Software, Hardware, Silverware

Entries tagged: Yourself

Today is the day you improve yourself, for we can all be improved.


John Siracusa, five years ago:

Even at the extreme end of the spectrum, I have a few kindred spirits. In fact, most geeks have this inclination to some degree, even if it’s just nitpicking logical or scientific flaws in a favorite TV show or movie. This is actually a skill worth developing. Have you ever met someone who holds strong opinions but is completely incapable of explaining them? “I really hated that book.” “Why?” “I don’t know, I just didn’t like it.” Who wants to be that guy? That’s no way to live.

The Road to Geekdom

John Siracusa:

The Mac is actually one of the few things I’m a geek about that I’ve been in on since the start. Geekdom is not defined by historical entry points or even shared experiences. A geek must possess just two things: knowledge and enthusiasm.

“Start with something messy, get to the point, get an editor, and make it good.”

— Michael Lopp

“If ‘other people have experiences incorrectly’ is annoying to you, think how unbearable it must be to have a condescending stranger tell you they hate the way you’re experiencing your life at just the moment you’ve found something you want to remember.”

— Randall Munroe

The Meaning of Life, Part I

The Importance of Doubt

We believe certain things. We believe in knowledge. We believe in importance. We believe what we do in this world matters and we believe that other people are important and what they do matters, too. We accept these intangibles because if we do not there is nothing else.

Few of us ask questions beyond the superficial. Those who do we call “philosophers” and we revere them (though often not until long after they have parted us). While anyone can question, philosophers possess one special skill that enables them to think more critically: the acceptance of doubt. Most fear doubt; fear of doubt is ruin.

Most bloody wars in history have had at the root of their cause religion. Religion is bred from doubt; it is born out of fear of the unknown. Over the thousands of years of human intelligence, the fear of the unknown has forced the creation of myths to explain away what we cannot any other way. Those who fear the unknown fear death. It is impossible to know what if anything happens after death, so religions have manufactured promises of life surviving the destruction of the earthly body. No lasting culture on earth has ever accepted that when humans die, all the evidence says nothing happens. Heaven and hell are notions created and written down by living humans with the same knowledge you or I have of the after-life: none. Through repetition, they are concepts that most of the world accepts blindly.

The modern philosopher Thomas Nagel says in What Does It All Mean? that we cannot be absolutely sure of anything: “If you think about it, the inside of your mind is the only thing you can be absolutely sure of.” How can we be sure anything is real? What is “real”, anyway? How do we know that everything going on around us, the entire world and every one in it, isn’t all in our head? These questions have no answer. There is nothing we can be sure of; certainty does not exist; that’s terrifying. Perhaps nothing I have ever done, do, or will do matters.

Ultimately, the search for certainty is useless. You can idle for your entire life and make nothing of your perceived time on this planet and no one will be able to convince you that you are apart of anything worth wasting. Certainty is impossible, so to move on to more important matters we must accept doubt in the way of things and renounce this blind faith in unreferenced answers. There is only one thing worth convincing ourselves of: that what we do here on earth is the only thing we know; if anything matters, it is this.

Immortality in a Mortal World

As humans we are struck with this concept that life is somehow important. There is little evidence for that. The universe has existed for 14,000,000,000 years and humans have inhabited the Earth for fewer than 0.0002% of them. The idea that anything any one of us has ever done has had even the slightest impact on anything further away than our Moon is laughable. The dinosaur dynasty lasted for over 135,000,000 years but what have they left behind? Fossils? Birds? Virtually nothing. Their only legacy is the oil we use to power our cars that in turn pollutes the Earth’s atmosphere. Not much to aspire to. Even if we do manage another 134,800,000 years, are we destined to be but a casual mystery to whatever species usurps us? It is a disconcerting reality that as we learn more of the universe, our own existence feels increasingly insignificant. But that belief, that life is important… It does not fade.

We remember past figures for their accomplishments. King Narmer, Otto von Bismarck, Abraham Lincoln: we remember these people because they marked history. It is reasonable then to assume that if we do important things and change the world, we will be remembered also. Steve Jobs once said of death:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life.

Immortality through reverence and remembrance is a real, observable phenomenon and the only meaning we can assure ourselves we can achieve.

