Observing the Holidays

After punching out from the day job this coming Friday, I'll have the luxury of ten consecutive days off work. There will be no checking of email. No glancing at Microsoft Teams. No responding to phone calls. I will, for all intents and purposes, be completely disconnected from everything work-related in a bid to calm down and not punch any computers. Generally this is something I find incredibly hard to do for any length of time but, for the sake of family and personal sanity, it must be done. Time must be afforded for rest.

Out of Office

Unlike the last few holidays, the family and I will not be disappearing to somewhere fun. The boy has school and there's also the threat of the corona virus lurking about. Instead, I plan on staying home to work on some personal projects. There's the landscape around the house to plan, some maintenance around the house to do, and books to read. If the weather is nice enough, I might even venture out at night with the camera to take some decent photos of the neighbourhood under a moonlight sky.

In addition to all of this, though, I plan on using the time to read some rather deep books. There are a couple that have been sitting on the "To Read" list for months simply because I haven't had the mental bandwidth to adequately approach the works. With the boy in school for five hours a day, it'll be possible to enjoy a couple of hours of reading, learning, and thinking.

The key to making this all possible will be putting the work-supplied notebook away, disabling notifications on the tablet, and un-watching a couple of projects in GitHub. A ten-day absence might frustrate some colleagues, but the company is not going to collapse simply because I'm taking some personal time to recharge. The more I remember this, the easier it'll be to resist the itch.

Blank Pages and Infinite Loops

The problem with attempting to write a post daily is the occasional battle with writer's blocks and avoiding excessive repetition. Neither are particularly enjoyable and both can give a person a reason to avoid writing anything at all. In my case there is typically some form of writer's block in he way when approaching a difficult subject, be it various personal failings or frequent thought patterns. Despite the challenge, though, I'll typically open a writing application and stare at a blinking cursor for as long as it takes for something to formulate. This often results in several awful posts being started and abandoned before a halfway mediocre one takes shape, but it's the habit that I’m trying to maintain more than anything else. By dedicating a time to write, I set aside that block of time during the day to sit down and structure an idea.

What should happen when the block of time has been exceeded and nothing has been written, though?

On an early episode of the Back to Work podcast, Dan Benjamin and Merlin Mann were talking about overcoming challenges. At some point, Merlin said "Sometimes the only way out of a problem is through it", which was quickly simplified by Dan who repeated "The only way out is through". The six-word mantra was repeated in a couple of episodes afterwards before being forgotten, but it's something I've held onto as it best describes the only viable, long-term means to overcome a challenge. This is how I approach problems in my personal life. This is how I approach problems at work. This is how I approach creative droughts that seem to stretch on for months at a time.

So when an entire block of time that was dedicated to writing has instead been consumed by staring at a blinking cursor, the clock gets reset. If something is important enough, we make the time. For me, organising an idea — even a poorly formed one — is incredibly important. A large number of the blog posts I write will never see publication in any public sense, but the act of writing these pieces allows me to examine a question or idea with a higher degree of granularity. Regardless of how quickly a person might type, writing is a slower process that cannot happen at the speed of thought. We can examine an idea as it's written to see if it makes sense, and I like this. A lot.

This is why I will make the time to put something out every day, no matter how long it might take to formulate. This post here is the culmination of almost 4 hours of watching a cursor blink. Two earlier posts were abandoned in favour of this one. Was it a good use of time? I believe it was … despite the mediocrity of these words.

Workshopless

This morning, while working on the patio, a neighbour looked over and asked what I was doing. To my right were a number of screwdrivers, wrenches, Allen keys, and smaller hand tools. To my left was a myriad of plastic components that, when assembled, form the outer casing of a Sharp humidifier. The unit started putting out a bit of a stink a couple of days ago and I wanted to see whether it was a burnt out motor, given the appliance was manufactured in 2007, or something else. While we were chatting, I continued to strip layers of plastic framework1 away from the central motor cavity, confirmed my hypothesis, and finally extracted the worn out component from the machine. All in all, the process took ten minutes and the conversation was going on for five.

"I thought you worked with computers," the neighbour asked.

"I do."

"How do you know how to fix humidifiers, then?"

