Uninterruptible

I've been working from home for almost twelve months now. I never would have believed this when we got the notice to go home. I lied to some guy in the office to make him feel better and said we'd probably be back in a month, but I thought it might be maybe two months, three months max.

Here we are, etc.

A few weeks ago—or maybe months ago, it's hard to keep track—the power went out, killing the working day for a few hours. There's not much you can do after that—for work, at least—when everything is done on a computer and wifi.

So I fixed it. Mostly. I just installed a pair of uninterruptible power supplies in our home office—one for her, one for me. The monitors will stay on, and the laptops won't draw down their batteries. But the power to the cable router and wifi transmitter are in a different part of the house, and I'll put those on a UPS also, once I sort out how much power they want to draw. It was easier to understand what size of UPS to get for the computers: the big one.

Working from home is OK. It's better when it's by choice. It will be better (sometimes) to go back to the office and be with other people—maybe not immediately, but when the current nightmare is a bad memory, or when the current nightmare is a bad memory, or whatever. The UPSs are just things, but at this stage they mean honestly recognizing that we're going to be here in our home office for a while, which is, I think, not something I've ever really faced up to, in spite of how obvious it is.

Garden Planning 2021, 2

Previously: Early Garden Planning 2021

I've got all my seeds in the mail, except for a few experimental ones. (Experimental to me—to the seeds it's just another day.) I've got a few extra plant lights, and I'm waiting on a shipment of peat pots, then I'll get the seeds started for later transplant. Then out they go.

That's all there is to it: (1) decide what to get; (2) get; (3) prepare; (4) plant. It's almost Too Easy—so easy, perhaps, that I'll just consider it done already and move on to something else because I got enough seeds to start a neighborhood garden jungle, and I still have a backyard that is a literal pile of clay from excavating the trench for the wall and steps.

...

That's where my head is this weekend. I need to get a few slow things moving inside, then go outside and use the daylight to build. In the meantime—between now and outdoors planting—I need to decide what goes where. Nominally I'd do that before starting seeds, but I'm just going to wing it with a variety of things this year, since I know I selected them intentionally to be planted, I just have to figure out where... and when... and how.

The garden (gardens) will break down roughly into a few regions or features:

  • Three sisters (corn + squash + beans)
  • Native wildflowers and grass
  • Tomatoes (these needy bastards need their own category)
  • Backdoor garden (herbs, leaves, onions, etc.)
  • Things on vines that will grow up bamboo poles onto the deck
  • Things that will grow on trellises, because I can put trellises everywhere and it helps me consume this obnoxious bamboo patch
  • A bunch of random vegetables that will stand on their own
  • Things to improve the soil here and there (beans for nitrogen, comfrey for compost, daikon to bust up the clay and decompose in place)
  • Tree seeds (pawpaw, Chinese hawthorn) that I'll get started but won't get planted for a while, obviously

The first step seems to be, since it will take a few weeks: getting the milkweed seeds ready to germinate. We'll start there.

For the rest I'll get an inventory going—I've already forgotten exactly what I've got—and start some specific planning. Here we go: the fashionably cool content that everyone subscribes for.

Inflexible afternoons

Trailhead: Seth Godin. "The most important meal of the day". Seth's Blog (2021-03-04).

Sort of like yesterday, Seth wrote something I was also thinking about today. In short: it's better to think about how a work day works—how your work day works—in order to have a better work day. Otherwise it's just a casual hell of unplanned reactions performed at inopportune times.

I've been trying to figure out ways to plan my day for years, with marginal results. I'm not surprised by it. Planning is often too brittle—do this during this half hour, do that during that hour—and reality shatters the plan into pieces. So planning has to be flexible to work. But I think flexibility is typically only concerned about the shape and size and number of tasks. That's only an aspect of work.

I like mornings. Early mornings are nice because they're clean and free. I can choose the number and intensity of external interruptions, for the most part. (Don't open email. Keep IM off. Et cetera.) And I am fairly well tuned to work then.

The other extreme: afternoons are trash. Wickedly hard to concentrate. Energy low.


