Weekly Head Voices #144: Eternal learner.

Welcome back friends!

(Right after the nerd news, there’s running and backyard philosophy. You can start wherever you like.)

Nerd News

The Weekly Nerd News Network (WNNN) wanted to bring the following points under your attention:

  • Emacs 26.1, the first major release since September 2016, when 25.1 came out, happened on May 28. Although Emacs reached perfection (and sentience, some say) a few decades ago, this new version does include improvements such as native line numbering for the VIM refugees and buttery smooth scrolling on X11 (read the very entertaining story behind this).
  • PyTorch (my favourite deep learning tool by far) and Caffe are merging. This is amazing because while PyTorch is some of the most dynamic and flexible deep learning software you can pay with, Caffe runs on your telephone. You’ll be able to fine-tune your deep network on PyTorch, and then click a button (or type some obscure incantation, probably) to get that network in a highly efficient compiled form on any embedded device or scaled up to run on your cloud. Although apparently not possible, this really does feel like free lunch!

Reunion

In Weekly Non Nerd News (WNNN), an old friend came to visit all the way from Omaruru, an occasion which served as the happy excuse for a mini-reunion at my place.

It’s strange to think that some of the university stories we recounted are now more than 20 years ago.

In that time, humans go from birth to fully formed adult human beings with opinions, and relationships, and stories of their own.

Thank you Omaruru Friend for bringing us all back together again.

Running mouse

The flu and/or cold virus that managed to enter through the cracks left by my immune system being under pressure from above-mentioned celebrations caused a week-long period of man flu, a period that I was only able to conclude today with a lovely winter morning run.

As one does, I continued searching until I found evidence confirming my belief that running with some remaining flu symptoms would not be irresponsible.

What I found was even better than that!

A 2005 study titled Moderate exercise protects mice from death due to influenza virus, published in the journal Brain, Behaviour and Immunity, found that in mice that had just been infected with a real influenza (i.e. not man flu) virus, moderate exercise had an additional protective effect relative to no exercise or strenuous exercise mice. The PDF full-text can be found on the sci-hub website, or via their telegram bot (the bot is really convenient, you can find and read fulltexts on your phone!).

Thanks to the internet, and lab mice, I had confidence that I was probably not going to die due to my run.

Confirmation bias aside, or not, based on more reading it looks like moderate exercise is not the worst thing you can do during or after cold or flu. The secret is to keep it relaxed, and to keep a very close eye on your heart and your temperature.

Mastery

I finally finished reading the book Mastery by George Leonard, a recommendation by LS that I am grateful for.

It can get preachy at times, but the core message is really good, and especially timeous in this era of hyper distraction.

Below is Leonard’s message, sent at least once through the old washing machine that is my brain.

Learning is a lifelong process.

More specifically, the path to mastery of any worthwhile skill usually consists of short bursts of novelty exhilaration (you often start with one of these) followed by long and seemingly boring plateaux of never-ending practice with no kick.

No kick means that many learners decide to quit, and switch to something exciting, only to repeat their cycle of not-mastery there.

If you are able to make peace with the plateaux, and keep on trudging along, you are on the path to mastery.

In a decidedly Buddhist twist, being on the path to mastery means that you are in fact an eternal learner, and you will never become a master.

The author of the book is an Aikido sensei. I especially loved the story he told of the beginners and the senseis.

When beginners practise, they ask the sensei for a new move to practice every few minutes. They try to get through as many moves as possible during their 2 hour training session.

When senseis practise, they practise the same basic move over and over for many hours, losing themselves in the universe of that single apparently straight-forward form.

The Buddhist Twist

From the Wikipedia page on Buddhism:

The Four Truths express the basic orientation of Buddhism: we crave and cling to impermanent states and things, which is dukkha, “incapable of satisfying” and painful. This keeps us
caught in saṃsāra, the endless cycle of repeated rebirth, dukkha and dying again. But there is a way to liberation from this
endless cycle to the state of nirvana, namely following the Noble Eightfold Path.

… and then later:

…. and finally passing through the gate of wishlessness (apranihita) – realizing that nirvana is the state of not even wishing for nirvana.

I can work with this.

Readers, I wish you wishlessness!

Weekly Head Voices #125: Buddy.

Monday, July 30 to Sunday, September 3, 2017.

(This post has turned into a huge ramble. It starts with parking, makes a quick visit to Yurp, buys a new laptop, compulsively measures time to try and increase quality of life, and then bounces like a hyperactive pinball between a book, a video and a blog post, all three about either not being special, not being happy or both. ENJOY!)

Parking

Because I would prefer that you perceive the time that you invest in reading these posts as time also usefully spent, allow me to start with a visual exposition of the pleasantly straight-forward geometry of parallel parking.

In other words, if you’re like me and your parallel parking performance could do with some improvement (mine oscillates between “I am the best parallel parker in the world, wheels perfectly aligned 5mm from the pavement” and “ABORT ABORT!! Oh well, we will find parking another day.”), the following animation might be of assistance:

Parallel Parking

Yurp

In an astonishingly fortunate confluence of events, I ended up again in my other home country. Although time was short, business was executed, and a great deal of highly concentrated joy was artfully squeezed from every minute.

Thank you Dutch family. I hope to see you again soon!

New laptop

Back home, it was time for me to add another life year to my steadily growing collection.

