Sunday Selection 2021-04-11

Some good news: I got me first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine a few days. I was completely exhausted for a day and then very hungry and thirsty for a couple of days. I take all that to mean that my body is doing work. After over a year of mostly staying at home, it seems like there is now a promise of some semblance of normalcy at the end of the tunnel. It will be another three weeks before I get the second shot and two weeks after that before I can expect the vaccine to reach full effectiveness, so for the next month or so I’ll mostly be doing what I’ve been doing so far. But I am hoping to start easing back to normal after that. Till then, I’ll be continuing to spend more time in front of a screen than I would like to, so I might as well as metabolize it into blog posts.

Free Software: An Idea Whose Time Has Passed

If you’re anywhere around the software or information technology, you’ve probably heard that Richard Stallman was recently reinstated to the board of the Free Software Foundation. This has been widely regarded as a bad move, and has caused a number of board members to resign. This article argues that maybe it’s time not to praise free software, but to bury it, an opinion I find myself agreeing with.

The Long Term iPhone 12 Camera Review

With the weather starting to improve, and more people getting vaccinated, I am looking forward to being out and about more often, which means more opportunities to take pictures. Though I’ve always been interesting in photography, I’ve never managed to justify the cost of a good camera, and even when I’ve bought standalone cameras, I’ve not inclined to carry them on a regular basis. So having a very good camera on a device I already have on me has been just right for me.

The Point of Doing Pointless Things

I don’t know if this my type-A personality or something else, but it’s often hard for me to relax. Part of that difficulty is feeling the need to always do the best thing, even if it’s relaxing. For a long time, I would feel bad if even my “time off” activities didn’t produce something, or lead to personal improvement in some way. For better of worse, the last year of sitting at home has changed that. I couldn’t do a lot of my go-to activities like going to museums, concerts, or various talks and lectures. Doing the digital version of those things just felt like spending even more time sitting in the same place. Instead I’ve had to get used to doing things just because I liked them (like reading comic books) or sometimes just doing nothing at all.

What the Buddha Taught

But of course, I can’t escape my type-A-ness all together, so a lot of my non-fiction reading has been about Buddhist philosophy recently. It’s something I’ve encountered in bits and pieces over the last few years, but it’s nice to have a well-written book that clearly explains the key concepts in an orderly fashion (I’m one of those people who prefer learning things from a textbook). While the writing style is a little dated, and does flow awkwardly at times, it does a good job at both explaining key concepts and answering some more technical questions (like what does it mean for free will if there is no self). If you’re interested in Buddhism at all, this is a good place to start.

Sunday Selection 2021-01-03

I’ll be honest, it feels a little strange to write the first of a Selection post for the first time in a new year. I’m tempted to summarize everything that’s been notable from 2020, even though it seems like I barely remember large parts of it, let alone what I read. Moreover people more eloquent than I have summarized what this hell of a year has been like. With all that in mind, here are some things I came across recently that I think will be of interest to you, dear reader.

When This is Over: A 2020 New Year

I’ve read a number of 2020 summaries, and this is by far the one that best captures what I think most of us are feeling for the year we left behind. It summarizes all the tiredness and heartbreak that we’ve been through, the hopes and dreams we have for the new year, and also the nagging doubt at the back of our minds that things won’t magically get better.

As an aside, I started supporting some writers and creators on Patreon last year, and I intend to continue to do so this year. I understand that 2020 has been a very bad year financially for many people, but if you can spare a few dollars a month to support independent creators, please do so. Talking of independent writers, that leads me to…

Is Substack the Media Future We Want?

Newsletters have definitely taken off in 2020. It seems to give writers the independence that blogs once did, while solving the crucial problem of how to get people to pay for interesting writers. I’m subscribed to about half a dozen such newsletters, or varying regularity, and pay for a couple. Of course, as this article tells us, not everything is rainbows and sunshine. A lack of moderation is always a double-edged sword, and even though Substack (and kin) make paying writers easier, it’s hard to say if that will be enough to support the writers losing their livelihoods due to the continuing slow death of journalism. And yes, I’ve thought about offering this blog (or at least a part of it) via newsletter as well.

