Sunday Selection 2019-03-24

I’m trying to write more and regularly, and have been doing well this past week. I also have plans for the continued development of this blog (more on that tomorrow). Time will tell how long I manage to keep this up. For now, I’m doing away with the categories I had for my Sunday Selection posts and just presenting a bunch of interesting things.

Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman

I spent a more than usual amount of time on public transport last week and I decided to use that time to read a book rather than just people-watching, or reading random things on my phone. I’m about half way through this one, and it’s already changed some of my perspectives on life and how I deal with challenges and changes (and there have been a lot of those recently).

The only metric of success that really matters is the one we ignore

I mildly hate the absolute tone of this clickbait-y headline (as we all know, only a Sith deals in absolutes), and it’s not the best written piece on the matter, but it highlights important points we often forget. I’ve been lucky to have lots of friends and a healthy amount of socialization for most of my life, but I don’t think I’ve done a very good job at building or being part of a community. Building and becoming a part of a strong, stable, and welcoming community is something I want to focus on in my thirties, though I’m still figuring out how.

Why is reading in the pub so enjoyable?

I’m a big fan of reading, and of reading in public places. I usually prefer classy bars or cozy cafes rather than pubs, but the general idea of reading in a pub definitely appeals to me. On the other hand, these days I find myself preferring quiet places for reading and working, so I’ve been doing more of my reading at home (though as noted above I did a lot of reading on public transport last week).

My Alpine Linux Desktop

And now for something completely different. I’ve been reconsidering my computing needs and environment over the last few days (more on that too tomorrow). I’m considering moving over to Alpine Linux, especially for anything that is public-facing, like my websites. Alpine is a very low overhead, minimal distribution that includes a bunch of security-enhancing patches and development techniques.

Captain Marvel

I went to see Captain Marvel last weekend and really enjoyed it. I wouldn’t say it’s great, but it’s definitely good. It’s very well made with the now-standard Marvel approach of blending a timely political theme with fun characters and beautiful visuals. Brie Larsen does a great job and the CGI de-aging on Samuel L. Jackson is really well done. I would watch it again.

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The First Day of Spring

Yesterday was the Spring Equinox, also known as the officially the first day of Spring. It still doesn’t feel particularly Spring-like here in Cambridge, but it is starting to warm up.

I was walking through Harvard Square yesterday. It was bright and breezy, with the sun teasing the possibility of warmth. I went into Felipe’s Taqueria, one of my favorite fast Mexican places in town. I sat by the window, in the sunlight, people-watching for a solid half an hour. I was sorely tempted to step into Mike’s Pastry, but the battle of the bulge won’t fight itself.

Felipe's Taqueria in Harvard Square in Cambridge, MA.
Felipe’s Taqueria in Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA.

The day before that I was spending the early afternoon in my favorite coffee shop, (sorry, I’m not quite ready to give away that secret). I ended up talking to the young gentleman sitting next to me about fountain pens. The young lady at the register there has the cutest accent, and knows my name already.

Yesterday I also went to an old college friend’s PhD defense, where I ran into another college friend. I also stopped by his celebration later in the day where I met a bunch of interesting new people, and had some really good cake. So much for not being tempted by dessert.

When I first moved to Cambridge nine months ago, I underestimated how difficult it would be to start a life in a place where I knew very people, and where most of the people I did know had their own lives and social groups to keep them busy. I still haven’t made as much progress on that front as I would like to.

On the other hand, some days I have random encounters and end up spending lots of quality time with people who really get me. On days like that, I fucking love Cambridge.

Continuing yesterday’s theme of reducing consumption and information hygiene, today I thought about browsers and tabs. I’ve been pretty disappointed with how much webapps have taken over day-to-day computing. But the one silver lining is that I can isolate all of my communication (email, various messengers, Slack, social media) in the Chrome browser. When I need to focus, or just don’t want to be available, I simply close Chrome. I use Safari for all of my actual browsing. I suppose I could do this within different instances or windows of the same browser, but there is probably an important psychological signal I send myself by having different applications for different purposes (even if the two look substantially the same).

Another piece of the puzzle is that I aggressively close tabs. If I come across a long article that I want to read, but not at that moment, I send it to Instapaper (and will often actually read on my iPad). PDFs get downloaded, and also are often read on my iPad. For things that I will need to refer back to later I use bookmarks. I’ll use local bookmarks for things I need periodically (like API docs, or the list of LaTeX symbols). For other things that I might need later, I’ve been using a happy Pinboard user for years.

Personally if I have a browser window or too many tabs open I feel like that’s something I should be paying attention to, especially if it’s something like email or Slack. But most of the time, what I should be paying attention to is something completely different. Actually closing out unnecessary windows and tabs helps me to mentally clear out false expectations and distractions.

Over the last few months (years?) I’ve been noticing the increasingly deleterious effect of excessive information consumption of my state-of-mind in general and my ability to concentrate for long periods of time in particular.

With that in mind (get it? I’m sorry) I’m trying to be more careful about my information consumption.  Part of that is trying to consume higher quality things in smaller quantities, and spending more time and effort enjoying and appreciating what I’m experiencing. But part of it is also revisiting things that I really enjoyed once.

Over the last few years I’ve been largely listening to music via Spotify. While it’s been great for discovering new artists and music without spending tons of money, it’s also led to some bad habits. I often get lazy and listen the same playlist of Spotify-curated tracks on repeat. I also neglect my fairly large personal collection of music that’s sitting around on my computer.

So I’m going to try to listen to more music from my personal, local collection, including a bunch of the aforementioned things I used to really enjoy.  Since I’m near my MacBook most of time, I’ll be listening to MP3s via iTunes. Some of my collection is messy, so I’ll be using the excellent Beets tool to clean up and organize my collection as I go. Today I’m listening to Blind Guardian, starting with The Forgotten Tales album. I’ll also be keeping a Twitter thread of things I’m listening to as I go along (if I can remember to update it).

Web interfaces for source control

I came across two articles about web-based interfaces for source control. The first is a critique of GitHub’s UI. The second is an explanation of some of the design choices for Sourcehut, a new 100% free and open source software forge.

If you’re interested in interfaces, or software engineering tools, I highly recommend reading both. They are short, will only take a few minutes of your time, and maybe make you think about functionality you take for granted, or issues you’ve learned to ignore and live with.

Personally, I like GitHub’s general prettiness, but I agree that there’s a lot of unnecessary UI elements, and not enough of (what I would consider) key features for effectively browsing source. The above-linked article mentions the difficulty of switching between individual files, history and branches, while links to Enterprise pricing, or starring repos are on every page. Part of that can be chalked up to GitHub’s position in between a software forge and a social network (because  we’re still in the phase where we think everything needs to be a social network).

To be fair, Sourcehut is a bit too spartan for my tastes. If nothing else, I like good use of whitespace and nice fonts. (Aside: consider using Fira Code or Triplicate for displaying source code.) And I can’t tell how to easily move between code and history views on Sourcehut either. But at least its motivations are more clear, the appearance issues can probably be solved using user style sheets, and if you’re really peeved about its choices, you can fork it (though it’s almost certainly not worth the effort).

I haven’t really used similar tools (except for a pretty barebones code diff and review tool at a company I worked at briefly), so I wonder if there are other examples that can provide interesting lessons.