Notes from The Printing Revolution

I’ve been reading The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe by Elizabeth Eisenstein on the transition of Europe from a scribal culture to a printing culture. In referencing Michael Clapham:

A man born in 1453, the year of the fall of Constantinople, could look back from his fiftieth year on a lifetime in which about eight million books had been printed, more perhaps than all the scribes of Europe had produced since Constantine founded his city in A.D. 330.

The printing press had an immense and hard to correlate impact on the past 600 years. How will we build the tools and discover the norms that will shape the next 600 years? Here are some quotes that jumped out at me from the third chapter on the “features of print culture”.

“Increased output and altered intake”

To consult different books it was no longer so essential to be a wandering scholar. Successive generations of sedentary scholars were less apt to be engrossed by a single text and expend their energies in elaborating on it. The era of the glossator and commentator came to an end, and a new “era of intense cross referencing between one book and another” began.

Merely by making more scrambled data available, by increasing the output of Aristotelian, Alexandrian, and Arabic texts, printers encouraged efforts to unscramble these data. Some medieval coastal maps had long been more accurate than many ancient ones, but few eyes had seen either.

Contradictions became more visible, divergent traditions more difficult to reconcile.

Printing encouraged forms of combinatory activity which were social as well as intellectual. It changed relationships between men of learning as well as between systems of ideas.

The new wide-angled, unfocused scholarship went together with a new single-minded, narrowly focused piety. At the same time, practical guidebooks and manuals also became more abundant, making it easier to lay plans for getting ahead in this world – possibly diverting attention from uncertain futures in the next one.

“Considering some effects produced by standardization”

The very act of publishing errata demonstrated a new capacity to locate textual errors with precision and to transmit this information simultaneously to scattered readers.

Sixteenth-century publications not only spread identical fashions but also encouraged the collection of diverse ones.

Concepts pertaining to uniformity and to diversity – to the typical and to the unique – are interdependent. They represent two sides of the same coin. In this regard one might consider the emergence of a new sense of individualism as a by-product of the new forms of standardization.

It’s interesting to think of printing and the uniformity it spread as the birth of individualism. Does the internet, by connecting highly dispersed but like minded people into tight niches bring about a reduction of individualism? Bubbles of conformity within your tribe?

no precedent existed for addressing a large crowd of people who were not gathered together in one place but were scattered in separate dwellings and who, as solitary individuals with divergent interests, were more receptive to intimate interchanges than to broad-gauged rhetorical effects.

There is simply no equivalent in scribal culture for the “avalanche” of “how-to” books which poured off the new presses

“Reorganizing texts and reference guides: rationalizing, codifying, and cataloguing data”

printers with regard to layout and presentation probably helped to reorganize the thinking of readers.

Basic changes in book format might well lead to changes in thought patterns… For example, printed reference works encouraged a repeated recourse to alphabetical order.

Alphabetical ordering. The simplest of sorting algorithms. Today it seems that has been taken by reverse chronological sorting. Only the most recent thing is important.

“From the corrupted copy to the improved edition”

A sequence of printed herbals beginning in the 1480s and going to 1526 reveals a “steady increase in the amount of distortion,” with the final product – an English herbal of 1526 – providing a “remarkably sad example of what happens to visual information as it passed from copyist to copyist.” … data tended to get garbled at an ever more rapid pace. But under the guidance of technically proficient masters, the new technology also provided a way of transcending the limits which scribal procedures had imposed upon technically proficient masters in the past.

fresh observations could at long last be duplicated without being blurred or blotted out over the course of time.

“Considering the preservative powers of print: fixity and cumulative change”

Of all the new features introduced by the duplicative powers of print, preservation is possibly the most important.

as edicts became more visible, they also became more irrevocable. Magna Carta, for example, was ostensibly “published”

Copying, memorizing, and transmitting absorbed fewer energies.

“Amplification and reinforcement: the persistence of stereotypes and of sociolinguistic divisions”

Both “stereotype” and “cliché” are terms deriving from typographical processes developed three and a half centuries after Gutenberg.

an unwitting collaboration between countless authors of new books and articles. For five hundred years, authors have jointly transmitted certain old messages with augmented frequency even while separately reporting on new events or spinning out new ideas.


Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. (2012-03-29). The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe (Canto Classics). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

Bash Your Day

For the past six months or so I’ve used a bash script to start my morning. The genesis of this idea was that I wanted to be more effective at prioritizing reviewing other peoples’ code and writing my own code. Assuming the number of hours one puts into work is fixed (because that is the only way for life to be sustainable), that means that I need to cut back on other things. The obvious things to minimize are time spent in Slack, on P2s (Automattic’s internal blogs), and time spent being distracted in the middle of the day because I can’t focus for whatever reason.

I decided to adapt the idea of reducing the number of decisions to make inspired a bit by Obama always wearing the same suit to reduce cognitive load. Rather than randomly looking at slack/p2s/email in the morning and trying to navigate how to go from one to then next, all I need to do is start a script, and it walks me methodically through everything I think I need to look at in the morning before I can really get to work coding. Eliminate having to think about what to look at and have some gentle reminders to prevent me from getting stuck doing things that aren’t really that important.

