Email & Tool Choice

Like everyone, I get more email than I really want. Most of it is newsletters. I usually use Thunderbird for email. It incorporates most of my email into one interface. It uses IMAP to pull the information from the email providers’ servers, so I don’t have to use some janky, javascript laden website for email. It also has a calendar integrated in with it using WebDAV, which is nice.

But, when I start getting to around 50 emails in my Inbox, I start getting a little twitchy. It’s too much. I know most people have thousands of emails in their Inbox, I am not them. And, the way I keep from becoming them is my secret weapon, Mutt. For reasons I don’t quite understand, I’ll see an email in Thunderbird and think, “Oh, I might want to read that later.” When I see the same email in Mutt, I’ll want to delete or file it it – and almost everything else too.

The Convivial Society Newsletter in Mutt

As you can see from the above, the newsletter is still readable. But, it adds more work because HTML is not what Mutt is best at displaying. And while I think The Convivial Society is great and would like to read every issue, Mutt asks a simple question: if not now, when? Which means you become much more likely to delete it. It’s also much easier to delete email in Mutt, just hit the D button, and it deletes the email and takes you to the next one. It can take you less than a minute to delete 100 emails.

Reflecting on this fact makes me once again think about how the tools we use influence our behavior. If you are using web email or even a computer application like Thunderbird, their user interface invites you to procrastinate and the emails pile up. Mutt, with its focus on free text, cuts through that dynamic. I’ve also noticed something similar on WordPress, where there is a significant difference in the kinds of posts I write using the WordPress web interface versus the kind of post I’ll write when I’m using emacs and org2blog.

So, moral of the story, be careful about the tools you use, and there may be advantages of using a less feature-rich application than may be apparent at first blush.

Importing Excellence

“If you want to know what it is that your own country produces that is genuinely excellent, look for what the most obsessively discerning residents of London and Tokyo choose to import. Look for the choices of the otaku, the fanatic of pure information.”

—William Gibson in the introduction to Paul Smith, “You Can Find Inspiration in Everything.” London: Violette Editions, 2002.

Highlights of Kevin Kelly’s Unsolicited Advice

“* Being able to listen well is a superpower. While listening to someone you love keep asking them “Is there more?”, until there is no more…

* The more you are interested in others, the more interesting they find you. To be interesting, be interested…

* To make something good, just do it. To make something great, just re-do it, re-do it, re-do it. The secret to making fine things is in remaking them…

* To make mistakes is human. To own your mistakes is divine. Nothing elevates a person higher than quickly admitting and taking personal responsibility for the mistakes you make and then fixing them fairly. If you mess up, fess up. It’s astounding how powerful this ownership is…

* If you are not falling down occasionally, you are just coasting…

* Friends are better than money. Almost anything money can do, friends can do better. In so many ways a friend with a boat is better than owning a boat…

* Hatred is a curse that does not affect the hated. It only poisons the hater. Release a grudge as if it was a poison…

* For every dollar you spend purchasing something substantial, expect to pay a dollar in repairs, maintenance, or disposal by the end of its life…

* Anything real begins with the fiction of what could be. Imagination is therefore the most potent force in the universe, and a skill you can get better at. It’s the one skill in life that benefits from ignoring what everyone else knows…

* When crisis and disaster strike, don’t waste them. No problems, no progress…

* When you get an invitation to do something in the future, ask yourself: would you accept this if it was scheduled for tomorrow? Not too many promises will pass that immediacy filter…

* Rule of 7 in research. You can find out anything if you are willing to go seven levels. If the first source you ask doesn’t know, ask them who you should ask next, and so on down the line. If you are willing to go to the 7th source, you’ll almost always get your answer…

* How to apologize: Quickly, specifically, sincerely.

* When someone is nasty, rude, hateful, or mean with you, pretend they have a disease. That makes it easier to have empathy toward them which can soften the conflict…

* Buying tools: Start by buying the absolute cheapest tools you can find. Upgrade the ones you use a lot. If you wind up using some tool for a job, buy the very best you can afford…

* The universe is conspiring behind your back to make you a success. This will be much easier to do if you embrace this pronoia.”

-Kevin Kelly, “68 Bits of of Unsolicited Advice.The Technium. April 28, 2020.

Nintendo’s Philosophy: Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology

“…’withered’ technology usually means mature technology. It is
much easier for companies to create best-selling products by using mature technology as this kind of technologies are abundant, well-understood and cheap. Mature technologies are often studied extensively by people, and it is easy to experiment with or make further innovations. Even if the technology might be obsolete, it is applicable as long as used appropriately.”

—Weisi Han, “Nintendo’s Philosophy: Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology.” Medium.com. December 6, 2017.

Instantly recognized this as my philosophy as well. I mostly buy used items, from clothing to computers. It means I never pay retail, which lowers the cost of failure if you are trying to do something new.

It’s much easier to install a custom operating system on a phone or computer when you paid <$100 than when you paid >$1,000.

It also gets you in a frame of mind where you can think differently about technologies you want to learn. For example, I’m more interested in learning Common Lisp because it’s a mature technology in a way that Julia is not. Mature languages have libraries, standards and other elements that newer languages don’t.

In short, accepting limitations and using different tools than others can be a source of creativity and can change your focus.

The Plain Person’s Guide to Plain Text Social Sciences by Kieran Healy

The Plain Person’s Guide to Plain Text Social Science is written for graduate students in the social sciences, but useful for any writer. For people not doing sophisticated data analysis, the key suggestions are to use a text editor like Emacs for writing, Markdown for formatting, git—such as on GitLabs—for version control, and a translator program like Pandoc to translate your text file into a variety of formats, such as epub, pdf, doc and so forth. Additionally, he strongly recommends automated backing up of your data with a cloud service. He mentions two standards but if you go that route consider a privacy focused service like SpiderOak, or the free software alternative, NextCloud.

Details

The Plain Person’s Guide to Plain Text Social Science is worth reading for anyone involved with writing, research or data analysis. It introduces the problem of thinking about the tools that we use to do our work and serves as a technical primer for a particular style of writing.Kieran Healy starts with a dichotomy, c.f., Section 1.2. There are two computer revolutions. One revolution is trying to abstract out the technology and present people with an easy, touch interface to accomplish specific tasks. Using your phone to take a picture, send a text message, post to social media, play YouTube videos, etc. are all examples of this type of technology. It’s probably the dominant form of computing now.

The other revolution are the complex computing tools that are being developed that cannot be used via a touch interface. At this point, there is no way to use an open source neural net like Google’s TensorFlow in a way that is going to make sense to the vast majority of people.

As we move to using a keyboard, this tension can be seen in the different types of tools we can use to write, research and do analysis. Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Access, etc. were designed to be digital equivalents to their analog predecessors – the typewriter, the overhead projector, the double entry account book or the index file. Of course, the digital equivalents offered additional capabilities, but it was still tied to the model of the business office. The goal for these tools, even as they include PivotTables and other features, is to be relatively easy to learn and use for the average person in an office.

The other computing revolution is bringing tools to the fore that are not tied to these old models of the business office and is combining them in interesting new ways. But, these tools have a difficult learning curve. For example, embedding programming code that can be written into a text analysis to generate calculations when it is typeset is not a feature the average person working in a typical office needs. But, it clearly has some advantages in some contexts, such as for data analysts.

Complexity makes mistakes easier to make. So, it requires a different way of working. We have to be careful to document the calculations we use, track versions from multiple sources, be able to fold changes back into a master document without introducing errors, and so forth. The Office model of handing a “master document” back and forth and the process bottle-necked waiting for individuals making revisions isn’t going to work past a certain minimum baseline level of complexity that we are slowly evolving past.

So, laying out this case, he then suggests various tools to consider: a text browser such as Emacs, Markup for formatting, git for version control, Pandoc for translating text documents into other formats, backup systems, a backup cloud service, etc. All of these tools are equally important to complex writing of any sort, whether it be for writing long works of fiction, research analysis, collaborative writing, and other circumstances we are more likely to find ourselves in, which these more powerful tools help make possible.