A reflection on otium

Still working on working on my own things.

Otio qui nescit uti . . .
plus negoti habet quam cum est negotium in negotio ;
nam cui quod agat institutumst non ullo negotio
id agit, id studet, ibi mentem atque animum delectat suum:
otioso in otio animus nescit quid velit
Hoc idem est ; em neque domi nunc nos nee militiae sumus;
imus hue, hinc illuc; cum illuc ventum est, ire illinc Iubet.
Incerte errat animus, praeterpropter vitam vivitur.

He who does not know how to use leisure . . .
has more of work than when there is work in work.
For to whom a task has been set, he does the work,
desires it, and delights his own mind and intellect:
in leisure, a mind does not know what it wants.
The same is true (of us); we are neither at home or in the battlefield;
we go here and there, and wherever there is a movement, we are there too.
The mind wanders unsure, except in that life is lived.

Ennius’ Iphigenia (~190BC), quoted in Wikipedia

I feel embarrassed to write about this because it’s such a privileged situation. “Oh, gee, whatever shall you do with your spare time? Gosh, I wish I had that problem! Now stop rubbing it in.” And I can imagine all sorts of quick answers I’d be happy with. I’m at least 80% happy with the solution of using my time to learn, code, draw, write, and share.

But there’s a question somewhere in here, and I want to explore it from time to time. I’m not sure what the question is, but maybe I can think around it so that I can sneak up on it.

What would answering this question look like? I don’t think I’ll get to the point where I’ll say to myself: “Aha, I have Answered This Question, and now I know how I should spend my leisure time for the rest of my life.” Hmm. No, I think I’m mostly looking for the feeling that I’m not making a huge mistake, that I’m not wasting my life, that there are people I look up to who have made similar choices.

Huh. That sounds promising. I think I feel more settled if I had more-developed mental counselors who’ve explored this type of lifestyle – something different from ambition and careerism, but also something different from private life or dissipation. The Wikipedia article on otium suggests people to learn more about, such as Seneca, Petrarch, Theophrastus, Aristotle, and Epicurus.

There’s also something interesting there about the idea of activities that justify leisure, lifting it up above idleness. Cognitio and contemplatio, studio and quies… (ref) And maybe both “contemplation and practical action” (ibid.).

So maybe there are three questions here:

  • Who are the role models and companions who can guide me as I try to do this better?
  • How can I improve how I use my leisure time?
  • How should I feel about how I use my leisure time? Satisfaction reduces energy lost to frustration and opens up a relaxed way of thinking, but can also lead to wasted opportunities.

This reminds me of my post on Thinking about leisure activities: noble, advantageous, pleasant. Activities have differently-valued results. Playing video games sometimes leads to shared jokes and personal delight at the designers’ cleverness, but pales in comparison to other things I can do, so my LEGO Marvel Super Heroes languishes at 57.8%. Cooking results in temporary personal and familial value, but doesn’t benefit the wider world. Writing and Emacs geekery benefit a tiny niche, although sometimes I suspect that most of the benefit is personal rather than public.

Hence the temptation of consulting: clear benefit to myself (increased skills), my household (increased safety), and the team (increased capabilities), and possible benefit for tens of thousands of people.

And it’s also tempting to procrastinate the questions, focusing on easy answers like consulting and writing and geeking out about Emacs. They might be the sort of questions that resolve themselves, as my responsibilities and interests evolve. They might be the sort of questions that are easier to answer with more experience and skill. I’ve been reading about how the reasonable economic principle of ignoring sunk costs and focusing on marginal costs can bias established companies towards sticking with what they know, and it occurs to me that people are quite similar in this regard; the smooth groove of habit or expertise can be a rut that’s hard to get out of.

Hmm. I notice that some of the oddness comes from looking at leisure as work, as something to improve – to do more efficiently or more effectively. (This reminds me of this Yiddish saying: “Sleep faster, we need the pillows.”) If I want to, I can accept this attitude, managing myself with projects and timelines. But I’m curious about leisure as leisure, the thoughts you can think when you are unhurried. At the same time, there is this fear of being a slacker – the indolence of a couch potato or the isolation of an ivory tower.

