Books I read in 2017

A quick post about books I’ve read in 2017 to ring in the New Year. There weren’t many (something to change in 2018), but I’m very happy with the ones I did read.

Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling

This was the first book I read in 2017. I don’t remember much about it, other than being impressed by how hard working Mindy Kaling was. Goodreads tells me I gave it 5 stars, so I must have really liked it at the time.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl

I read this in one sitting during a cross-country flight. Reading about what victims of the Holocaust endured in Nazi concentration camps has a way of putting your life’s problems in perspective. The first part of the book focuses on how the average person survives and reacts to life in the brutality and extreme cruelty of a concentration camp. The second part of the book introduces Frankl’s theories of meaning as expressed in his approach to psychology: logotherapy. In essence, the meaning of life is found in every moment of living, even in the midst of suffering and death. 5 stars and highly recommended for everyone.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Very enjoyable and signature Neil Gaiman. I loved the themes, the concepts, the writing style and especially how Gaiman weaves together so many different characters and ideas into a single coherent narrative. I was a little disappointed by what felt like a anti-climactic resolution, but the rest of the book is good enough to warrant 4 stars.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

I was really looking forward to reading this and comparing it to all the modern portrayals of Frankenstein (both the doctor and his monster). But full confession: Dr. Frankenstein comes off as a complete jerk and I got tired of his whining about two thirds through the book and couldn’t finish. The monster’s parts, by comparison, were captivating and very enjoyable. Maybe I’ll manage to get through it this year.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

The only self-help book I read this year and it was definitely a good choice. It’s a dense book and I haven’t implemented all the suggestions, but it has certainly helped me think more about how I go about my work and made me reconsider and pay more attention to things like how many distractions I tolerate. Consider this required reading for anyone working in an intellectual or creative field. My only complaint is that some of the chapters are really long with lots of information, some restructuring into smaller segments would have helped.

Binti and Binti:Home by Nnedi Okorafor

Great example of Afrofuturism and modern science fiction. I wouldn’t call it “hard” science fiction, but they are chock full of interesting concepts and ideas, and the characters and their perspectives are refreshingly different from standard science fiction tropes. I’m looking forward to the final book in the series that’s due out soon.


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.

The Spirit of Jane Austen

After reading one too many posts about how to (and why we should) read more, last night I sat down to read an article on The Atlantic about Jane Austen. Though I remember reading Pride and Prejudice once upon a time, and am generally aware of her status as a cultural icon, I can’t say I know very much about Jane Austen. This piece was interesting as an insight into her cultural impact and changing interpretation over time. However, what stood out to me was the author’s interpretation of Austen and her characters as agents of the humanist revolution sweeping Europe and the West in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In particular, I was struck by this excerpt:

Spiritedness is a way of understanding oneself as having rights. It experiences those rights as a joy, as a sense of blossoming, of freedom; but also as something often in need of quickly roused defense. It is the style of the revolutions—American, French—encroaching on Austen’s Britain, put in the mouths of intelligent young women who know their own worth.

Elizabeth’s is a declaration of rights; she demands the pursuit of happiness.

Since we seem once more to be living in times where personal liberties and rights are being questioned, and to some extent redefined, perhaps it’s time to pick up some Austen.

Sunday Selection 2017-06-25

Around the Web

The Largest Git Repo on the Planet

I’m always a fan of case studies describing real world software engineering, especially when it comes to deploying engineering tools, and contains charts and data. This article describes Microsoft’s efforts to deploy the Git version control system at a scale large enough to support all of Windows development.

Why our attention spans are shot

While it’s no secret that the rise of pocket-sized computers and ubiquitous Internet connections have precipitated a corresponding decrease in attention span, this is one of the most in-depth and researched articles I’ve seen on the issue. It references and summarizes a wide range of distraction-related issues and points to the relevant research if you’re interested in digging deeper.

Aside: Nautilus has been doing a great job publishing interesting, deeply researched, and well-written longform articles, and they’re currently having a summer sale. The prices are very reasonable, and a subscription would be a great way to support good fact-based journalism in the current era of fake news.

How Anker is beating Apple and Samsung at their own accessory game

I own a number of Anker devices — a battery pack, a multi-port USB charger, a smaller travel charger. The best thing I can say about them is that by and large, I don’t notice them. They’re clean, do their job and get out of my way, just as they should. It’s good to see more companies enter the realm of affordable, well-designed products.

From the Bookshelf

Man’s Search for Meaning

I read this book on a cross-country flight to California a couple months ago, at a time when I was busy, disorganized, stressed and feeling like I was barely holding on. This book is based on the author’s experience in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. The book focuses on how the average person survives and reacts to life in the brutality and extreme cruelty of a concentration camp. The second part of the book introduces Frankl’s theories of meaning as expressed in his approach to psychology: logotherapy. In essence, the meaning of life is found in every moment of living, even in the midst of suffering and death.


Black Panther Trailer

I’m a big fan of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ run of Black Panther and really enjoyed the Black Panther’s brief appearance in Captain America: Civil War. This trailer makes me really excited to see the movie when it comes out, and hopeful that it will be done well. If you’re new to the world of Wakanda in which Black Panther will be set, Rolling Stone has a good primer.

Star Trek Beyond

Was very enjoyable. Spoilers follow.

The movie was a lot of fun, and managed to hit a good mix of serious and light-hearted. I liked it much more than I did Into Darkness, and it might just be my favorite of the the Abrams Star Trek movies.

As my favorite Star Trek blog calls it: it was a romp. It was a lot of fun and struck most of the themes that make Star Trek what it is—interesting characters, healthy optimism, underlying themes of unity, courage and friendship, and struggles both personal and epic. Take out the destruction of the Enterprise and squeeze it down to under an hour and the movie would have made a great TOS episode.

The visuals are of course simply beautiful (something true of the Abrams movies in general). The outfits, locales and effects in general are well done. The sequences of scenes showing life aboard the Enterprise and Starbase Yorktown are smooth, informative and impressive without being overwhelming. In fact, I would say that the scenes aboard Starbase Yorktown does one of the best jobs of showing off life in the Federation in any iteration of Star Trek.

Finally, the movie also does a good job of addressing Nimoy’s death (and the loss of the one of the main characters of both this, and previous iterations of the franchise). It’s not overly dramatic, but it is respectful, elegant and helps drive the rest of the story forward. And I absolutely love that one of the final shots of the movie is this photo of the original cast:


The movie wasn’t perfect: the action seemed choppy, some of the humor was unnecessarily forced, and some of the science was suspect. But it was a damn good Star Trek movie and a good movie in general. Would watch again.

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 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.