A notch above a monkey

Late 2014 review

Another year’s over. When squinting eyes a bit it looked very similar to 2013. The world remains an awful place which is getting better in many ways, but largely not in those I find most important. Specifics are better covered in a grimly entertaining Charlie Brooker’s 2014 Wipe . A must watch is Adam Curtis’ segment on Vladislav Surkov (jump to 28:23 if it doesn’t automatically). It may be the most horrifying thing I learned last year.

I became 40 in 2014. One thing I did not fully appreciate as a child when thinking about growing old is how big of a deal it becomes that people around you are getting older too. We were lucky and new health scares remained just that, for now. They are becoming more common and a good year may just be one where they all turn out to be false alarms or, at worst, manageable afflictions.

My year was not bad. We travelled and experienced a lot. I learned a lot, mainly about programming because I worked too much. I did not find much time to read books, write or even think about non-work related things except when on vacation. More skilled, but unlikely wiser. I often need to stay still to move forward, so while it was fun and necessary in many ways I do not want to repeat last year.

Yet I am not the same person I was a year ago. For one, I stopped fancying myself a rationalist. Logic should be used often, but not to identify with [1] . Doing so would (did?) ossify my thinking and limit what I can hope to understand and solve.

Last year I realised how little does missing my goals spoil my happiness. In 2014 I did almost nothing I planned but still was mostly happy which really brings up a bunch of questions.

First what constitutes the unmeasured dark matter of my life? Mostly my relationships and the well-being of people I love. Neither are really gaugeable beyond qualitative one-sided assessments because I am not emotionally stunted enough to survey my loved ones. Even an astute observer rarely notices more than relationship’s phase shifts and has a limited ability to influence the outcomes [2] . Limited does not mean no ability and while I try to do better, measuring anything feels elusive and counter-productive.

Still, there are limits to such joy. Even domestic bliss could not make working at abattoir palatable.

I have been tracking my weight for more than a decade (and books read and…), but I am becoming suspicious of quantified self movement. Its focus on quantitative measurements works best when tracking physiological parameters like weight. Psychological ones? Not so much. There is always a danger of searching for key under a street lamp by improving measurable things instead of those that matter. Also, slicing life into trackable slivers can lead to normative behaviour even without gamified dashboards. Healthier and optimally busy automaton is still only an automaton.

If this sounds like crisis of faith from a self-improvement nut, it sort of is. Again . However, I still believe I am a co-author of what I will become and that not all outcomes are equally worthy. So I keep experimenting.

In 2014 I stopped doing digital sabbaths because of work overload. This year I definitely plan to get back to them, as I do to mentoring. I may scratch the digital part because it has the wrong focus (is reading on Kindle meaningfully different to reading on paper?), but I do want to find time again for things that get squeezed out otherwise.

I did not start any new personal projects. Instead I have”finished” mjp against my plans. What made it worse was that afterwards I stopped working on projects where I could use it. Still, reimplementing a meaningful subset of jQuery’s API is interesting, enlightening and good exercise for any web front-end developer.

My work journal, which I stopped writing when I ended up with no working computers, is currently on hold. I will continue writing it once I find a tool that makes it easier and figure out what to record (and how) so it will be useful later.

Monthly reminders of my plans were still largely intentionally ignored, but I’m keeping them even if their main effect is to instil a sense of well-earned guilt. They also help me turn down propositions more often than I would otherwise (but not often enough). To them I am adding a practice of weekly reflection (something I learned in Uganda from an ever-impressive Nodumo) which I intend to channel into very short lists of achievable plans for upcoming week. So far I wrote two of them with mixed results.

I have not read many books, but I have read a lot of which surprisingly little stayed with me. Difficult to say why, but my hypothesis is that I read too much brain candy (interesting stuff without lasting value) and do it without proper thematic focus.

I am certain that mixing reading subjects is a form of multitasking that inhibits learning. Therefore I plan to separate directed learning from reading I do for fun and general education. Tiny Tiny RSS (my feed reader) regretfully does not support such use and workarounds (multiple accounts) are too tedious to be realistic.

My approach of picking books by whatever I fancied at the moment is a questionable strategy when I can read so few of them. Instead, I will be doing semi-planned reading with a must-read list of carefully chosen books that will be short enough to leave room for few unplanned ones. I will also be keeping the freedom to decide my reading order.

I typed a lot, but wrote little. While these pages do not contain a representative selection of my thoughts, how much I publish is still directly proportional to how much of deepened thinking I do. I did not publish much in 2014. No idea on how to change this beyond hoping weekly sabbath will provide some time and focus.

