Harlan Ellison:

There are times when I am terribly presumptuous, to visit my personal feelings on other people’s way of living a life. In truth, I’m very egalitarian in that way. I’m an elitist because I think there are too many stupid people in the world. But one must not pity them; one must take an AK-47 and kill them. You just need to kill as many stupid people as you can find. Go out in the streets and ask them if they have ever heard of Guy de Maupassant. No? Bam, you’re dead. Have you ever heard of Bessie Smith? No? Bam, you’re dead.

Readability and toread.cc bookmarklets

Here are two bookmarklets I use every day. (Bookmarklets, you ask? What are they? More here.) The beautiful thing about bookmarklets is they should work from within IE, Firefox, Safari, or any web browser that lets you put a bookmark in its Links bar.

Because I read lots of articles and blogs online, I click the Readability bookmarklet a lot. (In fact, it's the rightmost link on my Links bar in both my work and home browsers.) Lifehacker has a good mini-explanation with video of what it does, but essentially the Readability bookmarklet strips out all the page and font formatting and presents just the text, sans background, affiliate links, banner ads, etc. Select the settings you want on the Readability site, drag the bookmarklet to your Links bar, and away you go. As Lifehacker notes, it's not perfect, but it gets the formatting right for me about 98% of the time.

Yes, some web sites like NY Times or New Yorker have printer-friendly pages, but they're not always reader-friendly pages. With the Readability-formatted page in the browser, I can quickly read a narrower column of text on a gray background, which my eyes find more restful than glaring white.

I can also print the reformatted page, which looks great, or save it to PDF. I generally prefer the Readability version over any web site's printer-friendly version.

I also like using the Readability bookmarklet with my toread bookmarklet. The toread.cc site bills itself as an "email-based free bookmark service." Which is accurate but sounds klunky. Delicious, which I use heavily, is also a free bookmark service. (I don't use browser bookmarks anymore; it feels so '90s.) But Delicious doesn't let me search the contents of the pages I've saved, so I should make good notes or provide good tags that will enable me to find the link again later.

What I use toread.cc for is as a way to archive web-page receipts, web pages with information I may want to access again someday, or web pages I may want to read later. When I'm on a page that has text I want to keep, I click the toread bookmarklet, and the entire page is emailed to my Gmail account. (I specified my Gmail address when I signed up for the service.)

Because I use Gmail, I can now search the full text of these saved pages and generally find what I want pretty quickly--which is the chief advantage of using this method over Delicious. Using toread is a way to build up a personal web archive in a painless fashion.

I don't store everything I read online using toread and Gmail, only stuff that I think I'd like to hold on to "just in case" (which is the clutterer's curse). If I'm doing lots of web-based research on a topic, then I'll use Delicious to group a large number of sites under a single tag and harvest the sites later. More likely, if I read a poem from Poetry Daily or an essay I particularly like or a computer tip I want to have on hand, then I'll use toread.

When used with Readability, the toread service helps me to archive clean-looking pages that don't have billboard/classified-ad clutter that permeates web and blog design these days. (And my toread bookmarklet is on the leftmost side of my Links bar, so I don't accidentally click it when I really want to click the Readability bookmarklet.) (Do I like to complicate my life with these rules, or what?)

I don't trust that pictures or graphics are saved via toread; I think they're included as links in the email. If the original site goes down, then it would take the graphics or pictures with it. So I tend to focus on text-based material.

Incidentally, I sometimes find that when I go back to read pages I emailed to myself, I've sometimes lost interest in them and wondered why I thought I wanted to read them. These tend to be deep-dish think-pieces from Arts & Letters Daily. So, using toread provides cooling-off time between "Ooh! New thing! Must read! Must distract myself!" and "Hmpf. Why did I save that?"

Another reasonable objection to using toread could be, "Aren't you just junking up your Gmail?" Maybe. I have a filter that labels every email from toread.cc as "Later." So, yes, there are many to-be-read emails in the "Later" bin, but they can be filtered out of searches or I can search only within the "Later" bin; both options allow me to narrow my focus as needed.

I also feel that, geez, don't we already know how to delete, sort, or file emails? Could it be any easier? Try sorting and deleting Delicious bookmarks; it's better these days but not as easy as email. Email, for better or worse, is the world's most oft-used app (no matter the application nor whether it's web-based or computer-based) that, presumably, most people already know how to use. Why not push the stuff I want to read or do through my email application? It prevents me from having to learn a new application and, filing-wise, I now have one place to search for that needle in the haystack, instead of several different services (or the whole web, for that matter).

Note: I see that toread also offers a service called news.toread.cc, that uses data collected from the toread.cc service to show what people are bookmarking. It's rather like Delicious's home page showing what people are bookmarking. Just pointing this out if security is an issue.

