Just a Theory

By David E. Wheeler

Posts about blogging

Evolutionary Theory

Back in 2013, a slew of new top-level domains became available, and I pounced on a number of them, thinking it’d be good to make a shorter domain my own. My favorite was theory.pm. In the early years of Just a Theory, I wrote mostly about Perl and related topics like Bricolage. I thought naming a Perl blog like a Perl module would be appropriate. By that time I wrote a lot about Postgres, and didn’t want to mix topics. So alongside theory.pm, I also launched theory.so — as in “stored objects”. Both used a new static design built on Octopress hosted on GitHub Pages.

Unfortunately, by this time I wrote very little about Perl anymore. I wrote more on Postgres and Sqitch, but had to shut down theory.so when the domain registration became too expensive. I merged it into theory.pm, but it never felt right to post about Postgres a “Perl blog”. I wrote a few link posts about security and privacy, topics I’ve been thinking about quite a lot, but it still felt…off. My last post to theory.pm was nearly two years ago.

I’ve posted little personal writing, either: no politics, photos, travelogues, essays, or anything else. I let Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook fill those gaps.

Lately, though, I’ve had the itch to write my own site again, both to think through technical and cultural issues in the technology business, but also to reclaim a personal space on the net. The recent privacy challenges for the big social media companies finally drove me from their easy embrace back onto the open web. But where to put down my hypertext roots?

My friends, Just a Theory returns

In retrospect, I now realize that my original domain name was just right. It’s, me, just me, but not topic limited. I can post whatever I want, without constraints imposed by attention-limited domains. I decided to rehabilitate it.

Of course I could no longer use the old design. Inspired by the likes of Slashdot, it was boxy, crowded, and 2004-era ugly. I took a few weeks, imported the theory.pm posts into a new Hugo-powered site, and revamped the design from there. I took on the arduous task to import all the original Just a Theory posts, cleaning up typos and fixing images.

The result is the revamped site you now see in your browser. Or perhaps in your RSS reader (The old URLs should have redirected you here). The result is something far better than any of the previous sites:

  • The design emphasizes readability above all. I’ve made it as clean and attractive as I can. The design is my own, and likely full of flaws; don’t hesitate to holler if you spot anything that doesn’t look right.
  • No baggage. The new design uses no JavaScript — no tracking or analytics at all. I’ll never host ads, so I don’t need all the weight of ad-tech. The site is 100% HTML and CSS and nothing else. Only the custom fonts, Source Sans Pro and Source Code Pro, add to the bandwidth.
  • No comments. I’m serious about shedding the baggage. Wading through comment spam wastes valuable writing and family time, while the comment services demand heavy JavaScript and tracking penalties. I generally get very few comments, but if you really want to talk to me, hit me up on Twitter or drop me an email (david at this domain).
  • The imported historical posts have no comments, either, but you can still browse the old design if you need to see them. Each migrated post links to the original, as well.
  • History. Previously, it was impossible to find stuff on Just a Theory. The new design borrows a page from kottke.org to provide links to all the tags, and all tag pages are paginated — as is the home page. Plus, the Archives lists every post and link post on the site, nice and friendly to search engines.
  • Speaking of tags, each has its own RSS feed. If you’re only interested in a particular subject, you can just subscribe its feed. I will never create topic-specific sites again; tagging is so much easier.
  • Identity. Yes, this is really Just a Theory, and you can tell because the TLS certificate proves it. Thanks to CloudFront and Let’s Encrypt for making it a cinch.
  • Scaling. It’s unlikely Just a Theory will be Fireballed again anytime soon, but since I’m using CloudFront for TLS already, this is a no-brainer. Just a Theory should be served from somewhere reasonable close to you.

Punctuated Equilibrium

I plan to write a fair bit over the next few months. I’ve been thinking a lot about security, privacy, and the impact of data privacy regulations like the GDPR on data rights and the technology business in general. I’m happy to once again have a place to write on such topics. I expect to make social posts too, to share what’s going on with friends and family. Before long, I expect to also make photoblog-style posts and perhaps integrate micro-blogging posts.

