Sunday Selection 2018-03-25

Around the Web

The Calculus of Grit

An interesting piece from a few years. The events of the last few decades seem to have plunged us into an age of anomie. A lot of the social and economic certainties that have held in the latter half of the twentieth century seems to have been washed away leaving many of us wondering just what we’re supposed to be doing with our lives. This article is not antidote by any means, but it does provide a guideline for one part of the puzzle: how to develop a career and professional arc in this age.

The Classics Scholar Redefining what Twitter Can Do

Over the last few years, it seems like Twitter has degenerated into a cesspool of hate and people shouting past each other. In the midst of that, this is an interesting counter-point. Emily Wilson is a classicist and author of a new translation of Homer’s Odyssey. This article talks about how Prof. Wilson used Twitter to explain various choices she made during translation, interacting with both potential readers and other classicists.

Craig Mod’s Offscreen Magazine Interview

Craig Mod is one of my favorite bloggers who has written at length about books, meditation, photography and recovering our attention in an age of distraction (or rather, continual partial attention). I love reading all his writing (which is, thankfully, both sporadic and deep) and I loved reading this in-depth interview where he talks broadly about his work and experiences, as well as strategies for choosing what work is worth doing and then to go about doing it.

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Earth: Final Conflict

This an old, and I suspect mostly unknown, TV show from the late nineties “created” by Gene Roddenberry. I use the quotes because I’m unsure how much involvement he had in this, as opposed to this creation of Star Trek. Instead of dealing with themes of humanity exploring new life and civilization among the stars, this show deals with what happens when new life and civilization comes to earth. All five seasons are now streaming on Amazon Prime.

From the Bookshelf

The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca translated by Moses Hadas

Over the last few months I’ve become interested in Buddhism and Stoicism, which share a striking number of similarities. After reading some modern summaries and interpretations of Stoicism, I decided to go straight with to the source, starting with Seneca. It makes for interesting reading, though a lot of the references and particular examples used will not be applicable for most people. Still, it is a source of practical wisdom, and many of the lessons can be translated to modern life.

 

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Wakanda: Patrick Patterson explains the importance of Black Panther

Excellent piece by Patrick Patterson of Oklahoma City Thunder on growing up as a black kid watching movies and watching Black Panther.

This reminds me a lot of the first time I saw Sendhil Ramamurthy in Heroes — an Indian scientist in America, no powers, no riches, just trying to survive and figure things out with his wits and his skills.

Sunday Selection 2018-02-25

Around the Web

25 Principles of Adult Behavior by John Perry Barlow

John Parry Barlow, founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and a techno-utopian in the truest sense of the term, passed away a couple weeks ago. Decades ago he wrote a list of 25 Principles of Adult Behavior, which I think should be a part of every college freshman orientation. Please keep reading to a snippet from EFF’s Executive Director Cindy Cohn explaining Barlow’s philosophy, something we would do well to learn from today.

An Openness to Life

Another wonderful piece from Brain Pickings, this time showcasing the work of Swedish diplomat and author Dag Hammarskjöld, one of only two people to have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize posthumously.

Some Black Panther Readings

I watched Black Panther twice and absolutely loved it (for different reasons each time). I’ve also spent more time than I should have reading commentary about the movie online. Some of my favorite pieces are an explanation of Erik Killmonger’s role as a profound, tragic villain, another on how Black Panther asks us to examine who we are and what we think about and act on, and finally a wonderful interview with the breakout star of the movie, Winston Duke, who delivers a wonderful performance as M’Baku, and has given a lot of thought to both the role itself and his place as an actor.

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Black Panther

If you haven’t seen it yet, you really should. That is all.

 

Sunday Selection 2018-01-28

Around the Web

Field Notes Shenandoah Edition
Field Notes Shenandoah Edition

Why Field Notes Have Remained Curiously Addictive for a Decade

In the last few years, I’ve become a big fan of pen (and pencil) and paper for taking notes, journaling and sketching out ideas. More recently, I started carrying around a Field Notes pocket notebook all the time and using it to write down and keep track of all kinds of things about my day-to-day life. This is a wide-ranging and very interesting article about how Field Notes got started and kept going, along with a healthy dose of context to understand the why paper notebooks seem to making a comeback.

