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 #135: It’s all rainbows and unicorns, no really!

This rainbow unicorn, floating serenely on a cloudy background, is winking right at you. Down below, we are celebrating GOU #3’s second birthday. Photo taken with the expert assistance of GOU#1, age 11 going on 32.

Hi there friends, welcome back to the weekly (!!!) head voices! I missed you.

Software Release Frazzle

Releasing desktop software, even for a small group of people, can get tricky quickly yo!

Yes, people still write desktop software, and we do love doing it. However, compared to web-apps, there are some additional challenges.

One can’t easily roll-out an incremental fix while no-one is watching, because every release is a significant event where users have to go to the effort of downloading and installing your baby.

It’s a fairly new product, so our release process is still being refined. Long story short, we caught a bug on the release platform (we develop cross-platform, but deploy for a single platform) shortly before release and so we really had to scramble to fix. This, together with the fact that the preparations for the release were already generally intense, left me quite frazzled by Wednesday evening after dinner.

Lesson learned: In a cross-platform development, don’t allow any dependency version discrepancies between platforms, no matter if it causes developer inconvenience.

Unicorns and rainbows

GOU #3 turned 2 on Thursday.

The littlest genetic offspring unit seems to be verbally well developed. She’s already using words like “eintlik” (“eigenlijk” in Dutch, “actually” in English) in fairly well-structured sentences. I have taught her to say phrases like “universiteit” and “lekker internet”, which she does with a smile.

She is able to express her wants and needs at a level which exceeds that of some 30 year olds.

Anyways, yesterday we held a birthday party for her.

It was a fabulously enjoyable affair with far too many delectable delicacies, and more than sufficient amounts of craft beer and good wine (expensive local Chardonnay is my current preference, if you must know).

It was beautiful to see so much of the family together in one place, all connecting like we humans should be doing as often as we can, but often don’t.

Thank you little GOU #3, for everything.

Your complimentary grab-bag of interesting cocktail party conversational tidbits

Trump / Brexit voters were scared.

In my 2016 to 2017 transition post, I lamented the observation that for both Brexit and the Trumpocalypse, a lower level of education was the strongest indicator for a vote for leave and for Trump respectively.

A new study by the Queensland University of Technology has now shown that in both cases the vote for Brexit / Trump was also driven by fear. It also makes the scary point that the respective campaigns deliberately targeted this fear, which is more than worrisome.

Use this tidbit with care, or right before you were planning to leave the party anyways.

How to defend your exercise addiction

A recent study published in Aging Cell, showed that older people who exercised regularly (in this case cycling), had the same levels of T-cells as 20 year olds. In other words, their immune systems are as effective as people a fraction of their age.

One of the co-authors of the study, 82-year old Prof Norman Lazarus (who himself cycles 100km at a time), summarised it neatly in the media as follows:

If exercise was a pill, everyone would be taking it. It has wide-ranging benefits for the body, the mind, for our muscles and our immune system.

(I like how he casually takes aim at our pill-obsession.)

The Carmack Productivity Method (CPM)

John Carmack is the modern-day genius who was the lead programmer of genre- and era-defining games like Wolfenstein 3DDOOM (“one of the most significant and influential titles in video game history”) and Quake. During working on these projects, he invented a number of important computer graphics techniques.

It turns out that Carmack is not only a genius, but a productivity and focus monster.

In this 2013 blog post, a colleague of Carmack at id Software describes how Carmack would apparently play CDs while he was working. If he was checking his email, or if he was interrupted by a colleague, or he needed to go to the bathroom, in other words, if he was not focusing on the core of his work, he would pause the CD player.

By the end of the day, he knew exactly how much focused work he had done by how far he had gotten through his playlist.

Compared to the interrupt-driven way programmers work today (thanks internet!) this sounds like an amazingly visceral way to recognise and signal interruptions in your flow: THE MUSIC SIMPLY STOPS.

Would you be able to implement something like this for your work?

À bientôt

Thank you very much for stopping by! Have a productive week, and don’t forget to exercise.

I look forward to our next meeting.

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.

Weekly Head Voices #69: No sugar added.

This time, the head voices are echoing the span of time ending strictly on Sunday, April 27 at 23:59.

I have to break my rule and reach through past the start of that week however. On Wednesday April 16 I had quite a heavy sugar crash. After about 12 cups of coffee, each with a spoon of sugar (as per usual), some chocolates from the Stone Three sweetie jar during lunch ,and two giant coconut crunches at about TU Delft sugar fix time (yes children, I do my best to commemorate the sugar fix, even at 11000 km distance from you), my energy levels dropped through the floor and no amount of coffee could get them close to normal again.

That’s when I decided to stop taking sugar.

On Thursday April 17 I went cold turkey. I’m not taking any table sugar at all, no cookies or sweets (ARGH), and I’m even steering clear of breakfast cereals. Pretty boring, I know. After more than a week of completely unscientific N=1 case “study” experience, I can report that:

  • It took some getting used to my coffee without any sugar.
  • NO MORE  COOKIES. ARGH ARGH ARGH. COME CLOSER SO I CAN BITE YOU.
  • My perceived energy levels seem significantly more stable, and I remain all energetic until late at night. Sometimes I don’t sleep, because I run around in the neighbourhood making growling noises. Sometimes I wake up, miles away from home, with all kinds of gunk under my finger nails. Oh well.

On the topic of quitting, let’s talk about all of those lists we love so much. You should really go read Noeska’s presentation on Productivity, Project Management and Other Important Stuff in her latest status update blog post. Besides all of the Getting Things Done and Pull Yourself Together tools and systems she presents, I was happy to see her talk about the dangers of productivity tools on slide 23, and especially the “doing the right things vs doing things right” dilemma.

You see, I’ve been thinking much about this lately. Usually when I’m doing the most valuable and important things (designing and building new products, learning new programming languages, coming up with brand new ideas for artefacts to build) my email inbox starts overflowing and my todo system (currently todoist, which I do like) stagnates (my todoist karma is currently ZERO. I’m at KARMA ZERO damnit!!). Conversely, when I’m almost at inbox zero and my todoist is under control, it feels great, but I’m tired because I’ve spent all of that time taking care of a bunch of emails and mostly urgent but almost no important tasks.

Some people I’ve chatted with are hardcore enough to make the classification between important and urgent in their lists. However, when I see that list of tasks, my OCDs take over and I go into 100% reactive mode. NO ROOM FOR CREATIVITY.

I’m still thinking about how to solve this problem. I do think that the lists and the systems are really important, because some things do really need doing at certain points in time. For now, I’m still picking the three (or two, or one) most important things to do per day (see Noeska’s presentation, also see pro tip #2 in this 2011 post of mine). Also, what does work remarkably well for me, is maintaining a daily “done” or “I did it” list. Go read this, you can thank me later.

After all of that, the weekend took us to Vaalvlei, a picturesque wine farm just outside of Stanford:

Vaalvlei wine farm, just outside of Stanford.
Vaalvlei wine farm, just outside of Stanford.

Here we were treated to a super-exclusive wine tasting of the Vaalvlei Sauvignon Blanc, 2012 Shiraz Reserve, 2011 Shiraz, Shiraz port, and the top TOP secret Shiraz cognac right from the cask (don’t tell anyone, ok?):

Vaalvlei wine and cognac tasting
Vaalvlei wine and cognac tasting

I can report that these hand-crafted wines and the cognac were all beautiful, but I trust that my friend De Wijnrecensent (aka the Tall Philisophical Neighbour! all secrets are revealed on this blog.) will have more to say about this in a few months time.

Enjoy the rest of the week kids!