Sit idle if you want and I cannot say for sure you’re wasting anything. But I will narrow the scope of my universe; to a human being that will live about 80 years, 200,000 of them feels like a pretty long time. I will never possess the ability to affect the universe as a whole, but I can surely affect the other humans here with me. I will ignore reality; I will muddle the facts because if I do not, I am nothing. “There’s no point,” wrote Nagel. “It wouldn’t matter if I didn’t exist at all, or if I didn’t care about anything. But I do. That’s all there is to it.”

Enjoy the Little Things

“Is Fortune’s presence dear to thee if she cannot be trusted to stay, and though she will bring sorrow when she is gone?”
— Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy

Fortune, good or bad, is transient. And that being the case, is there any point to finding Fortune’s good graces? The impression from Boethius is no. “True happiness” is fulfillment. It is found through wisdom and knowledge which cannot (at least, cannot easily) be taken away, as Fortune can. Fulfillment gives one importance and reverence in life, which can make one eternal. I am enrolled in the most prestigious and expensive university I was accepted to because I know a college education is an important step toward fulfillment. I come from a lower-middle-class family with little extra money to spend on college, and I did not impress enough in high school to get anything better than a partial scholarship. I cannot afford to be here. I am scheduled to pay off this semester with considerable interest by 2042. Yet here I am. I should be on the right track. But I am not happy.

Every week I have a “bad” day: a day when it gets to me the extent to which I am in-over-my-head. I have long imagined a Wall, a barrier to success brought on by my ability to meet the A-grade expectation in high school without putting forth any effort. I am not totally devoid of drive, but certainly I lack it in the worst way wherever I lack interest. At some point I think I will be put in a situation where I cannot meet expectations without putting forth the effort I have witnessed peers pour into schoolwork in the past. When I finally am, I worry that I will simply fail. The Wall is one of my greatest anxieties, third only to equity and loneliness.

Will I be able to feed myself next week? What about over the holidays when the dining halls are closed? As much as I would love to say that money is not important, and that we can be happy without it, in truth I know that there is a certain level of wealth that is paramount to being happy. No one is content in poverty. I do not long for riches, but I long for Enough. Until I can take a friend out for a nice lunch spur-of-the-moment and foot the bill without concern, I do not have Enough.

I have struggled with friendship since sophomore-level high school. While I have consistently had one or two best friends, I have struggled with finding groups of friends large enough that I can associate with people that I like on a daily basis. I have always been particular in choosing friends, which has helped me to achieve a small group that I can already assert as life-long. But my particularity has run to by greatest fear: that of being Alone. Whether I am in my dorm room with only my laptop or in a coffee shop with strangers, if I am not with people I can joke around with, I am Alone. My “bad” days consistently line up with those that I spend a majority of Alone.

These anxieties: hitting the Wall, having Enough, being Alone, they each eat at me every day despite my adherence to the path toward fulfillment. Because of this I stress the importance of Fortune. Life is a mix of good and bad; the good does not make up for the bad but likewise the bad does not spoil the good. Despite its transience, good Fortune is important to a happy life because fulfillment takes a very long time. Along the way there are many toils and without little, fleeting, happy moments I could not cope. This is why I treated my friends to a Broadway show I could not afford, it is why I joined the quidditch team, and it is why I spend so much of my money on first dates.

Always Do Your Best

Jared Sinclair:

It’s taxing to work like this, but rewarding. Vonnegut’s advice to young writers was to work passionately on a sonnet for a week, polishing it more every day, then to tear it up and toss the pieces into seven different trashcans. Your best work today will not be as good as your best work tomorrow.

“I just said what I said and it was wrong. Or it was taken wrong. And now it’s all this.”

— John Lennon

Here’s to the Future

Shawn Blanc:

If you think you’ve reached a point where you can create work that never makes you cringe again, then you’re saying that what you do today will be just as good as what you do next month, next year, and in 5 years from now.

And, well, that’s just not fair to your future self.

Are You a Nerd?

James Franco on nerds:

Jocks have all the confidence because they are the most visibly successful. Young creative types, or young scholars usually don’t have much to show for their labors as teenagers, and if they do, it is not as flashy as strutting across the playing field in front of the entire school.

See also: “Nerds” by Bo Burnham.

“All the work I’ve done in my life will be obsolete by the time I’m fifty.”

