A few years ago, I started blacklisting web sites that I didn't think were healthy: gadget sites, some of the more strident political sites, game blogs that just churned crappy content all day long. If it didn't leave me better informed, or I felt like my traffic there was supporting bad content, or if the only reason I visited was for the rush of outrage, I tried to cut it out (or at least cut it down). All in all, I think it was a good decision. I felt better about myself, at least.
This week, I added Hacker News to the list of sites I don't visit. HN is the current hotspot for tech community news--kind of a modern-day Slashdot. Unfortunately (possibly by virtue of being run by venture capital firm Y Combinator), it's also equally targeted at A) terrible startup company brogrammers and B) libertarian bitcoin enthusiasts. Browsing the links submitted by the community there is kind of like eating at dive restaurants in a new city: you'll find some winners, but the price is a fair amount of food poisoning.
For a while, I've been running a Greasemonkey script that tries to filter out the worst of the listings (sample search terms: lisp, techcrunch, hustle). This is not as easy as it sounds, because HN is written using the cutting-edge technologies of 1995: a bunch of nested tables with inline styles, served via Lisp variant that causes constant timeouts on anything other than the front page. But even though I had a workable filter from a technical perspective, at some point, it's time to hang up the scripts and admit that the HN community is toxic. There's only so long you can not read the comments, especially on any thread involving sexism, racism, and other real problems that Silicon Valley would like to pretend don't exist.
For example, here's some of the things I've been trying to ignore:
The tech bubble isn't just financial: these are signs of a community that's isolated from difference — of gender, of opinion, and of class. The venture capital system even protects them from consequences: how much money will Twitter lose this year? The fog of arrested development that hangs over Hacker News is its own argument for increased diversity in the tech industry. And it affects more than just a few comment threads, unless you also think the best use of smart people's time is the development of a $130 smoke detector that talks to your iPad.
Leaving a well-known watering hole like this is a little scary — HN is how I've stayed current on a lot of new developments in the field. It's frustrating, feeling like good information is being held hostage by a bunch of creeps. But given a choice between reading an article a couple of days after everyone else or feeling like I constantly need a shower, I'm happy to work on my patience.
"You're a tinkerer," the IT guy says to me.
This is not entirely a compliment. I've just been describing how I had to hard-reset my phone yesterday, after a botched process involving root access, the application caches, and the Android marketplace. It was entirely my own fault, mind you, and completely predictable. Almost a week between purchase and the first reformat? For me, that is superhuman restraint.
The IT guy would probably appreciate this more if he didn't spend his workday cleaning up other people's computer messes, to the point where it's not terribly amusing any more. But he's not having to clean up mine, so instead he just tells me that I'm a tinkerer, in the same tone of voice that most people would say "oh, you're a chemical weapons engineer" or "oh, you have rabies." That's interesting, the tone says, maybe you could tell me more about it from a little further away.
I don't mind. I'm reminded of something Lance Mannion wrote about the his Uncle Merlin and the "tinker unit" a couple of years back:
Changing a light bulb, caulking a window, nailing down a loose floorboard on the deck, hanging a picture---these are all acts of puttering.He's talking about home repair and I'm talking a kind of generalized electronic interference, but they're the same thing. It's the "not necessarily necessary" part that links them. Tinkering is less about problems, more about projects and potential.
Tinkering is the self-directed, small but skillful, not necessarily necessary work of actual home repair and improvement. There's an experimental quality to tinkering, as well. When you sit down---or kneel down, squat down, or lie down and crawl under something---to tinker, you don't always know exactly what you're going to do. You're going to try something to see if it does the trick.
Tinkering includes the possibility of using a screwdriver, a wrench, or a pair of pliers, possibly even a voltage meter, and preferably all four. To putter, you might need a screwdriver, but usually you can get the job done with a hammer or a paintbrush.
If you go out to the garage to spray some WD-40 on the tracks of your squeaky garage door, you're puttering. If you install a new automatic garage door opener, you're tinkering.
Changing the oil on your car is a putter. Installing new belts and hoses, especially if the car doesn't really need new belts and hoses yet, is a tinker.
Pouring a new garage floor or rebuilding the car's engine are serious jobs that the words tinker and putter don't begin to describe.
