Tedium - Repetition, In Four Parts 🔁

We’re repeating ourselves with this one.

Hunting for the end of the long tail • October 06, 2021

Today in Tedium: So, I’m not sure you’re aware, but a lot of the way I’ve come to write these pieces is that I start with a rabbit hole, and keep digging until I find the end. It’s a process I’ve refined over the years, but not one I’ve perfected. One challenge is that the rabbit hole can sometimes threaten to get out of hand—perhaps I dive too far into one specific angle and it threatens to consume every bit of the midnight oil. Perhaps closing a thread is harder than it looks. So, today, I’m going to try an experiment. Inspired by my secondary newsletter MidRange, in which I tackle a single topic in half an hour (what do you mean you don’t subscribe to it? Let’s fix that), I’m going to write today’s Tedium around a single theme, with no one part getting longer than half an hour of insight. There will be four parts (with maybe some numbers and quotes to break things up), and all will touch upon one small aspect of a larger whole. (And just as with MidRange, there will be a timer at the bottom of each section letting you know how close I got to the arbitrary 30 minute deadline I gave myself.) Today’s theme? Repetition. Hopefully this model will be something I can repeat in the future. — Ernie @ Tedium

“Everybody stand back. I know regular expressions.”

— A line from issue 208 of XKCD, a webcomic famed for its use of programming humor. To those who don’t program, regular expressions kind of seem like a form of practical magic, parsing strings and numbers to help you find the proverbial needle in a haystack.

Reg Ex Example

An example of regular expressions, as used in the case of un-sanitized CSV files, on the website RegExr.

Why regular expressions are awesome, even if they can get incredibly hacky

So, if you look at the code in the website I run, one thing you’ll likely find all over the place are regular expressions. These regular expressions are a key part of any content management approach—the are essentially patterns used to parse text, they add and remove stuff as needed, and they are otherwise pretty friggin’ amazing, especially if you come up with one that is foolproof. They make repetition slightly less awful.

The rub when it comes to regex is that the syntax is often incredibly complex—to the layperson, regular expressions in PHP or Javascript might as well look like someone just smashed a bunch of keys together on their keyboard.

But there is a method to the madness, and the madness was discovered by a mathematician named Stephen Cole Keane. In 1951, he released a document, which exists in full on the Rand Corporation website, titled “Representation of Events In Nerve Nets and Finite Automata.” Keane’s definition is fairly dense, but basically leans on the idea of finite automata, or a limited number of states based on a description. (“We would welcome any suggestions as to a more descriptive term,” he wrote.)

Basically, a regular expression leans on the setting of a number of basic states—essentially, if something happens based on a specific event sequence, the machine will react in a specific way. Think find and replace, except on overdrive.

Key to its uptake in the computing space (and responsible for a lot of other elements of computers that we use today), is Ken Thompson, one of the inventors of the UNIX operating system. Fellow Unix inventor Dennis Ritchie, who died in 2011, wrote of Thompson’s text editor QED, one of the first computer-based implementations of regular expressions:

Ken Thompson used this QED at Berkeley before he came to Bell Labs, and among the first things he did on arriving was to write a new version for the MIT CTSS system. Written in IBM 7090 assembly language, it differed from the Berkeley version most notably in introducing regular expressions for specifying strings to seek within the document being edited, and to specify a substring for which a substitution should be made. Until that time, text editors could search for a literal string, and substitute for one, but not specify more general strings.

Ken not only introduced a new idea, he found an inventive implementation: on-the-fly compiling. Ken’s QED compiled machine code for each regular expression that created a NDFA (non-deterministic finite automaton) to do the search. He published this in C. ACM 11 #6, and also received a patent for the technique: US Patent #3568156. (Who said you couldn’t get a software patent until recently?)

One can see the threads between what Thompson did and the modern manifestations of artificial intelligence, though you might have to squint to see them.

Now regex, if you’re a programmer, you know it all too well, and it can likely introduce some bad practices if not used carefully. But it’s also a useful tool that I think a lot of regular users don’t take advantage of enough. It’s great for automating the parsing of text. I have a tool I rely on a lot called TextSoap, part of the SetApp offering, that allows me to clean text using regular expressions, making it perfectly formatted in every way possible. At one point, I got so good at using regex that I came up with a way to generate an entire newsletter template using nothing but a couple of TextWrangler scripts that relied on regex.

If you want to play around with it yourself, I recommend the tool RegExr, which is a really great sandbox for learning the ins and outs of regex. (If you’re not a programmer, you need a sandbox.)

