the jsomers.net blog.

The best general advice on earth

These are excerpts (emphasis mine) from William James’s 1890 classic, Principles of Psychology, Chapter IV, “Habit”:

  1. The great thing, then, in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy. It is to fund and capitalize our acquisitions, and live at ease upon the interest of the fund.
  2. For this we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague. The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.
  3. Seize the very first possible opportunity to act on every resolution you make, and on every emotional prompting you may experience in the direction of the habits you aspire to gain. It is not in the moment of their forming, but in the moment of their producing motor effects, that resolves and aspirations communicate the new ‘set’ to the brain.
  4. No matter how full a reservoir of maxims one may possess, and no matter how good one’s sentiments may be, if one have not taken advantage of every concrete opportunity to act, one’s character may remain entirely unaffected for the better.
  5. As a final practical maxim, relative to these habits of the will, we may, then, offer something like this: Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day. That is, be systematically ascetic or heroic in little unnecessary points, do every day or two something for no other reason than that you would rather not do it, so that when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may find you not unnerved.

The Art of Underlining: Amazon Kindle’s “Popular Highlights”

When Seymour was twenty-one, a nearly full professor of English, and had already been teaching for two years, I asked him what, if anything, got him down about teaching. He said he didn't think that anything about it got him exactly down, but there was one thing, he thought, that frightened him: reading the pencilled notations in the margins of books in the college library. –J.D. Salinger, Seymour: An Introduction, 1959.

In college I borrowed a lot of library books and I wrote in every single one of them. My brother taught me young to "always read with a pen." I didn't quite understand what that meant until I found one of his old books from college on a shelf in our basement. It was filled with intense marginalia. He'd ask these combative questions ("On what grounds?" … "Yes, but why?." … "Isn't that the def'n of begging the question?"); he'd make up concrete examples where the author hadn't; on the inside covers he'd build a little personal index of short, full-sentence summaries, each labeled by a page number.

With that in my hands I realized how lazy I was and always had been. It was like old Paul Halmos yelling at me: "Don't just read it; fight it!"

Schopenhauer had this to say about the perils of reading: "It comes about that if anyone spends almost the whole day in reading, and by way of relaxation devotes the intervals to some thoughtless pastime, he gradually loses the capacity for thinking, just as the man who always rides forgets how to walk. This is the case with many learned persons; they have read themselves stupid." Schopenhauer reminds us of a simple fact: when we read, or at least when we read badly, read lazily, "another person thinks our thoughts for us."–Mark Edmundson, "Enough Already," The American Scholar.

By the time I got to college I thought I had sort of figured that out. I thought that I was pretty good at reading. And the surest display of my quiet, insecure egotism on the subject was the notes—in pencil, always, and ostentatiously neat—that I would leave in the margins of my library books.

Yes, I would think as I underlined some passage, this is the essence of the thing.

As satisfied as I was with my own nose for what was important, I was equally hard on my peers. I thought I saw in them a pattern. As I put it in a note to myself,

I have a hunch that young readers in school might be encouraged to underline the most abstract stuff, the most general stuff, the "upshot" sentences, instead of the examples those sentences are based on. Is it possible that they're taught to go after the wordsy stuff? And that they get so good at it that they affine for it and away from the concrete things, the things Feynman would care for?

That is, most students seemed to underline things that begged to be underlined. In nonfiction their pencils would anchor to the edges of paragraphs—to "topic sentences" or conclusory sentences—instead of middle-stuff (examples, anecdotes). In short stories they would inevitably underline the first and last sentences, the short one-sentence "money shot" paragraphs, and so on—the most epiphanic, purple prose.

At least that was my impression.

There is a feature on the Amazon Kindle called Popular Highlights. What it does is aggregate the digital underlinings of Kindle users. If enough of them underline the same thing, that passage is considered "popular" and gets highlighted. (What counts as popular depends on the book. In one book I have that was published just a few months ago, anything highlighted independently by three or more readers seems to qualify. In an older book the number is closer to forty.)

This e-pluribus-unum-ing of reading—this intelligent bubbling-up of disparate readerly attentions—lets us answer questions about the private discourse of literate minds that just ten years ago would have been discarded for being too dreamy.

