Too Many Books, and Not Enough

To-Read Stack, Dead-Tree Edition

I’m not sure when it started — probably sometime after my fifth move as an adult — but for years now I’ve been in the habit of reading a book and then donating it, rather than keeping it on my shelves.

Lately I’ve read it, then bought an ebook edition if it’s something I might want to read again.

So what’s on the bookshelves pictured above (sitting in their new home in my office) are all the books that I haven’t read yet, but want to. The few exceptions are reference books for work and signed copies.

As you can see, I’ve got some room to grow on the left (fiction), but the right (non-fiction) is full up. So I’ve, ahem, got some work to do over there, to make room.

Keeping Score: February 14, 2020

Happy Valentine’s Day!

I finally, finally, found some time to get some writing done this week. 1,500 words worth.

Very little of that was fiction — I wrote a flash fiction piece that came to me one morning — but still it felt good to get back into the groove of writing and editing.

It helps that my office at the new house is coming together. I’ve got all the boxes of books unpacked, and actually have a path to my desk (though no chair. note to self: find an office chair).

Now all I’ve gotta do is find where all my notes for the novel edits are.

And start exercising again. As soon as I’m not sore from spending every spare minute traipsing up and down stairs with boxes, empty or full.

Keeping Score: February 7, 2020

So the move was…rougher than I expected.

As you can see above, I sliced my head open while unloading stuff into our new garage. It’s better now, but at the time we thought I’d need stitches, because it just wouldn’t stop bleeding.

(And yes, I went to Urgent Care, but they couldn’t see me, because — and I’m not making this up — they were overwhelmed with patients coming in prior to the Super Bowl).

We had help moving, but even so it took us all weekend, plus Monday and Tuesday evening, to get everything out of the old place and into the new one. I swear I had no idea how much stuff was crammed into that townhouse.

And now we’re unpacking. Or, as I’ve come to think of it, the “Where the hell are my socks?” phase. Every day is a new hunt for things I used to be able to pinpoint without thinking about.

Oh, and I didn’t take any time off after the move. Which in hindsight was maybe a mistake? Given how much we’ve had to do every night, after work.

As a result of all that, I’m tired, I’m frazzled, and I only got 250 words written this week.

But there’s a weekend coming up, and while it’ll be full-on unpacking and organizing, all day each day, it’ll bring some sense of order to this place. Reduce my cognitive load enough to where I can get back to (writing) work.

I hope.

More on the iPad Pro

In fact, the iPad Pro hardware, engineering, and silicon teams are probably the most impressive units at Apple of recent years. The problem is, almost none of the usability or productivity issues with iPads are hardware issues.

Found Craig Mod’s essay about the iPad Pro from two years ago. It’s an excellent essay, and perfectly relevant today.

It reminded me why I bought an iPad Pro to begin with: The sheer possibilities inherent in such an ultra-portable, powerful device.

But he also hits on everything that makes the iPad so frustrating to actually use. The way it wants to keep everything sequestered and hidden, when to really get some work done on it I need to have access to everything, instantly, and sometimes all at once.

I can get that on a Mac. I can’t on an iPad.

Which is why I disagree with him that the iPad is good for writing. So much of my writing time is actually spent editing, not drafting, and editing is exactly the kind of thing — lots of context switching, needing to see multiple views of the same document at once — iPad’s are terrible at.

I sincerely hope that renaming the operating system “iPadOS” means Apple will start fixing some of these glaring problems with the iPad’s software. It’s just so tragic that the hardware is being held back from its full potential by the OS.

iPad Pro: 10 Years Later, and One Year In

Looking Back

The iPad’s 10 years old this month, and so there’s a lot of retrospectives going around.

Most of them express a disappointment with it, a sense that an opportunity has been missed.

And they’re right. From UI design flaws to bad pricing, the story of the iPad is one of exciting possibilities constantly frustrated.

