Amanuensis: Automating Kindle Highlights

One of the dangers of being a software developer is that I often get sidetracked from creative pursuits by writing (or rewriting) the underlying tools. For example, my old webcomic, for which I reinvented the wheel of displaying-images-and-captions-from-the-filesystem (twice, in two different web frameworks), is now awaiting yet another rewrite that will allow me to change its underlying hosting. Or my short-lived experiment with Inform7, in which I rapidly lost interest in the actual game I was writing in favor of learning to write custom Inform7 extensions. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

When I started reading books on Kindle, I discovered a heretofore-unknown passion for highlighting text and looking up words. I started a collection of interesting words to track and share my findings.

However, despite how easy it is to highlight passages in books, Kindle is essentially a walled garden that makes it very difficult to get those passages out again. They don’t provide an API, useful social media sharing, or even an especially usable website. Keeping up with my word blog was an excruciatingly manual process, involving copy-and-pasting from multiple places and then trying to remember to put everything into the same format each time. Highlighting passages was fun and easy, but processing them was tedious, and I soon had an enormous backlog. In other words, this process was absolutely begging to be optimized. Continue reading

2015: Year in Review

Hello, loyal readers! Hope things are going well for you and you’re finding warm and safe spaces in what can be a rather fraught time of year.

I sort of loathe the arbitrary calendar rollover Mandated Moment of Self-Reflection (falling, as it does, during the time of year I’m least inspired, when my resolutions tend to be on the level of “maybe I should go outside today” and “look, eat a real breakfast or at least take a multivitamin with that donut, okay?”).

Still, the days are getting longer, I have some time off work, and I do enjoy taking a moment to reap the fruits of my obsession with tracking everything humanly possible. So, as is traditional, here’s a longish roundup of various things I enjoyed (or didn’t) in 2015.


I read 80 books in 2015, continuing the trend of reading not only more, but better and newer books (how did I ever live without my Kindle?).

I can’t possibly pick a favorite from these: The Peripheral, The Bone Clocks, All the Light We Cannot See, The Summer We Got Free, In the Shadow of Blackbirds, Kindred. I recommend each and every one of those, they are amazing.

I continued working my way through Iain Banks’ oeuvre, moving on from his Culture novels to the semi-Culture novel Inversions and the non-Culture book Transition — both turned out to rank among my favorite of his stories.

I devoured Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind trilogy (well, the 2.5 parts that exist so far). I finally got around to The Handmaid’s Tale and The Left Hand of Darkness. I picked up a quite good Tim Powers short story on Kindle. Enjoyed Stories of Your Life and OthersBabel-17, and the strange and sad Maze.

In the YA world, I read the Divergent trilogy, China Miéville’s Un Lun Dun, and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book; all pretty good. I reread two childhood favorites: Dogsbody (still amazing) and Island of the Blue Dolphins (sadder than I remembered).

I read more nonfiction than usual, including that Marie Kondō book, Daring Greatly, Susan Cain’s Quiet, and Whipping Girl. Gretchen Rubin’s research on habits was pretty good. I found a couple books about process oddly compelling. I finally read some bell hooks. I fell slightly in love with Rebecca Solnit’s essays (Men Explain Things To Me is a good entry point, though personally I enjoyed The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness more).

I had mixed feelings about The Art of Asking, rolled my eyes a bit at The Martian, and was underwhelmed by Welcome to Night Vale. I slogged my way through Foucault’s Pendulum (good); also Wicked and The Princess Bride (not good). I found Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage mediocre; similarly, David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green was merely okay.

In negative reviews: I hate-read more Anne McCaffrey, utterly despised Altered Carbon, and was slightly traumatized by a Daniel Handler novel.

My reading list for 2016 includes Infinite Jest, Ancillary Justice, and Between the World and Me. Other recommendations?

Movies and TV

I watched 35 films in 2015. Favorites: Chappie, Inside Out, When Marnie Was There, The Prestige, and the Oscar-nominated shorts The Dam Keeper and Aya.

In Bad At Movies news, I finally saw The Godfather. I didn’t care at all for District 9. I haven’t yet seen the new Star Wars, though I expect I’ll end up seeing it eventually.

TV: I finally watched (and was mildly obsessed with) Twin Peaks. Dominic and I returned to the X-Files; we slogged our way through Season 8 and are halfway through the spin-off The Lone Gunmen (both are pretty dismal, albeit with moments of greatness). We also watched the first season of Sleepy Hollow, a show that I love probably more than it deserves. And we kept up with Doctor Who, which has, in defiance of my expectations, had a couple of stunningly good episodes this past season (Heaven Sent was just.. wow).

Dominic and I have watched 91 movies together. What’s a good candidate for #100?


Favorite game of the year: Journey. Absolutely 100% Journey. Unforgettable, inspiring, transformative.

The Majora’s Mask remake on the 3DS is fantastic; the changes made to the game are all for the better, and it remains one of the best games ever made. Link Between Worlds was pretty solid but nothing to write home about.