So, something about people who set aside space for leisure, didn’t treat it like work, and yet accomplished useful things. This forces me to confront my definition of “useful.” What do I mean? An effect that lives beyond them. One could argue that spending time with friends or family can have diffuse results that outlive you, but I think I want something else in addition to that. Maybe to add to what we know.

And here something philosophical in me points out: “Why desire to be remembered? When you are dust, it won’t matter. Millions of people have lived and died without their names being remembered past a few generations.”

To which I say, “Okay, maybe it doesn’t matter that I am remembered, but it would be nice to know that something useful has been added.”

Then this inner philosopher says, “Were you waiting for a certificate? Here it is. You have done something that at least one other person has found useful. Whatever you leave undone, someone else will do, or it wasn’t needed anyway. How big of an impact do you need for your ego to be satisfied?”

And then I say, “Now that you put it that way, it doesn’t make that much sense. It’s one more thing to let go.” Slowly making progress. (The doubt pipes up again: “But should I let go? What if letting go is the wasteful thing to do here?” Tenacious, that thing.)

As for role models – I am not a special snowflake. There are countless people who live or have lived aspects of the life I’m figuring out. It doesn’t even have to be a majority-leisure life; I can learn from people who meditatively use the pockets of time they have each day. I can learn through habit and observation: instead of trying to think my way to the answers up front, I can try a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and I can reflect on the results.

It’s difficult to relax, but I’m learning.

How can I make better use of my index card drawing process?

I really like this practice of working with index cards, especially now that I’ve sorted out a sweet digital workflow for them.

2015-02-10 Evolution of my index card workflow -- index card #drawing #workflow

2015-02-10 Evolution of my index card workflow – index card #drawing #workflow

I started with a straightforward workflow:

  1. Think of a question.
  2. Draw it on a paper index card.
  3. After I complete 5+ index cards, scan the cards.
  4. Convert and process the cards (colouring, etc.).
  5. Rename the cards.
  6. Upload the cards.
  7. Add them to my Flickr set (and to blog posts and so on).

I replaced my Flickr uploading process with a script. Then I replaced the paper index cards with digital index cards. I wrote another script to make renaming files easier. Then I built an outline of questions and used that to create index card templates. So now my workflow looks like this:

  1. I use Org Mode in Emacs to collect and organize questions. I use TODO states to track ones that need further research, ones that are ready to be drawn, and ones that are ready to be blogged.
  2. When I switch to tablet mode, I can select questions to draw using a custom pen-friendly Emacs interface that sets up the template for me.
  3. I upload the images using another script and add the links to my outline.

After I draft the blog post, I use another bit of code to move the relevant images out of my “To blog” directory and into another directory so that I can easily upload them (since I still haven’t tweaked the all-Emacs way of doing things the way I want them).

An index card is a good size for a chunk. It’s smaller than a blog post, so I can accelerate my learn-do-share-review cycle. If I invest more time into creating, organizing, and sharing them, I think they’ll pay off well. Other people report that their Zettelkasten (index card organization systems) become almost like conversational partners and collaborators. I already feel that way about my blog archive, and it will probably be even more

Hmm… Should I add a unique identifier to sketches so that I can refer to them more concisely than giving the full link? This mostly matters for referring to sketches in the drawing itself, since I can use links in text or metadata. For example, I can assign codes to each chunk, possibly differentiating between sketches (letters?) and blog posts (numbers?). So, maybe “2015-01-01a” for the first sketch on January 1, and “2015-01-01-1″ for the first blog post? I could omit the dashes, but then searching requires that mental translation, so we’ll keep the dashes in there. The downside is that there’ll be a little additional clutter, but it might be interesting to experiment with – adding a reference line, and maybe even adding the info to the filename. It gives some linking capability that can survive the disparate systems I publish sketches to (my blog, Evernote, Flickr), even for sketches that don’t get turned into blog posts.

What about my 5-cards-a-day target?

