Reading Habits

I read a lot. Mostly I read blog posts, picked out from my Google Reader stream. I read these all in a blur, constantly hitting the ‘j’ key (a shortcut for next), generally restricting my gaze to the headline, only occasionally stopping to read the article text itself. Often the entry is a description of a longer article or something involved like a photo gallery or video. I open these out into new tabs in my browser and continue on: ‘j’, ‘j’, ‘j’. Then when I’m done gulping down the stream I move on to the opened tabs, reading each article (or determining that I don’t need to read it after all), closing the tab, moving to the next one, from left to right. Sometimes with especially long articles I will click a button associated with the Readability service that will send the article to my tablet or my Kindle for reading later. This process can take from 45 minutes to 2 hours depending on my interest in the articles (this assumes that I’ve ‘kept up’ by ‘clearing’ my list on the previous day). On average my eye passes over something like 150 items, 150 headlines I have to make determinations about. It has the feel of a daily chore; it is, according to the local meme in my house, “important”1 .

In addition to this bizarre, harrowing ritual I read the newspaper. These days I am trying to keep up some hard-won French reading skills by reading Le Monde on my Kindle. I try to give about an hour to this. I have always found artifacts from other cultures, other things being equal, to be more interesting, simply because of the formal differences. A stupid pop song in another language is more interesting than a song in English where I can appreciate the lameness of the lyrics. A conventional comedy or action film from another culture can be enlivened by the strangeness of ambient details which take on their own sociological interest for me. If the dialogue or story are boring I can try to figure out what the characters are eating or the political context behind certain statements. Likewise reading Le Monde is like reading the New York Times, except that it takes longer for me to read, there are certain expressions and allusions that are mysteries to me, and it’s mostly about Europe. But it’s so fun to read! There’s an extra intellectual and creative challenge built in to the task of trying to figure out what the hell is going on. The best moments are when you pick up shades of gallic irony and humor in the diction, like the chicken company on the verge of bankruptcy in danger of being ‘plucked’.

Finally, I try to read longer texts. The truth is that my ability to read books has been in descent ever since college. I was seduced away by that stream of blog posts, also by a tendency to read magazines (I always read Wired cover to cover and used to do the same with Harper’s and Atlantic Monthly), also by video games, consuming television series and movies on Netflix and a general uptick in busy-ness. The Kindle has absolutely resurrected my desire and capacity to read books. It’s hard to say why. It might be something as stupid as a habituated preference for screens. The fact that it’s one of the devices that I bring everywhere and I resort to it whenever bored could be another reason. It’s also very easy to ‘stream’ books by purchasing the next book in a series or another book by the same author as soon as you’re done with a book2. This streaming of books is similar to the rapid “conquering” of a television series or a film genre that Netflix makes possible.

With the Kindle I’ve gotten back into the habit of reading long works, but mostly fiction. I read plenty of long-form political and sociological analysis on the Web, but it’s been a long time since I read a long nonfiction work from beginning to end (I’ve almost never read any history). This is something I’m fairly ashamed about, because I have a liberal arts education and a master’s in philosophy. When these institutions have pushed me to read texts for class I’ve been set ablaze by their ideas, perhaps even going overboard in the degree to which I incorporated their outlooks (in college I was in turn a Stoic, then a Humeian, then a Kantian, then a Hegelian, then a Nietzschean). I found writing papers in graduate school — trying to understand the system of the work and setting up a controversy to hang a paper on — extremely satisfying, extremely fun. I liked the experience of becoming a mini-expert on some marginal issues in the systems of these heavy thinkers. To this day some chance comment might elicit from me an impromptu (and probably unwanted) discourse about Maimonides’ theory of scriptural interpretation or my understanding of the Absolute in Hegel. But time moves on, these institutions no longer terrorize my life, and I’m not reading these texts anymore. I hate what this says about me and about the original importance of those texts for me.