Eidolon is one I keep meaning to go back to. Just so enthralling and meditative.

After initially having a hard time getting into it, I’ve played hundreds of hours of Dragon Age: Inquisition (a full playthrough on two characters, and a complete set of PS trophies). I’ve now started on the DLC. On the whole, I think it’s a fantastic 30-hour game that is unfortunately bloated with cruft and grind. In many ways it seems designed to waste as much of the player’s time as possible, which is a pity considering that there’s so much to love about it.

I didn’t even bother with all the trophies for Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, a fun Ezio game but a pale shadow of its predecessors. I think I’m done with the AC franchise, as it’s becoming increasingly obvious that AC2 and Brotherhood were the apex of the series.

I Am Bread. I can’t think what to say about this but it’s weird and hard and hilarious and you should play it.

Phone games: Monument Valley is basically perfect. I played ねこあすめ for awhile, and enjoyed it, but I haven’t opened it in months and think I’m over it. I also finally uninstalled Ingress.

2016 playlist: so far, just Undertale. What else should be on it?


New: Taylor Swift. Continuing: Tegan and Sara, Owl City (but not his newer stuff), Foster the People, Mika. Rekindled: Tori Amos.


I did 39 hour-long yoga classes in 2015, an average of 0.75 classes per week. Considering I didn’t pay attention to how often I was doing it, I’m pleased with that, though I’d like to bring that average up to once per week in 2016.

I biked 817 miles or so, which works out to a couple of miles a day. Again, not amazing or anything, but pretty good considering it wasn’t really a focus in 2015.

I traveled to Boston, Portland, Las Vegas, Hawaii, Albuquerque, Chicago, Zurich, Park City, Chicago again, New Haven, and (briefly) NYC.

2015 accomplishments: Eloped! Lost a bunch of weight. Became team lead. Gave a talk at Loopconf.

2016 intentions: Weekly yoga. Learn to meditate. Make more things. (Maybe blog more? LOL probably not.)

Death will break her claws on some I keep

Being alive is a tenuous experience, even on the best of days. But every once in awhile, there are a few moments — a few shining, gorgeous, glowing moments — when everything is perfect. It happens like this:

One moment, everything is ordinary. You’re thinking about work, or what you need from the store, or something dumb you said the other day.

Then it happens. Maybe someone you love catches your eye, or a song you were just thinking about comes on the radio, or you crest a steep hill, or you see a seagull wheeling high up over the bay, or a dragonfly darts into your path and then just hangs there as if by magic.

Whatever small thing it is, it happens, and it tips you gently over some invisible edge. Time seems to slow, leaving you suspended, suddenly observing your own emotions. A second ago, you felt happy. Now happiness is something you exist within, and its borders expand to encompass all the world, all the way out to the sky and the stars.

All is well, and that is not a thought that you have, but a certainty that seems to permeate your body from within, until you feel it in your bones, in your breath, in your heartbeat, in your fingertips, in your skin. You’re suddenly sure that everything is alright; is, and was, and will be. You feel alive, awake to every detail, all your senses awash.

Everything, for once, is exactly as it should be. There is nothing to regret, nothing you would change — and right now, you have everything you desire. The past and future hold our failures and miseries, our losses, our missteps, the shadows that haunt us and the pain we fear. But all of that is a distant country now. All that is real, all that is certain, exists right now, in this one present tense stretching out to infinity.

This is what it’s all about. This is what you are, or perhaps why. This is what you get, and nothing is without a price. That is why you must breathe in these moments with your whole being, savor the taste of them on your tongue.

This is how it happens. These perfect moments, treasures that I hoard against the ones I know lie in wait for me, the dark moments when nothing is right.


…I had a very nice weekend, internet friends. I hope yours was excellent as well.

Yellow dust on a bumble
bee’s wing,
Gray lights in a woman’s
asking eyes,
Red ruins in the changing
sunset embers:
I take you and pile high
the memories.
Death will break her claws
on some I keep.

— Carl Sandburg

Small Playlists, Flow, and Distractions

Matt just posted some interesting speculation about his trick of listening to a single song on repeat to get work done. (This led me to dig up his “The Way I Work: Annotated“, which is a fun behind-the-scenes tour. Coming home at 2am and writing some code FTW!)

I’m not sure I buy the “mere exposure” explanation when you’re starting from already liking a song, though. Seems to me that would be more apt if you chose a song you disliked and found yourself enjoying it after the hundredth time. ;)

Personally, I tend to glom onto a few favorite songs (or sometimes one particularly cohesive album) and listen to them over and over for months. I have noticed that if I’m going to put music on while working, it has to be something I know very well, or it will be distracting. On the flip side of that coin, I am slow to discover new music, as I can only fully absorb something new if I can give it my full attention.

Unlike some, I don’t think there’s a strong correlation between my own productivity and music. I sometimes listen to music while working, sometimes prefer silence. I think it just depends on my mood and how much ambient noise there is to tune out.