— Steve Jobs, fifteen years ago, on legacy.

Is the Sky Blue?

Michael Lopp:

As I read that definition of citations, I realized that much of what a citation intends to do your brain already does if you provide a steady flow of well formed ideas. When you read any sort of book, you’re exposing yourself to a world of ideas that are decidedly not yours. You’ll love some, you’ll forget many, but, most importantly, your brain will diligently and automatically parse these thoughts, characters, ideas, scenarios, facts, fictions, and wit safely away in your mind so that you, as a reader, can form a judgment of the world in the book. But also, most importantly, the world around you.

One of these days I’ll get around to writing a script to autopost links to everything Michael Lopp writes. He’s one of my favorite writers and his site, Rands in Repose, is number one or two. In this post he’s trying to sell a t-shirt and he still is as eloquent and thought-provoking as ever.

The Lonely Island

At the time of writing, I have 87 friends on Facebook. That’s too many. Facebook is different from Twitter in that you’re encouraged (and it makes sense) to befriend only those people whom you’re actually friends with. It’s in the name of the action, really: “follow” vs. “friend”1. Are there really 87 people that’d I’d consider friends? Are there really 87 people that I care enough about to want to know how they spent their Friday night? Doubtful. I’m not antisocial, I’m realistic. While every individual’s optimal “friend” count will vary, it’s unlikely you have as many close relationships as your Facebook page would indicate.

I’m not saying you have to speak with your Facebook friends every day. Not even every month. It is essential, however, that have some minimum level of closeness with them2. Otherwise, the service is all-but useless. If every time you login to Facebook, there’s a hundred new items in your newsfeed, you aren’t going to read all of that. Even if I was friends with the most interesting people in the universe, I wouldn’t read all of that. By opening our definition of and exaggerating the list of people we call “friend”, we are rendering the Facebook service useless to ourselves. What was meant to be a service to help us connect with friends when not together morphs into an irritating stream of crap we don’t care about.

The First Step is Acceptance

As I stated at the beginning of this essay, I’m prey to “friending” non-friends as well. Why do we do it? Why do we accept every friend request that comes our way, and why do we obsessively page through Facebook’s suggestions looking for new friends? Is it a status item, to proclaim how many friends you have on Facebook as if you deserve a medal? I think so. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t heard kids brag about the number of “friends” they have. OK. So an artificially-high number makes us feel better about ourselves.

My stepmother has nearly 1,400 “friends” on Facebook. No, really. Right now you’re thinking she’s super cool, right? I’m sure she knows all of those people. I’m sure she wants to know what every one of those 1,389 people had for dinner. I’m sure she’d be happy to have each of those people over for dinner tomorrow night. Just sure of it. Now that artificially-high number makes us question her3. But she’s so popular! She has lots of friends, she must be so friendly. I want to be just like her. That’s what we’re all thinking, right? No? Oh, then let’s keep reading.

“But I would never brag about that,” we say. “Other people, though, they do and if they see I only have sixty friends they’ll think less of us.” Fair point. Well, not really. Who gives a shit? If we prescribe to that, than we’re no better than the “other people”. Look, anyone lowly enough to troll Facebook seeking people with low “friend” counts to build themselves up does not deserve your attention. You’re a above that. You’re a “go-getter”, or some other inspirational shit. You’re outside climbing mountains while that guy’s inside checking his AOL account for Target coupons. You don’t need to be ashamed of your number, you should be proud. A low number is a symbol of a healthy human being, I swear to it.

If we’ve accepted that Facebook is for our actual, honest-to-god, “IRL” friends, we’ve accepted an enormous “friend” count doesn’t reflect anything good, and we’ve accepted that you don’t care what “they” think. What are we to do about it?

The Test

We’re going to purge.

Remember that “minimum” I was telling you about? The threshold of closeness for which we should feel toward someone in order to establish a connection on Facebook? While you’re certainly free to decide that for yourself, I’ve devised a simple (if difficult and lengthy to explain) test we can do quickly in our heads as we scroll through our “friends” list, trigger fingers poised over the “unfriend” button.

