Sunday Selection 2015-02-22

Around the Web

Oliver Sacks on Learning He Has Terminal Cancer

There is said to be a Roman tradition where a victorious Roman general would parade through the streets of Rome and as he did so a servant would whisper in his ear: Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento! Memento mori!”—“Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man! Remember that you will die!” We don’t have Roman generals parading through the streets anymore, but we do have talented writers reflecting on their impending deaths in the context of their lives.

My Prescribed Life

While the anti-vaccination “movement” has gotten a lot of press recently, there are other kinds of drugs administered to children that can significantly impact their lives. This piece traces the author’s use of anti-depressants from a young age and discusses how it affected her life and her growth as a person.

Squid can recode their genetic make-up on-the-fly

From the “truth is stranger than fiction” section: “A new study showcases the first example of an animal editing its own genetic makeup on-the-fly to modify most of its proteins, enabling adjustments to its immediate surroundings.”

From the Bookshelf

The Defining Decade

As someone approaching the tail end of their twenties, a book with the tagline “Why your twenties matter and how to make the most of them now” sounds like something I should have read five years ago. Oh well, better late than never I suppose. In this book, psychologist Dr. Meg Jay explores psychology, neuroscience, sociology and economics to make a compelling case for why the twenties can be an important time for growth and development and explains how the choices made (or not made) then can affect the rest of our lives. She combines personal anecdotes, interviews with numerous twenty-somethings and a host of solid evidence to write a narrative that is often hopeful, sometimes scary, but always compelling.

Video

BlackBerry 10 OS Vintage QNX Demo Floppy

I spent the better part of an hour today learning about QNX—a real-time operating system first developed in the 80s  that sports a practical microkernel architecture, a POSIX API and forms the core of a multitude of high-availability software (including the BlackBerry 10 OS, various car software and runs Cisco IOS devices). Best of all, it fits on an old-school floppy disk, complete with GUI and a web browser. QNX represents a great technical achievement and an interesting part of computer history.

Remembering Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz was a programmer, entrepreneur and Internet activist who left his mark on both the Internet and the world at large. He was involved in the development of the RSS and Markdown formats as well as the Creative Commons. He was also the founder of Demand Progress which was involved in the effort to stop SOPA/PIPA.

Just over two years ago Aaron killed himself in the middle of a federal prosecution. If he had lived, Aaron would probably have become one of the leading technologists or political figures of our generation. Unfortunately, two years after his death, there is too much pain and suffering in the world today for the media (or the Internet in general) to remember his suicide. The only article about his death that caught my eye was a Boing Boing piece entitled “How to honor Aaron Swartz’s life”. The piece is written by one of Aaron’s friends and is best summarized as a short guide to honoring Aaron life by living your own better.

To summarize the summary:

  1. Stay curious
  2. Don’t accept things as they are, or assume they’re that way for a good reason
  3. Become good at something. And then use it to make a difference.
  4. Ask yourself what you could do to make the biggest difference in the world.
  5. Stay alive.

For me, one of the best lessons from the article was the ending paragraph:

Don’t be surprised if at some point in your life, maybe at many points, you find yourself submerged in a darkness that seems infinite and eternal. It might seem to you like it’s always been that way, it will be always be that way and there’s only one way out. You’re wrong. It will get better. But it will only get better if you find some way to survive.

Aaron might be gone, but much of his work is still with us, in terms of code, organizations, and words. His website is still online (hopefully it will stay that way indefinitely) and so is his writing. I remember reading much of his writing around the time of his death and found it both interesting and a joy to read. His series on thinking and living better — Raw Nerve — is a good place to start.

The Ten Pillars of Cutthroat Zen

I’ve been meditating on and off for the better part of the year. I can currently about fifteen minutes at a stretch and on the days I do get around to it, I definitely feel calmer and more focused than usual. Last week I read a book with the intriguing title of “10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works” by Dan Harris’. Them be fighting words and I was certainly skeptical when I started. That being said, I ended up finishing the whole book in a day — something I don’t think I’ve ever done for a serious book.