From inboxing to thought showers: how business bullshit took over

I’m very grateful to work in a field and environment where I have to deal with very little “business bullshit” on a regular basis. But this is an interesting look at how differences in language can shape the way we think and act and can spread unchecked through society at large. Pair this with an older article on the phenomenon of bullshit jobs.

Human Values and Science, Art and Mathematics

I am a big fan of Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings blog and this is, in my opinion, the best article she’s written so far this year. It contain’s excerpts from an out-of-print by Lilian Lieber of the above name interspersed with Popova’s commentary. The book starts off using the discovery of non-Euclidean geometry to explain how science progresses, and then extends that line of reasoning to understanding the human condition, ending with a set of postulates that I think deserves to sit right beside Utilitarianism and Kant’s Categorical Imperative as foundational moral principles. A long, interesting and inspiring read. I hope to get my hands on a copy of the book itself someday.

From the Bookshelf

The Rise and Fall of DODO by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland

I started this year wanting to read one book a week, but it looks like I might end up at one book a month instead. Oh well, I think I picked a good one to start with. Without going into details, this book blends together magic, time travel, politics, and a wide range of curious characters into a gripping and hard-to-put-down read. This book has made me stay up past my bedtime reading for the first time in a long while.

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Pacific Rim: Uprising 2nd trailer

The original Pacific Rim is one of my favorite movies. As far as movies go, I would it’s very good, but not excellent, but it is a whole lot of fun with a lot of great and unconventional characters. I’m really looking forward to the second installment, and to seeing more of Guillermo del Toro’s excellent work.

Books I read in 2017

A quick post about books I’ve read in 2017 to ring in the New Year. There weren’t many (something to change in 2018), but I’m very happy with the ones I did read.

Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling

This was the first book I read in 2017. I don’t remember much about it, other than being impressed by how hard working Mindy Kaling was. Goodreads tells me I gave it 5 stars, so I must have really liked it at the time.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl

I read this in one sitting during a cross-country flight. Reading about what victims of the Holocaust endured in Nazi concentration camps has a way of putting your life’s problems in perspective. The first part of the book focuses on how the average person survives and reacts to life in the brutality and extreme cruelty of a concentration camp. The second part of the book introduces Frankl’s theories of meaning as expressed in his approach to psychology: logotherapy. In essence, the meaning of life is found in every moment of living, even in the midst of suffering and death. 5 stars and highly recommended for everyone.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Very enjoyable and signature Neil Gaiman. I loved the themes, the concepts, the writing style and especially how Gaiman weaves together so many different characters and ideas into a single coherent narrative. I was a little disappointed by what felt like a anti-climactic resolution, but the rest of the book is good enough to warrant 4 stars.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

I was really looking forward to reading this and comparing it to all the modern portrayals of Frankenstein (both the doctor and his monster). But full confession: Dr. Frankenstein comes off as a complete jerk and I got tired of his whining about two thirds through the book and couldn’t finish. The monster’s parts, by comparison, were captivating and very enjoyable. Maybe I’ll manage to get through it this year.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

The only self-help book I read this year and it was definitely a good choice. It’s a dense book and I haven’t implemented all the suggestions, but it has certainly helped me think more about how I go about my work and made me reconsider and pay more attention to things like how many distractions I tolerate. Consider this required reading for anyone working in an intellectual or creative field. My only complaint is that some of the chapters are really long with lots of information, some restructuring into smaller segments would have helped.

Binti and Binti:Home by Nnedi Okorafor

Great example of Afrofuturism and modern science fiction. I wouldn’t call it “hard” science fiction, but they are chock full of interesting concepts and ideas, and the characters and their perspectives are refreshingly different from standard science fiction tropes. I’m looking forward to the final book in the series that’s due out soon.

