Writing Challenges

Over the last couple of months I've had a heck of a time writing blog posts not because of the daily schedule, but because the process is suboptimal. The vast majority of items on this site have been written as a "stream of consciousness" style with very light editing to ensure that something -- anything -- can be both written and published on the same day. This allows for articles to sound conversational and light, making it relatively easy for people to read while distracted by the day-to-day. This has been the general concept for almost 500 consecutive days and it's worked out relatively well. However, there are some subjects that I find incredibly hard to write about in this fashion due to a lack of cohesion across ideas. Family is one of the most difficult.

Today is my mother's 62nd birthday. This is quite the number, as some of the colleagues and acquaintances I look up to are nearing this age and already discussing their retirement plans, bucket lists, and signature project wishes. Despite sharing quite a bit of genetic history, we've not kept in touch very often since 2002. We had one phone call in 2008, which is the only time my mother had a chance to speak with Reiko, and we have relayed messages between one of my sisters on occasion since then, but this is the extent of our communications since I left Ontario.

The reason behind the general silence at this point is moot. Whatever reasons I thought there might have been to not communicate have either been forgotten or the memories outlining justifications have been warped over time to the point where they cannot be relied upon. What I do remember is that the side of my family where my mother was a central figure "got weird" around 2000, which resulted in quite the disintegration. My mother spent some time at a women's shelter with my youngest sister before moving into an apartment1. My two older sisters went to live with my father. My youngest brother -- the instigator -- went … somewhere. My step-father had an empty home.

I don't know exactly what happened and, even if I did, the knowledge likely wouldn't make the deterioration of the largest segment of my family any more logical. Families don't operate on logic and, for this particular page of history, ignorance is probably bliss. The fragments I've heard from my sisters do not seem plausible, but what do I know? I was living in a basement apartment in town when everything fell apart. I bore no witness2.

My mother and I would get together every so often over the next two years as she rebuilt her life after yet another divorce, and every time she would ask that I pick up cigarettes or lend3 some money. However, things started to get weird when my mother would try to explain why she had to leave yet another home without taking her kids4. The story kept changing and the details that were added did not add up. The characterisations she made of people I had known most of my life did not align with the people I thought I knew. To add to the confusion, one of my sisters had broken off all communication with my mother, accusing her of outright lying.

I didn't want to take sides. I didn't want every visit with family to turn into a he-said-she-said. I didn't want to deal with it.

So I stopped talking to people. For years.

Over time I did rekindle some relationships, though they're still rather fragile. We may have spent a lot of time together in the same house in the past, but we've all become very different people in the time since. How does one bridge a moat that spans decades?

The easy answer is that one doesn't, but this is also a cowardly answer. The correct response would be something along the lines of pick up the phone or hop on a plane. The worst that could happen would be that the people I've avoided will say "You're no son of mine" and close the door. The rejection would be warranted. However, by holding out the olive branch and seeking to rebuild relationships, it might be possible to overcome any misunderstandings and forge a new connection. My son could meet a larger group of family, and they could meet him.

As one would expect, this is no small feat. This would be a personal challenge that would require a good many internal walls to be torn down. Personal growth. Change. And change is hard. However, by doing so, it might be possible to pick up the phone on future January 15ths to call my mother5 and wish her a happy birthday from half a world away.


  1. The apartment they moved into was not too far from where my father and I lived for many, many years after the divorce. It was a part of Hamilton I knew very well.

  2. My step-father and I did work at the same company at the time but, even then, he and I never talked about it. He would ask if my mother was doing alright, as she and I had regular communication back then, but we hid the topic in the fog, so to speak.

  3. By "lend" I mean "give". Do kids ever ask their parents to pay back money that was incorrectly labelled as a "lend"? I never could nor would.

  4. My youngest sister did go with my mother, but not immediately. Just like with the first divorce, my mother went alone and later collected a single child.

  5. The phone number I have for my mother has been bad for years, and the only sister that does have it is very difficult to get in touch with. Of course, nothing tried, nothing gained.

⌘Q

We need to remember that sometimes it's okay to put things down for a little while. The emails will still be there when we come back. The messages on the various platforms will still be there when we come back. The myriad of expectations and deadlines will still be there, too. While there's no denying that work must be done, it would be better to approach the efforts without the stress and tension that causes errors. This is something that I need to remember when battling the compulsion to complete just one more thing.