The question initially struck me as odd, as I wasn't actually fixing the humidifier just yet. What I had accomplished was disassembly and following a bad smell to its source to confirm an expectation of what had failed. This is something that I've done with varying degrees of success ever since I could hold a screwdriver and, aside from my father, just about every male in my family has done the same. When something is broken, we first attempt to fix it.

Later in the day I was thinking about the homes in the area, and the yards specifically. In many communities anywhere across Canada you'll find a place where it's obvious that someone gets "work" done. This might be a multi-car garage or a toilet-sized shed, but all the signs will be there. We know there will be tools of all sorts inside. We know that the place will generally be a mess. We know that the person who has the space enjoys working with their hands. Roughly 150 homes make up the local community here, and none have any noticeable place where this happens. There isn't even a shared space where people could go to use basic power tools or just shoot the breeze while fixing a broken toaster or making a spice rack for the kitchen.

This raised all sorts of follow up questions2. One in particular needed an answer, though: Do any of my neighbours fix their own things?

I decided to find out by taking the boy went for a little walk to the park and asking some of the neighbours working outside. Most people have a bit of a garden on their property that they tend to on Saturday mornings, so this makes it rather easy to strike up conversations, much like someone had with me a couple of hours earlier.

Of the six people outside, only one person generally did things themselves. Everyone else would hire the services of an expert in order to save time and hassle. This was hardly an exhaustive study, but it does make me wonder whether people around here see repair and handiwork as a nuisance rather than an investment. It's certainly not something that just anyone can do, of course, but it does help save money and encourage creative thinking.

Maybe it's time to dedicate some time into building a work shed of my own, complete with tools, yard equipment, and plenty of "random bits" to solve many of life's simple repair jobs. This would provide even more incentive to get out of the house and spend some time in the sunshine.


  1. I'm not kidding about "layers". The motor was so well shielded the thing would probably survive everything short of an EMP detonation.

  2. One of the questions that first popped up was whether a community workspace would be a profitable venture … not that I'd have any idea how to set something like this up.

Not Done Yet

To Do lists are wonderful little tools that can help even the most disorganised person accomplish something in a period of time. For me I have several dedicated to specific tasks, most of which are quite analog in nature. However, one of the more annoying ways I have to remind myself that a task is not yet done is to leave it open on a monitor. This way, when I sit at the desk, I can see without a doubt the thing that needs completing.

Unfortunately, this practice has had to come to an end today. Not because of a reboot or anything mundane like that, but because I simply cannot stand looking at all the half-finished work that had to be set aside as a result of ever-shifting priorities over the last couple of weeks … months … years. In the next couple of weeks I'll have the opportunity to take some time off from the day job and complete some of these open To Dos. Until then, I would much rather not see them.

The Question

After food, the greatest human need and human desire is meaning. Even more so than the ability to reason or even to speak, this is the great divide between human and animal. We share all other needs with the higher animal species and share many needs with some of the lower animal species. Like them, we need food, shelter and companionship. But, while human beings seek and need meaning more than anything except food (and companionship — but for human beings, companionship usually provides some meaning, and sometimes enough), no animal needs or seeks meaning.

— Dennis Prager in The Question That Explains Almost Everything

Nozomi is about as domesticated as a dog can get. She spends 23 hours of every day inside a house built for humans and she sleeps at least 16 of those hours. When she's awake and moving about, she's doing so mostly out of curiosity and in search of attention. Both of these are valid reasons to be surveying the house, but neither can offer any sense of meaning.

The same can be said about the boy despite his superior cognitive abilities over Nozomi. He has a greater degree of freedom and far more options to choose from, but he does not yet seek nor need meaning in his life. This fundamental motivation will begin to manifest in a couple of years as he continues to explore the world and discover his interests.

For many adults, however, meaning means a great deal. It's part of the answer to the ultimate question: Why am I here?1

On days when I'm feeling particularly depressed, I try to think of an additional answer to the question of why I exist. There are the obvious reasons, like "I am here to be a good father and role model to my son" and "I am here to be a good companion and friend for my wife". These are strong, valid reasons to exist. But is there more that a person could be doing?

Of course there is.