2015-02-08 Reflection on 5 index cards a day target -- index card #drawing #reflection

2015-02-08 Reflection on 5 index cards a day target – index card #drawing #reflection

Sometimes making five cards feels like a stretch, since I have to Think Interesting Thoughts. Using templates can help – I could make four cards and a journal entry, for example. I expect the awkwardness will subside as I build up my question store and do more research/experimentation.

Colour slows me down if I think about it too much or worry about becoming too repetitive. It might be fine to just quickly highlight things most of the time and save the development of colour sense for sessions of deliberate practice.

2015-02-09 How can I make better use of my index card drawing process -- index card #drawing #index-cards #zettelkasten

2015-02-09 How can I make better use of my index card drawing process – index card #drawing #index-cards #zettelkasten

In terms of thinking, spending the extra few minutes to think about and capture the next questions or actions for a card can make a big difference in my focus. I can also relax my chunking guidelines so that a single sketch can be fleshed out into a quick blog post instead of waiting until I accumulate several sketches related to the topic – taking my own advice to schedule Minimum Viable Posts. If I phrase my outline in terms of questions instead of keywords, I’ll probably find that more motivating and easier to scope.

2015-02-09 How can I make better use of my laptop -- index card #tech

2015-02-09 How can I make better use of my laptop – index card #tech

That will probably also help me with some of the bottlenecks I identified while contemplating how I can make better use of my laptop. I’m doing okay at generating questions and drawing index cards, but I can do better at translating those ideas into research, experiments, and blog posts. So, I can clear out more of my backlog of index cards that I want to share (probably ending up with two months of scheduled blog posts, or maybe even more!). Then I can research and try out more ideas, so I’m not just drawing questions that I can answer with what’s currently in my head. =)


Weekly review: Week ending March 13, 2015

Lots of sewing (14.5 hours!). Taking it easy, in general. Social stuff, too: catching up with friends, going to parties…

2015-03-15a Week ending 2015-03-13 -- index card #weekly


Blog posts


Link round-up

Focus areas and time review

  • Business (26.7h – 15%)
    • Earn (11.5h – 42% of Business)
      • Send comm slide
      • Attend comm session
      • Earn: E1: 1-2 days of consulting
    • Build (12.4h – 46% of Business)
      • Drawing (11.0h)
      • Delegation (0.0h)
      • Packaging (0.0h)
      • Paperwork (1.3h)
    • Connect (2.9h – 10% of Business)
  • Relationships (9.1h – 5%)
    • Do paperwork for mom
    • Check on project F4
  • Discretionary – Productive (18.4h – 10%)
    • Emacs (1.0h – 0% of all)
      • 2015-03-18 Emacs Hangout
      • Help Sean with Emacs
    • Buy ETFs in SDRSP account
    • Writing (2.8h)
  • Discretionary – Play (6.8h – 4%)
  • Personal routines (40.0h – 23%)
  • Unpaid work (18.9h – 11%)
  • Sleep (71.0h – 42% – average of 10.1 per day)

Future pull and the power of imagination

I know you’re supposed to live in the present, but I get a lot of value from thinking about futures and what I can learn from the possibilities. Imagining different futures helps me see what I can do, choose to do some things instead of others, and keep track of how I’m doing along the way.

In the problem-solving model that Tim Hurson shares in Think Better (2008), you come up with potential Target Futures and prioritize a few based on three factors:

  • Influence: Is it something you have influence over?
  • Importance: Is it important enough to you that you’ll put in the work to get there?
  • Imagination: Can you solve it with an off-the-shelf solution, or do you have to come up with something new?

A good future pulls you toward it. You want it, and so you act on it.

periodically think about what the target futures for my interests look and feel like. Last year, I wrote about how I don’t need to get to “awesome” in everything. Sometimes it still helps to think about what that “awesome” might look like, though. I realized that I don’t have to use the same definition of “awesome” that other people use. Figuring out what “awesome” means to me can help me identify the differences between my current state and my future state, and that shows me what I can do or what I can learn to get there. I want to pick differences that are mostly under my control, that are important enough to call me to action, and that may even create something new in the world.