Let’s find out if I’m as good as my word.

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theory.so is No More

Until last week, I had two newish blogs. This one, theory.pm, was to be my Perl blog. The other one, theory.so, was my database blog. I thought it would be a good idea to have separate blogs for separate audiences, but it turns out I don’t post enough to make much difference. And now, as of last week, I let the theory.so domain expire. Control the .so domain was turned over to Somalia a few months ago, and domain renewal fees went way up. Since I had so few posts over there (14 since August, 2013), I decided it was a good time to just merge it with theory.pm and be done with it.

So my apologies if a bunch of my old posts just showed up in your RSS readers. (You all still use RSS readers, right?). This is a one-time merging of the two blogs, so should not happen again.

Well…maybe. Now I have a total of 25 posts on theory.pm (since July 2013), which is still pretty paltry. I’m thinking it’s silly to have this thing separate from my original blog, Just a Theory, so I might eventually merge that blog, too. Not sure what domain I’ll use for it. Maybe I’ll go back to justatheory.com. Or maybe I’ll use one of the other domains I registered, like the recently added theory.one. Or maybe theory dot something else.

Not that you care. Good on you for reading this far. I would have stopped before now. You’re a better person than I.

A Perl Blog

I have been unsatisfied with Just a Theory for some time. I started that blog in 2004 more or less for fun, thinking it would be my permanent home on the internet. And it has been. But the design, while okay in 2004, is just awful by today’s standards. A redesign is something I have planned to do for quite some time.

I had also been thinking about my audience. Or rather, audiences. I’ve blogged about many things, but while a few dear family members might want to read everything I ever post, most folks, I think, are interested in only a subset of topics. Readers of Just a Theory came for posts about Perl, or PostgreSQL, or culture, travel, or politics. But few came for all those topics, in my estimation.

More recently, a whole bunch of top-level domains have opened up, often with the opportunity for anyone to register them. I was lucky enough to snag theory.pm and theory.pl, thinking that perhaps I would create a site just for blogging about Perl. I also nabbed theory.so, which I might dedicate to database-related blogging, and theory.me, which would be my personal blog (travel, photography, cultural essays, etc.).

And then there is Octopress. A blogging engine for hackers. Perfect for me. Hard to imagine something more appropriate (unless it was written in Perl). It seemed like a good opportunity to partition my online blogging.

So here we are with my first partition. theory.pm is a Perl blog. Seemed like the perfect name. I fiddled with it off and on for a few months, often following Matt Gemmell’s Advice, and I’m really happy with it. The open-source fonts Source Sans Pro and Source Code Pro, from Adobe, look great. The source code examples are beautifully marked up and displayed using the Solarized color scheme (though presentation varies in feed readers). Better still, it’s equally attractive and readable on computers, tablets and phones, thanks to the foundation laid by Aron Cedercrantz’s BlogTheme.

I expect to fork this code to create a database blog soon, and then perhaps put together a personal blog. Maybe the personal blog will provide link posts for posts on the other sites, so that if anyone really wants to read everything, they can. I haven’t decided yet.

In the meantime, now that I have a dedicated Perl blog, I guess I’ll have to start writing more Perl-related stuff. I’m starting with some posts about the state of exception handling in Perl 5, the first of which is already up. Stay tuned for more.

Medium in the Large

I’ve been reading novels the last few months, taking advantage of our time in Europe to just veg out on epic fantasy when not working or doing family stuff. A such, I had less time to clear out my Instapaper queue or to read The New Yorker. But now I’ve finished the series and turned back to The New Yorker, downloading the latest issue to my iPad the other night and greedily reading the back story on the Clinton-Obama reconciliation. I was immediately reminded of all the reasons why The The New Yorker app sucks. It has not improved at all. This naturally got me thinking again about the future of publishing and looking around for new ideas.

Medium, the new publishing platform from Obvious Corporation, made a bit of a splash last month with its soft launch. In his post introducing the service, Ev Williams writes:

So, we’re re-imagining publishing in an attempt to make an evolutionary leap, based on everything we’ve learned in the last 13 years and the needs of today’s world.