For a great deal of my adult life I thought the reason for existence was to help solve difficult problems through the use of software, as it's really the only skill I possess that is even remotely marketable. This was probably true for a time but, as I continue to progress into middle age, it seems silly to tie a personal meaning to a corporate expectation. Yes, I can certainly continue to work with software to solve problems, help people, and pay the bills … but this isn't something that should provide meaning. Work as meaning is a shallow substitute for something that can be meaningful.

This year I'll pass the midway point of my expected lifespan. Over the last 40-odd years I've found meaning with all sorts of relationships, activities, and endeavours. Some have been shallow and some have been more worthwhile than anything else. But as I think about the next four decades, I'd like to continue finding meaning in new ways with new people and new objectives. Hopefully by doing this, I'll have the opportunity to look back on my life and see that it wasn't completely consumed by career ambitions. There's a lot more to life than work, after all.


  1. The biological answer to this question is irrelevant. Anyone self aware enough to ask the question with any sort of seriousness understands they exist because their ancestors have successfully procreated for countless generations.

Shock Value

Perhaps it's just my imagination, but it seems that a lot of the stand up comedians who continue to practice their art have become far more direct and abrupt with their jokes. People are saying what's on their mind regardless the consequences or, perhaps more accurately, because of the potential behind turning an angry mob of offended listeners into higher ratings. It's an interesting tactic and one that generally makes me laugh out loud more out of the sheer gall of the comedian than the content of the joke.

Some, however, are insanely perceptive and can use shock value to inform rather than merely entertain. Dave Chappelle is certainly one of the few who is able to plant the seeds for a punchline, leave it alone for half an hour, then have a final bit that circles back to employ the three or four words from earlier in the show. He shares his opinions, justifies them, and attempts to explore two sides of the same coin to point out any inconsistencies or absurdities that might exist on one side or the other. We don't need to agree with everything he says, which is why I used the word "opinion" earlier, but we can certainly appreciate the attempt to share the structure of an idea.

The largest shocks this week came not from a single comedian, though, but a group of writers from the animated Bojack Horseman series on Netflix. I've been a fan of this show for quite some time and the final run of episodes has just recently been released … and they're powerful. One episode, Xerox of a Xerox made me angry at Bojack as he tried to weasel out of responsibility yet again for awful behaviour that resulted in the death of someone he worked with. However, the biggest shock came from the penultimate episode, The View from Halfway Down where Bojack dies. The entire episode is in his head, positioned as a dream that he's not waking up from, but it's the final gasps of consciousness trying to piece together what's happening while Bojack is face-down in a pool. This death, while not permanent, hit much harder than I would have expected. It's given me much to think about … as this is what I tend to do.

Why was I upset when Bojack tried to escape responsibility for the death of Sarah Lynn? Why was I upset when Bojack died from drowning in the pool of his former house while drunk out of his mind after being sober for so long?

Thinking it through, I believe it's because I see the worst aspects of myself in Bojack, as well as some of the same redeeming characteristics. We are all imperfect. We all make mistakes. Some mistakes are forgivable. Some mistakes are understandable. Some mistakes will haunt a person for the rest of their life. I don't like some of the things I've done in my life. I've made efforts to atone, but the naked sins will forever be a stain on my conscience. I knew better at the time but went through with the decisions anyway. Most of us cannot escape the consequences of our actions for long, and this is one of the reasons I was upset with the main character when he turned an unnecessary death into a self-promotion opportunity.

And his death hit me because it's usually eternal. When we're gone, we're gone. For all his faults, I like Bojack. Sure, some of his actions might be upsetting and the consequences, when they are applied, are rarely sufficient, but I like the guy. As I've said, I see some of myself in the flawed horse character. So when he died it was like a part of me died as well … and this was upsetting.

The concept of death is not foreign to me, but it's not something I've directly encountered, either. To lose part of yourself, even if a cognitive exercise, can be quite jarring. It's irrational, I know. But one cannot deny the impact of death. It can shock a person if they're not expecting it … even if the deceased is a fictional humanoid horse.

Late-Night Power Walks

When it's almost midnight and I'm putting on my shoes, something is clearly wrong. This was certainly the case today when, in a burst of rage, I left an online meeting, changed from my pyjamas to my regular clothes, put on shoes and a jacket, then went out into the 1˚C weather for a bit of a walk. The rage and frustration I feel is not at all productive, but it does let me know that there is clearly something fundamentally wrong with how I'm looking at something, as it does not seem anyone else has anywhere near as much anger about the direction and status of various projects. If I am the only person with a problem, the problem is undoubtedly me.

