Sunday Selection 2021-01-31

We’re at the end of the first month of 2021, and what a month it has been, at least for those of us in the United States. Personally, I’m mainly in the mode of sitting at home patiently while waiting to be eligible for getting the COVID vaccination, which is almost certainly another couple of months away. Luckily it is currently cold and snowy in my corner of the world, so I’m not particularly incentivized to go outside. While I’m stuck at home, I’m trying to read and write more, so here we are:

Henry Rollins on Defining Success

Even though I’m not very familiar with Rollins’ artistic work, his writing always seem to strike a chord with me. Some years ago, his article on Iron and the Soul encouraged me to make regular exercise, especially weightlifting, a serious part of my life. It was something that I managed to more or less keep up over the years and my life was better for it (until COVID-19 made gyms a bad idea). Similarly, the advice and ideas he presents in this piece are not exactly new, but he phrases them in a way that makes them seem like a breath of fresh air in a world that lately seems rather stale.

And now for something completely different:

Formalizing mathematics: an introduction

This is probably not going to be of much interest if you’re not a mathematician or theoretical computer scientist, but it’s something that’s been bouncing around my head. I’ve been looking into the Lean Theorem Prover, where one can write mathematical proofs in a programming language, so that the computer can check them. Theorem provers are being increasingly used to verify properties of software, but it seems like the pure mathematics is just getting on board with how useful they can be. This article tells us why these theorem provers might be crucial for advancing the state of pure mathematics, in more ways than one.

Brad Wright’s rules for Stargates, Star Wars and Superheroes

If there’s anything I like more than computers and software, it’s science fiction (ok, and food and drink and friends and family, but that’s a matter for another blog post). Brad Wright is a writer and showrunner responsible for the Stargate TV shows and for Travellers, which I think is one of the best high-concept, low-flash science fiction shows of the last decade. In this article, he talks about some of his rules of thumbs for not just good science fiction, but good storytelling, and I think many of my readers will find themselves nodding along.

The Theory of Everything: The Origin and Fate of the Universe by Stephen Hawking

I decided to start my book reading this year with one of the slimmest ones on my bookshelf. This is a series of lectures given by Stephen Hawking on how the universe began, how it’s continuing and how it might end. But what’s perhaps more interesting, Hawking goes into depth about how we came to know about all of it through centuries of discovery (and a number of wrong turns on the way). Reading this book reminded me of how much I enjoyed pop science as a teenager. I might have to pick up Hawking’s Brief History of Time after I’m done with this one.

Stacey Abrams on 3 questions to ask yourself about everything you do

If you haven’t been living under a rock you’re probably aware of the Democrats’ win in Georgia, thanks in large part due to the organizing activities of Stacey Abrams. I didn’t know much about her until the elections, besides that she ran for Georgia governor in 2018. In this TED talk from shortly after that election, she talks about events from her life that shaped, and as the title says, 3 questions to ask about everything you do.

Looking ahead to 2021

I was going to write this post last week, but then the events of last Wednesday happened in the American capital, and that put a damper on any positive feelings I had for 2021. But over the weekend a friend of mine sent me a link to Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day, which ends with the question you may have heard of: Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? So, if I can’t have any meaningful positive impact on the world at large, I can at least keep my own little corner of it in order.

As I’ve noted earlier, in 2020 I got better at sitting with myself and my emotions, especially the negative ones. In particular, instead of trying to ignore, run away or even fix them, I learned to let them be. I learned to treat them as signals of things that were bothering me, rather than as imperatives that had to be acted on. After years of trying, I finally started to be able to respond, instead of react. In my best moments, I felt stable, even when things around me were much less so. Oddly, as far as I can tell, this really kicked in around Thanksgiving for some reason. In 2021, I want to take this stability and build something on it. In 2020 much of my effort and energy was focused inwards, and in 2021 I want to focus it outward.

