What I Learned About The State of Online Creation While Building a Web Comics Feed Aggregator

Web comics were a big part of what I used to like about the old – pre-social-media – Internet. Diesel Sweeties, Penny Arcade, PVP, My Extralife, Nothing Nice to Say, Orneryboy, etc. I’m not sure exactly how it happened, but I just sort of forgot that web comics existed for a good decade plus. Sure some of these classics quit publishing and I think my sense of humour shifted away from others. Whatever the case, it really seems like web comics are back. Or at the very least my interest has been reignited.

Now that I’m back in to comics, I’m bumping into an old problem. There’s not a great centralized location to read everything. In the past I’ve read web comics inside an RSS reader. But RSS readers never felt like the right context, their UI is too ridged, too geared towards written content or something.

Do a search for “web comics reader” and you’re get various websites. Outdated websites from the early days of web comics. You’ll also find webtoons.com, a site that’s taking a good stab at solving this problem. I just don’t like it.

Enter webfunnies.online. The beauty of an open internet is the ability for anyone with some development skills to build their own solution to a problem, just the way they like it.

In the process of looking through dozens of web comics, I discovered some troubling things about the state of online creation.

RSS

RSS still exists as a solid machine-readable way to syndicate arbitrary content.

However creators seem to have forgotten it exists. Less than 50% of the web comics sites I visited advertised and RSS link, even though every one of those made an RSS feed available and published it in the HTML source.

Perhaps this is a moot point since feed readers are good at automatically discovering the

Content Ownership

A large contingent of content owners are publishing original content exclusively to platform like reddit, instagram and patreon. Platforms they don’t own or control. By “exclusively” I don’t mean that they are getting paid to post on those platforms (though in the case of Patreon may be). I just mean that they are posting original artwork directly to those platforms. They simply using those platforms as quick and dirty hosting.

To put in another way, they are giving their intellectual property for free, to for-profit corporations who are using it to sell advertisements.

This does not sit right with me. And I’m not even an artist.

The case for Facebook… or something like it

I am about to write something that is extremely unpopular amongst my peers in 2019: I like Facebook and I think can can be part of a healthy and productive online diet.

Facebook has been getting high profile negative press almost daily, for what seem like a solid year. A lot of it is well warranted — Mark Zuckerberg seems to have a problematic view of privacy — and a lot of it may be FUD.

This post is not a defense of Facebook.

If you want to read a defense of Facebook, take a look at my post on Cambridge Analytica last year.

A year or two after its public launch Facebook was an objectively good product that added value to the world. It presented a set of online tools in a way that was easy to use by completely average internet users. The features everybody flocked to are still in existence in the Facebook of today, they’re just largely buried under piles of garbage.

Allow me to explain.

Connecting with long lost friends and distant relatives.

When I first joined Facebook it was a lot fun to connect with the kids I used to eat lunch with in the cafeteria every day in high school or that one guy you shared homeroom with in grade 7. At the time it was a novel way to connect with people, it felt groundbreaking and overwhelmingly, it felt good.

Over the years the novelty has worn off obviously. And Facebook’s emphasis on “News Feeds”, combined with people’s penchant for posting contentious content (or the algorithm’s encouragement of this content) has make these distant connections more tenuous. From what I’ve seen around me, I think Facebook can seem like a stereo-typically bad, never-ending, year round Thanksgiving Dinner. It can can feel bad.

But I really do think at it’s core, the ability to connect with your wife’s Grandma who lives in Edmonton could and should have a positive impact on the world.

Photo Sharing

Facebook was the first place that made it easy for me to share photos with a group of people. My extended family started to join Facebook right around when my kids were born, so I ended up using this feature quite a bit at the time.

Unfortunately, photo sharing has really fallen by the wayside. I don’t use this feature any more and have even gone so far as to migrate photos from Facebook to Google Photos.

Even so, I know my mom and others would still prefer the simplicity of sharing photos inside Facebook, rather than installing yet another app.

Messenger

Facebook Messenger is a decent, cross-platform instant messaging client. It’s almost my defacto Messaging app (especially now that I switched to Android). However, I do think there are some legitimate privacy concerns, so I actually don’t like using this one.

Facebook Connect

When it launched, Facebook Connect was groundbreaking. The ability to enable account signup/creation on other sites/apps without needing to enter a password or any other account information was amazing. It was a real move forward for online security.

It still performs that function well, I’m just a little wary of how Facebook is using these connections.

Groups

I don’t use groups much personally. But they actually seem like a decent way to keep up to speed on a given niche or a local community. My wife always seems to know what’s happening at our school and in our neighbourhood, immediately. This feels good. This feels like the thing the internet was built for.

Sure groups contain a fair bit of random gossip, the occasional spammer, asshole and that sort of thing. But I think that fact that groups are self-moderated goes a long way into keeping these communities sane.