I just changed the filter on our furnace. That was a putter.
But the furnace has been a bit balky the last couple of days and even refused to kick on last night until I went downstairs to tinker with it. I checked the filter, saw that I'd need to change it in the morning---Note: The label on the filter says 30 Day Filter and it means what it says---but for the moment all I could do was pluck dust off it and shake dirt out of it. I put new duct tape around the joints on the outtake pipes. Tripped the circuit breaker a few times. Heard a small, sad click and then an ominous and disheartening silence from the furnace. Went upstairs to re-read the troubleshooting guide in the manual. Heard the burners ignite at last, closed the manual, and went to bed, congratulating myself on a job well done.
That was tinkering.
Affinity for tinkering is one way to sort the population, I think. Some people get it, some people don't. Belle is one of the ones who doesn't. She has learned to dread those times when a home purchase suggestion is met with the response "oh, we could just make one of those." She also watches with amusement when I find a new project--such as, a couple of weeks ago, when I decided to make a case for my old phone, since the one I'd been using was falling apart. I wanted one of those magnetic cases, but the ones for Blackberries are too short, and the ones that aren't too short are so wide that the phone would slide back and forth and drive me batty.
No problem, I said, and I dragged her to the fabric store, where I bought some jean rivets. Then I found one of the too-short cases online for a couple of bucks (plus shipping and handling, still a deal!), snipped the leather clasp in two, and used the rivets and a part of the old case to extend it just far enough to close around the Nokia. It was my first time riveting something. I really enjoyed it, and said so. Belle rolled her eyes at me.
To some extent, I can understand where she's coming from, since I've been there myself. My family also tends to be hands-on, which makes me suspect that it may be an inherited (or at least acquired) trait, and it's certainly a lot less fun to be involved in someone else's tinkering. Which is not to say that it holds no rewards: my dad recently sold one of his kayaks, and the buyer specifically requested the one with the nose art.
My goal lately has not been to eliminate tinkering, but to make sure it's channeled in productive directions. For example, one of my regular projects has been upgrading the video drivers on my laptop--I'm always seduced by the thought of a few more frames per second, or a slightly-smoother game of Team Fortress 2. Invariably, this has become a mistake: while the early Lenovo drivers might have been a bit buggy, at this point they've pretty much caught up to the hacked releases, and all I get for my trouble is a long night of restoring backups and rebooting. Better just to leave it alone, or at least find less tedious things to disrupt.
The nice thing about digital tinkering, as opposed to the home infrastructure kind, is that there are ways nowadays to make sure that all you lose is time. That's part of the reason I love mobile platforms and virtual machines: in both cases, mess something up and all you've lost is less than an hour, most of which is just restoring from the default image. If only there were a way to say the same for our apartment, since then I wouldn't have a large packet of rivets, a Dremel tool, a box of half-disassembled guitar pedals, and several yards of unused vinyl lying around.
Or maybe I just need the right project for them. Any ideas?
Like a lot of people, I have a hard time leaving well enough alone when it comes to Internet argumentation. And the Internet being what it is, there's a lot of argument out there. Tech forums, political blogs, the extremists who got my e-mail address from Ars and decided to add me to their lunatic press release list... the available incendiary material is endless. And in some way's, that's a good thing: I believe strongly that the Internet's soup of ideas and opinion, debated rationally, can be a great place to learn and explore.
That said, it can also be stressful, and possibly hazardous. I find it way too easy to get into a cycle of comment/refresh/comment, fuming the entire time--and even when I think I've pulled myself away, there's a certain compulsion to check the laptop and keep the cycle going. Indeed, it's probably a good idea that few people read this: I've had the experience of hostile commenters here, and it wasn't worth the stress.
If you have this problem as well--and in my experience, most moderately-opinionated people can fall into this behavior online--it might be helpful to mandate a cooldown period. This weekend, when I found myself starting to obsess a little over a minor point of disagreement, I took a deep breath and then installed BlockSite in Firefox to keep myself away from the site getting me worked up. After a couple of days, I unblocked it--but by that point, I'd gotten some emotional distance. It's not artificial self control, merely assisted.