Macbook Pro Keyboard

A couple of months ago the plan was to quit Outlook and Teams, the two most common communications tools at the day job, one hour before I planned on ending the day's work. The reason behind this wasn't to avoid communicating with colleagues in other time zones, though this was certainly an added benefit, but to ensure I wasn't chasing down information requested in a last-minute email. If something hits the inbox and I see it, then it's something I'll want to tend to. This generally escalates into a "one more thing" cycle that can see me not head to bed until 3:00am. It's simply not healthy. So by closing the applications an hour ahead of time, I'm able to finish off the things currently on the screen and perhaps strike a few more items from the To Do list.

Sometimes I wonder if moving out of the classroom and into a development role was really the best career choice. The burden of responsibility is much greater. The cost of errors much higher. Working in the classroom would mean having more personal time every week and being able to leave work at work. However, not moving into the current role would mean not having a house or a nicer car. A lot of the skills that have been developed over the last few years have been the direct result of solving problems at the day job. Staying put would have prevented me from working with some really smart people who share my passion for data completeness.

There's no denying that I'm happier where I am than where I was despite the challenges that must be overcome on a daily basis. No task worth doing is easy, after all.

But we do need to remember to step back. To press ⌘Q -- or Alt+F4, or people using Windows -- and step away from the keyboard. Doing something well is generally better than doing something quickly.

Humdrum

We're almost two weeks into the new year and I feel like nothing's been accomplished. Of course there has been quite a bit done around the house and we've managed to clear out a bunch of stuff that's been cluttering up the closets for the past year. The To Do list for the day job has certainly seen a good number of checkmarks added to completion boxes, as well. But, despite the obvious signs that things are being completed, there is this overarching feeling that "nothing" has been done.

This humdrum state is nothing new, though. The day-to-day can seem boring, tedious, and tiresome when a routine settles in to turn what was once interesting and invigorating into something completely unremarkable. The human condition means we're never satisfied with what we have for very long regardless of how good we might have it. Comparing my life today to what it was twenty years ago shows a night and day difference, so what is it that makes the start of 2020 seem so banal and monotonous that current efforts come across as irrelevant?

A lack of gratitude, perhaps?

The way I approach the day is clearly in error. While things are not what they could be, they are a heck of a lot better than I seem willing to admit to myself. Is this the result of a mild depression, a lack of sunlight, or a growing realisation of my own stupidity? Most likely. These deficiencies can be overcome, though. A few weeks ago I was very much in a depressed state1, but the feeling is dissipating with each passing day. The unseasonably warm weather makes afternoon walks around the neighbourhood more enjoyable, which is always welcome. And as for my stupidity and ignorance, that's a problem I've been working on with some effort over the last two years with clearly positive results2. There is a lot to be thankful for.

This is something I need to remember more often.


  1. This most recent dip resulted in some rather dark thoughts. Fortunately, nothing came of them.

  2. The "positive results" include making fewer stupid decisions, listening to my conscience more closely when it's advising I not do a thing, and learning more about how to be a better person.

Unhitch

Yesterday I was thinking a great deal about an old yet ever-present eagerness to go, wherever that might be, and the thought came up again today while on a swing in a nearby park with the boy. However, rather than seek to leap beyond the confines of our planet's atmosphere, the thought expanded "go" to "let go" before quickly broadening to examine the anxiety that has been a near-constant problem over the last couple of years.

Looking at the issue rationally, a case could be made that the anxiety started to manifest to its current levels about three years ago when it seemed that the LMS project that I was developing at the day job came under almost daily attack by certain high-ranking people in the organisation. The effort needed to be constantly validated by proving time and again that the idea was sound, the software was sound, and that the accusations were completely manufactured. This meant that every update had to be completely flawless to reduce any chance that the unfounded accusations of "amateur code" and "lost hours of productivity" gained mindshare elsewhere in the company. The most effective way to do this was to have an almost iron grip on how everything was presented in the LMS.

Control of the back-end was already mine, given that I had 100% control of the design, development, and initial testing. However, what people saw on the screen was just as important as what the code was doing invisibly in the background. This meant taking up the challenge of ensuring that any information provided by people using the software had to be cleaned up and presented in a consistent fashion, lest a quick copy/paste job from someone else be used as justification for cancelling my efforts1. So I took up the task of cleaning up the data. All of it. Textbook names, ISBN codes, formatted objects, notes, notification messages, system-wide message broadcasts, even the system that collects student feedback. All of it came under my purview as all of it had to be as perfect as possible to reduce the believability of the endless lies and assumptions that came from a small pocket of angry people.

