Work, Life, Balance, Choose Two

Yesterday a friend of mine asked me how I manage to get everything done, in the context of being a grad student. Truth be told, I don’t always manage to. I often get things done either just in time, or just after time, and some things are routinely put on hold (cooking, vacuuming) so that other things can get done on time (papers, code). The so-called “work-life balance” can be an often elusive goal for graduate students, and I suppose for academics in general. While some academics I know are better at it than others, I doubt there are few, if any, who have nailed it down.

With that in mind, yesterday I also stumbled across a poem (and recording) by the late Kenneth Koch that seems relevant. Entitled “You want a social life, with friends”, it is of course about the difficulty (and the compromises involved) in making its title a reality. I won’t support or deny its claims, but at least at first reading, there does seem to be an undertone of truth to it. Without further ado:

You want a social life, with friends,
A passionate love life and as well
To work hard every day. What’s true
Is of these three you may have two
And two can pay you dividends
But never may have three.

There isn’t time enough, my friends—
Though dawn begins, yet midnight ends—
To find the time to have love, work, and friends.
Michelangelo had feeling
For Vittoria and the Ceiling
But did he go to parties at day’s end?

Homer nightly went to banquets
Wrote all day but had no lockets
Bright with pictures of his Girl.
I know one who loves and parties
And has done so since his thirties
But writes hardly anything at all.

To Compete with Medium

Dave Winer is encouraging bloggers (or really anyone with something to say) to post anywhere but Medium. He says that Medium is becoming a “consensus platform” for posting longform writing on the web, especially for people who don’t have a regular place to post. In doing that, Medium becomes a single point of failure, much like Twitter is for real-time short posts, or that Google Reader was for RSS. That means that Medium becomes increasingly capable of unilaterally changing how writing on the web works, for whatever purposes it desires. Medium could decide what you write, how it looks, who sees it, and whether or not you can take it elsewhere. And if Medium shuts down, you could lose everything you wrote.

Winer says that the reason people don’t just set up their own blog (even if they won’t write regularly) is because it feels wasteful to set up something and then not use it. This holds people back, even though a pure text blog takes up negligible space and bandwidth compared to videos or images. While he’s right about the minuscule size requirements of plain text, I think there’s more to users’ reluctance of setting up their own blog. There is a cognitive cost and mental overhead to setting up your own blog that Medium side-steps. To set up an blog on WordPress or Tumblr, you need to create a user account by providing a username, email address and password. Then you need to create the actual blog, by picking a domain name and title (and optionally, a theme). And then you can start to write.

Medium, on the other hand, lets you sign in via Twitter, automatically selecting your username and other account details (which you can change). After that you can just start writing. To be  fair, you are asked to follow other users and tags, but you can just click a button and move on. That’s exactly what I did before writing this post. There are options to use Facebook and email to sign up as well, but I’m assuming they’re equally streamlined. To break free from Medium’s hold on casual writing on the web, a competing service would have to be just as streamlined and painless.

So how would one go about competing with Medium? First you need to reuse identity from some existing social network or identity provider. Second, writing and publishing a post would have to be super-simple. Finally, to address Winer’s concerns, the competing service should come from an entity whose main business isn’t written content, but somehow naturally falls out of (or can be built atop) the core service. Luckily, there is already a service that can do this: GitHub.

GitHub is a popular code-sharing and hosting service that is very popular with programmers (and increasingly, with non-programmers). By default, GitHub hosts repositories of code, but they have an adjacent service called GitHub Pages that hosts simple websites. As a GitHub user, you can create a specially named repository and any HTML pages in that repository are served as username.github.io. Anyone with a GitHub account (which these days, is pretty much anyone who writes code) can post writing to their own repository and have it be served as a webpage from GitHub. Now, this only completes one part of the puzzle, since there’s no Medium-like interface to actually write your posts. You would have to write your posts using a text editor and push them to your GitHub pages repo. However, such an interface could be created by anyone, not necessarily by GitHub. They would just need your GitHub credentials, temporarily, to post your writing from the editor to the repository.

In conclusion: part of Medium’s attractiveness comes from having a streamlined path to posting irregular writing on the Web, helping to make it a large and powerful platform for web publishing. GitHub Pages provides part of the puzzle to create a neutral competitor that offers many of the same benefits. All that is needed is a writing interface that uses GitHub pages as a backend.