First things first, I want to get my attention back. The last few years, including the last one, have really done a number on my ability to concentrate, especially on the kinds of hard, intellectual problems that bring me joy, and are also how I earn my livelihood. Thankfully, I’ve been meditating more consistently and with a regular group over the last few months, and as a result I have been getting better at noticing when my attention has wondered off. I am also able to better feel when I am focused (like I am writing this) versus when I’m in a state of continuous partial attention (like when doomscrolling for hours). Much like bringing my attention back to my breath when my mind wanders during meditating, I want to get better at bringing my mind back to the task at hand when I notice I’ve become distracted. And once brought back, I would also like to get better at holding my attention for longer. I have some thoughts and things to try to practically achieve this, but for now, my main theme for 2021 is to be present, now.

My second theme for this year is to be complete and whole, in and of myself. I typically describe as an outgoing introvert. I’m happiest when I have a vibrant social life with a core group of friends, but can also have lots of private alone time. So you can imagine that the last year was less than ideal. It was made worse by the fact that I moved a year and a half before that, and was still in the process of building a social life and making new friends. Last year made me realize that I had gone from being happy when I was with other people (either friends or in a relationship) to being actively unhappy without them. That’s something I’ve been starting to unlearn over the last year and would like to keep up this year. I want to discover more about what I enjoy and like, and put more time and energy into those things, rather than just being sad when I’m alone.

As an aside: I stopped making New Year’s resolutions a few years ago (or at least specific ones). They’re almost always more pressure than they’re worth. If they’re habit you’re almost certainly going to fail at them sometimes, and thinking of them as a big “resolution” makes it easy to guilt-trip yourself and makes it harder to get back on the train. If they’re goals, it’s easy to feel like a failure until you reach it. Instead, I have a general theme for each year. In 2019, my theme was stop feeling like a complete mess, and to start to learn to be happy again. That led me to therapy and meditation as a way to really explore my mental state and understand things that had bothered me for years. But while I felt validated that my problems were solvable with the right efforts, and that I could learn to reliably be in better mental states, I also realized that it would take a lot of work to do so consistently. Last year, my theme was to put in the work to make that happen, and it’s bearing fruit in the feelings of stability and self-understanding that I’ve been talking about so far.

Ok, general themes aside, here are some concrete things I want to do, keep doing and not do in 2021. Yes, I cribbed this idea from elsewhere.

What I’m going to keep doing:

  • Meditate, journal and exercise regularly, preferably daily. Sometimes life gets in the way, and that’s fine. Also in the absence of a proper gym my definition of “exercise” has become rather lenient and that’s fine too.
  • Continue to live frugally. With no travel, commuting, and much less eating out, the last year has been unexpectedly frugal for me. I’ve built up a decent financial cushion, and that feels good.
  • Keep reading on psychology and philosophy. In some ways, I’ve always been interested in the question of how to live a good life, but in the last few years I’ve become systematic about it and started putting what I’ve been reading into action. It’s going well, but will probably be work of a lifetime (unsurprisingly).

What I want to do:

  • Keep a more regular schedule, balancing work, play, maintenance and rest. My schedule went to hell in March, and though it recovered somewhat due to teaching a class in the Fall my days (and weeks) are far less organized than I would like them to be. Paradoxically, making and sticking to a schedule doesn’t come naturally to me, but I am happier when I have one.
  • Publish some papers. I currently have four research projects in flight that I would like to see bear fruit. Last year was far less productive than I hoped it would be. And while I’m grateful that I have understanding colleagues and I also was kind to myself, I also don’t want a second year of that.
  • Find an academic position. I’m planning to be on the academic job market this year. My preference is for a tenure track position at a strong research university, but I wouldn’t be entirely opposed to a permanent research position in a different setting. So if you’re reading this and have open positions, let me know!
  • Get Colophon to a usable state and transition this blog. I’m getting increasingly frustrated at how WordPress is becoming more for “content management” than writing. Last year I started working on my own ideas of what a good system for presenting writing online should be like. This year I want to get it robust enough to have a public-facing release and feature-rich enough to use it for everyday writing.
  • Cook more meals. I’m eternally grateful that my housemates have been doing a lot of cooking the last few months, it’s not exactly a longterm solution, and I do like food a lot. Though my scrambled eggs are pretty good now, I’d like to expand my repertoire.
  • Reach out to friends & family more often. It’s not quite the same as having a vibrant social life, especially when everyone’s spending lots of time on video calls anyways, but I at least want to ask my friends how they are doing more often.