This was probably not the best way to solve the problems created by office politics and blind jealousy2. The immediate consequence was the amount of work that needed to be completed on a daily basis. How can one person do the job of twenty without being so overwhelmed that they collapse?

Looking at the number of posts I've written about burn out in the last three years, the answer is obvious. One person cannot always do the work of many for any length of time.

Every morning when I sit at my desk the first thing that attracts attention is the To Do list followed by all the half-started bits of the textbook project. Hundreds of books are in various states of conversion and few are ready to be used in the classroom, yet they're all required immediately. Other high-priority projects also sit in wait for attention and new tasks hit the inbox at a steady rate to ensure that there's plenty of work to get through. Being in demand is a good thing, but I am loathe to leave work unfinished for too long. What I need to do, for the good of everyone, is to unhitch myself to the expectation of whatever version of perfection it is that I'm going for and to trust that others will take the appropriate level of ownership over their own realms -- even if the output is not where I would like to see it. When it's my turn to die, I do not want to think about all the things I didn't do at work. I do not want to think about all the things I didn't do in my personal life because I was working, either. Instead, there needs to be a balance. I can do the best that I can do while also making it possible for others to help by doing their best. This is the logical way forward to share responsibility, encourage colleagues, and reduce my self-flagellating levels of stress and tension.

With anxiety under control and a healthier balance of work and life, I might just live to see my 50th birthday. But I must let go to make this happen.


  1. As asinine as this sounds, it was actually used by a "manager" as an example of why my system sucked. Using this logic, one could blame a poorly-formatted Word or PowerPoint file on Microsoft.

  2. Jealousy because I was working on something new with a group of people who did not include the angry managers. They'd been inited to join in the project during the early stages but, when they tried to wrest control from the project leader and replace me with their own people, well … fiefdoms flourished.

Pining

Many years ago, when the sole purpose of every day was to have fun, I would enjoy the well-planted1 swing sets on the grounds of a nearby school. On days when the sky was an inviting blue with a little bit of cloud, I'd be on the seat closest to the middle, trying my darnedest to reach as high as I could as though it were possible to physically touch the distant vapour from such an altitude. The perception I had on the up-swing was that the sky was reachable, if only I let go and jumped for it.

As one would expect, I never jumped.

Over time I stopped playing on the swings as new interests took priority and any memory of the impulse to leap into the sky became buried in the past with so many other childhood ideas. The desire reach the sky and enjoy the exhilarating feeling of free movement has never gone away, though.

To the Clouds

Like many toddlers, the boy loves to head outside and spend time in the park. We'll enjoy the slide, the sandbox, the springy-animal rides, and other activities, but the one we both enjoy together is the swing. He gets to sit in his protective seat first and then I push him until he has the momentum to swing for a few minutes on his own. He's even figured out that if he kicks at just the right time, he can gain a little height. That said, there's still quite a bit for him to learn before he can take on the challenge by himself. While he's swinging, he'll tell me to get on the seat next to him and join in on the fun, which I have no problem doing. It lets me imagine once again that I might be able to fly, if only I let go and jump for it.

The idea is completely irrational, as jumping from a moving swing at my age would certainly result in torn clothing, broken bones, and a bruised ego. Yet the soul yearns for the unbridled joy that comes from flight.

I sometimes feel the same thing when Nozomi and I are out for a walk on a clear night. The stars shine so brightly and the sky is so immense that I long for the ability to visit some of those distant points of light despite the obvious challenges that would come from travelling several light years through the unforgiving expanse that separates us. It is almost as though something inside me is saying "Go!".

One of the first times I ever listened to that desire was nearly 18 years ago when I packed up and moved from Hamilton, Ontario to Richmond, British Colombia. The 4,888km trek was to escape the endless cycle of everyday life that I'd found myself in as well as to discover just who the heck I was. A person can make this kind of move at the age of 22, though, as the risks are relatively low when living in a country as safe as Canada. The second time I listened to the desire was five years later, which resulted in moving to Japan. However, the impulse to Go! this time does not seem to be pointed in a horizontal direction. I want to go up.