An evolutionary approach is perhaps for the best, given that recent attempts at revolution have not proved to be a panacea. (But then maybe there are other reasons why Newsstand has not “saved the publishing industry.”) There is little to see on Medium as yet, but the idea seems simple enough: users post to “collections” of content, which are defined by topical and visual themes. Some collections are open to contributions from anyone, while others are managed by individual users. Ev writes, “Collections give people context and structure to publish their own stories, photos, and ideas.”

Collections Agency

The collections idea sounds nice, with its emphasis on quality writing and editing. I have no inside information on Medium whatsoever, but reading the tea leaves a bit, I suspect that collections are the key idea. While traditional blogging services such as Blogger and Tumblr empower the individual writer to post whatever she wants whenever she wants, Medium’s collections aim to empower editors.

Since the publishing industry is having a hell of a time trying to make the internet look like a magazine, it’s natural that some of the folks behind online publishing would be thinking about how to bring the best qualities of periodical publishing to the internet. Two of the most important of those qualities are editorial control (not coincidentally emphasized Dustin Curtis’s Svbtle Network) and topicality. Think about it. If you’re interested in American politics, you might read National Review or The Nation. For long-form journalism and in-depth reporting, there’s The New Yorker and The Atlantic. Want vegetarian-friendly recipes? Vegegarian Times or Cooking Light. Each of these magazines present themselves as well-edited authorities on particular topics, and most have an identifiable design. My guess is that Medium’s collections attempt to emulate these qualities.

Let’s say you’re interested in writing about baseball. You get a Medium account and start publishing pieces in an open sports collection. You’re doing a good job, calling out the subtleties of the latest game that others have missed, and readers start hitting the “this is good” badge on your post and writing their own posts in response. Soon, someone who edits a respected, moderated baseball collection invites you to contribute there. You get even more exposure, because the collection’s editorial oversight ensures consistent quality. Readers pay more attention to that quality, as well as its timely delivery throughout the week or month.

After a while, you start helping out with the editing, finding other folks to to contribute and providing editorial feedback. Eventually you might create your own collection, perhaps expanding into other sports, or covering the vicissitudes of the sports apparel industry. Today you are your own Roger Angell, and tomorrow, perhaps, you’re David Remnick.

Medium provides a growth path for writers to develop their craft, to collaborate, to build editorial credibility within particular topics, and perhaps create a brand. This is more than just individual publishing, where you’re just some guy with a baseball blog. In the collaborative community of Medium, you can work with others to build something greater than any of you could on your own.

I’m just speculating here. But it might work. Think about precedents. If Twitter is what happens when IRC meets RSS, then Medium is what happens when you bring RSS to Usenet. But unlike Usenet (or Newsstand for that matter), this would not be a sea of distributed content with archipelagos of collecting meaning. It’s not federated or distributed by a protocol. No, the whole damned thing will be completely owned and controlled by Medium.

Imagine that Medium succeeds, that it displaces the magazine publishing industry with its thematic collections. It also distributes official apps for all the major platforms, gratis, so readers can follow their favorite collections from anywhere. If my admittedly wild-assed conjecture is in any way the case, I don’t think it would be too much to say that Medium aims to be the primary medium of topical publishing. The name embodies the ambition.

Medium of Exchange

Which brings me to the obvious question (pun acknowledged): What’s the business model? How will Medium make money? Perhaps, as with Twitter (and Tumblr?), the idea is to get lots of users first, and then sell those users to advertisers at some later date. Imagine you’re a collection editor, who has spent two years building up a readership and a stable of writers on Medium, keeping your collection looking sharp and clean, and then Medium decides to dump ads into your collection. Maybe they would revenue share with you. Or maybe you would pack up and go somewhere else where your editorial integrity was better respected.

