Don’t dream big.

For months I’ve been walking around with this idea in my head. I was planning to turn it into a blog post titled “On not scaling”. It was going to be about deliberately choosing focus over bandwidth in one’s activities. One is often faced with the choice between scaling up (more work, more people, more things, more turnover, more for the sake of more) on the one hand, and simply not scaling on the other, instead holding on to one’s simple and linear way of doing a few things well. The former approach seems to be the one favoured and encouraged by modern society. The latter has become my preference.

I was still planning to write this post, when I ran into a TEDX talk by Jim Zemlin, whose claim to fame (at least for the purpose of his talk), is that he is technically Linus Torvalds’ boss. Linus Torvalds is the gentleman who created Linux. As you might or might not know, Linux is taking over the world at the moment: 1.3 million new telephones running Android (Linux) are switched on for the first time every day, 0.7 million new Linux-running TVs are sold every day, millions of machines at Google and Amazon run Linux, machines which run most of the web-based services that you know, almost the whole internet runs Linux, and many more embedded systems everywhere. Whether you like it or not, and as Jim Zemlin says, you probably interact with Linux multiple times per day in some way or another.

Through his World-changing creation Linux (and don’t forget the distributed version control system git), Linus arguably is one of the most concretely influential people alive today. With this in mind, skip to about 5:20 in the youtube clip (if you don’t have time, you don’t actually have to watch the clip, my summary of the relevant bit is right below):

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When Linus first announced Linux 1991, he wrote I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones. With hindsight, this is a fabulously humble quote. Linus was only interested in the awesome thingamabob he was working on; success and ambition were irrelevant. In the end, his creation changed the world.

From this, Zemlin draws a parallel with something the poet Robert Frost said:

Don’t aim for success if you want it; just do what you love and believe in, and it will come naturally.

I think this is a beautiful life lesson.

Let’s not dream too big.

Just start.

We’ve all been there.

Faced with a daunting and complicated project (thesis, book, building a house, the list goes on), or a whole bunch of projects, you start suffering from an acute sort of brain deadlock, freezing like an antelope in the headlights of the rapidly approaching deadline pick-up truck, yeehawing redneck behind the steering wheel.

Perhaps even worse than the freezing, is the procrastination. You somehow manage to start moving, except that you’re pouring all your energy into everything but the work that you actually need to do. You manage record numbers of facebook / twitter / google+ posts, and you attain mastery of coin-knuckle-rolling (marketable skill #1), but the day ends with you having made no further progress.

"Procrastination" by Viktor Hertz on flickr.
“Procrastination” by Viktor Hertz on flickr.

Both of these responses, infuriating as they may be, are completely natural. The mountain of work seems too high to surmount on time, or there seems to be more complexity than we can cognitively contain, so we simply avoid it in one way or the other.

Fortunately, there is a simple solution: Just start.

Well duh, you say, of course you need to start somewhere. However, what I’m proposing is slightly more subtle. It’s more of a humble and honest life philosophy:

When faced with a daunting project of any size, deliberately and explicitly forget about completing the project. Focus only on making a start. It can be a small start, even an half-hour of focus will do the trick. Pick the most meaningful thing to start on. Take a break. Then do exactly the same. Make another start, and take a break. Look back, remind yourself that that’s another half an hour of good work that is now DONE. Keep on doing this, and keep on telling yourself: “I’m just going to make a another start, nothing big.” By the end of the first day, you will have noticed that all this starting has resulted in output, but far less anxiety and debilitation. You should also have noticed that your attitude with regard to your project has changed for the better.

Continue to focus on starting. Practise picking the most meaningful or important thing to start on. Eventually, you’ll finish your project by starting on it enough times, and soon you will be that person: The one who gets their stuff done.

(This post is inspired by Neil Fiore’s The Now Habit, by the Pomodoro technique, and by my own experience keeping on starting until stuff is done.)

Rhythm of the Night. [Weekly Head Voices #66]

(This post has an extremely high slightly-insane-rambling index (SIRI). You have been warned.)

The rhythm of life

I love Unkle. Here’s the introduction to their song Back and Forth:

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The only life you can get is one made up of ups and downs. The trick is in learning how to deal with the downs, increasing the number and duration of the ups, and enjoying every last drop out of them. This realisation was brought to the surface by a car advert in which the narrator claimed that time in the car equalled “quality time”. I don’t like cars, but I love quality time. It usually comes in little bits and, as I’ve reported before on this very blog, happiness and other important things also come in little bits, interspersed by other often less interesting bits. Although one has a limited extent of control over some parameters of this rhythm of ups and downs, of excitement and boredom, it can never be smoothed out. As is often the case, the best course of action is the zen one: Step outside and try to absorb completely the multi-factorial whole.