What exactly do people find important in books? Are they good at gist-extraction in general? Do "dumb" books have "dumb" underlinings? Do readers underline what they disagree with? How often does something truly excellent not get picked up on by a quorum of readers? Does the rate of underlining degrade over the course of a book? Are short sentences more likely to be thought important than long ones? What about first versus middle sentences? A quotation versus bare prose? Simple versus fancy language? Do italics help a sentence's chances? How does the pattern of highlighting compare between nonfiction and nonfiction, or prose and poetry? How do writers highlight? Mathematicians?

These are examples of a new kind of question, one that we can now attack in earnest because people are doing things on line—on networked computers—that they used to do elsewhere.

Watching what people underline is a small example. What happens when you record someone write? Or when you record them talk?

If you think that searching a big index of web pages is cool, you haven't seen anything yet.

Introducing jimboPad

I was wildly excited when I saw Paul Graham demonstrate Etherpad’s “timeslider” feature. Etherpad was a text editor built for real-time collaboration, and to do its thing, it had to record every one of your keystrokes; the timeslider, a simple feature bolted on at pg’s request, let you play those keystrokes back. Which meant you could fast-forward, rewind, and slide freely through the unfolding history of your text.

I was so taken by the idea that I wrote a breathless essay for the Atlantic about it called “The Simple Software That Could—But Probably Won’t—Change the Face of Writing.” I imagined a future in which great writers would write in Etherpad and we, their admiring students, would pore over the breadcrumbs. What better way to teach the craft than to expose a writer’s every micro decision?

Since then I have written a lot of words, but not very many of them in Etherpad. The problem is that Etherpad’s chief task is real-time collaboration—seamlessly merging the changes of many simultaneous users. Its source code is therefore preoccupied with that task (and all its attendant complications). The features that I care about as a private writer are not only neglected, but—precisely because the code is burdened by bigger problems—hard to hack on. There is just too much other code in the way.

So I have found myself writing in a variety of different editors, each for a different reason: WriteRoom for its “distraction-free” UI; Textmate for swift Markdown compilation; Google Docs so that I can work from any computer; Etherpad for dynamic playback. And I have found myself dreaming up a happy union of all their best features.

Then recently, I built it: a web-based editor I’ve taken to calling jimboPad. What’s it got?

1. Playback a la Etherpad:

  • With compact storage. Where Etherpad would store the entire text at each moment in time, jimboPad only stores the differences between each revision. Etherpad’s “histories” quickly grow into the gigabytes; jimboPad, which leans heavily on Google’s diff-match-patch library, gives a thousand-fold compression.
  • With snappy, colorful playback. In jimboPad the changes introduced in each revision are highlighted, and the playback page “snaps” to those changes. Etherpad’s playback forces you to scroll all over the place to see what’s changing. In jimboPad that happens automatically. Hit “play,” sit back, and watch yourself write.
  • With intelligent search. In jimboPad you can “slice” the document’s history to only those revisions containing a given search term. That way, in a massive months-long project with maybe hundreds of thousands of changes, you can interrogate certain sections, in a highly focused way, that may have only flickered in and out of existence.

2. A beautiful, unobtrusive, full-screen UI, just like WriteRoom.

3. An ever-present word count. (And when I select a passage, it only counts those words.)

4. A print view great for pencil and paper editing, with a large right margin and space between each paragraph.

5. Automatic markdown rendering so that I can write in plain text and see it formatted&#8212with bold, italics, blockquotes, hyperlinks, bullets, etc.—for printing and playback.

6. The ability to save “important” revisions—a first draft sent to an editor, for instance, or a shortened version for publication—as Github gists, themselves easily accessible, printable, and diff-able using git.

7. The ability to work on the same document offline (on my own computer) and online (on any computer) without worrying about version conflicts, and without breaking the stream of micro-edits stored for playback.