Groups feels like something Facebook should be focusing on more.

So What?

The media has been proclaiming Facebook’s death since the day after it launched. I first commented on people quitting Facebook 9 years ago. Maybe it’s more real this time, it’s hard to say. If I was more conspiracy minded, I might suggest that some nefarious puppet-master is leading a concerted effort to bring down Facebook. Or maybe just push down the stock price for a big short.

As it stands, I feel trapped. There are absolutely no alternative to the type of “friends and family” community Facebook enables. There aren’t even any up-and-coming social networks in development that I’m aware of.

At the same time, continuing to use Facebook seems like a mistake. If the dubious advertising and privacy practices aren’t enough to keep me away. Most of the posts that find there way to the top of my page are upsetting and I find myself hitting “mute” a lot.

IMHO Facebook could do well to focus on those core features that brought people to the platform in the first place.

So what now? Thoughts?



BTW I’ve written a lot about Facebook in the past. I’ve linked some of my favourite posts above. But I think the full 12 year archive is pretty interesting. Check it out.

Netflix for My Dad

My parents bought their first new TV in roughly 20 years, replacing an ancient tubed dinosaur with a modern smart TV. Last night I set up Netflix for them.

My dad is nearly 70, recently retired and finding himself with a lot of extra free time. He’s worked hard all of his life and hasn’t had much time or energy for movies and TV in 30 or 40 years. Suffice to say, Netflix’s library thousands of movies and TV shows extremely daunting to someone who has almost zero exposure to pop culture.

With that in mind I set it upon myself to come up with some recommendations. It was a lot more challenging than I expected!

My Criteria.

Not ultra violent or sex-filled. I’m confident my dad would be turned off by most everything with a MA or hard R ratings. That said, he was a long haul trucker so language is less of an issue 😉

Set in our universe. No lightsabers, phasers, magic wands, zombies, vampires, super heroes, etc. I get the sense these sorts of elements would be too distracting and take him out of the experience. It’s easy to forget how much we suspend disbelief in order to enjoy more fantastical movies. I’ve included one exception to this rule on my list – Guardians, it’s a good introduction to the more comedic Marvel movies and I’m really just interested what he’ll think of it.

No Animation. See above. Though if Pixar movies were still on Netflix I’d have included a few.

Well rated. I don’t want him to be turned off by bad movies. As inspiration I combed through Rotten Tomatoes’ top 100 movies for each of the past 25 years. Get Smart is an exception to this rule, included because I know he liked the old TV show.

No TV Series. I thought about including TV shows, but jumping in to a show on episode 1 one can be a daunting proposition. Plus most TV series take a while to build, so I don’t think telling my dad to “watch The Office” would be terribly fruitful. The right thing to do would be recommending a couple of specific episodes. I included Dirty Money because it’s 6 episodes and I’m confident my dad would be interested in the content of each of them.

Available on Netflix Canada. This was by far the most limiting factor. Netflix seems to have dropped a lot of content recently. So much so that I could not come up with a list of 10.

The List

  • The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
  • The Bourne Identity
  • Dirty Money
  • Get Smart
  • Good Will Hunting
  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Hot Fuzz
  • Ocean’s Eleven

This list seems incredibly short and it kind of is. I’m sure I’ve missed a few good ones. But mostly, the January 2019 version of Netflix Canada is just kind of sad.

Feel free to leave a comment with your recommendations.

Living with an Android

At the end of October, I took plunge and pre-ordered a Google Pixel 3. Prior to November 1st, I’d never owned a smart phone other an iPhone. On July 11, 2009 I traded in my Motorola flip phone for an iPhone 3G and have never looked back.

So this switch to Android is definitely a huge, momentous occasion worthy of a lengthy blog post.

My primary reason for switching was price. Immediately after its release, Rogers was listing the iPhone XS for an insanely high $699 on 2-year contract! Thought it looks like they have drop that to a slightly more reasonable but still expensive $459. Conversely, the brand new Google Pixel 3 had a pre-release price of only $99 and came with a free Pixel Stand (a $109 value).

Combined with the generally stellar early reviews of the Pixel 3 and Android Pie, I thought now would be as good of a time as ever to give it a shot.

Stand Out Features

Cameras

The cameras are really great! I don’t really know all the photo lingo to describe how and why the photos are great. Suffice to say, my wife who has a BFA in photograph is insanely jealous. The wide angled camera on the front is especially cool – it makes big group selfies so much easier, what a smart idea. For some examples of photos take a look at my instagram. I generally don’t use filters and everything since November 1st has been taken on a Pixel.

Google Services

Google is great at web services. Apple is not. End of story.