Intermezzo – this post’s title was inspired by this Italian masterpiece:

Selling one’s soul to the Virtual

A week ago, I started going through my bookshelf trying to find books that could potentially be given away or sold, freeing up some space for I’m not sure exactly what. Here’s a photo of some of them:

Books traded for space.

Each of these gave me pleasure at some point in my life, taking me on journeys to faraway corners of my imagination. Each of these contributed in some way to the ball of thoughts that is me. Years ago, I would not have considered giving even a single book away. Now I do, because I convince myself that everything is available digitally. I do read on my Kindle, where everything is far more convenient and takes up zero real-world space. I can never lose anything again. If I want anything, I can either find it in my archives or acquire it anew.

Could this line of reasoning, this position, be something that’s really quite insidious? Besides containing information on their pages, the books are tangible and visible reminders of the knowledge that they represent. By getting rid of them, could it be that I’m exchanging parts of my soul for an empty, virtual promise, for oblivion? Maybe the books should remain there, on my bookshelf, as constant physical reminders of the knowledge that they brought me — of all the knowledge that I should continually cultivate and upgrade.

Maybe the time has finally come for the 21st century reboot of Microsoft BOB. :) Then a failed (and the brunt of many jokes) experiment, perhaps now the seeds of a solution to the problem of trading the physical for the virtual. Imagine a private room where you can walk between your virtual bookshelves, a virtual haven to keep your slow, real humanity intact.

Life philosophy that works

Neil deGrasse Tyson is a prominent American astrophysicist and science communicator. Recently he took part in a IAmA session on reddit, where he answered the questions of random reddit users. To the question “What can you tell a young man looking for motivation in life itself?” his answer was the following:

The problem, often not discovered until late in life, is that when you look for things in life like love, meaning, motivation, it implies they are sitting behind a tree or under a rock. The most successful people in life recognize, that in life they create their own love, they manufacture their own meaning, they generate their own motivation.

For me, I am driven by two main philosophies, know more today about the world than I knew yesterday. And lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.

This will definitely find its place in the Unified Dogma of Me (UDM). For now, I’m doing my best to fuse it permanently with my atoms.

Slow philosophy. [Weekly Head Voices #64]

I’ve spent days writing this post in my head, and now it’s taken more than two weeks to get done. It’s not that I have something complicated or difficult to tell you, it’s just that I was privy to three absolutely awesome weeks of vacation in an undisclosed location to the very far south of my current coordinates, during which I attained ultimate levels of relaxation that caused my brain to shut-down large parts of itself. The only parts that managed to remain online were those dedicated to slow living, appreciation of people and surroundings and, finally, deep thought. My brain is currently taking its sweet time to come fully online again.

Oh well.

I did bring you a photo of Disa Uniflora, a special little orchid that likes living close to little waterfalls, for example just like the one that can be found on your hike up Leopard’s Kloof. Look:

Pretty Disa in Leopard's Kloof.

As is usual for sunny vacations during which we transition into a new year, a number of realizations and resolutions slowly bubbled up to the surface from some usually submerged part of my consciousness. I’d like to share some of them with you:

Life goals are bad. Let’s stop doing them. The problem is that humans are awesome at adaptation. Unfortunately this means that two days after having celebrated your latest epic life achievement, you’re bored with it. Some people even get bored with their lives in general, and then buy a leather jacket and a motorbike because they think that that’ll somehow solve the problem, only to get bored with their new image soon after. Fortunately, there is a way to sidestep the problem quite elegantly. Don’t set life goals, but rather set life directions. Instead of defining the point that you want to go towards, define your preferred direction. If you do it right, you’ll pass those points as you go along in any case, except you won’t land in the depressing goal vacuum right after reaching the point that you’ve been moving towards for so long, because you’re motoring along in a direction, and that’s what’s important. To those more mathematically inclined, ignore the life function, rather design its derivatives. This is a practical way of applying the well-known addage that life is about the journey, and not the destination.