What I don’t want to do:

  • Mindlessly binge-watch TV. Don’t get me wrong, I love good television (and movies) and always will, but I want to actually watch and enjoy it, not just mainline it through my eyeballs. So I’m going to try to watch less, more mindfully, and also not while doing other things.
  • Multitask. Key to getting my attention back is to be able to be fully focused on one thing at a time. Luckily, I’m getting better at telling when I’m focused versus not and using that as a guide to change my behavior.
  • Worry about things I have no control over. While some amount of stress and anxiety over what will probably be a turbulent year is inevitable, I don’t want to be paralyzed by things I can’t affect, both in the world at a large, and also on a personal scale.

I’m mentally preparing for this year to be a hard one, probably even more so than the last one. But I would like it to be hard because I consciously did a lot of things that are important to me. And I hope that by the end of it I have some good answers to what I’m doing with my one wild and precious life.

On Living versus Existing

While reflecting on 2020, I said that throughout the course of the year, I felt like I had just existed, rather than lived. Some of my friends have asked me what that means, so I thought I’d take a moment to try and explain how I see it.

Ultimately, this is a subjective feeling, but based on ideas of what I think I’ve achieved externally, as well as how my mental state has been internally.

Standing on the outside and looking at my life the last year, I feel like I haven’t made much progress in my life in the last year. At least, I didn’t make much progress in the ways that I had wanted to at the beginning of the year. I didn’t have much of a social life due to COVID, didn’t really develop new friendships or relationships, and didn’t publish any papers. In a lot of ways, I was operating in survival mode: doing the bare minimum I need to get by and not drop various balls. That’s not something I’m proud of.

On the inside, I spent a large part of the year trying to deny or rage against the state of the world, rather than trying to make the most of the situation. Even when I made some measure of peace with the fact that there was very little in my control, it was hard to put effort into the things that were still up to me. Fundamentally, it’s this that leads to me feel like I existed, rather than lived. To me, being alive means growing or making progress in some important area of my life. It means actually doing the things that I can do, rather than just waiting for things to change or get better on their own. Unfortunately I don’t think I did as much of this as I could have, or would have liked to.

I was talking about all of this with a friend, when she remarked that she didn’t understand why I felt this way. She noted that to her, it seemed like I had done a lot of things: I did a lot of “inner work” which improved how I see myself and my perspective on life, I taught a semester-long class on my own for the first time, I moved to a larger, work-from-home-friendly house, made smart financial decisions, and had a nice Christmas tree in my own home for the first time. I managed to occasionally see some of my friends in a safe, socially distanced way and I also had a number of new experiences, liking playing video games online with people, for the first time.

And so we’re back to why this is a subjective feeling. Making progress and taking action in meaningful directions is important to my sense of feeling alive, but it’s often hard for me to recognize when I’m doing things that don’t fit into a pre-defined mold. I have a strong type-A streak: there is a (short) list of things that I feel like I should be doing or working towards, and anything else doesn’t really count. If I do things that aren’t on that list, it often doesn’t quite register as meaningful activity. For 2020, the main items on that list were (re-)building a social circle and relationships, and making research progress, both of which have been stymied by COVID and related stresses. I didn’t put much stock in things I did that weren’t on that list until someone else brought them up. This forms a feedback loop: because I don’t see the things I do that aren’t “on the list” (looking from the outside in) it feels like I’m not doing anything at all (looking from the inside out). And so the subjective feeling is that I am just kinda existing in the world, without doing anything to meaningfully engage with it, even if the more objective reality is more complicated and balanced.