Just to Be Alive Is Enough

2020 has definitely been a year where if you got to the end of it in one piece, you deserve a pat on the back (even though you may have to give yourself the pat for now). As a recovering Type-A person, it’s hard to accept that survival is enough. As a I noted in the last post, it doesn’t feel good just exist instead of living. However, we can flip that idea around and realize that just being alive gives us a lot to appreciate and enjoy. Something I’m glad I learned over the course of the last year is that we don’t need to wait for particular things to happen to be happy. We can open up to and accept all experiences, and embrace life just as it is.

The Mandalorian Season 2

Season 2 of The Mandalorian is now finished, and the housemates and I finished watching it on Christmas Eve. In many ways, the show feels like a Western set in the Star Wars universe (just as Rogue One was a heist movie set in the Star Wars universe). That doesn’t mean it’s bad though. It doesn’t exactly break narrative ground, but it is very well done, has a wide cast of interesting and relatable characters, and is very enjoyable.

The Internet as Mindspace

Photographer and bookmaker Craig Mod is one of my favorite writers on the web, and his Roden and Ridgeline Newsletters are among of my favorites. In the most recent issue of Roden, entitled Book World, he features an excerpt from Odessa Moshfegh’s new book Death in Her Hands, talking about some kids at computers in the library:

They looked like Benedictine monks sitting there tapping at their keyboards, faces wan in the cold blue glare of their screens. I stood and watched them impatiently. Each of them was agape, mesmerized. I could see that they were connected to something that had immense power over us. This was what happened when the mind-space was the Internet, I thought. One loses one’s sense of self. One’s mind can go anywhere. And at the same time, the mind becomes lame when it is connected to something so consuming.

This all struck close to thome, especially in the current time when most of my socialization and relaxation happens also happens over the Internet in some form or another (which I am not happy about). For me, “Internet as Mindspace” is an idea that didn’t occur to me until I read Moshfegh’s description of it, but as soon as I did it seemed blindingly obvious.

I think at some level, most of us know that being tethered to the Internet in the way described isn’t healthy. Even without being told, we can tell that doomscrolling is slowly eroding our mental health. We can feel, in some subconscious, visceral way, that our ability to process information is quickly reaching a saturation point, that our minds are getting dangerously close to some kind of informational breaking point. We know that we are slowly but surely (and then all at once) losing our sense of selves under a barrage of messages, notifications and stories fired at us over algorithmic feeds. Perhaps we realize that humans have not evolved to be connected, but at a distance, in this way, at all times, and that even though we are very good adaptation machines, maybe we don’t actually want (and shouldn’t have to) adapt to this digital environment.

I know, I know, this is all rich coming from an academic computer scientist who has a PhD in building better networks.

So what are we to do about this situation? Unlike some, I am not of the opinion that we need to disconnect wholesale, that the only way to win this particular game is not to play it. Though our social networks may be digital and intermittent and virtual, they are still our social networks, and for many, our primary or only social ties (whether or not that is a good thing and how to deal with it is a rant for another time). While drinking from a firehose is probably never a good idea, one still requires 8-10 glasses of clean water a day for health and survival.

For my own part, framing connectivity as being tethered to an immensely powerful mindspace seems a step in the right direction. It’s all too easy to pick up the phone and start scrolling until the feed seems like an extension of your mental processes. And having a reminder that your mind is indeed a separate space that can be intentionally disconnected is a step in the right direction. Solitude is not just a case of physical separation, but perhaps more importantly a subjective state in which we are isolated from the products and influences of other minds.

Talking of phones, I now keep Facebook, Twitter and Instagram only on an older phone that lives away from the couch and away from my desk. I still check them on a daily basis, but now I have to actually decide to do so, rather it being the default in the moments my mind has nothing better to do. Does it make posting and using them to stay on top of them harder? Yes, but I find the amount that I actually want or need to do so is actually quite small. Your mileage may vary.