Disconnecting is good. I do love the internet. I also think it’s one of the most awesome achievements of the whole of humankind ever, and it really empowers humans everywhere. I’m more or less addicted to being constantly connected, having constant access to the sum total of human knowledge and in principle to a large percentage of my fellow humans. However, there is a fine line between having constant access and being constantly interrupted by too many not necessarily valuable packets of data. We’re very vulnerable to this latter situation, due to our brain chemistry being optimized by all of evolution for novelty, and for foraging, so we keep on clicking on “refresh”, and our ears perk up whenever a phone goes “ping”. However, when not being interrupted, human thought gets the room it needs to grow and deepen, into importance and into impact.

I’ve also been thinking about consumption. I’d like to do much less of that, and when I do, I’d prefer to consume quality. In my thoughts, it was primarily about information, but it applies to many other things. It’s an ongoing process.

I’m adding all of these to my growing list of little life tips. As regular readers of this blog, you know some of these by now: Keep on  striving for balance and harmony, focus on the now, create value, study your manual, and, most importantly, drink lots of coffee. One day I’m going to combine them all nicely into the Unified Dogma of  Me (UDM) and then I’ll start a sect. Seriously though, it’s quite challenging keeping these and the other ones in the front of my mind all the time. The UDM would definitely help. And I could start a sect.

One more thing before you go: I came across this recent PNAS article via the science pages of my newspaper. William Ratcliff and colleagues at the Michigan State University showed with a terribly simple experiment that single-celled yeast cells can evolve into multi-cellularity quite quickly. Pouring yeast from one test tube into another about 60 times, an action that favours, or selects, yeast cells that clump together, resulted into a multi-celled organism: The clumped together yeast cells started showing internal specialization. Pretty awesome results, especially considering the fact that you could probably reproduce this experiment in your kitchen.

That’s all for this week kids. Have fun evolving!

Happiness slingshot. [Weekly Head Voices #61]

Make sure you won’t be disturbed for the next 2 minutes and 57 seconds, and then focus your full attention on this marvelous YouTube clip:

Yes people, there are apparently some brilliant human beings, the pinnacle of our society you might say, who took the time to construct a giant slingshot with which they then proceeded to shoot each other through the blue summer sky. This is the sign that we, the human race, must be doing something right.

Because I need all the time that I can get to play may part in being a good human, I will now switch to Bullet Time(tm):

  • IEEE VisWeek 2011, Mind-Blowingly Awesome Visualization Conference, took place in week 43. For the first time in years, I was NOT there. The TNR went and came back inspired. My fearless and revered ex-leader Frits Post received the IEEE VGTC Visualization Career Award, which is yet another official recognition of his awesomeness. I hope he still has some space on the mantelpiece next to the Eurographics Honorary Fellow award.
  • Through the #visweek conference twitter stream and some of the blogging that was going on, I was able to follow the conference at a distance. There was a Blogging about Visualization BoF (birds of a feather, a kind of informal meeting to discuss some topic of interest; also read Dominikus Baur’s blog report), which motivated me to revive the webblog! We even have a twitter account now. If you have even a mild interest in medical visualisation or imaging, please subscribe via email, your RSS reader or the twitter account.
  • This blog won one of Joe’s official SA Blog Awards! Buy me a beer when you see me.
  • A real Italian explained to me that putting sugar in your espresso is entirely acceptable and even desirable. Herewith I’m going to stop feeling ashamed about my sugar-in-espresso habit. I’m not sure what I was thinking that combining two of the best substances known to humans was a sin.
  • After spending some serious quality time with The Email Game, I wrestled both of my overgrown inboxes to the ground. Lessons learnt: 1) Even the thin layer of gamification offered by The Email Game was sufficient to motivate me to start and finish a task I’ve been dreading for weeks. 2) Inbox Zero actually is more important than I’ve recently come to think. The trick is deciding when exactly you’re going to empty it.
  • Here’s a picture of a hedgehog after a bath:
It's a hedgehog. After a bath!

So recently I was having a conversation with someone in a bar. Soon the question came up: What are you striving for in your work?

Imagine my surprise when I didn’t have an answer ready. I was surprised, because I usually spend a significant amount of time on introspection, pondering the usual questions:

  1. What makes me happy?
  2. Why are we here?
  3. What should I strive for?

I mostly have answers to all of these and more, often involving coffee drinking in some form, along with a healthy dose of perspective, and harmony. However, due to general work-related business the past few months, my moments of introspection have been few and far between. As is the case with these types of philosophical guidelines, one does need to spend time regularly pondering them, else they sink quickly deeper below the surface of everyday life.

So I spent some time trying to remember what it was that I was striving for in work. Fortunately, not that far below the surface, I found it again:

Create value.

That’s really all there is, but it works for me.