C. Sean Burns, PhD, Associate Professor of Information Science, University of Kentucky

The Text, Please. Just the Text.

The following are short thoughts on topics related to academia, writing, science, general observations, and like. Longer essays are on my wiki.

Some routines I find calming

10 June 2019

Although I may fiddle with Vim, terminal, or some other command line settings when I'm procrastinating, it's also true that playing around with these settings or exploring some other part of my work flow can help me find my calm. For example, a few nights ago I felt a bit anxious about life things, and instead of watching some show or reading some book, I went to my laptop and read documentation on the Mutt email client, and I was able to configure Mutt in a way that I had not thought was previously possible, even after using Mutt for something like 15 or so years. The end result was just calming. To get lost in the documentation, to read it closely, to apply it to my application---it was just nice.

Walking is also a calming routine for me, and of course it has health benefits. Exploring technology has some nice practical side effects, too. That is, because I find, generally, the command line to be a much less disruptive, more pleasing computing environment, because of the CLI framework, using it requires me to learn more about computing itself.

Understanding why I like to play with technology helps me be a better teacher. It allows me to empathize, or try to, with my students, and try to understand what they find interesting about exploring or not exploring technical topics. If I can empathize with them about it, then I can help them find their own path and their own joy in understanding the world around them, even if their path or joy is different from mine.

The Product

Academics are the product. Look at our web sites, and it becomes apparent.

The walkers

I walk a lot. I walk to work, to the grocery store, around the neighborhood, to friends' houses, on lunch breaks. I like to walk because it feels good. My legs are often restless and need to move, but I also like to walk because it's a quieting experience.

I've long been a walker. When I lived in the Seattle area, I walked to and from work. It was seven miles each way and took about an hour and 45 minutes. I started drinking coffee because of this walk. I don't remember the weather there being incredibly cold, but it was cold and wet enough to seep through to the bones, and for the first time in my life, black coffee started to taste good and feel restorative. It was then that Seattle made some sense to me.

One of the interesting things about walking is that you are more likely, I think, to notice the other walkers. When I lived in Missouri, there was a woman who was a walker, and I would see her all over town, pretty decent miles apart, just walking, hands in her pocket. Here in Lexington, I know of a number of walkers. There's one man who shares an appearance with Shaggy, but he's much taller, bulked up, and a bit intimidating. He always, always carries papers with him. For years, they were stuffed in a manila envelope. I would see him on the other side of town, and still he had those papers under his left arm, crammed in that manila envelope. Sometime recently he acquired a shoulder bag, which now bursts with those same papers, I assume. It's very mysterious and intriguing. There's another person, I'll call him B, who used to walk all around my neighborhood, but then due to some illness, transferred to a walker, and now he's in a wheelchair. Still, he gets around.

Another interesting thing about being a walker is that I sometimes develop some kind of relationship with other walkers. B and I talk a bit. He knows what I do for a living and just about every time we speak, he tells me he would like to have become a librarian if he could start all over again. It comes across as a life gone wrong kind of regret. Even if we walkers don't speak to each other, there's the nod, although it often has to be earned. When the man with the manila envelope and I first passed each other on the sidewalk five or so years ago, he wouldn't acknowledge me. After a couple of years of this, he began to return my nod, but his nods were always subtle---just a slight downward motion. Nowadays, the nods are deeper and stretched out, but I don't see him very often anymore. More mystery.

There are other walkers, too. There's the guy who works at a local store. We often pass each other on the way to our jobs, located in opposite directions, and may share a couple of words in that passing. Sometimes it feels like it's a disruption to his own quieting, as if acknowledging me is a burden, and I feel bad about that because I respect the quieting. There's the guy who dances as he walks. There are others.

I like the walkers. I don't know if they're good or bad people. I know a little of B's story, but I don't know anything about the others. Maybe I should dare to ask, but I also like the mysteriousness of it all, and I like that they seem to be private people. And I like that they've always been there, no matter where I've lived.

Written and edited in Ed, and touched up in Vim.

On solitude

The right writing tools help, but there are two other problems that deter good work. First, good work requires solitude and long bouts of it. Second, the web has destroyed space. Solitude requires space. Therefore, by entailment, the web has destroyed solitude. My premises overreach and simplify but not by far, I think.

Even as I write this, there's a part of me that wants to go look up something on the web. Even though I haven't had social media in a long time, I still have the desire sometimes to share a tweet or a post. Even if I'm physically alone, the web feels inside me and invasive, and it is noisy.

I need to retrain myself to be disconnected. Back in 1993, when I was a junior in college, I spent a semester at a major research library. There was the occasional letter or phone call, and periodical social gatherings during lunch or in the evening, but for the most part, for nine weeks of that semester, all I did was research. I read, took notes, and wrote, and after a while of this, I put together a long paper. I did that, just as my classmates did, without the web or the internet, and the focus came easy.

It's true that I have many more responsibilities today, but there must be a way to re-train my mind to feel that solitude and find that kind of focus again. I touched it recently. Last summer we went camping for a week. I was alone on the first night and it was great. Even when we were all together, our phones didn't have a connection, and by the end of that week, the focus had begun to return as the world had begun to recede.