Alternately, Medium could sell “professional accounts” to collection editors. This might have some appeal to the next generation of publishers, as it would be much cheaper than starting a paper magazine. But how many of these folks would there be, really? A tech startup needs to show something like a 10x return on investment, and I find it hard to believe that a $50/year (or even $500/year) professional account for a few thousand editors would bring in near enough revenue. And besides, don’t editors want to get paid for their time and effort, not pay for the privilege of contributing to Medium’s collections?

And the writers, too! To attract the best writers—the folks who know how to do research, think though a topic, and write thoughtful posts on the matter—you need cash. So, better than charging publishers would be some way to make great quality content pay. Money for the folks who develop popular and widely-read collections. Money for the writers who contribute to them. Again, advertising might work, but at the expense, perhaps, of editorial integrity. Maybe that doesn’t matter, but it would be a non-starter if it didn’t happen soon. You want to get good people? Show them the money, right up front.

I have a better idea how Medium could generate revenue leading to profits while empowering its writers and editors to potentially make a living producing great content. It’s simple: bring the App Store model to publishing.

Here’s how it works. If you buy into the Medium ecosystem, agree to its terms and guidelines and play by its rules, then you, as publisher, would have an array of choices as to how to distribute your collection. You can have ads in your collections, provided by Medium’s ad network, and both you and Medium take a cut of the revenues. Alternatively, you can set a price for subscriptions to your collections, and Medium will collect payments, taking a cut. You could also decide to just distribute your collections freely, with no ads. Maybe there would be some way to create cross-promotions to your paid collections.

The point is, just as App Store developers can choose to sell their apps, release them with ads or in-app purchase options, or make them free, perhaps Medium editors could choose whether their collections include ads, require subscription payments, or are free. It’s the App Store Publishing model.

Again, this is purely speculation, but I’d love it if something like this was in the works, because I can imagine no other viable model that doesn’t sell users to advertisers and turn editors into digital sharecroppers.1 And god knows the traditional topical publishers are in deep trouble. If Medium empowers the people who edit great collections to get revenue the way they want, then everyone wins.

And if Medium does not plan to do this, well then someone should.


  1. Thanks to Duncan Davidson for this term, which perfectly encapsulates the problem in a single word.

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New Home

After the Fireballing week before last, I put aside a bit of time to rejigger things. This blog now has a new home.

  • Moved all content to a Linode virtual server. No more serving from my crappy old desktop system behind my Comcast connection. The VPS is kind of skimpy on the RAM, but seems fine for my basic needs.
  • Still using Blosxom, but all content is statically-generated.
  • Switched to Nginx. It’s fast. Especially for a 100% static site.
  • Search is gone. No one used it, anyway. That’s what Duck Duck Go is for.
  • Comments are gone, sort of. I removed the plugin for adding comments to posts. Existing comments are still shown, though.
  • Added Disqus commenting. The upshot is that, for the first time in years, one can comment on any post at any time. No more closing comments after two weeks.
  • Got rid of the “sociable” junk. No one needs hand-holding for sharing, and very few sharing sites are relevant anymore, anyway.

Oh, and I also moved strongrrl.com, kineticode.com, and my PGXN mirror to the Linode host. They’re all static, too, so everything is nice and peppy.

So that’s step 1. It’s enough that I can get back to posting stuff and, on the off chance that I get Fireballed again, I think things will hold up (a simple ab test shows pretty good throughput at about 100 requests/second at a concurrency of 100). Over the next few months, I have other plans:

  • Throw up a new kineticode.com. The company has actually shut down, so I need to put up a new page to direct interested parties elsewhere.
  • Redesign Just a Theory. This design was okay in 2004, but never very forward-looking. I want to vastly simplify things. Just down to the bare essentials, really. Be prepared for more junk to disappear.
  • Move to a new blog engine. Blosxom is okay, but finicky. There are a lot of steps to publishing a post, most of them involving SCP and SSH. I just want to write to a directory to do stuff, and support drafts and whatnot.

That last task is the one I’m least likely to find a lot of time to work on, though, as I am already overcommitted to numerous other things, and thinking of new stuff all the time. But I’d really like to make things much nicer for myself, so we’ll see.

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