Sunday Selection 2018-05-06

I promise that one day there will actually be another proper post on this site. Until that time, here’s another issue of interesting things from around the Web.

Around the Web

Reconsidering the Hardware Kindle Interface

The Kindle is probably my favorite single-purpose electronic device. I’m currently using the Voyage and generally love the acceptable high resolution and contrast, the fast page automatic backlight adjustment, and the flat, clean design. That being said, I agree with Craig Mod’s opinion in this article: moving a few key interface elements to dedicated physical buttons would make the whole experience much smoother.

Why Local Newspaper Websites are So Terrible

It’s no big secret that newspaper are having a rough time in this age of ad-driven everything, and free content. This article summarizes the contending issues and priorities that drive newspaper websites to be, by and large, terrible. While I continue to hold out hope for an online newspaper that is as clean and easy to read as Longreads or Instapaper, there are deep economic problems that need to be solved first and I have no idea how to go about tackling them.

From the Bookshelf

Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology

I remember having a book of Norse mythology as a child and reading it many times over. Neil Gaiman’s version reminds of those readings often, but with Neil Gaiman’s signature style that brings out the quirky, whimsical, and often just plain weird details of Norse mythology. If you’re a Neil Gaiman fan, or interested in old-fashioned mythologies, or just like fun, slightly silly stories, this is worth picking up.


Avengers: Infinity War

Enjoyable and worth watching once. Fitting together so many characters with their intertwining stories and motivations is no mean feat and this version manages to do so quite well. I liked some of the details and the storylines of some characters, but overall there was a lot happening in not a lot of time, leading to things feeling rushed at times.


Sunday Selection 2018-04-29

Albert Camus, by Cecil Beaton.
Albert Camus, by Cecil Beaton.

Neither Victims Nor Executioners: Albert Camus on the Antidote to Violence

Another excellent Brain Pickings piece, this time on Albert Camus who offers a pragmatic balance between idealism and reality. Popova summarizes this piece (as she does so well) with the excerpt: If he who bases his hopes on human nature is a fool, he who gives up in the face of circumstance is a coward.”

So Two Stoics Walk Into a Bar

I’ve previously noted my interest in Stoicism and Buddhism which share various philosophical similarities. This is a modern take on classic Stoic dialogue where we see two speakers (ostensible Epictetus and Seneca) discuss the intricacies of wanting, desire and acceptance. Without giving much away, I can say that it ends on the interesting note: The more understanding and acceptance you have of the reality of living, the less you are impacted when circumstances knock you down.

 Japan’s Rent-a-Family Industry

An intriguing, slightly unbelievable and at times heart-breaking look at the Japanese industry of “renting” family members for both major occasions and day-to-day life. Told from multiple perspectives, peppered with historical details and finalized by the author’s own unique observations and reactions, this is may be the best piece of non-political non-fiction I’ve read so far this year.

On Using Field Notebooks

I’ve started using a physical field notebook more often in the last few months. As a computer scientist, I don’t exactly go out into the field, but I have found the process of getting away from the computer and writing things out on paper (especially if I can do it outdoors in the sun), to be a good way to get my mind into a state of deep work. This a good piece on the practice on science in different areas, and different times.

Sunday Selection 2018-03-25

Around the Web

The Calculus of Grit

An interesting piece from a few years. The events of the last few decades seem to have plunged us into an age of anomie. A lot of the social and economic certainties that have held in the latter half of the twentieth century seems to have been washed away leaving many of us wondering just what we’re supposed to be doing with our lives. This article is not antidote by any means, but it does provide a guideline for one part of the puzzle: how to develop a career and professional arc in this age.

The Classics Scholar Redefining what Twitter Can Do

Over the last few years, it seems like Twitter has degenerated into a cesspool of hate and people shouting past each other. In the midst of that, this is an interesting counter-point. Emily Wilson is a classicist and author of a new translation of Homer’s Odyssey. This article talks about how Prof. Wilson used Twitter to explain various choices she made during translation, interacting with both potential readers and other classicists.

Craig Mod’s Offscreen Magazine Interview

Craig Mod is one of my favorite bloggers who has written at length about books, meditation, photography and recovering our attention in an age of distraction (or rather, continual partial attention). I love reading all his writing (which is, thankfully, both sporadic and deep) and I loved reading this in-depth interview where he talks broadly about his work and experiences, as well as strategies for choosing what work is worth doing and then to go about doing it.


Earth: Final Conflict

This an old, and I suspect mostly unknown, TV show from the late nineties “created” by Gene Roddenberry. I use the quotes because I’m unsure how much involvement he had in this, as opposed to this creation of Star Trek. Instead of dealing with themes of humanity exploring new life and civilization among the stars, this show deals with what happens when new life and civilization comes to earth. All five seasons are now streaming on Amazon Prime.

From the Bookshelf

The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca translated by Moses Hadas

Over the last few months I’ve become interested in Buddhism and Stoicism, which share a striking number of similarities. After reading some modern summaries and interpretations of Stoicism, I decided to go straight with to the source, starting with Seneca. It makes for interesting reading, though a lot of the references and particular examples used will not be applicable for most people. Still, it is a source of practical wisdom, and many of the lessons can be translated to modern life.


Sunday Selection 2018-02-25

Around the Web

25 Principles of Adult Behavior by John Perry Barlow

John Parry Barlow, founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and a techno-utopian in the truest sense of the term, passed away a couple weeks ago. Decades ago he wrote a list of 25 Principles of Adult Behavior, which I think should be a part of every college freshman orientation. Please keep reading to a snippet from EFF’s Executive Director Cindy Cohn explaining Barlow’s philosophy, something we would do well to learn from today.