I think this summer I'll re-read Erazim Kohák's wonderful book The embers and the stars: A philosophical inquiry into the moral sense of nature. The book was gifted to me by one of my professors when I graduated college and became one of my favorite books, and I think it'll help equip me with the mental tools needed to get that focus back.

Written and edited in ed.

On writing and its tools

It feels like I used to have an academic writing voice and because I had that voice, writing came easily.

I remember when I lost that voice and writing suddenly felt sluggish. I was taking a philosophy course in graduate school and was trying to write a paper on a difficult topic that was also quite new to me, and during the struggle of thinking through the problem, it felt like something cracked in my mind. I could almost hear a once coherent thing in my head fracture like a loud clap on a thunderous night.

My quest to find the perfect writing tools began well before this event. The initial motivation I had for learning Linux was because I found it offered tools, like Vim and Emacs and the terminal itself, that afforded a much nicer, liberating, and less distracting writing experience than the options that were available at the time on other operating systems, but something about that event made that quest hyperactive.

Losing that coherent voice had some odd side effects. I think I can sit down and write despite whatever mood I am in, but the mood will dictate the tool I use. Sometimes sitting at a computer feels stifling and writing just seems impossible. To attempt to write this way feels like I must first break through some great barrier. Then, writing by hand can feel less resistant.

If I continue to use the computer, though, I have to be careful because I can easily get distracted by the tools themselves. I might begin to fiddle too much with my Vim configuration or my terminal settings---altering the terminal color scheme, font type, or font size repeatedly---and end up not writing at all. If I can recognize this frenetic mood quickly enough, but can't write by hand because I need the tools on my computer for some reason, I might switch to a different writing program, like a regular word processor, and find that just by doing so the writing comes more freely.

And then sometimes writing weirdly comes easiest when I am composing an email. I think I may have written half the first draft of my dissertation as Gmail messages to no one. But writing this way, as if I was writing to someone, as if I had an idea of an audience, felt good and was productive. I haven't been able to replicate that experience with the current version of Gmail. The interface has changed too much and writing in Gmail now feels uncomfortable.

While my academic writing voice feels fractured, my creative writing voice does not, but the right tool helps here, too. I have an old 1950s era Smith-Corona typewriter. I use this machine to write for fun---mostly letters to family and friends. Writing this kind of material on this machine has been a relaxing pastime.

Written in longhand. Typed and edited in ed.

Using ed, the standard text editor

I started typing this in the ed text editor. My go-to editor is Vim, but ed can be a respite for even that minimal interface. The problem is that even with editors like Vim, there is still a temptation to mix modes -- to edit as I write. Since I find it much more cumbersome to edit with ed as I write, using ed places more focus on the writing process.

I particularly enjoy writing in ed with the terminal in full screen mode. It is probably overkill because I already use the minimalist i3 (tiled) window manager, but even with i3 and Vim I get distracted by mixing up my modes -- by writing and editing concurrently. Ed forces me to write because switching and working in different modes in ed (input mode to edit mode) is unlike switching and working in different modes in Vim, and the latter is easier. To edit in Vim: press the escape key, move around the screen, make the desired edits, repeat, done. In ed, start a new line, press period (.) to enter command mode, print to screen the range of text to edit, make edits using regular expressions, repeat, done. This is all a bit cumbersome, and the process encourages me to avoid using it.

I do not altogether avoid editing in ed, and a side benefit of editing with ed is that it has made me a more advanced Vim user. Even though I have been using Vim for 15 plus years, I am still learning.

Keeping it minimal

My 30 plus year history with computing has been a history of keeping things minimal.

In the 80s, I had a Tandy 1000 SL with, I think, MS-DOS 3.x. That computer lasted for about six or seven years, and I enjoyed it and learned a lot about computers by primarily using the DOS command line.

I brought my computer with me when I went to college in 1991, but I also used the computers in the college's library. I don't know what kind of computers these were, but what I really liked about them was that they had WordPerfect 5.1. Like the word processors we have today, I didn't use the vast majority of the functions WP 5.1 offered, but what I liked about it was that, like all DOS-based applications at the time, its interface was minimal. I felt comfortable and at home in that DOS minimalism, and have never stopped seeking or recreating it since.

My Tandy stopped booting sometime around 1994 or so, and I graduated at the end of 1995. I went several years without my own computer, but in 1998 I started working for a company and had to use a computer with Windows 95, and then later I bought my next computer, which had Windows 98.

The graphical user interface was entirely new to me, and I hated how busy it was. In the early 2000s, it occurred to me that it would be nice to install WP 5.1 on my computer so that I could have that full screen, single application interface that I found so appealing. By this time, it was already too late. WP 5.1 was gone, but in my search, I found other ways to recreate a minimal writing experience when I found Emacs, and then Vi/Vim, and of course, Linux. It's now been about 16 years since I first installed Linux.

The computing world had only grown more complicated and busy, but I still like to keep it as simple as I can. I use the i3 window manager, after having used ratpoison for years. I practically live in the terminal, and Bash, Vim, and Mutt are my primary applications. If I could only use w3m all of the time, I'd be even happier.