Retrospective Embarassment

One of those gratuitously paraphrased quotes by some famous author that a buddy from way-back shared with me after reading said author’s auto-biography, or something to that effect.

“If you look back on your life, a choice you’ve made, something you’ve said, a piece of work you’ve produced, and feel anything other than embarrassment, you haven’t made very much progress.”

Now soak that in for a bit.

Work buffer

I worked from home yesterday. There were some domestic issues that I had to attend to, so work was kind enough to get me set up for remote access.

It was weird, slightly novel, yet very familiar in a strange past-life kind of way. This used to be my life – running my own multimedia practice out of a home office.

How things have changed. In a previous gig, my hours of industry were buffered by around 20 minutes spent in transit each way. Now, it’s a solid hour each way. Time that I’ve grown to be quite fond of.

So it felt rather disorienting yesterday when I didn’t get my usual “spin-up” period in the morning and “wind-down” period in the evening. Everything was a big blur. Exhausting to say the least.

You know what they say about not missing something until it’s gone.

Human efficiencies

In the world of machines, the notion of efficiency has a particular flavour to it – do more with less. Make the car go further on less petrol. Build a lighter laptop. Run data centers without chillers.

What amazes me though, is how differently the human body, and to a good extent, the biological world functions. Among other things, the success of an athlete often hinges upon the volume of resources his or her body is able to spend through given a finite period of time. The thing that sets Lance Armstrong apart, for example, is that his lungs are able to burn through more oxygen per minute than the average human being (read more VO2max).

Unlike the “save and conserve” motto of the machine world, the human body thrives on throughput – i.e. consume and expend. To be physically healthy is to engage in generous doses of physical activity. To sharpen one’s mind is to seek out and spend one glucose stores on new domains of understanding. To flourish relationally is to literally spend time with another being and often paying out with one’s ego, absorbing the unintended blows and embracing the prickly rough edges.

“If you don’t use it, you lose it” – I once heard; and it’s true. But more importantly and positively, when one puts an ability through the hard yards of regular use, beyond mere keeping, one grows in said ability and quickly realizes an increase in said ability. Be it muscles tearing and rebuilding, broader perspectives, or developing a deeper well of grace to draw from in the face of disgrace.

Lesson of the day? In human terms, you get to keep what you use; Spending is good; and to give of oneself may very well be the pinnacle of humanity, if the above is anything to go by.

p.s. As a counterpoint, can you think of what happens when a human starts stashing away lots of energy, or when abilities waste away from disuse, or shy away in defensive isolation?

Take 5, drop 2

A few years ago, when we were moving out of our old place, there was this whole process of “decompressing” all our junk out of the numerous storage spaces in the apartment to sort, cull and pack in preparation of moving.

It was during this time, all kinds of things begin to emerge from the deep recesses of one’s hoarding stash. More nail clippers than the fingers on a hand, old kitchen implements we hadn’t used from when we’d last moved, etc.

It was then I came up with a strategy: “take 5, drop 2”.

Here’s an example of how it works. Back then, we had more tea towels than we needed and wanted to keep. So for every 5 tea towels, pick 3 to keep, and 2 to either give away, sell, or do whatever else. Then, there were too many old plastic cups that we’d hardly used since the previous move – for every 5, keep 3, drop 2; and repeat to taste. It even comes with a nice little mind-trick “at least I get to keep more than half”*.

Take 5, drop 2.

Since then, it kind of stuck, and permeated through other aspects of my life. Overloaded with too many equally^ important priorities? Take 5, drop 2 for another day. Boxing day sale deals too numerous to fit your budget, take 5, drop 2. Have a decision weighing in on multiple stakeholders? Take 5, drop 2.

It is an acknowledgement that we’re not going to get it spot-on every time, that perfection can wait another day, and it’s ok. Its effectiveness goes on to betray the fact that a lot of the “issues” that we face are, in reality, mere First World Problems.


* Strictly speaking, this is not true if you perform the process more than once.
^ It’s very important that the 5 elements are of equal, or very similar priorities. Ignore at your own peril.

Throwing one out pt. 2

Serendipitously enough, the first Throwing one out was written the morning before the following incident.

We’d reached a point on the project at work where it felt like we were wading through thick mud and our architecture choice in SOA was biting us in the behind in every way possible. We were on the brink of implementing some serious monkey-patching to the system which smelled like a very significant design compromise.

Just after lunch, Dev Lead had an eureka moment – we were doing it all wrong. Data and computation were place much further apart than they needed to be! Which basically implicated a “throwing one out” event, and a complete rewrite.

Sure, it’s a lot of effort flushed down the drain, but one can’t overlook the fact that a rewrite with the benefit of a first implementation makes for a far more robust and well-designed end product. At least I’m feeling a lot more confident building it the second time round.

Cycling buddy of mine offered some sage words of advise with regards to bicycle ownership when I was first getting into cycling.

“Start with a cheap bike. Make every mistake possible on it, then upgrade.”

It’s nice, because of the emphasis on learning rather than getting it right the very first time. And it probably is relevant to far more than just bicycling.