The intangibles

Version control is an enormous boon for programmers. Git’s cheap branches and easy merges underwrite an ability to experiment with code, to feel out the shape of a problem with small sorties, unencumbered by the fear of losing code that works. At every moment you have “a sense of where you are.” Computer code is awfully complex (Dijkstra wrote that the programmer “has to be able to think in terms of conceptual hierarchies that are much deeper than a single mind ever needed to face before”) and yet with git your current working context can always be understood—is in fact treated as—a patch on top of a snapshot. The whole difficult business of programming is reduced to a diff. You’re never very far from the ground.

How to get the same feeling in prose? On the one hand it seems that natural language is too finely grained: the smallest sliver of a change, even the sort of change that looks to be just “style,” can drastically affect what a reader thinks while she reads. Reader’s brains are fragile that way—there is no fixed “point” that a sentence makes, no cognitive gestalt that can be held constant while you tinker, say, with cadence. Cadence is part of the point; everything in a sentence is part of the point.

This is why if you were to unfold a writer’s keystream, and play it back, every paragraph would look like a busy construction site, a chaos of small maneuvers. If you were to watch the composition of this very sentence, in fact, you’d see what must look like the visual equivalent of a stammer. My progress is halting—I write a small half-clause and then throw it away. I change key words constantly. I jump up a few sentences, maybe to the top of the paragraph, re-read it, and make changes there. There is a sense of forward motion but it’s always uncertain.

This is why if you were to do “version control” for writing, you would have to record everything. You would have to make it trivial for the writer to “branch” off from some articulation, fail, and fall back to what they had before. Their every half-overture would have to be saved—because every half-overture, like every “commit,” might have words they would want to get back to.

I saw this recently with a long article I wrote, much of it (gratefully) in Etherpad. I’d be working on a sentence, try something out, delete it, try something else out, shuffle things around, and see, suddenly, that the old way was just right in the new context. Such “firefly” sentences would be lost by most word processors; I’d have to recall them from memory. But in Etherpad I could just slide back a few minutes and find what I’d tried.

The same thing would also happen at a higher level. I would spend a brutally long time working out a whole section, and then I’d throw that section away. Later on—sometimes months later—I’d want some part of it back; it fit perfectly in a new context. Would I have to rewrite it? Would I have to have saved, alongside fourteen others, a version of my article called article-3-with-wright-brothers-section-2012-04-05-(good)? If I had been using jimboPad all I would have to do is search for a few key phrases—and instantly I’d be able to slide through the whole history of that section.

This is the chief benefit of jimboPad’s recording and playback. Aside from vividly making the point that flowful words don’t just spill out of a person—that they’re not supposed to—these tiny continuous snapshots do for me as a writer what git does for me as a programmer. They let me work with abandon.

Add to that the nifty side effect that I never have to worry about losing my work—because jimboPad saves it locally every two seconds, remotely every twenty, and somewhere else remotely at my discretion. And the fact that I can float seamlessly from my local computer to a friend’s, from work to home, without worrying about conflicts. And the fact that jimboPad in a full-screen browser window is remarkably difficult to escape, so that would-be distractions—impulsive alt-tabs—are cauterized before they hurt me. And, finally, the fact that in jimboPad I am encouraged to print and edit with a pen and paper—to change gears, as it were, and be jostled by a real full draft.

Show, don’t tell

Why should the micromechanics of writing be entirely private? Why do we expect students to learn how to write if we’ve never, not once, shown them a piece of writing grow out of a blank page?

What if it were a regular habit to write with a record, and to attach to your final draft a trace of how you got there?

jimboPad is a very simple piece of software. It is written almost entirely in Javascript, and the source lives in a folder that can be run immediately on even the wimpiest shared server. For storage it uses Google Chrome’s built-in file system, HTML5 localStorage, and, optionally, an arbitrary HTTP endpoint equipped with CORS for cross-site AJAX POST requests.

If you want to see it in action, you can click here to view the playback for this very blog post. If you want to use it yourself, let me know.

The shape of a listener

You could not say a word and still be thought a great conversationalist, so long as your interlocutor ends up doing the kind of talking they like to do. That’s what it means to be good at conversation. It’s not about saying interesting things or absorbing what someone else says. It’s about extruding the right kind of talk.