The book is a great read, starting with the author’s breakdown on live TV and following his path through borderline-fraudulent self-help and finally meditation and a sort of modern Buddhism. The whole book is thoroughly recommended, but it also comes up with of a tl;dr at the end — a summary of what the author learned through his experiences. Harris calls it “The Way of the Worrier”, but I think his discarded title of “The Ten Pillars of Cutthroat Zen” is a better title. While they’re best understood in the context of the rest of the book, they also stand on their own (with a little help from excerpts from the book):

1. Don’t be a Jerk

It is, of course, common for people to succeed while occasionally being nasty. I met a lot of characters like this during the course of my career, but they never really seemed very happy to me. It is sometimes assumed that success in a competitive business requires the opposite of compassion. In my experience, though, that only reduced my clarity and effectiveness, leading to rash decisions.

2. (And/But …) When Necessary, Hide the Zen

Even though I’d achieved a degree of freedom from the ego, I still had to operate in a tough professional context. Sometimes you need to compete aggressively, plead your own case, or even have a sharp word with someone. It’s not easy, but it’s possible to do this calmly and without making the whole thing overly personal.

3. Meditate

Meditation is the superpower that makes all the other precepts possible. The practice has countless benefits— from better health to increased focus to a deeper sense of calm— but the biggie is the ability to respond instead of react to your impulses and urges.

4. The Price of Security is Insecurity — Until It’s Not Useful

Mindfulness proved a great mental thresher for separating wheat from chaff, for figuring out when my worrying was worthwhile and when it was pointless. Vigilance, diligence, the setting of audacious goals— these are all the good parts of “insecurity.” Hunger and perfectionism are powerful energies to harness. Even the much-maligned “comparing mind” can be useful.

5. Equanimity is Not the Enemy of Creativity

Being happier did not, as many fear, make me a blissed-out zombie. I found that rather than rendering me boringly problem-free, mindfulness made me, as an eminent spiritual teacher once said, “a connoisseur of my neuroses.” One of the most interesting discoveries of this whole journey was that I didn’t need my demons to fuel my drive— and that taming them was a more satisfying exercise than indulging them.

6. Don’t Force It

It’s hard to open a jar when every muscle in your arm is tense. I came to see the benefits of purposeful pauses, and the embracing of ambiguity. It didn’t work every time, mind you, but it was better than my old technique of bulldozing my way to an answer.

7. Humility Prevents Humiliation

We’re all the stars of our own movies, but cutting back on the number of Do you know who I am? thoughts made my life infinitely smoother. When you don’t dig in your heels and let your ego get into entrenched positions from which you mount vigorous, often irrational defenses, you can navigate tricky situations in a much more agile way.

8. Go Easy with the Internal Cattle Prod

As part of my “price of security” mind-set, I had long assumed that the only route to success was harsh self-criticism. However, research shows that “firm but kind” is the smarter play. All successful people fail. If you can create an inner environment where your mistakes are forgiven and flaws are candidly confronted, your resilience expands exponentially.

9. Nonattachment to Results

Nonattachment to results + self compassion = a supple relentlessness that is hard to match. Push hard, play to win, but don’t assume the fetal position if things don’t go your way.

10. What Matters Most?

At first, this struck me as somewhat generic, but as I sat with the idea for a while, it eventually emerged as the bottom-line, gut-check precept. When worrying about the future, I learned to ask myself: What do I really want? While I still loved the idea of success, I realized there was only so much suffering I was willing to endure.

If you feel like your life is flying off the handles, or you want some more calm and control, this book might just point you in the right direction. If you’ve been hearing about meditation and want to try it out but are afraid you might want to run away and join a monastery, this book will put those fears to rest. In summary, “10% Happier” is probably the best ~$11 you’ll spend this week.

PS. I came across this book thanks to the excellent Farnam Street Blog, which has been steadily feeding me a stream of useful knowledge and references since I discovered it a few months ago. If you need more convincing, check out their post on the book.

The Brain-Hand Barrier

I’ve never been a particularly fast typist. Despite reading Steve Yegge’s very entertaining Programming’s Dirtiest Secret once every few months or so, I’ve been stuck in the 40 to 50 words-per-minute range for a few years now. Most of the time, this is not a big problem, for multiple reasons. In the last few months, I’ve been mostly writing code, not words (as witnessed by the rather low rate of posts on this blog). When you’re using a fairly succinct and powerful language (like OCaml) and working on research code, the major bottleneck to getting things done is often your thinking speed, not your typing speed. And for the rest of the times there are well-chosen Emacs keybindings deeply ingrained into your muscle memory.