I wonder if another part of the explanation is the way music becomes kind of a storage mechanism for emotional states — just as a song you listened to after a breakup can remind you of those sad feelings, maybe a song you’ve listened to often while in “flow” can more easily evoke the flow state in the future.

I do know that I seem to be worse at processing audio than most people; I also have a hard time with podcasts, and can’t listen to anyone talking on the radio while driving. In general, I’m quite susceptible to being distracted by environmental factors (whether it’s noise, people walking around, temperature, hunger, etc.). That’s why I generally prefer to work from home, where I have total control over my environment and very few interruptions.

I’ve always found it very interesting that quite a lot of people are the reverse — they find working from home distracting, and prefer coffeeshops or offices. It’s very tempting to call that an introvert/extravert distinction (i.e., the difference between finding lots of input stimulating or tiring)… though my favorite recent article on introversion says it might be more strongly correlated with neuroticism, or at least, that sensitivity is a different axis.

On Soylent

I got the chance to try some Soylent today — a friend who backed the Kickstarter found he couldn’t even finish a glass of it, so we wound up with a bag of the powder (minus the fish oil part, since Dominic is vegetarian).

I’ve been following my colleague Elizabeth’s thoughts on Soylent this week; previously I’d just written it off as yet another example of Silicon Valley Bizarro World, but she makes some good points — particularly that the renewed emphasis on eating freshly-prepared whole foods can be seen as regressive from a feminism standpoint. There was a pretty good NY Times story on the subject this week, too.

I can relate to this stuff. I am also lazy about food (not to mention a terrible cook), but I’ve tweaked and optimized things over the years to the point that I don’t feel like food is a serious problem for me.

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Ways Men In Tech Are Unintentionally Sexist

A friend of mine posted this on Twitter:

I really respect the amount of self-awareness it takes to ask that question! It’s easy to disavow the trolls sending rape and death threats, but it takes much more courage to acknowledge that you might be perpetuating harmful attitudes in less-obvious ways.

[Author’s Note: I felt like it was important to establish some context, but you can also skip the 101-level discussion and jump right to the list.]

This question hints at two important concepts: implicit biases and microaggressions.

We have all internalized harmful stereotypes about women — it’s part of growing up in a culture that inculcates gender roles from a very early age. Our culture has deeply-embedded patriarchal power structures (ditto racist and classist and ableist and transphobic and homophobic and so on…) that we all absorb and have to intentionally question and deprogram. We all, regardless of our background or our conscious beliefs, have implicit biases that affect the way we see the world.

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Measuring the Wastelands

I am a creature of the desert. I grew up in Albuquerque, a place which, among my high school cohort, we dubbed “the Wasteland” and “the Land of Entrapment”. All of us aspired to leave, as all suburban kids do, chafing at the limited nightlife, the incestuous social group, the hopeless dullness of a place grown overly familiar. We all aspired to leave, never realizing the extent to which, even in leaving, you’d take a piece of the wasteland with you. Like a tree growing in rocky ground, the environment you grow up in shapes you, leaves indelible marks.

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I’m That Cyclist

Nearly four years of bike commuting have had a strange effect on me: I’ve become one of Those Cyclists. I have a chip on my shoulder so big it could feed a family of four.

This is strangely out-of-character for me. I’m not typically, in my day-to-day life, an aggressive person. If anything I have a tendency to be too polite, too nice, too sensitive. I usually apologize when someone bumps into me at the grocery store, as if it was my fault for being in their way. I’ve always been, in other words, the quiet type.

Yet, these days I routinely yell at drivers from my bike. I occasionally even, though I am not proud of this, resort to what is colloquially known as “the finger”.

I’ve joked that it’s inevitable, if you commute by bike for any length of time, to develop a certain attitude. You come to hate and mistrust cars. You start to wistfully think about what the world would be like if we could eliminate the private automobile entirely. You find yourself totting up the pros and cons of, say, moving to Amsterdam.

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On Resurrections and Reconnections

I can no longer deny it: something is changing.

Over the last few years, I feel as if my life is becoming increasingly public. Where I once went by a pseudonym in hacker and BBS communities, I now attach my real name to open source contributions. Where I once shared my thoughts on a friends-only LiveJournal, I now tweet on a daily basis. Twitter has also replaced instant messaging in my life: my day-to-day watercooler conversation, but unlike IM or ICQ, public for anyone to see.

And there is a part of me that loves that I have more of an audience now, a part of me that thrives on that feeling of connection. I have made friends by opening myself up this way, found opportunities I would never have found before. I still have a strong sense of community online, even if more and more of that community seems to take place in the public sphere.

But with that dissemination, that expansion, has come a sense of attenuation. My online presence feels scattered, with each thought feeling compelled to fit into a particular niche. I track books I’ve read on Goodreads, review films on Letterboxd, post photos to Smugmug. I post quite a bit on Twitter, occasionally even delving into more serious thoughts, but there’s only so much you can do with 140 characters.

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