How I slowly read the internet

Now that I’ve misled you with that headline, I should clarify that I slowly read select snippets of content from the internet. As my wife has told our kids, “You can’t watch the whole internet!” and neither could I read the whole internet (obviously).

The system

I am constantly finding stuff I want read on the internet. Much of it is from blog posts or news articles, some is reference material that I want to save, books I want to find more about before deciding whether to add them to my reading list, things I’d like to buy but cannot afford, quotes, poems, the list seems to be endless. Rather than deciding for certain whether I will actually read any of this stuff up front, I simply save it into Evernote, my default tool for consolidating all this junk into one place. I use a paid account (currently the Plus tier at US$44 per year) which allows me to save up to 1GB of new stuff per month which is sufficient for my needs. There is a free version but I always exceed the maximum amount you can save on that.

Evernote has a tool called the ‘web clipper’ which copies a web page and saves it to my list of notes. The way I typically use this is to save the ‘simplified article’ version which effectively grabs the text, some images (not always all of them, this can be annoying) but minimal formatting and usually it leaves comments and advertisements out. As part of this saved file the original web address is included, an essential factor in how I finally use these notes.

So I end up with a huge folder in Evernote which I call my ‘inbox’. This contains everything I’ve saved but not sorted into other folders (Evernote calls them notebooks). Aside from a few specific notebooks such as one I call my ‘wish list’ (for all those things I’d like but can’t afford) and ‘to watch’ (for videos I can’t legitimately watch on my work computer!) I just work directly from my inbox which is sorted so that the most recently modified items are at the top of the list. This sort order is key to how my process works.

The reading

When I have time to do some reading I simply begin with whatever is at the top of the pile of notes, if that’s not appealing at the moment I scroll down until I find something that is. Then my weirdness kicks in… As I read a paragraph and move onto the next one I plonk the cursor at the end of the stuff I have read and keep a finger on the delete key. Visually this looks slightly odd on the screen as the stuff I have read is slowly deleted and what I’ve not yet read gradually moves up the screen. It seems daft, but I find that by doing this it is much easier to visually keep my place in what I’m reading and the slowness of the delete action causes me to slow down my reading and actually read it rather than scanning as I do on a normal web page. It also functions as a bookmark because what I’ve already read is deleted so I just pickup at the top of the remaining text. If I need to go back to stuff earlier in the article I still have a link to the original article.

Self-ordering

Because this is how I always use Evernote, my huge pile of 4244 notes (at exactly now, it will change throughout the day) is always sorted with what I most recently was reading at the top of the list. In most cases, what I want to look at first is likely to be the stuff in the top of this pile of notes so it’s reasonably easy to find. Other times I decide to let serendipity play a role and randomly scroll towards the bottom of my list to see what I saved a few years ago that is still in there. This can be a good way to find topic fodder for blog posts because it is a trove of interesting stuff that I’ve seen before, chosen to keep, but not done anything specific with it yet.

This is also where sorting of my notes tends to happen – once something has sat in my notebook for a while I’m in a better place to see whether it is worth reading or is a topic that is no longer of interest so can be safely thrown out. I find that such decisions are better made at leisure some time after the initial “Oh, I should read that,” moment has passed. It is an easy thing to clip stuff as I encounter it and then worry about sorting it later. (You may notice that this all works on the principle of the self-ordering heap, as I’ve written about previously.)

Slow

An inherent ‘limitation’ of this system is that the rate at which I read my notes is much slower than if I used something like Instapaper or Pocket, both of which I have used and are excellent ‘read-later’ apps. With those apps the rate at which I read is much faster, but there is a corresponding decrease in how much I remember. My Evernote approach is slower and clunky in comparison but the inefficiencies of reading slower, seeing the same article several times sitting on the top of my list and being sorted by last modified means that a sort of visual map is built in my mind of the topics I’ve been digging into recently and this can enable connections about stuff that is not topically related by is temporally related simply due to when I happened to see it in my list of notes.

Personal blogging and online privacy

Continuing from my post yesterday about the IndieWeb, rel=me and anti-patterns, I’ve also been considering adding h-card information to my sidebar. Many blogs do this in effect by having an author photo and bio either in the sidebar or associated with each post. The h-card formats this into something that computers can interpret as well as humans.

My next question then becomes, “What information and how much detail should I put into such an h-card?” Which then brings up the issue of how safe is it to include personally identifying information on my website where anyone can see it?