I’d like to start writing more honest-to-goodness words—I’m pulling this blog out of the mothballs, I’m keeping a daily log of my research work and possibly a personal journal. And that’s on top of the usual emails and IMs and other sundry typing activities. As I’ve been ramping up my word count, I’ve been noticing something curious that’s purely anecdotal and quite possibly, completely wrong. But this is my blog and something is often better than nothing so I’m going to put it here for all eternity.

I claim (completely without proof) that when writing words (at least non-technical words) the bottleneck can often be your fingers. If you’re a slow typist (or an adequate typist, like me) you find yourself frantically trying to get ideas and thoughts down before they all slip away like water between your fingers. As a result, increasing typing speed can actually be better in at least two ways: first, typing faster lets you get raw thoughts down much faster leaving you time to come back and edit later. I know that a lot of people subscribe to the philosophy of writing slowly, even going so far as to using pen and paper to slow themselves down. Personally, I’m in the Hemingway camp — write drunk; edit sober. Since I have absolutely no intention of becoming an alcoholic, I’ll go with “write fast; edit slow”. It’s boring I know, but I like my liver and my brain cells.

Second, for a certain type of personality (including me), knowing that you’re fast enough to get something down without a major interruption in whatever else you’re doing makes you more likely to actually put it down, rather than having it banging around inside your head. For more on why getting things out of your head is helpful, I point you to the last book I read Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time and a tl;dr review/article of the same name.

Both of the above are benefits from fast typing, apart from the professional benefits you might get (for which I point you back to Steve’s post).

So to conclude: type fast, type lots, edit slow, publish some. There’s probably a rant about RSI and how the Hobbit movies could have been made better and shorter with a good editor that can be extrapolated from that last sentence, but that will have to wait for another day.

Sunday Selection 2013-12-01

Around the Web

Happy post-Thanksgiving greetings, dear readers. If you celebrate, I hope you had a wonderful time with friends and family. If you engaged in the consumerist spectacle of Black Friday and lived to tell the tale, congratulations to you. Others were not quite so lucky. Anyways, on to this weeks’ picks.

The Democratic Necessity of Power Tools

By now we all know that paper publishing (especially for books and newspapers) is in trouble and so are libraries. This article makes an interesting point: in an age where knowledge and information is easy to get, maybe we need to provide education in terms of skills and craftsmanship and not just information. Personally, I love libraries and hope they survive into the far future, but I would love to see the growth of publicly available makerspaces and workshops too. Maybe the two could go hand in hand?

The Period, Our Simplest Punctuation Mark, Has Become a Sign of Anger

It seems like the older I get, the more fastidious I get about my use of the English language. I’ve always hated SMS-speak and I see absolutely no need for it today with the advent of QWERTY, predictive keyboards on phones. More recently, I’ve been trying to use full sentences even in my IMs and making my slideshow bullet-points and proper clauses and end in proper punctuation. This is an interesting article on the changing role of the period in informal electronic communication. It’s not something I’ve personally noticed, but it was a interesting read nonetheless.

C.S. Lewis Reviews The Hobbit

If you’ve ever wondered what one literary great reviewing the work of another looks like, this is your chance. Enough said.

From the Web

What I Wish I’d Known When I Was 18 (from Stephen Fry)

I’m personally not very familiar with Stephen Fry’s work. However, this video is chock-full of wisdom, both practical and deep. It’s worth watching no matter what age you are. And yes, some parts are rather heart-wrenching.

Multiplicity

Over the last weekend I played around with an interesting service called Editorially. It’s essentially a stripped down, online text editor, with support for Markdown formatting. However, it’s most attractive feature is its support for multiple versions, collaboration and editing. It’s an interesting project and it just added WordPress and Dropbox export (I wrote the first draft of this post in it and then exported to WordPress). Like many such services, I’d rather use a text editor and git to get the same effect. However, more than the service itself what interests me is something I read on their blog post announcing their export features:

On the web today, a single article may be published on the writer’s personal blog, collected in an ebook, syndicated on several magazine or news sites, and reblogged across different platforms and communities.

