Year In Review: 2020

Such a lofty title for an essay/post that I have started several times with no real forward progress. I do not feel like much can be said at an individual level regarding a year that resulted in so much disruption and pain for so many people. The genesis of this is actually Maria Popova’s list of her favorite books of 2020. She has 20 of them and I’m largely in awe of that number in any year but it seems especially amazing this year. Judging oneself against another is fraught with tribulation given that the circumstances of each life is so different but I’m envious of that much reading.

As someone who once was a vociferous reader, I have started to realize that I spend too much time on what is essentially the simple carbs of the information society (Twitter and slack) and too little time on things that are actually healthy for my mind and attention. Of course, the coming of a New Year seems to bring up compulsions for change that given the past years of no change are silly but I do feel like I’d like to read more in the coming year.

In 2020, I read seven books and started several more. Right off the bat, we have an attention problem. I finished three of those fairly early in the year: Barzun’s The Culture We Deserve, The Barbell Prescription, and How To Read A Book. Of the three, I got the most out of The Barbell Prescription as for the first time in probably 8 years, I stuck to a reasonable workout schedule all year. There were ebbs and flows but at the end of the year, I have increased my squat, dead lift and press significantly from Jan 2020 and my 2000m time on the rower is near my all time best. Even during the worst doldrums of the pandemic, I was working out and that is certainly a highlight of 2020.

My favorite book of 2020 was Walking The Llano. A year of pandemic isolated in a townhome with no yard caused me to long for the natural world. This book is a memoir of one woman’s experiences with her family farm in the Texas Panhandle. Having grown up in Amarillo, I’m reasonably familiar with the area of Vega that the author writes about and I’m envious of her experiences walking the ranches in the Canadian Breaks. One thing I’d like to focus on in 2021 is more time outside, more time taking Wobbles for walks and hikes. Honestly, I want to buy a piece of land somewhere that we can retreat to during times that are normal and times that are not. This book brought home the connection that the human spirit can have to nature. I’m currently reading The Gulf and a major part of it is the contrast between the Gulf region natives’ view of nature and the Spanish explorers. The former saw the estuarine nature of the Gulf as a provider, a source of fish and shellfish that enabled them to survive and thrive well. The latter couldn’t see the providence provided at all and many times, that lack of vision resulted in starvation.

European descended people have a generally less sensitive understanding of nature. It’s more rational and technocratic. Native Americans were in tune with the land. That is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot as we likely are living through a climatic disaster. The youth of today are greatly in tune with the need to save the planet or the climate but the irony is that so few of them have ever actually BEEN in nature. They don’t camp, they don’t fish, they don’t hunt. They have no real understanding of what nature is or how our interactions with it alter and work with it.

I read two technical books this year, Thinking in Systems and The Phoenix Project. Both have started to sink in and fundamentally alter how I think about writing software and designing systems. They probably both deserve much longer more detailed treatments than this paragraph.

Other than the books, 2020 was a lot of family time. We bought an RV which was unexpected but has been a great release from the tedium of living in a pandemic. It’s nothing particularly special but provides an easy way for us to get out and away from townhome living.

I’m thankful no one in my immediate family got COVID. Both my parents go vaccinated this week which is a relief though certainly no guarantee of safety. We’ve been especially careful this year since we both have older parents. However, we’ve visited both regularly because like so many things in life, often a calculated risk is worth it.

No grand goals for 2021 other than to be more focused. I’m planning to treat everything as a pomodoro which seems odd but I realize that I spend an inordinate amount of time in 5-10 minute intervals doing things that are meaningless. I think if I get into a habit of focusing for 25-30 minute stretches, there will be more progress on things that are meaningful like playing the guitar or learning Spanish or writing blog posts. Maybe then, I won’t need to have friends set Slack reminders to remind me to write them. 🙂

On Silence

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. — Dylan Thomas

I have been trying to write unsuccessfully this month, something, anything really. It seems that I have run out of ideas. Or perhaps out of steam. My attention is diverted in too many ways to allow for the required focus to actually produce anything. I have become a consumer. I have noticed in recent months that my ability to control my own mind is growing weaker and weaker to the point where at any given moment, I might drift off into a state of unpresentness. So I have fallen silent. This is almost entirely my own fault as the urge to pick up the phone and look at Twitter or Instagram or the markets is completely my own. These things of no real importance have become the moments of my spare time. So much so that when I want to actually do something productive, my physical energy level can only stand a few moments before needing a break. How can one hope to create something interesting when allowing only five minute increments in which to do it? Even while writing those 177 words, the urge to pick up my phone or gaze out the window thinking of anything else was immense. Concentration is both a skill and a habit and the harder you work on the latter, the stronger the former becomes. But like physical exercise or diet control or anything else, it is easier to allow it to lapse, knowing of course somewhere that the longer it lapses, the hard it is to regain.

