Sunday Selection 2021-01-31

We’re at the end of the first month of 2021, and what a month it has been, at least for those of us in the United States. Personally, I’m mainly in the mode of sitting at home patiently while waiting to be eligible for getting the COVID vaccination, which is almost certainly another couple of months away. Luckily it is currently cold and snowy in my corner of the world, so I’m not particularly incentivized to go outside. While I’m stuck at home, I’m trying to read and write more, so here we are:

Henry Rollins on Defining Success

Even though I’m not very familiar with Rollins’ artistic work, his writing always seem to strike a chord with me. Some years ago, his article on Iron and the Soul encouraged me to make regular exercise, especially weightlifting, a serious part of my life. It was something that I managed to more or less keep up over the years and my life was better for it (until COVID-19 made gyms a bad idea). Similarly, the advice and ideas he presents in this piece are not exactly new, but he phrases them in a way that makes them seem like a breath of fresh air in a world that lately seems rather stale.

And now for something completely different:

Formalizing mathematics: an introduction

This is probably not going to be of much interest if you’re not a mathematician or theoretical computer scientist, but it’s something that’s been bouncing around my head. I’ve been looking into the Lean Theorem Prover, where one can write mathematical proofs in a programming language, so that the computer can check them. Theorem provers are being increasingly used to verify properties of software, but it seems like the pure mathematics is just getting on board with how useful they can be. This article tells us why these theorem provers might be crucial for advancing the state of pure mathematics, in more ways than one.

Brad Wright’s rules for Stargates, Star Wars and Superheroes

If there’s anything I like more than computers and software, it’s science fiction (ok, and food and drink and friends and family, but that’s a matter for another blog post). Brad Wright is a writer and showrunner responsible for the Stargate TV shows and for Travellers, which I think is one of the best high-concept, low-flash science fiction shows of the last decade. In this article, he talks about some of his rules of thumbs for not just good science fiction, but good storytelling, and I think many of my readers will find themselves nodding along.

The Theory of Everything: The Origin and Fate of the Universe by Stephen Hawking

I decided to start my book reading this year with one of the slimmest ones on my bookshelf. This is a series of lectures given by Stephen Hawking on how the universe began, how it’s continuing and how it might end. But what’s perhaps more interesting, Hawking goes into depth about how we came to know about all of it through centuries of discovery (and a number of wrong turns on the way). Reading this book reminded me of how much I enjoyed pop science as a teenager. I might have to pick up Hawking’s Brief History of Time after I’m done with this one.

Stacey Abrams on 3 questions to ask yourself about everything you do

If you haven’t been living under a rock you’re probably aware of the Democrats’ win in Georgia, thanks in large part due to the organizing activities of Stacey Abrams. I didn’t know much about her until the elections, besides that she ran for Georgia governor in 2018. In this TED talk from shortly after that election, she talks about events from her life that shaped, and as the title says, 3 questions to ask about everything you do.

Sunday Selection 2020-03-01

Happy Post-Leap-Day, (and beginning of March) everyone! I love it when the end of one month and the beginning on the next falls on a weekend. I’ve been trying to get into the habit of reflecting on the (near) past and making plans for the (not-too-distant) future. The transitions between months and weeks are perfect times to do that, and it’s even more perfect when they align.

This last week I’ve been thinking a lot about routines, rituals, practices and how all of that can cross the line between public and private. I’m hoping to write more about that in the near future, but some today’s selections offer a glimpse into the inputs of those potential outputs.

Warren Ellis Ltd.

Warren Ellis is the brains behind the original Dark Knight comics, as well the recent Castlevania (which is being brought to Netflix). I’ve been reading his weekly newsletter for a few months, but I recently found out he has an old-fashioned daily-ish blog. He’s been using it to post about everything he does each day, as well as think aloud about the future of blogging.

No Algorithms

I added this to my to-blog list months ago but never got around to actually writing about it. Part of what I’ve been thinking about blogging, I’ve been thinking about how we can post, share and discover without being mediated by opaque algorithms that probably don’t have our best interests at heart. I have thoughts on this, but for now you can read what Brett Simmons thinks about it.

For Over 30 Years, A Soba Chef Drew Everything He Ate

I love food, and I love art, so obviously I’m a sucker for something that combines the two. I love the mix of clean, geometric lines, intricate patterns and clear colors. And it reminds me that one of these days I really must go spend some time in Japan.

My Tools and Programs, 2020

As much as I enjoy food and art, I also like learning about people live and work, and in particular what tools they use in the process. I usually go to Uses This to satiate that particular craving, but this post is from writer and photographer John Scalzi. Personally I find the idea of writing anything substantial in Windows to be frightening, but apparently it’s really good at handling long documents.

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.

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).

One of the lifestyle changes I’ve been wanting to make in 2019 is to reduce my consumption and to live in a way that is more considered and careful. I’ve already written about how I’m doing that when it comes to information and media consumption. In more material ways I’m trying to do things like take more public transport, eat out less, and reduce the amount of food and non-recyclable waste that I produce. I’m also trying to reduce the computational resources I use, and by extension the energy, human and natural resources used.

I’ve been a happy Linode user for several years now. I started using what was then their lowest tier at $20 a month to host some of my websites and small web applications. Over the years, I’ve been paying the same amount per month but been getting upgraded to more powerful virtual servers, until I got up to their Linode 4GB Standard tier: 4GB of RAM, 2 CPU cores, 80 GB of SSD storage and 4TB of network transfer. If that sounds like overkill for serving a few small websites, you’re probably right.

Linode is starting to migrate users from a monthly billing plan to an hourly billing plan. In the process of reading about the plan differences (spoiler: not much for small users like myself), I decided to re-evaluate how much computation I actually needed and used. The above mentioned specs were far more than what I needed, or could see myself needing in the near future. So I downgraded to the current lowest Linode configuration, the Nanode: just 1GB of RAM, 1 CPU core, 25 GB of SSD storage and 1TB of network transfer. That should be more than enough for my needs, and will cost me just $5 a month.

I could probably go even lower and do most of my hosting out of GitHub Pages, or an Amazon S3 bucket, but I find it useful to have an actual virtual server to run arbitrary programs on if I need to. I am planning on making some more changes to my computing usage in the near future. Currently the VPS runs Arch Linux with a fairly large list of userspace tools (including a full OCaml compilation stack). The lower specs will probably make compiling things on this VPS annoyingly slow, so in the future I’ll be compiling on my local Linux machine and just moving binaries over. I will also be switching over to using Alpine Linux to run an even lighter system. Also, this blog currently runs on WordPress.com. That has worked out pretty well, but for a number of reasons I think it’s time to part ways. I’ll go into those reasons in depth in a future post, and I will be moving the blog over to said Linode VPS over the next few weeks.

Now, I’m fully aware that this doesn’t make a huge impact on anything in the grand scheme of things. And yes, part of doing this a reason to just geek out on UNIX sysadmin-y things that I don’t do much these days. But still, I do believe that if a few minor changes can make a positive effect on the world (no matter how small), then it is worth investing the time and energy to make those changes.