If

On the most recent Fireside Chat, Dennis Prager asked a number of young people the following question:

If you could have one guarantee in life, which would you choose?

1. A great career
2. A great marriage

Had I been asked this question 20 years ago, I would have instantly answered "A great career" because I was eager and enthusiastic to get out into the world and prove myself as someone who could take on great challenges and succeed. The younger me was naive enough to believe that work was the most effective way to reach all of life's goals. As I enter middle age, though, the error in this line of thinking is very easy to see.

Given the option today whether I would choose to have a career or marriage that was guaranteed to be great, my answer would not involve work whatsoever. A great marriage would be far more beneficial to many people over a career. There are exceptions to the rule, of course, as some careers can improve the lives of billions or inspire generations of people to aim for something greater. For me, though, I've been employed for almost every day of my life since the age of 13. Some of the things I've accomplished over the years have been quite remarkable, but very few of these efforts will be remembered in a decade's time. A great marriage, however, is not measured the same way. It's not about money or prestige or accomplishments or technical competence. It's about commitment, responsibility, respect, encouragement, and more.

If I had the opportunity to speak to my younger self, to provide some guidance on how to lead a happier life, I'd say this:

  1. Don't take work too seriously.
  2. Don't take yourself too seriously.
  3. Do invest time into family.

Of course, knowing me, I would have ignored this advice anyway.

No Magic

Every so often I look at my phone and imagine how a younger version of me would react upon seeing it. There was a time not too long ago when the technology that so many of us take for granted today would have been seen as pure magic or, depending on the ideologies of the beholder, sheer witchcraft. The honeymoon phase for modern tech seems to have worn off somewhere around 2012 when a large percentage of the population started carrying smartphones. This was when the geeks who used to get laughed at for using a Palm handheld were once again in demand to answer questions from people who had just recently become accustomed to using a mouse to navigate and needed assistance to transition to a touch interface. While I am not typically keen on being the geek that people turn to, I do miss the feelings of wonder and appreciation I would have when encountering a new piece of technology for the first time. The magic that was once part of the essence of cutting-edge technology has gone away.

A lack of magic does not make a device any less useful, but I do wonder if it makes a product less desirable. New computers, upgrades, components, devices, and peripherals were all I could think about when USB 1.1 was all the rage and people were excitedly talking about USB 2.0 and the new era of plug-and-play it would usher in. As it stands, I can have hardware literally fail on me and it will be repaired or otherwise returned to a functioning condition and used until the next failure. Sure, a newer item might be nice, but is it necessary? Not without a little infusion of magic it isn't.

Is this more a consequence of growing old? Is this the result of seeing hardware and software iterated upon a thousand times? Or are modern devices simply less magical feeling than the ones we could only dream to afford a couple of decades ago? My disinterest is likely the result of all three.

Yet every so often I imagine how a younger version of me would react to hold a modern phone, or use a modern notebook. What sort of challenges would be tackled? How quickly would I push up against the envelope of their capabilities? While there's little chance of travelling back in time to hand-deliver modern technology to a younger self, it's sometimes fun to play through a scenario in the mind.

Articulation

A blinking cursor. Ten minutes of thought. A handful of sentences on the page.

Nope. Not good enough. ⌘+A … Delete.

A blinking cursor. A little more thought. Two paragraphs that seem to say nothing at all.

Nope. This won't do, either. ⌘+A … Delete.

More thinking while the cursor blinks. A persistent reminder of the passage of time and the approach of yet another sunrise. There are ideas that are vague and without form. These are perceived to be important concepts, interesting notions, and worthwhile ventures. Why is it so hard to articulate into words that which we can envision in our minds?

The blinking cursor insists on moving horizontally across the screen, like a character from an 80's era video game. This can only be done by formulating words that convey meaning, otherwise the game is being cheated. Hammering the keyboard like an enraged monkey will not lead to cromulent sentences being placed in cohesive paragraphs that convey a message worthy of being read.

⌘+A … Delete.

Most people are their own worst critic. We know we can do better when we sit down and really apply ourselves, but so rarely push the envelope when it matters. Why is this? Are we afraid of something? Is it success? This is something that terrifies me from time to time. Success leads to expectations. Nobody lives up to expectations all the time. There's bound to be disappointment in the near future.

⌘+A … Delete.

How much wood could a woodchuck chuck?

As much as it wanted, of course.

⌘+A … Delete.

Sometimes it's better to leave visual ideas in the language they're presented in. If an idea cannot be easily expressed in words, then perhaps some sketches could convey the meanings. This is something that needs to be done in the next couple of days. There's plenty of graph paper available, and the trusty three pens are just as ready with full ink cartridges. I'll draw what's on my mind and share those. People might not fully see what it is, but getting it on paper will let me see what it is … what it could be … what it might entail. But it must be sketched while the images are still fresh in the mind. Too many ideas have been lost as a result of weak neurones not putting all of the ideas from the short-term memory into longer-term memory. Good ideas are hard to come by and it would be a shame to lose this one.

Sketch. Sketch another page. Sketch the relation between the UI elements. How does the journal aspect interact with the book? How does a person compare translations of the passages? How will this look on a phone, tablet, and large-screen? Sketch. Sketch. Sketch some more.

⌘ … S.

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.