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 #155: Lush.

Happy place: Running on a gravel road somewhere, this time in Wilderness.

HELLO FRIENDS!

Due to being outside so often, I have not been able to make the time to sit down and write to you more regularly over the past weeks.

I did miss you!

Fortunately, I am here now (that was Tuesday, it’s now Friday…) to babble a little bit about my subjective experience of the period of time from Monday September 17 to Sunday October 7. I did bring pictures!

GOUs go camping for their first time ever ✅

BFS decided to have his birthday party at a camp site called Beaverlac, close to Porterville. Beaverlac is beautiful and offers the additional amazing perk of No Cellular Reception.

The environment looks something like this:

One of the many Beaverlac pools. That water is COLD.

To my pleasant surprise, all three GOUs had a roaring time just being outside. Disconnection from the outside world was simply accepted as a given, which contributed significantly to their experience.

Before we move on to the next bit, a word to the wise: Your front wheel drive car will probably not be able to pull a trailer of any significant mass up the mountain when you leave Beaverlac. (There is only that one torturous way out, filled with thousands upon thousands of loose little stones…)

We learned this the hard way. Fortunately, the vehicle BFS had arranged for the weekend was an all-wheel drive, and so, after half an hour of hitching-unhitching-and-hitching again various trailers, we all managed to get back up to the top of the mountain.

Spring break in Wilderness.

The week after that, we left to spend a few days of the school spring break in Wilderness.

Having grown up in the Winelands, Wilderness is a whole different kind of pretty.

Wilderness has it all (say in Stefon voice for maximum effect):

Verdant, all enveloping forests, rivers snaking everywhere, mountains and a beautiful coastline.

If they had called the place “LUSH” instead of “WILDERNESS”, that would also have been quite apt.

The top of Big Tree of the Knysna Forests. Also known as the Outeniqua Yellowood, this specific one is about 800 years old.

Productivity pro-tip: Fool yourself into doing a good daily review.

Many productivity systems, including GTD, recommend or sometimes even require that one performs a regular review of one’s task system. This always looks quite good on paper, but this activity somehow falls often and easily to the wayside.

In the latest evolution of my orgmode task management evolution, the checklist I mentioned in a WHV #126 has become much more useful.

I now have a standard day planner template which I activate in the mornings by pressing a specific Emacs keyboard shortcut (C-c c p if you must know, it’s just an orgmode capture template).

This is a long(ish) checklist that ensures I review all of the important elements of my planning:

  • Longer term goals and reminders which I update every month. This includes which books I want to finish reading, which longer term projects I need to think about, and so on.
  • My calendar for the day. Yes, I need to be reminded to double-check my calendar for any unexpected meetings.
  • The “00 ToDo” folder in my email. I sometimes move emails in there from my telephone. These need to be processed and turned into real todos.
  • The main list of orgmode tasks. These are extracted on-demand from my monthly journal and the various project files I maintain in orgmode.
  • macOS / iOS reminders. Don’t judge me. Sometimes I voice-command one of my iDevices that I should do this or that on this or that day, at which point they get added to the synchronised list of reminders. This review step ensures that I take care of those.

The check list has an additional section with a list of habits that I try to build and maintain. This includes check list items for my sleep hours the previous night, the number of pomodori I complete (and whether I’m happy with that specific number) and whether I’ve read and thought enough for the day.

As with all of these systems, this one is far from perfect, but there are two things I specifically like about it:

  1. It takes a single keypress in the morning to create and configure the checklist.
  2. Checklists are amazing. In this case, the checklist is helping me to pull reminders of various kinds from a range of different sources, which enables me to exert a just a little more control over my daily evolution.

Slippery slippery focus.

Sometimes it feels like I have to spend the majority of my time just ensuring that I focus on the important stuff.

For an example, see the previous section.

A normal part of mindfulness meditation, is recognising when your attention wanders, and then just bringing your attention back to the breath.

In spite of the fact that this is an extremely well-known aspect of mindfulness, it has taken me until fairly recently to make peace with the fact that my normal daily focus (although sometimes it somehow finds itself in flow, which is amazing when it happens) will in many cases follow the same pattern.

Like many of you, I have the feeling that there’s an extremely complicated equation describing the relationship between sleep, diet, mood, time of day, environment, and so on, on the one hand and sustained focus on the other. I have an extremely rough idea how many of these affect focus, but on many days, experience breaks all of the rules.

Long story short, until we figure out how exactly to manipulate focus, I accept that the best way to handle the slippery focus problem, is, just like in mindfulness, to accept that it will never really stop wavering, and rather to work on recognising this wavering, and then simply bringing that focus back.

Flat white at La Belle Alliance in Swellendam.

Weekly Head Voices #149: I forgot to proof-read this.

