One of the lifestyle changes I’ve been wanting to make in 2019 is to reduce my consumption and to live in a way that is more considered and careful. I’ve already written about how I’m doing that when it comes to information and media consumption. In more material ways I’m trying to do things like take more public transport, eat out less, and reduce the amount of food and non-recyclable waste that I produce. I’m also trying to reduce the computational resources I use, and by extension the energy, human and natural resources used.

I’ve been a happy Linode user for several years now. I started using what was then their lowest tier at $20 a month to host some of my websites and small web applications. Over the years, I’ve been paying the same amount per month but been getting upgraded to more powerful virtual servers, until I got up to their Linode 4GB Standard tier: 4GB of RAM, 2 CPU cores, 80 GB of SSD storage and 4TB of network transfer. If that sounds like overkill for serving a few small websites, you’re probably right.

Linode is starting to migrate users from a monthly billing plan to an hourly billing plan. In the process of reading about the plan differences (spoiler: not much for small users like myself), I decided to re-evaluate how much computation I actually needed and used. The above mentioned specs were far more than what I needed, or could see myself needing in the near future. So I downgraded to the current lowest Linode configuration, the Nanode: just 1GB of RAM, 1 CPU core, 25 GB of SSD storage and 1TB of network transfer. That should be more than enough for my needs, and will cost me just $5 a month.

I could probably go even lower and do most of my hosting out of GitHub Pages, or an Amazon S3 bucket, but I find it useful to have an actual virtual server to run arbitrary programs on if I need to. I am planning on making some more changes to my computing usage in the near future. Currently the VPS runs Arch Linux with a fairly large list of userspace tools (including a full OCaml compilation stack). The lower specs will probably make compiling things on this VPS annoyingly slow, so in the future I’ll be compiling on my local Linux machine and just moving binaries over. I will also be switching over to using Alpine Linux to run an even lighter system. Also, this blog currently runs on WordPress.com. That has worked out pretty well, but for a number of reasons I think it’s time to part ways. I’ll go into those reasons in depth in a future post, and I will be moving the blog over to said Linode VPS over the next few weeks.

Now, I’m fully aware that this doesn’t make a huge impact on anything in the grand scheme of things. And yes, part of doing this a reason to just geek out on UNIX sysadmin-y things that I don’t do much these days. But still, I do believe that if a few minor changes can make a positive effect on the world (no matter how small), then it is worth investing the time and energy to make those changes.

Continuing yesterday’s theme of reducing consumption and information hygiene, today I thought about browsers and tabs. I’ve been pretty disappointed with how much webapps have taken over day-to-day computing. But the one silver lining is that I can isolate all of my communication (email, various messengers, Slack, social media) in the Chrome browser. When I need to focus, or just don’t want to be available, I simply close Chrome. I use Safari for all of my actual browsing. I suppose I could do this within different instances or windows of the same browser, but there is probably an important psychological signal I send myself by having different applications for different purposes (even if the two look substantially the same).

Another piece of the puzzle is that I aggressively close tabs. If I come across a long article that I want to read, but not at that moment, I send it to Instapaper (and will often actually read on my iPad). PDFs get downloaded, and also are often read on my iPad. For things that I will need to refer back to later I use bookmarks. I’ll use local bookmarks for things I need periodically (like API docs, or the list of LaTeX symbols). For other things that I might need later, I’ve been using a happy Pinboard user for years.

Personally if I have a browser window or too many tabs open I feel like that’s something I should be paying attention to, especially if it’s something like email or Slack. But most of the time, what I should be paying attention to is something completely different. Actually closing out unnecessary windows and tabs helps me to mentally clear out false expectations and distractions.

Over the last few months (years?) I’ve been noticing the increasingly deleterious effect of excessive information consumption of my state-of-mind in general and my ability to concentrate for long periods of time in particular.

With that in mind (get it? I’m sorry) I’m trying to be more careful about my information consumption.  Part of that is trying to consume higher quality things in smaller quantities, and spending more time and effort enjoying and appreciating what I’m experiencing. But part of it is also revisiting things that I really enjoyed once.

Over the last few years I’ve been largely listening to music via Spotify. While it’s been great for discovering new artists and music without spending tons of money, it’s also led to some bad habits. I often get lazy and listen the same playlist of Spotify-curated tracks on repeat. I also neglect my fairly large personal collection of music that’s sitting around on my computer.

So I’m going to try to listen to more music from my personal, local collection, including a bunch of the aforementioned things I used to really enjoy.  Since I’m near my MacBook most of time, I’ll be listening to MP3s via iTunes. Some of my collection is messy, so I’ll be using the excellent Beets tool to clean up and organize my collection as I go. Today I’m listening to Blind Guardian, starting with The Forgotten Tales album. I’ll also be keeping a Twitter thread of things I’m listening to as I go along (if I can remember to update it).

Yesterday I rewrote about half (the entire front-end) of a project that took me and two other collaborators several months to complete a few years ago. At the end of a solid work afternoon, I had things compiling and running, but in a very buggy state. Unexpectedly, the associated feelings turned out to be somewhat bittersweet and conflicted. I’m happy and proud of how much I’ve improved in the years since I first worked on this project, but I’m also sad thinking of how much faster and better things might have gone originally if I had known back then all the things that I know now.

Later in the evening, I learned something new (GADTs and how to use them in OCaml), which makes me hope that in a few years I’ll be even more capable than I am now. At the same time, I’m also wary of falling into the trap of rehashing old projects and ideas with new tools and techniques, rather than moving forward into new areas.

A part of me really wants things to be “just right”, not just when it comes to work, but in the rest of my life as well. It’s almost a visceral when I have to deal with things that don’t seem (close to) perfect for long periods of time. But at the same time, keeping a steady pace of progress in research and engineering requires knowing when things are “right enough” and moving on to the next thing.

Navigating that boundary isn’t something that I have a lot of experience, but I’m hoping that just like my programming skills, it’s going to be something I get better at in the coming years.

When visiting Boston a couple weeks, an old friend of mine remarked that he thought that the humanities should be “the pinnacle of human achievement”. I wasn’t sure what he meant at the time, but the phrase has been rattling around in my head. In between working on a conference presentation, attending a law conference and reading the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, I think I’ve come up with an explanation that makes sense (at least for me):

Science and technology, for all their towering achievements, are concerned with improving and extending human existence. By contrast, the humanities, (and I think also the arts) should inform and improve how humans live.