One last thing, if anyone from Google is reading this: Why does Google Docs have support for finding things using regex, but not replacing them? It’s like you gave us an amazing steak dinner but no way to eat it. If you ask me, that’s a worse crime than Google’s ineptitude at chat.

Time limit given ⏲: 30 minutes

Time left on clock ⏲: 1 minute, 23 seconds

“I’m not a Cher fan. I just don’t think my aesthetic taste lies in her direction.”

— Cher, in a 2017 interview about her life and career. Despite the massive success her music has brought her, she hates many of her own songs, most notably “Believe,” a track she disliked so much that she stormed out of the studio when it was being recorded … only for the producer to then use auto-tune to work around that, giving the song the hook it needed to become a mega-hit.

Do popular musicians get sick of playing the same songs hundreds of times?

As I get into writing this portion of the piece, I just turned on an important song in the context of this discussion: Radiohead’s “Creep,” specifically the Very 2021 remix that Thom Yorke released earlier this year. It’s nine minutes long. If I repeat it three times I will get near the 30 minute mark.

Radiohead, famously, stopped playing this song live for many years, and it’s such a rare occurrence for it to appear that when the band plays it, it becomes news. Radiohead essentially realized that there was no point in playing this song at every concert, that it got in the way of their artistic goals, so they didn’t, and usually resurface it in weird forms like this.

Compare this to other bands that have been around for nearly as long: Pearl Jam, a workhorse live band that has performed more than a thousand shows, has never played any of its songs at every single concert, but if you go to one of their shows, there is a four in five chance that you will hear “Even Flow,” which they’ve played at 851 separate shows. (Not far behind is the next track on Ten, “Alive,” which is played at three-quarters of the band’s shows.) This is all tracked on liveFootsteps, a website that tabulates all of Pearl Jam’s 1,043 concerts.

(Excuse me, I have to restart the song.)

The Red Hot Chili Peppers have an albatross of their own in the form of “Under the Bridge,” the second-most-played song in their repertoire after “Give it Away.” What’s the problem? Well, the studio version of the song ends with a goddamn choir, which Anthony Kedis’ voice is just not good enough to recreate, no matter how hard he tries. John Frusciante famously attempted to sabotage the song on Saturday Night Live in 1992, throwing Kedis off, but the song became one of the band’s signature songs anyway. For a few years, the band stopped playing it, but came back to it.

But what about bands without the prestige of Pearl Jam or Radiohead? What do they do? Smash Mouth probably wouldn’t get out of the venue alive if they didn’t play “All Star” and “Walking on the Sun,” despite the fact you hear both of those songs a couple of times a day by accident.

(Restarting the song one more time.)

I think the challenge for a lot of rock bands is that they don’t get to decide which song of theirs takes over the world. Both Noel and Liam Gallagher, not exactly known for their tight relationship, both admit to hating “Wonderwall,” which I’m sure they’ve had to play a bajillion times, with Noel saying: “Outside of England, it’s the one we’re famous for all over the world, and it annoys the fuck out of me. It’s not a fucking rock and roll tune. There’s quite a vulnerable statement to it.”

I once saw Oasis on the best triple bill of all time: The Tour of Brotherly Love, with the Black Crowes and Spacehog. And at the end of the show, I was actually kind of stunned because they didn’t play “Wonderwall.”

But you know what, I’m sure they were sick of it. Wouldn’t you be if you played it every night and heard it everywhere?

(Surprisingly, just as I finished that line, the song ended its third play-through. Not bad!)

Time limit given ⏲: 30 minutes

Time left on clock ⏲: 2 minutes, 43 seconds

46.9%

The percentage of each day people spend thinking about things other than what they’re actually doing, according to a 2010 study by Harvard psychology researchers. “The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost,” said researcher Matthew A. Killingsworth.

Dishes

I read somewhere that Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates like doing dishes even though they don’t need to, because they appreciate the mental space it offers. (Tracey Hocking/Unsplash)

Why, if you need to think about something creatively, manual labor is a great path forward

Based on my writings in MidRange, you might think I’m a pretty boring guy. I’ve written about cleaning processes, multiple times in fact. I’ve discussed how interesting it is to wander around Goodwill. I’ve cheered on the virtues of yak shaving.

So why do I cheer on the virtues of mundanity? Well, I think a big part of it is that it often creates opportunities to think and open your mind up and ponder the big issues.

As Henry David Thoreau put it once, “The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” Doing work like cleaning or making changes on a CMS, often creates just enough headroom to make things a little more clear.

In fact, these silent moments in-between helped to inspire the idea of Tedium. I was walking home one night, less than a block away from my apartment, thinking about this newsletter idea I was playing with. Suddenly, in my thinking, a name emerged. And now, all these years later, you’re reading a series of indulgent essays about how I repeat myself.