The concern is that oversharing could leave me open to identity theft, which is an increasing problem worldwide. While this is an international problem, I am going to look at it from a New Zealand viewpoint.

Identity theft

The fear I have is that some personal information in the hands of criminals can enable identity theft. This is where someone uses another person’s personal information in order to access money or services under their name. My gut reaction to this idea is that you would be a mug to want to be me! I don’t exactly have a dream life or loads of money so it’s not worth the trouble. Apparently this is a common reaction and leads many people to have a false sense of security that makes it even easier to steal from them.

How common is identity theft?

As many as 133,000 New Zealanders may be victims of identity theft annually. (NZ Department of Internal Affairs). An interesting comment I found on the Equifax site is that:

identity fraud victims typically know the person who uses, or tries to use, their identity.

The cost of this crime to New Zealanders may be as much as NZ$200,000,000 every year. Globally many millions of people are affected, with billions of usernames and passwords stolen in 2016.

What is personal information?

What is considered to be personally identifying information varies, but a consensus would be:

  • Full name
  • Date of birth
  • Place of birth
  • Current address
  • Previous residential addresses
  • Phone number(s)
  • IRD number
  • Credit card information (card number, expiry date, verification code)
  • Banking login information such as PIN or security codes
  • Email address (and password)
  • Driver’s licence number
  • Passport number
  • Birth certificate
  • Current location
  • Place of employment or study
  • Interests, activities and connections (movies you watch, where you went for a run this morning and who you are friends with or work alongside).

It can be deceptively easy to leave snippets of valuable information all over the internet (and real world) which if collected together could enable someone to steal your identity. This digital footprint includes browsing history, device usage patterns, interests, perceived loyalty to a service, marriage status, preferences and income level (see this article by Netsafe). Most commonly such information is used to target advertising, but could also be used to manipulate people into divulging other, more valuable, information.

Are bloggers at more risk?

So far I’ve not found any indication that bloggers are at any more risk than other groups of people. In fact the high risk groups tend to be teenagers (who think nothing will happen to them) and older people (who can be more trusting). While bloggers may share more of their lives online, they do make conscious choices of what to share so may be less likely to accidentally share sensitive information than someone who doesn’t understand their social media privacy settings.

What I discovered in researching this post is that identity theft can affect anyone and often it is information that is inadvertently made public, stolen or leaked by hackers that enables criminals to steal an identity. There is a massive black marked on the dark web for this sort of information and even ‘kits’ which enable miscreants to lure people into divulging the information the scammers want (phishing). The best protections seem to be using long, unique passwords for every site or account, guarding email carefully and being suspicious of anything that tries to wheedle login details out of you.

Be careful out there.

Sources of reliable information

Avoiding anti-patterns

At its heart the IndieWeb is a bunch of people taking back ownership and control of their web content from companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Medium and Google. Some of these folks are programmers who are making the task a bit easier for the rest of us, to the point that it is now easier to adopt this approach than it was a few years ago.

I am not a coder, so my focus is on keeping control of my web content and making it accessible. Part of this task involves avoiding practises which work against the principles of owning my own data, making information visible to people in priority to machines, ensuring a good user experience, documenting what I am doing, and building a site which will last for the long term. The term used to describe the things which impede the IndieWeb is ‘anti-patterns‘.

Antipatterns

Antipatterns are antithetical to a diverse and growing indieweb, often times the opposite, or at best a distraction from indieweb principles and building-blocks, yet persistently repeated despite their tendency to waste time and cause failures. (IndieWeb Wiki – Antipatterns)

Databases

For any content you care about it, don’t put the primary copy in a database. Databases are all a pain to maintain, and more fragile than the file system.  (IndieWeb Wiki – Antipatterns)

As a generalisation I would agree with this, but databases exist because they make accessing information much easier than digging through a folder full of files. One of my longer term goals is to transition my site to being a static site using a platform such as Jekyll but the learning curve is fairly steep for that and my current goal is to establish a good writing habit so WordPress suits me as I know it well. What I am doing is exporting my WordPress content as Markdown files so they can easily be integrated into other systems if necessary, and these are still readable outside of the database.

