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!
As I munched through the book, I could almost physically sense the impact it was making on my thought patterns. I have since spent another Deep Work Pomodoro scanning through its pages again to make sure I did not miss anything.
Deep Work is at its heart Cal Newport’s passionate argument for Deep Work in this extremely fragmented and highly connected information age. He defines Deep Work as:
Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
Armed with a whole book full of stories and examples, he makes the case for eschewing network tools such as email, twitter, facebook, reddit, slack, whatsapp and so forth, instead dedicating as much of your time as possible to specific valuable outcomes. Yes, even after work, he makes the case for structuring your leisure activities in a similar fashion.
Although the book cites a number of studies, storytelling is its main persuasive tool. Whatever the case may be, I am utterly convinced.
I have resolved to put in a massive effort to get my Deep Work muscles back in top form.
Somehow, maybe because of my transition to business, I’ve slipped back into the illusion that you have to be connected all the time. On an average workday, I have email, two instances of slack, one instance of mattermost and whatsapp all open on my desktop, just in case I need to be reached. (To be clear, there’s a great deal of messages that go through them every day, so it’s not just me sitting there waiting in vain for someone, anyone, to please send me a message.)
Contrary to what I’ve convinced myself of, these tools all detract significantly from my value production, both in terms of quality and throughput.
Structure and summary of the book
In Part 1, Newport tries to convince you of the value and necessity of Deep Work. The take-home message is that in order to excel at learning and at doing especially in the current interruption and distraction filled information age, we need unfragmented periods of distraction-free concentration, during which we push our cognition to the limit.
When I say it like that, it seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it?
Phrased differently, the great fallacy of current times is that one can perform at one’s best whilst being hyper-connected.
Even worse, if we continue doing it this way, we’ll start losing our ability to focus.
In Part 2, Newport gives high-level advice towards implementing Deep Work, packaged as the four rules of Deep Work:
Work deeply: More about this further down.
Embrace boredom: Avoid busywork. That is, when you have a few minutes waiting in line somewhere, use the time to think instead of reaching for your smartphone.
Quit social media: EEEKE! Don’t worry, it’s slightly more complicated, but “manage social media” would not have had the same impact.)
Drain the shallows: Squeeze out as much as possible shallow work from your schedule. Focus work should be the default, distractions (shallow work) the exception.
In terms of scheduling, rule #1 can be implemented in at least four different ways: monastic (isolate yourself almost permanently), bimodal (isolate yourself some of the time, but for significant periods, e.g. a month sabbatical), rhythmic (integrate into your schedule at set times during the day every day), journalistic (cultivate the ability to work deeply whenever you get a moment).
Of these, the rhythmic philosophy is probably the most practical for me and for most of the readers of this blog.
More practically, rule #1 (“Work Deeply”, remember?!) can be implemented using the following four disciplines:
Focus on the wildly important: Make sure that you always know what the absolute most valuable thing is to work on.
Act on lead measures: Track your deep work by metrics that can be calculated before the output realises and not after, for example track your daily number of hours during which you were able to work deeply.
Keep a compelling scoreboard: Create some modality with which you can see clearly your daily deep work performance.
Create a cadence of accountability: Your daily or weekly routine should ensure that you review your work, and your deep work performance via the scoreboard for example.
How I’m planning to apply Deep Work
In the book Newport reiterates an important observation: We humans have limited stores of will power. These can and will get depleted through the day if we’re not careful.
If it takes too much conscious effort to avoid distractions and to stay focused on the mentally taxing task at hand, our will power is depleted at some point and then our defences crumble.
Before you know it, you’re stuck in that super satisfying (not) email, twitter, facebook, reddit, email, twitter, whatsapp, slack loop again.
An effective remedy for this is ritualization.
This does not mean that you have to get out the old Ouija board. Rather, it means that you should develop “routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration”.
Fortunately, because of a choice I made in 2013, my work already involves spending longer periods reading, thinking and programming. Now I only need to ensure that these periods are as deep as possible, which means eliminating distractions and practising as intensively as possible focusing on that One Really Important Thing.