The picture I have in mind is of a pasta maker. I imagine someone turning a little hand crank, working a glob of dough into clean hollow tubes of macaroni or waves of lasagna. That’s what conversation is like. Conversation is like making pasta the old-fashioned way, except that in conversation what you’re working into form is someone else’s ideas.

At the heart of the process, you, the listener, are just like a pasta machine—a machine so obnoxiously simple that you hesitate to call it one. Because all it is is a shape.

* * *

As a talker I have all kinds of configurable settings. Entering a conversation, there are many knobs I can turn:

Will I talk intensely, blood flushing my face, or calmly and casually?
Will I try to sound colloquial, professional, intelligent, ignorant?
Will I reference continental philosophers by name? Golfers? Poets?
Will I lean on analogies from math or physics, and microbiology?
Will I look for opportunities to deploy a sesquipedalian word?
Will I work the other guy in like my thoughts depend on his?
Will I let myself ooze with emotion, and romantical angst?
Will I consciously experiment with tones and inflection?
Will I be trying to find out what I genuinely believe?
Will I ask questions -- real and/or rhetorical ones?
Will I wait for that name on the tip of my tongue?
Will I be tendentious and polemical, out to win?
Will I use a long silence to plan what to say?
Will I speak delicate or with high abandon?
Will I be afraid to use the word "blog"?
Will I deploy pop culture references?
Will I be jokey? Punny? Sarcastic?
Will I play high status, or low?
Will I take it to a meta level?
Will I get fiercely political?
Will I play devil’s advocate?
Will I crank up my charisma?
Will I indulge digressions?
Will I talk fast or slow?
Will I try small talk?
Will I spin yarns?
Will I brood?
How much?
Etc.

I shine—I come into my own—under certain configurations of these knobs, and shrivel under others. For instance I enjoy riffs of sarcastic banter and quoting movies, but I tire quickly of pun-upmanship. I like to explain. I lean heavily on a stock of nerdy analogies and feel crippled when I can’t use them. I don’t know how to keep small talk going. I range from being very charismatic to having something like a stammer. I like it when the gossip knob is turned up high. I can’t riff about football or how many gigabytes a phone has. I prefer my talk to be salted with curse words. I don’t like talk that sounds like it’s coming out of an English classroom. I rarely argue. I don’t do well when I’m trying to impress.

Different speakers draw different kinds of talk out of me. Michael, fluent in most of my intellectual interests, is great for helping me feel out ideas. Rob gets me spilling insecurities. I have a friend, Carey, who leaves me thinking I’m inarticulate and wrong. With Nikhil I talk slow and philosophical. I get Seinfeldian with Matt. I spout bullshit with Sanders. There is a guy at work who encourages me to improv. An old roommate, Andy, always had me explaining things I didn’t understand well enough to explain. Drew gets my polemical side going. I’m made to feel young when I talk to my older brothers, and wise when I talk to my older friends. I’m at my most charming in the company of my good friends’ girlfriends.

Which is all to say that I configure myself in light of who I’m talking to—so much so that you could say they configure me.

* * *

Some talkers are no doubt more configurable than others, in the sense that they change themselves, chameleon-like, depending on whoever they’re talking to, while others are “just themselves” no matter what. But I’d bet most people are more pliable than they’d say. How easy it is to tell when a friend of yours picks up their phone that they’re talking to their girlfriend? Their employer? A mutual friend? Their parents?

What’s happening, I think, is some combination of “mirroring”—that phenomenon where I’ll unconsciously mimic your posture, tone, level of intimacy, style of humor, and so on—and this thing where before each of my remarks I’ll think about you and what I know about you and what I think I can say and then I’ll triage your likely responses, and my responses to your responses, and so on, and make my conversational moves in light of this projected snap-analysis of where I think our talk might take us.

It sounds effortful and conscious but of course it’s not. Having a sense of where you are in a conversation, of what’s apt and in play, is the bedrock social skill. It happens automatically. To be socially well-adjusted is to adjust well, to be highly responsive to the microdynamics of talk.

Of course this only underlines the leverage that you have as a listener. That is, it invites you to invert the picture, to consider what kinds of rejiggerings you cause others to make. What sort of conversational selves do you have a way of drawing out?

