What a Week

It’s been a rough time around here at Ch√Ęteau Whatever-We-Call-Our-House lately.

For me, the rough part actually started exactly two weeks ago, when I woke up to what turned out to be a pinched nerve in my right clavicle, with accompanying soreness there and down my left arm. Coincidentally this was just over 14 years since I had a pinched nerve in my neck on the right side with very similar symptoms. The difference is that last time I found a way to hold my head which could relieve the pressure temporarily, while this time I found one somewhat awkward position (holding my left arm up and bending it to touch the back of my neck) which provided a little relief, but not a lot. And it wasn’t conducive to, well, being able to do anything else. It was also worse when I was seated while driving. It was bad enough that it was disrupting my sleep.

Coincidentally I had a doctor’s appointment scheduled for Friday, where my doctor – who I’ve had for 20 years – prescribed the same thing he’d given me last time – methylprednisolone, a cortical steroid. I started the treatment on Saturday and slowly felt better over the next few days.

I also learned that I am probably developing tinnitis, which stands to be somewhat annoying, although my brain already seems to be rewiring itself to ignore it pretty effectively. It’s also been coming and going, so who knows. It beats the alternative, which apparently is that hearing sounds can be associated with cardiovascular problems. No, thanks.

Should I be feeling old now? Honestly I feel rather lucky: I could be dealing with much worse. I am so over this nerve pinch, though.

The next thing arrived on Tuesday, when a rain storm followed by an incredible wind storm knocked out power at home, and at work, and in large swaths of the South Bay. It also knocked over two sections of our fence. This has happened before, about 8 years ago, and we’ve had a number of posts replaced since then since the original builder did a poor job of putting them in cement. But it seems there’s yet more to do.

The power was projected to be out until Friday night. We picked up dinner both nights, and went to bed early. The animals were very confused. Debbi’s office had power, so she went to work on Wednesday while I walked to have breakfast at Hobee’s, and then cut back the jasmine on the fallen sections of fence so the repair guy could examine it.

A downed fence is not very compatible with a dog who spends a lot of time outdoors. Domino was actually really good about not going into the neighbor’s yard, though he was curious. (His yard is also fenced in, but not necessarily dog-proof.) So I took his 30-foot leash and attached it to our outdoor couch, which did a pretty good job to keeping him from wandering.

We charged our phones and watches from our laptops – since we weren’t really using them anyway. My comic shop guy even let me charge the laptops at his store when I went over on Wednesday.

Happily, the power came back on Thursday morning, a day and a half ahead of schedule, and I was able to go back to work, too. But we did throw away a lot of refrigerated and a little frozen food. (Our chest freezer in the garage did a good job of keeping everything solid, though.) I made a grocery store run to replace most of the food we’d tossed.

Friday the fence guy came by to give us an estimate, but also the bad news that they were scheduling out in May already. Boo! He said they were so busy they might start working Saturdays and might be able to fit us in that way. So this weekend we went to Home Despot and bought some temporary fencing. I mowed the lawn for the first time this year and then put it up. Domino was a little baffled but didn’t really test it. Debbi also bought a cable with a corkscrew anchor to attach him more firmly.

Finally, today while I was out for a post-lunch walk, the fence guy called Debbi and said they had an opening today. By the time I got back they were already setting up. So I grabbed some shears and cut away the rest of the jasmine blocking one of the posts they had to replace, and by the end of the afternoon our fence was back!

Amidst all this I’ve also been working on pulling together taxes, paying bills, and trying to have a little fun here and there as well.

My nerve is not entirely better, but it’s not significantly affecting my sleep (just annoying it a little). Hopefully it will clear up over the next month or so, and that it will be more than 14 years before I get another one.

Anyway, I think I’m ready to sleep for a week or two.

What Mastodon Needs

I’ve been on Mastodon for about two and a half months now, which I think is long enough to have formed some opinions about where it could use some improvement. (“Where Mastodon Could Use Some Improvement” is a less-catchy title than “What Mastodon Needs”, though.)

Things are starting to move a bit faster in Mastodonia, since Twitter has started blocking its third-party client APIs, which killed off my preferred Twitter client, Tweetbot, a couple of weeks ago. Consequently, I have barely logged into Twitter since then, since as I’ve written before, the official Twitter client just isn’t good enough. And not supporting Elon Musk: Space Nazi is a side benefit.

So like many others I have just moved my microblogging over to Mastodon.

Some people who fondly remember the early days of Twitter (n.b.: I am not such a person) are excited about this period on Mastodon because we’re starting to see more client apps appearing in app stores. For example:

Aaron Ross Powell (@arossp@mastodon.social) toots: I love that I have half a dozen #Mastodon client apps installed on my phone, they're all under active development, and they all have as many (or more) features as the official app. It feels like the early days of Twitter apps, but without even the possibility of the rug getting pulled out from under it.
Federico Viticci (@viticci@macstories.net) toots: What a time to love indie apps. Third-party Mastodon clients are bringing back a sense of curiosity and excitement I hadn't felt since the heyday of Twitter clients in 2009-2011.