"Datura flakes off from your lips
You've lost the swagger in your hips
Your eyes are turning blue to gray
Your skin feels soft and sagging down
Your arms drag across the ground
With each step you take"

—Murder By Death. "Killbot 2000". Who Will Survive and What Will Be Left of Them? (2003)

Coffee can slow the descent somewhat. What really seems to work best is going out for a run. It doesn't seem to give more energy as much as it... drains away the low energy. Then it fills back up again, and the time afterward is more full.

Some projects, during this eternal work-from-home, can be aligned to accommodate that. Others are fixed. To some extent, I can plan my day at work. In a typical week, the time breaks down into categories like meetings, work, figuring out what the work is, reactive communication, and thoughtful communication. Most meetings are fixed, and reactive communications—responding to some thing now—are fixed (but to variable times). Work—the actual doing of things—isn't fixed, but it does have to end by some time to get submitted. Figuring out what the work is and communicating are nice places to visit when I can.

The result is often a grind through the afternoon, then a run later. So I'm pumped and ready to go to make dinner.

(Dinner is the most important meal of the day.)

Repetition, then definition, then repetition

Well, Seth beat me to part of what I wanted to say today: The weight of repetitive tasks (2021-03-03). But maybe I beat him to part of what he wanted to say as well: Automate and win (2018-03-22).

This afternoon, before logging out of work for today, I wrote myself a note for tomorrow. The note was basically begging my future self to sort out what my daily, weekly, and other regular workflows are. Right now, a month into the New Gig, everything is a reaction—reaction to, reaction from. I'm living the life of my cat, but with no midday naps.

You can do a reasonably good job at your job without really knowing what your job is, for good or ill. Do what the crowd cheers for, avoid what they boo. Hey presto—you're a star now.

It's a dumb model though. There's so much missing. Overusing the musical analogy, there are emotional and musical arcs within songs, across songs, across albums. A moment on stage with an instrument is connected to the moment before and after, which connect to many other moments that include business and logistics and practice and crafting and so on. Some of those moments are are, some of those moments are repetitive drudgery.

It's a superpower to turn the repetitive things into a smooth flow that is practically invisible. To automate a thing properly, you have to live the repetition to know it needs automated, and how. Then you can define it. Definition is the most important step, and it doesn't get enough attention. You can automate work that gives you wrong answers, or correct answers to nonsense questions, or brittle solutions that trap you in a particular way of thinking or doing. Define the work well, then you can build a machine—literal or metaphorical—to do that work for you.

Not all repetition is bad, but avoidable repetition that steals your time from your art is bad.


"The main business of humanity is to do a good job of being human beings," said Paul, "not to serve as appendages to machines, institutions, and systems."

—Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Player Piano (1952).

Clarity, at speed

Clarity is different for a creator and a consumer.

If you write a series of clear instructions to do a job, but those instructions are difficult to consume (wrong language, no background in the subject, etc.), the instructions are still clear—yet the job doesn't get done. Instructions can be easy to consume, but wrong (I'm thinking of a specific software update that got ahead of its user guide, but you're welcome to insert your own).

What the hell is clarity anyway?

I can tell you what speed is: it's a change in position in an interval of time. Or a change in one thing divided by a change in another thing.

I had an idea when I started typing here. Ironically, the idea has escaped me. Instead there are several murky proto-ideas swimming just beneath the surface of my thoughts. When I reach, they aren't there; when I lean in close to look, I can't resolve them. Lack of clarity, combined with lack of speed. Hi ho. Let's just call it a day.

But there's an idea there waiting to surface and I'm going to keep typing these dammed words until it does. (I meant to type 'damned' but 'dammed' is too good to erase. Let it be.)

Clarity without speed is, to me, a walk in the mountains. Round a bend in the trail and pause, seeing what there is to see. Pause longer, and you can see what isn't there to see as well. I loved the desert mountains for this—whichever desert, it doesn't matter, but I'm picturing the Guadalupe Mountains. There were angles and lines and planes and, depending on the wind, crisply or dully drawn horizons. There were also empty open spaces that, like a vacuum abhorred, filled with thoughts—thoughts that might pour in like a bucket of water, thoughts that would settle out over time into sediment and clear liquid.

