Sunday Selection 2020-08-23

All of a sudden, summer seems to be drawing to a close. Schools are reopening (somewhat), the days are not quite so reliably hot, and it doesn’t stay bright until well after dinner time anymore. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you where the past few months have gone. A combination of continuing pandemic isolation, still unfinished moving stresses, and just the general existential dread of life in these times makes it feel like Spring was both yesterday and a lifetime ago.

But in the hopes of achieving some semblance of normalcy, no matter how shaky, I’ve decided to take up some writing and sharing again. So here we go:

Around the Web

The Riddle of Solitude in the Age of the Coronavirus

For me, a large part of the pain in the early phase of isolation was the complete breakdown of a social life. After a year in a new city, I was just starting to build a circle of friends and regular activities, and all that came grinding to a halt (as well as the regular interactions with coworkers). But oddly, six months in, not only do I find myself getting comfortable with solitude, but wanting even more of it. Part of it may be due going in to a library at least once a week, getting in to the city, and absorbing some of its populous nervous energy. Part of it might be the desire to get away from roommates, who while lovely and wonderful, have been entirely too close for too long the last few months. Thankfully, we just moved to a much larger place with enough space for each of us to ignore all the others. Perhaps what this highlights more than anything is the need for balance. Too much of anything can be a bad thing.

The Semi-Satisfied Life

The challenges of the last few months have been compounded by the fact that most of my usual coping mechanisms of museums, bookshops, dinner and drinks outside, have been gone. Though they are gradually coming back (for now), I’m trying to make something of being forced to pay attention to my inner self and mental state and rely on mostly that for some sense of relief. Schopenhauer, I think, was on to something when he realized that happiness is not just the absence of suffering, but actually paying attention to that absence and realizing that things could be much worse.

Social Media: It’s Worse Than I Thought

Continuing the theme of isolation and paying attention, I have been noticing that social media continues to get increasingly intolerable. I am not (perhaps thankfully) on the TikTok bandwagon, but Instagram seems determined to push people I don’t follow, rather than showing me posts from people I do, and YouTube’s intrusive advertising has gotten to the point that it’s very off-putting to watch anything at all. More than ever, it is clear that our attention has been harvested and weaponized against us, and perhaps the only way to win this game is not to play.

Books

For the first time in an embarrassingly long time I picked up a book again: Intimations by Zadie Smith (thanks to a recommendation from Brain Pickings). This is short book of essays, all of which are very relatable, and very relevant to our current times. Smith explores everything from mindsets for coping with isolation and disruption, to how viruses can be both biological and social, and what that means for the notion of herd immunity. This is the first time I’ve read anything by Smith and it makes me want to go read everything else she’s written.

Television

Chef’s Table: BBQ

Chef’s Table is perhaps the antithesis of everything that social media represents. It’s deep, fulfilling, quiet, but also arousing, invigorating and inspiring. The episodes with Jeong Kwan and Gaggan Anand are some of my favorite things to re-watch when I need a pick-me-up. So it’s no surprise that I am very excited for this new season and really looking forward to it.

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.

I’m excited about technology again

For the first time in a long time (several years), I’m actually excited by the state of consumer technology. This includes both things that are currently available, as well as products that will (hopefully) come out in the near future. And what’s even better, there are actually a lot of such things I’m excited about.

First off: USB-C all the things. My phone is charged by USB-C, so are my headphones, and my tablet. The only holdovers are my Kindle Voyage, which needs to be charged very infrequently, and my laptop (which we will get to in a bit). Be aware though, not all USB-C cables are made the same. Beyond the obvious physical utility of just needing just one kind of connector, USB-C enables other little conveniences. Being able to carry around a single charger (or battery) that can charge all my devices, at high speed (due to high wattage), makes being on the go much more convenient. Furthermore, the Thunderbolt 3 data connection standard uses the same physical format as USB-C. That means it’s actually possible to plug a single cable into a laptop (or tablet) and have it charge and connect to peripherals like external monitors, speakers, input devices, external GPUs and storage at the same time, and at very high speeds (possibly with a Thunderbolt 3 dock in the middle).

