other officers’) thoughts and decisions are also recorded, even if indirectly, so some insight may be gained about the author(s). Ship’s logs are but one example of journals in this category. Scientists keep journals to record the designs and outcomes of experiments, and computer system administrators often keep server logs to record changes made to the computers under their charge. In all of these cases, it should be noted that a move to digital record keeping has become ubiquitous in the modern age.

Transaction Logs. For the sake of completeness, one more type of journal should be recognized here, and this is the transaction log. In the world of accounting, transactions are recorded in the form of journal entries, either in a general journal or one of several special journals. Also in this category we could include fuel logs to help track the history of gasoline consumption and economy. These are almost always quantitative in nature, at least partially, and almost never personal, unless habit trackers are included in this category. To provide timely information, transaction logs are processed fairly frequently. Obviously, this is not what most people are going to think of when journaling is mentioned; nonetheless, it fits my working definition of a journal.

Conclusion

The working definition above seems to be adequate, as it resulted in a broad range of items as intended. Looking back at my initial plans for this series, do have a few things to say about diaries and logbooks, but my main focus remains on reviewing different types of topical journals and planners. Both can have a positive impact on self-improvement.


February 4, 2021: Black Catholics, Dustin Diamond, Radio School

Black Catholics

In celebration of Black History Month, Simply Catholic (a division of Our Sunday Visitor) published an article titled Celebrating the Contributions of Black Catholics, which highlights the accomplishments of eleven Black Catholics, four of which are on the path to canonization as saints! Amongst the eleven are former slaves, defenders of equality, notable clergy and religious, and even Chicago’s first settler.

Dustin Diamond

Dustin Diamond, most famous for his role as Screech Powers on the television show Saved by the Bell, died from a very aggressive form of lung cancer a few days ago on February 1st. He was 44. As a fan of the show, this saddens me greatly. Reading a few articles about his life, I learned a few things. I knew that his career wasn’t stellar after SBTB, but I was not aware that had filed for bankruptcy shortly thereafter. He was also arrested, once on a weapons charge and again for violating probation. Here are a few other interesting facts: he was Jewish, but attended Lutheran school as a child, his middle name was Neil (his parents must have been big fans), and he died at a friend’s house. R.I.P., Screech.

Radio Remote Education

The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 prompted schools and teachers to adjust to new ways of reaching students remotely, but the use of ‘modern’ technology to achieve distance education is not new. When Chicago endured a polio epidemic in 1937, local schools delivered instruction via “radio school”. Seven stations donated air time, and class schedules were printed by local newspapers.

Blog Planning: February 2021

January’s Agile blog planning exercise was a success! I more-or-less accomplished everything on the list. So, I am excited to post my plan for February.

February Plan

There is still a lot of work to do as I reformat posts and pages using the new theme and WordPress’ block layout, but I have to balance that work with posting new items as well.

  • Overhaul the Photography page!
  • Reformat posts of 1st & 2nd Century Early Church Fathers
  • Texas Pecan Coffee Challenge continues:
    • Two reviews from existing notes (Katz & Lola Savannah)
    • One new tasting (TBD)
  • Journaling
    • Survey of different types of journals in general
    • In-depth look at two (maybe three) types of journals

January Recap

Those familiar with Scrum might expect a Sprint Review and/or Retrospective. I never planned to do these formally, but here is a recap of January’s activities:

Pecan Coffee: World Market Bourbon Pecan

World Market currently carries three lines of store-brand coffee: regular, direct trade, and flavored. These are my classifications, as there is no explicit delineation on the company’s website, but they come in distinctively different packaging. Bourbon Pecan is in the flavored line alongside Chocolate Hazelnut, Caramel Macchiato, and Stroop Waffle. It is also marketed as “Limited Edition”.

First impressions always begin with the packaging. The bag is a handsome brown foil similar in color to tarnished copper and it bears a plain cream-colored label, rectangular save for the chevron cut at the bottom. The label has a woodcut design with sienna brown lettering and a golden rod graphic of a moose and leaves. The palette is warm, welcoming, and well-coordinated. The label boasts “100% Arabica beans roasted with the nutty flavors of pecan & a hint of bourbon” and “Ingredients: coffee natural & artificial flavors”. There is also a label with a “best before” date on the bottom of the bag.