It is time for me to learn a new programming language, but it will not happen before the second part of 2015. As much as Haskel is inviting for its mind-stretching abilities, I want it to be more directly useful to me. If I can’t use the language on a concrete project, than it is not likely to stay with me. With still ample time to decide I am oscillating between Rust and Go. First one looks more interesting, but is also definitely less mature and supported by local development community. Go on the other hand might be too pragmatic and timid to really learn something new.

I am not sure what to expect from this year. I ended last one even heavier than I started. Hopefully 2015 will continue with the new positively negative trend. I will continue to be too busy for a while, but wish to wrap up existing obligations and bureaucratic annoyances by spring. This year will be a definite failure if I do not start implementing “reader” as I have learned what I needed to begin and there are no valid excuses any more. My main challenge will be figuring out how to make progress without becoming an absent workaholic zombie. If I could salvage summer, which for me is a general waste of time when little gets done, then that would be a great leap towards this goal. On a lighter note, my horological impulse was also more pronounced last year, but I did not end up with many new watches. It is something to keep an eye on this year.

  1. Same goes for scientific method.
  2. While there are plenty of coping mechanisms for happier living (lowering expectations, focusing on positives…) they really are not a match for what live can throw at you (e.g early-onset dementia).

Books I read in 2014

As expected I read less this year than usual. Much less even, only 10 books. It was a very busy year, but this was still at the lower bound of what I expected. I intend to look at reasons why in my year review post which should be up early next year.

I am fairly satisfied by the mix of work-related and pleasure reading even if I failed to read anything substantial in Slovenian this year (started The Trial by Franz Kafka which I don’t expect to finish in few hours that are left of this year).

All non-fiction books were read on my tablet as was The Quiet American which I downloaded once I ran out of books in Vietnam. Reading on tablets did not improve noticeably this year and I still would not recommend it, but they are handy. I think e-ink readers did get to the point where they offer the best of both worlds and I am seriously reconsidering them. However I loathe DRM so I do not expect to buy e-only copy of books I care about any time soon.

As always unaffiliated links point to Amazon and are there only for those that are at least fine (which is all of them this year). Bold is reserved for those I found best: The Vagrants, Soldiers of Salamis and The Quiet American .

  • Smut: Stories by Alan Bennett. Sex is rarely as funny as in this two stories, but the second story kind of peters out as if the author ran out of ideas to resolve the twisted mess.
  • Developing Backbone.js Applications by Addy Osmani. A very good, but occasionally slightly dated introduction to framework. Still highly recommended.
  • Instant Handlebars.js by Gabriel Manricks. Cover says it all: short, fast and focused examination of Handlebars.js. Great if you prefer books to online reading.
  • Backbone.js Cookbook by Vadim Mirgorod. A quick dive into Backbone.js best when paired with previous book on the topic.
  • The Vagrants by Yiyun Li. A mesmerising and very depressing portrait of oppression in post cultural revolution China and its effect on people that I can’t recommend highly enough. Rarely hopeful, often unpredictable and always well written.
  • Writing Idiotmatic Python 3.3 by Jeff Knupp. A short but informative collection of tips on how to write “pythonic” code. The only real downside is book’s price.
  • Pure by Andrew Miller. Works best when establishing atmosphere of late 18th century Paris and easy engaging read that turned out to be a bit of disappointment for me. I wish author had as much courage as he does talent.
  • Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas. Undoubtedly the best book I read this year. An intelligent, compassionate and humane chronicle of a quest to uncover truth behind a myth from the end of Spanish civil war. I dare you not to be moved.
  • The Pragmatic Programmer: From Journeyman to Master by Andrew Hunt, David Thomas. Of no use to those who are not programmers and should be required reading for those who are. I am not sold on all views and suggestions, but it has already influenced my work profoundly.
  • The Quiet American by Graham Greene. I downloaded this one when I ran out of books in Vietnam and decided to do the cliche thing. Greene is a writer for those who prefer thrillers with a bit more literary ambition and this one doesn’t disappoint either. Gripping, well written and even prophetic considering it was finished a decade before USA got to experience all the things it warned it about.

I have big plans for 2015 so to read 20+ books sounds lovely, but not achievable. Instead I will aim for 15, preferably of some heft and avoid fluff except when on vacation. For a change I also have a very specific goal which is to finally finish GEB even if I discover that I don’t like it.