This notion of having the same piece of work shared in multiple places is not new, but is becoming increasingly popular, especially with the rise of of group blogs (often with guest authors), online curation, and services like Medium. Craig Mod, whom I find to be one of the most insightful writers on the intersection of technology and publishing, started one of his recent pieces with this not-quite-disclaimer:

This was originally published in Hiut Denim’s yearbook. I’ve republished it here, over on Hi and over at Medium because, well, the beauty of the web is multiplicity. More on that later.

Multiplicity. I like that word. And yes, there is something to admire in just how easy it is to copy and share on this, the modern Web. But is it a thing of beauty? I’m much less certain than Mr. Mod, especially since this form of multiplicity is heavily dependent on third-party, often proprietary services with motives that are unclear at best and
questionable at worst.

What Mr. Mod dubs “multiplicity” and call beautiful can be explained in older, cruder terms: copy-and-paste. In many ways, the current web does us a disservice — we have been taught to accept and we settled for multiplicity when what we really wanted was transclusion, first described by an early pioneer of applied computation — Ted Nelson.

Whereas multiplicity on the web takes the form of copy-and-paste, transclusion would take the form of reference. Instead of taking the literal text (and perhaps the styling and images) of a document and replicating it for each copy, we have a single canonical copy of a document (and by document I mean any information object) that can be referenced and transcluded from other places. For example, Mr. Mod could have published the original piece on his website and Hi and Medium would simply transclude it in their own versions. When someone visited the Hi or Medium pages, they would reach out and embed the original post’s content within their contexts.

Transclusion offers many advantage over copy-and-paste. For one, any changes to the original are automatically reflected wherever it is transcluded. Second, attribution becomes much easier. Instead of carefully maintaining references to where you found a particular piece of information or text, the transclusion machinery can manage it for you. In fact, such a system needs to keep proper source information to work properly. Transclusion also makes the job easier for automated systems like search engines. Instead of coming across multiple versions of the same text in different places, a crawler would simply follow back the transclusion links and be able to index the original authoritative copy.

Copy-and-paste certainly has a place, even in a hypothetical transclusion-enabled Web. One major application is of course backup and archival, which would be impossible if there was only ever a single copy. That being said, personally I would rather have transclusion than not. For one thing it would make navigating the current morass of social media and publication startups easier.

Today, if I write something (say this blog post) and want to put it online, I have to decide where to put it. I could put it on my own website, hosted on my own server, accessible at my own domain name, where I retain full control. However, maybe I want the attention generated by publishing on a platform like Medium or Tumblr. Maybe I also want to post a link and excerpt to Facebook and Twitter and Google+. Once people read it, they might want to make posts about it on their blogs and reference it. It might get picked up discussed on random forums and message boards, discussion sites and Q&A sites.

To do that today requires a lot of manual intervention and thought. First I’d have to copy and paste the text into all the different services. Then I’d have to copy-and-paste a link into the various social media services. If I wanted to add an excerpt, I’d have to do more copy-pasting and editing. If there was discussion on other places, there’s no guarantee I’d find out about it. I’d have to keep a close eye on all the discussion sites, and hope that any individuals talking about it on their own sites send me an email (or some other kind of notification) about their posts.

In a world where transclusion is the default, things become much simpler. As we’ve already discussed, the various other publishing platforms would simply transclude the content of my post. Social media services would transclude particular paragraphs (or even particular sentences). Similarly, discussion sites and other people’s blogs would transclude the particular parts of the post they want to discuss. This has a secondary benefit: I can look up the transcluders and automatically be aware of who’s talking about my post (and what parts in particular). In summary, transclusion would make sharing and discussion on the web a whole lot easier, smoother and interactive.

Unfortunately, I don’t believe that we’ll achieve transclusion any time soon. In particular, I would say most publishing and social media services have incentives to prevent transclusion — they want a unique piece of your work. Deferring to a canonical copy elsewhere that others can transclude as well is the last thing they want. That being said, we can still dream, can’t we? Perhaps, with the continuing popularity of ebooks and DIY publishing we might even start having some limited forms of transclusion. And maybe, just maybe, people like Mr. Mod and services like Editorially will start pushing for a transclusion-capable world.