I haven’t talked about the social media and promotional features of Medium. I’m not sure how to replicate them in the same fashion. My goal with this post was to propose an alternative to the publish-and-forget style that Medium allows, and I think GitHub Pages is a step in that direction. Since Winer published his post, Medium has posted a response that addresses many of his concerns. The takeaway from the response seems to be that if you’re afraid of Medium having too much control over your content, post to both your own blog and to Medium.

On Reading More Books

One of my intentions for 2016 (I hesitate to call it a resolution) is to read more books. Over the last few years, the number of books I’ve read (and the frequency with which I read them) has steadily decreased. I haven’t kept records, but I couldn’t have read more than a handful in 2015. All this is despite the fact that I do in fact read a lot on a daily basis mostly in the form of blog posts and articles online.

My reasons for wanting to read more books, as opposed to just reading more in general, are mostly subjective. Firstly, my ability to sit with a piece over the course of several hours, follow the author’s text, remember what was said and gradually incorporate new material, has deteriorated over the years, and it’s an ability I sorely want back. Even the longest online essay rarely takes over half an hour to read. I want to feel comfortable following intricate arguments, or interesting plotlines again and I want to carve out several hours of time in a day to sit with a single activity (something that I’ve also been doing too little of in the recent past). Secondly, I want to get back to writing more regularly over the course of the year while getting better at writing, improving both quality and quantity, as it were. A prerequisite to writing well is to read well, and broadly. A side effect of that might be more book reviews and recommendations showing up here. Stay tuned.

Finally, I’m looking forward to embracing the physicality of books. Though I’ve shifted most of my reading to the Kindle Paperwhite over the last few years, I still own a good number of paper books and pick up a new one every now and then. In particular, for books that aren’t pure text, such as Molly Crabapple’s Drawing Blood, paper is still far superior to any electronic version. For me, even the Kindle Paperwhite is a more comfortable reading medium for books than a phone or computer screen. Personally, I’ve found that attaching myself to a screen has become the default activity for unscheduled time. Usually that screen is either a television for Netflix, or a phone for random Internet and social media things. It’s a default I’d very much like to change, and having a physical book or dedicated reader to turn to seems like a step in the right direction.

It’s going well so far. I’ve re-read Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist and tore through Paul Kalanithi’s beautiful and devastating When Breath Becomes Air in just two days. Last night I cracked open Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style which I hope will help with writing more and better. This morning I read the prologue to Molly Crabapple’s Drawing Blood while finishing my coffee and am really looking forward to the rest of it.

In addition to reading more, I would like to keep track of what I read. After all, Socrates will tell you that the unexamined life is not worth living. I’ve never been very good at this, but the tools to do so have never been easier. I’ve resurrected my long-default Goodreads account and brought it up to date on the readings of the year. Feel free to follow me, if you’re into that sort of thing (though I don’t plan on using it as more than a tracker). At the end of the year, I would like to have a record of what I read and some idea of what among them were the most memorable (though probably not a definitive “best of” list).

I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to end the year with a lot more read, a mind expanded, and perhaps some new interests discovered. I don’t want to set up any goals because I’d like this to be a low-stress endeavor, but I do hope to check in from time to time with news of progress, and of course pass along any jewels I discover. I am also very open to suggestions for interesting books from diverse domains.

Sunday Selection 2015-02-22

Around the Web

Oliver Sacks on Learning He Has Terminal Cancer

There is said to be a Roman tradition where a victorious Roman general would parade through the streets of Rome and as he did so a servant would whisper in his ear: Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento! Memento mori!”—“Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man! Remember that you will die!” We don’t have Roman generals parading through the streets anymore, but we do have talented writers reflecting on their impending deaths in the context of their lives.

My Prescribed Life

While the anti-vaccination “movement” has gotten a lot of press recently, there are other kinds of drugs administered to children that can significantly impact their lives. This piece traces the author’s use of anti-depressants from a young age and discusses how it affected her life and her growth as a person.

Squid can recode their genetic make-up on-the-fly

From the “truth is stranger than fiction” section: “A new study showcases the first example of an animal editing its own genetic makeup on-the-fly to modify most of its proteins, enabling adjustments to its immediate surroundings.”

From the Bookshelf

The Defining Decade

As someone approaching the tail end of their twenties, a book with the tagline “Why your twenties matter and how to make the most of them now” sounds like something I should have read five years ago. Oh well, better late than never I suppose. In this book, psychologist Dr. Meg Jay explores psychology, neuroscience, sociology and economics to make a compelling case for why the twenties can be an important time for growth and development and explains how the choices made (or not made) then can affect the rest of our lives. She combines personal anecdotes, interviews with numerous twenty-somethings and a host of solid evidence to write a narrative that is often hopeful, sometimes scary, but always compelling.