The late-night walks do help, though. Generally this is treated as an excuse to indulge in an alcoholic beverage alongside some sort of pastry. Tonight it was a 500mL can of Kirin's new 9% Cherry-flavoured vodka and a hotdog that was more bread and mustard than meat. These were brought to the hill where I usually like to sit during the afternoon and consumed almost immediately. The goal isn't to get drunk, but to interfere with the brain just enough to force a calm down. Physical exercise alone can only go so far. Physical exercise with a bit of strong vodka is a match made in heaven … as unhealthy as it may sound.

In the afternoons, my walks generally involve listening to a podcast or two. At night, however, the headset stays off so that I can pay a little more attention to the surroundings. One never knows when there might be a car going by without its headlights or a malevolent person with a knife just looking for a warm body. Being left without the audio distraction means whatever frustrations prompted the walk get the bulk of my attention. For most of the trip this is what was going through my head:

Heads will roll for this farce of a system, and mine will likely be the first.

How is it that when a bunch of smart people come together to solve a complex problem, the end result is often embarrassing to each and every person on the team? I know that — individually — we're all smart enough to see the faults in the tools being built. Yet together we're all heading towards a solution that doesn't deserve to use such an adjective … and it's too late to do anything about it.

There is a lot that I can learn from my colleagues, but what I need most is to learn how to take work far less seriously. The barely-restrained ire is not doing anybody any good.

Punching Computers

In the 1999 classic movie Office Space, there's a famous scene where the three main characters take an office printer that has plagued them for years out to a field and smash it to smithereens using a baseball bat, shoes, and even bare knuckles. This is a feeling that so many of us have had with our digital tools when they fail to operate as expected. While the movie was 21 years ago, and printers generally have gotten better over the years, there are still a myriad of situations where a person might vent some rage on their equipment. I did this today when a solid pound bent the bottom of my MacBook Pro; a potent device that is hindered by the quirks in its OS.

Gangsters

There is no doubt in my mind that I would never engage in an activity like the one featured in Office Space as it's a selfish act that would cost far more than the temporary satisfaction might be worth. Machines should be recycled whenever possible, and most recycling shops will not take a smashed piece of equipment. Environmental justifications aside, there are a number of situations that exist today that more than justify why one might want to throw their computers out the nearest airlock. The ones I encounter most often1 include sluggishness for no reason, failures for no reason, file-encoding issues when working with source files from a Windows machine, and doing just about anything with a piece of software written by Microsoft2. Today's rage was the result of a lot of things, though triggered when the login screen couldn't keep up with my password entry.

My password this month is 23-characters long and I can generally type it successfully in just under 1.13 seconds3. Unfortunately, a lot of computers are simply unable to keep up with my typing speed on the login screens and in many Electron-based applications. When I need to connect to the employers' Linux servers located in Germany, I can generally type an entire series of commands into the terminal and have a sip of coffee before the connection catches up and displays all of the characters.

But why? Computers have been made to handle things like text since the 1950s. How is it that a human can type fast enough that a machine cannot keep up? This is where a great deal of my frustrations come from lately. Given the amount of processing power I'm fortunate enough to have at my fingertips, there should be no excuse for stutters or delays when I'm typing. If Clippy were still around, I would expect it to sit in the corner of my screen looking as though it were bored and waiting for me to do something interesting despite the flurry of activity that might be taking place through the keyboard.

This seems just about impossible, though. Despite the staggering advances in processing capacity, the fundamental operations of a computer — working with words and numbers — remains a problem yet to be solved.

Sometimes I wonder if it would make sense to build a machine using older parts that are right at the bleeding edge of what's supported by an older operating system. Ubuntu 10.04 LTS would be incredibly fast on modern hardware … if it had all the drivers to support the latest processors, NVMe storage devices, and video systems. Unfortunately, to use modern hardware one must use a modern operating system. macOS has a lot going for it and I will always choose to go with Apple's buggy OS over anything from Microsoft. The various flavours of Linux have their pros and cons as well. But none do what I need it to do consistently well for any length of time. It is almost as though our software is intentionally designed to make the mini-supercomputers in our hands feel barely adequate.