* * *

Like everybody else, I have an incalculable store of memories: remembered episodes, snatches of speech, images, trains of thought, and so on. The problem is, I can’t just enumerate this stuff. I need cues to call it up. That’s how my mind works: it all just sits there dead until I do something or see something or hear something or smell something—and then little memorical fragments effortlessly spring to life.

“Conversations take random walks through events and ideas in a manner determined by the associative networks of the participants,” writes the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter. Conversations are “stimulating” in the concrete sense of arousing inert patches of thought. It’s by the random walks of conversation that I am made to access neglected memories: whole books I had forgotten I’d read, whole ways of thinking and talking, articles, relationships, moments, jokes, flavors, phrases, feelings, ambitions, tunes, stories, fears, ideas—all of which are stored so that they can be called into action in just the right context, and which otherwise might as well not exist.

And the point is this: different people activate different parts of that complex. What I get to be, the parts of me I get to see—it depends so much on the shape of a listener.

The paradox of writerly rereading

Writing on a sentence level has this feeling, for me, of “flights and perchings,” where for a minute I’m tackling the sentence itself–the cursor is tracing out letters–and for a minute I rest. What do I do in those perchings? Well, I put my head in my hands sometimes, or I look into the distance, or, more often than not, I re-read what I’ve just written: the local context of the part I’m working on, going back maybe a few paragraphs. This last option is partly just a tic, something to do when I’m thinking hard about where to go next; and partly it’s a conscious attempt to make every sentence feel like it’s growing out of the last sentence, the idea being that to write sentence n in a flow-y way you need sentences (n – 3), (n – 2), (n – 1) in your local mental workspace.

But there is a dangerous side effect to all of that re-reading: After a while, if you do it enough, the life will drain out of your sentences. It’s not exactly like that phenomenon where you repeat a word over and over again until it looks weird–but surely it’s related. By the time you’ve finished a draft you’ve read the same sentences so many, so many times, that the experience is nothing at all like what a fresh reader would feel on a fresh reading.

You have to remember that you’re not reading those sentences at the pace of a fresh reader, or in anything like a fresh reader’s state of mind. It’s entirely different, to read sentences when you know what they’re going to say. In fact you’re not actually “reading” when you re-read one of your drafts. You’re swallowing thoughts whole, one sentence at a time. By the time you get to a sentence you know exactly where it’s going; the cluster of thoughts it represents come instantly to mind.

Where in the fresh reader a sentence constructs mental structures, in you, it merely refers to them. And the more you re-read your own sentences, the more that activity slides from construction to referring. Each sentence becomes “that sentence.” The referents calcify and fade; the re-reading becomes shallower and shallower.

(Another way of describing the effect is to say that each time you re-read your draft, the distance between what you think going in and what you think coming out gets shorter and shorter. The needle moves less and less. And of course this is because you develop an ever more stable picture of what your sentences stand for.)

This is probably why writers need editors, or early readers, and why it’s hard to spot your own typos.

I’ve been working on a long article for the last month, and this phenomenon bit me in a big way. By the time I handed it in to my editor I had no idea what it was doing. In 7,500 words it felt like I wasn’t saying anything. The sentences didn’t feel fresh to me, or full, and that’s because they’d been reduced to shallow pointers, and it’s hard, short of not looking at the thing for a week or two, to undo all the work that made such a tight mapping between sentences and swallowable-whole mental structures.

(I wonder if something similar happens to an actor delivering the same monologue over and over again. Much of the challenge of that art must be in continuing to actually read the words, read them full, the way you do the first time.)

Do you see the paradox here? In order to write well you must attend to your words; you’ve got to attack them with insane scrutiny. But as you do, you blunt your own perception. The words deaden over time–precisely because you’ve paid them such close attention.

A less bunko-cognitive-science way of putting all this is that you never really read your own stuff the way you read other people’s stuff. Or at least you need to wait awhile before you do. So it seems to me to be very difficult to take Seymour Glass’s advice to his brother Buddy:

If only you’d remember before ever you sit down to write that you’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart’s choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself.

Sadly that might not be possible, if only because all writing is not just rewriting, but rereading–and rereading is slow poison.