Screen Shot 2016-12-12 at 9.34.27 AM.png

The Script Basics

There are three fundamental functions in my script:
1. i_do_say(): Sends a message to the OS X notifications system and to the say command (advanced usage: speed up the rate and change the voice)
2. timed_msg(): sends a string to i_do_say(), then it waits the specified amount of time. The timer can be interrupted by hitting any key.
3. timed_confirm(): repeatedly calls i_do_say() every X seconds, prompting me to finish up and move on. There is an initial message, and then a second message that repeats indefinitely. I can type ‘d’ to add an extra 5 minutes of delay to the time.

The timed_msg() and timed_confirm() commands can be chained with && so if you cancel out of one then the following commands will be skipped. This makes it easy to have multiple messages in a group, but easily jump to the next thing when you are done. Here’s a good example:

timed_msg "Start five minutes of slack and IRC" 3 &&
timed_msg "Finish slack and IRC in two minutes" 2 &&
timed_confirm "Ready for alerts?" "Does today look like a catch up morning?" 180

I mix these commands along with some others like:

  • Opening a link in my email open
  • Closing slack: osascript -e 'quit app "Slack"'
  • Opening emacs: osascript -e 'activate application "emacs"'
  • Starting music: osascript -e 'tell application "iTunes"' -e 'set new_playlist to "Coding" as string' -e "play playlist new_playlist" -e "end tell"

The full repo of my scripts are in

I have a reasonably complicated script for my morning with a couple options depending on what I am trying to work on. Some days you just know there is a lot of communication to catch up on, so the idea of quitting slack really won’t work, but my default is to get through Slack/P2s/Alerts/Planning/Meditation in about 30-40 minutes and then close Slack and start on reviewing other people’s code. Optimize for unblocking other people and getting myself to work on writing code (which typically is also about enabling someone else). The morning is also when I am the freshest, so it’s a good time to be coding. Once I get more tired in the afternoon I can get back to closing all those tabs I opened in the morning.

I also have a few other scripts:

  • Ending my day to set myself up for being successful tomorrow (close tabs!)
  • Lunch time I usually eat at my desk, good time to empty email and close tabs
  • A script to get me to close out slack again and get back to coding

Most days I find I only use the morning script. I still need to experiment more with whether the other scripts are helpful.

My Morning

You can see all of this in my morning script, but I thought I would run through my thinking:

  • 5 min: Slack and IRC: if something needs a lot of attention this is usually how I will find out. My main goal here though is to find things that need to be prioritized
  • 2 min: Look at alerts in my email: again, check for any fires
  • 5 min: open p2s, see if there are any I really need to respond to. This is my biggest weakness, ts hard to put off responding until later in the afternoon.
  • 5 min: looking at my to do list and choosing what to work on (all in org-mode in emacs)
  • 2-10 min: Meditation – recently added. it’s ramping up over the next few weeks from 2 minutes to start building the habit up to 10 minutes a day where I’d like to be. The ramp up is all scripted too: see timed_weekly_ramp(). I’ve tried fitting meditation into my day a few different ways before with not great success. I thought this may be good way to build the habit.
  • 5 min: Journal – I do a better job working on the important things if I do some amount of reflection. Recently this has been turning into a blog post which I’d like to make more often.
  • 2 min: write a standup report (2-5 lines) for my team about what I did yesterday and what I’m doing today
  • Music starts. I start reviewing code. Script prompts (repeatedly) me to close Slack. Eventually I do.
  • Move on to writing my own code. Prompt is just to write for 10 minutes. Once I get started I don’t tend to stop. Getting started in the face of distractions is usually the biggest problem.

Last week I also added a few options such as explicitly having catch up mornings when I have been away from work for a few days. Rather than pushing me into coding, those focus on getting me to clean out my inbox, and respond to p2s. Some days it is better to just admit to myself that I need to focus on communication rather than coding.


So what impact did this have? Well, thanks to using Rescuetime to track my time over the past five years I have some pretty good data on that. I have my time broken into 5 categories: Most Productive (coding and code review), Productive (Slack, P2s, email), Neutral (mostly random websites), Distracting (Twitter), and Most Distracting (HackerNews, Talking Points Memo, other sites I refresh too often).

By comparing the past 6 months to the 6 months before that I can more or less see how much having these scripts impacted the percentage of time I spend in each of these categories:

  • Most Productive: up 27.7% (more coding and code review!)
  • Productive: down 14% (yay, less Slack!) Went from being 48% of my time down to 41%.
  • Neutral: down 22.6% (a lot fewer random sites!)
  • Distracting: down 13%
  • Most Distracting: down 9%

These metrics aren’t perfect, since what I work on varies over time. When I’m working on lots of hiring there is a lot more time spent on communication for instance. Its a little hard to correct for variations, but I’ve tried to look at the data for some shorter periods also and I get similar results.

I’m pretty convinced that using a script to push me through the morning both makes me feel more productive, and it does have a big impact on how I spend my time.