Weekly Head Voices #133: Onder in my Whiskeyglas.

The legendary Koos Kombuis (aka André Letoit) performing with Schalk Joubert on bass and Vernon Swart on percussion in the Helderberg Nature reserve, eponymous mountain visible through the trees on the right. This was a surprisingly amazing end to the week.

What a week.

It was beautiful to see the whole team step up to the plate and engineer at about 110% throughput (software gets complicated quickly, and there’s always one more thing you need to get done before the deliverable is ready), all the while remaining calm and, most importantly, kind.

Pro-tip Special

I was of course the lucky winner of the manual-writing sub-project. I love writing code, but there’s also something quite satisfying about writing documentation for a technical product. Anyways, there are five tiny but hopefully useful lessons I extracted from this exercise which I would like to present here:

  1. I’ve lamented the sorry state of the Windows console before (in 2011 to be exact). In a surprise twist, the Windows console still sucks almost 7 years later. At least it’s reliable. Anyways, cmder is a great console replacement which makes some of the stupid go away, somewhat.
  2. The Windows 10 built-in screenshot facility … wait for it… sucks. When you’re writing documentation you need a tool that fits into your workflow. Keyboard shortcut – window or region – image ends up in a directory of your choice. Greenshot is an open source screenshotting tool that does this with aplomb.
  3. You need to show a CHM (Windows Help) file to the user of your wxPython application when they hit F1. How hard could it be? Well, you could spend a number of hours trying to come up with a wx-y cross-platform solution, or you could use that time for something else worth your while and just use the Python win32 package to call into the official Windows help API. (cross-platform does work, it’s just really ugly)
  4. Sphinx is a much better tool to write technical manuals than is Markdown and related tools. I briefly considered Markdown because I always have to look up reStructuredText syntax, but fortunately ran into enough other places warning against using Markdown for documentation. For the record, I prefer orgmode over all of these puny formats in most other cases, but the documentation story of Sphinx with reStructuredText is admittedly much better.
  5. Start writing the manual as early as possible. It was amazing to see how this helped me to see the software we are designing at a more integrated (user) level. This knowledge was useful in driving more valuable improvements. If you can’t explain the flow of some procedure in a manual, that’s a good sign the procedure might need some refinement.

Humble Book Bundle and Rust

I bought the Humble Bundle of (O’Reilly) Functional Programming Books for a super affordable $15. I was primarily interested in the Programming Rust book by Blandy and Orendorff, but the other titles on Scala, Clojure, Erlang, Elixir, Haskell, Javascript and general functional programming are welcome additions to my library. Speaking of which, I emailed O’Reilly to ask if the books in the bundle could be added to my member library, which they promptly did!

I have avoided Rust up to now due to natural hype suppression circuitry, and because I grew up with C++, but its zero-overhead memory safety and trustworthy concurrency story makes it hard to ignore any longer. Even although Andrei Alexandrescu once called Rust the language that skips leg day, it’s certainly interesting seeing the constructs the language designers have come up to build a really fast compiled language with the lowest number of foot-guns per line of code.

Anyways, when this blog gets published, you should still have about 22 hours to make use of the Humble Bundle deal if you too see something that you like.

Life is continuous practice

I wanted to conclude with something that I’ve been thinking about recently. It has to do with explicitly treating one’s life as continuous practice. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog and people much smarter than me have been pointing out since forever, goals are no good and (lasting) happiness is probably not attainable.

Discarding as many as possible of these sorts of fetters is liberating (you Buddhist), but can seem to leave holes in one’s  life narrative. However, treating your life as a super long practice session is an interesting perspective.

There is also no end point, and no real life goal.

The only point of the whole exercise (yes, I see what I did there) is to try to improve continuously. Every day, we try to become a little better at our jobs, or at running, or at being a good human, or a partner, or a parent.

Practice means that you have good days and bad days. It means that you sometimes look back and think that you were a better person then than you are now. Practice means that when you pick one activity, another will temporarily languish until you can make time for it again.

All of this is ok, because tomorrow you have a whole new day to try again.

9 thoughts on “Weekly Head Voices #133: Onder in my Whiskeyglas.”

  1. I disagree about your view on goals. Humans are a targeting species. We need something to aim at or we feel adrift. Your goals should move as you move toward them, so practically speaking it’s the same thing as your continuous practice sentiment. In that sense, you’re right, there is no “end goal”. But we need family goals, career goals, financial, emotional and health goals. If you can’t aim for something specific, then you could just be the avoiding failure, because once you set criteria, you have a means to measure failure, and maybe that’s why many people avoid specifying specific goals. Having goals organises how the world manifests around you – what you see or don’t see.

    It’s worth mentioning that in measuring progress, your references should never be other people, especially as you get older. Different life paths (and starting points) mean comparisons are not valid. The best person to compare is the person you were yesterday, and if you move towards some goal and leave behind the person you were, you’re on the right trajectory, which is in congruence with your mention of continuous improvement.

    Finally, being happy is not a goal. Happiness is a consequence of being on a positive trajectory. For example, the reason why money can’t buy happiness is because lying on a beach drinking margaritas all day (etc.) quickly becomes unsatisfying. In general we require “function” to be happy, men in particular. It’s our nature. If you want happiness, carry a load, and make the load heavy enough for it to be meaningful, so you can look back as say, I may be stupid and lazy, but at least I can carry that thing from there to over there. And that’s the technical definition of the meaning of life: everything you do matters.