I will eliminate distractions by:
Using the pomodoro method (as I’ve been doing all this time, just badly).
Extending the length of the 25 minute pomodoro. If I’m in the deep work flow, I’ll continue past the 25 minute alarm. A longer break can be taken later.
Activating my phone’s no distraction mode during pomodori. Only phone calls get through, nothing else.
Killing my email app and all browser tabs that have to do with real-time communication (slack, mattermost, whatsapp, and so on).
Just in case, pasting a list of time-wasting site hostnames into my uBlock Origin’s “My Filters” list.
Besides that, I am recording deep work by prepending one of D0, D1, … D5 to the mytomatoes.com pomodoro description, corresponding to the spectrum from shallow to most deep work.
Thanks to veronikach.com, I am using focus@will which helps tremendously with my concentration in the sometimes busy office.
Newport explains that most people can manage a maximum of four hours per day of truly deep work. Furthermore, for many people, it is most effective to schedule creative and deep work for the morning, and shallow work (email, admin, meetings etc.) for the afternoon. For a longer time I have been following the guideline of scheduling meetings for the afternoon, so now I’ll strengthen that by trying to get my deep work done in the morning, leaving shallow work for the afternoon as far as possible.
Finally, I think that probably the most important advice here is to practise, practise and then practise some more.
This could very well be due to my own bias, but if I had to describe Deep Work as compactly as possible, I would have to say that it comes down to “mindful action”.
It might sound like a contradiction in terms (mindfulness is the practice of being, amongst other things), but I am referring to the practice of being fully connected to and focused on the current moment.
With Deep Work, one practises connecting fully to and focusing on the current endeavour, thus greatly enriching that experience and the output that it generates.
Thank you, Cal Newport, for this very welcome kick in the butt.
Following the rich tradition over here of year transition posts, having just rounded off a brilliant outdoorsy take-your-mind-off-of-everything vacation with friends, and also inspired by wogan.blog’s nicely personal 2016 review post, I decided that a farewell-2016 how-you-doin’-2017 post was in order.
Warning: This post is long (1800 words+), rambly and sometimes even a bit mushy. I hope you enjoy it!
2016: The Review
The bad, with a hopefully slightly positive outlook at the end
Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way as soon as we can…
For me the biggest disappointments of 2016 were the double-whammy of the Brexit followed by the Trumpocalypse.
I really did not expect either of these events to go the way they did.
This is probably because I was, ever the optimist, over-estimating the level of human development of British and US voters.
The exclusionist, nationalist, xenophobic and in many cases even white supremacist thinking associated with Trump’s support in the US and the Leave vote in the UK are truly abhorrent.
I understand that there were many other factors at play. However, these voters were either throwing out the baby with the bath water, or, much much worse, agreeing with the abhorrent sentiments mentioned above. Especially this second possibility depressed me greatly after the US election.
After such setbacks, one needs to look for solutions.
This is yet another strong indication that we should really be pouring every resource we have into the education of our people. (yes, correlation and causation, I know. hence the terms “strong indication”. discuss in the comments if you like.)
Human history has become, more and more, a race between education and catastrophe.
The way things are going now, that thought, and movements like #feesmustfall, are more important than ever. There can be absolutely no excuse for neglecting the highest quality and accessible education (basic up to tertiary) of future generations of humans whom we expect to further our civilization.
The running and the mindful
In 2016, I ran 440km.
There are a great deal of people who have run much more than that, but those are my 440 kilometers and somehow they brought me a great deal of deep satisfaction.
During the year, my per-run distance and speed have gradually increased.
Besides fitness gradually increasing, I discovered experimentally that shorter, quicker steps get me further and a higher pace. It took a biomechanical friend to explain to me that this was about muscles operating within the more efficient middle of their full extension/contraction ranges. I could probably just have read this somewhere, but doing it the hard way and then having a friend explain it on top of Table Mountain definitely added something to the experience.
With the surroundings over here being what they are, it does not take much to slip into a state of mindfulness.
No doing, no planning; just absorbing all of the surroundings, physical and mental, the music, and feeling how the meat-based machine that houses me propels us forward.
