exiel

Focus

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all! I hope you all got the rest you needed and had time to spend with loved ones and your hobbies. I have been working on my personal non-anonymous website which is now finished. I coded up a static site generator in python using markdown files for blog posts, markdown2 for conversion to html, jinja for templating. It is neat! Took more time than I expected, but I think that is to be expected.

In the meantime, I have been thinking about a lot of concepts Cal Newport has discussed, including deep procrastination; zen valedictorian and philosophically, the intrinsic value of enjoyment (or of anything really). I have also read about internal vs instrumental motivation and I will link a nice reader on that now: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/06/opinion/sunday/the-secret-of-effective-motivation.html?_r=0

Deep procrastination describes my issues to a tee. It is rather scary, and also simultaneously nice to know that people are going through the same thing as me. I will have a proper think and some longer posts are to follow.

I have been thinking about how to structure my intermission in the sense of my extracurriculars, which have now become my curriculars. I'm at odds with whether its best to have multiple streams of focus, which I do concurrently, or to split the time into bite-size chunks in which I focus wholeheartedly on one skill.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both. The former has, of course, a sense of too much at once, an overwhelm. But, it also allows for some more freedom day-to-day in the sense that if I do not want to spend all day 'locked' in to doing one subject, I can switch and give my mind a rest. The latter technique has an all-or-nothing vibe to it, which I am known to rate, even to my disadvantage.

I think perhaps a mixture of the two techniques can be achieved and take wholesome parts from both while eliminating the pitfalls of each. For example, let's take some skills and mini-skills as an example.

  • Skill: Learning to do home DIY
  • Mini-Skill: Reading

  • Skill: Cooking & Baking

  • Mini-Skill: Learning Chess

  • Skill: Learning Latin

  • Mini-Skills: Gardening

  • Skill: Learning some fundamental physics

  • Mini-Skill: Carpentry (making a bird box or a compost bin)

  • Skill: Programming

  • Mini-Skill: Playing the drums

I emphasise a mixture of one physical skill with craftsmanship as a hobby; and one mini-skill (which I define as something to do as a break during my down-time from the skill) which is of an opposite nature. I think this is a good combination and one which will allow both body and mind to prosper. I shall call it Skill & Mini-Skill which is, coincidentally, the name of my Catfish and the Bottlemen cover band. Ey-oooooooo.

Attention. Perhaps this is all that I have been looking for?

I just have gotten off the zoom phone with two potential counsellors whom one of which I would speak to on a regular basis during my intermission. Rather surprisingly, the one that was more thoughtful in her response to my original contact ended up being a bit more robotic and not as inviting or easy to talk to as the second one. I am already decided it will be the second one, but I will mull it over until next week and send the okay then, just to make sure.

It is always a strange experience talking to complete strangers, especially over the phone, about your deep issues with your relationship to work and your parents etc. I am getting better at it, and I found it quite easy both these times, but thats because I have had three previous counsellors. I remember with my first counsellor, I was quite nervous and I also remember being very grateful after for her help during a very hard time for me.

On a similar subject, four days into my intermission, I already feel overwhelmed with the possibilities and the pressure of the time I have left to 'fix' myself. I was listening to a podcast today on my walk with the dogs and it was the first episode of a modern author, whom I admire greatly, Cal Newport. My friend has messaged me about his podcast which Cal had started earlier in the year, and I gave the first episode a listen. Cal is very good and breaking down fulfilment and life work into very straightforward and reasonably deducted logical perspectives. Nevertheless, I was overwhelmed of his story of a Harvard Medical Student in the 60's who has written 5-10 books, and sold one of his books to a film studio for $3 million in today's money, all by the age of 27. That's less than 2 years away for me.

It's silly to compare yourself like this; I know the only comparison that matters is the one, to yourself, to the previous day or month or year. Yet, I can't help it. Something innate in me really wants to be the best right now, and yet it does not want to do the work to get there. Rather ironic, and therefore clearly irrational. I hope to explore this, and my attitude to work much more in depth with my new counsellor and in my time off.