Strength in all things comes through effort and trial. Weakness comes in comfort and sloth. I’m rereading Antifragile and one of the tell tale differences between fragility and antifragility is psychological comfort versus psychological discomfort but with a sense of adventure. I realize that much of my adult life has been focused on gaining as much psychological comfort as possible. Physically at times I have veered into discomfort through training and effort and those times have been some of my most proud. Rarely psychologically have I done the same. That sense of adventure is missing. Even during my sabbatical, I did comfortable things. This hit home recently when I saw Tim Ferris’s TED talk on fear setting. In it, he talks about his process for identifying and effectively destroying fear as opposed to finding goals to chase. Fear setting is the corollary to goal setting but few of us ever explicitly do it. We let our fears unconsciously sabotage our best efforts. We worry about all the terrible things that might happen from action but fail to examine the terrible things that might also happen from inaction. It is easier to imagine ourselves as humiliated because of some action we wrongly took than it is to imagine ourselves as bitterly regretful over things we were too afraid to do. Yet those results of inactivity are what lead to a disappointing life. No one who ever wrote a terrible book later wished they had sat on the couch watching TV instead. But plenty of us will look back and wonder what might have been different if only we had written a terrible book. Replace book with any goal. Inactivity, the silence of our actions, is what we will one day look back on with regret. And regret is the most awful emotion.

My silence comes from a division of attention and an internal critic with a deafening voice so overwhelming as to have become normal, as if the deafness of my creativity is how it has always been and not an artifact of being shouted at all the time. I am afraid to write a terrible book or play terrible music or draw terrible things. But literally doing those things can result in no real harm. The worst possible case is that I will have written a terrible books that my friends won’t even read while saying nice platitudes like “Wow 360 pages is a long book, I’m sure that means it’s good.” If your ego can’t stand doing something terrible at first, you don’t have to worry about doing anything great.

Much of this fear comes from being externally motivated. It’s why I once wanted to be an actor. I loved the feedback. But hidden within that is a desire to be a craftsman, motivated only by the excellence of the work. The internal critic has no power there because I alone am the judge of the craftsmanship. Unleashing that intrinsic motivation, the desire for excellence, could be a key to unlocking the silence. Overcoming the fear of being wrong or terrible can be done by just focusing on the work. The happiest artists are those who are consumed with the excellence of their work and not the reactions to it. Worry less about what horrible things might happen when you take action and focus on the work.

Humans are bad at examining the effects of inactivity. It will always be easier to see the results of some action than at some point in the future see the results of not having taken an action. The “what if” can never really be answered which makes it so intractable. But by focusing on the worst case, which is what Ferriss prescribes, we can see with better focus what might happen if we take no action at all towards our goals. What might life be like in 3 or 6 or 12 months if you take no action at all towards your goals? The easiest answer is that life will be exactly like it is today. Am I satisfied with that or does it terrify me to think of being in the exact same place a year from now? Where is the sense of adventure in that?

Silence can be deafening in that by remaining silent on our goals, we become deaf to what our true potential might be. There is a time for silence but it should not be the norm. Make loud, raucous noises towards your dreams as often as you can. That is one key to a fulfilling life.

Sabbatical Week 1 Retrospective and Week 2 Planning

Last week was the first planned week of my working sabbatical. The following items were on the weekly sprint list:

  • in a showable state (DONE)
  • Blog post per day – 5 total (3 completed)
  • One story in rough draft (30% done)

I spent 3 solid days on the first item plus a little bit of the fourth day. I’m pleasantly surprised with the result. It’s better than I expected given my experience. There’s nothing spectacular from the code side of it but I learned a lot about UI work which is an area I’m lacking in. The last two items didn’t share quite that much success. The blog posts and story writing got ignored to some degree, especially over the first three days. I’m finding it’s hard to split focus across two drastically different domains like coding and writing. Once I put my head down on the website, I wanted to keep working on it, especially since it’s easier to see progress there.

