This WHV looks back at the week stretching from Monday February 11 to Sunday February 17, 2019.
I would like to share the following life bits with you:
Work: Plumbing and running.
I converted our one telemedicine product from virtualenv and requirements files to pipenv. Much has been said about pipenv, also in various dramatic contexts, but there is not much competition when it comes to reproducible builds of Python applications.
It’s interesting how wrapping up something relatively straight-forward like this (it’s the carpentry or plumbing parts of software engineering, one could say) can result in a fairly high level of satisfaction by the end of the work day.
Friday’s barefoot run on the beach was nothing short of epically enjoyable. Just a slight breeze, sun out but not too warm, goldilocks sand to run on and a ripe banana, entered into the system just before the run, contributing what felt like bundles of energy until the very end.
Weekend-reunion in Vermont.
On Saturday, GOU#2 and I (middle-children UNITE!) joined friends in Vermont (coastal village right next to Onrus, another coastal village) where I prepared for everyone present version 3.0 of “my” curry potjie.
There’s something very special to the ritual of slowly (in this case three hours and a bit) but very deliberately preparing food for your friends. The fact that a large chunk of it happens on a wood fire adds even more flavour to the experience.
Sunday started with a run on the coastal path from Vermont to Onrus, under perfect blue skies (see photo above).
Later that morning, we spent some time at the Onrus lagoon, in and around which I spent a large number of happy hours growing up. It was amazing being able to show GOU#2 around, and then seeing her playing in the same waters.
Mindful Elder Superheroes.
All packed up and on our way home, we decided to visit M and A, one of two aunt-uncle pairs who live in Onrus.
GOU#2, age 9, did an amazing job of focusing on the stories my aunt had to tell, and reciprocating with curiosity and questions. (I told her afterwards that I was proud of her, also for this.)
At one point, my aunt explained, almost apologetically, that their world had become really small.
They were able to go down to the beach and spend hours looking at the sea and at the people walking by.
I thought that this was such a humble way for them to articulate their growing perceptual ability to sense the whole universes of experience hiding away in all of the seemingly small moments making up the average day.
Pro-tip: Google PhotoScan for your pre-digital photos.
This was yet another great tip from LM: If you need to digitise and old photo or two, try the Google PhotoScan app.
Using your smartphone, you start by making one overview photo of your old print, and then the app guides you with four white filled discs to make four rapid shots of the corners.
A whole bunch of Google image processing magic ensues, and out pops a glare-corrected perfectly cropped version of the photo!
Below you can see a test with a photo taken in 1993. The flash glare on the door was real.
It’s already Saturday February 23 as I write these hopefully almost final words of this post.
The plan was to make a super humble and compact bullet-list WHV, but then the week got super busy, and then I realised (again…) that I am truly terrible at bullet lists. (Please remind me when you see me again.)
What I am happy about, is that it’s now here for you to read.
Welcome to this, the most recent (as of this writing) instance of the venerable WHV year transition post tradition!
You can find previous editions here:
2017 to 2018 – short post, can be summarised as: “Sorry I stopped blogging for a while, I did run a bit, I’m going to blog more.”
2016 to 2017 – substantial post (1800 words) with: “education will improve stupid politics; running, blogging, meditation; we made a new baby!!; kindness and gratefulness; life changes the whole time, deal with it.”
2011 to 2012 – transition post disguised as WHV with: “stop doing life goals, disconnect more, list of miscellaneous life tips, because in 2011 I am not-even-40-yet Mr Wisdom”.
2009 to 2010 – super short but sweet, I am clearly still new at this.
Putting that list together just reminded me of an interesting observation: The more I try to take notes and document everything I see, the more I notice the multiscalar nature of my subjective experience being exposed.
I make detailed daily notes, all of them grouped in monthly text files.
At a slightly higher scale, the frequency of these WHV blog posts is somewhere between a post per week down to a post every three weeks.
When I write each blog post, I look back through the previous weeks, at a daily scale, and perform an extremely lossy summarisation.
When I write the year transitions, I perform an extremely lossy summarisation of the weekly-scale WHV posts.
The list above links together the various yearly transition posts, thus creating a lovely ball of multi-scalar confusion, which should not be confused with a lemur ball, shown below:
WARNING: This post has grown into a long ramble over the past few days. I hope that you enjoy reading the ramble as much as I did thinking of you while writing it.
Focus: Quantity and Quality.
This post has been taking a while.