I do know what the deal on the comic is: It’s $2.99 for 23 pages of story and art (the first issue is 23 pages, the others are 22), wonderfully painted by the talented and popular Jill Thompson (Scary Godmother, Magic Trixie, Sandman et al). Dogs and cats versus the supernatural. Come on, that sounds okay, doesn’t it? It’s at least half as good as a kid bitten by a spider who gets superpowers and can’t make money even though he invents all this great stuff and sews a costume all in one night. Don’t you think? Well, okay, maybe not, but it’s still okay in my book. And it’s only three bucks! Three lousy bucks. Cripes, you people, really, don’t tell me about the economy, I don’t want to hear that jive talk. Just take it out of your mom’s bag, or your dad’s wallet. Bring some beer bottles in for redemption. Roll the town drunk. Busk. Do something. Hell, my daughter has three bucks, and she’s only four. Don’t give me any excuses this September. Please. I beg of you.

Old-world skillz

Cassettes of varying tape quality and playing time
Image via Wikipedia

I do not know how Michael Leddy finds so many great items for his Orange Crate Art blog. I was struck by his link to this column by The Providence Journal's Mark Pantinkin on certain specialized life skills we (of a certain generation) accrued growing up that aren't needed in this day and age. There's a hint of grumpy old man in his tone, but not too much.

Some of the skills on Pantinkin's list overlaps with mine: the high-beam toggle on the floor, the rotary dial phone, threading the film in the camera, using coat hangars (and aluminum foil!) to improve TV reception, and dropping the phonograph needle on a turning record.

My own modest list would include:

  • Black and white darkroom skills, especially threading the film, in the dark, onto wire reels that I then dumped into the fixative. If the film touched itself along that spiral, the outcome was just ugly.
  • Using a pencil to re-wind slack cassette tape onto its spool.
  • Affixing labels to 3.5-inch floppy disks.
  • Creatively naming computer files within the 8.3 scheme.
  • Using a proportion wheel to size photos for a newspaper page -- and keeping your distance from the hot wax machine.
  • Inking and running my dad's offset printing presses, and then running the pages through the collator, folding machine, and stapler. I can still hear and feel the loud, mechanical rhythm and sounds of those machines.

But that said, some skills have not passed away from this ever-progressing world:

  • The Frugal Liz prefers her $20 Whirley-Pop over any microwave popcorn.
  • I still write letters and cards to my friends, and Simpsons stamps are preferred.
  • Banjo strings still go on by hand one peg at a time.
  • A safety pin keeps paired socks together in the wash.
  • The Sunday funnies, even in their sadly depleted state (the News & Observer only has 4 pages of strips run really small), still make fun birthday gift wrapping in a pinch.
  • We still have two-stroke lawnmower engines, shoelaces, eyeglass screws, and other physical artifacts of the daily world that will require specialized skills for a while yet.

I would add, though, a few new skills I've picked up:

  • Working with blog software
  • Using Snopes.com to sniff out urban myths forwarded to me by well-meaning people
  • Navigating Gmail using the keyboard shortcuts only
  • Seeing Netflix movies over my wi-fi connection (instant gratification -- though I do miss the Mom and Pop video stores)
  • And, alas, becoming better than I want to be at troubleshooting Windows and Macintosh computers

Like baby rats

stevereads: The Queen Victoria Series!

Jean Plaidy wasn’t the only pen-name she used, far from it: most famously she was also Victoria Holt and Philippa Carr, but if memory serves, there were many, many others. For decades, her novels (a great heaping mass of them historical novels) fell from her creative teats and hit the floor like baby rats – fully-formed, stripped bare for function, and avid for survival.

Momentum, Inertia

Rubber Band Ball

My loyal fanbase (Rani and Cassidy) have asked when I would start posting again, after a pause of some months. I stopped in April because the semester was getting pretty intense with a big paper for the research methods class, a workshop I was helping plan and execute, ongoing angst about the PhD, and, oh yes, the day job.

My especial hell week started May 4 and proceeded thusly:

  • Woke to find my MacBook's hard drive was dead.
  • To UNC to take the research methods final exam.
  • Tuesday: take the MacBook to the Apple Store. Thank you, Applecare warranty and Time Machine.
  • Wednesday: go to Chapel Hill traffic court to take care of a speeding ticket, or as a lawyer friend says, "fund-raising day." Fortunately, I had gotten excellent advice from people who'd gone through this before, so I was prepared with my driving history from DMV and sailed through, only $171 poorer and with no points on my license. Extra tip: although court starts at 10 am, get in line at 8 am. It's a lo-o-ong line.
  • Thursday: to Duke to have a small squamous cell skin cancer removed from just above the tip of my nose via Mohs surgery. The center of the face is tricky because there's no extra flesh to fold over the hole that's made, so the dr. basically carved up to the bridge of my nose, essentially creating a flap that he tugged and pulled to cover the hole, pushed some tissue from the bridge of the nose down toward the tip, and then sewed up the flap. It took all day, mainly waiting on test results, punctuated by these moments of high intensity with the doctor.
  • The dr.  advised me to take it easy for the next few days, don't bend over or increase pressure in the head, clean the wound, etc. My nose looked as if the Joker had carved an upside-down question mark, circling the tip and etching a jagged path around and up. My nose had also swelled to WC Fields proportions.  Fortunately, I didn't experience any black eyes (pretty common with surgery in the facial area), only a little bruising.
  • I took his advice to relax seriously and gratefully and spent the next three days in the house, in bed, walking slowly, sleeping a lot. I think I had accumulated a lot of tension from this semester. The good part about tension is, it provides energy to keep you in motion and keep all the balls in the air. The bad part is, when you stop, you STOP. My coach uses the analogy of a rubber band that needs to relax after being stretched. And this is what happened to me: those three days off turned into three weeks away from school-related obligations. I can't remember what I did, except go to work (without school to  deal with,  simply going to the office is like a vacation), come home, surf the web, spend time with Liz, and relax.

