The case of the disappearing, reappearing dictionary

I was a vora­cious read­er from a rather ear­ly age. I recall hav­ing had my read­ing lev­el, in first or sec­ond grade, assessed at that of an eighth‐grader.

My read­ing prowess could be attrib­uted to a few things, like my par­ents read­ing to me from a young age, and often encour­ag­ing me to read to them. More impor­tant­ly, if I came across a word I didn’t know and asked them what it meant, they almost always made me go look it up in the dic­tio­nary. I had a children’s dic­tio­nary that I adored, but for words that didn’t appear in there, I’d use their musty col­le­giate dic­tio­nary. This fos­tered an envi­ron­ment where lit­er­al­ly no word was beyond my com­pre­hen­sion, an empow­er­ing feel­ing for a pre‐geek with a single‐digit age!

As I grew up, I didn’t always man­age to keep read­ing with such vol­ume and tenac­i­ty, and today, while I read tons of bits and blogs from the Web, long‐form con­tent isn’t some­thing I take in a lot of. When I do, it tends to be an e‐book. (I read these, in epub for­mat, on my Android phone using the excel­lent open‐source FBRead­er. Yes, read­ing off of a small back­lit screen sucks, but this is mit­i­gat­ed by a nice serif font and the knowl­edge that, as I’m often read­ing in the dark, I wouldn’t real­ly be able to read any oth­er way.)

As I read, still I come across the occa­sion­al word I don’t know. These days, my main dic­tio­nary (either Free Dic­tio­nary Org or Lex­i­con Lite) also lives inside of my phone. FBRead­er doesn’t have its own built‐in, and to switch to anoth­er app is kind of a pain, so I’ve late­ly been find­ing myself shrug­ging off unknown terms. I have become the sort of per­son who stopped learn­ing new words.

This both­ered me, so I decid­ed that, damn the incon­ve­nience, I would start look­ing up words again. Once I tried, I learned that it actu­al­ly wasn’t so hard, after all.

The secret (if you could call it that) was to long‐hold my phone’s Home but­ton. This is the equiv­a­lent to the Alt+Tab key com­bi­na­tion in Lin­ux and Win­dows, which allows you to flip through open apps (only, in Android, it’s a list of the six most recent­ly used apps, open or oth­er­wise). As long as the dic­tio­nary is among the last six, it’ll appear in that list… as does FBRead­er, when it’s time to switch back. This is much more enjoy­able than going back to the home screen, flip­ping open the apps draw­er, etc.

I guess that’s a pass­able not‐so‐new‐anymore year’s res­o­lu­tion: to leave no word un‐lexicized.

More introduction (this time, the geek side)

I under­stand that self‐identifying as a geek in 2010 makes me nei­ther cool nor spe­cial, now that geeks are con­sid­ered… you know… cool and spe­cial. But hav­ing laid out my blog­ging cred, I’d still like to make the case for the geek side of the equa­tion (equa­tions being some­thing I actu­al­ly know very lit­tle about).

Yep, a dis­taste for math­e­mat­ics cur­tailed dreams of study­ing com­put­er sci­ence, or some­thing along those lines, in col­lege. Back in mid­dle school, how­ev­er, I was hap­pi­ly hack­ing BASIC in my school’s Apple //e lab. I had sort of a knack for it; in com­put­er class, I raced through the pack­et of pro­grams we were required to tran­scribe faster than any­one else, and began spend­ing my time writ­ing my own pro­grams, which would do things like tell my friend that his favorite foot­ball team sucked, repeat­ed­ly, through the mag­ic of 20 GOTO 10.

I didn’t real­ly apply this knowl­edge very well at the time; it would still be a cou­ple of years before I had a com­put­er at home. And even when I final­ly did, a com­plete­ly awe­some Pen­tium 166 MHz IBM Apti­va1 run­ning Win­dows 95, I didn’t quite know how to get start­ed pro­gram­ming on it.2

Anoth­er device appeared in my life a few years after the com­put­er; I received a TI‐83 graph­ing cal­cu­la­tor for use in Alge­bra II. I ini­tial­ly found that it made a great mobile Tetris machine, but it wasn’t until read­ing Bill Gates’ The Road Ahead, in which he recount­ed his ear­ly days pro­gram­ming prim­i­tive com­put­ers, that I found myself inspired to do more with it.3

The cal­cu­la­tor seemed like a good place to start pro­gram­ming, espe­cial­ly because the user man­u­al con­tained an entire chap­ter devot­ed to teach­ing the TI‐BASIC lan­guage! I picked this up pret­ty quick­ly, since I still remem­bered a lot of con­cepts from Apple BASIC. In my junior year of high school, I was soon writ­ing pro­grams to help me take short­cuts to solv­ing math and sci­ence prob­lems. But most impor­tant­ly, I want­ed to make games.

So I made a game. How I did so could be its own entry, and very well may be in the future.

This inspired me to sign up for the Com­put­er Pro­gram­ming I elec­tive in my senior year. They taught us Visu­al Basic, and the class was nei­ther inter­est­ing nor fun. This, paired with the real­iza­tion that study­ing com­put­er sci­ence in col­lege meant tak­ing lots of math (some­thing I’d always heard, but col­lege course cat­a­logs assured), made it clear that I should focus on the oth­er thing I liked doing: writ­ing.

I majored in com­mu­ni­ca­tions, and the rest is his­to­ry. Except for a fruit­less for­ay into Python a cou­ple of years ago, I haven’t pro­grammed much late­ly.

But I still embody, I think, the hack­er ethos. For me, 2005 could also have been called the myth­i­cal Year of Lin­ux on the Desk­top, thanks to the then‐nascent, but still quite amaz­ing, Ubun­tu dis­tri­b­u­tion. While it was alien to me, and didn’t quite ‘just work’ on my lap­top, I per­se­vered (smug Windows‐using friends would say I “suf­fered”) and use it to this day. I love Ubun­tu, and it still… almost just works.

Along the same geek lines, doing more with the devices I own seems to be a recur­ring theme in my life. These days. I car­ry in my pock­et a root­ed Android phone (run­ning Cyanogen­Mod), and at home have a homebrew‐enabled Nin­ten­do Wii and DS, a Canon Pow­er­Shot sport­ing CHDK, and Linksys routers run­ning the dd‐wrt and Toma­to firmwares. My (lack of) skill‐set means that you won’t find me help­ing the cause of hack­ing open a new device, but I’m glad to file the occa­sion­al bug. In short, I like to get as much as pos­si­ble out of my devices, includ­ing, quite lit­er­al­ly, my data. Back­up is a top­ic I’ll be com­ing back to, for sure.

I think that about sums up my geek side (and unin­ten­tion­al­ly makes a pret­ty good case for my navel‐gazing side).

  1. Mine looked exact­ly like the tow­er pic­tured there!
  2. Let’s remem­ber this when we talk about the iPad.
  3. My 2010‐self is a lit­tle embar­rassed by hav­ing drawn geek­spi­ra­tion from Bill Gates, but you’re read­ing a truth­ful blog.