Feed Readers

Keeping up with the developments in any field can be a challenge, especially with so much information spread across so many sources. Frequently this information is accessible online, but it's tedious to regularly visit each of these sites for new content. I've found this to be especially true with academic journals, where there are a whole series of publications relevant to me, each with their own website and own release schedule.

The best solution I've found to this problem is using a feed reader (also known as a news aggregator or RSS reader). This is an application or service that allows you to add the sites you want to keep up on, and read the updated content from those sites all in one spot. Each new item shows up something like a new message in your email inbox, extracting just the new content and displaying it as a new story. If this is a blog, you will see each new post; for a journal, it will usually be the abstract. Here's an example:

Feedbin Screenshot

Adding sites to your reader is easy, with most services allowing you to just type or paste the URL to start following the site.

There are many choices for readers these days, including both standalone applications and online services, with both free and paid options. The two best options in my opinion are Feedly, which is free, and Feedbin, which is my personal choice and costs $3/month. Both of these services can be used from your computer, but are also compatible with a variety of mobile applications. My personal favorite is Reeder.

One of the unexpected benefits to using a feed reader for academic journals is that it actually makes reading journal abstracts enjoyable. At least for me, that's something I didn't often experience before.

Attention

The things that we give our attention to largely indicate what our lives are. The philosopher José Ortega y Gasset concisely stated:

Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are.

This really resonates with me. What occupies our time and our thoughts, which is to say our attention, is often a clear sign of our priorities, even if we're unaware of it. I think it stands to argue that this is reciprocal as well: the things that we direct our attention to can also become our priorities.

Whenever someone eludes to things being worse 'these days' than they were in the past, I'm skeptical. However, I think it's probably true that today, we have more forces vying for our attention at any given moment, or at least more ways to be distracted. With television and computer screens in every room of our houses and another one in our pocket at any given time, it's no wonder both drivers and pedestrians are getting into more accidents while staring at their smartphones. We are perhaps more distracted than ever, and not focusing our attention on what's really happening in the present.

An interesting side-effect of focusing our attention on certain things is that other people notice, even children. Adam Siegel noticed this with his 8-month-old daughter:

The other day, I planted Margot on the floor with some toys and she happily began playing. In an almost unconscious habit whenever I have a short moment of free time in between tasks, I took the brief respite to pull out my phone and check my mail. 60 seconds later after reading a couple messages and deleting a few more, I looked up from the screen to see that Margot had stopped playing and was staring at me. “This is how it begins,” I thought. I’m showing her my screen deserves my attention at the moment more than she does.

This must be a heartwrenching observation for any parent, to realize these skewed priorities they're communicating to their child. But the thing about it is that it's not just children who notice these things, but everyone in our lives. Our attention communicates what's important to us. And when we pick the smartphone instead of the person sitting across from us, they will notice.

So perhaps instead of checking our phones when there's a moment of downtime, we can instead pay attention to what's happening around us. Be mindful, if you will. And instead of making your phone (or Facebook, or Twitter, etc.) your life, make your life, your life.

Coffee and Mindfulness

I have enjoyed coffee for quite some time, but it's not until recently that I think I've started to truly enjoy coffee, as opposed to all the things that go with it. I can't really remember when I first started liking it, but I am pretty sure that the experience of going to get coffee with friends or stopping to pick something up before work played a big role.

Jerry Seinfeld addresses this well in an interview with NPR, commenting on why he thinks coffee is so central to our culture:

"I think the answer is we all need a little help, and the coffee's a little help with everything — social, energy, don't know what to do next, don't know how to start my day, don't know how to get through this afternoon, don't know how to stay alert. We want to do a lot of stuff; we're not in great shape. We didn't get a good night's sleep. We're a little depressed. Coffee solves all these problems in one delightful little cup."

I think all of these are likely true for me at various points in time, but I also find it really useful sometimes to step outside of some of my habits, and explore them as ends in themselves. Recently, I discovered that there were many ways to make coffee other than via drip machine or espresso machine.1 After doing some research, I found that the AeroPress was highly recommended, and I decided to purchase one, since it's affordable, simple, and compact.

