Sunday Selection 2019-12-01

It’s that time of the year when it gets dark at 4pm where I live. Since it’s cloudy and dreary a lot I am tempted to spend a lot of time in bed curled under the cover. But at the same time, I actually like the snow and the cold and there are Things that must get done.

I spent a couple weeks in Greece at the end of October and into November, mostly away from computers, off my phone and not using the Internet much except for using Google Maps and occasionally checking email. It was good. And I’ve been trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to replicate that feeling of effective disconnection, using the Internet only when necessary for purposes, rather than being used always for its (and by “it” I mean the various profit-maximizing corporations trying to lay claim to and monetize ever increasing portions of my experience and attention).

Today’s Sunday Selection is brought to you mostly by those thoughts.

Stab a Book, the Book Won’t Die

Craig Mod is one of my favorite writers, as he thinks deeply about a lot of things I am interested in: books, publishing, their relation to technology, and how to keep our heads screwed on straight in the face of the attention economy. This post is mostly about the first two things, but touches on the others. I also highly recommend signing up for his newsletters: Roden Explorers and Ridgeline.

Kahlil Gibran on Silence, Solitude, and the Courage to Know Yourself

Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings is another highly recommended reading (though her curatorial style of writing can be a little hard to follow). In any case, I am starting to think that an important step on the way to opting out of the attention economy is becoming comfortable with silence and solitude (the latter of which is particularly hard, as solitude borders so closely on loneliness). And as much as I like living in a Golden Age of Television (and readily available other videos, podcasts and music) it’s perhaps not surprising that being continually surrounded by noise (and always networked) is ultimately not good for the human mind or spirit.

Martin Scorsese: I said Marvel Movies aren’t Cinema. Let me explain.

I love stories about heroes. I love comic books, graphics novels, TV shows, movies, all of it. I went to New York Comicon once (didn’t dress up) and absolutely loved it. And though I will probably continue going to see the Marvel movies for the foreseeable future, the sameness is starting to get to me. Infinity War not withstanding, at the end of the day you know that everything will be (more or less) alright.

Aside: I watched Aquaman on the plane back. It was bad, so bad. Jason Momoa deserved better.

Continuing yesterday’s theme of reducing consumption and information hygiene, today I thought about browsers and tabs. I’ve been pretty disappointed with how much webapps have taken over day-to-day computing. But the one silver lining is that I can isolate all of my communication (email, various messengers, Slack, social media) in the Chrome browser. When I need to focus, or just don’t want to be available, I simply close Chrome. I use Safari for all of my actual browsing. I suppose I could do this within different instances or windows of the same browser, but there is probably an important psychological signal I send myself by having different applications for different purposes (even if the two look substantially the same).

Another piece of the puzzle is that I aggressively close tabs. If I come across a long article that I want to read, but not at that moment, I send it to Instapaper (and will often actually read on my iPad). PDFs get downloaded, and also are often read on my iPad. For things that I will need to refer back to later I use bookmarks. I’ll use local bookmarks for things I need periodically (like API docs, or the list of LaTeX symbols). For other things that I might need later, I’ve been using a happy Pinboard user for years.

Personally if I have a browser window or too many tabs open I feel like that’s something I should be paying attention to, especially if it’s something like email or Slack. But most of the time, what I should be paying attention to is something completely different. Actually closing out unnecessary windows and tabs helps me to mentally clear out false expectations and distractions.

Web interfaces for source control

I came across two articles about web-based interfaces for source control. The first is a critique of GitHub’s UI. The second is an explanation of some of the design choices for Sourcehut, a new 100% free and open source software forge.

If you’re interested in interfaces, or software engineering tools, I highly recommend reading both. They are short, will only take a few minutes of your time, and maybe make you think about functionality you take for granted, or issues you’ve learned to ignore and live with.

Personally, I like GitHub’s general prettiness, but I agree that there’s a lot of unnecessary UI elements, and not enough of (what I would consider) key features for effectively browsing source. The above-linked article mentions the difficulty of switching between individual files, history and branches, while links to Enterprise pricing, or starring repos are on every page. Part of that can be chalked up to GitHub’s position in between a software forge and a social network (because ¬†we’re still in the phase where we think everything needs to be a social network).

To be fair, Sourcehut is a bit too spartan for my tastes. If nothing else, I like good use of whitespace and nice fonts. (Aside: consider using Fira Code or Triplicate for displaying source code.) And I can’t tell how to easily move between code and history views on Sourcehut either. But at least its motivations are more clear, the appearance issues can probably be solved using user style sheets, and if you’re really peeved about its choices, you can fork it (though it’s almost certainly not worth the effort).

I haven’t really used similar tools (except for a pretty barebones code diff and review tool at a company I worked at briefly), so I wonder if there are other examples that can provide interesting lessons.

Sunday Selection 2018-11-18

Around the Web

The Beauty-Happiness Connection

I’ve been living in Boston (or Cambridge to be more precise) for the past few months and it has been good so far. Boston is a quite attractive place to live, with all the universities and the museums, architecture and open spaces. Though there are certain deficiencies to my life here (I haven’t built a solid social circle yet), as this article says, being within easy rich of various forms of beauty has been quite enjoyable.

The Weightiest Question in the Smallest Number of Words: Retelling the Nietzsche Story

Since sitting down and actually reading Thus Spoke Zarathustra a few years, I have been a fan of Nietzsche (and one day I should really sit down and read all of his work). And over the years I’ve become increasingly fascinated by the intellectual webs that writers and thinkers find themselves embedded in (in no small part due to reading Brain Pickings). So of course I found this interview of Sue Prideaux about her forthcoming biography of Nietzsche very interesting. It’s only about Nietzsche, but situates his work in the context of his life and the people he knew and communicated with.

The Freedom to be Free at Work

Talking of things I have become interested in during the last few years, I have been increasingly concerned about how “work” and “productivity” should be situated in the broader frame of our lives. Of course, this is well-trod ground and in this case we get to see Hannah Arendt’s footsteps in this region as she ties together notions of work, labor, creation, consumption and humanity’s connection to the “metabolism of nature”. Hopefully a thought-provoking read on a Sunday afternoon before starting the workweek anew.

Sunday Selection 2018-08-12

Spotify CEO Daniel Ek on Apple, Facebook, Netflix and the future

This is probably the most balanced interview I’ve ever read from a software company executive. Daniel Ek’s perspective on technology and his company’s place in the world shows much more humility and a more nuanced understanding than we’ve come to expect from technology companies. It’s a refreshing read and offers a lot to learn, for anyone interested in understanding how to manage people, lead companies and leverage technology for effective social change.

Why Writing Matters in the Age of Despair

One of my goals for post-PhD life is to write more, on both technical and non-technical topics. So far I’ve been managing to keep a more or less regular habit of writing privately, but been publishing very infrequently, but am hoping to change that. As the author notes: the limits of our stories are the limits of our lives. Our words should open up the world, not close it off. Our words should include all, not trap them in cages. I see every story, every word as a struggle of memory against forgetting.

Nick Offerman’s New Definition of Manliness

I’ve been a big fan of Nick Offerman ever since watching Parks & Recreation. This article seems to sum up his view on life and manliness, which in turn is summed up by his line about whiskey: my advice is to craft your life in such a way that your whiskey drinking can be for enjoyment, which means that it’s delicious and in moderation, rather than for escapism, or to obliterate your consciousness.