The proposition is illogical, though. The only people who escape the gravity of our planet are astronauts, some of the brightest and healthiest science-minded people alive. There is no chance for the rest of us to escape the atmosphere and look down upon the globe we call home. Even when commercial space flight becomes available, most of us will not have the luxury of going anywhere but to another terrestrial location. The rational mind knows this and argues with the memory from three decades ago, when a 10 year old me would swing as high as was possible in the hopes of being able to grab a passing cloud.


  1. My parents built one of those home swing sets in the back yard, but the thing would rock and sway like a tin shed during in a windstorm whenever anybody used it.

Colourful Characters

The vast majority of my day is spent working with numbers and letters in various shades of red, black, and blue. These abstractions make it possible to help people make decisions, accomplish goals, and maybe even smile throughout the day. Sometimes when I think about my role in the world a voice at the back of my head tells me that I'm paid to transform textual representations from one shape into another and that at no other time in human history could I have helped so many people across such a vast distance by simply providing a sequence of symbols for them to interpret.

Numbers and Letters

We live in interesting times.

Something Different

There's no denying that I made a pretty severe mistake this past holiday when I succumbed to the itch and checked the work email. By not protecting my downtime like a grizzly bear protects her cubs, I spent the vast majority of the Christmas fortnight thinking about all the things that I would need to do in the first few months of 2020. This culminated this past Sunday when the oh-so-familiar physical manifestations associated with anxiety returned with a vengeance. Rather than using my time for the people around me, it was foolishly spent analysing, structuring, prioritising, and planning. This has resulted in logging over 42 hours of work so far this week1 and having very little motivation to tackle the challenges laid before me.

It's time to think about something different. Something that is both interesting and an opportunity to learn. Something that might just allow me to solve a bit of a problem I have with family members who are not in the Apple ecosystem.

Reiko and I take a lot of pictures of the boy. Many of these go into a shared photo library with a number of family members across the globe, but this is only good for people who have an iPhone, iPad, or Mac. Most people in my family, however, have a Samsung or Motorola device running Android. As a result, sharing memories with them can be a bit of a challenge. To get around this, I set up a NextCloud installation and created some password-protected, Internet-accessible shared albums for people to use. The idea was that we could put family photos in these albums, leave comments, and the like. This worked for a little while, but never really caught on. I'll admit that this is most likely my fault for not wanting to deal with the friction involved in having to maintain two shared photo libraries. Perhaps if the NextCloud photo utility were designed a little differently, I would ensure everyone used that system. This would be the most cost-effective way to go, after all. Apple wants a regular subscription for the 2TB of storage I've had to take out. Having all of the photos on a self-hosted solution -- even if the photos are in an Amazon S3 bucket -- would be noticeably cheaper. That said, I'm not a fan of the photo library in NextCloud and the alternatives leave much to be desired.

So, since I'm quite adept at starting things that never get finished, what would a decent photo sharing site that I built look like? There would need to be a timeline of sorts, but implemented with more intelligence than is found in Nice.Social. People would be able to leave comments and (potentially) share the pictures on other social networks via integrations that could be enabled by the person who uploaded the photos2. There would be the ability to write "stories" about one or multiple pictures, providing further context to what is happening in the images. People could add tags and maybe see additional details like a map of where the photos were taken, dates, and even camera information. A lot of this metadata is pretty easy to extract from the photo itself. Of course, privacy would be on by default. People could choose to share an album or collection of images with the whole world, just specific people, or nobody at all.

Twice before I've put time and effort into making a photo site. The first time was about a decade ago, and the second time was just a few years ago. The first site was used for a little while until I moved everything over to iCloud. The second site was my attempt to create a Flickr alternative. Neither were polished enough for other people to use. Could a third time be the charm?

For the moment the idea will get a little bit of thought and consideration. I like the concept, and some of the preliminary design elements I've envisioned would certainly make it possible to have an interesting approach to sharing photos with friends and family. The key would be implementing a publishing interface that is simple, intuitive, and completely responsive. The less friction there is, the better.


  1. My working days are Monday to Friday. 42 hours by Thursday means I can expect this to be a 52~55-hour working week. This is just a little bit over the 10-hour per day limit I aimed for last year.