Video

BlackBerry 10 OS Vintage QNX Demo Floppy

I spent the better part of an hour today learning about QNX—a real-time operating system first developed in the 80s  that sports a practical microkernel architecture, a POSIX API and forms the core of a multitude of high-availability software (including the BlackBerry 10 OS, various car software and runs Cisco IOS devices). Best of all, it fits on an old-school floppy disk, complete with GUI and a web browser. QNX represents a great technical achievement and an interesting part of computer history.

Remembering Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz was a programmer, entrepreneur and Internet activist who left his mark on both the Internet and the world at large. He was involved in the development of the RSS and Markdown formats as well as the Creative Commons. He was also the founder of Demand Progress which was involved in the effort to stop SOPA/PIPA.

Just over two years ago Aaron killed himself in the middle of a federal prosecution. If he had lived, Aaron would probably have become one of the leading technologists or political figures of our generation. Unfortunately, two years after his death, there is too much pain and suffering in the world today for the media (or the Internet in general) to remember his suicide. The only article about his death that caught my eye was a Boing Boing piece entitled “How to honor Aaron Swartz’s life”. The piece is written by one of Aaron’s friends and is best summarized as a short guide to honoring Aaron life by living your own better.

To summarize the summary:

  1. Stay curious
  2. Don’t accept things as they are, or assume they’re that way for a good reason
  3. Become good at something. And then use it to make a difference.
  4. Ask yourself what you could do to make the biggest difference in the world.
  5. Stay alive.

For me, one of the best lessons from the article was the ending paragraph:

Don’t be surprised if at some point in your life, maybe at many points, you find yourself submerged in a darkness that seems infinite and eternal. It might seem to you like it’s always been that way, it will be always be that way and there’s only one way out. You’re wrong. It will get better. But it will only get better if you find some way to survive.

Aaron might be gone, but much of his work is still with us, in terms of code, organizations, and words. His website is still online (hopefully it will stay that way indefinitely) and so is his writing. I remember reading much of his writing around the time of his death and found it both interesting and a joy to read. His series on thinking and living better — Raw Nerve — is a good place to start.

The Ten Pillars of Cutthroat Zen

I’ve been meditating on and off for the better part of the year. I can currently about fifteen minutes at a stretch and on the days I do get around to it, I definitely feel calmer and more focused than usual. Last week I read a book with the intriguing title of “10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works” by Dan Harris’. Them be fighting words and I was certainly skeptical when I started. That being said, I ended up finishing the whole book in a day — something I don’t think I’ve ever done for a serious book.

The book is a great read, starting with the author’s breakdown on live TV and following his path through borderline-fraudulent self-help and finally meditation and a sort of modern Buddhism. The whole book is thoroughly recommended, but it also comes up with of a tl;dr at the end — a summary of what the author learned through his experiences. Harris calls it “The Way of the Worrier”, but I think his discarded title of “The Ten Pillars of Cutthroat Zen” is a better title. While they’re best understood in the context of the rest of the book, they also stand on their own (with a little help from excerpts from the book):

1. Don’t be a Jerk

It is, of course, common for people to succeed while occasionally being nasty. I met a lot of characters like this during the course of my career, but they never really seemed very happy to me. It is sometimes assumed that success in a competitive business requires the opposite of compassion. In my experience, though, that only reduced my clarity and effectiveness, leading to rash decisions.

2. (And/But …) When Necessary, Hide the Zen

Even though I’d achieved a degree of freedom from the ego, I still had to operate in a tough professional context. Sometimes you need to compete aggressively, plead your own case, or even have a sharp word with someone. It’s not easy, but it’s possible to do this calmly and without making the whole thing overly personal.

3. Meditate

Meditation is the superpower that makes all the other precepts possible. The practice has countless benefits— from better health to increased focus to a deeper sense of calm— but the biggie is the ability to respond instead of react to your impulses and urges.

4. The Price of Security is Insecurity — Until It’s Not Useful

Mindfulness proved a great mental thresher for separating wheat from chaff, for figuring out when my worrying was worthwhile and when it was pointless. Vigilance, diligence, the setting of audacious goals— these are all the good parts of “insecurity.” Hunger and perfectionism are powerful energies to harness. Even the much-maligned “comparing mind” can be useful.

