Digging your own rabbit hole

In the Kottke newsletter this week Tim Carmody highlights Dan Nosowitz’s article in NYMag “I Don’t Know How to Waste Time on the Internet Anymore”:

The other day, I found myself looking at a blinking cursor in a blank address bar in a new tab of my web browser. I was bored. I didn’t really feel like doing work, but I felt some distant compulsion to sit at my computer in a kind of work-simulacrum, so that at least at the end of the day I would feel gross and tired in the manner of someone who had worked. What I really wanted to do was waste some time.

But … I didn’t know how. I did not know what to type into the address bar of my browser. I stared at the cursor. Eventually, I typed “nytimes.com” and hit enter. Like a freaking dad. The entire world of the internet, one that used to boast so many ways to waste time, and here I was, reading the news. It was even worse than working.

As the kids (youngsters in their thirties) say these days (probably not any more): “It me”.

Very recently I downloaded Brent Simmons’s Evergreen RSS reader, which came pre-populated with an interesting selection of blog feeds he follows, and that I probably would never have come across myself. That was nice. Likewise, I’ve been dipping my toes in the water of Manton Reece’s micro.blog, and reading new things I find there. Sometimes it’s thoughts about how people respond to expectations, sometimes it’s a picture of someone’s back yard. It’s good stuff.

Tim Carmody calls it “digging your own rabbit hole”:

So what does this mean? Paradoxically, wasting time is now more work. You can certainly do it — the web is as full of nonsense as it ever was — but you have to look a little bit harder. You have to learn some new things. You have to find your own corners charting unmonetizable enthusiasms. It’s not just going to happen to you. You have to dig your own rabbit holes.

Curiously, this brings back a feeling of peeking into private spaces, even though these sites are openly available on the internet. But they’re not part of the mainstream: Twitter, Medium, Tumblr. If you want to be read these days, and you don’t already have an audience, you publish on one of the social outlets. Writing on your own site (the “indie web”) has different connotations: a certain resistance to the mainstream. I dig it.

One of Tim’s links there was to Austin Kleon’s article “What do you want to learn?”. This reminded me of a piece I wrote myself on Everything2 in 2001, “What can you do this month that you couldn’t do last month?”. Here’s the whole thing:

Earlier today, my wife and I were talking about the baby we have due in six weeks’ time. (We talk about this a lot.) We were considering how quickly babies grow, and how quickly they learn. A whole new individual takes form, its body, its personality, it’s whole being evolving on a daily basis. From one week to another it picks up new skills: holding a cup, grasping a spoon, crawling, walking, talking.

We never learn so much, so quickly, as when we are children.

Is the converse true? If we keep learning, and keep acquiring new skills, do we stay young?

For a child, a completely new thing is utterly fascinating. As we grow older, there are fewer new things to discover, and come to think that every day is like any other. We’ve seen and done it all before. And because we don’t experience it as often, we forget just how much fun the thrill of discovery is! Find that thrill, and you’ll find your inner child.

One of my goals in life is to have as much fun as possible. And learning new things is one of life’s greatest pleasures. So I owe it to myself to consider the following question on a regular basis:

What can I do this month that I couldn’t do last month?

If I can’t answer this with something new, interesting and fascinating, then I must be doing something wrong. This month, for instance, I have learned how to play hi-hat ostinatos on my drum kit. Very soon, I’ll be learning how to change nappies.

  • Learn a new language. Visit a foreign country, and learn all about it while you’re there!
  • Learn to play a musical instrument. Then, learn how to play along with your favourite songs!
  • Learn to juggle. Then, learn to do tricks with juggling balls!
  • Learn to cook. Discover how to prepare food like they do in posh restaurants!
  • Learn to make furniture. Build yourself a bookcase!
  • Learn to sew. Buy a pattern, and make a pair of trousers!
  • Learn to draw. Make sketches of your parents, or of your friends. Sketches evoke completely different memories than photographs do.

Just learn!

First of all, I’m always somewhat surprised when I discover that Everything2 still exists. That’s cool. Secondly, I had forgotten that I wrote that piece over on E2, rather than here on my own blog. (Which is why I included it above, just in case E2 goes away and I can’t find it again.)

Third, a sad realization that I can’t even name anything I can do now that I couldn’t do twelve months ago. (I’m not going to count CSS-grid.) So much of the last couple of years has been a determined slog through depression and recovery, both my own and that of others. Fun is something that happens to other people, or at the very least is eked out in small measures under the guise of minimal self care: taking walks, going to concerts, and binge-watching Netflix.

This isn’t a plea for help or sympathy, just a nudge to myself that I used do better, and, if I give myself the time and opportunity, I will do better again.

Soda Protocols

“Daddy’s magic thinking juice.” This is how I often describe the bottles and cans in my fridge, much to the confusion of friends and family.

“I didn’t know you even had kids,” they say, cautiously. “Nor that your shame over your escalating drinking problem is such that you feel a need to use an elaborate euphemism to conceal the scale of the problem from your loved ones.”