There are exceptions to the rule, of course. Sublime Text and Sublime Merge are two amazingly fast applications that do their job very, very well. If only every piece of software could have the same care and attention paid to it. The world would be a less-angry place. Or, at the very least, there would be fewer bent computers.


  1. Excluding the work-related emails that seem to be written for the sole purpose of infuriating Morbo.

  2. The company lives in Outlook, Word, and Excel. If it weren't for this unfortunate reality, my colleagues could probably accomplish a great deal more in their day.

  3. Being able to type with 8 fingers and a thumb allows for some remarkable speeds. Not sure how it is that I ever got anything done back when I needed to look at the keyboard. Mind you, it was because of fast-moving IRC channels way back at the turn of the century that I started to learn how to touch-type. That was the key motivation … as silly as it might be.

Lullabies

When afternoon nap time comes around, the boy is generally quite receptive to the idea. He gets into his pyjamas, grabs a car or two, then heads upstairs to bed. I’ll generally read him two stories before tucking him in tight. A few minutes later, he’s out like a light. Nighttime sleeping is drastically different, though, in that he’ll stay awake for hours and insist that I stay with him. Thanks to a rather large music library, the boy can listen to some quiet music until he falls asleep. Children’s song instrumentals are his favourite. Rock-a-Bye Baby, however, is the one I generally put in single-song repeat after an hour. Until he falls asleep, I am a prisoner in my own house … and the evening chores won’t do themselves.

My parents would generally close the door at night time and say “go to sleep” a couple of times — usually with the last one being the most forceful — which allowed them to have a couple of moments to watch TV or nap before heading to bed themselves. This isn’t how child rearing works in Japan, though, and many fathers find themselves waiting around for their kids to fall asleep at the end of the day. Phones certainly help with a mild distraction from time to time, but staring at a glowing screen in a dark room for long periods of time is just a recipe for eye strain and headaches. So, while the boy is listening to his lullabies until the sandman arrives, I’m listening to podcasts with headphones at a low volume. It’s one of the few times of day when I can generally concentrate on that people are saying.

While looking through the recent podcast list, I was struck by how different the subscriptions are today than to any time in the past. There are zero technical discussions. Every education-based show has been dropped. Even the science, history, and space-related shows are out. The music shows that I’ve enjoyed for a decade continue to put out excellent episodes every week, and there are a few shows from friends online. The new themes that one would instantly see in the podcatcher, though, are religion and philosophy; topics that encourage debate and discussion.

Earlier today the boy was quickly approaching two hours of singing in bed when, in desperation, I shut off the music and put on one of these philosophical shows. Less than five minutes after the switch, the boy started snoring. Music to my ears.

Going forward I’ll have to do this more often. I’ll find out which sorts of shows put him to sleep and build a little library of saved discussions. This should afford a bit more time in the evenings for me to do what I really want to do: learn.

Why Do I Do It?

Another weekend, another series of work-related messages for "emergencies" that are anything but. A little background knowledge of the company and a reduction in hyperbole would likely enable the company to resolve 80% of its reported "problems" with a simple, 30-second conversation. Instead, there are people "escalating" things as though the sky is falling and servers are exploding … and I'm stupid enough to not only read these messages at all hours of the day, but respond to them as well.

Why, though? What possible value are my soliloquy-length, data-driven responses to members of an organisation who seem to abhor learning?

Over the last couple of months I have found myself becoming more and more frustrated with colleagues. This feeling clearly bleeds into the discussions that ensue, and it's genuinely unfortunate because it's neither professional nor productive. Yet, despite knowing this, I continue to put my time off on hold to check that everything is working smoothly. Messages are seen, chains are read, misconceptions are spread. I jump in like an idiot in order to try and provide information and offer possible solutions that are generally ignored. Then I lose my weekend or time off because the brain is busy thinking about the endless non-issues that consume so much time at the day job.

This has been the general pattern for years and yet I've yet to learn how to disconnect and stay disconnected. But why? Am I trying to solve problems? Am I trying to defend the systems I'm responsible for? Am I trying to feel angry? Am I just stupid? There is likely some truth in all four of these options, but it's not helpful anymore. Maybe it's never been helpful.

There are better things that I should be doing with my time.