Harnessing my internet-browsing energy

stressed-businessman-browsing-internet-14730384Like most people with an internet connection, I spend a significant amount of my time on the internet browsing aimlessly. However, I have recently made an effort to rein in and redirect some of this energy.

I started by using the Chrome extension StayFocusd to limit the amount of time I can spend on certain sites (Slate, Salon, Buzzfeed, the New York Times) to one minute per day. That’s about enough time to log into the NYT and get the headlines and click through to an article about gourmet food trucks or elite private schools before I get shut out.

Since I used to spend about 80% of my internet time in browsing those sites, I was left with a void. To date, I’ve mostly filled it by clicking through links that I find on Facebook. If something has become even a minor Facebook trend, then I am up on it. I find that there are certain rewards to getting all of one’s news through social media. Even if what you read is silly or pointless, at least it’s something that you know people care about. You know that this silly or pointless thing somehow manages to capture the imagination.

However, social media isn’t the best way to get actual information. I always feel like I’m a bit behind on current events, because sometimes things are too important for people to post links to them online. Like, no one would post a link being like, “Obama is planning on attacking Syria!” because everyone is supposed to know that already. Instead, they just post a Facebook comment that’s all like, “Obama’s a fucking fascist!” and then I have to google ‘barack obama’ in order to figure out what he’s done now.

That’s not really a problem, though, because I am so over current events. However, when you get all your info via Facebook, you do get a disproportionate amount of random activist drama and twenty-inch conservative rants and funny webcomics and beautiful pictures and heartwarming stories about villagers in Ghana building generators that are powered by spit.  Everything has a bit of a populist bias to it.

Not sure what the solution is. For awhile, I thought maybe I’d read blogs. And I’ve found some good ones. But not enough that are thought-provoking. And most are commentary, not information.

I’ve started reading Science News, which is a magazine that I subscribed to when I was in college (but never read). See, my problem with magazines has always been that I thought you have to read them. Once I got over that, they became much more manageable. I don’t read magazines anymore; I just flip through them looking for something interesting. There’s tons of interesting things in Science News. And its advantage over Scientific American or Popular Science or Discover is that all the articles are very short.

I cancelled my subscription to Wired (which was amazing on the iPad), but I might start reading their website. I liked Wired.

The reason I read science and tech magazines is because I’ve sometimes felt like my SF writing is all SF-as-metaphor and not enough SF-as-cool-stuff. It’s all robots and AI and cornucopia machines and whatever, which is all great and everything…but it’s also very done. I do want to be the kind of SF writer who can sometimes invent new and wondrous things. But in order to do that, I need to at least be somewhat familiar with what’s going on in the world of science.

However, I’ve found technology news to be less helpful, because, honestly, it’s mostly gadgetry. Like, self-driving cars are cool. But they don’t astonish.

I can’t read The New Yorker or The Atlantic. Whenever I start to read something that’s 5-10,000 words long, the back of my brain starts going, “Dude, if you’re gonna do this much reading, why don’t you just read an actual book?”

Waiting for the hurricane; Wired magazine; David Lodge; and more submissions stuff

This is the kind of ship that’s been getting sunk by hurricanes since well before the climate started changing

So, the hurricane is bearing down on me. I’m at my parent’s home in DC. Since my Baltimore apartment is below street level, it’s not impossible that it’s filling with water even as we speak (though hopefully that’s not true…) I fully expect that at some point we’ll lose power here in DC, since we’ve lost power for much less severe storms than this. But my parents have a generator, so we should be fine-ish.

But I thought I’d throw out a blog entry right now, while I still have internet. Umm…stuff is good. Now, I believe in climate change, but I also believe that you can’t really point to any specific storm or event and be like, “This is climate change in action.” That’s a judgment that can really only be made by statisticians who can look at the data over time and conclude that storms, over time, are getting larger and more intense. Climate change is a trend; a storm is just a datapoint.

But I will say that I’ve never before had to flee a hurricane. And it does seem like there’ve been a lot low-probability weather events in DC lately, like the derecho thunderstorms that left the area without power over the summer or the Snowmageddon that crippled us back in January of 2010. Part of that is just that I notice weather more nowadays (as compared to when I was growing up), since when it happens, I actually have to do things about it.

But anyway, I was thinking about all this extreme weather as I was driving to Baltimore, and I was like, “You know, this is kind of what climate change would feel like.” It wouldn’t be stuff like living in domes or behind sea-walls, it’d just be these things that happen: hurricanes and power outages and heat waves and snow storms and floods. You just deal with each one and you go on living your life. But, of course, each one kills a few people and wrecks a few lives and does a few billion dollars worth of damage. And that slowly accumulates (along with the other, more chronic impacts of climate change) and life is, in some small way, worse than it would otherwise have been. It’s a far cry from some crazy Population Bomb type scenario where 90% of the Earth’s population dies, but it’s certainly not particularly optimal.

