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]

A Crash

This will be booring.

On Sunday I sat down to do some coding work that I had been procrastinating on1. Computer booted up, I logged in…and it hung. Did the ctrl-shift-backspace thing, but the screen just displayed what looked like memory codes and some failure messages.  Restarted a couple times and decided that my system was completely borked.

Grabbed two Ubuntu CDs off the top of my huge pile of burned but unlabeled CDs. The first CD I put in was for 6.10 and was the text installer. Now every time I restarted I was forced to boot from this CD because of my stupid-ass hardware… a Macbook that I only run Ubuntu on2 ; I couldn’t eject the CD using the keyboard key while in the text installer. After too much time figured out that the rescue mode worked and I could use the `eject` command on the drive (I found out later you can just hold down the touchpad button and hit the eject key on boot-up). In any case, with both CDs I was seeing the same strange behavior: a message that my system clock was set to Jan 1, 2001 and failures to install completely.

Oh, long tedious story short, first I thought it was the RAM, so I bought a new 1GB stick, then I thought it was the harddrive (but really I thought it was the motherboard, because of the clock thing), so I bought a notebook harddrive that had the wrong connectors. So as a totally random troubleshooting step, I burned a new copy of 8.04.1 and tried installing it3.  When the system started, I got the clock error but everything else worked. On the second startup I didn’t even get the clock error.

There is no lesson from this story4. Okay, there is a lesson: troubleshooting is hard, and if you really want to do it well, make a grid and work your hypotheses methodically. If I had done this I might have fixed my system on the first night instead of on the third day. The end result of my ordeal is that I have an extra 500MB memory, a scratched and scuffed Macbook interior, fewer screws on the exterior, and no idea whether my problem was software or hardware related. I basically expect my laptop to burst into flames at any moment.

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  1. I don’t know if you procrastinate on or procrastinate about. I don’t even know how to ask Google the question. [back]
  2. I used to be able to dual-boot it with MacOS and it was pretty nice, but for some reason I nuked that partitition and I haven’t been able to reinstall from the CD. [back]
  3. The key was walking away once the install started and coming back after an hour, clearly. [back]
  4. I like to bug Amy by sententiously declaring, “I think we’ve all learned a valuable lesson today,” whenever one of us, usually me, does something stupid. [back]

Apple Cocoa Cavil

I’m going to try to sound more like Andy Rooney1 up here on this blog. Also, how about I indicate when the boooring technical notes begin and end with technical and interesting.

This is one of my favorite xkcd comics. It really speaks to my experience. Usually I can pull away before I’ve finished registering for comments. Sometimes I’m halfway through a closely reasoned argument when I realize how perfectly pointless and non-personal-goal-advancing my actions are. Then, in the worst case scenario, there I am mixing it up with the other comment-warriors. Here’s me windmilling my way through a post about dolphin killing on Japanprobe. This used to be the url for a pitched brawl in which I interjected a few uninformed comments. Etcetera.

Anyway, I thought I’d write this post at a more meta level to dissuade myself from commenting elsewhere. So here goes (technical):

Have you ever noticed that Objective-C is really, really weird? Like, they just took all the C- and C++- style conventions and changed them? Me too. And on top of that it’s compiled and you do memory management and the engineers make APIs that have objects called NSCamelCasedFactoryMethodObjectFacilitator2. Okay, so then someone makes a script-y dynamic thing for managing the Objective-C stuff, good idea. And when designing this scripting interface they make the following language syntax design decisions:

Finally, the instruction separator is a dot, like in English sentences:
myString := ‘hello’.

The following example shows how to send a message to an object:
myString class

See, this is funny, because it’s completely different from every other programming language3. That is all.

Umm, but there is a somewhat interesting take-away. Both Apple and Microsoft have designed really sucky APIs (in terms of intuitability rather than functionality) , compared to which GTK is fairly sane (it gets a bit clunky when dealing with “GtkIter” operations). But the MacOS developers follow Apple’s improvements of this API, cooing over the increased simplicity afforded by the new NSMakesYourToastRegistry. It’s the same with new C#/ Windows API developments. So (this is actually the interesting part) the lesson is that when people work within a “closed” development system, they lose their sense about good and bad design!4

