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.

Some reasons why I have my own website

Digging through my massive archive of Evernote clippings I came across one from a guy named Brett Slatkin in which he outlines some reasons why he chooses to have his own website. The reason I kept the note is to remind me to consider this question for myself and to write my thoughts on the topic.

In the past my typical response to this sort of topic has been to begin a draft with the intention of writing a comprehensive post drawing together all my thinking on the subject. I’m increasingly aware that it is much more constructive for me to throw together my thoughts at the time when I’m motivated by the topic and publish it, whether I feel it is complete or not. I can always circle back around at some later time to add more ideas or update my thinking in the light of experience.

So, I’m going to steal Brett’s major headings and start from there:

A home base

This blog is where I write first. I have tried various social media channels and failed at most of them. My blog is personal to me, it is where I automatically think to put anything I write, and I’m trying to make it the hub of whatever else I do online.

Self expression

Initially (back in 2010), I found it difficult to come out of my shell and ‘be myself’ in what and how I wrote on my blog. Gradually this has changed and although I do maintain boundaries as to what I share, nowadays what you read is generally likely to be what is on my heart at the time of publication. I’m also aiming to expand the ways in which I use my blog as a form of self-expression, varying the styles of my writing, including a range of posts from short status updates or random thoughts through to much longer articles. Don’t hold your breath Chris, but maybe even some poetry!

Something I’m interested to try is photography. I’m not a good photographer, but it is a good way to catch some things that can be difficult to put into words. In the past I used a lot of stock photos but have grown away from liking those as I’ve moved more into personal blogging rather than writing about faith as I used to. Instead I’d like to use more of my own photos to illustrate my life rather than just talking (well, writing) about it.

Internet citizenship

This heading would not have made it into my top three if I hadn’t stolen it! However, it is actually an important issue. As sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn have created their own ‘silos’ effects, locking user-generated content into their own systems, I’m becoming increasing bloody-minded about avoiding such silos and publishing to the ‘open web’. I do like what Brett had to say about linking and citing others, this is both and academic necessity in my view and also common courtesy. Unfortunately, some sites are making even this difficult, I noticed today when I scanned my site for broken links that all the links I have to articles from the New York Times are broken because of their pay wall – in my view this is just plain obnoxious.

Now a few headings of my own:

Freedom

This is a major factor for me. I greatly value the ability to create a backup or export of my entire site and move it to whatever web host or platform I want to. Over the years I’ve experimented with WordPress.org, WordPress.com, Ghost, Squarespace and a bunch of html files. All this is possible with your own website and the only limits are time, patience and technical prowess (I’m lacking in the third of those attributes).

The other aspect of freedom is being free to express my own views. I’m not a political writer so freedom of speech has not been a significant issue to me, but I do write about my faith in Christ and in some situations the freedom to do this could conceivably be curtailed. I just like knowing that I’m not unduly constrained by some company that ‘graciously’ lets me post stuff on their site for free.

Legacy

The longer I maintain my own website the more valuable it becomes to me, and potentially to my children. I want to continue building this legacy, and also to be able to ensure ongoing access to it. Even if I were to take the site offline, it could still be made into a local copy that could be accessed by my family. It can be exported into plain text files which theoretically should still be readable in 50 years time, or it could be printed onto good old paper for others to read. Some of these options would cause a loss in functionality, but the core content remains my own possession. Again, not left at the mercy of a company that allows me to put stuff on their platform for free.

Customisation

Being able to tinker with how my site looks is fun (and time consuming) and I do like being able to decide what extra functionality it has. However, this is not an especially significant item on my list. In reality I tend to opt for some sort of theme template that thousands of other sites probably use, and prefer a fairly simple layout so I can take or leave this particular aspect. It is nice to have the option open though.

A final link

While writing this I came across this article: Chopped up or Cloned: You Choose which gives a nice summary of how having your own website can act as an online hub, without having to forsake whatever other sites you happen to already use.

I have referred to and largely based this post on IndieWeb ideas, but really all I’m emphasising is the value of having your own blog or website. The more I have scratched around IndieWeb sites and their wiki the less inclined I am to fully embrace the whole thing because it seems vastly more complicated than what I want out of my own site.

I found some ‘lost’ blog posts

One of my goals with this blog is to keep a record of my thoughts, ideas, plans and actions for posterity (whatever form ‘posterity’ actually takes). In this sense there are some blog posts that I’m keeping primarily because they record something about my life at the time they were written rather than due to their literary quality. I’ve noticed as I pick through old Facebook status updates that there are things I want to keep simply because they are small incidents from actual life which are not particularly significant in themselves but strung together these snippets do tell a story of me and our family.