In all seriousness, though, there is research that supports this. In 2012, researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of British Columbia, and the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive Brain Sciences did a study in which subjects were asked to come up with a pair of ideas, then given a task to complete, either demanding, or non-demanding. The result found that when the mind was allowed to wander when the task was non-demanding, the person came up with better overall ideas.

“Anecdotal accounts of the inception of creative ideas have long implicated mind wandering in the creative process. The findings reported here provide arguably the most direct evidence to date that conditions that favor mind wandering also enhance creativity,” the report states.

So the result is, I’m going all these paths, sometimes repeatedly, and finding inspiration along the way. But the challenge right now is that there are competing forces for that creativity right now, in the form of the daily chaos of the news and political cycle, so there is a legitimate threat that the outside noise might overwhelm the simple, mind-enhancing feelings of doing a repetitive task.

So I encourage you, if you’re struggling to come up with an idea, do some incredibly mundane task and allow yourself to think about something other than the thing you’re doing. I was making changes to a CMS, myself, and that inspired me to write this piece about repetition.

May you find some inspiration of your own in odd places.

Time limit given ⏲: 30 minutes

Time left on clock ⏲: 7 minutes, 31 seconds

31,507

The number of episodes of television that the average person will watch in their life, according to a 2019 survey of British adults done at the behest of a company that sells television sets, LG. That’s a lot of hours glued to a screen—between TV and movies, the survey anticipates 78,705 hours of viewing time in a lifetime, which is a lot.

Golden Girls

I bet the Golden Girls saw a lot of reruns in their lives. Especially Betty White.

Why doing things you’ve done before, like watching a sitcom episode for the 50th time, can help you make sense of a complex world

At this point, I’ve written a lot of pieces for this newsletter, and I look back at the old ones and wonder if I could have done more (which is often why I refresh old pieces).

But one I feel has held up pretty well is this piece about why we watch the same Christmas movies every single year, despite knowing the plots. The thing is, we do it for the benefit of our own memories of watching these things.

But in recent years, this phenomenon has expanded significantly with the rise of streaming, as shows like The Office and The Golden Girls become things we can repeat over and over on TV. During the start of the pandemic especially, it became important to go back to these old tomes and watch them anew. We don’t merely want to watch the show. We want to get a hold of a simpler time.

Magic of Scheherazade

Listen to the people of the town.

And this isn’t limited just to old TV shows or movies. Recently, I’ve taken to playing NES games that I loved the concept of, but for one reason or another I never finished. I started with The Magic of Scheherazade, one of the rare games set in the Middle East to make an appearance on the NES. Admittedly, some of the art and storylines in the game have not aged well. But the game itself is fun, combining action and turn-based RPG elements, and it was worth following through. Currently I’m on Legacy of the Wizard.

The nostalgia I feel for these games is basically comfort food. I’ve played these games before. I’ll play them again, most likely. But I can enjoy them without having to worry about whether I finish them. If I do, great; if not, no big deal. I just want the relaxation more than anything else.

And this is not a trend limited to the United States. In India, for example, people were watching old Hindu religious dramas as comfort food of sorts during the first two months of the pandemic.

“In the midst of a pandemic that levels all, the chosen and the downtrodden, many of us fantasize about a return to a golden, simple past,” said Dibakar Banerjee, a filmmaker, on this phenomenon.

Nostalgia is slow repetition, and it’s worth thinking about it that way, if you aren’t. We’re not doing it all the time, or at a feverish pace. But it is the occasional shot that we need to make it in a world that seems to make less sense than ever.

Now excuse me while I repeat my valiant efforts to win these old games that won’t love me back.

Time limit given ⏲: 30 minutes

Time left on clock ⏲: 11 minutes, 36 seconds

Often, the best way to tackle a challenge with creativity is by building a process behind it, something that is repeatable and can be done in an efficient way.

It is not as easy as saying, “Yo, I’m starting a blog” to get going as a digital writer. Instead, you need to put the work in, and that might get to the point where you’re launching your own server or designing your own logos. But you ultimately keep it going by your track record. That’s why repetition is good. You want some tricks to move you forward.

As for this experiment, I wrote the meat of this article in about two hours, and I even had time to grab a snack in between. I have to grab a few numbers and quotes to fill it out but this is a much swifter process to writing a newsletter like this. See, sometimes experimentation is a good thing!

Never stay stationary. Repeating yourself is fine, but twist the formula a little along the way to keep things interesting. That’s what John Frusciante does with “Under the Bridge,” I hear.

--

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