Invisible metadata

Invisible metadata is the general antipattern of storing information that is user-relevant in places users won’t see (i.e. users aren’t expected to “View Source” on every page).   (IndieWeb Wiki – Antipatterns)

This is what started me thinking about these anti-patterns, I want to include rel=me tags for links to my Facebook, Twitter and micro.blog accounts as a way to verify that I’m the same person writing on all of them. What I was going to do is include these in the <head> section of each page but that violates the principle of making metadata visible to humans so I’m having to reconsider my approach to this. Overall I agree with making information visible to people, this also seems to be something Google takes into account with it’s search engine assessments of what a web page is about. For years the SEO world has been stuffing keywords into meta tags in attempts to game the search rankings when what really matters is the content that users can see and interact with.

Silos

A silo, or web content hosting silo, in the context of the IndieWeb, is a centralized web site typically owned by a for-profit corporation that stakes some claim to content contributed to it and restricts access in some way. (IndieWeb Wiki – Silo)

I am actively avoiding the use of silos such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. I do currently have some stuff located primarily in these sites but am in the process of manual transferring it to this blog. Most of what is in Twitter I don’t care about, I’m working on transferring my Facebook status updates now (this will take a while), and have recently decided to host my CV/resume on my own site in preference to LinkedIn due to the use of devious techniques by LinkedIn to gain access to email address books and generally be creepy. There are some things such as ‘likes’, retweets and reposts that I don’t value enough to clutter my own site with.

Distracting gifs

Prompted by this annoying little gem

I know that many people love to use animated gifs in blog posts and web articles, but I find them extremely distracting. The ones that bother me are those which keep looping endlessly while I’m attempting to read a web page. The movement grabs my attention away from what I’m trying to read and frankly the image cheapens what is otherwise a good article. Just my opinion, and I do have ways around it.

Am I actually going to read this?

The start of the year is a good time to ‘clear the decks’ and cleanup excess stuff cluttering my shelves, home, workspace and mind. I began by reducing my clippings of websites/articles stored in Evernote from 6500 notes down to 3800. I still have some work to do to prune it right down to only the essential reference material I need to keep.

Starting back at work today I was confronted with an overflowing tray of paper that needs sorting, junk on my computer desktop, and a very full downloads folder. A common theme of all this stuff I have accumulated is that at the time of saving it I had some intention of reading it. Unfortunately I don’t have time to read everything.

I love information, it fascinates me to learn new facts, ideas or tips on how to do something better. When I was a kid the primary source of information was from books. I lived in a small country town with a small public library and few shops selling books. In this setting it was achievable to have read all the books available that interested me, and I did just that. It was possible to know the limits of the information available in my small world.

Now it is not possible to know the limits of information available to me with an internet connection. Yet I still have an information scarcity mindset. This belief causes me to hold on to sources of information despite understanding that by the time I get around to reading it that information is likely to be outdated. This is a costly mistake.

The thousands of pdfs stored on my computer are not only taking up bytes, they take up mental space and each causes a mild stress by being unread.

An Information Flood

Information is no longer scarce, we are flooded by it. In a flood the problem in not getting enough water, the real problem is keeping excess water out. Added to having too much water is the issue of it being dirty. There is water pouring in all over the place but it is so contaminated with filth that it is unusable, even hazardous. This is the situation we are now in with information.

Social media channels are like sewers, plenty of content running through them but little of true use to us. If I jump into the Twitter or Facebook feed I’m carried along in the torrent but all it does is waste my time. News websites are not much better, actual news stories are so similar to click bait that it can be tricky differentiating the two.

Search engines such as Google or Bing are not reliable conduits of clean information. They are like using the same bucket for bailing out flood water and collecting drinking water, cross contamination is constantly occurring.

Filters

To avoid the negative effects of misinformation we need to filter our sources. A clean stream can easily be muddied so I have to consciously filter all incoming sources, picking out what is helpful and leaving behind the trash. I do seek out good curators but what is considered useful to that person may not be relevant to me.

The ability to efficiently filter information, both from the flood and also from reliable sources, requires training. Fortunately my work and education have trained me reasonably well. Perhaps this is going to be the primary benefit of having a degree, learning how to identify reliable sources and developing critical thinking skills to discern what is most true.

In our society the scientific method and peer-review are held to be the best information filters. Working at a university I have ready access to such information but even that can go stale and outdated if stored too long.

Storage

Books used to be a great way to store and retrieve information, in some cases they still are. These days so much new information is being generated and it changes so fast that storing information is hardly with the trouble. Assuming I have internet access, all I need is the information required to go about my daily life and work. Holding on to more than that comes at a cost and it will be quickly outdated so unless what I need is historical records there is no point keeping old stuff. The obvious exceptions are photographs and family records.