Here’s the idea. Closed development systems don’t get good feedback and don’t have good change mechanisms, so even very good engineers (probably Apple’s are some of the best) end up working in the dark a little. It gets all culty, because there’s an elect that makes the design decisions and a laity that passively learns the new scripture. And everyone’s straining so hard to understand what the design class hath laid down that they’re no longer perceiving the design objectively. And proprietary lock-in helps, because it leads to fatalism (“what can I do, switch to Windows?”). There are all these weird little island communities where the natives are effectively locked-in to a platform because they’ve already invested the energy to understand its weird design. This isn’t even necessarily a proprietary vs. opensource thing. There are strange over-designed opensource projects that aren’t particularly open because of this class division (and most opensource projects rely on only 1-3 main contributors, it seems). All I’m saying is that bad APIs / development languages happen when designers aren’t being influenced in the right way by the end-user developers, and I’m speculating that this has to do with particular attitudes and processes associated with proprietary code and also a kind of design elitism. I mean, doesn’t Objective-C code (as code) suck?

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  1. I include this link because I think this already marginal reference will become incomprehensible in ten years.[back]
  2. Yeah, I’ve got their number all right.[back]
  3. Actually, these are pretty interesting design decisions. The := assignment syntax is wack, but probably necessary for named arguments or something. The dot on the end is okay, but you’re moving the OO-messaging operator into the generally useless semicolon position. By using the space for messaging, you’re now saying “subject verbs(args)” instead of “subject.verb object, args” (in Ruby you can omit the parens for a function). [back]
  4. So I sort of believe that. Mainly I’m bitter because I can’t get some code to work on MacOS.[back]

Update

My life continues apace. At the moment, I’m looking for a job for the summer and onward1 , hopes fairly high. Going to Hawaii on Tuesday2.

Trends:

  • obsessive behavior
  • competence?
  • health?

An example of the first is the playing of this game. Probably I get in at least one game a day, usually more. A game will usually last an hour, but some games go much longer. Also, my computer is supposed to prevent me from typing/mousing for more than hour, and I will click to bypass its 3 minute break message for hours on end. You read me? Sometimes, say at periods like this when I’m trying to get on to the next thing, I “invest” my mind in the internet, just as during the semester I invested it in academic philosophy. That is, I try to catchup with the flow of information, trends, etc., at least in the domains I care about (mostly opensource software and some world affairs). What really happens is that my hands start hurting and I lose my attention span.

My sense of the second comes from a sudden improvement in my ability to “see” code. I made this portfolio site to show potential employers. It’s in PHP, which I don’t really know, but it’s logic, so I can hack out something like that with a little investigation of the syntax and standard libraries. I’ve also been writing a userspace driver for a usb device (the famous AgileLamp USB Lava Lamp!), which has been a really mysterious, frustrating process where I’ve ended up experimenting with several language bindings for the woefully under-documented libusb library. I ended up falling back to the original C library itself, and found that it’s no more or less understandable as logic than Ruby or Python (although as human-readable code C sucks). So it’s a sense of, if it’s code then it’s hackable. During the spring semester I got this way with writing philosophy papers, since these papers are all supposedly supposed to be publishable. I can take apart a topic and discuss it in a learned fashion for 15+ pages3. I’d like to get this way with electronics and maybe languages4.

By the last I only mean that I really enjoy riding around town on my bike. I have a route to school and can get to a couple interesting neighborhoods from my home. By health I do not mean not eating Jalapeno Cheetoses. Also, Amy and I found a very cheap pizza place that delivers, called Maximum Flavor. Their flavor truly cannot be surpassed. Attempts have been made, and all have failed, with tragic, often fatal, results. Pretty good pizza.

Anyways5, I’ll try to write here more, generally on more limited, technical topics, because “I’m just not that disclosive”6. Look at the timestamp on this post and you’ll get a sense of where I’m at, psychophysically. My wrists hurt and my eyes are burning/droopy.

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  1. I will learn the formal rule for when to use onward vs. onwards. [back]
  2. Because I am wealthy and carefree. [back]
  3. Which points to how silly “philosophy” is as a discrete academic domain. So just say this: all knowledge-endeavor is in the domain of philosophy, but not all endeavors are sufficiently philosophically reflective. This means: there shouldn’t be any philosophy grads, but other disciplines should be required to be much deeper about what they’re doing, e.g., law. [back]
  4. I know my best years for this are behind me. sniff [back]
  5. I will learn the formal rule for when to use anyway vs. anyways. [back]
  6. As Joe is wont to say about himself [back]