Sunday Selection 2021-05-16

It’s been a little over two weeks since my second shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. Here in the US we are starting to see a gradual return to normalcy, though at least in Massachusetts masking in public spaces and reduced capacity will continue to be a part of life for a little while longer. On a personal note, I’m in an extended transition period: I’m moving soon, and for the first time in a number of years will be living on my own. My housemates are in the process of moving out, the house is a mess (but also feeling more like my space), and the cats are increasingly perturbed by the changes. I am looking forward to having my own space, but not super thrilled have to do everything on my own again. And I’m not exactly happy about the not-quite-extortionate amount of rent I’ll paying starting next month.

Like many transitions, this one has gotten me thinking about life again, something I last did at the start of the year. In particular, I have been thinking about practice as a way of life. As someone whose life has often been about chasing goals, or reaching certain milestones as quickly as possible, the forced slowdown of the last year was a shock to the system. As doing things becomes possible again, I am trying to cultivate a life that is about more than moving from one thing to the next as quickly as possible.

How to Practice

Here’s a realization I didn’t have until after I turned 30: that life (for most of us) is actually quite long. And that, somewhat paradoxically, making the most of that life requires a certain amount of slowing down. It’s not going slow for its own sake, but rather, slowing down is a prerequisite for the intentionality required for a good life. As Ann Patchett tells us in this narrative, that intentionality is improved by practice and imagination.

Private Practice: Toward a Philosophy of Just Sitting

On the other hand, often the point of practice is just that: to practice. This again, is somewhat paradoxical, and I began to appreciate it only after a couple years of a regular meditation practice. It was also something that completely eluded me in the several years that I spent playing the violin as a teenager. I suppose practice is requirement of that elusive state: mindfulness, the feeling that you’re actually here, living your life and not just passing through it. And learning to just sit, for maybe 10-15 minutes a day, is a good way to get started.

What’s the Point If We Can’t Have Fun?

Closely related to practice, I think, is play. In fact, as this article suggests, play or fun might just be one of the foundational organizing principles of the universe. Given how much our brains seem to require meaningful work and play in balanced proportions, this idea strikes me as a having a certain amount of credibility. Besides, living with cats for two years has firmly convinced me that the importance of play reaches deep into the animal kingdom.

The Man Who Found the Flow

Finally, it seems likely that practice and play (and meaningful deep work) both help us tap into the psychological state of flow. I first encountered Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas in college, I have been thinking more about them recently, especially in context of a year when doomscrolling become a de facto part of our daily routines. It’s perhaps unsurprising that later in life I become interested in meditation, which I think helps bring about a similar state of mind.

Sunday Selection 2020-02-23

It’s a relatively warm and sunny winter weekend here in Boston. Personally, I don’t mind the cold and snow, but I do hate it when it’s cloudy and dreary for weeks at a time, so I’m happy that it’s been a fairly bright and sunny winter this year. With that in mind, here are some hopefully uplifting things to read:

An app can be a home-cooked meal

Lately I’ve been increasingly unhappy by the fact that we have so little control over our own software. At the same time, it’s easy to forget that we can actually build our own tools and applications. While I’ve often thought of the relationship between cooking and programming before (see: name of this site), this post is an extended metaphor (with an existence proof) that I hadn’t thought of before.

The Slippery Slope of Mechanical Keyboards

So mechanical keyboards is now an acceptable crossover for a pen blog, eh?

Over the past couple years the two “hobbies” I’ve picked up are fountain pens and mechanical keyboards, and perhaps unsurprisingly there is a decent amount of crossover between the two. Personally I see it as a matter of tools: I like writing, and programming, and spend most of my day doing one or the other. And I want to have tools which at the least don’t get in my way, and at best make the experience pleasant and enjoyable.

Smaht Pahk

And finally, I know everyone is going ga-ga over The Witcher, or The Mandalorian, or Picard, but this is probably the best thing I’ve seen on TV for a while. (The best thing I’ve seen in theaters is Birds of Prey, but that’s a matter for another post).

A few years again I came across an article where the author encouraged one of her readers to exercise for an hour every morning. The author said, “everything you do … is predicated on this step, and skipping it is tantamount to announcing to the world, I prefer misery to joy”. At the time I thought this was a rather unreasonable and somewhat judgmental thing to say to a person, especially someone (the reader) who appeared to be miserable and depressed. But the line stuck in my head, much like the a song that you desperately want to forget, but would require an actual lobotomy to get out.

For the last month I’ve going through streaks of both exercising and not exercising. The days I do exercise go much better than the days I don’t. The weeks I exercise most days go much better than the weeks I don’t. I’ve spent most of my life being sedentary and out of shape. I didn’t start exercising regularly until I turned 25. And in the last few years I’ve come to agree with the author: the days I don’t exercise I am announcing to the world that I prefer misery to joy.

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.