5. Equanimity is Not the Enemy of Creativity

Being happier did not, as many fear, make me a blissed-out zombie. I found that rather than rendering me boringly problem-free, mindfulness made me, as an eminent spiritual teacher once said, “a connoisseur of my neuroses.” One of the most interesting discoveries of this whole journey was that I didn’t need my demons to fuel my drive— and that taming them was a more satisfying exercise than indulging them.

6. Don’t Force It

It’s hard to open a jar when every muscle in your arm is tense. I came to see the benefits of purposeful pauses, and the embracing of ambiguity. It didn’t work every time, mind you, but it was better than my old technique of bulldozing my way to an answer.

7. Humility Prevents Humiliation

We’re all the stars of our own movies, but cutting back on the number of Do you know who I am? thoughts made my life infinitely smoother. When you don’t dig in your heels and let your ego get into entrenched positions from which you mount vigorous, often irrational defenses, you can navigate tricky situations in a much more agile way.

8. Go Easy with the Internal Cattle Prod

As part of my “price of security” mind-set, I had long assumed that the only route to success was harsh self-criticism. However, research shows that “firm but kind” is the smarter play. All successful people fail. If you can create an inner environment where your mistakes are forgiven and flaws are candidly confronted, your resilience expands exponentially.

9. Nonattachment to Results

Nonattachment to results + self compassion = a supple relentlessness that is hard to match. Push hard, play to win, but don’t assume the fetal position if things don’t go your way.

10. What Matters Most?

At first, this struck me as somewhat generic, but as I sat with the idea for a while, it eventually emerged as the bottom-line, gut-check precept. When worrying about the future, I learned to ask myself: What do I really want? While I still loved the idea of success, I realized there was only so much suffering I was willing to endure.

If you feel like your life is flying off the handles, or you want some more calm and control, this book might just point you in the right direction. If you’ve been hearing about meditation and want to try it out but are afraid you might want to run away and join a monastery, this book will put those fears to rest. In summary, “10% Happier” is probably the best ~$11 you’ll spend this week.

PS. I came across this book thanks to the excellent Farnam Street Blog, which has been steadily feeding me a stream of useful knowledge and references since I discovered it a few months ago. If you need more convincing, check out their post on the book.

The Brain-Hand Barrier

I’ve never been a particularly fast typist. Despite reading Steve Yegge’s very entertaining Programming’s Dirtiest Secret once every few months or so, I’ve been stuck in the 40 to 50 words-per-minute range for a few years now. Most of the time, this is not a big problem, for multiple reasons. In the last few months, I’ve been mostly writing code, not words (as witnessed by the rather low rate of posts on this blog). When you’re using a fairly succinct and powerful language (like OCaml) and working on research code, the major bottleneck to getting things done is often your thinking speed, not your typing speed. And for the rest of the times there are well-chosen Emacs keybindings deeply ingrained into your muscle memory.

I’d like to start writing more honest-to-goodness words—I’m pulling this blog out of the mothballs, I’m keeping a daily log of my research work and possibly a personal journal. And that’s on top of the usual emails and IMs and other sundry typing activities. As I’ve been ramping up my word count, I’ve been noticing something curious that’s purely anecdotal and quite possibly, completely wrong. But this is my blog and something is often better than nothing so I’m going to put it here for all eternity.

I claim (completely without proof) that when writing words (at least non-technical words) the bottleneck can often be your fingers. If you’re a slow typist (or an adequate typist, like me) you find yourself frantically trying to get ideas and thoughts down before they all slip away like water between your fingers. As a result, increasing typing speed can actually be better in at least two ways: first, typing faster lets you get raw thoughts down much faster leaving you time to come back and edit later. I know that a lot of people subscribe to the philosophy of writing slowly, even going so far as to using pen and paper to slow themselves down. Personally, I’m in the Hemingway camp — write drunk; edit sober. Since I have absolutely no intention of becoming an alcoholic, I’ll go with “write fast; edit slow”. It’s boring I know, but I like my liver and my brain cells.

Second, for a certain type of personality (including me), knowing that you’re fast enough to get something down without a major interruption in whatever else you’re doing makes you more likely to actually put it down, rather than having it banging around inside your head. For more on why getting things out of your head is helpful, I point you to the last book I read Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time and a tl;dr review/article of the same name.

Both of the above are benefits from fast typing, apart from the professional benefits you might get (for which I point you back to Steve’s post).

So to conclude: type fast, type lots, edit slow, publish some. There’s probably a rant about RSI and how the Hobbit movies could have been made better and shorter with a good editor that can be extrapolated from that last sentence, but that will have to wait for another day.