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Focus

The final step is in motion. I have got all the pieces of the puzzle, now I just have to align them. My intermission will be from the 19th January 2021 until April 20, 2021. 13 weeks is the max with funding covered. However, due to the length of the process and the Christmas holidays, essentially from Thursday 4th December 2020, I will be beginning my intermission.

I am so excited; I feel hopeful and I feel the space to do things that interest me. This will be a big time of change for me, and I hope to look back on it as a truly wonderful time of personal development and positive steps forward in my PhD and my frame of mind.

I have an idea of what to start with, to help myself ease the pressure and the load on myself. I want to stop being as hard on myself and so, I think a nice and extremely enjoyable way to start would be to do some of the projects I have been meaning to do for a long time. These are all computer related:

  • Installing a fresh new distribution of Parabola Linux on my machines and setting up my own unix set up with window manager (probably dwm) and an interesting desktop environment.
  • Making my own email and git server.
  • Migrating to a CLI password and OTP manager such as GNU Pass.
  • Deleting a load of accounts I just do not need anymore, starting with google as the final of the FANG [1] accounts left for me.
  • Hosting my own website, and writing it from scratch, or at least build a pre-existing open source solution from scratch on my own hosting, such as write freely.
  • Setting up my Raspberry Pi 400 as a seedbox, and a tinker station; perhaps, ultimately using the GPIO on there to flash my ThinkPad x230 to coreboot.
  • Setting up a proper backup system of hard-drives, cron, and rsync. I think the cloud is out for me at the moment, unless I find one that aligns with my philosophies and upload only encrypted files to it. It's entirely possible I will do that, just having to scour through 4000 providers is not my cup of tea at the moment.
  • Watching and going through the exercises of 'The Missing Semester' from MIT CS [2].

Well, that was a lot. Of course, I will still write a basic data privacy guide for my friends and family and as a way of having some start-up content on my new home on the internet – my website.

I hope to begin and finish on this in one session after this week of final responsibilities for me. Onwards and Upwards.

One day from receiving the final piece of the bureaucratic puzzle required to apply for intermission. It turns out I will be applying for January and that way I get December off as well as a freebie.

Furthermore, an advisor of mine at the university has recommended that I seriously consider looking into a new supervisor (either alongside or in place of!!) my current set-up. She got this only from knowing that my supervisor is young; I guess now as I write this, she also deduced as I have been struggling during my PhD that that would be a factor too.

It's an exciting yet worrisome idea. I, of course, would really click with some supervisors in the CS department, but it's hard for me to comprehend at the moment exactly how to approach even looking for one. There are a lot of factors involved that I am not sure about: my funding, my source of funding, self-funding, my knowledge etc.

Nevertheless, I'm expecting 2021 to be a big year of change. I am very much looking forward to stepping into the abyss and seeing what lies on the other side for me. Some argue proper systematic change always requires a revolution, and not just a reform. Let's test this hypothesis, shall we?

I have lagged behind already by a week on the post I wanted to write about basic steps towards taking some control of your internet activities and associated data. There is a reason for that, I am still sorting out my intermission and a few things I have to do before I go on leave. I am still planning on writing it, it won't be too comprehensive. Just something basic and straightforward with a few words on why it is important to me to take such steps in my daily life.

Otherwise, I am doing well. I have some probability questions to go through this morning for my students. They are fun! One of them is the birthday paradox. With 23 people in a room, the chance that two of them share a birthday is just over 50%. I do not quite understand why, but I know it has to do with the fact that there are so many combinations in 23 unordered people. Once I figure it out, I might write it out here.

As I read more, I have found that some people – who are ostensibly exercised in thought and understanding – can have a mediocre way of persuading people through their arguments. For example, I was reading 'Avoid News: Towards a Healthy News Diet, by Rolf Dobelli'. The only credible piece of information I have about him is that he is a 'good' friend of Nassim Taleb, so I assume that was enough for me to be interested. Though, now as I write this, I see that I am basing that completely from his own word. Regardless, as a mental model, it is useful to discuss what I found needlessly arrogant and patronising in his tone of writing.