I’m also finding that writing creatively is exhausting. I think I overreached significantly with that last bullet based on this as I could only spend 2 hours at a time before I was wiped out. I only did this a couple of days instead of 5-7 days and so, progress was minimal on the story. I can whip out a 600 word blog post in no time but building characters takes a lot out of me.

I also read 2 books, more than I’ve completed in probably the past 3 months. That was very satisfying. I used to be an avid reader and somewhere along the way, turned into an avid book buyer. Completing books is far more compelling than just buying them. This wasn’t on the sprint list but it’s a nice side effect.

For this week, I’m going to focus less on the results of the writing and more on the time spent doing it in an effort to build up my creative chops. On the technical side, I want to get a landing page up for the main website I’m working on this summer. If time permits, I’m going to get devise set up on the site as well. On the creative side, I’m going to stick with 5 blog posts this week. I’m also going to try and write for 20 pomodoros (about 10 hours) over the course of the week. I think this will be more achievable in the short term and will help me develop a basis for pushing into more completed work in the next few weeks.

Would You Rather Be Slash or The Nameless G’N’R Drummer?

When I was in high school, I played soccer. I wasn’t overly talented but I was still good because I worked hard, played smart and refused to be outworked by anyone. I was the best defender on our team and one of the best in district because of all that. When I went to college, I wasn’t the best anymore. In fact, I was the worst. I was playing out of position (we had several good defenders so I got moved to midfield, a position that didn’t play to my strengths and exposed all of my weaknesses), I was on a team where I knew exactly no one and I was out of my element, i.e. my comfort zone.

All of that should have added up to wonderful potential because I had no way to go but up. By no longer being the best on the team, I had the chance to learn from all the people who were better than I was. Instead, I stopped working hard and mostly rode the pine all year. I quit in the spring because I couldn’t handle the challenge. To this day, it’s one of my biggest regrets.

What does this have to do with Slash and Guns & Roses? In his book My Job Went To India, Chad Fowler writes about how you should always want to be the worst person in the band if you’re serious about improving your skills at anything. You have to be able to accept challenges and accept the fact that you may fail or else, you’ll always be the same. Being Slash has plenty of perks but most of that has to do with loose women and the best blow and nothing to do with becoming a better guitar player. By constantly making sure that you’re a tiny little turd in a really big bowl, your skills will improve to the level of your ability instead of the level of your comfort. It’s a critical distinction that’s common in anyone successful. Surrounding yourself with people who are better than you are forces you to learn from them and strive to become better.

Of course this blog is all about me so I must have a point, right? (That doesn’t necessarily follow from any of your other posts. Ed. OK, well today it does!) I recently wrote about my internal struggles considering a job I was interviewing for. Assuming I took that job, I’d be a big turd in a really, really little bed pan. My ability to learn would be limited to what I could teach myself. This is not the way to become better.

I’ve been in talks with another company as well and for most of the time, I’ve thought it was a bad fit. That all changed Friday with a discussion I had with the CEO that went really well. In that discussion, it became clear that I would be a tiny little minnow in the proverbial pond at that company. That is exactly what I need. (Besides that, the company sounds great to work at.) The times I learned the most at my last job was when I was working with people smarter and more experienced than I was. It was a fun and challenging time.

I can’t continue to be Slash if I ever want to find out what the limits of my abilities are. I know I’m good at what I do but I’m no rock star. The only way to get there is to learn from the best. I’m hoping I get the chance to do that with this new job.

When Consciousness and Subconsciousness Collide

Little story: I like football. A lot. One of the things I like about football is the challenge of figuring out, on a week-to-week basis, which team is going to win upcoming contests, specifically against the line, working under the hypothetical that gambling on sports is legal in the US outside Nevada. That’s another post entirely. I digress. Anyway, I use a very rational process involving stats, more stats, some stats I made up, other stats other people made up and some consideration of the emotions of the participating teams. (That thudding sound you just heard was the 15 people who know my record so far this year reading the phrase “very rational process” and passing out cold from disbelief. Don’t worry, they’ll be fine).