The total impression this account should leave is that my reading is eclectic and geared toward the timely (blog posts and newspaper articles) and my longer reading is dominated by fiction. The blog reading in particular takes the form of a senseless consumption. With how much credibility can I claim that I have a lasting impression from any of the 150 items that I’ve encountered during my feedreader power hour? I’m pretty sure my brain is shutting down at some point, not actually recording anything, for want of any consistency in the subject of the posts. I’m probably just whipping up a batch of ADT3 in there. I get the same feeling to a lesser degree with the other reading and video watching I do. I’m not doing anything with the information or content or knowledge that I’m taking in, I’m just collecting and consuming, and oftentimes I’m hurrying ahead with what I’m currently reading or watching in order to conquer the next thing. This is part of a larger pattern in my life, which is that I keep taking in more and more rich experiences (books and movies but also trips, intense work experiences, major life changes like getting married or learning how to drive, etc.) but I’m doing nothing to process or differentiate these experiences. It seems like you can get away with not processing experiences if you live a relatively simple life but not when you’re a world-devouring monster like me.

Anyway, there are elements of my reading regimen that I hope to change. I recently stopped subscribing to Techcrunch, because I realized that I was literally skipping through almost all the headlines (also the personalities and quality of analysis are awful). I probably don’t need to know about every upcoming Android handset. I would have trouble foregoing Google Reader completely, especially BoingBoing4, but if I could pare my list down even more I could probably transform it into a less soul- and attention-destroying activity. In general, though, I want to start committing to longer, more serious texts5 on the condition that I will also put the work in to process them. The best way I know to do this is to write about my understanding of the text. This post is really a preamble for my next post, which is going to be about a philosophical text I read in full. Something I loved about the experience of reading this book, which at times was quite a slog, was that I genuinely had trouble understanding some of the points. With most things I read there’s a kind of automatic and superficial understanding (that is, it might fall apart if challenged but it never is) but with this text I know that I need to spend more time to have a meaningful understanding, yet I am sufficiently excited about what I did understand to want to make the effort. This is a good feeling because it suggests to me that what I’m reading might actually matter.

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  1. As in “I can’t leave yet. I have to finish reading my feed. It’s important.“.[back]
  2. That’s how I read the first five books in Song of Ice and Fire so quickly.[back]
  3. Attention Deficit Trait, I read a post about it once.[back]
  4. I like to be down with the freshest memes.[back]
  5. I know this doesn’t preclude fiction. It’s just that fiction is so easy for me to read, consumptively, that I don’t have to make a conscious resolution about it. I would like to write more about fiction, though.[back]

Site Idea

Site allows users to enter their “cultural genetic code”; it consists of a humongous catalog of beliefs, attitudes, values, described responses to hypothetical situations, etc. For example, a user would subscribe to the statement, “It’s not okay to treat a waiter badly because of a mistake in the order.” and a thousand other statements1 . The site would collect demographic data up-front but would hold onto it until a large-enough database had been constructed. Later, correlations and clustering could be identified, but in addition there would be the option for users to “bundle up” values and tropes into new groupings with evocative labels. So someone could bundle up “It’s wrong to eat meat” with “the US should have an aggressive foreign policy when it comes to protecting against genocide” into “Red-blooded Veggie” or whatever. Then people could choose to “adopt” the new values package, and then fork and modify it with their own additions. The point would be to promote the idea that values should be chosen “for their value” instead of their belonging to a particular obligatory milieu, and that values should be viewed as being elective and configurable and capable of being put into pragmatic competition with each other.