For my part, I’ve owned three different iPads over the past few years. I’ve ended up returning or selling them all, and going back to the Mac.

My current iPad Pro is the one I’ve had the longest. It’s made it a full year as my primary computing device, for writing, reading, and gaming.

But here I am, back typing on my 2014 Mac Mini instead of writing this on the iPad.

So what’s making me switch back?

It’s All About the Text

For a machine that should be awesome to use as a writer — it’s super-portable, it’s always connected to the internet via cell service, it lets me actually touch the words on the screen — the iPad is very, very frustrating in practice.

Most of that is due to the sheer incompetence of the UI when it comes to manipulating text.

Want to move a paragraph around? Good luck:

  • You’ll need to tap the screen once, to activate “entering text” mode on whatever application you’re in.
  • Then you’ll need to double-tap, to indicate you want to select some text.
  • Then you’ll need to move two tiny targets around to select the text you want. Tap anywhere else than exactly on those targets, and you’ll leave select-text mode entirely, and have to start over.
  • If you should accidentally need to select text that’s slightly off-screen, more fool you: once your dragging finger hits the screen edge, it’ll start scrolling like crazy, selecting all the text you find. And getting back to the start means lifting your finger off the select area and scrolling, which will kick you out of select-text mode. You’ve got to start over now.
  • Even if all your desired text is on one screen, those tiny endpoints you’re moving can start to stutter and skip around at the end of a paragraph or section of text. You know, exactly where you’d probably want to place them.
  • If you should somehow succeed in getting just the text you want selected, you need to move it. Press on the text, but not too firmly, to watch it lift off the screen. Then drag it to where you need it. Try not to need to drag it off the edge of the screen, or you’ll get the same coked-out scrolling from before. And don’t bother looking for a prompt or anything to indicate where this text is going to end up. Apple expects you to use the Force, young padawan.

That’s right. A process that is click-drag-Cmd-c-Cmd-v on a Mac is a multi-step game of Operation that you’ll always lose on an iPad.

So I’ve gotten in the habit of writing first drafts on the iPad, and editing them on the Mac.

But that assumes iCloud is working.

iCloud: Still Crazy After All These Years

Most of the writing apps on the iPad have switched to using iCloud to sync preferences, folder structure, tags, and the documents themselves.

Makes sense, right? Use the syncing service underlying the OS.

Except it doesn’t always work.

I’ve had docs vanish. I’ve popped into my iPhone to type a few notes in an existing doc, then waited days for those same notes to show up in the document on my iPad.

iOS 13 made all this worse, by crippling background refresh. So instead of being able to look down and see how many Todos I have left to do, or Slack messages waiting for me, I have to open all these applications, one by one, to get them to refresh. It’s like the smartphone dark ages.

Since my calendars, email, etc aren’t getting refreshed correctly, my writing doesn’t either. I tell you, nothing makes me want to throw my iPad across the room more than knowing a freaking block of text is there in a doc because I can see it on my iPhone but it hasn’t shown up in the iPad yet. Because not only do I not have those words there to work with, but if I make the assumption that I can continue editing the thing before sync completes, I’m going to lose the other words entirely.

But there’s Dropbox, you say. Yes, Dropbox works. But Dropbox is slow, the interface is clunky, and their stance on privacy is…not great.

You Still Can’t Code On It

I’m a multi-class programmer/writer. I write words and code. I need a machine that does both.

The iPad has been deliberately crippled, though, so no matter how fast they make the chip inside, it’ll never be able to do the most basic task of computing: Allow the user to customize it.

You can’t write iOS software on an iPad. You can’t write a little python script and watch it execute. You can’t learn a new programming language on an iPad by writing code and seeing what it does to the machine.

You can’t even get a proper terminal on it.

You’re locked out of it, forever.

And that’s the ultimate tragedy of the iPad. Not that the UI was broken, or the original Apple pricing for its software was wrong.

It’s that its users aren’t allowed to take it to its full potential.