Often times, I’ll do all that thinking and convince myself that a particular team is without a doubt going to win and all of this will happen at a conscious level. But somewhere, deep in the tangled morass of my subconscious, a little football fairy (no, not Jeff Garcia) will be telling me to forget all that hard work because it’s not true. That stupid little fairy never tells me WHY it’s not true, just that it isn’t. Invariably, I’ll tell the little fairy to take a flying leap and go with my rational theory. I almost always lose. Hunches and premonitions and fairies seem to be pretty important when dealing with systems that have so many variables that they can’t all possibly be accounted for in statistics.

My frustration comes in being a rational person (well, mostly. I’m highly irrational when it comes to folding fitted sheets but again, I digress). I want to know WHY that premonition or hunch occurs. But usually, that doesn’t happen.

What does any of this have to do with anything? Well, I’m currently in the same position in my job search. There’s this job, it’s a good job by all accounts that I can figure out and rationally, I think it could be a pretty darn good job. But somewhere, that stupid fairy is in the back of my head whispering something I can’t quite make out and it’s driving me insane. And this is far more important than some football game with $50 on the line. We’re talking about 2-5 years of my life here and that’s not something I can just deal with on a hunch.

So I’ve got to figure this out, someway, somehow. I think it may be a combination of A) giving up on sabbatical, B) the lengthy commute involved with this job, and C) my personal insecurity concerning being “The Expert”. That last part is important because at this job, there’d be two people in IT so the company would in many ways be dependent on our decisions and actions. Point A isn’t really that big of a deal because I’m not much of a sabbatical person in reality. I’ve done some cool stuff but I haven’t been nearly as productive as I should have been. Point B, well I think that if I like living in the country, I’m going to either start my own company or suck up and deal with a commute. I think that eventually, I’ll do the former. I want to have fun at my job with people I personally like and do it within 25 miles of my home. Right now though, I don’t think it’s quite the time to make that leap. I need about 2-3 more years of solid development experience.

So I think it really comes down to C. And in reality, that’s probably not that much different from B, e.g. it’s time to suck it up and realize that I am an expert. That just feels dirty to type. I don’t guess I’ll ever see myself as “the expert”. Maybe “an expert”, but never “the expert”. I’m mostly just a guy who looks for the best way to get the job done and then tries to get as close to that as possible. Maybe, in the end, that’s not a bad definition for expert in a field where lots of people seem to be content with mediocrity.

So in the end, I think I may pursue this job. It’s not a given by any means that they offer it to me because there are still 3 or 4 more interview type things to go through but I’m past the hard part, e.g. convincing them I’m worth every penny they might pay me which is never an easy task. Taking a job should be a mostly rational process and if the pieces that you are looking for exist in a job, you should take it. If something turns out later to be completely opposite from those pieces that they didn’t tell you about, well then I think you’re justified in looking elsewhere. But in the beginning, you have to go with what you can rationally figure out and tell that damn fairy to take a flying leap. Though it sure feels like I’m the one jumping off a cliff.

The Fun of Job Searching

I’m slowly (and by slowly I mean, not really at all) starting to think about looking for a job. I’ve been off for almost a month now, I’ve accomplished quite a few things at home, got some starts on other things that can be continued on nights and weekends, and I generally feel like I’m getting close to returning to the land of the worker bee. One thing I’m running into is that 95% of the posted jobs on the big boards suck. And not just suck in a “That job will clearly suck” sorta way, but in a “The recruiting firm couldn’t be bothered to write a decent description because they know this job really sucks” sorta way.

At the very end of this suckage highway where the road drops off the end of the world, we have job descriptions like this. A job description that amounts to “Winforms and C#” does not exactly get me all hot and bothered enough to send in my resume. How does a recruiting firm stay in business when they can’t be bothered (or don’t know enough English, more likely) to write a half-ass description of the job along with maybe just a couple of the benefits?

While that is not common, it’s not far from the average of these jobs on Dice. In 30 days of irregularly surfing through the postings there, I’ve run into exactly 2 jobs that I didn’t immediately equate with an anal probe. On top of that, you are almost always dealing with a recruiter. You have no idea what company the job is with until they get your resume. Are companies that pressed for resources that they can’t put up their own add on Monster? These are not the companies I want to work for.

