On Reading More Books

One of my intentions for 2016 (I hesitate to call it a resolution) is to read more books. Over the last few years, the number of books I’ve read (and the frequency with which I read them) has steadily decreased. I haven’t kept records, but I couldn’t have read more than a handful in 2015. All this is despite the fact that I do in fact read a lot on a daily basis mostly in the form of blog posts and articles online.

My reasons for wanting to read more books, as opposed to just reading more in general, are mostly subjective. Firstly, my ability to sit with a piece over the course of several hours, follow the author’s text, remember what was said and gradually incorporate new material, has deteriorated over the years, and it’s an ability I sorely want back. Even the longest online essay rarely takes over half an hour to read. I want to feel comfortable following intricate arguments, or interesting plotlines again and I want to carve out several hours of time in a day to sit with a single activity (something that I’ve also been doing too little of in the recent past). Secondly, I want to get back to writing more regularly over the course of the year while getting better at writing, improving both quality and quantity, as it were. A prerequisite to writing well is to read well, and broadly. A side effect of that might be more book reviews and recommendations showing up here. Stay tuned.

Finally, I’m looking forward to embracing the physicality of books. Though I’ve shifted most of my reading to the Kindle Paperwhite over the last few years, I still own a good number of paper books and pick up a new one every now and then. In particular, for books that aren’t pure text, such as Molly Crabapple’s Drawing Blood, paper is still far superior to any electronic version. For me, even the Kindle Paperwhite is a more comfortable reading medium for books than a phone or computer screen. Personally, I’ve found that attaching myself to a screen has become the default activity for unscheduled time. Usually that screen is either a television for Netflix, or a phone for random Internet and social media things. It’s a default I’d very much like to change, and having a physical book or dedicated reader to turn to seems like a step in the right direction.

It’s going well so far. I’ve re-read Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist and tore through Paul Kalanithi’s beautiful and devastating When Breath Becomes Air in just two days. Last night I cracked open Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style which I hope will help with writing more and better. This morning I read the prologue to Molly Crabapple’s Drawing Blood while finishing my coffee and am really looking forward to the rest of it.

In addition to reading more, I would like to keep track of what I read. After all, Socrates will tell you that the unexamined life is not worth living. I’ve never been very good at this, but the tools to do so have never been easier. I’ve resurrected my long-default Goodreads account and brought it up to date on the readings of the year. Feel free to follow me, if you’re into that sort of thing (though I don’t plan on using it as more than a tracker). At the end of the year, I would like to have a record of what I read and some idea of what among them were the most memorable (though probably not a definitive “best of” list).

I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to end the year with a lot more read, a mind expanded, and perhaps some new interests discovered. I don’t want to set up any goals because I’d like this to be a low-stress endeavor, but I do hope to check in from time to time with news of progress, and of course pass along any jewels I discover. I am also very open to suggestions for interesting books from diverse domains.

New York, New York

Pitiful, this city of New York. I expected Constantinople, Baghdad before the Mongols. Rome. Oh. Those were cities. This is a factory. A machine.

— The Strain.

I’ve never been the biggest fan of New York City. Having grown up in a really big city (which had more than its fair share of big city problems) I’ve been attracted to smaller, out-of-the-way settings. My first four years in the United States were spent at Lafayette College in Easton, PA and the second four at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.

However, as time goes by, I find myself increasingly attracted to the city. I’ve been ending up there increasingly regularly, either as a stepping stone, or as a destination itself. The last few times I was there, I even found myself wondering if I could see myself living there long term, at least for a few years, in the not-too-distant future. The answer to that is a very strong “maybe”, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if that were to change to a “yes” in a few years’ time.

There is much to recommend New York City, the food, the culture, the tall buildings and bright lights, the Fifth Avenue displays during the holidays, Central Park. But for me personally, it is perhaps the only place in the world where I can see friends from high school, college and graduate school, and make new ones, all in a few days’ time. Indeed, if New York were not this unexpected nexus of various parts of my life (and the people involved) I would be far less drawn to it. Philadelphia, another large, though oddly more comfortable, city, would be a far second.

I spent the better part of five days in New York City in between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. One of those days was spent in the hustle and bustle, the strangling crowds of Times Square and Rockefeller Center, and that required the next day to be spent in the low-key comfort of a Brooklyn coffee shop, and I was glad to make my escape from New York well before the madness of New Year’s Eve descended. In those days, I ate, I drank, I made merry, I talked about startups and distributed systems and Bitcoin and financial programming languages. I watched the new Star Wars, nerded out over it, thought it was too close to A New Hope, and was delighted by Emo Kylo Ren, perhaps a bit too much. All in all, I had a good time. I came back sick in body, but refreshed in mind and soul.

But at the end of all that, it’s good to come back to home in snowy, cold, middle-of-nowhere Ithaca, NY. For me, New York City is a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there (just yet).

President Garrett Expands Graduate Student Support and Funding

I had a chance to hear President Garrett speak to the Cornell Graduate & Professional Student Assembly on Monday and was very impressed. I was expecting to hear the standard “Keep up the good work, look forward to working with you” spiel, and was pleasantly surprised to hear about all the activity that’s under way.

In addition to already being active, President Garrett struck me as very well-informed, opinionated, erudite and well-spoken, while being quite down-to-earth and eager to talk to students, rather than down to them. I (cautiously) have high hopes for Cornell under her guidance, and I’m personally looking forward to working with her administration as part of the GPSA.