Lack of clarity with speed is running until the vision starts to tunnel. Driving the same highway but never seeing the scenes to either side. Jamming content into your earholes and eyeholes nonstop but not being able to resolve any of it into information, knowledge, wisdom.

Clarity at speed is a leprechaun riding a unicorn.

But sometimes you've got a big bag of Things To Do, and a clock that reads Not Enough Time. Grab a saddle.

Make a map, however wrong. Label it. Call everything by its right name. Or the wrong name until you know more. Just agree on the same name because you'll need a clear idea of the landmarks.

Less is not more. Less is less. More is more. Sometimes more is less. More is heavy. Less is light. Taking a moment before setting out to thoughtfully throw out the unneeded—like shaking down your backpack before leaving basecamp—saves effort over the rest of the journey. Unnecessarily wasted effort eats focus.

Take notes, leave notes. Sometimes the notes are helpful, sometimes not. It's not the notes themselves but the notetaking mind that is important. You can see nothing at any speed, if you don't know how to look. Observation is a muscle.


Clarity is the taste needed to know how simply or how completely to define a task to get the job done without inciting murderous resentment from the person who has to use the definition to do the task.

Marcus Aurelius, In Our Time

Trailhead: "Marcus Aurelius". In Our Time (2021-02-25)

This episode of BBC's In Our Time—one of my favorite radio shows (podcasts)—covered his entire life in 50 minutes, although there was an urge to get to Meditations, since that's what Marcus Aurelius is most known for. Two things caught my ear from the part before they got to Meditations.

The first was a reference to his teacher, Fronto. I might not have noticed but for the comment that he was the greatest Roman orator since Cicero—that perked up my ears a little. There's not much there on his Wikipedia page, but one thing I noticed that I would like to track down is a reference to using "unlooked-for and unexpected words" (insperata atque inopinata uerba). Without context, I don't know if that's the mark of a connoisseur or just an affectation.

The second thing was a point brought up by one of the panelists about whether or not Meditations was philosophical at all, or just a collection of homespun wisdom. I suppose it doesn't matter all that much. I've read George Long's translation of Meditations before. Meditations is often hailed as a good book about How To Be Manly. In and of itself, that's not necessarily bad.

So why does this elicit a bit of reflexive side-eye from me? I suppose it's something simple like: it's annoying to hear about people who are Totally Into Stoicism—modern Stoicism as a hustle cult—wax on about the importance of Meditations. Even I highlighted the book to death. It's got some nice passages. And I like the underlying ideas of accepting your job in life and dealing with it without complaining. (Even though that doesn't describe my actual approach to life, just an ideal.)

Meditations as common sense—that's OK. Meditations as a king hell philosophy—that might be a little thick. The book itself is the same either way. I suppose I should decide if I like it or not regardless of how it's packaged and sold by others.

The Captain's Newsletter, 2021-W08 - Here comes your man

The Captain's Newsletter, 2021-W08 - Here comes your man

February made me shiver / With every [email] I delivered / Bad news on the doorstep / I couldn't [subscribe to the newsletter immediately because it's good for you]

Sure, sure... that's not how the song goes. But it could have gone like that—we live in nothing if not a world of possibilities. This week we talk about what happens when the music dies, and then when it resurrects itself. And some other things—I don't remember what, but if it wasn't important, I wouldn't bother you about it like this, now would I?


If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:
THE ONLY PROOF HE NEEDED
FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD
WAS MUSIC

—Kurt Vonnegut. "Vonnegut's Blues For America". The Sunday Herald (2006-01-07).

100 days of planks

It's silly, in the big scheme of things, but here's my top accomplishment of 2021 so far: 100 consecutive days of planks.

