Sunday Selection 2021-04-11

Some good news: I got me first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine a few days. I was completely exhausted for a day and then very hungry and thirsty for a couple of days. I take all that to mean that my body is doing work. After over a year of mostly staying at home, it seems like there is now a promise of some semblance of normalcy at the end of the tunnel. It will be another three weeks before I get the second shot and two weeks after that before I can expect the vaccine to reach full effectiveness, so for the next month or so I’ll mostly be doing what I’ve been doing so far. But I am hoping to start easing back to normal after that. Till then, I’ll be continuing to spend more time in front of a screen than I would like to, so I might as well as metabolize it into blog posts.

Free Software: An Idea Whose Time Has Passed

If you’re anywhere around the software or information technology, you’ve probably heard that Richard Stallman was recently reinstated to the board of the Free Software Foundation. This has been widely regarded as a bad move, and has caused a number of board members to resign. This article argues that maybe it’s time not to praise free software, but to bury it, an opinion I find myself agreeing with.

The Long Term iPhone 12 Camera Review

With the weather starting to improve, and more people getting vaccinated, I am looking forward to being out and about more often, which means more opportunities to take pictures. Though I’ve always been interesting in photography, I’ve never managed to justify the cost of a good camera, and even when I’ve bought standalone cameras, I’ve not inclined to carry them on a regular basis. So having a very good camera on a device I already have on me has been just right for me.

The Point of Doing Pointless Things

I don’t know if this my type-A personality or something else, but it’s often hard for me to relax. Part of that difficulty is feeling the need to always do the best thing, even if it’s relaxing. For a long time, I would feel bad if even my “time off” activities didn’t produce something, or lead to personal improvement in some way. For better of worse, the last year of sitting at home has changed that. I couldn’t do a lot of my go-to activities like going to museums, concerts, or various talks and lectures. Doing the digital version of those things just felt like spending even more time sitting in the same place. Instead I’ve had to get used to doing things just because I liked them (like reading comic books) or sometimes just doing nothing at all.

What the Buddha Taught

But of course, I can’t escape my type-A-ness all together, so a lot of my non-fiction reading has been about Buddhist philosophy recently. It’s something I’ve encountered in bits and pieces over the last few years, but it’s nice to have a well-written book that clearly explains the key concepts in an orderly fashion (I’m one of those people who prefer learning things from a textbook). While the writing style is a little dated, and does flow awkwardly at times, it does a good job at both explaining key concepts and answering some more technical questions (like what does it mean for free will if there is no self). If you’re interested in Buddhism at all, this is a good place to start.

Sunday Selection 2021-02-28

Ursula K LeGuin on the Legacy of the Tao Te Ching

Ursula K LeGuin is probably one of the foremost intellects of the 20th century (which makes me more than a little ashamed that I haven’t read much of her work). I’ve been reading more about Zen Buddhism, and it’s close cousin Taoism over the last few years, so I’m looking forward to reading this in the near future. This is really more of an interpretation than a translation, but as the excerpts show, it seems to capture the spirit of the original (along with some choice commentary for the modern age).

David Lynch’s Industrious Pandemic

Talking of cultural icons, I did not know much about David Lynch until this piece. I think the only work of his I’ve seen is the 1984 Dune, which this piece calls “pretty unwatchable”. I was drawn to this piece because of the subtitle which talks about Lynch “living a farmer’s life during the pandemic” by keeping himself “engaged with self-prescribed daily routines”. That’s certainly been a luxury that’s out of reach of most of us, but as I noted in my reflections on 2020, it’s not enough to simply exist. We have to live as well, even in tough times, and we must make use of our privileges and luxuries where we have them.

Love Sick: It’s time to Uncouple Care Work from Romantic Love

Talking of pandemics, the past year has certainly shaped a lot of conversations and thoughts about family, community and caring. As someone who’s often depended on friends and acquaintances for help in ways both big and small, this year has made me even more aware of the value of self-sufficiency. At the same time, I do believe that humans aren’t meant to be alone, and we should all work harder to develop bonds of family and community, but it’s much easier said than done, and no, I haven’t figure out how to do it for myself yet.

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.