I am now back here at the start, after having been almost at the end, because I did not want you to have the idea that my 2018 did not have aspects I am not that happy with, or that I don’t use multiple negations in confusing ways often enough.
(As an aside, a friend and I have been exchanging photos of the less glamorous but entirely normal aspects of our vacations via WhatsApp: Plastic on the beach, the washing line, filthy toilets, truly terrible interior decor, and so on. What started as a joke has turned into an unintended but interesting psychological experiment in reverse image crafting, strongly underlining the effect that this sort of communication can have.)
Back to my main story: During retrospection, I have the tendency to focus (sorry, couldn’t resist) on the good parts, because this is what I remember the best.
However, for the purpose of this post, I did want to spend some words on one of the (multiple!) issues that I struggled with in 2018.
Either I am getting worse at focusing, or I am getting better at noticing when I lose focus, or a combination of both.
The mentioned posts specifically and my thinking generally take the form of some analysis but mostly tools and tricks to try and improve the frequency, intensity and length of periods of focus.
(What you don’t read in the posts because of above-mentioned memory bias, is that there is usually a significant amount of inwardly-directed regret and disappointment involved.)
Even more subtle is the problem of selecting That One Most Suitable Thing to focus on. What’s going to have the most impact? What do I have capacity for at the moment? Can I trust my own subjective assessment of my current capacity, or is Lazy-Me being sneaky?
By the time I have made a decision, it’s probably wrong. Sometimes it’s a good decision, but by then the little block of time I had has flown away or has been blown to smithereens by the latest interruption, and so the quality of the decision is moot.
I would have expected that at this advanced age focus would come naturally and easily, and that I would know exactly what to do. However, I have had to accept that focus will probably remain this slippery and require constant attention (haha I see what I did there) until the very end.
Besides eating well, sleeping well, exercising regularly and taking time to meditate (just in case!), our old friend the pomodoro technique is still the best tool in the box.
During 2018, 36 blog posts were published here, most of which were Weekly Head Voices. Those of you who have a math degree or two will not need much time to calculate that the “W” in “WHV” is at the moment mostly a little inside joke.
However, I did publish 14 more posts than I did in 2017, so there is hope for this year!
The wordpress.com statistics plugin reports just over 19000 visitors (unique IP numbers) who were responsible for just over 26000 page views for the whole year.
Because many people use some form of ad and/or tracking blocking these days, their visits won’t be counted, as the wordpress.com statistics relies on a tiny image which is hosted by wordpress.com, access to which is (rightfully) blocked by many blocker plugins.
In order to get a better idea of how many ad-blocker people read my stuff, I installed the wp-statistics plugin, which locally tallies up all visits and hence is not blocked by blockers, at the start of March. For the period from March 2018 until the end of the year, it is reporting just over 74000 visitors and somewhere north of 390000 page hits.
Although to me this seems on the high side, I do think we can safely say that there were somewhere between 19000 and 74000 unique hosts, which to me is a very pleasant surprise.
However, I am by far the happiest due to all of the interactions I had with friends, mostly old and some new, on this blog. Most recently, the comments section of WHV #156 blew up in such a brilliant way!
More generally speaking, even when there are no comments, I know that throughout the year I am connecting with various subsets of my peeps through the posts on this blog. This acts as tremendous motivation to keep on writing. If even a single friend reads, it has been more than worth it.
(BTW, there is now a telegram group, quite surprisingly called “headvoices”, that you can join to receive a summary whenever a new post is published, and for general chitchat. Although so far only two of my most avant-garde friends have joined, this new form of blog-related communication excites me!)
Surprisingly, I again will aim to write one WHV post per week.
I will probably fail again, but I believe that this is one of those cases of “aim for the stars, reach the moon”.
As mentioned above, writing these letters and writing them regularly is really important to me.
(BTW, I should probably have declared email bankruptcy years ago. I am just managing to keep head above water, but writing letters to friends like we used to do in the old days is becoming increasingly difficult. What is your feeling currently re email and how it has changed over the past few years?)
Strava says I ran 1286km in 2018.
Seeing that I had set myself a private goal of 1000km for 2018 (2016 was 440km and 2017 was 880km), I am quite happy with this.
(As an aside, I spent 119 hours running, spread out over a total of 149 runs, which means 2.86 runs every week of the year.)
I did 770 of those 1286 kilometres in sandals, and a further 35km on barefoot.
More importantly, I had to learn the humbling lesson that no amount of stubborn, brute-force exercise could work around the fact I am flat footed (arch-challenged?), resulting in easily overworked posterior tibial tendons.