Looking at the grounds, they are of medium coarseness and not at all uniform. In fact, there is quite a bit of coffee dust mixed in. At least three different sizes of particles are readily identifiable. This one, like the Mystic Monk before it, is very aromatic. Since I opened this bag after I started working from home, there aren’t any coworkers around to comment on how good it smells; on the contrary, some members of the household expressed that it was way too strong and “syrupy”. Indeed, I think it goes above and beyond the “hint” of bourbon promised on the label.

I experimented with several hot-brewing methods for this coffee: pot, cup-top, and French press. The coffee pot, our ever-faithful Cuisineart Brew Central, and the ubiquitous Melitta cup-top brewer produce incredibly consistent results. The taste is bold but balanced. It is not sharp, but rolls around the mouth nicely and tends to linger on the back of the tongue. The French press brew was way too strong. It didn’t taste burnt, so I don’t think it had to do with the beans, but perhaps just the flavoring.

The Bourbon Pecan also really shines as an creamed, iced coffee, making it comparable, in my opinion, to the Starbucks Frappuccino bottled coffees. And it doesn’t require any additional sugar! In this case, the strength of the French press brew proved valuable. Since everyone was tired of the smell, I attempted to cold brew the Bourbon Pecan, but unfortunately, the result was a very weak coffee, even after two or three days of soaking the grounds.

All of this considered, I definitely recommend the World Market Bourbon Pecan as a great iced option, and it makes for a good seasonal coffee for autumn and winter. Just be aware that it is heavy on the flavoring and may not be a good choice for the coffee purist.

I Hate Journaling! (Not Really.)

I have a quirky little tradition of starting every new journal with a statement about how much I hate keeping a journal. Kind of ironic reading that on a blog, right? And while the statement is not completely true — I don’t actually hate the idea of keeping a journal — it does adequately capture the first emotion I feel every time I start one anew. You see, I’ve kept journals for various reasons, some more narrow in scope than others, but one thing they all have in common is that I have neglected (at best) or abandoned (at least once) every last one of them. Case in point, I just opened my most recent “personal history” journal (I don’t like the word ‘diary’ but more on that later) and the last entry is dated November 29, 2013! That was just over seven years ago. After that, it became a sketchbook. I turned back to the first page, and yep, there it is, dated August 1, 2012: “I loathe journaling! But I’m going to do it anyway.” That statement didn’t age well.

The first time I recall using this horrid little convention was in a college literature class. The professor required us to keep a reading journal that semester and (if memory serves) the first entry was supposed to be a sort of introduction and discussion of our expectations for the class. For whatever reason, I decided to include a few lines confessing my lack of journaling skills and distaste for the exercise in general. The prof collected the journals at some point to grade them, and I seem to remember her writing some encouraging commentary in the margin for that entry. I don’t think I was trying to lowball expectations. I was just being brutally honest with myself and the teacher. She probably appreciated that, and it didn’t affect my grade, so — no harm, no foul, right? And thus the practice continued, first as an inside joke for myself and then out of habit. On the bright side, it has served me well as a way to overcome writer’s block for that very first entry..on a very blank page..of a very new, pristine book. It gets me over the hump, but I don’t like doing it because it is a crutch.

Truth be told, I really do want to be good at keeping a journal, and I can think of at least half-a-dozen (poor) excuses for why I am not. I don’t have time. I am inconsistent. I don’t know what to write. How personal do I get? I don’t like my handwriting. And the list goes on. I’m sure I’m not alone in this regard. In this short series of posts, I want to explore the practice of keeping a journal and the benefits of doing so. I hope to identify and remove the impediments that hinder me and learn to approach journaling in a more intentional way.

Blog Planning: January 2021

In keeping with my New Years Blog Resolutions, I have started planning my blog posts using a basic Agile framework. I thought it would be an interesting experiment to publish my blog plan for January. For those familiar with Scrum, this would be like posting the Sprint Backlog after the Sprint Planning session. To paraphrase Uncle Ben’s famous adage: with transparency comes great accountability!

  • Site Reorganization – Photography, Vatican II, Early Church Fathers & Technology page updates
  • Texas Pecan Coffee Challenge – Trying to wrap this up; ~5 coffees left to review
  • Journaling – New series of posts exploring the process and benefits of keeping a journal

I have some ideas for one-off posts and some additions to My Stack that are not represented here, but that’s ok, as they are not major undertakings. Please leave any suggestions, questions, or feedback in the comments below.