Because that’s what it needs. Users have to be able to fix the things that are broken, in whatever creative way they see fit, for a piece of technology to become revolutionary.

And they have to be able to do it right there, on the device, without having to invest thousands of dollars in a different machine that can run the bloated thing XCode has become.

It’s that barrier, that huge NO painted across the operating system, that ultimately frustrates me about the iPad. Because it doesn’t have to be there. It was designed and built deliberately, to keep us out.

Keeping Score: January 31, 2020

As I’d hoped, I was able to write some more over the weekend last week, and boost my total word count to 1,724.

So the fact that I’ve only got 1,121 words written so far this week is ok.

Especially now that I’m at the point where I’m mostly editing chapters again, instead of drafting new ones to fill in gaps. Easier to comb through a chapter for continuity errors than write the first draft containing said errors.

So I’m 13 chapters from being done! And 10 of those are already first drafts, so they just need editing passes to bring them in line with the rest of the book: a continuity pass, a blocking pass (to check that the setting, and the characters’ movements within it, is consistent), and a dialog pass (to make sure each character speaks like themselves).

Let’s say I’m able to finish 3 chapters a week. That might be ambitious given my schedule, but it means I could be basically done by March.

Done. As in, “let’s send this out to beta readers” done. As in, “you can work on something else now,” done.

That would feel…fantastic. I hope I can pull it off.

What about you? How far along are you in your current work? Can you see the light at the end, or are you still in the long dark of the tunnel? And how do you persuade yourself to keep going, when in that dark?

Goliath, by Matt Stoller

We don’t really talk about the dangers of monopoly in the United States anymore.

We praise it, if we’re VCs investing in start-ups.

We acknowledge a history of it, safely confined to a long-gone Gilded Age.

But we don’t discuss how much it dominates our current economy, or how much damage it does.

Which is strange, because fighting monopoly should be one thing the Right and the Left can agree on.

The Right should fight monopoly because it leads to giant corporations that centralize control of the economy. And centralized control — whether in the form of an unelected Politburo, or an unelected Board of Directors — should be one of the Right’s worst fears.

The Left should fight monopoly because it concentrates power in the hands of owners and financial gamblers at the expense of workers. When the company you’re trying to unionize against doesn’t have any competitors, and controls billions of dollars of assets, it can afford to wait out any strike, or hire enough scabs to stay in business. And it’s harder to organize across not just multiple states, but multiple countries, to ensure a strike even gets off the ground.

Notice I didn’t say anything about consumers. It turns out our obsession with consumer rights (and low prices) has crippled our ability to talk about the rights of producers, of the workers and small-businesspeople that should rightfully be the backbone of our economy. It’s left us defenseless against the new monopolies in our midst, that charge less not because of some “economy of scale” but because they have access to enough capital to underbid everyone else.

Think of Amazon, and how it spent decades without turning any kind of profit, all while its stock rose and rose. Would any normal business have been allowed to do that? Any sane business? No. Amazon was allowed to pursue its monopoly, and won it.

But I didn’t see any of this until after reading Matt Stoller’s book.

I felt some of it, sure. In the way Silicon Valley companies chased advertising dollars instead of solving real problems. In how Uber and Amazon set their prices artificially low, specifically to drive their competitors out of the market, and got praised for it.

And in the way I’ve come to look at running my own business as some kind of crazy dream, instead of the normal out-growth of a career spent in engineering.

Stoller’s given me a framework, and a history, to understand all of this. How we used to enforce anti-trust laws that would have stopped Facebook from buying out all of its competition, or Amazon from driving local bookstores out of business. How the financial markets used to exist to enable small businesses to get off the ground, not pour money into multinational behemoths that crushed them.

And how it all funnels money and power up the food chain, leading to today’s rampant inequality and distorted economy.

If you have any interest in economic justice, whether as a devoted capitalist or a socialist or just a plain liberal, I’d recommend reading Goliath. Stoller’s book restores the lost history of American anti-trust, placing us back in a historical context of the long fight between centralized control and distributed power.