On the topic of mindfulness, for the last few months I added a repeat event to my todoist, helping me to spend five minutes every morning before work doing the breathing exercise. More recently I do this without any voice track, but previously Prof. Mark Williams at one point would say (original quote is due to Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD):
Each breath a new beginning; each out-breath a letting go.
There’s a whole lot in there. I have spent quite some time with it and I am far from done.
The first rule of blogging: You don’t blog about blogging.
However, I hope you don’t mind me breaking that rule to mention that in 2016, this blog was viewed 133 thousand times. I already get happy when one other person reads a post. You can imagine how happy it makes me to know that there are even slightly more people who have come here to consume some of the words I have written, and even some who have taken the time to leave behind comments!
The lion’s share of those views were due to focused posts that got picked up by some of the more popular nerd sites. I have to admit that I derived the most enjoyment from the more personal posts that were only read by friends.
Whatever the case may be, this has to be my most satisfying hobby. Thank you for the crucial role that you who read play in it!
The new life
In early(ish) 2016, our third daughter, affectionately known as Genetic Offspring Unit #3 (GOU#3 for short) around these parts, was born.
This wonderful little cellular mega-cluster is currently making noises that have the primary purpose of being immensely cute, but are also slowly starting to make sense. Her ambulation capabilities have increased immensely, and she is on the verge of standing up by herself and so we will probably have to re-arrange our interior. Again.
I prefer making resolutions in secret, then carrying them out or not, and only then reporting on them. However, that would mean that I would have to wrap up this post right now, and for that I’m not quite ready yet.
Those of you who have spent more than 8 seconds in my or my blog’s vicinity know that I absolutely adore craft beer (this includes local, but also special beers of the Belgian type) and local wines, both of which are regularly consumed by me and “business partners” during “business lunches” in the not-unattractive local surroundings.
This decision was not taken lightly.
It is mid-morning of day 2 of Experiment Alcohol Zero (EAZ) as I write this. With the air full of smoke due to local vegetation fires, I have not been able to go running yet, but I am imagining that my energy lasted later last night, and I got up easier this morning. I have 29 more days to investigate.
I also remind myself to be grateful. It takes continuous practice to identify the many things one can be grateful for every day, but it is definitely worth it.
I often remind GOU#1 (#2 and #3 are not old enough yet for this lesson) that, besides the guidelines above, we have to keep on working on two more related characteristics: being useful, and being likable.
Being useful means continuously developing and refining skills that enable one to contribute value to one’s surroundings. Being likable means understanding and appreciating how we humans stick together. Kindness, see above, is an important component of this.
In 2017, I would like to write more (on this blog probably), and read more.
Rapidly morphing goalposts jumping randomly through even more randomly pulsating hyperspace, with a slightly positive outlook at the end
Yes folks, this is going to be my parting thought.
When I was much younger, I used to believe that one’s life could be “cracked”. That is, if you searched, and you worked really hard at understanding yourself, your people and your surroundings, you could come up with some kind of answer with which you would be able to attain contentment.
In the meantime I’ve come to the realisation that that Much Younger Me, although quite dashing, was of course utterly wrong.
Life is utterly dynamic. You Now are a different person from You Last Year. The same goes for people around you, and the same goes for everything around you.
The goal posts are not just moving all the time, they are an illusion flashing in and out of an hallucinogenic and especially dynamic perception.
Importantly, in this restless environment, some peace can be found by realising that a large part of the restlessness originates from within you. Fortunately, you have slightly more say in you than you have in your surroundings.
What one can do then, is nicely summarised by Prof. Mark Williams in the audio accompanying his mindfulness book:
The deep stillness we seek does not arise because the world is still or the mind is quiet. Stillness is nourished when we allow things to be just as they are for now, in this moment, moment by moment and breath by breath.
The End (for now)
Alright friends, that was it from me, for now. I hope that you have the best 2017 possible. I hope especially that your kindness and that of those around you flows deeply and freely.
As a parting gift, here is the high-resolution panoroma I made from the top of Table Mountain, after hiking up Platteklip Gorge with friends: