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.

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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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