Weekly Head Voices #124: Ceci n’est pas d’ennui.

This edition of the Weekly Head Voices is a retrospective of the period from Monday June 26 to Sunday July 30, where with weekly I mean regular(ish), which is still better than absent. :)

We spent the first week of July about 100km to the south of Durban.

It was an epic winter break-away with the conditions so summery that we forgot that it’s technically speaking the middle of winter. Down to the beach every day, balmy evenings spent outside, brilliant runs through the KwaZulu-Natal hills and a holiday destination that has mastered the arts of happy-children-happy-parental-units all contributed to a brilliant week.

On the way back to the airport, we squeezed in a visit to uShaka Marine World, where we visited the dolphins, the aquarium and I joined the two oldest genetic offspring units zip-lining all over the water park.

The week after it was off to The Hague for mostly work and a few maximally cromulent social sessions with my besties.

Plans were made. Philosophical discussions were had. Fortunately, no planes were missed.

During all of this, OpenServe’s elves were busy digging up my neighbourhood installing these magical green tubes everywhere. They’re magical because soon they will be filled with super thin glass fiber, and then lit up with lovely lovely internet.

I really can’t wait.

On the evening before taking chances but not missing my flight home, the conversation spent a good amount of time on the topics of happiness, contentment and life goals.

As a reader of this blog, you will know by now that we’re not big fans of happiness. See the last bit of Weekly Head Voices #44 (6+ years ago…) which has what I think is a good summary of why we are not.

On the other hand, we have always thought that contentment is perhaps a more practical state to try and work towards.

There are however those who make the logical argument that contentment has been evolved out of us a long time ago, and that we are thus doomed never to find contentment for more than a few moments.

In WHV #64, following an old tradition of hiding backyard philosophy in arb blog posts, I suggested side-stepping the issue by not focusing on life goals, which are in essence a sort of end point which will invariably lead to post-achievement ennui, but instead focusing on setting and following a certain direction.

Life directions don’t have to have endpoints, but they can have waypoints. The difference is that you know that these are waypoints, and you accept that the journey continues until it finally stops forever.

Whatever the case may be, the conversation motivated me to start a new search for more scientifically-oriented literature on the topics of human happiness, contentment, life goals and so forth.

Up to now my search has not turned up very much. In a surprising turn of events, it seems that there is no shortage of people who are willing to sell you the literature-equivalent of snake-oil, in some cases knowingly but in most cases utterly oblivious.

Somewhere else during this same evening (it was a productive night), we provisionally added a third rule to the WHV’s Two Rules for Achieving Great Success in Life, or Just Surviving, Whichever Comes First.

The rules are now: 1. Be useful. 2. Be likeable. 3. Evolve.

I have been using rules 1 and 2 of the hitherto bi-ruled WHV’s TRAGSL-JS-WCF (pronounced TRAGSL-JS-WCF) as a central component in my GOUs education.

Rule 3 should be understood as actively and continuously upgrading oneself based on continuous introspection and retrospection.

I was initially hesitant to add a third rule to the previously perfect two-rule combo, but wise friend made good arguments for reminding system users of the important of deliberate and continuous self-improvement.

In 25 years I hope to be able to report back on the efficacy of this system based on a smallish but long-term study with N=3.

What do you think?

5 months as an independent engineer: lessons learnt.

In February of this year, I left academia (read more about my reasons in the accompanying blog post) to start a new life as an independent engineer, or simply freelancer, if you will. In this post, I would like to summarise the lessons I’ve learnt so far. Also, because of my strong nerdtastic tendencies, I will write a separate post talking about the various tools of the trade, software and hardware, that I’ve found useful.

First of all: Having the illusion of being independent is exhilarating. I still get up early in the mornings, sometimes even before the rest of the family to put some extra time into side-projects, and I start the rest of my work program, fully dressed, at a more or less normal time. I still work the whole day, and I still spend some evenings and weekends tinkering. Sometimes I even experience deadline stress. However, the perception that I’m doing all of this directly for the people that find my work useful enough to pay for it, and that in theory I can choose for whom I do this and how I do it, is awesome.

The little things also make a difference. When there’s someone interesting in town, or slightly out of town, a breakfast or lunch is absolutely justified. If I feel like going to work in a cafe somewhere, I do so. I’m making good progress on getting rid of those deeply-ingrained employer-directed guilt pangs. Knowing that I always end up doing the time (or rather generating the value) helps much.

Oh yes, I also get to buy toys. For my business.

One of the most challenging exercises when starting out as an independent contractor / consultant is setting your price. I think I must have scanned the whole internet when doing research on this. Talking to other similarly skilled engineers helped the most. (ping me privately if you need advice with hard figures) Part of the problem is that each freelancer has different value-generating capabilities, and has a different estimation of their value generating potential. My short time in industry working with some kick-ass engineers, followed by more than a decade in an application-oriented scientific setting (and one that’s all about dealing with data!) working with some really clever people (and a bit of industry), together with genetically advanced verbal circuits, means I can build theoretically advanced software systems that solve practical problems in a robust fashion, and, importantly, that I can explain how and why they’re valuable. (See what I did there? :)

There are two practical tips that I would like to give here:

  1. Quote and charge per day. For any worth-while project, you’re going to be putting full-time days into it, not hours.
  2. More importantly: You can easily give special discount on your rates, but clients don’t like it if you become more expensive all of a sudden.