OK, let’s get started. You’re laying on the couch (do people really do that?), I’m sitting in the expensive leather chair. Don’t worry, this session won’t cost you too much. I’ll need you to picture yourself on a deserted island. Deserted, but you are not alone. Imagine you were en route to some exotic locale, perhaps on a top-secret mission for M, and your plane has gone down. Every one has survived (let’s not get too dark) but you are all very much alone and fear that rescue could take weeks. It was a standard airline flight, though, so the passengers and crew are a bunch of random people you’ve never met before4. Random, all except for one. You had no idea they were on the flight, but that one person is (stepping back to reality now) the person you’re considering for approval for or dismissal from your friends list.

Here’s the test: do you approach that person? Is he/she the first person you rush to help? There are a hundred and fifty people on that island, and you aren’t going to be bonding with all of them. Are you and that person going to help each other to survive? If the answer is to all of the above yes, that person stays on your list. If the answer is no, they’re gone.

The Locust Swarm

This test, I understand, sounds ridiculous. It’s an absurd situation that (hopefully) we’ll never find ourselves in. But it is useful, I think, and a pretty accurate way to determine if our potential candidate is worthy. The question is: is our relationship with the candidate close enough that we’d band together in a sea of strangers? With some, the decision is easy. Our best friends, our boy- or girlfriends: no-brainers. Our sisters, our brothers, our moms and dads: easy-peasy. There are no-brainers on both sides of the test, of course. I probably wouldn’t need to run my stepmother through the test if she ever sent me a request.

For the cases right in the middle, though, that’s where this test is useful. That guy from your chemistry class junior year, the one who sat in front of you for half the year and without fail asked you to borrow a pencil every single day? He probably won’t make the list. The girl who had to sit behind him for the other half of the year, the one you exchanged sympathies with at the lunch table? She probably makes it. The test is effective in weeding out people who irritate us, but isn’t so exclusive that amicable people we’ve acquainted with and enjoy the company of get cut.

As you descend your friends list, if you’re like I was the first time and you have a lot of “friends”, you’ll be cutting out a lot. The first couple are hard, but it gets easier. The people we’re cutting are people who won’t notice they’ve been defriended, and if they do notice, they won’t care. If we extrapolate, they’re really being done a favor. If they do not belong on our list, we don’t belong on theirs.

It’s worth mentioning this the test isn’t strictly for purging. We should use it whenever a new friend request comes in, and we should be sparring with your sending of requests. I, for instance, don’t send any. That’s pretentious of me, I realize, but I can live with it. As I said at the start, I have too many friends on Facebook. I’ve used the test before5 and I’ll do it again. I’ll be the first to admit it’s easy to let a few less-than-stellar candidates slip through the net, but it’s just as easy to boot them.

Keeping your internet life in order can be time-consuming, but keeping it in order is one less stressor that you’ll have to deal with. Find a strategy. Follow it. Rinse. Repeat.

  1. While Facebook did institute “following” as an alternative to “friending” awhile ago, you’d be forgiven for not knowing about it until now. ↩︎

  2. We’ll talk about defining that minimum is a bit later. ↩︎

  3. Don’t, really. ↩︎

  4. Some of them probably “friends” of my stepmother. ↩︎

  5. If you’d like to see the test in action, send me a Facebook request. Get denied. It’ll be fun and motivational. ↩︎

An Introduction to You

Michael Lopp:

You appear to be just a regular old disappointing human.

Yes, Healthful Fast Food Is Possible

Mark Bittman wrote a really smart piece for The New York Times on the rising trend of healthy fast food:

I’m not talking about token gestures, like McDonald’s fruit-and-yogurt parfait, whose calories are more than 50 percent sugar. And I don’t expect the prices to match those of Taco Bell or McDonald’s, where economies of scale and inexpensive ingredients make meals dirt cheap. What I’d like is a place that serves only good options, where you don’t have to resist the junk food to order well, and where the food is real — by which I mean dishes that generally contain few ingredients and are recognizable to everyone, not just food technologists. It’s a place where something like a black-bean burger piled with vegetables and baked sweet potato fries — and, hell, maybe even a vegan shake — is less than 10 bucks and 800 calories (and way fewer without the shake). If I could order and eat that in 15 minutes, I’d be happy, and I think a lot of others would be, too.

As a young, hip American, I’d love to be able to eat better. But good good-for-you food is expensive, and good bad-for-you food isn’t.

“If at first you don’t succeed, that’s one data point.”

— Randall Munroe