We Need Hyperlink Literacy

A couple weeks ago, I was in a student discussion with James Grimmelmann, law professor at Cornell Tech who studies how laws regarding technology affect freedom, wealth and power. A large part of our discussion centered around search engines and media platforms, specifically how personalization and algorithmic filters may affect what users see, even when they don’t understand or know that they’re getting filtered content. One way to tackle this issue (in addition to regulation, or some form of opt-out) would be media literacy: teach people that what they see is not some kind of perfect, impartial truth, but might be tailored to their preference and past histories (and biased in other ways).

Fostering that kind of media literacy among the populace at large is at once sorely needed and immensely difficult. Given how much our society depends on the Internet, the World Wide Web, search engines, social media platforms and the (often inscrutable) algorithms behind them, it is crucial that people understand how they get their information, and what are the biases, agendas, and influences shaping what they see (and don’t see). This is clearly a massive challenge, and likely one that we don’t yet know how to overcome. Personally, I would settle for solving one much smaller piece of the puzzle first: a more general understanding and respect for hyperlinks.

The humble hyperlink is the foundation of the web as we know it. It takes the web from being just a digital version of a library or filing cabinet to something truly new: a system where direct access to a piece of information is as easy as naming it. Unfortunately, along with the rise of digital walled gardens such as Facebook (and to a lesser degree, Twitter) the hyperlink seems to be losing prominence. That’s ironic given that the hyperlink is a sharing mechanism, and Facebook would like to bill itself as a platform for sharing and connecting. On a normal web page, one can use snippets of text as anchors for a hyperlink, instead of using the raw link itself. Facebook doesn’t let you turn pieces of text in a status update into links. Furthermore, pasting more than one link at a time breaks the user interface. I suppose Facebook wants to give the link more prominence than what you have to say about it. People like Dave Winer and John Gruber have commented at length on how Facebook breaks the web. Poignantly, that last sentence (with two hyperlinks) would be impossible to write properly in Facebook.

And it’s not just Facebook. Twitter is approximately the same as Facebook. Slack supports links poorly in the same way: there’s no obvious way to use pieces of text as anchors for links. Adding more than one link is slightly better: giving previews for both links (though they are bigger and more prominent than the message containing the links). These systems are silos: they prefer you share and interact with posts within their own boundaries, rather than with content on the web as a whole.

By reducing the prominence of hyperlinks and truncating their utility, we create online cultures focused on sharing information, rather than ones that encourage combining and synthesizing multiple sources and viewpoints into coherent narratives. I would argue that in doing so we are giving up a large part of the power of the Web, to our detriment, and for no clear benefit.

So how do we fix this? Certainly, there is an argument to be made for reducing our dependence on platforms where we cannot sufficiently control our own writing. But beyond that, I would like to see hyperlinks become a more ingrained part of writing on a computer. I would love to see a world where whenever you write some text on a computer that references external sources, you link copiously to them, rather than just inserting references that readers have to look up manually. School and college writing classes would be the prime places to teach this. In the same way that we teach students to include citations to external sources, I would like to see students treat hyperlinks with the same importance and fluency.

In a deeply connected technological society such as ours, using the core technologies of the web should be a central part of any kind of digital or media literacy.

Steve Jobs, the Xerox Alto, and computer typography

A few nights ago I met a wonderful woman at a pipe organ concert who worked for several decades at Xerox, programmed in the Mesa and Cedar languages, as well as Smalltalk on the original Altos.

She told me that she eventually left programming because she felt like modern computing and programming had become bureaucratic and process-oriented, more like engineering and less creative. These days she was more interested in statistics and data science.

Personally I’m glad to see computing and programming mature into a engineering discipline, but I would also very much like to see programming embraced as a creative endeavor. I hope that it’s possible to do both: embrace modern type systems, property-based testing and metaprogramming to build reliable systems, while interacting with clean and beautiful tools and interfaces instead of the modern mess of HTML/CSS/JavaScript (or similar messes in other technology stacks).