Not so Svbtle

A few weeks ago I got an invitation to Dustin Curtis’ hip new(ish) blogging platform called Svbtle. The original announcement created a bit of a stir around the Intertubes. It was supposed to be both a clean, minimalist writing environment and a fresh new platform for vetted, competent writing. Here’s a relevant excerpt (emphasis mine):

I wrote this engine entirely for myself, without the intention of opening it up to other people. But since realizing that it has improved the way I think and write, I’ve decided to open it up to a small number of vetted bloggers. At least at first. The goal is simple: when you see the Svbtle design, you should know that the content is guaranteed to be great. Network bloggers are encouraged to keep quality high at the expense of everything else.

If it sounds provocative, that’s probably because it was meant to be. The emphasized line in particular, is fighting words, as they say. It’s been about a year and half since that post (at least that’s how long I think it’s been, Svbtle posts don’t seem to have visible timestamps). Now that I have an invite, I thought it would be interesting to see how things have held up. Is Svbtle really all that Mr. Curtis cracks it up to be?

At face value, the original claim seems to have fallen flat. The idea for a minimalist writing platform was copied and open-sourced almost immediately and there’s also a Svbtle-like WordPress theme. Given that Svbtle will let you use your own domain name, it’s hard to tell that you’re reading a Svbtle post unless you care to look. So much for seeing and recognizing the Svbtle design. But what about the rest of the claim? Are we really guaranteed that the content is great?

Svbtle currently positions itself as a “new kind of magazine”. The current About page reads as follows:

We’re a network of great people mixed with a platform that takes the best things from traditional publishing and combines them with the best parts of the web. We want to make it easier for people to share and discover new ideas.

The Svbtle blog announced that they received an undisclosed amount of VC money (good for them). They currently have over 200 writers and hope to build “the future of journalism”. Svbtle is building us up to expect not only good writing, but great writing and journalism. The current state of Svbtle doesn’t give me much confidence. As of this writing, many of the posts on the Svbtle front page would probably only be of interest to a certain section of Silicon Valley resident.s Posts like “The 3 competitive Defenses of Enduring SaaS Companies” and “The Single Best Content Marketing Channel for your Startup” make me think that Svbtle is more a thinly veiled mirror of Hacker News than a magazine devoted to ground-breaking journalism.

To me at least, Svbtle is not so much subtle as confusing. Who are these 200 writers? Why did they get invitations? They claim to span “at least eight disciplines” and journalism doesn’t seem to one of them. If Svbtle is supposed to take the best things from traditional publishing, then where are the editors and expert photographers? If Svbtle is going to be “an important place for the sharing of ideas” then where are the comments and where do I send Letters to the Editor?

Furthermore, this confusion isn’t just on the outward, public face of the endeavor. As a writer, it’s not clear to me what I get from publishing on Svbtle. A group of 200 writers is not exactly exclusive, especially when I have no idea what the invitation criteria are. I don’t see any Terms of Service, or an Export button for that matter. The invitation email claims “One of our main goals is to help members become better writers”, but there’s no mention of how that’s supposed to happen. Is there a peer review or editorial process? If there is, what are the qualifications of the editors and reviewers? I just wrote and published a short post and there doesn’t seem to be any of those things. Can I be kicked out and my posts deleted at a moment’s notice?

I suppose that for people dissatisfied with their current blogging platform Svbtle might be an interesting alternative. But it’s not for me. I’m perfectly content with WordPress when it comes to actual writing and Tumblr when it comes to everything else. I’ve never been distracted from my writing by the various controls and buttons and Svbtle lacks too much of what I’d consider essentials for a modern blogging platform.

Of course, it’s certainly possible that I simply don’t get it and that Mr. Curtis has some grand scheme that I don’t grasp. For the time being, though, it seems like Svbtle is simply just yet another blogging platform. It’s a different flavor than WordPress, Tumblr, or Medium, and some will be drawn to it for that reason. At this point, someone will no doubt point out that I won’t get it unless I try it. While I’m skeptical of that line of reasoning, I would like to give Svbtle a fair chance. Maybe the writing experience really is that much better. If I can think of something that needs publishing and isn’t relevant to The ByteBaker, then my Svbtle blog is where it will go.

(As an aside, I’ve been thinking of starting a research blog, along the lines of Lindsey Kuper’s Composition.al,. I’d use Svbtle for that, but there seems to be no support for inserting syntax-highlighted code snippets.)

In the meantime, if you’re looking for modern, journalistic writing that covers a variety of topics, I recommend a publication like New Republic.