Apart from social media, I’m trying to keep my reliance on the browser to a minimum. As I’ve noted before, I like having as few tabs open as possible. Over the last month or so I’ve also started using a desktop app instead of a browser app where possible (email, Facebook Messenger and Slack are the main ones). It’s good to just shut down something when it’s not in use, clearing up space, both mentally and computationally. My current phone, which gets all my non-social media notifications, stays close, but not too close. It’s about an arm’s length, sitting on my bed, outside my usual field of view when I’m working. It’s close enough that I can turn my head and take a look if I’m not doing anything else, but far enough away that I don’t see it when I’m focused on something else.

As an addendum to Moshfegh, the Internet is not a single mindspace, but a whole bunch of connected and overlapping ones, some more powerfully enticing than others. And with care we can pull them apart, choose to inhabit the ones that matter, the ones that have the most meaning and value to us. I’m a technologist who still believes that technologies can and should be used for personal and societal good. As such, I believe the Internet mindspaces still have value, but we have to know when to step away from them, and learn to keep them separate from our own minds.

WordPress bugginess on Android

This year I’ve been trying to reduce my use of social media, and of my phone. These two goals go hand-in-hand: if I don’t have social media apps on my phone I am less tempted to keep looking at it, checking for something new. It also means that when I get a notification on my phone, it is more likely to be a message (via SMS, or messaging apps) meant specifically for me, rather than some low-information notification to increase my “engagement” with a social media app. Together, this is a way for me to keep believing in the Internet, and ensuring that I’m using it, rather than the other way around.

Another aspect of reducing dependence on social media is investing more in my own, independent publishing platforms: this blog, and my website. For the time being at least, this blog runs on WordPress.com which has apps for all the common platforms.

Part of achieving the above is posting not just longer articles and links to this blog, but also pictures capturing memorable moments in my day-to-day life. This is something I’ve been using Instagram for, but since I took the Instagram app off my phone, I wanted to see if I could use the WordPress Android app to do the same.

The answer is: sort of. I initially posted yesterday’s Sunday Selection post without the image. I then wandered out to one of my favorite local cafes where I took the picture. But adding the picture to the post using the WordPress Android app turned out to be more troublesome than I was expecting.

First I added the picture to the post from my phone’s photo gallery, and updated it. Everything seemed to work, but when I checked the post, the image URL appeared broken. For some reason the app used a URL for local Android storage rather than the uploaded image URL. If I somehow interrupted the image upload or the post update, this wasn’t clear at all.

Second I tried to edit the post again to make sure the changes had saved properly. But when I exited the post editing screen without actually making any edits, the app designed to remove all paragraph breaks from the post. Luckily WordPress seems to keep a version history for posts, so I could go back to an older version.

Finally, I ended up deleting the image from the post, and then adding it from the WordPress media library (which had the proper uploaded version of the image) and re-publishing. This seemed to finally work.

So I managed to do what I wanted, but the fact that what should be a common use case was so buggy leaves a really bad impression. While I don’t want to go back to using other platforms for this, I’m now much less excited to use WordPress for this. For now, I’m willing to give WordPress the benefit of the doubt. Maybe this is a one-off use case, or these bugs will be fixed in future versions, but I certainly am disappointed.

Going ad-free

This blog is now ad-free.

I firmly believe that surveillance capitalism propping up the online ad economy is a scourge and existential threat, both to the open Internet and to civil society in general. We sorely need to come up with economic and business models that allow the creation and distribution of high quality information (new, investigate journalism, peer-reviewed science, cultural artifacts, etc.) without requiring consumers of such information to give up their privacy.

Aside. I have a related rant on why we should start paying for software and services (but also avoid Software-as-a-Service), but I’ll save that for later.

I don’t know how to solve the broader societal and economic version of the problem, but I can take the small personal step of protecting readers of this blog. So I’m paying the $4 a month to upgrade to the Premium version of WordPress.com to get rid of the (increasingly tasteless) ads. That seems to have gotten rid of the annoying cookie disclaimer as well.

Eventually I would like to move off of WordPress.com and transition to a lighter static site completely under my control, but this will do for now.

Happy reading.