  2. I see this as a basic mechanism to add a little friction in sharing pictures that might be private. However, when something's online, it's almost impossible to prevent undesired distribution.

Incomprehensible

For the last couple of months, perhaps a bit longer, I've noticed that speaking in proper sentences has become much more difficult. My writing has remained as incoherent as ever, but speaking is generally something that requires a great deal less consideration. When I attempt to speak with adults, whether they're colleagues or neighbours, words come out of my mouth in the wrong order. The same even happens at home when I am talking about something with Reiko or the boy. When words are not jumbled the vocabulary could be simply gone, leaving me bereft of the ability to communicate an idea. While this isn't too much of a problem at home where people expect me to be distracted or eccentric in some fashion, it does cause a problem with people who regularly operate in the real world.

How does a person communicate when they're utterly incomprehensible?

Articles online posit that this generally happens when a person is in a constant state of exhaustion, when they're isolated for too long, or when their mental faculties are deteriorating. All three of these are plausible explanations.

Later this month I'll have a bit of a checkup on my kidneys at the family doctor and will talk about this issue with him. He's already chastised me for not getting nearly enough sleep, though my flirting with polyphasic sleeping patterns has yielded some interesting results. Regardless, I expect to hear him berate me for not heading to bed at sunset and staying there until the rooster calls … as if I could stay idle for that long.

Cabin Fever

For much of the past year I have felt an almost persistent feeling of restlessness and irritability while trying to work. Given that frustration generally comes with the job, this wasn't really surprising. However, one thing that I've tried to understand is why these feelings have persisted for so long. It's illogical given the fact that I get to work from home in close proximity to my family and dog, which are both good things … most of the time. What could possibly be so awful that I need to feel almost claustrophobic while sitting in front of a computer?

Turns out it might be a sign of cabin fever.

When the weather is relatively nice1 and when I'm not overwhelmed with a mountain of expectations from colleagues, I like to head out for a walk around the neighbourhood. If there's enough time, I'll even make the trek to my preferred hill in the park to sit and enjoy some time with nature while listening to a podcast. During the recent Christmas and New Year holiday, I was fortunate enough to do this five or six times over the span of ten days. Unfortunately, it's been almost impossible since the new year.

The next few weeks will be quite busy at the day job but, when the signs of spring begin to make themselves known, I plan on taking advantage of the slightly warmer weather. There's a pretty big window next to my desk, which lets in plenty of sunlight, but this isn't the same as being outside in the open air, walking at a brisk pace, and enjoying the sights. Until then, the irritability and restlessness needs to be kept under wraps.


  1. By "relatively nice", all I ask is that it's not raining. I really, really dislike umbrellas. They were created for one purpose, and they accomplish it terribly.

A Modern-Day AltaVista

Over the last couple of years there has been a noticeable progression in quality search results from Google's Image Search site. A decade ago one could be guaranteed to find what they were looking for within five to ten minutes. Five years ago a person might need about 15. Last year, after the most recent changes to the filters were released, the site became much more difficult to use. Today, it's just a presentation layer for two dozen stock photo sites that have invested heavily into tagging every picture in their catalogue with as many nouns and adjectives as they possibly can. 123rf, Alamy, iStockPhoto, Shutterstock and DreamsTime have completely SEO'd the heck out of their offerings, rendering Google's search mechanism ultimately useless; a modern-day AltaVista.

Google Image Search Result

Some of the features I miss include being able to specify a minimum resolution. "Large" is typically anything but, as I generally seek resolutions that exceed 4000 pixels wide wherever possible. I'll scale the image down myself, but why settle for lower quality up front? The newer, simpler filters for location and source and age are also woefully inadequate for the task they're being asked to handle, which is terribly disappointing. There are options, of course, from Yahoo! to Bing to Flickr to Getty1, but none are quite as versatile as the old Google Image Search was.

This seems to be the standard with a lot of great websites, though. The tools start out far more powerful than anything else, then slowly degrade and stagnate to the point where it no longer makes sense to use them. It could be time for a whole bunch of hungry entrepreneurs to come up from the bottom and offer something new and interesting. We saw this in the late 90s and early 2000s when the big companies lost ground to Google, Amazon, Apple, and the like. Organisations become sluggish after two decades.


  1. Getty Images is generally a great place for professional photos that will be used in print materials or something that will be seen by clients. I use them from time to time for personal and professional projects.