I’m currently running two longer term projects that fill up all of my time. In both cases I have arranged with my clients that I do my best to spend N days per week. If I spend fewer than that (for example due to vacation), I charge them pro rata less. If I manage to spend more, that’s their free bonus.

This leads me to my next tip, which is something that I learnt from A Very Flat Cat, a very special mentor and friend of mine.

Underpromise. Overdeliver.

It’s one of those guidelines that one has to strive for. The first one helps to compensate for the planning fallacy, the cognitive bias that makes us all underestimate the time we need to complete a task. Importantly, it helps with the second part: Deliver your project either slightly ahead of time or over specification. In other words, try to surprise your client with even more value than they thought they were going to get.

It’s only been 5 months, but one has to start thinking about one’s long term vision as an independent. Working on client projects is huge fun, and it even pays the bills, but these same techniques could be used to work on one’s own product or service. Ideally, one is able to come up with a product or service that is found useful by a large enough group of people so that a sustainable business can be built around that product or service. Fortunately, the internet / software engineering / data universe is exploding with possibilities, and is set to continue doing so for the coming decades.

I’ve mentioned before the importance of doing something meaningful. If your goal is to be sustainably happy, this is still just as important. When wrapping up your work for the day, or the night, it’s important to have the feeling that what you’ve done has the potential to make a positive impact on the world around you. My advice here also is not to be too ambitious. (Oh wait, I have a post about that too!) Even if your work, or your open source side project, has a positive effect on only one other person, you’ve done a good job. Besides selecting one’s projects based on this, the meaningfulness of one’s activities  can be further increased by putting effort into open source, or into educational activities.

That’s it for this chapter of Freelancing for Dummies! Let me know in the comments if there’s anything else you’d like to discuss.

(I seem to have forgotten everything I read in Writing Blog Post Conclusions for Dummies.)

Postmodern creativity. [Weekly Head Voices #37]

Post summary: Review humour, WhatsApp, SPA3102 gadget, hiking boots, happiness in the blue zones.

So there are people on the internets who have chosen as their creative outlet the writing of superbly entertaining fictitious reviews of real products on real e-commerce sites. See for example this customer review of a tub of uranium ore that was once available on Amazon:

You used to be able to buy uranium ore on amazon. You can still read the awesome reviews: http://www.amazon.com/Images-SI-Inc-Uranium-Ore/dp/B000796XXM/

I purchased this product 4.47 Billion Years ago and when I opened it today, it was half empty. — reviewer Patrick J. McGovern

For more examples, please do see this article on Cracked.com. What a fantastic creative medium! One day, when I grow up, I too shall spend time honing my review writing skills.

Because I’ve just realised that this post was never going to be more than a mishmash of odd but hopefully interesting tidbits, I shall now switch to bullet-list mode:

  • I’ve slowly started developing principles against sending texts (SMS), purely because I think the telephone companies are charging way too much for these 160 character micro-messages. Even if you do have a great big SMS bundle, usually when you text overseas, you still get whacked. WhatsApp does a pretty good job at being a texting substitute: It runs in the background on Nokia, Android, iPhone or Blackberry smartphones, and allows one to send and receive unlimited SMS-like messages via one’s dataplan to other WhatsApp users. Just like texting, it only requires telephone numbers, so directly after installation, one sees a list of all one’s WhatsApp-running contacts (from the phone’s database). Big advantage over for example BlackBerry BBM (ping) is that WhatsApp runs on many more telephones. In short: Try it, you might like it!
  • On the theme of sticking it to the man (and when I say “man” I mean “telephone company”), I recently acquired a Cisco SPA3102 Voice Gateway (used to be Sipura, then Linksys). It’s a tiny little box that sits in-between your broadband connection (ADSL or cable modem) and house telephone and, if configured correctly, routes all telephone calls via SIP (voice-over-ip) providers. In short: Seriously cheap phone calls via internet, telephone company never even sees you and hence can’t really bill you. The only problem is that this little box has the most complex configuration interface I’ve ever seen. There must be at least a few hundred configuration settings, and if you get any one of them wrong, your phone system simply stops working. I’ve written up what you need to know at my Even Nerdier Blog.
  • What’s the deal with hiking boots and engineers? Hiking boots are great for hiking, but wearing them to work (or far worse, to a social event) must be the most extreme way of showing your asymptotic support of function over form. I have to admit that I myself have sinned before, but usually I have a good excuse, such as that storm outside. There are some people however (and the matching hiking boots worn by in-love engineers / nerds are the absolute worst) that don’t seem to understand that form and function do need to be in some form of balance for the world to function and for me to maintain my non-nauseous state.
  • It is important to note that Timberland boots strike this balance just perfectly, as you can see below:
This is what form and function look like when they're in perfect balance.

To conclude this post, I’d like to summarise a lifehacker summary of Dan Buettner’s book on the factors that play a role in the happiness of people living in the world’s “blue zones” (countries / regions where people live long and contented lives): 1. work less, 2. keep your commute as short as possible, 3. have regular vacations, 4. socialise with your colleagues and finally, 5. make sure you work for a good boss.

No big surprises there, but sometimes it’s nice being reminded of the stuff we should never have forgotten in the first place.