What am I missing? Are you working on one not on shown here? I'd love to know.

Time to work on a story

While this is exciting, for people like me it’s also a little concerning: I’m not going to use or even try every client that comes out (probably ????). I’m going to settle on one, and probably fairly soon, and it’s going to be the client that provides the best user experience for me, and which has the features that aren’t part of Mastodon itself which I really want.

When I wrote my initial post about Mastodon two months ago, I was using Metatext as my iOS client. That app’s developer has stopped developing it “for a while”, so I switched over to Toot!, which I like a lot and which is under very active development. Meanwhile the situation on macOS is still quite dire. I’m still using Mastonaut, though I really tried to use Whalebird for a while, but it has a lot of polish issues which pushed me back to Mastonaut even though its dev has stopped supporting it (because he now works for Apple).

One of the problems here is that interoperability between these apps is only what the Mastodon server software supports, so switching back and forth between them is awkward at best. So I think it’s really important for the Mastodon server software to start ramping up significantly to add features which will be widely-used. I don’t have any real visibility into how often it gets updated, or how many people are actively working on it, but hopefully we’ll see a lot of movement this year.

With that as a preamble, here are things that I’m really missing in my Mastodon experience:

1. Remembering my reading position: John Siracusa summed this up well:

John Siracusa (@siracusa@mastodon.social) toots: I think all Mastodon client apps should at least have the option to resume reading your timeline from the last place you left off. A surprising number of them seem not to.
Some don't even preserve your position when tapping "load more" or similar when some posts are missing above your current position.

I know not everyone reads their entire timeline, but one of the advantages of a chronological, non-"algorithmic" timeline is that people (like me) who do want to read everything can do so in a straightforward way...provided apps track and respect my last-read position.

Also, I'm told that the Mastodon API supports a last-read position, so, in theory, this state could be preserved across Mastodon client apps. Instead, it's often ignored even within a single app, let alone across apps.

Toot! remembers your position in any given instance of its client, but it isn’t synced to your other devices using Toot!, much less to other clients. Toot! sort of helps with this by not showing you every single toot in your timeline as you scroll up from your last position, but letting you click “load more” as you scroll up. It’s the bare minimum, but it’s not enough. Mastodon should remember this on the server side and let all clients access it. And it should remember it for other timelines (Local, Federated, Trending, and Lists) as well.

(I have no idea how Twitter or its third-party clients handled this. I suspect Tweetbot remembered this position and synced it to other instances of its client via iCloud, but I don’t know. And it doesn’t really matter how it works, just that it should work.)

Toot! did add an unread count to the timeline recently, which is really nice, but still not quite enough.

2. Lists need a more prominent UI: Toot! has a pretty nice UI on the iPad for accessing lists:

Toot! app list UI for Mastodon

The lists are shown right in the sidebar, as are saved hashtag searches. Very convenient (or it would be if I actively used them – more on this in a moment). This might not scale if you have a lot of these things, but some sort of disclosure UI would probably do the job, and there might be even better ways.

By contrast, here’s the UI to access lists in the Ice Cubes app on iPad:

Ice Cubes app list UI for Mastodon

You have to click on the Home dropdown, click on Lists, and then select a list. This is so hidden that I’ll probably never use it. It needs to get rid of at least one click.

The UI in the Mastodon web interface is so bad I’m not even going to screenshot it. It’s not worse click-wise than Ice Cubes, but it’s much more obscure.

If Lists are going to be useful then they need to have a prominent UI. Each client should keep this in mind. I also like the model of pinned lists in both Tweetbot and the official Twitter client.

3. More powerful muting of users: This is a key feature to make Lists useful. Right now when you add someone to a list they also stay in your main timeline. If you mute them, then they get muted everywhere. This makes Lists basically useless to me: The whole point of lists for me is to disperse the people I follow.

In Tweetbot I did this with selective muting: I could mute a user from my main timeline, from lists, or from searches. Usually I’d mute them from my main timeline and show them everywhere else. It seems that Tapbots’ upcoming Mastodon client Ivory is going to have a “Filter User From Home” option:

Screenshot of Ivory's Filter User From Home option.

This will probably meet my needs, but it’s something else that the server software should handle. (I did a search a while back and found a commit to the Mastodon source from a couple of years ago which seemed to be exactly this, but it doesn’t work so it might have been backed out.)

And this is the sort of thing which is going to lead to client lock-in where people like me who rely on this functionality will not only not try clients which don’t support it, but will be reluctant to switch clients at all because we won’t want to spend time reconstructing our mute lists.

