Status Update for July 2021

Long time, no write. I got the idea for doing monthly status updates from a couple of programmers I follow: Drew Devault and Simon Ser. While their’s focus on mostly their work, I’m expecting mine to to be a more varied snapshot of my life.

The last few months have been strangely hectic. I got vaccinated in late April/early May, moved in early June, and spent most of the month settling into life in my new apartment, living on my own for the first time in a couple of years. Things in my corner of the world mostly went back to normal for a while, though with the delta variant causing local COVID cases to be on the upswing, those days may be numbered. Thankfully, the vaccines seem to be working. But still, the weather is (sometimes) nice and I would like to enjoy that while I can.

Just like everywhere else in the world, climate change has come to New England. We had a week of very hot weather, then a couple weeks of continuously cloudy skies and lots of rain, and then as things were starting to improve, we got a few days of haze, I suspect from the fires on the west coast. All that being said, we’re doing much better than some parts of the world, and there have been a number of really nice days: warm, but not hot, bright blue skies with generous helpings of mostly white clouds.

This reminds me that it really is the small things in life that matter most, like a good tuna sandwich, or earbuds that pause whatever is playing when you take one of them out of your ear. I suspect this will be especially true as the world continues in a state of political, socio-economic, and environmental upheaval.

I’ve been noticing that whenever I feel down, blocked, uncertain, or confused, I come back to the same things to help me feel grounded and stable: a morning routine, a solid gym workout, a day’s work in a beautiful environment (like the Boston Athenaeum), a couple pieces from my favorite authors where I notice something new every time I read them. Maybe I’m just getting old, and ossifying around the same things, or maybe these things resonate with core parts of my psyche. In any case, I regularly come back to Craig Mod’s interview in Offscreen Magazine. All of it is worth reading, especially the part about respect for life itself:

So I ask myself regularly: Am I maximizing this so-called respect for my being alive or not? Does my work pay dividends in making me more empathetic, more curious, kinder, smarter? And the best way I’ve found to say ‘yes’ to this somewhat ridiculous question is to ask if the work, my day to day, moves my heart.

In the end I’ve found that understanding how you define respect for life itself is a really good organizing function for thinking about how to live, how to spend your days.

Also like Mr. Mod, getting thoughts out of my head and into words is an important way in which I process my experience of the world. In particular, it is very easy for me to get stuck in my own head for an extended period of time, which is no good for me, or the people around me. Unfortunately, I’ve been doing far too little of this for the last few years, and I fear my life has been dimmed as a consequence. So I’m trying again to make this a regular practice. I will probably fail at this (again), but as my meditation practice has taught me, much of life is simply getting up and trying again.

Part of my growing reluctance to write online is that WordPress, that powers this blog, is becoming increasingly unsuitable. It’s become more focused on being a content management platform rather than a writing tool, evidenced by the “write” button being shoved up into the right hand corner. I have mixed feelings about the block editor. While my own writing tool is far from ready for production, I’ve been looking into as an alternative, any may start at least mirroring some posts there. There’s a 14-day trial of the Pro version which seems suitable for my needs.

That’s all folks! This month has honestly been mostly devoted to resting, settling into a new environment, and enjoying the weather when possible. Next month should be a more typically productive month.

A different kind of trilogy

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ll know that I’ve been on a Zen kick lately. So I was pleasantly surprised a couple of weeks to learn about a book called The Unfettered Mind by a 17th-century Japanese Zen Master called Takuan Sōhō. It’s actually a collection of three essays or letters to a master swordsman, Yagyū Munenori. They offer advice and philosophy combining both Zen buddhism, and swordsmanship, perhaps an odd combination given that non-violence is core Buddhist tenet.

However, The Unfettered Mind is not the only such work in this vein. Yagyū Munenori himself wrote a book called The Life-Giving Sword, possibly inspired by this work. His contemporary and rival, the legendary Miyamoto Musashi, also wrote a book fusing the art of swordsmanship and the discipline of the mind: The Book of Five Rings.

Together these three books make for a sort of trilogy, combining martial arts and Zen practice. I worked my way through The Unfettered Mind over the last week and have The Book of Five Rings waiting on my bookshelf. And yes, I did find The Unfettered Mind quite enlightening, though I suspect it will take me a few more readings to really grasp the various nuances.

Sunday Selection 2021-05-30

It’s been a couple of weeks since I started writing Daily Digest posts. I don’t write them everyday, so Daily Digest might have been a misnomer, but it does feel good to reflect on the day and get thoughts out of my head. It also helps me remember little details about the day I would otherwise forget. One of the other hand, I also write about things I’ve been reading and watching in the Digests, which leaves me with less to write about on Sunday. I’ll have to work on finding a balance between the two over the next few weeks. With all that being said, here’s a somewhat lighter Sunday Selection.

Blog About What You Struggled With

While we’re on the topic of writing more, Julia Evans makes an interesting point: write about the things you’ve struggled with. It’s a good way to both cement your knowledge and maintain a record for the future, not to mention, create something that will be useful to others.

How to Become a Better Writer by Becoming a Better Noticer

Talking about blogging, getting better at writing is something I’ve been interested in for a long time. I took a number of creative writing classes in college, and I remember a number of assignments that focused on observing the world, rather than directly writing about it. So here’s an article about getting better at writing by getting better at noticer. It’s full of both examples and exercises, and will definitely go into my writing toolbox.