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Chirp, Squawk, Cackle, or Honk*

Disappointed I stopped using Twitter at the end of 2011 and have since visited it mostly to follow up specific references. As a medium I found it lacking but ignorable until recently. While I was reading about the aptly named Jacobinghazi affair I felt the urge to tweet and pronounce Twitter as possibly more toxic than Facebook .

This article has been provoked by Tomaž’s polite disagreement and is my late attempt to explain what I couldn’t on Twitter.

My objections

Leon Wieseltier recently described Twitter as a place of infinite discharge of emotion and promotion where nothing intellectually or linguistically substantial can be accomplished. It is a great and true enough description of Twitter.

Over the years a number of articles have discussed effects of new media on society in its largest sense. While I am interested in those my comment was mainly about Twitter’s role in shaping how individuals and communities think, communicate and behave.

In blogging heyday I thoroughly disliked celebration of rapid exchange of half-baked ideas. Making them smaller and exchange more rapid is not an improvement. Ideas have always been cheap and plentiful when untested and inspiring to the unwitting. Twitter is vast and there may be much worth reading, but chances are most of what you will read will be soon forgotten fluff. Creating on a medium like Twitter is hard since most things worth saying can’t be clearly expressed in 140 characters, nuance is valued even less than continuity and every good tweet can be buried in a pile of inane responses.

One of the reasons why I originally stopped using Twitter was realisation that I found tweets from a fair number of otherwise congenial and intelligent people regularly off-putting. Twitter did not suddenly found their previously hidden depravity, instead its forced brevity of semi-public discourse made a great deal of it sound like movie informants wearing a wire. It is a great demonstration of how dialogue changes when we think others are listening and an insidious tool for normalising blanket snooping, much of it our own.

Research has shown that our brains keep adapting to their use and improving one skill often leads to deterioration of another or as McLuhan put it: “Every extension is also an amputation.” I lost count of people describing their difficulty with reading longer, more slowly developing articles after an expectation of instant gratification has been built by a steady diet of short ones. It doesn’t get more instant than a tweet and Twitter’s interface is optimised for non-discriminative reading of a never ending stream of tweets. [1] Can this really be good for a thinking person?

My tweet which led to this piece was provoked by an absolutely absurd argument closely matching Alan Jacob’s description of Twitter at its worst . Maybe worst, but certainly not rare. Of course arguments with all the negative baggage are not exclusive to Twitter, but Twitter does seem a more emotive medium than most of them. Discussions on Twitter are commonly a sad sight because it isn’t built for dialog. It is a marketing machine and works best when used as such. [2] Unsurprisingly millions of its users conform to its design hints by sharing content or less obviously with signalling group membership by snarking and sloganeering at sometimes only imagined opposition.

Ian Danskin’s “This is Phil Fish” video essay [3] about the nature of online fame recently made rounds and I can’t recommend it enough. Fame can appear without being sought and the longer it lasts, the more likely it is that the famous will become a stand-in for a concept to which public often responds negatively. This is especially unpleasant and difficult to deal with when the negative concept is tied not to what you did, but who you are or are perceived to be.

On Twitter (as previously noted) tweets may be written with a recipient in mind, but can be seen by anyone so all of them contribute to our public image without it being in our control. [4] Controlling tweets comprehension and propagation by relying on cultural norms to differentiate audiences does not work because those norms may not be well known and are certainly not accepted by everyone.

We speak when we want to pass on an idea. Amplifying ideas of others can be worthy, but we are more enriched when new ideas are created and explored. The really interesting ones can be controversial, rough and in need of a nurturing environment in which to develop. Twitter is not that place.

Mobbing and repression of unpopular opinion happens almost everywhere where opinions can be expressed, but the immediacy, ease of response and pay-off make Twitter particularly popular with trolls, sociopaths and anybody willing to goad their followers into collective sectarian hysteria. There will always be enough of them willing to tweet before thinking to pummel into silence everyone but the most determined. Only ideas at first protected by obscurity can develop and flourish in environment without boundaries.

Three pillars of Twitter design

Twitter earns money by showing ads. There’s another reason to be careful with any ad-based business beyond worrying about their usually insatiable hunger for our privacy. Its value is proportional to the amount of our time it captures. [5] Seeing ads on a site you frequent should trigger an examination of how much time you are willing to spend there.

I disliked Twitter’s design until I realised that its main purposes are spreading messages and increasing its use. It does those two things splendidly and kudos to Twitter’s designers.