So back to my original problem, I am flooded with information, I don’t need more and don’t need to keep it all. If I need to know something I can easily look it up. The cost of keeping what I’m not actively using is higher than the small effort required to find anything I want to know.

Rest in the Sun

What most of us need these days is a chance to ‘dry out’, an opportunity to escape the flood and catch our breath. This is related to my goal of reading books rather than blogs this year. I want to stem the tide of incoming information and clear out all the stuff I’m not able to keep up with. This should enable my mind to quieten down, think more clearly and create.

More books and writing

Swapping blogs for books

In 2017 I did a lot of reading. Some of that was books, but a large amount was articles and blog posts on the internet. As a result of consuming an estimated 3,650 written articles from the web last year, I’ve come to the conclusion that my time could be better spent reading books instead.

Some of the reasons for this conclusion are:

  • Many blog posts end up repeating much the same information as others (especially anything about how to do something with WordPress).
  • Due to the shorter format of even a long web article, reading off the internet is wide but shallow. Good books enable a deeper exploration of a topic.
  • Most web articles are not particularly well researched (there are exceptions and I love those).
  • Reading from a computer screen in the evening is detrimental to good sleep, something that is becoming more important to me as I get older.
  • I have a massive list of books I want to read!

Therefore, in 2018 one of my goals is to devote my evening reading time to books rather than web articles. In theory this should result in a jump in the number of books I read, and maybe even see me knock off some heavy duty tomes which I keep putting off diving into despite knowing that I will gain much from digesting them.

More writing

A sort-of related goal for this year is that I want to do much more writing. Last year I spent a lot of time tinkering around with websites. I consider this to have been valuable learning experience and don’t regret the time invested but have realised that I’m unlikely to become a web developer and want to improve my writing skills in 2018 rather than continuing to focus on web development.

The obvious way to improve my writing is to write more, so expect to see much more published on this blog in 2018 than over the last few years. Not all of what I write will end up here (be glad for that), some will be junk, some will be purely practise and some won’t be stuff I want to publish on the internet.

I do see the potential hypocrisy in wanting to read less from blogs yet intending to publish more on my own blog. However, nobody is forcing you to read my blog and it hurts no-one for posts to sit here lonesome and unread. In the long run if my writing improves any lonely unread posts will have been worth the effort.

Limited edition

Do limits annoy you? Do you wish you had more money, time, brains or beauty? Consider that perhaps limits on our lives may serve a good purpose.

God sets the limits for all things. He sets limits for the sea so it does not encroach upon the land. He sets the times and seasons, He determines the orbits of stars and planets. He sets the length of life for all people and the times of rulers and kings.

God also limits each of us, setting the place where we will be born, the parents we will have, and the abilities we will inherit.

I seem to spend much of my life kicking against the limits within which my life has been placed. I’m not entirely sure what I am seeking to achieve, but often I push against the limited time available to me, burning through the quiet hours of my nights in the eerie glow of a computer display.  I hungrily read and consume from the fire-hose of information now available through the internet.

Oddly, my ‘problem’ is no longer the difficulty of locating information as it was a decade ago, now I have difficulty saying “enough”. I have information obesity (it is even a problem for academics).

Unfortunately most of what passes as ‘information’ is really just trivial. In fact, the best most popular blogs, websites, news outlets and social media sites are primarily experts in entertainment and how to hold a human being’s attention in such a way as to induce clicks, page views or divulging of credit card details.

This evening I read a book instead of opening the lid of the laptop. It felt good, undistracted, a cohesive argument to follow and well crafted words – quality workmanship. I need to read more books and browse the internet less. There is good reason for calling it ‘browsing’ or ‘surfing’ – both capture the skimming, superficial nature of how we interact with the web.

God created me with limits. I need to respect them and use the limited time I have wisely.

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. (Ephesians 5:15–17 ESV)


(A re-post from the archives)
Image: iStock

Fidgety prayers

fidgety-prayers

There was a time when I used to get up early each morning to spend time seeking God at the beginning of my day. That habit gradually faded as wife, children, work and the internet filled up my life.