I suppose all of this is a way of saying: be careful what you pay attention to. One of my themes for 2021 is to be more careful of being in the present moment, to pay attention to what I am currently doing, even if it seems boring or mundane, or not exactly what I would like to be doing. I don’t know what 2021 has in store for me, but I am hoping that instead of obsessing over what I can’t do, I manage to embrace what I can. More importantly, I hope I can give myself credit for the things that I do manage to do, even if I’m not checking off an ideal list. After all, as I’ve noted before: just to be alive is enough.

Sunday Selection 2021-01-03

I’ll be honest, it feels a little strange to write the first of a Selection post for the first time in a new year. I’m tempted to summarize everything that’s been notable from 2020, even though it seems like I barely remember large parts of it, let alone what I read. Moreover people more eloquent than I have summarized what this hell of a year has been like. With all that in mind, here are some things I came across recently that I think will be of interest to you, dear reader.

When This is Over: A 2020 New Year

I’ve read a number of 2020 summaries, and this is by far the one that best captures what I think most of us are feeling for the year we left behind. It summarizes all the tiredness and heartbreak that we’ve been through, the hopes and dreams we have for the new year, and also the nagging doubt at the back of our minds that things won’t magically get better.

As an aside, I started supporting some writers and creators on Patreon last year, and I intend to continue to do so this year. I understand that 2020 has been a very bad year financially for many people, but if you can spare a few dollars a month to support independent creators, please do so. Talking of independent writers, that leads me to…

Is Substack the Media Future We Want?

Newsletters have definitely taken off in 2020. It seems to give writers the independence that blogs once did, while solving the crucial problem of how to get people to pay for interesting writers. I’m subscribed to about half a dozen such newsletters, or varying regularity, and pay for a couple. Of course, as this article tells us, not everything is rainbows and sunshine. A lack of moderation is always a double-edged sword, and even though Substack (and kin) make paying writers easier, it’s hard to say if that will be enough to support the writers losing their livelihoods due to the continuing slow death of journalism. And yes, I’ve thought about offering this blog (or at least a part of it) via newsletter as well.

Just to Be Alive Is Enough

2020 has definitely been a year where if you got to the end of it in one piece, you deserve a pat on the back (even though you may have to give yourself the pat for now). As a recovering Type-A person, it’s hard to accept that survival is enough. As a I noted in the last post, it doesn’t feel good just exist instead of living. However, we can flip that idea around and realize that just being alive gives us a lot to appreciate and enjoy. Something I’m glad I learned over the course of the last year is that we don’t need to wait for particular things to happen to be happy. We can open up to and accept all experiences, and embrace life just as it is.

The Mandalorian Season 2

Season 2 of The Mandalorian is now finished, and the housemates and I finished watching it on Christmas Eve. In many ways, the show feels like a Western set in the Star Wars universe (just as Rogue One was a heist movie set in the Star Wars universe). That doesn’t mean it’s bad though. It doesn’t exactly break narrative ground, but it is very well done, has a wide cast of interesting and relatable characters, and is very enjoyable.

Reflections on 2020

What a year, what a year! 2020 has been a shock to the system, all systems. It goes without saying at this point that it has a been a terrible, rotten, no-good year for most people. A lot of people didn’t make it to the end, and I think very few people made it to the end of the year unscathed. For me, this was going to be a year or traveling, continuing to explore New England and build my social circles in the area, go on dates and maybe find a relationship. None of that happened. Instead of spending a year being outgoing and social, it turned out to be year of turning inwards, and rebuilding my inner life.

To be honest, the last twelve months have been a bit of blur, and making myself sit down and reflect on the past year is making me wonder: what the hell just happened? The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is kind of a lot. February 23, would be the last time I wrote outside the apartment: a Sunday Selection post from the excellent Andala Coffee House in Central Square, which I sincerely hope stays afloat. Barely three weeks later, in early March, I started writing a daily log about my social distancing adventures. March turned out to be the most prolific month ever on this blog, all the way back to when I started in 2006 (!!!). I managed to keep this series going until I realized that I was repeating the same day over and over. I suspect, the mind-numbing sameness of the last year has been a large part of why it’s been so taxing.