The core Google apps (photos, maps, gmail, etc) are all essentially web apps, which means UI/UX on my phone is identical to what I see in a browser, on any device, on any desktop OS. It’s 2018, this is the way all things should be. (I know Apple is trying, but icloud.com still has tonnes of skeuomorphic and Safari-centric design baggage.)

Google Photos was especially impressive. I was concerned about exactly how I’d access 9 years of iPhone photos backed up in iCloud from my Pixel. Turns out, it was as simple as installing the Google Photos app on my iPhone 7 and enable syncing. It was able to suck in all my photos, including the thousands offloaded iCloud that were not even present on my iPhone’s storage.

Notifications

The way in which android handles notification is just so much more sane and better for my digital health. Prior to switching to Android, I’d disabled most notifications for most apps, I found them distracting and stressful. I have not done the same on my new phone.

It’s just so much more sane on Android and warrants some dissection:

  • Notifications do not pop up as frequently. There is some sort of “AI” (or something) the determines when to interrupt your current app with a notification. For whatever reason, I’m rarely interrupted by a notification popup.
  • Android does not have notification count badges. You’ll never see an “666” unread email badge. It’s not an option anywhere.
  • Pending notifications don’t linger around in the same way they do on iOS. When a notification is pending, the app gets a little icon in the tray next to the clock with the other background apps.
  • A side effect of notifications being treated the same as background apps is that they actually seem less urgent. For example, Spotify playing music in the background gets the same weight as a new text message, it’s somehow psychologically easier to dismiss the text message.
  • A “clear all” button exists and it actually clears all notifications. I don’t know why iOS doesn’t have this.

Quality of life

The Pixel has a number of little nice-to-haves. None of these features will get any press and I’m sure most Android users take them for granted by now. But add up all these features and you’ve got a phone OS that is objectively more useful. These are things that are completely impossible on reproduce on an iPhone, either natively or with an app. I am beginning to see why Android users dislike iOS.

Here are just a few I found especially cool:

  • Always on screen
    Time, date, weather and notifications are always visible on the screen. Without interacting with the phone. Without draining the battery. It’s magical.
  • “Now Playing”
    Whenever the phone detects background music playing the song/artist is shown on the always on screen and gets logged away in the “now playing” app for future reference. Google promises this happens on device without sending recordings or any other data to the cloud. Shazam was one of the first mobile apps that really blew my mind, the fact that this feature is built in to the OS without need for cloud processing is totally awesome!

  • Weather. Everywhere.
    An icon displaying the current condition and current temperature appear on the always on screen as well as the home screen. It’s great to be able to see this at a glance when checking the time.
  • Battery lasts until.
    When you tap the battery icon, it takes you to settings screen that shows you the exact time the OS expects your battery to run out. So much more useful than just a percentage.
  • Trusted bluetooth connection. Trusted locations.
    The OS allows you to configure trusted bluetooth connections, as well as trusted physical locations where your phone will always be unlocked. My phone is unlocked whenever it’s connected to the car, this way passengers can interact with navigation or music without having to ask for my finger print (or worse, faceID!). So much safer.
  • Back-side fingerprint reader.
    The back-side fingerprint is much more convenient and well positioned that I would have guessed. The ability to swipe down on it to get the settings/notifications menu is super handy.
  • Dynamic multi-screen wallpapers.
    Android supports cinemagraphs and wallpapers that span multiple home screens. This one is super minor but I’m just really not sure why Apple doesn’t allow this. Especially considering the Apple TV has cinemagraph screensavers. It just adds a little touch of life to the phone.

Misses

After a month of living with Android there are only a few minor things that I miss for the iOS ecosystem:

  • NFC Payment.
    Google Pay has extremely poor support in Canada. Neither my debit or credit card (from different institutions) is usable on the Pixel. The only Canadian banks that seem to have go support for Google Pay are CIBC and Scotia.

    Prior to switching, Apple Pay was the primary way I paid for things in-person, so this one is fairly big.

  • Car integration.
    Both my current car and my previous car (Toyota’s) support Siri Handsfree, which is a way to interact with Siri via a steering wheel button. I used this almost daily, mainly to read/send text messages. I’ve searched and searched but there doesn’t seem to be any way to enable something like this with Google Assistant.
  • Vibration Engine.
    iPhones seem to have multiple different vibration levels, you can tell the difference between a phone call, text message and generic notification. On the Pixel, they all feel the same.

That’s it. I am really pleasantly surprised at how simple and pain free the transition has been. It’s astonishing.

Privacy

I can’t write this review without mentioning privacy. I am a strong believer in privacy as a human right. I truly believe that a loss of individual privacy is a loss of freedom.

Google is a company that not generally super well regarded as privacy minded, so using Google hardware goes against my own moral code to some degree.

Apple on the other hand does seem to be making great effort to completely secure their customer’s data, in ways that I just don’t think Google could justify while maintaining a business model based on surveillance capitalism.