Firstly, when I have a point to make and want to persuade someone of something, I have found it completely counterproductive to speak in not very thought through platitudes and in a completely affirmative tone. What I mean by this, is shown in this example:

“News consumers are suckers for irrelevancy, and online news consumers are the biggest suckers. News is an interruption system. It seizes your attention only to scramble it. Besides a lack of glucose in your blood stream, news distraction is the biggest barricade to clear thinking.”

Okay, so claiming that distraction from reading the news is second only to an physical state of malnutrition seems a bit like a tribal war here. Rolf has understood that news is bad for him, and so it must be as bad for everyone else on planet Earth and such clearly, it deserves a place under starvation in its prohibition to clear thinking.

I understand I am cherry picking out of context here, and I do see many good points he makes. I, myself, have not been reading the news for a few weeks now and earlier in the year, I took a few months to stop reading the news as well; to great positive effect on my mental health. I am on his side, yet I can not help but feel patronised, and that by reading this 'manifesto' I have wasted time. It is not thoroughly researched, not thoroughly explained, and picks out random studies for its own aims of obliterating the idea of consuming news.

This is a pattern I see amongst self-proclaimed 'rational' thinkers – a self pompousness that seems to override a key tenet of rationality; a clearly thought through and validated argument with evidence weighed scientifically from both sides. Gwern.net has hosted this file on its servers; I am disappointed that such an intelligent and thoughtful person could host such a piece with its complete disregard for the complexity of thought, by the use of one-sided platitudes that only young teenagers seem to love when exposed to new ideas for the first time.

It is my hope that people when they read such a piece, that they take it with the rational grain of salt, and read it for what it is: a way for the writer to let some steam off with regards to the problems in his life and perhaps an all too clear scapegoating of a much more complex problem. After all, we are all only human.

A guide for my intermission. I am in the process of applying for a semester off from my PhD (minimum 3 months) in the new calendar year. I am extremely looking forward to it, and a plan has arisen from the scraps of the time I have had to think about this over the past few months.

Here is the overall statement for my intermission:

  • A C A D E M I A

What is an 'academic'? What is the academic process? Where has it come from? What is the development and history of the modern-day PhD as we know it. The thinking is that if I can understand the basis for a PhD, historically, etymologically, semantically, and most importantly its practicality for society and myself, I can have a better sense of perspective of what I am doing in the micro every day and how it lends itself to the macro, to the big picture. A sense of purpose; perhaps, that is too strong of a word. I don't quite have a full plan of how I would do this, but I think I would start with the modern-day and work backwards.

  • Richard Feynman – Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman (just read for the first time, absolutely loved it), and The Pleasure of Finding Things Out
  • The Structure of Scientific Revolutions – Thomas Kuhn
  • How to Solve It – George Polya
  • Karl Popper – The Two Fundamental Problems of the Theory of Knowledge, The Logic of Scientific Discovery
  • Noam Chomsky – Language and Mind, Syntactic Structures
  • Nassim Taleb – Antifragile, Black Swan
  • Tim Ferris Podcast with Naval Ravikant as a starter
  • Tim Ferris Podcast with Hugh Jackman as a starter

Just as an aside – I have an idea to screw all these books and just go through the entire Feynman lectures on Physics from start to end. This is very appealing to me for two reasons. 1: I won't have the time again for such a pursuit for a while and 2: they are so comprehensive that if I really work hard, I will really know what an education and what physics means (to me) by the end of it. It is also quite appealing in the simplicity of only going through one volume, and slowly mastering some topic within it. Of course, I understand that 3000 pages is pretty extreme and it was a multiple-year course in Caltech so I would not get a chance to go through everything, but it would be beautifully straightforward.

  • H I S T O R Y

I would love to read through many classical sources and have time to think about their impact on history and philosophy. I am already a great fan of some A-list stoics: Seneca, Epicurus, and Marcus Aurelius (though I have yet to read Meditations properly). However, it would be pertinent, in the interest of my own self-development and well-roundedness, that I have read and thought about more classical works including:

  • Ovid
  • The Odyssey
  • Histories – Herodotus
  • Plutarch
  • Thucydides
  • Livy
  • Commentaries of Caesar

Other:

  • Man's search for meaning – Victor Frankl
  • Guns, Germs and Steel – Jared Diamond

Finally, I have a bucket list of things to figure out which I'm sure I could do all in one day, but I just have not got around to it, some examples include a deeper dive into the topics below and their ultimate application in the world:

  • Vector addition, what does it mean?
  • Active vs passive sentences
  • Among(st) vs among, whil(st) vs while
  • Geometric series
  • Cube roots of unity
  • Binomial expansion

It's in very draft stage, and not particularly grouped in the right order or themes. But a bad plan is better than no plan, right?