I had the sense to recognize I needed this rest, so I didn't interfere with it. I had taken an incomplete on an independent study because life was getting hairy for both me and Carolyn, and I promised to finish the lit review this summer. (More on that in a later post.) Part of me was feeling guilty for not working on it, but another part of me replied that I'd do better if I was rested. And in that weird way my brain has of punishing me, I made a rule that I couldn't do "fun stuff" on the blog till the lit review was done.

The lit review still isn't done, but it's underway. Inertia has yielded to momentum and I'm rewarding myself by writing some posts and clearing my inbox of blog ideas.

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“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to the violence of our times,” wrote the wise Trappist monk Thomas Merton in the 1960s, long before the web, or BlackBerrys, or the first use of the word “multitasking” as applied to human activity. “Frenzy destroys our inner capacity for peace.” Were he alive today, he presumably wouldn’t have a Twitter account.

Sleep, tossing of mind, attachment to objects, subtle desires and cravings, laziness, lack of Brahmacharya, gluttony are all obstacles in meditation. Reduce your wants. Cultivate dispassion. You will have progress in Yoga. Vairagya thins out the mind. Do not mix much. Do not talk much. Do not walk much. Do not eat much. Do not sleep much. Do not exert much. Never wrestle with the mind during meditation. Do not use any violent efforts at concentration. If evil thoughts enter your mind, do not use your will force in driving them. You will tax your will. You will lose your energy. You will fatigue yourself. The greater the efforts you make, the more the evil thoughts will return with redoubled force. Be indifferent. Become a witness of those thoughts. Substitute divine thoughts. They will pass away. Never miss a day in meditation. Regularity is of paramount importance. When the mind is tired, do not concentrate. Do not take heavy food at night.

In his speech, Sterling seemed to affect Nietzschean disdain for regular people. If the goal was to provoke, it worked. To a crowd that typically prefers onward-and-upward news about technology, Sterling’s was a sadistically successful rhetorical strategy.

“Poor folk love their cellphones!” had the ring of one of those haughty but unforgettable expressions of condescension, like the Middle Eastern gem “The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.” “Connectivity is poverty” was how a friend of mine summarized Sterling’s bold theme. Only the poor — defined broadly as those without better options — are obsessed with their connections. Anyone with a strong soul or a fat wallet turns his ringer off for good and cultivates private gardens that keep the hectic Web far away. The man of leisure, Sterling suggested, savors solitude, or intimacy with friends, presumably surrounded by books and film and paintings and wine and vinyl — original things that stay where they are and cannot be copied and corrupted and shot around the globe with a few clicks of a keyboard.

You know, in life, you have certain kinds of regrets. One kind of regret revolves around the opportunities you never had - what if I had had better schools, better teachers, better jobs, better finances. What if I had been treated fairly here, rewarded justly there, shown this in that place. Things I could never be, places I could never go. These are regrets over things I cannot control. But the other kind of regret - ah. The regret of a man who was not true to himself, who did not give his all, who held himself back or conformed for the sake of advancement, of the man who stopped seeking because he was told what to believe: these are the regrets I could not bear to feel.

Half an Hour

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Vaynerchuk tells anecdotes, but his main activities veer more into the uncool profession of teaching. In the above-linked interview he admits to being a “class clown,” and I have found in my twenty years of teaching that that one characteristic is a better predictor of who ends up a teacher in life than any other.

The class clown seems to be the opposite of the teacher– loud, disruptive, dismissive, and seeming to want to be anywhere else but class– but in reality, I’ve found, the clown feels completely at home in class, envies the teacher’s ability to hog all the attention, and secretly wants to be the one in front of the whiteboard with the dry erase marker, telling everyone what matters.

My future is assured

Vaynerchuk tells anecdotes, but his main activities veer more into the uncool profession of teaching. In the above-linked interview he admits to being a “class clown,” and I have found in my twenty years of teaching that that one characteristic is a better predictor of who ends up a teacher in life than any other. The class clown seems to be the opposite of the teacher– loud, disruptive, dismissive, and seeming to want to be anywhere else but class– but in reality, I’ve found, the clown feels completely at home in class, envies the teacher’s ability to hog all the attention, and secretly wants to be the one in front of the whiteboard with the dry erase marker, telling everyone what matters.

Breakfast with Pandora: Gary Vaynerchuk, storyteller?