By the time we got around to April, the days had taken the shape they would retain for the rest of the year. A basic sameness to each day, at least an hour of Zoom calls most days, nowhere to go and nothing much to do. I had made some amount of peace with not being able to do all the things I had wanted this year. Luckily, Massachusetts managed to get the first wave of the virus fairly under control during the summer. Also by this time we had realized that outdoor, sufficiently spaced activities were relatively safe. Summer turned out to be a much-needed reprieve. There were long walks outside, and a good amount of distanced outdoor dining. For a couple of good weeks, I took the mostly empty subway downtown to the Boston Athenaeum, spending lunches sitting around the Boston Commons. It was good to get a break from spending most of the day, everyday, in the same room. This was around the same time that to maintain some semblance of a social life I started playing video games. This was the first time I’d really played since high school and the first time in my life that I played online with and against other people. I even invested in a fancy GPU so that I could do so with better-than-minimal graphics.

In August, my housemates and I moved from our swanky modern apartment to an older house in the suburbs. We have a much larger, somewhat cheaper space, with a backyard, good neighbors and lots of space for the cats. It’s not as nice as the apartment, but it’s definitely the better choice for what looks like almost another year that we’ll be stuck mostly at home. We each have our own workspace, a spare room for plants and exercising, and separate living room, dining room and kitchen. If we’re going to be home all the time, we at least have a number of different spaces to live and move around in.

By the Fall, a lot of the shock of initial pandemic-induced isolation had worn off. I managed to turn some psychological energy into making progress, rather than just existing. Professionally, the Fall has been a good time. I made some progress on my main research projects and joined in on two new projects. I also taught the undergraduate compilers class at Tufts University. It was my first time teaching a class on my own, and though I regret not being able to do it in a proper classroom, it was definitely an enlightening and enriching experience. All of this has been tiring and more than a little stressful, especially in the absence of traditional Fall Break. But on the other hand, it has been good to make progress in some ways, when so much else seems to be on pause.

I’m trying not to look back on this year with rose-tinted glasses. But I’m also recognizing that I’ve had it easier than most. I’ve been lucky to have stable employment that transitioned pretty seamlessly to remote work (I already had a good setup at home, so didn’t need to scramble to buy equipment). My housemates have been wonderful and taken on most of the outside-the-home tasks like grocery shopping. I was lucky to live somewhere that got the virus under control for most of the time we had good weather outside. My parents and most of my extended family have been safe and virus-free. The cats have been generally well-behaved and affectionate (a couple of puking incidents aside). And though I haven’t traveled at all, I have managed to eat quite a few new foods this year (and a lot of interesting cocktails).

All that being said, this has definitely been a year where I have simply existed, instead of lived. At the same time, all the various tribulations have made thrown my personal growth into overdrive. I have learned about what is important to me, what the needs, wants and nice-to-haves in my life are. I have also learned to do without a lot of the things I thought I needed. At the end of the year, I know myself better than when I started, and perhaps for the first time in my life have been able to just sit with my emotions and thoughts and let them be, rather than trying to avoid them or get carried away by them. I also reevaluated some of my relationships (and the lack thereof), my expectations surrounding them, and managed to let go of some things that I have been holding on to far too long. Hopefully this clears some headspace to allow in better things in the future. Of course, none of this would have been possible without a very good therapist and a meditation group that has been meeting remotely all year. As I said at the beginning of this post, I had to turn inwards, and ended up making a fair bit of progress (though not without a good amount of pain and discomfort along the way).

As I’m writing this, the COVID vaccines are rolling out, though slowly and wastefully (in the US at least). But it will probably be many months until I get the vaccine myself and the greater part of the year until we get back to some semblance of normalcy. I am hoping that lessons I’ve learned this year and the growth I’ve done makes it possible to actually live next year, rather than just exist. But that’s a topic for another post.