The 2018 to 2019 transition post.

The sun setting over a lighthouse with a mysterious path in the front. I might just have maxed out my quota of clichéd ending / beginning symbolism, but this situation really just presented itself a few days ago. One previous year as I arrived at this particular lighthouse, it had a rainbow as well. I think the lighthouse itself is, analogously to Mitch Hedberg’s blurry bigfoot, inherently clichéd.

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:

At the Monkeyland Primate Sanctuary in Plettenberg Bay, I learned that lemurs huddle together in these aptly called “lemur balls” to share body heat. When it’s cold enough, they even take turns to be in the middle.

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.

At the very least five of the posts I wrote in 2018 dealt in some way with focus.

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.

Blogging.

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!)

Looking forward:

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?)

Running.

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.)

Looking forward:

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.

Inspired by a colleague who managed to ship a brilliant shooter game side-project on Steam last year, I made myself the promise to ship more side-projects.

After that, I managed to ship two side-projects, one small and the other quite tiny.

This was a satisfying experience that I would like to continue in 2019.

(P.S. the problem with shipping side-projects, is that you now have more things that you actually have to look after. Next year I’ll think up a resolution for unmaintained shipped side-projects.)

Mindful more.

This is a simple one.

I used to spend a few minutes every second morning before work doing simple mindfulness breathing and focus exercises.

It was worth the modest time investment many times over, in terms of focus, and especially in terms of seeing life in perspective.

In the second half of 2018 I let this habit slip for some or other reason. I think it’s because I convinced myself that running time could also count as meditation time.

In 2019, I’m going to #bringbackthemeditation.

Learn more.

During 2018, I started taking a more structured approach to the books I wanted to read, and the courses I wanted to follow, by tracking these in my sneaky longer term goals which form part of my daily planning routine.

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.

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!

The baby avocado tree, right after we transferred it to its new home, in a little nest of fine compost and bone meal.

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?!)

Conclusion

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.

This reminds me of a certain sunset in the Tankwa desert with a rather funny helicopter.

Ubik on the beach, please. [Weekly Head Voices #54]

At least part of this post was conceived right on this balcony over here:

One day, I wish to own such a balcony.

Yes friends, that there right in front of us is the beach, and right in front of that the North Sea, and right over that the beautiful setting sun. We will definitely be going back there, it’s just that awesome spending a few days right on the sand.

During my vacation, I had time to to spend some of it with one of my favourite authors, the late but fantastically great Philip K. Dick. Those of you with some culture will immediately think of VALIS, a masterpiece that he wrote after becoming more or less psychotic in 1974. The rest will go Ah! when I explain that Bladerunner, Total Recall , Minority Report and many more movies are based on his work. This time I visited Ubik, a book he wrote in 1969, chock-full of precogs, telepaths, anti-psis and the whole idea that your current reality might not be the only or even the most authentic reality. After reading this with great enjoyment, I’ve come to the conclusion that Dick might have been functionally psychotic for a longer time, but somehow was able to channel this masterfully into his truly psychedelic writing.

Ubik drops you back in the thick of things fast. Taken as directed, Ubik speeds relief to head and stomach. Remember: Ubik is only seconds away. Avoid prolonged use.

In other extremely significant happenings, genetic offspring #2 spontaneously started walking independently on Monday, August 8, 2011. Just to prove a point, she started doing dance moves during walking on the same day. Picture this: Little person, head and eyes disproportionately big and hence super cute, walking like a beginner across the room and then stopping halfway to do a little swinging-hips-jig. My cuteness-appreciation gland just about burst.

We’ve now also acquired the pinnacle of human transportation technology:

Say hello to your transportation future, humankind!

Yes people not from Holland, that’s a really weird three-wheeled bicycle with a huge wooden container on the front. Here it’s called a BAKFIETS. You fill the wooden container with kids (I’ve tested up to 4, works like a charm) or crates of beer (I’m soon going to test), fit the tent if it’s raining, and then cycle anywhere. It’s silent and does infinite miles to the gallon! I did get some funny looks when I cycled the 15 kilometres from Bergschenhoek, where we bought this baby, to Delft, but that might have been the fact that it was pitch dark at a time, and I had that crazy I-just-bought-a-bakfiets-and-I-will-cycle-her-home-come-hell-or-high-water look in my eye. Whatever the case may be, I can only very highly recommend this form of transport.

Alright kids, that’s it for now. I’m doing pomodori left and right, but The Man keeps on piling on more work. It’s especially funny how just about every research grant programme worth its salt has its deadline right about now. One day I’m going to stick it to The Man I tell you!

P.S. This weekend, I’ll not be working on research grant proposals at a truly wonderful event with some suitably wonderful people.

Time does wait for electronic true love [Weekly Head Voices #30]

I probably shouldn’t be spending deadline-chasing time writing this post, but I can’t not, you know? I do have some Sunday pomodoros behind me, so the FNSF (and other involved parties) will probably not mind too much. Also, to shave off a few more seconds, I’ll temporarily switch to the Swimgeek Quick Update-style bullet list.

Before the first bullet however, you really have to see the DTV Shredder in action, the vehicle I’ve decided to equip my evil footsoldiers with, right after I manage to purchase a suitable volcanic island and install my evil lair:

(found via engadget.)

Here come the bullets:

  • Due to the completion of the TI 1100-a project by the end of the previous week, I was expecting this week to be of the more relaxed persuasion. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It turns out that a number of deadlines were simply in stealth mode, waiting for the right moment to pounce. Colour me surprised.
  • The extremely resourceful  / capable individual (ERCI) mentioned in WHV #3 and #9 completed his M.Sc. under the entertaining supervision of the FSNF and myself, defended his thesis (title: Integrated Visual Analysis for Heterogeneous Datasets in Cohort Studies — Application to Neuropsychiatric SLE) this past week, and managed to acquire his whole degree Cum Laude. Congratulations Ir. ERCI, we hope to see much more of you during the coming years *wink wink*!
  • It turns out that combining a Goretex raincoat, a Senz aerodynamic storm-proof umbrella (truly awesome tech, designed by a TU Delft spinoff) and a set of RainLegs (you look like the missing fifth member of the Village People, but your legs remain dry) results in a pretty effective counter-measure against the soul-demolishing Dutch Autumn rain, if one is able to live with wet feet. A Facebook friend with some serious tropical storm experience also recommended a pair of those big Timberland boots, a suggestion that for some or other reason resonated with me, and not only because it would solve my wet feet problem. He meant these really pretty yellow boots with the macho-looking soles:
These are the Timberland boots you were looking for.
  • On Thursday, my Kindle DX Graphite was delivered by the friendly UPS dude. It was love at first sight (with the Kindle and not the UPS dude), and since then my feelings have only deepened. You see, the Kindle DX embodies the fusion of two of my greatest fetishes: Reading and high-tech gadgets. Ostensibly I bought it to try paperlessify my academic review work (papers, student theses, proposals, all printed out numerous times and finally thrown out for recycling) and as soon as firmware 3.0 has been released for the KDX Graphite and I get some time I’ll write a critical blog post concerning its performance in this role, but for now I’m just euphoric with the thing as general reading platform. Calibre, once you get used to its idiosyncrasies, is fantastic as a cross-platform library manager.
  • Specific events of the past week, as well as interesting conversations with the FSNF and others, have again pointed out that terminal over-booking might be necessarily associated with a post-Ph.D. academic career. During your Ph.D., you have the exquisite luxury of focusing on one (perhaps three) important things for extended periods of time. Thereafter, right after the defence-afterglow has subsided, if you decide to stay in academia, your calendar and task-manager explode in a messy deluge of meetings, administration and forced work during the evenings and weekends, because this is the only way to get more than half of your stuff done. I have it from trustworthy sources that this only gets worse the further along you get in your career. As I’ve invested heavily in optimising my own time utilisation and efficiency, and now have a strategy that, although there’s significant room for improvement, doesn’t work too badly, I’m planning to put together The Great Academic Time Management Post. If you already disagree with this or with what you think the contents of the post might turn out to be, please vent in the comments!

That’s it for this episode. My big red pomodoro timer is looking at me in a decidedly unfriendly way… The rest of you have a great week!