There are people who believe that the problem with the Web (and, to some extent, the problem with modern life in general) is that it's too fast, too much, and too easy. I don't really agree with that. The way I see it, if technology gives us tools for wreaking havoc in one way or another, it also gives us tools to keep the situation under control. Just because progress makes something possible, it doesn't make it inevitable. Indeed, while it's not always possible to take personal responsibility for the excesses of technology, but this is one of those cases. And since I enjoy the advantages that progress brings, I don't think a little augmented restraint on my part is too much to ask--particularly when it improves my own emotional health as well. Better to have that choice, and not use it, than never to have the choice at all.
I guarantee you, right at this moment, someone is trying to figure out how to display ads, or porn, or ads for porn, based on your current latitude, longitude, and browser history. "Location, location, location" is not just a cliched real-estate slogan anymore. It's the guiding principle behind a whole slew of web startups and new technologies: location-aware browsers, geotagged photos, RFIDs, and who knows how many budding social networks--and those are the least annoying ones. Expect the Beltway to be getting a lot of shipments from the makers of "Margaret Thatcher Gone Wild."
But those applications, like most Web 2.0 startups, are trying so hard to be groundbreaking that they're missing the point. It's not that there aren't legitimate commercial uses for that data, or that those uses won't be seen as essential one day. It's that there's a more intrinsic, human aspect to location awareness, and it has the potential to be culture-changing at a level that's a lot more profound than just virtual grafitti and inventory maintenance.
When Belle and I have travelled in the past, we've often planned our days carefully. And by "we," I mean Belle. It's not so much that she likes planning (although I suspect she does), but probably more that I'm really bad at it, and someone usually has to do it since we rely on public transportation at our destination. That means writing down at least a couple of transit routes, and carrying a lot of maps. It's stressful, especially if (for example) someone read a map wrong in Paris once by accident, resulting in a 30-block trek to a restaurant that the guidebook neglected to note was closed, and then that same person might have made a wrong turn in Chicago once with similar results, and now his girlfriend HAS to second-guess his map-reading skills constantly even though those were ISOLATED INCIDENTS, BELLE, GIVE IT A REST ALREADY.
For the second half of this trip to the Pacific Northwest, we did things a little differently. I've got a smartphone, and Belle's been using a Samsung Instinct, which has a GPS and a number of smartphone-ish features. We'd pick a few things to do each day, then figure out routes and detours dynamically via the data connection. The difference was night and day, and better by orders of magnitude.
As a side note, not to sound like a shill, but I cannot say enough good things about the Google Maps app on S60. It's not only fast and smart, which you'd expect from a search company, but the more recent versions have integrated public transit directions that worked flawlessly for us in Portland. Given the limitations of cellular triangulation-based location-finding, it still requires a little map-reading and common sense, but that's a small price to pay to never look at a bus map again.
Having location information instantly available did more than just make it easy to get from place to place. We stopped worrying about missing a stop on the bus--just keep Maps open and check to see when the blue circle gets close to the end of the purple line. It was still possible to get lost, but it didn't provoke feelings of helplessness anymore. Likewise, we could still spontaneously make little discoveries as we walked--Belle stopped me by chance at a local music shop that happened to sell the Z. Vex boutique effects pedals I've been coveting for years--but it was actually less stressful to just wander around because we could always at least find out where we were, relatively, if not exactly how to get back to where we started.
I suspect sometimes that the core engine of human psychology is a tiny, churning knot of doubt. Hidden deep under layers of rationalization and ego, there's something constantly in need of reassurance: "What's going on? What time is it? Where am I? Who are these people, and why are they staring at me like that? What happened to my pants?" As tool-using mammals, people instinctively gravitate to answers for those questions. The first step in soothing the internal doubt mechanism is to invent a device that answers its queries, like clocks and watches did for time. But the second step is to create a standard for those devices, allowing them to be universal, like the Greenwich Mean Time. Universality means familiarity means comfort. When everyone agrees on the time, it becomes possible to order our lives and interactions from a common reference point, which is not only convenient but also psychologically pleasing.
