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.

Personal blogging and online privacy

Continuing from my post yesterday about the IndieWeb, rel=me and anti-patterns, I’ve also been considering adding h-card information to my sidebar. Many blogs do this in effect by having an author photo and bio either in the sidebar or associated with each post. The h-card formats this into something that computers can interpret as well as humans.

My next question then becomes, “What information and how much detail should I put into such an h-card?” Which then brings up the issue of how safe is it to include personally identifying information on my website where anyone can see it?

The concern is that oversharing could leave me open to identity theft, which is an increasing problem worldwide. While this is an international problem, I am going to look at it from a New Zealand viewpoint.

Identity theft

The fear I have is that some personal information in the hands of criminals can enable identity theft. This is where someone uses another person’s personal information in order to access money or services under their name. My gut reaction to this idea is that you would be a mug to want to be me! I don’t exactly have a dream life or loads of money so it’s not worth the trouble. Apparently this is a common reaction and leads many people to have a false sense of security that makes it even easier to steal from them.

How common is identity theft?

As many as 133,000 New Zealanders may be victims of identity theft annually. (NZ Department of Internal Affairs). An interesting comment I found on the Equifax site is that:

identity fraud victims typically know the person who uses, or tries to use, their identity.

The cost of this crime to New Zealanders may be as much as NZ$200,000,000 every year. Globally many millions of people are affected, with billions of usernames and passwords stolen in 2016.

What is personal information?

What is considered to be personally identifying information varies, but a consensus would be:

  • Full name
  • Date of birth
  • Place of birth
  • Current address
  • Previous residential addresses
  • Phone number(s)
  • IRD number
  • Credit card information (card number, expiry date, verification code)
  • Banking login information such as PIN or security codes
  • Email address (and password)
  • Driver’s licence number
  • Passport number
  • Birth certificate
  • Current location
  • Place of employment or study
  • Interests, activities and connections (movies you watch, where you went for a run this morning and who you are friends with or work alongside).

It can be deceptively easy to leave snippets of valuable information all over the internet (and real world) which if collected together could enable someone to steal your identity. This digital footprint includes browsing history, device usage patterns, interests, perceived loyalty to a service, marriage status, preferences and income level (see this article by Netsafe). Most commonly such information is used to target advertising, but could also be used to manipulate people into divulging other, more valuable, information.

Are bloggers at more risk?

So far I’ve not found any indication that bloggers are at any more risk than other groups of people. In fact the high risk groups tend to be teenagers (who think nothing will happen to them) and older people (who can be more trusting). While bloggers may share more of their lives online, they do make conscious choices of what to share so may be less likely to accidentally share sensitive information than someone who doesn’t understand their social media privacy settings.

What I discovered in researching this post is that identity theft can affect anyone and often it is information that is inadvertently made public, stolen or leaked by hackers that enables criminals to steal an identity. There is a massive black marked on the dark web for this sort of information and even ‘kits’ which enable miscreants to lure people into divulging the information the scammers want (phishing). The best protections seem to be using long, unique passwords for every site or account, guarding email carefully and being suspicious of anything that tries to wheedle login details out of you.

Be careful out there.

Sources of reliable information

Avoiding anti-patterns

At its heart the IndieWeb is a bunch of people taking back ownership and control of their web content from companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Medium and Google. Some of these folks are programmers who are making the task a bit easier for the rest of us, to the point that it is now easier to adopt this approach than it was a few years ago.

I am not a coder, so my focus is on keeping control of my web content and making it accessible. Part of this task involves avoiding practises which work against the principles of owning my own data, making information visible to people in priority to machines, ensuring a good user experience, documenting what I am doing, and building a site which will last for the long term. The term used to describe the things which impede the IndieWeb is ‘anti-patterns‘.

Antipatterns

Antipatterns are antithetical to a diverse and growing indieweb, often times the opposite, or at best a distraction from indieweb principles and building-blocks, yet persistently repeated despite their tendency to waste time and cause failures. (IndieWeb Wiki – Antipatterns)

Databases

For any content you care about it, don’t put the primary copy in a database. Databases are all a pain to maintain, and more fragile than the file system.  (IndieWeb Wiki – Antipatterns)

As a generalisation I would agree with this, but databases exist because they make accessing information much easier than digging through a folder full of files. One of my longer term goals is to transition my site to being a static site using a platform such as Jekyll but the learning curve is fairly steep for that and my current goal is to establish a good writing habit so WordPress suits me as I know it well. What I am doing is exporting my WordPress content as Markdown files so they can easily be integrated into other systems if necessary, and these are still readable outside of the database.

