Weekly Head Voices #157: Melodramatic.

Vergelegen, an important node on my Rome Glen – Vergelegen – Lourensford – Land en Zeezicht route.

It’s Monday evening around 22:31.

The track “Still on Fire” by Trentemøller is making my neurons fire in highly pleasant patterns while I try to gaze back through time at the days from Monday October 22 to Sunday November 4, and to gather my thoughts.

I have come to a decision:

The rest of this blog will be less melodramatic. Instead, I shall focus my efforts on puns.

(You should still listen to the track.)

Productivity and Focus

Vitamin-R – tomatoes for apples!

As a quick search will tell you, we here at the WHV headquarters are big fans of mytomatoes.com, an online pomodoro timer that keeps track of your pomodori in a truly low friction fashion.

Bonus factoid: mytomatoes was built and is maintained by Magnar Sveen, who is revered, at least in my circles, as a young Emacs god. Take a gander at his jaw-dropping dexterity and raw nerd power. The one where he uses Emacs to calculate the number of hours his videos have wasted around the world is especially good.

I digress.

Some of us need a constant reminder that we’re trapped inside a tomato with absolutely no way to get out.

mytomatoes lives in a browser window, and can easily disappear under the thousands of distractions trying to snatch victory from your ambitious little hands.

No friends. Nothing less than a permanent reminder on the main OSX menubar will do!

I initially made a small misstep with Be Focused Pro. This does satisfy the requirement of displaying a timer in the menubar, but also tries, unfortunately quite badly, to be a task manager, and to connect each pomodoro to a task that you have to create. (As an orgmode user, I have infinitely high expectations of any task manager.)

I digress. Again.

After 30 minutes of searching, I fortunately landed on Vitamin-R (the new version 3) on October 29. Since then, it has helped me to churn successfully through an impressive number of pomodori.

Why I’m probably going to buy this after the evaluation period:

  • Vitamin-R is exactly configurable enough. I could get it to work exactly like I wanted, without having to wade through an overly complex UI.
  • I get to log what work I plan to do during each pomodoro, and I get to edit this afterwards, but it’s incredibly low friction, i.e. no task creation and so on.
  • It has a number of simple but useful charts that help me to do better each day.

Multiple-desktops seem to have been detrimental to my focus.

Back in the early 90s, I started using multiple virtual desktops on my humble Linux 0.99pl13 computer. Because the year of the Linux Desktop was never really to be, we had to console (nerd pun, sorry) ourselves with obscure features like this.

Fast forward a few years, and Ctrl-Alt-SOMENUMBER is deeply ingrained into my muscle memory. 1 is work, 2 is more work, 3 is Emacs (all hail her greatness) and related admin tools, 4 is email and other communication, 5 is browsing and 6 is utility browsing.

This means that a single neuron misfiring leads to my number 5 finger (index) lashing upwards, like some sort of digital (Latin pun intended, work with me here people) cobra, with thumb and pinkie deftly dance-dance-revolutioning over to respectively alt and control, which switches me away from my work (usually 1 or 3) to browsing, all of this in about 3 milliseconds.

This visual shock routinely causes the rider on my mental elephant to keel over backwards and fall from the large pachyderm.

Hours of web-browsing ensue, during which my already extensive knowledge of useless trivia is expanded, but no to absolutely no work is done.

This stage is usually followed by the guilt, and the crying to sleep, and the renewed chasing of deadlines the next day.

In my feeble but eternal endeavour to increase my focus, I recently tried to mitigate the effects of these misfiring neurons by disabling multiple desktops.

Yes readers, like many of you have wisely been doing all along, I am now limited to a single desktop.

Desktop One: I can’t switch there, because I am already here, right now.

Before I started this experiment, I searched for any relevant scientific literature, but came up quite empty. It could be because it’s a complicated thing to measure. People are very different, and the computing they do is very different.

Whatever the case may be, my experience the past two weeks has been positive.

In spite of neurons misfiring and muscle memory invoking key combinations, I have been staring quite dutifully at Desktop One all this time.

Two other blog posts that you might find interesting I don’t know let me know in the comments or don’t.

Between this and the previous WHV, I wrote two other blog posts that I know of:

  1. Importing all of your orgmode notes into Apple Notes for mobile access – This used to be a huge weakness of my otherwise amazing orgmode-based note-taking: I could not access any of my Orgmode notes from my phone. In the end, all I needed to do was to use Orgmode’s built-in HTML site publishing function to get hundreds of org files, including images, math, source code and other wisdom, into my Apple Notes, ready to search and access on the phone.
  2. PyTorch 1.0 preview (Nov 4, 2018) packages with full CUDA 10 support for your Ubuntu 18.04 x86_64 systems – The title says it all. The backstory (not in that post) is that I now have a private RTX 2070 With TensorCores(tm) !!!1!! at my disposal, with which I plan to do my part in bringing about the AI-pocalypse. (Actually, I just want the AIs to take away all of our driving licenses. Humans are truly crappy drivers.)

GOU#2 discovers parts of Buddhism in the car on the way to school.

On Monday, October 23, as we were on our way to school, GOU#2, age 8, explained something she had come to realise.

It’s about really wanting that certain brilliant and clearly amazing toy.

You want it so much, but you have to wait so long for it.

When you finally do get it, you play with it for a while, but you soon realise that it’s really not making you as happy as you thought it would.

I listened carefully to her story.

As far as I could establish, it did sound like a general lesson she had extracted, that is, not just about that one specific dud toy.

I explained to her and GOU#1 that that was a core learning from Buddhism.

We humans desire things, and we go to great lengths to acquire them, and once we have them, we usually realise that the happiness they bring is fleeting at best.

If we are clever, we see this pattern, and so we stop desiring things, instead finding happiness wherever we are right now.

Me?

I’m on Desktop One.

 

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!