    PS: Targeting is in our biology. Our eyes are evolved for targeting in a social context – the whites are highly visible to aid others in detecting where we are looking. Humans are unique among primates in this respect, and probably among all animals bar dogs perhaps (but we co-evolved with them). I know you don’t believe me, so now google primate and other animal eye images and try to find any that show the sclera anywhere close to the human eye, if at all. :)


      I think I agree with your high-level sentiment. Absolutely no goals whatsoever is probably also not the best idea either. You suggest *fluid* goals; in my previous linked post I proposed having directions not endpoints, vectors not vertices — to me this sounds similar to what you suggest.

      I don’t agree with your specific implication that because targeting is in our biology, that’s a reason to apply this principle in life. Mindfulness is interesting in this respect: Its whole purpose is to teach the ability to decouple (albeit temporarily) from this permanent goal-seeking / planning that is often useful but very often also counter productive. For example: Lying awake at night with your brain on high revs doing its best to disentangle some complicated work problem, but only succeeding in making you more tired, and adding to your stress. So far, the science seems to show that this decoupling is advantageous and perhaps even necessary.

      So I agree, and I also don’t agree (but I think this is mostly due to semantics), but mostly I think we are in fact describing the exact same elephant. :)

      P.S. I would like to request an in-person audience if / when you are in my neck of the woods, or I am in yours.

      1. Just yesterday I finished reading “Mastery” by George Leonard, which discusses this issue and many related ones. He prioritizes the practice part but admits that goals to guide you in-between can be helpful. Still he emphasizes that there’s too much goal-orientation in the Western world and only little focus on the practice part — in his view, that balance should be reversed. As someone currently trying to learn to love the struggle of never-ending practice, I’d agree and would totally recommend the book (e.g. https://www.amazon.com/dp/0452267560/).

        1. Aaah thank you very much for this recommendation Leif!

          (durnit, somehow I am not able find the kindle version (is it even available?), so I’m going to have to old-school this. I’ll make a plan.)

          1. I wasn’t able to find one, either.

            Which coincided nicely with my realization that I should buy more physical books. I love ebooks, but they’re pretty much indiscoverable for my kids as they have pretty much no representation in the physical world. Which is a huge drawback to me.

              1. Yeah, it’s a wicked problem. I got rid of all non-essential physical books in 2013 when I moved from one continent to the other.

                I loved how ebooks enabled me to travel light.

                In retrospect I should’ve just stored them in my mother’s attic. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

                Additional caveat: iirc with a Kindle book you just buy a revokable license to view the content. So it’s even more volatile than I would’ve naively expected.

              2. Leif, the Kindle licensing issue made me quite upset a while ago: http://mentat.za.net/blog/2016/08/21/amazon-owns-your-ebooks/

                My books are also gone after an anti-podal relocation (given to friends to somehow soften the sentimental blow, or perhaps the odd chance that I’ll run into them again someday). But now with #2 on the way, I have similar feelings around rebuilding a papyrus jungle for the kids to explore and get lost in, like I once did in my parents’.

      2. Apologies for the delayed response, deadlines… you know how it is.

        “Yargh” is a funny word, and I’ve entered it into my repertoire of funny words such as “zekkle”, which when I was 10 had me in stitches for hours. Thanks #1. Regarding linking the eye to targeting behaviour is in retrospect taking it a bit far, but it is a perfect example of sharing ideas in order to grow by correction. Thanks #2. Biological nature and principles of life are an interesting topic we shall need to discuss further, preferably over some of those craft beers and Cape views. And naturally I would be honoured to be your beer guide should you ever find yourself in S.E. QLD.

        Your comments gave me some thought food: I learned a useful phrase for when someone was trying to persuade me to do something I didn’t want to do: “It’s not in my nature.” That’s usually sufficient to shut down the nagging. But what is human nature, how far is it permissible to invade our principled life, and is it a collective thing, or can we apply the concept and implications to individuals?
        We are not born a blank slate, and are predisposed biologically to language and social hierarchies for example. To what extent does our biology shape our behaviour? The field of behavioural genetics is thriving, and it’s quite easy to show that something as simplistic as a genetic hormonal imbalance can make someone aggressive or depressed etc. But I’m sure there are more complex mechanisms. As a descendant of northern Europeans, I have a gene that allows me to digest dairy, and I dare say, cheese certainly drives some of my behaviour. So I think that when any animal deviates from its nature significantly, there is a high potential for unhappiness. Mmm, cheese…
        Something that is very personal to me and my dopamine reward pathway, and which I believe applies to men in particular: happiness is directly related to “function” (or in my case, achievement such as a beautiful piece of code or SQL query), and without function or purpose, we are unhappy. It’s why I feel the need to provide for my family and I think I’d be a miserable house-husband. My happiness factor goes down when I don’t get enough time to build or fix something or write some code. In animals, when a lion kills for example, it’s accounted for as its nature, and we attribute its stereotypical nature to this behaviour, and I’ll bet lions that are fed are less happy than those that hunt. There’s an extreme one could argue for psychopathic killers albeit controversially. I digress, and Tarantino movies come to mind. And cheese.

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