As I pushed my weekly distance up, my feet complained more loudly, until I was forced to go back to normal-person-running-shoes.
After a few weeks eating humble pie in running shoes, things are going much better, and I recently did my first short and careful run in sandals.
(Similar to the observation confirmed by the pattern recognition heroine veronikach in her end-of-2018 post, I too ran slower this year in order to run better. I did this for the largest part due to my temporarily busted ankles, but also because more experienced athletes at work recommended heart rate training. For the past few hundreds of kilometres, I have regulated my running speed to try and keep my heart rate within the 75% to 85% of maximum range, mostly ending up closer to 85% than 80%. This has increased the occurrence of those addictive perfect runs, and it has helped to keep my ankles out of trouble.)
In 2019, I would be happy to maintain my 2018 monthly running quota, to remain injury-free, and to maximise my running zen.
(“Running slow” explained above can contribute substantially to the latter two goals.)
I do have an additional concrete (but very humble) running-related resolution for 2019, but I have decided to keep that quiet until it’s in the pocket. :)
Other plans for 2019.
Experiment Alcohol Zero #2.
Yesterday, which at the time of writing is January 4, 2019, was the first day of EAZ #2.
It has been two years since the previous EAZ in 2016. The previous experiment coincided with a significant jump in my running performance, the effects of which did not fade away after the end of the experiment.
This time around, the plan is to run EAZ for at least as long as in 2016, but hopefully a few days or weeks longer.
(I should probably call this EA<0.5, as that is what my current favourite “alcohol-free” beer, Devil’s Peak Zero to Hero, claims.)
Ship more side-projects.
Most nerds I know have side-projects.
These are the technical artifacts, systems and machines one builds, because one can’t stop building stuff, even after work ends.
Like most nerds, I have a number of these that started with high momentum (new programming language, new tools, new problem, EXCITING! … 3 hours later … NOVELTY COMPLETELY WORN OFF doh.) and are now lying around gathering dust.
More structure meant more books read to completion, and more courses followed, resulting in an Ever So Slightly Improved Me.
I am planning to continue and extend this practice in 2019.
Evolve The System.
The System is Emacs, and orgmode, and multi-scalar note-taking everywhere, and sketching, and daily habits, and a whole bag of tricks to try and keep this creaky old frame moving in the right direction.
One step, and then another, and then another, until the lights finally go out.
Try to grow a tree.
I grew up with a fuerte avocado tree that gave us hundreds of the divine fruit every season.
Fast-forward 40 odd years, and my mom (HI MOM!) gave us a beautiful baby fuerte avocado tree for Christmas!
We are currently trying to nurture it through its first few weeks of life in our garden.
With the summer sun, and the new environment, it’s a bit touch and go at the moment, but we’re really rooting for that baby tree! (bad pun quota exhausted now?!)
This is it my friends.
You have made it to the end, an endeavour for which I am truly grateful.
I wish you a 2019 filled with growth, health and happiness.
As we were walking back from the ice truck to the BURNIVERSITY, our home away from home, one of our newly-made Canadian friends said:
Albert is burning really hard.
Albert (name subtly changed to protect the innocent), who by that time had presented his first improv theater workshop at our camp, had struck me as a brilliant and already open-minded human being.
To me it was surprising that he required any burning, let alone burning of that intensity.
The last week of April was overflowing with more lessons.
I learned that even when I try my best because I am at the Burn, I am unable to take part in a kundalini awakening. I am sorry. Science has seeped too far into my atoms.
I learned that running in the desert is even more amazing than my wildest expectations.
I spent the whole week in my sandals. Besides the “official” runs, I broke into spontaneous running multiple times per day.
We ran a lot.
We learned (again) that people respond superbly to being encouraged to learn together in the desert. The BURNIVERSITY saw many burners pass through its hallowed halls, both as students and as teachers.
I learned (again) that modern humans yearn for disconnection and focus now and then. I could see their eyes light up as they realised the implications of successfully eating an expensive chocolate with mindful attention, direct experience mode fully activated.
We learned that people yearn even more to understand happiness. It was clear that BFAM’s workshop on the (neuro-)scientific basis of happiness hit home, quite hard, in spite of its unavoidable information density.
I learned that our yoga teacher was in fact able to radiate even more serenity than she already did last year. Students leaving her class every morning glowed. Yes, glowed.