(As a small aside, Tweetbot had an annoying behavior when you turned off retweets for a user in that it would only apply to the main timeline and not to lists. This made for a pretty crappy experience for how I used lists and led me to unfollow some users who retweeted a lot. More control here would be nice, but “turn off boosts everywhere” should be the default behavior if we can only have one.)

4. Bookmarks should have a more prominent UI: Mastodon has separate “like” (called “favourite”) and “bookmark” functionality, which is great since it was never entirely clear on Twitter when you Liked something if you were expressing approval or just saving it for later. (I used Likes as bookmarks and rarely liked something I didn’t want to save to find later.)

Unfortunately Bookmarks in Mastodon have a pretty hidden UI. Most clients seem to only let you access them from your user page, and don’t have a button to bookmark a toot – it’s hidden under a “more functions” popup. I think Bookmarks are likely to be a desirable feature that lots of people will want to use and they should get a more prominent UI.

dougal (@dougal@mastodon.social) toots: I wish #Mastodon clients would make #bookmarks a first-class toolbar feature, alongside commenting, favoriting, reblogging, and sharing. One use case that happens for me a lot is to see a reference to an article I want to read. But I'm busy right now and I don't want to decide whether to star the toot until I've read the article. I want to bookmark it so that I can find it again later, so having that feature immediately available
saves me trouble and time.

(All of this might indicate that Mastodon clients will want to provide some sort of configurable interface so users can set things up so they can easily get to the features they want and put the ones they don’t behind a menu. For example I almost never look at the Federated timeline. We’ll see.)

5. Saved searches: As seen in the screenshot above, Toot! has a nice feature to save searches which as far as I can tell is exclusive to Toot!, and isn’t synced at all. This isn’t essential to me, but I used it sometimes on Twitter, and Mastodon’s hashtag-based searching is really handy in directing you to toots that are highly likely to be of interest, so I would love to see this get server support.

6. Filter by toot type or content: This was a nifty little feature of Tweetbot where you could filter whatever you’re looking at to see only tweets with media, or without replies, or various other options. I used it some and while it wasn’t essential, it was really useful when I did.

It’s definitely true that Mastodon – despite being almost 7 years old – both has a lot of room to grow, and is well-positioned to see many exciting and useful innovations in the near future. But I hope the server software authors and the app authors will keep these features in mind, as I think for many mid-range users like myself (and maybe some power users as well) there’s going to be a limit to how fully we’re willing or able to engage with Mastodon without features which significantly improve our ability to control what we read and when, and how much effort we need to put in just to get to the new material.

I expect we’ll see a lot of innovation and competition in the client space this year, but if we get to the end of 2023 and we haven’t seen at least one or two of the early items on this list knocked out on the server side, then I’m going to be pretty disappointed. And I bet there are other features I don’t even think about which are important to others to have on the system.

(P.S.: I despair that we’ll get a good Mac client any time soon. But I’d settle for an iPad client I can run on Apple Silicon Macs.)

Fifty-Four

I think it’s been a while since I’ve posted a photo of myself here, so that’s me up there, a few days after my actual birthday since I’m back-dating this entry. My hair has been doing some funky things in the front lately, it’s continuing to gray in little bits around the edges, and my face is developing those telltale signs that I’m not a young guy anymore. (The furrow between my brows is especially annoying.) I thought about being artsy and doing this in black-and-white, but that made me look terrible, so instead you get to see the color of my current favorite shirt. And my apparently larger-than-I-realized forehead.

Anyway, John Scalzi posts a portrait of himself each year on his birthday, so maybe I should do the same.

My birthday fell on Martin Luther King Day this year, which meant 3-day birthday weekend! Saturday we watched the 49ers obliterate the Seahawks in the playoffs (sad Pete Carroll is best Pete Carroll), and in the evening we went to dinner at Sundance the Steakhouse, which was as good as I’d remembered. We’d only gone once since the pandemic started – when they still had an outdoor seating area the winter of 2020-21 – and I’ve missed it.

Sunday we went over to visit our friends the Hoffmans, where Domino got to play with their pups, including their current foster pup who I think needed to get some orientation to other dogs. It has been raining like crazy in California for the last month, and there was more rain on Sunday, so everyone mostly stayed inside. I played Magic with their son D which was fun – introduced him to a different 2-player draft format – and then they made pot roast for dinner and a chocolate cake for dessert.

We had a quiet Monday, and Debbi made a cinnamon Chocolate Chip cake for dessert, which ended up especially moist and yummy. We ate some while watching Moon Knight as we’re still catching up on television series from last year.

I used to throw parties for my birthday, but even without the pandemic I think I’d enjoy having low-key ones, as I do in reality. I miss holding our summer open house parties, but otherwise I’m happy to see friends in smaller groups these days.