My morning coffee routine starts with beans I buy every week or two from Joe Bean here in Rochester, NY. My method is pretty similar to Stumptown's, although I do less measuring or precise timing. I start boiling enough water for my mug. I grind two scoops of beans and add them to the AeroPress, add water, stir, add more water, wait a minute, and then flip it over and press it into my mug. I then top it off with hot water (or occasionally frothed milk).

While I make coffee this way almost every morning, I try to be mindful of the process (and it no doubt helps that it's a bit more involved than my drip machine). I focus on each step as I go, paying attention to what it is that I'm actually doing.

Mindfulness is a term that has been around for a long time, and is characterized by nonjudgmental awareness of the present. Through mindful living, we are both better aware of and able to accurately see the events in our life, instead of being reactive to or pushed around by them. Bringing this heightened awareness to life in general has been linked to many positive outcomes, both mental and physical.2 We've all experienced lapses in mindfulness, when autopilot takes over and we end up rushing out the door without the things we need for our day, or so caught up in worrying about things in our lives that we don't enjoy the people we are with, or places we are at. What a waste of life.

One of my goals is to be more mindful in my day-to-day life. With something as little as my morning coffee, I begin my day with just a little less mindless routine, and a little more awareness and enjoyment. I find it even helps with those little questions quoted above, like what to do next or how to start my day.

If you're interested in reading more on mindfulness and savoring life, Leo Babauta of Zen Habits, one of my favorite blogs, offers some excellent further reading on this. In the end, it's not all that complicated. Just do whatever you are doing, and be wherever you are.

  1. See Brew Methods for an array of methods that might surprise you. 
  2. Brown & Ryan, 2003, and Brown, Ryan, & Creswell, 2007, offer good overviews. 

Clean Slate

I decided to start from scratch with my website, because I wasn't happy with where it had ended up. For a while, it has seemed like my site was a collection of old links and quips, but very little original writing. All of this old content created a lot of friction and baggage that was limiting my desire to continue writing. I want this site to be a place I can use to explore the burning questions and topics that are on my mind, as well as to share some observations, tips, and tricks that I have stumbled across in research and technology.

As this has been on my mind for a while, I also pondered whether or not I would stick with WordPress. I think WordPress is a great tool for creating websites, but it isn't lightweight or simple. As a result, I kept an eye on other platforms that would suit my site, and various CMSes caught my attention. The ones that particularly caught my attention were those that don't use a database (e.g., Octopress, Statamic, and Kirby), but I also considered some that are database-driven (e.g., Anchor and Koken).

With all of these alternate CMSes for my site, however, I discovered gotchas. Some didn't have a theme I quite liked, so I'd have to spend time creating or tweaking those. Others didn't allow for easy search or comments, or required me to compile and deploy from my computer each time I wanted to tweak the site or change a layout. I also happen to like the Jetpack plugin, which allows me to have visitor stats right in the WordPress dashboard, as well as share my content (and let my visitors share content on this site) very easily. In addition, I am familiar and comfortable with WordPress, reducing the time it would take me to learn and troubleshoot a new tool.

In the end, I decided to stick with WordPress. If you haven't been here in a while, you might not notice the changes. However, this site is actually a completely fresh reinstall, with new CSS based on Twenty Twelve. In addition, I use Markdown on Save Improved, which allows me to write and edit my posts in Markdown1, but behind the scenes have WordPress-compatible HTML generated and displayed to visitors. In addition, I use Jetpack to allow for easy sharing of my content, as well as for analytics.

I am still undecided on comments. In the past, I've had mixed results. I find people mainly commenting on my content using Facebook, Twitter, or other external social media sites. For now they are enabled, but I may change that if they are unused.

I hope this spring cleaning of sorts will remove some of the friction I was having with my old site, allowing me to do more writing, and hopefully providing more value to those of you who read or stumble upon this site.

  1. I have been using Markdown for most of my writing these days. While you can easily Google for the benefits of writing in Markdown or another plain-text format, this is one topic I hope to cover in a future post.