"Planks" is either (a) just planks, but about 3.5 minutes of them, or (b) this 7-minute routine with planks and side planks and a back bridge. The 3.5 minute version is the buildup of a weekly ratchet: weeks ago it would have started with 60 seconds on Monday, then add 5 seconds every day until Sunday, then start over the next Monday at 65 seconds, and add 5 seconds every day until Sunday, and so on. This week's Monday started at 220 seconds, although I typically do the longer sequence.

I feel like a bro posting this here—but what the hell? This current 100-day run started in November, and there were a few much shorter runs that started in October when I was trying to pull myself out of a dive. It was a pretty miserable summer and fall, virus or not, and if concentrating on a simple habit helped get out of that—great. Fantastic. Super.

Everyone gets down, but getting stuck down is a horror show. There was a saying in endurance running that I thought was trite at the time, but now it seems a lot more pertinent: if you can't run, walk; if you can't walk, walk anyway.

One on one

1-on-1 meetings are not my strength. For me, it's a direct relationship: the larger the crowd, the easier it is. 1-on-1 is the smallest, and worst, end of that equation.

It's so easy to take the measure of a crowd—what they respond to (good or bad), what kind of questions they ask, which songs they seem to like the most, whether they laugh or not, what bores them, etc. It's not a conscious thing for me. It's almost like hypnotism. I can feel—which I know means see and hear—when people in the crowd lean in, when the line goes taut and it's time to pull, when the line goes limp and it's time to cast again. It's difficult and I get nervous, but it's so much fun, and it doesn't feel like effort in the breach.

1-on-1 meetings are like a sandwich with extra stress hormones. Everything that makes speaking to a crowd easy—the collective hum, the collective silence, the collective movement—has been reduced to one input. I can imagine that this should be easy, but it's not—and moreover, because I expect that it should be easy and it's not, then there's the added panicfrustration caused by not being able to figure it out.

Mind you—I think they're a good format, and quite helpful, and I don't avoid them. (I have no employees that report to me, so it would be a matter of avoiding The Boss.) But. They're not easy. That's all about formal 1-on-1 meetings. Informal 1-on-1 meetings are also not that easy.

I know the solution. It's horrifying. And not surprising. The solution is to do it more often.

I'm also wondering about who does it best. Where do the best 1-on-1 meetings happen? (And what is "best"?) The context I'm thinking of is business, between the manager and the employee. But other fields seem like they might hold some keys to doing it well: doctors, salespeople, journalists, diplomats, 911 operators. There might be a vein to mine for approaches.

Some articles I found in the meantime:

In there

I was thinking about the nature of confidence. Confidence is two things, I think: (1) the belief that something is present-tense real; (2) the belief that something can be future-tense real.

Either way, there seems to be another split: (1) belief; and (2) reality. You don't need either one for the other, but having (1) makes (2) a lot easier.

I've been listening to Pixies a lot the last two weeks. Basically nonstop. I'm not a Big Fan of theirs—for me they were basically just "Where Is My Mind?" I listened to that song on repeat for... months during the Year of Our Virus 2020, as I got accustomed to (was losing my mind to) life within the same four walls. I have no insight into their influence or catalog or anything. It's been fun to discover it. It's been surprising to discover music from the 1980s that could be—to me at least, who is at best a decade out of touch with music—music from today.

Anyway, I can't paint a whole picture. I don't know it. I'm interested but not interested—there aren't many stories about interesting 20-year-olds that I can stomach nowadays, which isn't anyone else's fault but mine. I can just say after reading various articles recently that there's an aspect about them—a few, really—that I can feel personally. There's their comfort with being misfits. There is this mix of assuredness and doubt that resonates with me.

Laura Barton. "Laura Barton talks to 1980s mavericks the Pixies". The Guardian (2005-08-20):

We were like, we want to go to England. We want to go to LA. We want to be real. We want to be on the radar. We were touring out of state well before there was any demand for us to be there.

Even if you don't fit in right, you've got to believe that there's something In There—how else are you going to keep pushing into headwinds? Or no winds at all—no resistance, nothing pushing you, nothing. Confidence is the belief in a Now, but also a belief in a capacity for a Future—not a certainty of a future, but a possibility.