Perhaps the only thing better than having one kind of connector, is having no connector at all. I’m not an audiophile, so most of the time I perfectly happy with Bluetooth noise-cancelling headphones, especially on long flights (that I am doing more of these days). And while Bluetooth keyboards and mice have been around for a while, we now have decent, semi-portable mechanical Bluetooth keyboards. I’m looking forward to having both wireless data and power in the not-too-distant future, but till then, I can deal with plugging in my things overnight (or every couple nights for most of them) and being untethered the rest of the time.

On the subject of keyboards, I got into mechanical keyboards a few years. The mechanical keyboard market seems to have expanded greatly in the last few years, with innovation in switches, layouts, keycaps, programmability and design. I can’t justify owning more than two (one for work and work from home), but I’m happy to see that there’s something for everybody.

Next: monitors. A 4K resolution at 27″ is absolutely beautiful. I run mine with resolution scaling, which means that every “digital” pixel is mapped to 4 physical pixels on the screen. And that means that text is super crisp. As someone who mostly deals with text, and loves fonts and typography, the experience is wonderful. A lot of 4K monitors can also double up as USB-C hubs, which means one less adapter or connection to worry about.

My current phone is the Pixel 3a, which I think is the best product Google has made in long time. It’s relatively cheap (especially on Black Friday), has decent specs, a clean, straight-from-Google version of Android, and a great camera. The battery currently lasts almost two full days for my moderate usage, which is good for my peace of mind. I don’t super-like the plastic (I’m sorry, polycarbonate) body, but it’s just fine for the price. I’m hoping the multiple cameras from the Pixel 4 come to a future Pixel 4a. It not, I see myself being happy with the 3a for a long time.

Finally, computers, by which I mean both tablets and laptops. Let’s start with the iPad. I have the 11″ iPad Pro from last year. It’s the closest that Apple has come to realizing the device’s potential (though it’s not quite there yet). The stylus is magnetically attached to the side and is charged that way as well. The iPad is USB-C, not Lightning (thankfully),the bezels are slim and uniform, the screen is beautiful and the battery lasts for days. The ARM-based processor in it is very powerful, but since I mostly use it to read and mark up, it’s not something that makes a big difference for me. The software however, still leaves much to be desired. I would love to use it for programming, but I can’t stand the thought of doing that straitjacketed into siloed apps.

On the subject of things Apple is doing right, I hear the new 16″ MacBook Pro is very good. I’m rather proud to say that I’m still using a 13″ MacBook Pro from 2015 (with a battery replacement), but I’m hoping that the improvements of the 16″ are brought to a 13″ or 14″ model in the near future. USB-C, Thunderbolt 3, a top-of-the-line processor, lots of fast memory, an ample SSD, a big trackpad, and a not-terrible keyboard. I will be sad to give up Magsafe, but it’s a price worth paying.

All that being said, the computing devices I find the most exciting are actually Microsoft’s Surface line. The Surface laptops look great, especially in black. The Surface Pro might be the best “ultra-portable” machine on the market, especially for business users. And finally, the Surface Pro X with its ARM processor and LTE chip could be a very interesting device for developers and users alike, assuming Microsoft can provide the developer support it really needs. The only downside is that none of them support Thunderbolt 3 at the moment. Maybe next year?

Most of what I’ve talked about, is on the market right now. As for the future, I am looking forward to more interesting ARM-based devices, and the software support to make proper use of them. A Surface Pro X that can be used to both develop and run ARM applications, and supports Thunderbolt 3, would be an almost perfect portable device. More realistically, a 13″ MacBook Pro is likely in the next few months, which means I can finally upgrade in peace.

And on a final aesthetic note, matte black all the things, except for the MacBook (and no, Space Gray doesn’t cut it).

I run a small fashion shop, Figura, where I design, sew and sell women’s clothes. It’s my way of balancing the concept design with a more hands-on kind of job. My favorite part is definitely the patterning. I do it on paper in a very old-school way. Patterning seems to be one of the most “stable” technologies ever – I can literally sew a dress by 19th century’s pattern and it will work just fine, while my partner complains about JavaScript framework changes weekly.

I was reading the Uses This interview of Elena Zaharova when I came across this paragraph. It reminded of a pet project I would like to do one day (but probably will never get around to): designing and building a networked computer system to run and be usable (which includes being programmable) for 100 years, with minimal maintenance.