I went to church today for an advent service. It was a moment to reflect upon the current life we lead with facemasks and hand sanitiser. Most of the people there were pensioners, bar the family that came with their young baby, ready to be christened (an odd way of forcing something upon someone who is completely oblivious, it seems baptising your dog would make just as much sense). There were of course, three pre-teen boys ready to cough and make noise at opportune moments to try and get attention. Nobody cared. They stopped.

During the service, I could not help but think there is something to this communal and meditative activity that has made it stick for millenia. The church also advocates for morals and a philosophy, even if it is based on human myth. There is a specific sort of solace received from the traditions and the quietness and the contextually wise words of the priest. I think a quote I come back to often is very poignant here:

“All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

― Blaise Pascal, Pensées

I have been guilty of this, as we all have been at some point. I watch my father blast information into his head 24/7. He even sleeps with YouTube in the background now. He is retired so it does not really affect his livelihood, but it absolutely affects my ability to have a reasonable conversation with him. His attention span is minute; a problem I have been trying to remedy in myself these past few months. This is why I have been meditating an hour a day for the past few weeks, focussing my input (news and media) and output (writing here and in my journal), and just taking life a bit slower. I have a tendency to rush through things to check them off, as they are graded as coursework, when the reality is, nothing is graded. Even coursework. We all die, and the slate will be wiped clean with nothing ever to be written upon it again.

I can see how the church is very apt in these modern times for people, and there is an argument to be made that the benefits outweigh the lack of evidence supporting the base of christianity. However, I do understand that the church can cause some serious issues, this can be seen from the evangelical influence in America, or the history of the Catholic Church in Europe. Nevertheless, I have realised that the decline of religion without an adequate substitute will cause a gap in modern life that can be used to some actor's advantage. In my opinion, it seems ever the more obvious that social media has replaced this void; the power of a few corporations have taken over the power vacuum left by the church. I say this as a believer in physics and science, that I think I would rather have the church than social media.

On a different note, it seems ever more impossible to disconnect, I sometimes think what it will be like if I am lucky enough to reach retirement, will there be any opt-outs at all? Or will cars drive themselves only with the option of voice or mind control and any request to do so otherwise will leave you leagues behind in the society of 2060? I think advocating for people to retake some control of their digital presence is definitely a good start to help influence that future. It does not seem enough though; some food for thought.

The final step is in motion. I have got all the pieces of the puzzle, now I just have to align them. My intermission will be from the 19th January 2021 until April 20, 2021. 13 weeks is the max with funding covered. However, due to the length of the process and the Christmas holidays, essentially from Thursday 4th December 2020, I will be beginning my intermission.

I am so excited; I feel hopeful and I feel the space to do things that interest me. This will be a big time of change for me, and I hope to look back on it as a truly wonderful time of personal development and positive steps forward in my PhD and my frame of mind.

I have an idea of what to start with, to help myself ease the pressure and the load on myself. I want to stop being as hard on myself and so, I think a nice and extremely enjoyable way to start would be to do some of the projects I have been meaning to do for a long time. These are all computer related:

  • Installing a fresh new distribution of Parabola Linux on my machines and setting up my own unix set up with window manager (probably dwm) and an interesting desktop environment.
  • Making my own email and git server.
  • Migrating to a CLI password and OTP manager such as GNU Pass.
  • Deleting a load of accounts I just do not need anymore, starting with google as the final of the FANG [1] accounts left for me.
  • Hosting my own website, and writing it from scratch, or at least build a pre-existing open source solution from scratch on my own hosting, such as write freely.
  • Setting up my Raspberry Pi 400 as a seedbox, and a tinker station; perhaps, ultimately using the GPIO on there to flash my ThinkPad x230 to coreboot.
  • Setting up a proper backup system of hard-drives, cron, and rsync. I think the cloud is out for me at the moment, unless I find one that aligns with my philosophies and upload only encrypted files to it. It's entirely possible I will do that, just having to scour through 4000 providers is not my cup of tea at the moment.
  • Watching and going through the exercises of 'The Missing Semester' from MIT CS [2].

