It’s been a couple months since I’ve written one of these “Recently” posts. January was a… surprisingly eventful month, but I feel like all the takes that could possibly be made about the various big news events are already out there. The world doesn’t need another $GME reaction. 😅

Tampermonkey

A few weeks ago, I “discovered” Tampermonkey, which allows you to setup little user scripts or custom styles in Chrome. I’ve known about Tampermonkey (mostly because of it’s Firefox counterpart – Greasemonkey), but for whatever reason I never tried using it.

User scripts are awesome. They occupy a really common niche for me: little tweaks to sites that are noticeable improvements, but aren’t “big” enough to warrant packaging into their own Chrome extension. As an example, my Youtube “Watch Later Tweaks” extension is really only a few lines of code, but required a ton of work to setup the packaging / manifest requirements of a full-blown Chrome extension. I was able to recreate that entire extension in a few lines of JS with Tampermonkey.

I’ve been experimenting with a few other scripts – they’re all in a Github repo. One of the nice things about Tampermonkey is that there’s a large community of people writing user-scripts that you can easily start using. For example, I adapted a script that blocks distracting websites, and for whatever reason, it’s “stuck” more than other times I’ve tried to do the same thing with an off-the-shelf extension.

Obsidian/Foam Update

I’ve continued to use Obsidian, and my “knowledge graph” is growing. I don’t yet find myself the graph as a reference yet, it’s still mostly a place to write stuff and record ideas. However, I have noticed some interesting connections between topics, and I think the value of this type of system compounds the more you add to it.

The most visible areas that Obsidian has improved my “knowledge workflow” is in keeping track of the articles that I’ve read. I automated my Instapaper archive to be included in Obsidian, and I annotate each article with a few notes or quotes that stuck out to me. I’ve also been adding books to Obsidian, and similarly recording thoughts/notes there.

~1 month of Obsidian use

~1 month of Obsidian use

My use of Foam at work was stymied this week by a couple of the VSCode extensions completely refusing to work. My workspace got in such a broken state that I couldn’t backspace or add newlines, which was extremely frustrating. I also happened to be oncall this week, so it wasn’t a great time to be futzing with tools.

I uninstalled and reinstalled all my VSCode extensions, reloaded VSCode, etc. and I still couldn’t unbreak it. A few days later, it kinda just started working again by itself. So, cool? That episode doesn’t make me thrilled about the stability of the Foam stack.

Books

Here’s some mini-reviews of books I read in January:

Ministry of the Future

Rating: 2/5

This book bills itself as a story about climate change that isn’t a dystopia. From the book blurb:

Its setting is not a desolate, postapocalyptic world, but a future that is almost upon us—and in which we might just overcome the extraordinary challenges we face.

That blurb is technically correct, but is still misleading: “Ministry of the Future” is a depressing book about climate change. In a way, this blurb and parts of the book itself reminded me of The Uninhabitable Earth. In both, the sentiment is “don’t worry, the world isn’t going to end; humans will still be around, they’ll just be much more miserable and a lot of them will die”. Don’t get me wrong: climate change is depressing. But, I’d prefer the marketing for this book to own that fact instead of feigning otherwise.

Many of the nitpicks I had with this book weren’t with the content of the plot, but rather it’s delivery. The first quarter of the book was quite engaging, and marched along with a tight narrative. The latter half of the book wandered, and became plain unenjoyable to read. Some chapters are weird extended riddles, some chapters read like meeting notes taken by someone entirely bored with what’s going on, and there’s an extraneous ~100 or so pages in the end where the book tries to pivot from a planetary-scale story about climate change to a more character-driven conclusion.

In the end, I really wanted to like this book, but… I just didn’t really connect with any of the characters, and was annoyed with the plot delivery. I wanted this to be an optimistic book about humanity overcoming climate change, and it was, but only partially: All of the nominally science-based climate change solutions have an air of hand-waveiness to them. Few of the described social changes – which ostensibly occur on a planetary scale – felt earned.