I just got off a call with my university counsellor and I am feeling somewhat optimistic. A rarity for me. Let me explain why.

Ever since the beginning of 'learning' or perhaps a better more applicable word would be 'working' in my so far relatively short time on the earth, a sense of doom and dread has encompassed my dealings with work on a non-stop basis. I have not been able to escape an extreme sense of resistance when sitting down and 'working' on my studies. I'm a very curious person and can work on other parts of myself and other tasks with no friction and I can be greatly successful at those, and yet even though I am greatly successful on paper academically, I have reached a boiling point of doom at which I have a fork in the road. If I continue on the path I am now, brute forcing myself through work every single minute of every single day without much regard to my mental wellbeing, because I think I am just being a 'baby' and should get on with it, I would probably get through this next project and perhaps the next, and maybe perhaps a couple down the line I would find myself just about graduating from my PhD. It would be incredibly shaky and my fundamental knowledge is so lacking, that it would be chaos, a disaster. Perhaps it would take 6 months of corrections, perhaps it would not be correctable. It would make the last 2 years of my PhD moot, let alone my studies before that.

But, there is another fork in the road. One which requires, in my opinion, way too many bureaucratic hurdles here in the UK and let alone at my famously bureaucratic university. Three months off in the new year. January to the end of March. Even typing it out seems too good to be true. Time to think about the purpose of my work, the academic process, the scientific method, the things I would read and do and learn. The space to think about the ever impending sense of dread I possess with my work since the beginning of my university career (a point I will come onto in a later post!). Space. I feel such relief thinking about the concept of being able to have some space. I have not had any space in my academics since I began at university at the age of 18, nearing a decade ago. I had no space in my choice of subject and really my choice of university beforehand, and I have no space in my PhD now. Space. A word that sounds almost too good to be true, even the clickity-clack of my keyboard sounds joyous when I type the word 'Space'.

To gain access to the space, I will have to apply for a medical intermission and label myself as 'mentally struggling'. It seems odd that I would have resistance to this, as it is very clear to everyone (and myself, most bafflingly) that I am indeed and always have mentally struggled when it comes to my work. It would allow me to claim three months of my funding as sick leave and not have that disappear to the wind. It would allow me to think and really develop my ways of thinking which I feel at this moment, in my maturation, would really be crucial; I am developing ways of thinking that were not open to me even just a year ago. I think three months to think and to do and to breathe would be worth many many years at my current 'brute-force' progress rate.

Well, I guess it is decided then. I will indeed apply for a medical intermission. It's very interesting how writing or talking (though yet to be decided which is more effective for me) can really sort things out. Journalling, of course, is very trendy at the moment with the self-help types, but naturally something with such use will always be trendy with those who value such things in their own personal journey. The next few steps are relatively daunting, I will email my supervisor, and some support staff at my university to get the ball rolling. I will do that right now, and come back to writing a vague plan to my intermission. I am much more productive with even a bit of planning (of course, I understand that applying the label of productivity is perhaps not the best word for a break for mental wellbeing but I will take it for now as I do not have a better term for it).

I had a great discussion with my partner's family today about data privacy and the way modern surveillance has increased to an extreme with the ubiquity of devices with an internet connection and the ability to collect data, to feed you hyper specific ads on social media. It got me thinking (again) that I think a handy little palatable guide to a few steps you can take to hamper their influence on you and your daily digital life would be very useful and I planned on writing one anyway. I will commit to writing one this week in the evenings after work, on the state of the internet and media today and why if you can quit, you should give it serious consideration. Regardless, everyone should have a quick guide handy to realise that there are options other than facebook, amazon, and google. Brave, Firefox, Qwant, Startpage (if qwant's search results are too bad), and a step further, limiting your OS's abilities, with the final step being a FSF approved linux. I know that 4 people in the world use a distro like parabola, especially with proprietary blob on wifi cards being a big issue, but it would be nice to see an end-to-end solution starting off with the very small, and if the reader is interested, reading all the way to the end to see what daily experience is like off grid from closed source software (as much as possible of course, with the modern state of the internet being very frustrating but that's another topic).