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  1. So far, it’s similar to hunch.com. The differences are the focus on cataloging values over consumer and aesthetic preferences, and the focus on sharing statements with others in groups. [back]

2008

You can’t really tell from this blog what I’ve been doing in the past year (or in previous years, either). Partly this is due to a congenital habit of not discussing anything that is directly relevant to my life. To know what’s going on you have to read the lacunae–if I’m not discussing it, it must be important to me1. The most prolific periods in this blog are from times when I wasn’t doing anything meaningful (and hating it). The recent long stretches of silence are due to an abundance of positive forward motion. The truth is, 2008 was a good year for me. Indeed, probably the most pressing dissatisfaction (and there are always dissatisfactions, c’est la vie) is the lack of reflection in my present mode. This makes me think about a Zadie Smith statement that she writes mainly so that she won’t sleepwalk through life. Yeah, let’s not do that. Anway, let me tell you about some major unannounced features of my current life.

First, I am 28. I am okay with this, really. Although I do think of January 13 as the starter’s pistol on a 2-year mad dash toward 30. Expect some erratic behavior  between now and then as I attempt to fill the waning years of my 20’s with value-added experiences.

Second, I am a graduate student. This is something that I’ve actually been doing since November of 2007. I am getting a Master’s in Philosophy at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. This implies that I am living in Pittsburgh. Duquesne’s is a “Continental” program. If you don’t know what this means, in a Continental program it is possible and even common to say something that sounds and may actually be insane and have everyone nod. I’ve taken 9 classes so far. 3 more and a language to go. Most of them have been really great.

  • Fall ’07: Freud, Aristotle Metaphysics, Hegel Science of Logic
  • Spring ’08: Hegel & Shakespeare, Husserl Ideas I, Nietzsche
  • Fall ’08: Deleuze A Thousand Plateaus, Sartre B&N, Heidegger Contributions of Philosophy
  • Spring ’09: Contemporary Political Philosophy, Early Modern Political Philosophy

I’m re-reading Leviathan! I’m reading about Rawls!

Third, I am living in Pittsburgh. In fact, I have been in Pittsburgh for more than 2 years now!2 When I first got to Pittsburgh two years ago in January I was involved in a longish and dispiriting job hunt that ended with me joining a temp agency and doing some truly dull data entry. After the summer I got paid for a while to program in Ruby on Rails, then didn’t work in Spring ’08. The whole of the summer was taken up with an increasingly desperate and focused job hunt for a real, honest-to-god programmer job, which I landed in August! Also, randomly: Amy and I visited Hawaii in July.

Fourth, I am a software developer. I get up at 6:30 in the morning and go off to work as a web developer until 5 PM (well, I’m on salary, so this isn’t always true). My classes are all scheduled from 6-8:40PM. It could be concluded that I am following a course of study that is unified by the principle (or business rule, if you like), occurs after 5PM. This would be an ungenerous conclusion. The language I program in is PHP3. This is funny, because I actually hate PHP as a language (I’m a Ruby man). I like programming, though. I really like being a professional. After a post-collegiate career that has consisted almost uniformly of unchallenging, dull, hateful jobs I have a true appreciation for a job wherein I show up, devise technical solutions to interesting problems and then collect a reasonable salary for the work I do. And if I go straight from reworking the logic of the site “shopping cart” to a discussion of the Deleuzo-Guattarian “Body Without Organs”, that is the price of this lifestyle that I’ve chosen.

Fifth, other things I should mention:

  • I am paying down my credit card
  • I own a Playstation 3 and have completed Fallout 3
  • I watch too many movies
  • I hardly ever read any more and know this is bad. I like Murakami and graphic novels by Yoshihiro Tatsumi.
  • I have a nuanced but nonetheless loyal attitude toward open source

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  1. I’ve long thought of this as the Kafka principle; Kafka never mentions God, Judaism or German ideology in his stories, which is how we know that he is preoccupied with these topics[back]
  2. I probably have a better internal map of Pittsburgh than I do of DC, because I’ve navigated a great deal of Pittsburgh’s east side by bike, whereas I seem to only know DC as a sliver of NW and a network of Metro stations.  [back]
  3. Primarily; web development is actually a combination of SQL, HTML, javascript and CSS and a server language[back]

A language game

Amy and I were sitting in an airport waiting for a flight. I said, “I should have been a pilot.” Amy asked me why. Really, it was just something to say; I was briefly imagining my alternate life in which I was an airline pilot. Instead of explaining the details of the fantasy (get to fly around the world, chicks dig on you, etc.) I said: “So I could fly far away from you.” See, it was funny to say because I didn’t mean it, and because this is so obviously a terrible thing to say to anyone, let alone your girlfriend. Oh, we had a good laugh.