Kumail Nanjiani Can Be Your Hero, Baby

The first teaser trailer for the upcoming Eternals movie from Marvel dropped a couple of days, which reminded me of this article that I saved a couple of months ago and never got around to reading. So I remedied it, got a peek into Nanjiani’s life, and the kind of mental and physical training that it takes to have the body of a superhero. As someone who’s put on a rather embarrassing amount of weight over the last year, I’ll put this in the “inspiration” category.

And on the topic of the Eternals trailer, here it is:

And finally an actual book:

Philosopher of the Heart by Claire Carlisle

For the first time in a while, I’m reading a number of different books at once. Of those, this one strikes a good balance of being entertaining, informative, and easy to digest. The author takes us on a (non-chronological!) tour of Kierkegaard’s life, and in the process gives us a thorough understanding of his philosophy and the cultural context in which his ideas came about. It’s also a surprisingly quick read, and I’m going through almost a chapter day. Highly recommend if you have an interest in European philosophy.

Daily Digest 2021-05-27

I’ve been continuing to watch Season 4 of the The Expanse, 4 episodes in currently. I’m definitely enjoying it, but I am also a little frustrated. There seems to be a lot of backstory that is missing, I’m told it’s in the books. There are a couple places where it seems like important plot points depend on characters doing unusually stupid things, which I personally find very annoying. But I’m willing to give the show the benefit of the doubt for now, and will see how I feel at the end of the season.

Thanks to Andre Garzia I came across The StoryGraph. It lets you track books that you’ve read and recommends new books based on them and your supplied interests. Yes, it’s similar to GoodReads, but cleaner and more community-oriented, and without the ties to Amazon (all of which I consider a good thing). There are some things I don’t like about it: it’s more focused on recommendations than tracking, the process for adding things I’m currently reading is clunky, and there are no native mobile apps, so I can’t just point my camera at a book’s barcode and have it added to my profile. I also don’t seem to have a public profile page, so I can’t share what I’m reading with someone who isn’t on the site. All that being said, the service looks like it’s in active development, so I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out.

I came across Oxide Computer’s new website which also describes their in-development product in some detail. It tickles the part of my brain that loves to tinker with hardware and bare metal computing. In an alternate life, where I didn’t decide to move up the abstraction layers to programming languages and tools, I would definitely be interested in working at a place like Oxide, and more generally doing the kind of co-design that they are.

That in turn led me to Bryan Cantrill’s talk about the coming golden age of hardware/software co-design. Lots of interesting things seem to be coming in the near future, I just hope we put it to use running something other than invasive machine learning algorithms on biased datasets. Time will tell I suppose.

Daily Digest 2021-05-24

It was a Monday, which means that after an unexpectedly stressful weekend (more on that at a later date), it’s time to get ready for the week. It’s also two weeks until I get the keys to my new apartment. I am looking forward to moving and am also very over my current living situation, so I’m afraid I’ll be increasingly insufferable until I move.

I learned about the author and professor, Robert D. Richardson (via Austin Kleon) who not only wrote biographies of Thoreau, Emerson, and William James, but also impressed Annie Dillard enough to marry her after “two lunches and three handshakes”. That makes for a whole new set of #relationshipgoals, as the kids say these days. I let myself fall into a bit of an Annie Dillard rabbit hole, following the links from Kleon’s post. I read this very interesting New York Times interview done shortly after her book A Pilgrim’s Progress was published, as well as this interview of Richardson, where he talks (among other things) about the effect she has had on his writing.

Now that I’m fully vaccinated, I’ve been using the Boston Athenaeum as a workspace a couple of times a week. As Cal Newport says in his latest essay in the New Yorker, remote work doesn’t necessarily mean working from home, maybe just close to home. A welcome side effect of that is a little more in-person human interaction, including random conversations with strangers in the elevator. It is still a little bit strange with masks on, but hopefully that will only be a part of our shared reality for a short while longer (at least here in Massachusetts).

Talia Ringer tweeted about how she feels more conscious each year, feeling more present and more aware of her thoughts and surroundings. I’ve been having a similar experience, especially in the last couple of years as I invest more time and energy into meditation and therapy. Part of this is due to a deeper feeling of agency over things that I thought were out of my control, like my emotions, motivations and priorities. Some of it is also due to realizing that there’s more to life than following a pre-determined plan. At the same time, it’s unfortunately very easy for me to not be present, to exist with my brain wrapped in a sort of distracted fog, with my mind lost in the past or present or fictional, fantastic worlds.

Talking of fantastic worlds, I realized that binge watching random TV shows as a way to relieve stress was not doing me any favors. It was starting to feel like an addiction, and made being present even more difficult. But I still enjoy movies and television and don’t want to cut them out of my life entirely. Instead, I want to watch higher quality productions, starting with Season 4 of The Expanse. It’s definitely one of the better science fiction shows of the last few years, filled with interesting concepts and plotlines, good actors, lots of careful worldbuilding and high production quality. I watched the first episode, which was very entertaining, and did a whole lot of setup for the rest of the season. I’m hoping to gradually work my way through it, one episode a day, over the next few weeks.

As an aside, as much as I like how much high quality television there is these days, I am not thrilled at how seasons seem to have very few episodes these days (sometimes in the single digits).