I will commit to this, by next Sunday (22nd November), I will have it out on here. Watch this space!

Enjoy your Sunday.

I wanted to write about my plan for an intermission for a PhD but instead, as I sit reading Atomic Habits by James Clear, I had an idea to link the 'habit implementation guideline' with 'habit stacking' and finally with an odd sense of invisible accountability here with my ghostly readers (yes, that's you!).

Implementation guideline: this is the idea that if you make a plan for a specific task or event, you are much more likely to do it. It's that simple; making a plan to get to the party, which you are nervous about going to, will make you much more likely to go.

Habit stacking: Stacking a habit that you want to develop with one you already do. For example, after brushing my teeth each morning, I will write out my most important thing to do for today.

Accountability is clear; I somehow feel that my ghost 50+ viewers on my posts are my accountability partners, even though I am completely anonymous and will always strive to be.

So, let's do a habit scorecard: what habits do I do through the day automatically:

  • Turn off alarm
  • Drink water
  • Go to bathroom
  • Make bed
  • Shower
  • Get dressed
  • Brush teeth
  • Make coffee for my partner
  • Have a glass of ice water
  • Breakfast
  • Take Vitamins
  • A quick walk in the fresh air
  • Work begins

Okay so that is my morning routine; it's a bit chaotic at the moment, but I will take it. Life is chaotic these days. As for an evening routine, I really don't have one, apart from a wind-down before bed:

  • Shower (if I haven't already)
  • Brush teeth
  • Skincare
  • Take Magnesium for sleep
  • Set Alarm
  • Read in bed until sleepy.

Typing these out did help. I think a clear pause in the morning is having a glass of ice water. Here, I can implement something new quite simply. Perhaps it is, write a post for this blog. Doesn't have to be long. Can be 20 words, as long as I do it. Or maybe think about the most important thing I have to do today, and after the walk I take, I sit down and work on that straight away to avoid distraction.

Okay so here goes:

After I have a glass of ice water, I will write down on a piece of paper my tasks for today. I will do this with a notepad or a laptop that is nearby. I will spend 2 minutes doing this.

After I take a quick walk, I will sit down and work on my MOST important task of the day just for 20 minutes. I don't care if it's incredibly boring; 20 minutes is 20 minutes.

After I do my first 1.5 hours of work, I will meditate for 1 hour(!! – I will write about this soon) in the chair in the living room, preferably with dogs as company.

Now, I just have to remember this somehow?

I'm really struggling at the moment with my work. I can't seem to care more than the level it takes to get started. I don't want the weekend to end and think with dread about weekday mornings – or even the next morning as a weekday/weekend split does not always make sense for PhD students like myself.

I think my lack of focus is definitely key. I have recently sorted out my living situation substantially so that working is easy and life is much easier now. I was using COVID-19 as a scapegoat with the changing situations stopping me from working and thus giving me an excuse for not progressing in my studies. To tell you the truth, I don't think I've ever really 'progressed' during my studies. I know some things more about very esoteric things, but my fundamental knowledge is cripplingly shaky. I'm not sure what to do anymore; I don't have much time left at this rate, before quitting is really the only option out of this torment.

I'm trying to think what I would do with my time if I were to take some time off: I have some ideas. It would cover a well-rounded education that I think would really benefit me in terms of my understanding of the world. The good news is that in the past year my perspectives have shifted and for the better (one hopes). I feel just a few months out would really progress me in my thinking. I will post a draft syllabus in my next post, but for now, know that it contains philosophy of science, greek and roman thinkers, programming, and in general living life without dread or a sense of impending 'doom'. I know I am incredibly privileged, rationally, but my brain likes to dramatise regardless. Hopefully, one day at a time, I will get there.

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