Invisible metadata

Invisible metadata is the general antipattern of storing information that is user-relevant in places users won’t see (i.e. users aren’t expected to “View Source” on every page).   (IndieWeb Wiki – Antipatterns)

This is what started me thinking about these anti-patterns, I want to include rel=me tags for links to my Facebook, Twitter and micro.blog accounts as a way to verify that I’m the same person writing on all of them. What I was going to do is include these in the <head> section of each page but that violates the principle of making metadata visible to humans so I’m having to reconsider my approach to this. Overall I agree with making information visible to people, this also seems to be something Google takes into account with it’s search engine assessments of what a web page is about. For years the SEO world has been stuffing keywords into meta tags in attempts to game the search rankings when what really matters is the content that users can see and interact with.

Silos

A silo, or web content hosting silo, in the context of the IndieWeb, is a centralized web site typically owned by a for-profit corporation that stakes some claim to content contributed to it and restricts access in some way. (IndieWeb Wiki – Silo)

I am actively avoiding the use of silos such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. I do currently have some stuff located primarily in these sites but am in the process of manual transferring it to this blog. Most of what is in Twitter I don’t care about, I’m working on transferring my Facebook status updates now (this will take a while), and have recently decided to host my CV/resume on my own site in preference to LinkedIn due to the use of devious techniques by LinkedIn to gain access to email address books and generally be creepy. There are some things such as ‘likes’, retweets and reposts that I don’t value enough to clutter my own site with.

Distracting gifs

Prompted by this annoying little gem

I know that many people love to use animated gifs in blog posts and web articles, but I find them extremely distracting. The ones that bother me are those which keep looping endlessly while I’m attempting to read a web page. The movement grabs my attention away from what I’m trying to read and frankly the image cheapens what is otherwise a good article. Just my opinion, and I do have ways around it.

Am I actually going to read this?

The start of the year is a good time to ‘clear the decks’ and cleanup excess stuff cluttering my shelves, home, workspace and mind. I began by reducing my clippings of websites/articles stored in Evernote from 6500 notes down to 3800. I still have some work to do to prune it right down to only the essential reference material I need to keep.

Starting back at work today I was confronted with an overflowing tray of paper that needs sorting, junk on my computer desktop, and a very full downloads folder. A common theme of all this stuff I have accumulated is that at the time of saving it I had some intention of reading it. Unfortunately I don’t have time to read everything.

I love information, it fascinates me to learn new facts, ideas or tips on how to do something better. When I was a kid the primary source of information was from books. I lived in a small country town with a small public library and few shops selling books. In this setting it was achievable to have read all the books available that interested me, and I did just that. It was possible to know the limits of the information available in my small world.

Now it is not possible to know the limits of information available to me with an internet connection. Yet I still have an information scarcity mindset. This belief causes me to hold on to sources of information despite understanding that by the time I get around to reading it that information is likely to be outdated. This is a costly mistake.

The thousands of pdfs stored on my computer are not only taking up bytes, they take up mental space and each causes a mild stress by being unread.

An Information Flood

Information is no longer scarce, we are flooded by it. In a flood the problem in not getting enough water, the real problem is keeping excess water out. Added to having too much water is the issue of it being dirty. There is water pouring in all over the place but it is so contaminated with filth that it is unusable, even hazardous. This is the situation we are now in with information.

Social media channels are like sewers, plenty of content running through them but little of true use to us. If I jump into the Twitter or Facebook feed I’m carried along in the torrent but all it does is waste my time. News websites are not much better, actual news stories are so similar to click bait that it can be tricky differentiating the two.

Search engines such as Google or Bing are not reliable conduits of clean information. They are like using the same bucket for bailing out flood water and collecting drinking water, cross contamination is constantly occurring.

Filters

To avoid the negative effects of misinformation we need to filter our sources. A clean stream can easily be muddied so I have to consciously filter all incoming sources, picking out what is helpful and leaving behind the trash. I do seek out good curators but what is considered useful to that person may not be relevant to me.

The ability to efficiently filter information, both from the flood and also from reliable sources, requires training. Fortunately my work and education have trained me reasonably well. Perhaps this is going to be the primary benefit of having a degree, learning how to identify reliable sources and developing critical thinking skills to discern what is most true.

In our society the scientific method and peer-review are held to be the best information filters. Working at a university I have ready access to such information but even that can go stale and outdated if stored too long.

Storage

Books used to be a great way to store and retrieve information, in some cases they still are. These days so much new information is being generated and it changes so fast that storing information is hardly with the trouble. Assuming I have internet access, all I need is the information required to go about my daily life and work. Holding on to more than that comes at a cost and it will be quickly outdated so unless what I need is historical records there is no point keeping old stuff. The obvious exceptions are photographs and family records.

So back to my original problem, I am flooded with information, I don’t need more and don’t need to keep it all. If I need to know something I can easily look it up. The cost of keeping what I’m not actively using is higher than the small effort required to find anything I want to know.

Rest in the Sun

What most of us need these days is a chance to ‘dry out’, an opportunity to escape the flood and catch our breath. This is related to my goal of reading books rather than blogs this year. I want to stem the tide of incoming information and clear out all the stuff I’m not able to keep up with. This should enable my mind to quieten down, think more clearly and create.