 

In other news, I read an issue of Wired today. It was, err…good. But it was a compilation issue: articles taken from magazines throughout the decade–so it was easy to spot some really interesting trends in Wired. For instance, Wired runs a lot of articles about entrepreneurs who get diagnosed with a disease (or are somehow affected by it) and then use their business savvy (and millions of dollars) to revolutionize research into that disease. It’s become a slightly-ridiculous Silicon Valley trope, to the point where I wonder if millionaires feel ashamed if they get diagnosed with a disease and just go to the world’s best doctor and do what he tells them to do.

Yes, my reading has been light lately. I’ve also been reading David Lodge novels. Over the weekend, I read the first of his “Campus Trilogy”. They’re really light and fun. But they’re also about adultery, in this way that’s almost kind of serious, but is, to me, totally laughable. Adultery is such a complex narrative trope and has so much moral and emotional and cultural weight and has been treated so many times and in such a stylized manner, that it’s hard to remember that it’s a real thing that actually forms the emotional crux of peoples’ lives.

 

And finally, I’ve continued submitting to literary journals. I’ve made a godawful high number of submissions to lit journals in the past six days, and I’m seriously considering submitting to another dozen more once I have access to my printer again (so far, I’ve only been sending out electronic submissions). I’ve realized that payment is an extremely imperfect way to figure out which journal to submit to (since payment information is kept so secret), but just googling “ranking of literary journals” brought to what look like two very fine indexes. The first ranks journals by the number of stories they’ve published that’ve been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. And the second ranks them by the number of stories they’ve published that’ve received mentions in the Best American Short Stories. Now, obviously, neither of these is that great a measure, since they’re basically indexes of the opinion and reading habits of a very tiny and homogenous number of jurors and editors. But still, at least it’s something.

I love Wired for exactly the same reason that I hate the New York Times

Even when Wired or The New York Times run articles that are silly or dull, they paint a portrait of a culture. With regards the the New York Times, that culture is one that I am, unfortunately, deeply immersed in. As such, the cultural aspects of the New York Times are ones that generally escape my notice or–when they do come to my attention–rather disturb me.

But Wired is totally different! Sure, all of these people are demographically rather similar to me. If I’d messed around a bit more with Java when I was fourteen and majored in CS in college, then I’d most assuredly be smack in the middle of the Wired readership. But, as it is, my teens and twenties have been a process of learning steadily less about (and become steadily less excited by) technology, and, as such, I’m not very acculturated to the numerous weird quirks of tech people.

For instance, it’s really fun to see how the clash between the pessimistic and anarchic strains that underlie alot of footsoldier- and amateur-level tech communities and the corporatist/libertarian/techno-utopian thinking that girders alot of the formal structures of the technological world (even crunchy and feel-good organizations in the tech world are, after all, primarily funded by the billionaire owners of Fortune 500 companies).

One consequence is that Wired is often very anti-establishment in a very general sort of way. They ran a scathing (and break-through) article on the NSA’s new Utah data center and a very respectful article of the hacker collective Anonymous. But when they get a specific establishment figure or corporation in their sights, they’re often almost worshipful. For instance, in the most recent issue, they ran a story about Intel’s recent attempt to design a set of chips for mobile phones. Now, this could’ve been a great article! Intel is one of the big three monopolies in the “old” computing world (Cisco and Microsoft are the other). But its’ monopoly status did not stop it (or Microsoft) from falling prey to decreasing relevance and earnings growth. There’s an interesting article here about the way that the tech world has economies of scale that naturally lead to monopolies, but that these monopolies are also naturally unseated by technological growth (see also, IBM’s monopoly on PCs). In an era in which we’re seeing the rise of new online monopolies (Facebook, Google, and, to a far lesser extent, Amazon), this could be an interesting way of looking at how the corporate structure of the tech world might shift.

But instead the article focuses on the swashbuckling chief of Intel’s new mobile phone division (tech chiefs are always swashbuckling and devil-may-care and gaudily dressed and blah blah blah). The article’s just a puff piece for this guy and this company. And that’s true of _so_ many Wired articles. Whenever they run an article about a company (e.g. their articles on Uber, Square, and Quora), they inevitably lavish praise on both the founders and on the company’s potential to leverage societal change.

Now, most of these companies bore me, but I do really enjoy these articles! Because, at least to some extent, this is how the tech world sees itself. They really do see themselves as a series of hero-creators (Prometheuses) who rise out of the muck to drown old obsolete old-world companies or first-generation startups using the sheer volume of their regurgitated brilliance. And Wired reveals in the details of these worlds. There’s always the description of the campus amenities (like the huge slide in Epic studios). There’s always the origin story (like the retired founder of Atari hiring, as the navigator for his sailing boat, an engineer who created radio systems for military contractors and then brainstorming with that navigator, during a two week sail-race to Hawaii, and ending up with the plan for a new company). There’s always the money that is just waiting to be picked up off the floor (like how Uber and AirBnB will revolutionize our economy by teaching us how to sell excess downtime and spare capacity using the disintermediation services of the internet). It’s all so fun and so colorful and so brilliant. Wired is a crazy alternate world. It’s like a cyberpunk novel that’s been stripped of all its shades of grey. Even the magazine itself is bright and colorful and vividly interactive (at least on my iPad).

It’s always a fun time.