Well, that was a lot. Of course, I will still write a basic data privacy guide for my friends and family and as a way of having some start-up content on my new home on the internet – my website.

I hope to begin and finish on this in one session after this week of final responsibilities for me. Onwards and Upwards.

One day from receiving the final piece of the bureaucratic puzzle required to apply for intermission. It turns out I will be applying for January and that way I get December off as well as a freebie.

Furthermore, an advisor of mine at the university has recommended that I seriously consider looking into a new supervisor (either alongside or in place of!!) my current set-up. She got this only from knowing that my supervisor is young; I guess now as I write this, she also deduced as I have been struggling during my PhD that that would be a factor too.

It's an exciting yet worrisome idea. I, of course, would really click with some supervisors in the CS department, but it's hard for me to comprehend at the moment exactly how to approach even looking for one. There are a lot of factors involved that I am not sure about: my funding, my source of funding, self-funding, my knowledge etc.

Nevertheless, I'm expecting 2021 to be a big year of change. I am very much looking forward to stepping into the abyss and seeing what lies on the other side for me. Some argue proper systematic change always requires a revolution, and not just a reform. Let's test this hypothesis, shall we?

I have lagged behind already by a week on the post I wanted to write about basic steps towards taking some control of your internet activities and associated data. There is a reason for that, I am still sorting out my intermission and a few things I have to do before I go on leave. I am still planning on writing it, it won't be too comprehensive. Just something basic and straightforward with a few words on why it is important to me to take such steps in my daily life.

Otherwise, I am doing well. I have some probability questions to go through this morning for my students. They are fun! One of them is the birthday paradox. With 23 people in a room, the chance that two of them share a birthday is just over 50%. I do not quite understand why, but I know it has to do with the fact that there are so many combinations in 23 unordered people. Once I figure it out, I might write it out here.

As I read more, I have found that some people – who are ostensibly exercised in thought and understanding – can have a mediocre way of persuading people through their arguments. For example, I was reading 'Avoid News: Towards a Healthy News Diet, by Rolf Dobelli'. The only credible piece of information I have about him is that he is a 'good' friend of Nassim Taleb, so I assume that was enough for me to be interested. Though, now as I write this, I see that I am basing that completely from his own word. Regardless, as a mental model, it is useful to discuss what I found needlessly arrogant and patronising in his tone of writing.

Firstly, when I have a point to make and want to persuade someone of something, I have found it completely counterproductive to speak in not very thought through platitudes and in a completely affirmative tone. What I mean by this, is shown in this example:

“News consumers are suckers for irrelevancy, and online news consumers are the biggest suckers. News is an interruption system. It seizes your attention only to scramble it. Besides a lack of glucose in your blood stream, news distraction is the biggest barricade to clear thinking.”

Okay, so claiming that distraction from reading the news is second only to an physical state of malnutrition seems a bit like a tribal war here. Rolf has understood that news is bad for him, and so it must be as bad for everyone else on planet Earth and such clearly, it deserves a place under starvation in its prohibition to clear thinking.

I understand I am cherry picking out of context here, and I do see many good points he makes. I, myself, have not been reading the news for a few weeks now and earlier in the year, I took a few months to stop reading the news as well; to great positive effect on my mental health. I am on his side, yet I can not help but feel patronised, and that by reading this 'manifesto' I have wasted time. It is not thoroughly researched, not thoroughly explained, and picks out random studies for its own aims of obliterating the idea of consuming news.

This is a pattern I see amongst self-proclaimed 'rational' thinkers – a self pompousness that seems to override a key tenet of rationality; a clearly thought through and validated argument with evidence weighed scientifically from both sides. Gwern.net has hosted this file on its servers; I am disappointed that such an intelligent and thoughtful person could host such a piece with its complete disregard for the complexity of thought, by the use of one-sided platitudes that only young teenagers seem to love when exposed to new ideas for the first time.

It is my hope that people when they read such a piece, that they take it with the rational grain of salt, and read it for what it is: a way for the writer to let some steam off with regards to the problems in his life and perhaps an all too clear scapegoating of a much more complex problem. After all, we are all only human.