Speaking of recruiters, how does a recruiting firm get anyone interested when all their job postings look like this? The job description is “Need 2yrs up programming with C#”. Really? What is up programming? Is that really a description or more of a requirement? How desperate would you have to be to basically send in your resume blindly to something like that? Isn’t it completely obvious how much that job must suck that they are perfectly OK with their recruiter completely mailing it in? In the end, I’m sure they stay in business because there are people out there who blast their resume out to every single job posting on Dice and see where their shit sticks. Like dating in college, it’s about quantity, not quality.

I’m sure that there are plenty of decent recruiters out there (I’ve worked with exactly 1 good one and I think he got tired of dealing with me) but overall, recruiters seem to suck balls on average. It’s too bad that they have a monopoly on most of the jobs.

All that said, if you’re willing to wait and willing to do a lot of searching on your own, you can find decent jobs. I have 3-4 right now that I’m doing research on to see if I’d want to work there. I’ll probably apply to at least 2 of them and see what comes out of it. The plan right now is to have gainful employment on January 1.

Days 11 and 12

The last two days have been very productive. Today was almost completely focused on the design of the web site, something I struggled with a couple of weeks ago. I gave up on doing a column design since CSS doesn’t really support that very well and went with an all horizontal layout. It feels cleaner and it was certainly easier to do. Because my mad design skillz are far more sad than mad, it took most of the day but I’m learning a ton about CSS and Plyons in the process so it’s a good thing.

Yesterday, I finished up the scraper and parser for the stats. It’s run the last few days with no problems so things look good there. Tomorrow, I’m going to try and hook the two into a single application.

I still have to decide whether or not to go back in and change all the table names in the database. I need to spend some time in the morning figuring out how big of a pain in the ass that will be.

Day 11

Yesterday, I took a day off. Heh. Let that one sink in for a little bit. Anyway, K was off so we ran errands, got the car fixed and cleaned the house. Today has been good, at least this morning was. In the last 10 days, I’ve discovered that from 2 to about 4 or 5, I’m worthless for anything involving thinking. It’s good to actually realize this because going forward, I can do things like clean the house, laundry and what not instead of wasting productive time in the morning doing it.

I’ve got the NBA parser running at least on a very limited basis. SQLAlchemy continues to impress me. Instead of having to write a ton of stored procs to insert data, it’s all handled by SQLAlchemy. Granted, if I ever wanted to go to stored procs, I’d have to reconfigure the tool but given that I’m not likely to see a huge level of traffic for this little application, it’s nice for a change to not have to write SQL for a change.

Day 10

Part of the problem with this entire endeavor is that I’m trying to learn so many new things at one time, every thing I do becomes frustrating in its slowness. I really was looking forward to getting into a groove and coding on something for hours at a time but what I’ve discovered instead is that I code for 15 minutes and then run into something else I don’t know. It’s a tiring process. I finally started to make some decent progress on the NBA project tonight at 7:30 but by then, my brain was mostly mush.

I have to say that I’ve learned more in 10 days than I ever thought possible. Even though I’ve written about 200 lines of code, it’s all been related to new stuff that is applicable as I write more complicated applications in Python.

Of course, in tackling the NBA project, I took on an extremely complex project in and of itself. NBA statistics are rather poor and I’m trying to improve those. To do that, I have to basically parse the play-by-play charts and add meaning to them based on knowledge of the game. This is not something that’s exactly trivial to do in code. If I ever make the breakthrough technologically wise, there’s no guarantee that it will actually get easier since the domain is so difficult. However, it’s nice to actually work on something that causes me to look up 60 minutes later and wonder where the hour went, not to mention something that actually causes me to feel neurons in my head firing. It’s a fun change after 4 years of almost 95% brain dead time.

Overall, I’m pleased with the first week of no paychecks though it’s caused some internal anxiety for sure. Money is very important to me, probably too much so, and to watch it go out the door just because my last job was crap is still difficult to swallow. I think that if I work on this project some more on Sunday and Monday, that feeling will start to subside as I gain traction both on the domain space and the technology I have chosen to tackle it in.

Being at the computer 12 hours a day will never get easy, especially on my wrists, though.

Day 9

Doing lots of plumbing work on the NBA project, nothing very sexy or as it turns out, very fun. Today was not particularly useful long-term but did get a few things done.