“Ministry of the Future” falls in an uncanny valley of technocratic optimism: not imaginative enough that we forgive its hand-waviness, and not “hard scifi” enough that we forgive its lack of imagination. Disappointing.

The Overstory

Rating: 5/5

“The Overstory” is also nominally a story about ecological collapse, but it is one of the most genuine, affecting pieces of fiction I’ve read recently.

The first ~third of the book introduces a large set of characters, each a chapter-long character sketch. All of these chapters were wonderfully put together. Each of them had the “life flowing by” quality of the opening sequence to “Up”.

I won’t spoil anything, but the remaining two-thirds of the book are just as impactful, and the storytelling is excellent. “The Overstory” threads a delicate needle, being as sincere as it is: it walks right up to the line of feeling cheesy or preachy, but never crosses it. It definitely has a political message about humans' relationship with the environment, and there’s a lot of environmental science woven into the plot, but the pairing of that content with well-crafted characters makes it all fit together into a self-consistent whole.

Put another way, I’m generally not one to reread books that I’ve read. But, I can definitely see myself rereading this book in a few months. I think there’s a lot to come back to here. Highly recommended.

The Fifth Season

Rating: 5/5

I’d seen “The Fifth Season” recommended on a bunch of “best of scifi/fantasy” lists, and each of the entries in “The Broken Earth” trilogy – of which “The Fifth Season” is the first – have won Hugo awards for best novel. And yet, I was still a bit unsure that I’d like it, because my impression was that “The Fifth Season” was more on the “fantasy” side of scifi/fantasy, which is not something I’m typically interested in.

I was pleasantly surprised to really enjoy “The Fifth Season”. It’s written in 3 distinct narrative styles – including one of the best uses of second-person narration that I can remember. The setting reminded me strongly of “Anathem”, in that it’s setting is “post-fall-of-civilization” without being “post-apocalyptic”. Both “Anathem” and “The Fifth Season” have strong internal lore, which wonderfully reinforces the plot and makes for a really rich backdrop.

Reading this book reminded me of an interview Ezra Klein had with N.K. Jemisin, in which she describes her techniques for world building. The world building in this book is first-rate. I found myself taking notes on the various ways that its society is structured, and how characters make sense of the world with their own forms of science.

Nominally, this is a more “fantasy” book, in that magic exists and the world is more grimy than chrome. However, it feels like there might be more going on than is being described on the surface level, which makes me excited to read the second and third entries of the trilogy.

I enjoyed listening to the audiobook, and I think my experience of this book was better for having listened to it rather than read it.

I had a bunch of leftover links that I’d been saving from 2020 to put at the end of these posts. I usually only post 3-4 links, but in the spirit of resetting for the new year, here’s all the remaining links from last year:

  • How to read RSS in 2020
    • Beginner’s guide to RSS reading, with some nice recommendations on reader services/clients. (Miniflux is still my favorite)
  • The Sweet Spot
    • On combatting the mindset of overachieving, and recognizing the point of diminishing returns.
  • In support of leaving the table
    • On it being OK to “give up” on games before completing them.
  • Timebox Your Existential Issues
    • Recognize when your thought patterns are veering away from the practical, and set limits on the amount of abstract existential worrying/planning/introspection you do.
  • The End of the World as We Know It? - Quillette
    • Interesting piece which argues that a population shortfall could be a more existential risk to humanity than the existential risks that we are more accutely aware of (climate risk, pandemics, etc.). Not sure that I buy the thesis, but it’s thought-provoking.
  • Homemade Grocery Store Soft Sugar Cookies | Eric Kim | NYT Cooking
    • A recipe video that recreates those ubiquitous sugar cookies with the (to me) artificial-tasting frosting that you can find in any modern grocery store. I didn’t know that people were nostalgic for those types of cookies, but there is something interesting about using home-baking techniques to recreate something that was initially created as a highly-processed food.

Cover: Mountain Landscape by Francois-Louis Français