Hundreds of Little Things

Last week I came across a blog post about the new release of an image editor called Acorn. I don’t use Acorn, but one part of the post appealed to me. In a section titled “Hundred of Little Things” the author talked about fixing bugs in Acorn:

It took months and months of work, it was super boring and mind numbing and it was really hard to justify, and it made Acorn 5 super late. But we did it anyway, because something in us felt that software quality has been going downhill in general, and we sure as heck weren’t going to let that happen to Acorn.

Most of my past week was fixing lots of small and annoying little bugs in my summer project. Some of them were edge cases in the core functionality of the system, but a lot of them were little bits and pieces and rough edges that I would have normally just let pass. I do agree that software quality seems to be going downhill in general. One way to fix it is to pay attention to all the little things that we usually let slip past. On a related note, I think that writing software in a way that doesn’t allow these little things to slip past us is still unnecessarily difficult and complicated, but that’s a matter for another post.

Sunday Selection 2015-08-16

Around the Web

Mad as Hell: How a Generation Came of Age While Listening to John Stewart

Last week marked John Stewart’s last week on The Daily Show. I enjoyed his last few episodes, but part of me was really wishing that his last show would include a takedown of the Republican debate. This isn’t the most in-depth post about his years at The Daily Show, but I think it captures effectively how many people of my age feel about John Stewart and the show.

Meditation vs medication: A Comic Essay on Faciing Depression

I’ve meditating more regularly in recent months as well as reading more about meditation, mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy in general. At the same time, depression is a growing concern, especially among people involved in technology and for me personally as well. I’ve also come to realize that there is a certain taboo surrounding anti-depressants: a latent fear that medication will fundamentally change who we are. I don’t think any one article can completely tackle this complicated bundle of issues, but this is a good place to start.

Programming Sucks

If you’ve ever wondered what the day-to-day life of a programmer is like, or the state of our technology is, this post gives a only half-joking look at behind the digital scenes. If you lived in the trenches yourself, you will find yourself nodding along, and maybe shedding a tear or two. There should probably be a trigger warning associated with this article.

From the Bookshelf

Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach

Talking of meditation, my most recent foray into that world came in the form of this book. It’s not about meditation per se, but rather involves using meditation as a tool to become more comfortable with our lives, face our inner demons, and accept the way things are as a focal point for living a better life. The book is replete with personal stories from the author’s life (and those of her patients) and includes helpful guided meditations to get you started.

Video

Forging the Hattori Hanzo Katana

I’ve always had a fascination with Japanese culture and martial arts, and Hattori Hanzo’s monologue is probably my favorite part of the Kill BIll movie. The movie doesn’t actually show you how the sword is forged, so here is a video that does. The narration could have been better, but it’s still a very entertaining (and educational) video.

Quick Notes on the OnePlus One

I’ve been a happy owner and user of a Nexus 4 for about two years (and the Nexus S before that), but in the last few months, my phone was starting to show its age. I was barely getting a full day’s usage out of the battery and after the Lollipop updates, things seemed generally more sluggish in general. It was time for an update, and following my usual habit of a skipping at least a generation when it comes to tech, I was really hoping to get a Nexus 6. Unfortunately, the $650+ price point placed it more than a little out of my reach. I’ve never owned a non-Nexus smartphone, but it seemed like it was finally time to move on to something else.

There’s been a lot of hype and news about the OnePlus One that I won’t bother recapping here. In short, the OnePlus One is a reasonably priced, state-of-the-art Android smartphone that comes unlocked and runs a version of the CyanogenMod ROM. It’s not stock Android like the Nexus line, but there’s no bloatware either and it works just fine with the full suite of Google Apps and (as far as I can tell) most popular Android apps in general. After being invite only for several months, you can now buy one from the OnePlus website, but only on Tuesdays. I’ve had mine for about two weeks now and thoroughly enjoy it. Yesterday a friend of mine asked me about my experiences about the device. I thought I’d collect all the points I made in that conversation and share them here.

For starters, I really like the device. It’s much snappier as compared to my Nexus 4, the large screen is gorgeous and the design in general is well executed. I got the 64GB “Black Sandstone” version. As the name suggests, the back of the phone has a black, sandstone-like texture that makes the device quite pleasant to hold. Time will tell if the texture holds up with daily wear and tear. The battery life is really good—I can easily get almost two days of moderate use on a full charge, and well over a day even with heavy usage. It’s really nice to know that I have a good few hours of usage left even if I forget to plug it in overnight.

I was a little concerned about the large 5.5″ screen, which is pretty massive compared to smartphone screens I’m used to. However, after a few weeks, I’ve gotten used to it and it feels really comfortable to use on a daily basis. By and large, I can use it with one hand (even for input using the swipe keyboard), but it is definitely easier to use with two hands. In fact, the device is light and slim enough that compared to my Nexus 4, it actually feels lighter and less of a burden to carry around. I do a lot of reading on my iPad Air (RSS, websites and Instapaper) but I’ve barely used it over the last two weeks. I’ve been testing out the One as a tablet replacement, at least for format-independent reading, and it’s been working out quite well so far.

I only have two main gripes about the One. First the CyanogenMod ROM that it’s using is still based on KitKat and I got used to Lollipop on the Nexus 4. But in all fairness, there’s nothing I seriously miss or can’t live without. And there’s a Lollipop-based ROM in the works. Second, the swipe keyboard seems noticeably less accurate than what I’ve gotten used to. However, that might just be because I still have the muscle memory of using the swipe keyboard on a smaller phone.

In summary, I think the OnePlus One is currently the best option for an unlocked, reasonably priced smartphone, especially given how expensive the Nexus 6 is.

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.