2011 year summary

This holiday season has been more crazed than usual, what with finals after the break.  Nobody seems to think this is a good idea, but the schedule remains as is.

And now it's new year's eve and I get to look back at the things I've done this year.  Maybe that will motivate me to work harder through finals, you never know.

Books  I read East of Eden, The Poisonwood Bible, Sarah's Key, and started the Song of Ice and Fire series, getting through the first two books and am currently halfway through the third.  I've been reading War and Peace, The Handmaid's Tale, and On Food and Cooking, but haven't finished them yet.  And then there's academic reading, but I'll spare you.

Food  I discovered swiss chard, kale, and belgian endives.  How could I live so long without knowing swiss chard?  Tragedy.  I also cooked a bunch of seafood for the first time: scallops, swordfish, shrimp, clams, and muscles.  And I roasted a turkey totally on my own--another first.  Parsnip is on my list of things to try for next year.

Lifestyle  N and I moved into smaller apt (N estimates 5/8 the size of our old place) and got rid of some stuff on the way.  I've been going through maniacal bursts of cleaning/organizing to get rid of more stuff we don't need.  I started my conversion to the GTD system and am using Omnifocus.  It's not perfect, but it helps.  I also quit facebook for most of the year, reactivating my account only recently.  I might deactivate it again soon, but we'll see.  Oh yeah, I also started grad school.

Misc  N and I usually watch a single TV episode a day as together downtime.  This year, we've worked through Modern Family, Merlin, a good chunk of Star Trek TNG (in order), The Good Wife, and maybe a few others.  I also started and finished 2 paintings (sold one!) and have three in progress.  I made a quilt for my recently born nephew.  And there was the garden project over the summer.  N and I went to a family reunion in Colorado, spent Christmas in California, and went up to Boston to see family, but that was the extent of our traveling this year.

And next year will bring some good things too.  No resolutions, or abstract or specific.  Just studying for now.


What should computers be able to do?

I've been thinking about what I'd like computers to be able to do.  I'd like to be able to say (or type, or somehow communicate) the following things to a computer and for it to magically give me good responses.

- I'd like to buy a Christmas present for my friend <name>.  What are some good ideas?
- I'm really tired and want to watch a light movie.  Show me some options.
- I need a book that will last me for a month-long trip.  Non-fiction, preferably.
- My favorite dress was ruined, what's a good replacement?
- I'd like to try a new hobby, what might I like?
- I have five minutes before my interviewer calls.  Give me something distracting.
- I'm taking <name> out to dinner, where might they like to go?  Romantic but not pricey.

Siri is a great step toward intelligent responses, but there are still lots of limits.  The technology needs to know about lots of different things it doesn't really consider right now.  Your moods, preferences, present company (and their moods/preference), and even current location or time of day.  I think sufficient data exists, even if it isn't public--think about Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, Netflix, Amazon wishlists and browsing history, and browsing history in general.  We could use bookmark information, email, blogs, and on top of that, users are usually more than happy to answer questionnaires...people love exploring themselves.  Hunch is a great example of a recommendation system for everything, but I think I want a system that's a mash-up between Hunch and Siri.

I'm trying to define the bounds of this system in my head.  What should it be capable of and what is too much?  I know what I would want it to do, but I don't know what other people might want to use it for.  So this is my question to you: what would you like to ask a computer that it can't currently answer?  Can you give me example queries?


Woman's Day

This week we got the final notice that N's subscription to Woman's Day had expired (we got another notice last week too).  Neither of us have ever even opened a Woman's Day in the grocery store, let alone subscribed, so it's either a marketing tactic or a mistake.  Either way, it cracks me up.

Also, why call a lifestyle magazine "Woman's Day"?  I'd imagine that there's very little woman-specific information in it, and while their audience is probably mostly women, they could target a larger subset of the population by simply changing the name.


paper and pixels

My gut reaction to new devices is "don't need it."[1]  E-readers, smartphones, tablets, whatever.  Don't need it.  My seminar on the future of the book has changed that a little.  I can now see the place for digital books, and would actually love to have a good color e-ink (not LCD) reader for pdfs and one-time reads.  The system isn't set up to work the way I want to use it, though.  Supposedly you can use your public library to gain access to ebooks, but even our huge library doesn't have access to the digital versions of anything on my reading list.  I'm not paying anything for something I'll read once, even if it's cheaper because it's digital.  And Amazon is still missing a lot of stuff.  So no e-reader for me for now.  The for now is the concession I've made.

One thing that came up in class was the advantages and disadvantages of each form.  I got in a match with my professor, each of us claiming that we could list five things off the top of our heads why one form was better than another (he's a digital advocate, I'm dedicated to bound).  We didn't actually list five each, but I wanted to make those lists for comparison, so here they are.  The advantages of bound books will only decrease with time, but these my current top five.