I am obviously not privy to any internal information, but to me the foundation of Twitter’s design are three main values: terseness, immediacy and broadcasting.

Terseness is of course the well known restriction of 140 characters per tweet because of a technical limitation which does not really exist any more. Its effect on writing however remains because writing thoughts longer than 140 characters is awkward and will in newest-tweets-first Twitter applications always result in a broken reading experience. It is ill-suited for human dialogue because we don’t express ourselves at tweet lengths and we don’t hear responses first. Life is not Jeopardy! and it is not a coincidence that most messaging applications put newest messages at the bottom.

So why doesn’t Twitter raise the limit? I can only speculate, but I believe there are other benefits to Twitter beyond the limit’s role in Twitter’s brand. Longer text simply requires more effort from writer and readers and makes the platform less engaging thus hurting both of the stated Twitter’s goals.

Twitter does not use time much as a design tool beyond a core belief that real time is the right time to deliver a message and that delivered messages should be displayed in the opposite order they were sent which at some point will practically guarantee broken narratives and constant change of topic.

Most of us can’t effectively multitask because we can’t quickly switch contexts. We cognitively suffer when we try and reading tweets from unconnected authors in order in which they came is really just multitasking at high speed. There is no reason to believe that we listen as well and care as much as we would if our focus would not be constantly drawn to the next thing. Ability to listen fully and steadily is a difficult skill to develop, but quick to atrophy on Twitter.

Twitter may tolerate a moderate use of its platform, but certainly does not want it. It will keep suggesting new people to follow no matter how many you already do to keep the stream of tweets from ever drying up. Without them you don’t have a reason to constantly check your phone for new tweets and fewer reasons to post your own.

The other face of broadcasting is building up your audience which is how you’ll eventually see your followers once you get enough of them to not know many. And ever so helpful Twitter is here to get you to this point as quickly as possible.

First it provides a crude privacy model in which either everything is private or nothing is (ignoring direct messages that are irrelevant for this article). This not so gentle nudge to make output public is further supported by ubiquitous leader boards tracking followers, retweets and favourites, constantly reminding us of everyone’s standing and relying on our vanity to improve it. None of these would need to be so prominent if what really mattered was sharing and chatting with your friends. Putting a scorecard on our every utterance makes sense only if its most important feature is their popularity.

Hoarding followers and followees has another negative effect beside making already described ones worse. For historical reasons and because of web app limitations twitterers often use just one account, so subscribing to it conflates all author’s interests into one stream and while not merging different communities, it certainly exposes them more without them having much say in it. This, together with stilted expression, reduced comprehension and empathy, on a platform that promotes making an instant idiot of yourself in pursuit of recognition is, in my opinion, an important contributing factor to many heated arguments.

In closing

This is not an exhaustive list of issues I have with Twitter, not even important ones (e.g. obtuseness of relying on any one source for important information). Much of what I said is not unique to this service but a lot of it feels more excessive here. What makes it different is the platform’s growing presence and influence in our society by its successful co-opting of promoters in us. Doubtless there is a lot of good that happens on Twitter or because of it, but the platform is also bringing out the worst in us and I find its damaging effects more substantial.

Writing this article reminded me of a larger point I have not made before or not often enough. Technology is not morally neutral or unipolar let alone inherently positive and it frustrates me that discussions often try to cast it thus. As a practising technologist I am obviously not a Luddite, but neither do I assume that everything I am able to make is good even when made with best intentions. Our creations shape what we do, how we do it and even who we are and should therefore be critically examined for what they do for and to us.

As tools transform us and our societies I find pining for previous times unproductive, but I do not subscribe to technological determinism. We used freons for decades, but were perfectly capable of finding suitable replacements when we realised that our fridges would eventually fry us. But we did have to first realise and accept that.

* The title of this post was borrowed from the already linked article written by Leon Wieseltier.

  1. I know there are other clients. Well, mostly were. Twitter has been very open with their intention of eventually replacing all of them with theirs which already is the only one that matters.
  2. Another thing Twitter is not trying to hide. Twitter analytics could hardly sound more marketing oriented and Twitter’s homepage is all about following, not creating.
  3. There’s a transcript and while I usually prefer written word, in this case I would recommend to invest 20 minutes into watching the original video.
  4. Since we can’t control which tweets will be seen by whom and which won’t, it is impossible in the long term to really shape their overall perception unless they are sufficiently dehumanised or we consistently act out only one persona.
  5. Corollary of this is that it makes no sense to rely on a purportedly time-saving services whose revenue mostly comes from advertising.

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