Amy suggested that there could be an entire children’s book based on this premise:

  • I wish I were an astronaut… so that I could escape to another planet
  • I wish I were a deep sea diver… so that I could go to the bottom of the ocean and be alone
  • I wish I worked at night… so that I’d never see you
  • I wish I were an explorer in foreign lands… so that we’d lose contact
  • I wish I were a time traveler… so I could travel to before you were born… or after you died

Try this with your loved ones, the next time you’re feeling grumpy, or simply want to make an impression.

Mos Def

Is it bad that I really like this lyric? You kind of have to hear it. From Close Edge:

I’m Mos Definite, not think so
Flood ya city with the black ink flow
And my crew ain’t scared to let them things go
So, stop with the nonsense, like he conscious
I’m just alright dawg, I’m doin’ great dawg
I don’t play games so I don’t playa hate y’all
Get it straight or get the fuck up out my face dawg
I’m like the second plane that made the tower’s face off
That shit that let you know it’s really not a game dawg1

Your grind and my grind ain’t the same dawg
2

I think this is appropriate. While I was in Hawaii I went to the Pearl Harbor memorial, where you stand on a platform above the sunken USS Arizona with its 900+ interred corpses. Before you go out to the platform you watch a video that details the sequence of events. The tone of the video is mournful, but it never goes so far as to condemn the Japanese for the attack, only reminding the viewer that they were an Axis power. Yamamoto is treated as a figure like Robert E. Lee, personally against the war but determined to make the best military showing. Then when the attack happens, you feel a chill: so many ships in so little time, and there’s video of the Arizona exploding. Basically, because this was an attack on a military base, it’s possible to experience this event first objectively as awesome (deinos3), then parochially (and humanely) as dastardly, tragic, sad, etc. Anyways, I figure Mos Def’s figure is precise here. I remember on September 11, someone told me that a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers, and I assumed that he was talking about some freakish accident. It was only when I heard about the second plane, and then the collapses, that I knew it really wasn’t a game.

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  1. The heavy repetition (e.g., dawg, dawg, dawg, dawg, and -ow for six couplets at the beginning) works IMO. [back]
  2. The other stuff going on in the song is interesting too. He’s saying that he’s not a gangsta rapper but he’s not going to criticize those who are. I like the poetic conflation in hip-hop. His “grind” is and isn’t the same as drug-dealing. It’s like the different accounts of gangsta on Damn, It Feels Good to be a Gangsta, one of which describes the President of the United States as a gangsta. Then, the main idea of Mos Def’s song is that he’s “close to the edge”, not of flipping out and killing someone, but he’s paying attention to what’s happening on the margin of society. [back]
  3. It’s a cranky prescriptivist cliche to remind people that something that is awesome, like an “awesome god”, is something that is terrifying to behold.[back]

What’s this?

I just got this at the top of a search for “ruby rake” on Google.

Ruby — Rake: 4
According to http://jimweirich.umlcoop.net/index.cgi/Tech/Ruby - More sources »

The url under “More sources” goes here. All I can figure is that this is some kind of authority thing, or like the wtf feature on Technorati. jimweirich is a 4 or something. Maybe this is nothing, or maybe this is the beginning of semantic categorization on Google!!! ??? Why is this important? Well, if you search for Martin Luther King, one of the top links goes to a white supremacist hate page. It may be that Google is moving away from its raw algorithm, which can be gamed, and toward a trustweb system. Actually, it just occurred to me that that result could be from the Google search results tagging system that is already in place. So, is this old news?