For this reason I was delighted to find an old blog backup file from January 2015 which contained about 30 points which were not already on this site so I’ve imported them and are working through them to keep the good stuff. As I look at each one I recall some were never published at the time and had sat in my drafts folder for months (I have a bad habit of half-writing blog posts, a habit I’m trying to break out of). I’ve already tidied a couple of these up (minor spelling and grammatical changes so they make sense) and published them with the dates when they were last saved (both in 2014). Some others were just ideas thrown into text which I am going to do some more work on and post soon. Those which had publication dates I’m posting with those original dates.

Another useful thing about this backup file is that it gives me another data point for a post I’m piecing together mapping out the various web hosts I’ve used over the years. I’ve made so many hops from one hosting company to another that I thought it would be useful to me at least to map these out and also include what I can remember of why I made the choices I did along the way.

Bell’s Palsy

My lack of blog posts over this last week has not been entirely due to laziness (though I must admit to an element of that as a contributing factor). The main issue has been trying to cope with an odd situation resulting in a very stingy right eye due to it not producing tears properly since Tuesday evening. My doctor has diagnosed it as being Bell’s palsy, a situation in which the cranial nerve that controls muscles on one side of the face becomes partially paralysed. In addition to my right eye not being able to blink properly and drying out as a result, I also have a slight droop to the right side of my mouth, a bit like when you’ve had a local anaesthetic from a dentist. This makes it a bit awkward to eat and drink, and some words are slurred when I talk.

In theory this should clear up on it’s own, but I have been prescribed prednisone (a corticosteroid) and an antiviral, based on the assumption that this condition can be caused by a viral infection of the nerve. Currently the symptoms are annoying and inconvenient but not a major problem, though I do hope that it clears up as I’d not want to have this long term.

The Serpent was Cunning

Reading in Genesis chapter 3 yesterday I noticed a couple of things about Satan’s temptation of Eve.

Firstly, it is stated that the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. This implies that the manner in which the temptation occurred was no chance encounter but was most likely well considered and chosen to have maximal impact.

Secondly, the serpent chose to target the person furthest removed from the event he was trying to cast doubt upon. It is Adam who was directly told by God not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Presumably Eve knew of the prohibition because Adam told her (there is no indication in the text that God directly told her Himself).

To me these observations suggest that we Christians in the 21st century are likely to be targeted with similar doubts of the style, “Did God really say…?” We are far removed from eyewitness accounts of Jesus or the Apostles so are prime targets for this type of suggestion.

Examples that come to mind are:
“Is a God of love truly opposed to homosexual men loving each other?”
“Would a loving God actually condemn anyone to hell?”

I also suspect that each of us can think of even more personally relevant doubts which commonly come to mind regarding temptations we find especially powerful. In these situations it may help to remember how cunning that serpent is and that his aim is to separate us from God, not to maximise our pleasure.

Changing my writing routine

I’m trying to change my writing routine so that I get back to drafting my posts in a notebook and later transcribe this (with edits) into WordPress. Today’s post is currently en route to the notebook.

Another change I’m making is avoiding using a computer or screen after 10pm. As you can guess, this means that what I’m writing this evening will not be published until some time tomorrow. Once I get this routine established posts should be published on a more regular schedule.

2018 Reading

Updated: 19 Febraury 2018

Currently Reading

These are the books I am reading right now:

  • 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You by Tony Reinke.
  • Hearing God in Conversation by Samuel C. Williamson
  • River of Blood (Tales of the Waiatoto) by John Breen. My Dad worked with and is good friends with the author of this book so I want to read it partly for that reason and also because it gives the history and lore of the Haast area of West Coast of the South Island.

Slow Reads

There are some books that I intentionally read slowly in order to let their message sink in or to enjoy the experience of digesting smaller morsels that are rich in meaning.

  • Holy Bible (ESV)
  • Valley of Vision by Arthur Bennett

The books I have read so far in 2018

This list is in the order that I read these books.