My gracious employer thought that the big day was an as good moment as any to equip me with a brand new work machine.

Up to then, I had been working on all of three different machines: Linux-running i7 desktop (acquired in Feb of 2015), early 2015 13″ retina MacBook Pro (acquired in June of 2015) and my trusty old klunky i7 Acer Linux-running laptop (acquired around March 2013).

Data is kept in sync, but context switching between different projects with different development environments on different machines at home and at work does seem to take up more time than I would care to admit.

Having everything on a single powerful-enough laptop would indeed make the most sense from a time-efficiency perspective.

I’m typing on the thing now. The keyboard’s second-generation butterfly switches do take a little getting used to, but I believe I may have been converted.

Importantly, I’ve already started seeing the advantages of always having all my work (and all my computer-based hobby-related toys) with me. No more context-switching means more time available for what happens between the switches.

(My more nerdily inclined readers, you can probably guess exactly which laptop this is. Ask me in the comments why this and not the alternatives!)

Measure all the things

On the topic of time efficiency, in an attempt to better understand what I was doing with my free time, and how exactly I was spending time at work, I put in some extra effort to record more accurately every minute of my time awake. I dream about being able to squeeze out more value from each day by being able to measure and review.

This is an extension to establishing a cadence of accountability for deep work, where one looks not only at deep work performed, but general value contributed and derived.

Watching SNL or College Humor clips on YouTube is fun, but can’t really be considered high value. In terms of R&R, reading a book, writing a blog post, learning something new and spending time with your family are all of high value.

Recording time like this does seem ever so slightly OCDish, but it was really for science, and mostly for evolution (see rule #3 of WHV’s Two Rules for Achieving Great Success in Life, or Just Surviving, Whichever Comes First).

I did only manage to keep it up for slightly over two weeks.

What was interesting, was that the act of having to specify and record each block of time forced me to be much more deliberate about everything I did.

All of a sudden, even goofing off could only happen if I explicitly spent time deciding that goofing off was really justified. Furthermore, the fact that I knew exactly how many minutes I was goofing off, tended to keep these distractions short.

The problem with this experiment quite unsurprisingly turned out to be the overhead of mechanically having to record every minute. That being said, I think the availability of a practical, highly private and practical mechanism (unlike the one I tried) for the real-time and aggregated measurement and reporting of “time value” could be a substantial help in the continuous optimisation of one’s days.

Happy not happy

On the topic of quality of life, I recently read The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life by Mark Manson. I was involuntarily eye-rolling quite regularly through the first 3/4 of the book, but by that time either Manson had just worn me down, or his writing had in fact greatly improved.

Whatever the case may be, I think the message is an important one, especially for young(er) people: You’re not special, so make peace with that as soon as you can. Accept that life is really just a series of problems that you have to solve, so at least pick the interesting ones. You probably won’t ever be happy or content for more than a few moments (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?) because that’s quite logically been evolved out of us. Pick the few things that you really care about, and commit to them.

Derek Sivers, himself no slouch when it comes to modern survival, summarises the book with:

The opposite of every other book. Don’t try. Give up. Be wrong. Lower your standards. Stop believing in yourself. Follow the pain. Each point is profoundly true, useful, and more powerful than the usual positivity. Succinct but surprisingly deep, I read it in one night.

(Interestingly, the first of the four noble truths of Buddhism is that life is suffering. “Human beings are subject to desires and cravings, but even when we are able to satisfy these desires, the satisfaction is only temporary. Pleasure does not last; or if it does, it becomes monotonous.” see this BBC entry for more happy thoughts about Buddhism. In fact-checking my summary up above, I just saw in Manson’s book that he does in fact explicitly tell the story of Buddha, in chapter 2 already. Doh.)

On the topic of not being special, I recently stumbled upon this interview with Simon Sinek. It’s all about the phenomenon of millenials in the workplace. Many of us around here (hey, we read long form blogs, this means we’re probably old-school) don’t classify as millenials, but the points Sinek makes about the role of old-school patience and focus in the work-place as opposed to the millenial-era instant gratification attention economy resonated with me.

Also, we’re still not special. :)

Try and make time for the first 3 to 4 minutes of the video. That’s what I did, because I’m not a millenial and I don’t like watching YouTube videos of what could have been blog posts, but then I just had to finish the whole 18 minutes:

It would be remiss of me not to mention Wait but Why’s brilliant and complementary exposition of Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy.

Whatever shall we do with this information?

We’re not special (phew, that’s a weight off one’s shoulders!), and we can’t ever attain more than fleeting happiness or contentment.

What we can do is to make peace, and to savour with wide open senses the fractal infinity hidden in the moments that we are blessed with.

P.S. Buddha also had a number of great tips.

P.P.S. During the night I started worrying that readers, especially my mom (hi mom!), might think that I’m unhappy, and that this post is a cry for help. I would like to assure you all that I’m currently enjoying life more than ever before, at least as far as my failing old memory is concerned. I can personally vouch for the making-peace-and-savouring-moments approach.

P.P.P.S. Statistically, humans hit happiness rock bottom at around about 50, see the u-shaped graph below (thanks FM for sending). A number of us are hiding here in the we’ve-made-our-peace-thanks-for-all-the-fish long tails of the distribution, where we plan to ride this one out. Join us!