We learned that you can come back more healthy from the burn than when you started. Eat like royalty (thank you D and H, it was amazing to see you create together), do yoga, meditation and exercise every day, connect with other humans and get your sleep every night. The eternal party is just one of the many facets of the Burn, and should be treated as such.
We learned that it is indeed possible to squeeze so much disconnected experience into a single week that it starts feeling like a micro-lifetime.
As I went through my notes to extract material for this week’s post, I noticed a small discrepancy between the task description for the previous post and the published version: #129 in my notes versus #130 in the published post!
It’s too late now to rename #130, so in this reality I’m just going to have to deal with the fact that WHV #129 will never exist. I have decided to name this edition #130-2 so that eventually (well, in about a week), we will be back to uninflated post numbers. Nobody likes inflation. Except perhaps tyres. And balloons.
Your brain at work part 2: Dopamine and more mindfulness
At least some clouds do seem to have a silver lining.
Your Brain at Work, the book I mentioned last week, has turned out to be a veritable treasure trove of practical human neuroscience, and I still have about 30% to go. My attempt at meteorological humour above was inspired by part of the book’s treatment of the important role of dopamine in your daily life.
For optimal results, one is supposed to remain mildly optimistic about expected future rewards, but not too much, which will result in a sharp dopamine drop when those rewards don’t crystallise, and a greater increase when they do. For optimal results, one should try to remain in a perpetual state of mildly optimistic expectations, but also in a state of being continually pleasantly surprised when those expectations are slightly exceeded.
More generally, the book deals really well with the intricacies of trying to keep one’s various neural subsystems happy and in balance. Too much stress, and the limbic system starts taking over (you want to run away, more or less), blocking your ability to think and make new connections, which in this modern life could very well be your only ticket out of Stress Town.
To my pleasant surprise (argh, I’ll stop), mindfulness made its appearance at about 40% into the book, shortly after I had published last week’s WHV. In my favourite mindfulness book, Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Peace in a Frantic World by Mark Williams and Danny Penman, two of the major brain states are called doing, the planning and execution mode we find ourselves in most of the time, also in the middle of the night when we’re worrying about things we can do nothing about at that point, and being, the mode of pure, unjudgemental observation the activation and cultivation of which is practised in mindfulness.
In David Rock’s book, these two states are described as being actual brain networks, and they have different but complementary names: The narrative network corresponds to the doing mode, and the direct experience network corresponds to the being mode.
The narrative network processes all incoming sensory information through various filters, moulding it to fit into one’s existing mental model of the world. David Rock describes it in the book and in this HuffPost piece as follows:
When you experience the world using this narrative network, you take in information from the outside world, process it through a filter of what everything means, and add your interpretations. Sitting on the dock with your narrative circuit active, a cool breeze isn’t a cool breeze, it’s a sign than summer will be over soon, which starts you thinking about where to go skiing, and whether your ski suit needs a dry clean.
This is certainly useful most of the time, but it can get tiring and increase stress when you least need it.
The much-more attractively named direct experience network is active when you feel all of your senses opening up to the outside world to give you that full HD IMAX(tm) surround sound VR experience. No judging, no mental modelling, just sensory bliss and inner calm. Rock sez:
When this direct experience network is activated, you are not thinking intently about the past or future, other people, or yourself, or considering much at all. Rather, you are experiencing information coming into your senses in real time. Sitting on the jetty, your attention is on the warmth of the sun on your skin, the cool breeze in your hair, and the cold beer in your hand.
Again, these two systems are on opposite sides of a neurophysiological see-saw. When you are worrying and planning, no zen for you! On the other hand, when you’re feeling the breeze flowing and and through each individual hair on your arms and the sun rays seemingly feeding energy directly into your cells, your stress is soon forgotten.
Fortunately, mindfulness gives us practical tools to distinguish more easily when we’re on which path, and, more importantly, to switch mental modes at will.
Mindfulness is a habit, it’s something the more one does, the more likely one is to be in that mode with less and less effort… it’s a skill that can be learned. It’s accessing something we already have. Mindfulness isn’t difficult. What’s difficult is to remember to be mindful.
(If the book has any more interesting surprises, I’ll be sure to report on them in future WHV editions.)
Miscellany at the end of week 5 of 2018
The rather dire water situation has not changed much, except that due to more citizens putting their backs into the water saving efforts, day zero (when municipal water is to be cut off) has been postponed by 4 days to April 16. We are now officially limited to 50 litres per person per day, for everything. Practically, this means even more buckets of grey water are being carried around in my house every day in order to be re-used.