    1. The Freedom Diaries by Mark Holloway. 3/10 Finished 4 January 2018. (ISBN 978-0-473-25184-0)
    2. Big Blue Sky, a memoir by Peter Garrett. 8/10 Really enjoyed this book, well written and about someone I’ve long admired. He manages to make even politics interesting, though confirms that I wouldn’t last 5 minutes in that realm. The Midnight Oil Great Circle tour in 2017 is a fitting way for Peter Garrett to round out his career. Finished 18 January 2018. (ISBN 978-1-76063-274-8)
    3. Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert. 7/10 Finished 22 January 2018. A well written and understandable book about global warming.
      The conclusions of this book are actually quite frightening, especially as we are seeing more extreme weather events every year.
    4. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne. 7/10 Finished 22 January 2018. Written as a play/stage production, a format I personally dislike to read. However, the story is reasonably interesting and brings out some more elements of certain characters. (978-0-7515-6535-5)
    5. Breathless by Dean Koontz. 6/10 Finished 23 January 2018. An easy and enjoyable read but I found the story a bit disjointed jumping between seemingly unrelated plot lines which had an implied resolution but were not actually tied together by the conclusion of the book.  (ISBN 978-0-00-790986-5)
    6. Hearing God’s Voice by Henry Blackaby and Richard Blackaby 6/10 Finished 25 January 2018. I enjoyed this book, practical and biblically based.
    7. Praying Hyde by Captain E.G. Carre. 6/10 I became interested to learn more about John Hyde while reading Hearing God’s Voice by Henry and Richard Blackaby. Hyde was certainly an extraordinary man of prayer. Finished 27 January 2018.
    8. The White Notebook by André Gide. 4/10 I began reading this over a year ago and soon tired of the flowery, self obsessed writing. Finally finished it but not an enjoyable read. Finished 28 January 2018.
    9. A Victorian Naturalist, Beatrix Potter’s Drawings from the Armitt Collection by Eileen Jay, Mary Noble & Anne Stevenson Hobbs. 7/10 A magnificent book featuring impressive scientific illustrations of fungi by Beatrix Potter. Her cute animal stories are only the tip of her amazing talents as an artist. Finished 29 January 2018.
    10. Demonsouled by Jonathan Miller. 5/10 I felt like a light read over the weekend and picked this up free in the Kindle store. It fitted the purpose, not especially well written but not bad and the storyline was interesting enough to keep me reading. Finished 4 February 2018.
    11. My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues by Pamela Paul. 8/10 I loved this book. It is effectively a story about the love of reading and contained numerous reader idiosyncrasies that I could identify with. Kindle version. Finished 18 February 2018.
    12. Spark by Emma Neale Finished 21 February 2018. (see Poems I have read in 2018)

In the Pipeline

Books in my ‘to read’ pile. This stack tends to grow quicker than I can get through it.

  • The Loser by Peter Ustinov
  • The Sounds of Poetry by Robert Pinsky (ISBN 978-0-374-52617-7)
  • A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver (ISBN 978-0-15-672400-5)
  • Finally Alive by John Piper (ISBN 978-1-84550-421-2)
  • Shakespeare’s Tragedies
  • The Cross of Christ by John Stott (ISBN 978-0-8308-3320)
  • Mr Maui’s Monologues by Peter Bland (ISBN 978-1-877448-27-0)
  • 1 Samuel, Looking on the Heart by Dale Ralph Davis (ISBN 978-1-85792-516-6)
  • Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (ISBN 978-0-00-735084-1)
  • How to Write a Poem by Tania Runyan (ISBN 978-1-943-12012-3)
  • Selected Poems by William Bronk (ISBN 0-8112-1314-5)

Inspiration for this page: Kevin Simler

A Gentle Tree

My well of inspiration for post topics has run dry today so I am going to emulate a friend and write about trees.

My favourite tree is the Kowhai, especially the sub species with very fine leaves (Sophora microphylla). To me the kowhai is a gentle tree, welcoming spring with a spectacular burst of bright yellow flowers for the tuis and bellbirds to feast upon. Then once clothed in its summer leaves woodpigeons love to munch upon the new leaf shoots, teetering their bulk on fine branches.

At each of the two houses we have owned I planted kowhai trees. The best seedlings came from an old chap in Owaka who raised seedlings from his son’s farm in the Catlins and sold them for a song. These were hardy plants, well suited to a coastal climate but slow growing. I also managed to grow some from seeds, first soaking the seeds for a week in water to get the hard outer shell of crack open.

The seeds of kowhai are actually poisonous, containing a compound which mimics the effect of nicotine and in amounts sufficient to make a person quite ill. However, the seed coat is so tough that it resists degradation in the human digestive system so fortunately actual poisonings are quite rare as only the green seeds are soft enough for a person to chew and release the toxin. It seems a little incongruous that a tree I view as being ‘gentle’ would have poisonous seeds, but perhaps it is just as well for it to have some defence against opossums.

Another interesting thing about kowhai trees is that they are legumes. They have nodules on their roots containing bacteria which can fix nitrogen from the soil, making it available for the tree to use. This enables kowhai trees to grow in low quality soils such as sandy, gravelly areas with less organic material in the soil.

I’m not sure exactly why I consider kowhai trees to be gentle, it may be due to the softness of the leaves and it’s wiry delicate shape when young. But to me even mature old kowhai trees have a gentle dignity about them. They are not one of the mighty giants of the New Zealand forest, but they provide food for some of my favourite birds and have some of the most spectacular flowers of all our trees. There is a kowhai beside the bus shelter where I catch my morning bus to work and in the spring it leaves a carpet of fallen yellow flowers, making a great contrast of yellow softness against the black harshness of the asphalt footpath.