These days it is generally easier for me to get time alone late in the evenings rather than in the mornings. Yet making constructive use of this time to seek God takes discipline to turn off the computer or TV, to put down my book and pick up the Bible. Just as it takes resolve and discipline to get out of bed early on a cold morning. My problem is not primarily one of having no time but lies in how I am choosing to use what time I’ve got.

I recall my bachelor days when I would get up and enjoy a cup of tea while reading the Bible and praying before getting ready for work. So in order to reactivate some dormant memory cells, last night I made a cup of tea and sat down to read and pray. My mind wandered, I fidgeted and walked around the room. But I was seeking God.

​Something which has encouraged me in my messy, inadequate pursuit of God is a quote I recently read from Henri Nouwen:

“WHY should I spend an hour in prayer when I do nothing during that time but think about people I am angry with, people who are angry with me, books I should read and books I should write, and thousands of other silly things that happen to grab my mind for a moment?

The answer is: because God is greater than my mind and my heart, and what is really happening in the house of prayer is not measurable in terms of human success and failure.

What I must do first of all is be faithful. If I believe that the first commandment is to love God with my whole heart, mind, and soul, then I should at least be able to spend one hour a day with nobody else but God. The question as to whether it is helpful, useful, practical, or fruitful is completely irrelevant, since the only reason to love is love itself. Everything else is secondary.

The remarkable thing, however, is that sitting in the presence of God for one hour each morning — day after day, week after week, month after month — in total confusion and with myriad distractions radically changes my life. God, who loves me so much that He sent His only son not to condemn me but to save me, does not leave me waiting in the dark too long.

I might think that each hour is useless, but after thirty or sixty or ninety such useless hours, I gradually realize that I was not as alone as I thought; a very small gentle voice has been speaking to me far beyond my noisy place.

So: Be confident and trust in the Lord.”

From The Road to Daybreak, by Henri Nouwen.​ (I read this here)

Is ice-cream good for you?

The primary purpose of reading the Bible, praying, or serving others is that I grow in maturity and Christ-likeness, as that happens I have joy in knowing God. Receiving immediate insight, joy or a sense of God’s presence while reading the Bible is a secondary blessing which may or may not occur any given time. I still need the nourishment for my soul regardless of how I feel.

Is ice-cream really good to eat when you are sick?

Yes!

Earlier this week I had a sudden attack of vomiting, which I suspect may have been food poisoning. Suffice to say, it was unpleasant!

After having my stomach completely empty itself, it was very sensitive to anything I attempted to put in there. Water and fruit seemed to be the preferred options, with a few dry crackers maybe. One thing that did help with the nausea was ice-cream.

After being completely empty for a couple of days, the amount of food my stomach would tolerate also decreased dramatically. All of this has caused me to consider my usual eating habits. I am quite stunned at how much of my diet is highly processed foods containing all sorts of added muck to keep it from going stale, to add flavour, to make it look nice, to make it feel good to eat, to inhibit bacteria and mould, &etc. It is so easy to fill my body up with junk and end up functioning in a substandard way as a result.

Then there is the issue of eating too much, and eating to make me feel better when hunger is not actually the problem…

But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:27 ESV)

My poor eating habits can basically be summed up as a lack of discipline. One of those distasteful words that connotes hard work and lack of enjoyment. Yet when what I had eaten contained something toxic to me (or bacteria that made a toxin), eating only pure, fresh foods is exactly what I most wanted.

This translates into other areas of life. One of my biggest distractions from God is the computer, especially the internet and reading blogs. There is a lot of good stuff to read and keep up with, but it is not the best stuff. When I put away the distractions and go directly to God and the Bible, it can seem bland compared to the newness and interactiveness of the internet. The Bible is still ‘just a book’ and praying can seem like talking to the ceiling.

I think the problem lies in my confusion over what good food for my body and good food for my soul should actually achieve: Contrary to advertising hype, food is not primarily to give ecstatic pleasure in the experience of eating it – it is supposed to provide nourishment for my body so that I can have joy in being the person I was designed to be. The enjoyment of food is a secondary benefit.

So also with food for my soul; reading the Bible, praying, serving others. The primary purpose of these is that I grow in maturity and Christ-likeness, as that happens I have joy in knowing God. Receiving immediate insight, joy or a sense of God’s presence while reading the Bible is a secondary blessing which may or may not occur any given time. I still need the nourishment for my soul regardless of how I feel.

… train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. (1 Timothy 4:7-8 ESV)

So, is ice-cream really good for you? What do you think?