Well, neither thing is true. Often, alcohol consumption is linked to parenthood often in one’s frolicky teen years but I only have a nodding relationship to both concepts. No, I describe my onhand inventory of soda that way because over the course of a long writing day, a glass of something fizzy and tasty helps to grease the gears of productivity. When I’m in my last 20 days before a book deadline, my blood is about 20% phosphoric acid.

The Soda Protocols by Andy Ihnatko.

We went down the route of the diet soda long time ago, too. Full-sugar beverages taste excessively cloying to me most of the time. A couple of years ago I started to worry about the amount of artificial sweeteners I was drinking, and cut out carbonated sweetened beverages completely for a while, but the habit didn’t stick. Last summer I rediscovered Spezi, and went wild with fruit flavourings: slicing up half an orange or lemon (or both!), crushing them into the bottom of a cup, and filling it up with diet cola. This has the side benefit of making cheap off-brand diet cola taste wildly excellent.

My current preferred carbonated beverage is diet cola with a splash of orange juice, ideally the kind with lots of pulp. The pulp floats to the surface, and forms an orange-brown felted mat on the surface of the drink. To the uninitiated it looks like swamp water, but it’s fruity and refreshing with all same caffeinated goodness. In terms of protocols, I have two that I’m trying to stick to for my standard daily at-home routine:

  1. No caffeinated beverages after about 18:00 (ish). I find I get to sleep more easily without caffeine in the evening.
  2. Stick to 300ml mugs and cups. If I put the drink in a larger cup or mug, I drink it just as fast, and return to the kitchen just as often. That leads to increased bladder pressure and more bouncing around in my chair.

(Exceptions apply.)

When I’m in the office in Edinburgh, I drink my cola from cans or bottles. I drink more slowly from cans and bottles, because I tend to take a single sip and then put the container aside for a while. With a cup or a mug, I’m much more inclined to take several gulps at once, or drain it from half-way full. I don’t understand the psychology here. I suspect it’s because of the social pressure – when I’m surrounded by co-workers, I’m more inclined to show moderation.

Going skating

Oostzaan is a very watery place. The central square lies about 60cm below sea level, and the whole village is criss-crossed with canals and waterways. It’s easier to get around on foot and by bike, because there are plenty of bridges that aren’t accessible by car.

There’s a canal that runs just behind our house, and we have been thinking about buying a small boat for messing around in. Until just a few days ago, though, the thought of walking out our back gate, crossing the road, and going skating hadn’t crossed my mind. But we have had freezing temperatures at night for the last week or so, and almost all the water around the village has a thick layer of ice. While Abi and I were out cycling on Monday, we saw a handful of people out on the ice at the skating club, but today it seemed like half of Oostzaan had their skates on.

Alex and Fiona have never been skating before. When I suggested to Alex that we go out and try it, his reaction was immediate: “No! For two reasons: one, I don’t want to injure myself. And two, I’m hibernating!”. Fiona proved more persuadable, and we took a quick trip out to the local bike shop to buy her a set of strap-on blades. (Unfortunately they didn’t have any real skates in my size – I’ll need to go out after New Year to get some.) Then I took her out and let her try them.

Normally I don’t enjoy the cold of winter much, but I’m wondering if that’s because it hasn’t been cold enough for me in recent years. I have to admit that I’m quite thrilled by this deep icy chill.

Humble coder

One of the reasons I often dislike Joel Spolsky’s essays is because he makes me feel inferior for not having a Computer Science degree. He doesn’t inspire me to become a better coder; he makes me feel bad that I’m not a better coder in the first place.

Likewise, Paul Graham’s writings often concentrate on startups and the entrepreneurial spirit. Sometimes they’re good; sometimes they have the exact same effect as Spolsky—to make me feel worthless because I haven’t started my own company, and have no intention of doing so.

Rands, on the other hand, writes about management in an interesting and entertaining way, without making me feeling like a failure because I don’t have a team of people working for me. Likewise, I find Jeff Atwood an inspirational writer: in his dedication to coding as a craft, he understands that one of the keys to being a good developer is a fundamental desire to become a better developer. In his latest article, he takes Paul Graham to task for his “you suck” attitude. Thanks, Jeff—I needed that.

I still use this quote from Lois McMaster Bujold as my personal motto:

“There is this, about being the sparring partner of the best swordsman in Caribastos. I always lost. But if I ever meet the third best swordsman in Caribastos, he’s going to be in very deep trouble.”

I don’t know for certain, but I suspect that this attitude would give Paul Graham fits, but it would make Jeff Atwood smile. There’s the difference.

2007 in review: Films

Okay, let’s get the easy ones out of the way first. Watching films, being part of “having fun” kind of fell by the wayside in 2007. I only saw 29 films (a five-year low), most of those in the first four or five months of the year. I have only been to the cinema once since we moved to the Netherlands, and that was to see The Bourne Ultimatum…on a trip back to Scotland.