Yet cell phones were, as others have observed, a disruptive technology for timekeeping etiquette--not because they ruined our ability to plan, but because they decoupled it from the extensive scheduling burden. People no longer coordinate their schedules in such depth, but negotiate them around the less flexible portions of the day. When Belle and I met up with Corvus and Rachel at Powell's in Portland, we didn't bother to set a precise time or part of the bookstore to meet. We just agreed to call when we got there, coordinating on the fly. In general, plans are more vague, and yet everyone's still comfortable with that because the overall level of uncertainty is lower.
Location awareness, I think, has the potential to take that kind of ad-hoc social improvisation even further. Because if you can always figure out where you are, and the others in your group can do the same, meeting places become much more nebulous things. In that situation, any place that meets the necessary criteria for the task at hand--a place to talk, say, and maybe get coffee or other social lubricants--can be determined, shared, and navigated easily. The need for it to be familiar or known beforehand is eased, because when you're always plugged into your physical location every place is a little bit familiar.
One of the revelations I had at the World Bank was the realization, during our street-numbering education project, that not all cities have a systematic method of describing location by street. People in developed countries take for granted the ability to navigate using a series of concrete, standardized instructions instead of searching for landmarks and fumbling with relative distances. Perhaps it's possible that location services will alter the way we look at street mapping the same way that cell phones have blurred our mapping of time. Or maybe it won't. All I know is that it's gone right to the top of my packing list for my next trip.
So the DVD finally starts playing the actual movie after forty previews, mostly for terrible Disney flicks you will never watch, and then--hey, who is that actor? You've seen him somewhere before. Fire up IMDB, check out his CV, add a couple of his films to the Netflix queue--and while you're at it, check your e-mail, because it's been five or ten minutes, and maybe browse a blog or two. Who's on AIM? And is the movie actually over already?
This is how it starts. Nowadays, I actually have trouble sitting down to watch a movie without a laptop or something to do while it plays--a habit only exacerbated by my taste in forgettable horror flicks. Now, I know I live a pretty varied, busy life with lots of hobbies and interests that I bounce between, but should I really be multitasking that much?
At work, I'm actually worse. I have my monitor in portrait mode. Lotus Notes is maximized in the background, with B-SPAN videos played at the top inch or so of the screen. The rest of the screen plays host to cascaded applications: tw.net webmail, a random browser window or two (including Pandora when I'm not watching video), the B-SPAN admin applet, notepad.exe where I keep my to-do list for the day, at least one instance of Word, and my SSH session to milezero.org off to one side, where I can add a few sentences every half hour or so. I alt-tab like a madman.
A long time ago, I read this editorial by Rands and thought "he's talking about me." He calls it NADD, Nerd Attention Deficit Disorder--not a name I'm particularly fond of, but you have to admit it describes the situation pretty well. And he thinks it's a good thing.
I'm not so sure.
It took me a long time to build the kind of self-organization structure (remember that notepad window?) that I need to keep myself on target. I make a lot of lists--you've probably noticed. I can hold a good, interactive conversation nowadays--but I still have a tendency to begin ranting and jump from topic to topic, which I have realized is not only frustrating for others but is also more than a little rude. And my inability to pick only a single area of expertise landed me a Comm degree and the realization that nobody wants to hire a generalist anymore. I got very lucky when I transferred to my current position, since they are more than happy to exploit whatever random talents I manifest in addition to my writing skills.
Did I mention the boredom issues? Seriously, I've got boredom issues. Gotta be doing something all the time. Drove a couple of ex-girlfriends nuts.
I wonder, sometimes, if people had this kind of problem before the Internet existed--and if so, how they handled it. More importantly, is it going to spread? For those of us in developed countries that don't face the Grim Meathook Future, we are going to continue being surrounded by information. Advertisements are everywhere--and I hate to reference Spielberg, but it is only a matter of time before they start interacting a la Minority Report. The Internet is on everything. Appliances are getting smarter, and more networked. Wireless is becoming standard. Bruce Sterling probably hears this kind of thing and practically has puppies from excitement, but I'll be honest: it frightens me.
I see this as a trend in two directions. The first is the sound bite, which we all know and love. It simplifies complicated issues, eases the production of misleading information, blah blah blah--not a good thing. On the other hand, I wonder sometimes if the modern fundamentalist movement, at its core, is a symptom of people who are just not wired to handle a high-information environment. And as it gets worse, do they keep getting weirder?