Part of the Sunday morning trail. Although I really enjoy these, I’m at my happiest running down antelope on the savannah.  Antelope strictly-speaking not required, but those wide open plains on the other hand…

This, the one hundred and forty ninth edition of the Weekly Head Voices, covers the week from Monday July 16 to Sunday July 22 of the year 2018.

This week, we have apple watch running adventures, deep learning in production (finally), yet another focus tip and finally a youtube poetry reading.

Enjoy!

The Apple Watch, Vitality and You

On Monday, I became the owner of a brand new Apple Watch 3, FOR FREE(ish).

I feel that two points are worth mentioning:

  1. Having one’s work macbook unlock automatically as one prepares to put one’s hands on the keyboard, with a sweet little unlock sound emitting from one’s watch, is much more fun than I had expected.
  2. One was looking forward to using third party running apps on the watch, such as iSmoothRun which does real-time reporting of cadence, which can be shown together with a number of other stats on a number of configurable screens a la Garmin . One has had to cancel these plans, because Vitality, the shadowy organisation responsible for the FOR FREE(ish) nature of the watch, only recognises runs submitted by the built-in Workouts app.
    • The September watchOS update will include runtime (haha) cadence, which is great. However, some technical system for the support of third party apps would have been even better. I’ll live.
    • Runs logged with the built-in Workouts app can be easily and automatically submitted to other platforms, such as Strava, where many of my running peeps hang out, and even to one’s own Dropbox in FIT format, with the HealthFit iOS app, a very reasonable once-off purchase.

DeepLearning Inside(tm)

On Friday, we shipped a new version of the most important work project I am currently involved in.

Again I feel that two points are worth mentioning:

  1. We now also have deep learning, albeit a humble example, out in actual production. I was starting to feel a little left out. Anonymous shout-out (because top secret) to the team members who made this happen!
  2. They say one should never deploy or ship on Friday. Because I come from the I-won’t-do-what-you-tell-me generation, I cut the final release on Friday evening after the traditional weekend-starter braai.
    • To be honest, this was only necessary because I had promised our client that we would release, and it was only possible because we have a fairly good test-suite, with end-to-end being most crucial in this specific scenario, and a checklist-style release procedure.

SoBSoDSiT-CIPWOB-FBA

As part of my chaotic but ever-evolving constellation of systems for maintaining work focus, I have renamed the shorter focus blocks approach to the short-but-specially-defined-so-that-completion-is-possible-within-one-block focus blocks approach (SBSDSTCIPWOB-FBA).

This adds the incentive of a small but probable shot of dopamine at the end of the focus block, and sometimes even leads to its unwitting extension by the woefully undersized (not to mention super lazy) rider sometimes sitting atop my mental elephant.

It sometimes feels like I’m slowly reinventing GTD.

(This blog post is an emotional roller coaster ride for me. This is the first time I’m feeling something.)

I used to be a fan of GTD when I still believed that my function in life was to answer emails really quickly, and master multi-tasking.

Since then however, I’ve slowly had to come to the realisation that, at least in my case, the amount of email processed is more or less exactly inversely correlated to the actual value that I produce.

The impotence of proof-reading

The following poetry reading made various subsets of my neurons fire in extremely pleasant ways.

I hope that you experience similar effects. See you next time!

Weekly Head Voices #143: The rider and the elephant.

Pretty autumn sunset. A few metres below, the ritual weekend-starting braai was picking up speed.

Welcome back kids!

Besides this post, which somehow turned out to be longer than I expected, my more nerdy alter ego also wrote a post titled Interactive programming with Fennel Lua Lisp, Emacs and Lisp Game Jam winner EXO_encounter 667.

#DeleteFacebook, part deux

In an unsurprising (to me) turn of events, the Cambridge Analytica scandal has not even caused a dent in Facebook usage.

#deletefacebook, also discussed in a previous edition of the WHV, never really happened.

To the contrary, it seems people even increased their usage, post-scandal. FB share price is back where it used to be, and as an interesting data point, Deutsche Bank reports that their FB-based advertising reach was unaffected by the removable of more than 500 million fake facebook accounts.

Should we deduce anything more from this than the usual 1. humans, even outraged ones, have really short memories and/or 2. most people don’t have the energy to resist, or the presence of mind to avoid, the deeply-seated social desires that are being exploited to varying degrees by the large social networks?

My personal strategy for a while now has been to make liberal use of the unfollow and the mute functions. It’s far from perfect, but with this it is possible to reduce drastically the stream of incoming information, and to make sure that what does come through has to do with friends that you have made the deliberate choice to connect with actively.

Shorter focus blocks work better

In my eternal and sometimes decidedly Sysiphean quest for more and better work focus, I recently started using Focus App (see Pro Tip #2 in WHV #126).

In short, when you activate the app’s focus mode, it kills off and then blocks anything that is remotely fun or even slightly distracting on your computer. This includes websites and applications.

In the beginning, I was enjoying longer (1 to 2 hour) focus blocks.