I don’t see the situation changing any time soon, either. I know where the nearest cinema is, but lack the motivation to get out there of an evening. (Also: National Treasure 2? Puh-leeze.) The TV set-up we have here in the house is distinctly sub-optimal, and I haven’t signed up for a DVD rental service here yet. (Compared to Lovefilm in the UK, the offerings here are expensive and primitive.) Once we move house, I would really like to get a big TV, and spend some time arranging it so that sitting down to watch a film is something to look forward to.

Of the films I saw in 2007, there are four that really stood out:

Brick seems to divide opinion; some people find it boring, and are put off by the poor sound quality – some of the dialogue is really hard to make out. I just loved its lo-fi noir vision. Primer is a low-budget no-fx gem, a mind-bending time-travel film that actually works. Following is another low-budget effort–Christopher Nolan’s directorial debut, in fact. (You may remember Nolan from bigger films such as The Prestige and Batman Begins.) It’s a cunning little thriller with a sting in the tail. Finally, The Good Shepherd is the kind of spy film I like: murky, understated, ambiguous, and backstabby.

So what am I looking forward to in 2008? To be honest, seeing anything at the cinema would be a high point of my year so far. Richard Brunton maintains a fabulous site for movie lovers over at Filmstalker.co.uk, with loads of tasty bites about what’s coming soon, but I can’t actually see anything on the horizon that screams out “must see!” yet.

(Actually, on second thoughts, a European release of My Name Is Bruce would be pretty awesome.)

If you don’t know me by now…

I fear I may have given the wrong impression of myself when I posted this photo a couple of months ago:

Frank and the Mac

The picture may lead you to believe that I thrive on sunlight streaming through the window. That I maintain a tidy desk. That I <gasp> use a single monitor. Wait… I am a geek. Hath not a geek a cave? If you ping me, do I not l33t?

Well, worry no more. Here’s the updated version:

The cave, revisited

Key features:

  • Three monitors. MacBook Pro on the right, Frankenstein on the left. The middle monitor switches back and forth depending on context. Synergy so I can be working on both machines at once with a single keyboard and mouse.
  • Roland TD-3 drum kit for relaxation and right-braining
  • Pinboard on the wall to the left of the desk
  • Random box o’ stuff piled on top of the Mac Classic
  • Volume control for the amp within easier reach
  • Comfortingly messy

I have also come across a trio of articles in the last couple of weeks that pretty much describe me to a T. Have a look and see.

The Nerd Handbook” by Rands:

“These control issues mean your nerd is sensitive to drastic changes in his environment. Think travel. Think job changes. These types of system-redefining events force your nerd to recognize that the world is not always or entirely a knowable place, and until he reconstructs this illusion, he’s going to be frustrated and he’s going to act erratically. I develop an incredibly short fuse during system-redefining events and I’m much more likely to lose it over something trivial and stupid.”

Wide vs. Deep” by Greg Knauss:

“The programmer, though, wants to be involved deeply and profoundly in just a few projects — he wants to own them, top to bottom. Maybe it’s a whole program, or a single feature, or some underlying library. Whatever. He wants to live in it, neck-deep. He has to worry about all — literally all — of the obscure technical details that make computers go. Jumping between projects — context switching — is a great way to burn a programmer out, because the cost of unloading one project from his head only to load up another one is enormously high. The idea of switching between two projects in a day, much less ten, is not only exhausting, but depressing.”

What I Want For Christmas: Not A Damn Thing” by John Scalzi:

“For a number of years, I’ve told people who have been thinking of getting me something for Christmas or whatever holiday excuse they have for gift giving that I’d simply prefer they not get me anything at all. The reaction to this often ranges from confusion (i.e., how can you not want gifts?) to exasperation that my insincere “no, no, you don’t have to get me anything…” ways just means they will have to be extra crafty in getting me a gift, since I’m not helping them by hinting at what I want. This is when people ask my wife what I want, and she tells them that I told her years ago to stop getting me Christmas gifts. At which point I suspect their heads explode.”

I wrote about exactly that same thing two years ago, albeit in a more mouth-foamingly ranty way. Scalzi expresses himself much more calmly and eloquently, and everything he says applies to me. (Well, apart from Julie Delpy, Kate Winslet, and that car. Call it Jennifer Connelly, Kate Beckinsale, and a 1983 Porsche 911SC, and we’re golden.) To anyone who wants to get me anything for my birthday or Christmas now or in the future: please read Scalzi’s article.

Quite comfortingly, Christmas doesn’t seem to have landed yet here in The Netherlands. And it’s almost December! Sure, we’ve got the whole Sinterklaas thing going on, but it doesn’t thrust itself at you and hump your leg like Christmas does in the UK. Consequently, I’m feeling a lot calmer this holiday season. Or maybe the therapy is helping. Or something.

(The title of this post is, of course, a reference to the Simply Red cover of the Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes song. Yep, that’s the consequence of Dutch radio bangin’ out those “classic 80s hits.” One of these days, you’ll get the full thermonuclear rant…but not today.)