I ran 95km in January, which is nicely on target for my modest 2018 goal. Although January was a long month, and Winter Is Coming (And Then We Run Much Less Often), I am mildly optimistic that I might be able to keep it up.
Python type hinting is brilliant. I have started using it much more often, but I only recently discovered how to specify a type which can have a value or None, an often-occurring pattern:
On Wednesday, January 31, GOU #3 had her first real (play) school day, that is, without any of us present at least for a while. We’re taking it as gradually as possible, but it must be pretty intense when you’re that young (but old enough to talk, more or less) and all of a sudden you notice that you’re all alone with all those other little human beings, none of which are the family members you’re usually surrounded with.
Thank you dear reader for coming to visit me over here, I really do enjoy it when you do!
I hope to see you next again next week, same time, same place.
This post right here is Monday April 3 to Sunday May 7, according to at least one of the homunculi in my head!
The first stop on our East Coast autumn break road trip was Storms River Mouth Rest Camp. With the Indian Ocean smashing the rugged rocky shores, one would have to be forgiven if one were to describe the surroundings as epic, because this really is.
After a FOMO run in the rest camp itself (PRIMAL INDIAN OCEAN SEA WIND IN THE FACE YEAH) we family-walked the first few kilometres of the Otter trail, me with GOU#3 on my back. Here’s one impression of the view we were treated with:
After the Otter-trail-taster and a short rest, we hiked through the coastal forest in the other direction, to the mouth of the Storms River. The mouth can be crossed via an awe-inspiring hanging bridge:
By the time we got there, the longest bridge was blocked by a family of baboons, led by an extremely large male. Except for the promising Darwin-award candidate who thought that he could goad one of the baboons from the bridge and was promptly blocked by an extra baboon who got on the bridge behind him (baboons: 1, human: -9), the humans fortunately realised that these primates were not to be trifled with. (Darwin-award candidate was spared by the baboons, and hence did not win the award, at least not on that day.)
After a few days with family in St Francis, including a barefoot run on the beach (divine, but foot muscles were toast afterwards), we drove up to the Addo elephant park, and got to spend the night at the new Nyathi rest camp.
Nyathi is one of those places that gently but forcefully makes you go completely quiet when you arrive. I believe the term “gobsmacked” (by nature) is entirely suitable.
Surrounded by hills, with grassy plain stretching out before you, families of zebra and baboons going about their business and absolutely no digital connectivity of any kind, the best you can do is let all of that beauty smash inwards through all of your senses.
Let us drink from the firehose of natural beauty!
After a substantial amount of the abovementioned smashing, a great beer is in order. My current favourite is the Nine Inch Ale, not only because it reminds me of my favourite musician OF ALL TIME FOR EVER AND EVER, but because it’s really really tasty. Also, Red Rock Brewing Company has a genius label designer.
After the road trip, I tried to squeeze in as many days of work as possible before my Dutch homies arrived for the Burn… the AFRIKABURN.
With a really small crew of 6+1, this year we built and ran an official themecamp called BURNIVERSITY. The idea was to try and extract the best parts of going to university, namely the delight we experience when learning together, and to transplant them into Tankwa Town.
It took off absolutely beautifully!
As the week advanced, our small stretch tent filled each morning with visitors, both coming to learn and to teach. Besides our Yoga (best at the Burn so there) and Mindfulness (I gave those, I’m secretly very happy with how they went) classes, we had new and old friends teach Improv Theatre, Jazz Singing (this blew my mind, thank you Max), Non-violent communication, Hip Hop, the Anthropology of AfrikaBurn, and more.
The quality and depth of interactions we had with Burners from all over were just phenomenal.
Together with the rest of our adventures, it feels like I spent four weeks together with my besties in the desert, not one.
Already I look back with much sweet wistfulness.
(I have the start of a more detailed AfrikaBurn post in the drafts folder. I’m still considering whether I should finish it or not. Let me know in the comments what you would like.)
There’s still some dust that surprises me every now and then, and still some equipment that needs cleaning up and returning. In the meantime, I’ve sort-of accidentally stopped reading twitter, and I’ve sort of accidentally started checking facebook even less regularly than usual.
It seems that a week of talking more than usual about Mindfulness, doing more breathing and focus exercises with others, and, most importantly, connecting fully with fellow human beings (partially thanks to complete digital disconnection), might have scrambled my brain a tad.
Have a great week peeps, I hope to see you again soon!