Advantages of Digital Books
- easily searchable
- more ergonomic to use (due to a lightweight and balanced form)
- conducive to a minimalist lifestyle (fewer physical things to manage)
- easier to travel with (smaller/lighter)
- instant access to one's entire personal collection and also to purchasable content

Advantages of Bound Books
- superior random access [2]
- cheaper (due to libraries/borrowing/sharing and buying used) [3]
- easier to consume from multiple vendors
- more accessible interface (no manual, forums, or help needed)
- apocalypse-proof (or able to withstand long-term power-loss/reduction)

I have no idea what is more stainable.  On the one hand, bound books mean paper, which means harvesting trees.  On the other, we have rare metals (and thus probably fair-trade issues), but also electricity consumption.

I don't think I'll ever go all-digital, but who knows.  Even art books might be addressable eventually.  The biggest hurdle will be converting my preexisting collection of bound books into digital books.  And sharing.  I need to be able to share my books without having folks borrow my entire library (i.e. the device).

It basically comes down to cost.  I'm not willing to re-buy everything I have nor am I willing to pay 10 to 20x more for a slight increase in convenience.  I could deal with everything else if I could get any book for $0.50, which is the standard cost of paperbacks at library used-book sales.  Heck, I'd be willing to pay the hardback $1.  But as long as the alternative to borrowing a book from the library is to pay an insane amount, I'll stick with my bound books.  They need to market books on the app cost scale for real viability; most books should be under a couple of dollars.

[1] Right now, anyway.  I used to be a huge gadget person--I had a PDA in middle school, even though that's obviously not something a middle-schooler needs.  Shall we schedule hanging out in the quad for 3:10pm?

[2] With digital books, there's no good way to hold a finger in one place and flip to another, nor is there a good mechanism for flipping through the book to find non-text.

[3] One thing that weighs on me is that a shift to digital books makes reading more privileged, at least as currently implemented.  Sure, free ebooks are great, but most of the free ones are epub, which Kindle doesn't support.  So do you forgo Amazon's selection and go for a Nook?  How about an iPad with apps to do everything for $500?  Laptops are cheaper.  I'm pitching my Occupy eBooklandia tent.


the Birth Order Book

I've started attending a book club with ladies from my church.  The song's familiar for many book of the clubs out there: it's not officially church-y, that's just how it spread.  I figured that it would be good to know folks outside of the church-context, especially since a lot of them seem like really interesting and fun people and also that I've been really busy wrangling the little ones on Sundays so I don't have much time to get to know anyone.

November's meeting was the first one I attended, and I decided to drop in last minute since I had already read the book (Ender's Game).  And then we just met for December (Sarah's Key).  The meetings tend to be a good mix of philosophy and social chat, and I'm enjoying the personalities present.  Up next for January is The Birth Order Book.  Breaks the "possessive-noun object" trend, such a shame.

Frankly, I'm hesitant.  Most of my leisure reading is fiction, and when it's not, I stick to science, history, religion, philosophy, and how-to books, keeping my distance (for the most part) from self-help, opinion, politics, or relationship-type books.  Anything where the author feels the need to publish with "Dr." in front of his or her name sends off a red flag.  Also, anything with the author's picture on the cover, unless it's an autobiography.  Red flags, I tell you.

As humans, we already compartmentalize the world.  We put people in gender boxes, race boxes, religion boxes, political affiliation boxes, etc..  Boxes help us organize the world and determine how to act.  If I'm explaining my work to someone, I'll say different things depending on if I'm talking to an academic peer or if I'm talking to a family member; they'll have different prior knowledge and levels of interest.  But if I stack up all of the boxes for one person, it's still a rough approximation of who they are.

The biggest danger in boxifying things is framing it in terms of causality.  So-and-so is this way because of this box.  That's not true.  If it were, all people in that box would have that characteristic.  That's the definition of causality.  Boxifying things is all about correlation, or rough approximations.  It's useful because it gives us a rough approximation of a person or situation and we can hash out the details from there.  Stopping at the box level is shallow because the boxes never get all the details. (The Birth Order Book's subtitle is "Why You Are the Way You Are." That's causal language.  It makes me grumpy.)

So...right...back to birth order.  I think I'm hesitant in part because I don't generally know things about people's birth order.  That's not something you can get just by looking at a person, nor is it something that comes up early on in conversation.  The people for whom I know their birth order I already know fairly well.  Adding a birth order box to my approximation of them would do absolutely nothing.  It's a lossy representation.

A more practical problem I have with this book is that it's hard to get my hands on.  Neither the university nor the huge public library have it.  I'm not going to buy it.  I might just read some studies on birth order instead, since the psychology literature is more appealing to me than mass-marketed pseudo-psychology books.  Yes, I'm a snob.  Maybe it's because I'm the eldest child.

If anyone from book club reads this, don't kill me.  Write a comment instead.  I'd love to hear why I'm wrong.