An Openness to Life

Another wonderful piece from Brain Pickings, this time showcasing the work of Swedish diplomat and author Dag Hammarskjöld, one of only two people to have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize posthumously.

Some Black Panther Readings

I watched Black Panther twice and absolutely loved it (for different reasons each time). I’ve also spent more time than I should have reading commentary about the movie online. Some of my favorite pieces are an explanation of Erik Killmonger’s role as a profound, tragic villain, another on how Black Panther asks us to examine who we are and what we think about and act on, and finally a wonderful interview with the breakout star of the movie, Winston Duke, who delivers a wonderful performance as M’Baku, and has given a lot of thought to both the role itself and his place as an actor.


Black Panther

If you haven’t seen it yet, you really should. That is all.


We Need Hyperlink Literacy

A couple weeks ago, I was in a student discussion with James Grimmelmann, law professor at Cornell Tech who studies how laws regarding technology affect freedom, wealth and power. A large part of our discussion centered around search engines and media platforms, specifically how personalization and algorithmic filters may affect what users see, even when they don’t understand or know that they’re getting filtered content. One way to tackle this issue (in addition to regulation, or some form of opt-out) would be media literacy: teach people that what they see is not some kind of perfect, impartial truth, but might be tailored to their preference and past histories (and biased in other ways).

Fostering that kind of media literacy among the populace at large is at once sorely needed and immensely difficult. Given how much our society depends on the Internet, the World Wide Web, search engines, social media platforms and the (often inscrutable) algorithms behind them, it is crucial that people understand how they get their information, and what are the biases, agendas, and influences shaping what they see (and don’t see). This is clearly a massive challenge, and likely one that we don’t yet know how to overcome. Personally, I would settle for solving one much smaller piece of the puzzle first: a more general understanding and respect for hyperlinks.

The humble hyperlink is the foundation of the web as we know it. It takes the web from being just a digital version of a library or filing cabinet to something truly new: a system where direct access to a piece of information is as easy as naming it. Unfortunately, along with the rise of digital walled gardens such as Facebook (and to a lesser degree, Twitter) the hyperlink seems to be losing prominence. That’s ironic given that the hyperlink is a sharing mechanism, and Facebook would like to bill itself as a platform for sharing and connecting. On a normal web page, one can use snippets of text as anchors for a hyperlink, instead of using the raw link itself. Facebook doesn’t let you turn pieces of text in a status update into links. Furthermore, pasting more than one link at a time breaks the user interface. I suppose Facebook wants to give the link more prominence than what you have to say about it. People like Dave Winer and John Gruber have commented at length on how Facebook breaks the web. Poignantly, that last sentence (with two hyperlinks) would be impossible to write properly in Facebook.

And it’s not just Facebook. Twitter is approximately the same as Facebook. Slack supports links poorly in the same way: there’s no obvious way to use pieces of text as anchors for links. Adding more than one link is slightly better: giving previews for both links (though they are bigger and more prominent than the message containing the links). These systems are silos: they prefer you share and interact with posts within their own boundaries, rather than with content on the web as a whole.

By reducing the prominence of hyperlinks and truncating their utility, we create online cultures focused on sharing information, rather than ones that encourage combining and synthesizing multiple sources and viewpoints into coherent narratives. I would argue that in doing so we are giving up a large part of the power of the Web, to our detriment, and for no clear benefit.

So how do we fix this? Certainly, there is an argument to be made for reducing our dependence on platforms where we cannot sufficiently control our own writing. But beyond that, I would like to see hyperlinks become a more ingrained part of writing on a computer. I would love to see a world where whenever you write some text on a computer that references external sources, you link copiously to them, rather than just inserting references that readers have to look up manually. School and college writing classes would be the prime places to teach this. In the same way that we teach students to include citations to external sources, I would like to see students treat hyperlinks with the same importance and fluency.

In a deeply connected technological society such as ours, using the core technologies of the web should be a central part of any kind of digital or media literacy.

Steve Jobs, the Xerox Alto, and computer typography

A few nights ago I met a wonderful woman at a pipe organ concert who worked for several decades at Xerox, programmed in the Mesa and Cedar languages, as well as Smalltalk on the original Altos.

She told me that she eventually left programming because she felt like modern computing and programming had become bureaucratic and process-oriented, more like engineering and less creative. These days she was more interested in statistics and data science.

Personally I’m glad to see computing and programming mature into a engineering discipline, but I would also very much like to see programming embraced as a creative endeavor. I hope that it’s possible to do both: embrace modern type systems, property-based testing and metaprogramming to build reliable systems, while interacting with clean and beautiful tools and interfaces instead of the modern mess of HTML/CSS/JavaScript (or similar messes in other technology stacks).

What if the Singularity already happened?

I’ve been re-reading one of my favorite science fiction books, Accelerando by British author Charlie Stross. In one of my favorite passages, some of the characters are sitting around talking about their belief in the Singularity. One of the characters makes the following claim (about when the Singularity happened):

“Au contraire. It happened on June 6, 1969, at 1100 hours, Eastern Seaboard Time,” Pierre counters. “That was when the first network control protocol packets were sent from the data port of one IMP to another — the first ever Internet connection. That’s the Singularity. Since then we’ve all been living in a universe that was impossible to predict from events prior to that time.”

While it’s typical to equate the Singularity with the future advent of superhuman artificial intelligences, I think this definition makes a lot of more sense. The Internet has had more impact on our world in the recent past than any other technology (especially after the advent to mobile pocket-sized connected computing devices), and furthermore, it came almost completely out of left field. Few of the “classic” science fiction stories I remember reading (particularly by Isaac Asimov) prominently feature networked computers, even though they have faster-than-light spaceflight, aliens, robots and the like. Perhaps we should take that as a warning: the most disruptive technologies are the ones we’re least cognizant of, until the disruption is well under way.