However, more recently I started noticing a certain recalcitrance in my focus-starting hand.

Especially late in the afternoons (prefrontal cortex GONE by then, remember?) the knowledge of that mega-block of mental exertion would result in highly undesirable procrastinatory behaviour. (Big words for “oh, I can probably fit in one more /r/emacs post!”)

Anyways, it turns out there’s another really good reason that pomodori are only 25 minutes long.

It’s much easier to start a 25 minute block of no-fun-focus, and then get stuck in the zone, than it is to start what your brain expects to be a multi-hour block of mental exertion.

Friend PK introduced me to the tiny rider trying to control the giant elephant as a metaphor for the conscious and unconscious mind (this is from the book The Happiness Hypothesis). The shorter focus block idea seems like it could be filed away under “tricks to control your stubborn elephant”.

The evolving soul of Emacs

I came across this really interesting piece by Richard Stallman about the origin of Emacs, one of my favourite and probably most-used technical artifacts. It’s the multi-tool of computer software.

But, along the way, I wrote a text editor, Emacs. The interesting idea about Emacs was that it had a programming language, and the user’s editing commands would be written in that interpreted programming language, so that you could load new commands into your editor while you were editing. You could edit the programs you were using and then go on editing with them. So, we had a system that was useful for things other than programming, and yet you could program it while you were using it. I don’t know if it was the first one of those, but it certainly was the first editor like that.

When an experienced user interacts with Emacs, they change it, and it changes them.

The opposite of instant gratification

On Friday I started on a slightly longer than usual run.

It usually takes a kilometre or two before all of my running subsystems come on line, and I find my rhythm.

Not this time.

The acclimatisation discomfort in my ankles and calves didn’t fade away as it usually does. My breathing and running cadence stubbornly refused to lock on to their usual correct settings.

My legs felt tired.

It really felt like I was not supposed to be running at all, but I pressed on because at that point there was not much else I could do.

At the turn-around point (the bridge at the entrance to Vergelegen, with beautiful trees all around) I decided to try out some youtube advice from the evening before and do a few deep squats to freshen up my legs.

I started running back on legs and calves and feet which suddenly felt like they had all been replaced with brand-new rested versions of their 2-minute-ago return-to-manufacturer selves.

The rest of the run was of the floating over the ground how-is-this-possible my-smile-might-break-my-head variety.

Super strange.

I don’t think the squats did it. That was just a sort of thought-process punctuation which somehow distracted the mind-elephant for long enough to get me running again.

Anyways, as I was floating home, I could not help but see the whole occurrence as a fairly physical but in this case fortunately quite compact reminder that some of the most worthwhile experiences simply require perseverance with initially no gratification in sight.

Life is a marathon

… so sleep well, eat as healthily as you can, exercise, and try not to stress too much.

We’re in this for the long haul.

Weekly Head Voices #126: Fleur-de-lis.

Betty’s Bay’s Crepuscular Rays. An apostrophe in time saves rhyme.
  • Happy new year everyone, and welcome to the first Weekly (truly?! will this be the year?) Head Voices of 2018!
  • I ended 2017 with a longish (by my standards) run in the morning, followed by a laid-back mini-party and finally by struggling really hard to stay awake until midnight.
  • In contrast, returning to the office on January 2 was a pretty good way to ease gradually into work in 2018. Many colleagues were still on vacation, so the week felt a bit like work with training wheels.
  • Pro-tip #1 for the new year: In the last few weeks of 2017 I started (again…) explicitly making quiet time at the start of the day to think about what I want to take care of. These take the form of a small number of Org mode- [ ] Do this thing” checklist items that are usually related to but separate from my main tasks. I find it amazing to which extent these few minutes are able to shape my day. (In my org mode monthly journal, I also usually start by listing out manually the tasks I want to complete during that month, as well as the ideas / thoughts / principles I want to keep in my sights.)
  • Pro-tip #2 for the new year: After years of resisting these types of software tools due to my belief that I should simply apply more grit and will power to squeeze out more focus hours, I finally broke down and purchased the macOS app called Focus. You click its pretty icon, and then your computer goes into focus mode: The Mail application and a bunch of other non-focus-related apps all get killed, and a bunch of websites (reddit, youtube, work chat, etc) are blocked for a user-configurable block of time. I rationalised this purchase with the following reasoning: It usually takes a single moment of weakness for a distraction to terminate a valuable block of focus. It takes a single moment of strength for this tool to start a valuable block of focus.
  • Although I’m having fun, I really don’t think I’m supposed to use bullets like this.
  • Thank you very much for spending time here with me. I wish you a week of value and focus, followed by a visit to the next WHV!
The Huguenot Monument in Franschhoek, where we found ourselves an hour or two ago. Immediacy FTW.

P.S. This post was finished during a 30 minute FocusApp block. Background music: Balance 014 by Joris Voorn, one of my favourite music creations ever.