It’s the one book I’ve read about recent events that’s given me hope.

Because we cut down the Goliaths once. We can do so again.

Keeping Score: January 24, 2020

Only 947 words written so far this week.

I’m not worried though; first because I’ve got the weekend coming, and I should be able to crank out another 600 words, either tonight or tomorrow.

But also because I’ve been working every day, even if that hasn’t produced any words. I’ve been outlining, and drawing up maps, and planning out blocking for scenes that need it.

So I’ve been making progress every day, at least. Keeping the story fresh in my mind, so when it is time to spin out the words, it’s not so intimidating.

What about you? Do you give yourself credit for all the work that happens around the writing, and if so, how?

Learning to Listen About Race

I was raised by racists.

Not cross-burners and Klan members, but racists all the same.

My mother sat my sister and I down when we were in middle-school, telling us not to date anyone outside our race. She posed it as a problem of us being “accepted as a couple,” but the message was clear.

My older cousins would crack one-liners about the noise a chainsaw makes when you start it up being “Run n—–, n—–, run.” They thought it was hilarious.

The joke books my parents bought me when I showed an interest in comedy never mentioned Latinos, only “Mexicans,” and only when they were the butt of the joke, sometimes being thrown from airplanes by virtuous (read “white”) Texans.

When I grew older, I rejected this casual racism, just as I rejected my family’s religion and their politics. I thought I was free of prejudice. I thought my generation would grow up and replace the older racists in charge. That it was only a matter of time before racism was over.

Then Barack Obama was elected President. My wife and I watched the returns come in together, excited to see it happen. A Democrat back in office. And a black man. We’d done it!

Only we hadn’t. My family’s racism went from casual to angry. Their party turned, too, going from dog-whistling Dixie to embracing white nationalists.

Taking a knee at a ball game became an act of utmost disrespect, because a black man did it. A Republican Governor’s plan for decreasing health care costs became “death panels,” because a black man embraced it.

It blindsided me, this vitriol. I wasn’t prepared for it, didn’t know how to handle it.

Of course, minorities had always known it was there. They’d been living it, their whole lives.

So I’ve been trying to listen more. Both in person, and by seeking out books that will teach me.

Here’s three I’ve read recently that have shaken me out of my complacency, and showed me some of the structure of American racism. A structure I hadn’t been able to see before, because it was never meant to hold me in.

Just millions of my fellow citizens.

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The book that first opened my eyes to the constraints and the artificiality of “white” and “black.” Powerfully, movingly written, it showed me how the American conception of race has been used to divide and oppress.

It also pushed me to question my own whiteness, and to look back to a time when I would not have been considered “white.” My family’s Irish and Blackfoot; for most of American history I would have been excluded from “white” society.

That doesn’t mean I have any special insight into what African-Americans have been through and continue to experience. Rather, it taught me that whiteness or blackness has nothing to do with skin color, and everything to do with power and hierarchy. It is, fundamentally, about perpetuating injustice.

The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander

I’ve written about this one before, and the effect it had on me.

Before reading it, I had no idea just how lucky I was to have gone through life without ending up in jail. That I didn’t, even though I was raised poor, is not a testament to my behavior, but an indicator of my acceptance as “white” by American society.

White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo

A hard book to read, but a necessary one. Breaks down the reasons why even well-meaning “white” people like me get defensive and lash out if their racism is called out.

It’s hard to write that sentence, to own the fact that though I consider all people to be equal, and don’t consiously hold any prejudice, there are things I will do and say that will hurt and offend people. And that while I cannot prevent the fact that I will make mistakes, I must be open to having those mistakes called out, and be willing to be better.

It’s the hardest lesson for me to learn. Because it’s one thing to have your eyes opened to the bad behavior of others. Another to realize that you’re part of the problem, and if you don’t become more aware, and less defensive, it’s not going to get better.