Here’s the thing though. As far as I can tell (conspiracy theories aside), if you install any Google apps on iPhone you are subject to the same level of privacy as you would be while using a Pixel.

For example, I can tell that Google apps track your physical location with the same frequency and accuracy on an iPhone as they do Android. I can tell because my Google Maps timeline is full of years and years of location data (correlated with photos) gathered from iPhones. However since Google apps are just web apps, they share settings across devices. So the same settings that you’d toggle to disable (and/or delete) this data collection affects your entire Google account on every device.

If you really want secure your own data privacy, simply using an iPhone is far from enough. Despite what Apple’s marketing would have you believe.

Conclusion

The Google Pixel 3 is an amazing device! I’ve experienced very little downside and a whole lot of upside by switching to Android.

It pains me to say this but… Android might actually be the better mobile operating system, at least as it’s implemented on the Pixel 3.


Note: I’ve used “Android,” “Android Pie” and “Pixel” somewhat interchangeably throughout this post. I’m not too sure which of the features I’ve written about are exclusive to Android Pie or the Google Pixel and which are generic to all Android.

The Portage & Main Debate

Debate surrounding the referendum to reopen the Portage & Main intersection to pedestrians has been dominating my social media so much so that I feel compelled to comment.

My feeds are filled entirely with #VoteOpenWPG proponent and in my humble opinion they could be doing a much better job. I’m not even strongly opposed to opening the intersection. Yet I’m not finding the arguments very compelling at all.

Here’s Why

I’ve organized the main points I’ve seen online into a few categories and put on my contrarian hat to illustrate how they could be seen as flimsy and irrelevant.

History

“The intersection was open to pedestrians for much longer than it has been closed.”

This argument has little weight because change is the inherent nature of history. A lot has changed since the intersection was founded in the 19th century. Modes of transportation are vastly different, horses and buggies are nowhere to be seen, streetcars have come and gone; skyscraper exist, etc. The fact that the intersection was once packed with pedestrians 50 years ago has little baring on what might or might not happen if the intersection was open again in 2019.

Accessibility

“People with mobility issues cannot cross the street because they can’t access the underground.”

This is true, but the argument is not compelling. Winnipeg’s downtown is relatively small. Taking a route that does not cross Portage & Main does not add significant distance to the trip. (Unless you need to get directly between the 3 buildings directly at the corner of Portage Ave E.)

The Underground Sucks

“The underground feels unsafe, poorly lit, the entrances smell like urine, etc.”

Again, this may be true, but if true it’s just not a compelling argument for opening the intersection to pedestrian traffic. It is an argument for spending resources on improving the underground.

“Good for business”

Making the argument that opening the intersection will be good for business automatically lumps this issue in with many other downtown revitalization projects that have been presented as magic bullets to “fix” downtown. With arguable success.

It’s also one of the only points that seems objectively false. For one, the intersection is dominated by office towers, there are literally no street-level businesses within the scope of that block. For another, if pedestrians stay above ground, the underground concourse would certainly suffer. If more pedestrians travel above ground, fewer will travel underground.

Future of the city

“It’s about what kind of city we want to be in the future.”

Do we we want a city that’s progressive and pedestrian friendly? Or do we want to live General Motors Utopia of the 1950s? As someone who grew up in the suburbs, current lives and works in the far flung reaches of St James, I get the sense that a vast majority of Winnipeggers are perfectly happy living in an autopia. If this is the argument the “yes” side is depending on, I am afraid they will be disappointed.


I think that sums up just about everything I’ve see in favour of re-opening the intersection. And to be fair (as Alyson Shane points out in her post for a few weeks ago) the arguments against opening the intersection are quite weak as well.

However, we are not being asked to vote in favour of not doing something. We are voting on investing tax dollars in a project that many Winnipeggers see as frivolous or of dubious value at best.

Status Quo Is Free!

Unless it’s not.

According to a July 24th, article in the Winnipeg Free Press by Dan Lett

All told, the city is committed to spending about $3.5 million on street-level upgrades and planning the re-opening of the intersection. We do not know the final cost of tearing down the barriers. However, the existing barriers are falling apart and removing them could very likely be less expensive than rebuilding them.

If true, this is the only point that matters. People of all political persuasions are motivated by dollars and cents. If it’s going to cost more money to keep the barricades up, taking them down should be a nobrainer. Moreover, $3.5M is well under 1% of Winnipeg $1B+ operating budget.

Lett goes to point out:

There is also the fact that private land owners at Portage and Main need to do repairs to the underground infrastructure that supports Winnipeg Square, the underground shopping mall. That work will require the removal of some of the barriers. Rebuilding them seems a pointless endeavour.

I couldn’t agree more.

The fact that we’re debating this, let a lone having a referendum is the most Winnipeg thing ever.