2015-01-15 Imagining coding amazingly -- index card #wildsuccess #coding

2015-01-15 Imagining coding amazingly – index card #wildsuccess #coding

I figured out a little more about what tickles my programming brain. I’m not the kind of person who builds massively popular projects with elegant architecture. Someday I might do a good job at building bridges for other people so that they can do even better. What makes me really happy right now, though, is writing small, idiosyncratic pieces of code that are tailored to my particular needs (or that make things a little better for people I feel good about). On the surface, this doesn’t have widespread impact. but I guess it also creates a future-pull – showing other people that this sort of play and customization is possible. So, if I follow that vein, amazingness looks like:

  • Seeing clear, simple ways to address challenges or take advantage of opportunities
  • Pulling the pieces together (APIs, etc.)
  • Making reasonable interfaces
  • Writing decent code
  • Being proficient with tools
  • Getting good at that delivery and feedback cycle, whether it’s for other people or for myself

I’m getting a lot more practice in working with the APIs for services I frequently use. I’ve scripted quite a few small tools that interact with Flickr, and I’m looking forward to more experiments with Org Mode and Evernote. I’m also working on learning more about the tools I can use: debuggers, frameworks, even coding conventions.

Working out loud

2015-01-15 Imagining working out loud amazingly -- #wildsuccess #sharing #writing

2015-01-15 Imagining working out loud amazingly – #wildsuccess #sharing #writing

What about working out loud? What would that look like if I could do it really, really well?

I’d keep detailed notes – probably in Org Mode, since that lets me mix everything together: snippets, links, research, TODOs, etc. My notes would help me get back on track after interruptions or delays. Whenever I finish a small chunk, I publish a post, since that’s easier to work with than waiting until I’ve finished everything. I’ll know if it’s working if I:

  • don’t get as frustrated with dead ends, because I can just backtrack up the trail
  • can look up my reasons for things I’ve forgotten
  • can help other people find out about things they can do, take advantage of example code, or probe my understanding
  • get the occasional suggestion from people on how to improve what I do

I’m focusing on getting more of my thinking out the door. One of the things I’m currently figuring out is how to balance logical order and chronological order when writing up what I’ve learned. On one hand, I want to save people time by pointing them straight to stuff that worked. On the other hand, it can be useful to see the thinking process. I’m experimenting with using signposts (like the “later in this post” part of one of my write-ups). I’m also experimenting with harvesting tips and putting them into occasional other-directed posts.


2015-01-15 Imagining writing amazingly -- index card #writing #wildsuccess

2015-01-15 Imagining writing amazingly – index card #writing #wildsuccess

I don’t need to get to Pulitzer-prize-winning awesomeness. I want to get better at figuring things out and sharing them. I think this involves being able to:

  • wrestle with vagueness and beat it into specificity
  • share practical tips
  • extract ideas from research, other people’s thoughts, and my own experiences so that I can help people save time
  • and back up everything reliably!

If I can get better at seeing things, that’s a really useful bonus. Since the easiest way of doing that seems to be sheer accumulation of experience, I’m focusing instead on other things that I can get better at first. Research is one of those skills I want to build up again, as there can be lot of value in a good literature review.

2015-01-14 Setting constraints for my writing chunks -- index card #writing #constraints

2015-01-14 Setting constraints for my writing chunks – index card #writing #constraints

I’m also working on building up and linking to different chunks so that people can read at the level of detail they want. By setting constraints on chunk size and getting better at managing an archive of linkable things, I hope to be able to organize thoughts more flexibly.


2015-01-15 Imagining packaging amazingly -- index card #packaging #wildsuccess

2015-01-15 Imagining packaging amazingly – index card #packaging #wildsuccess

I imagine that as I get a sense of questions (other people’s and my own) and good sequences to answer those questions in, I’ll get better at putting together guides that lead people through those sequences. This helps because sometimes it takes a lot of knowledge to figure out what the next good question is or how to formulate it. For me, that’s what packaging is about: making sense of things, and then sharing that in a way that helps other people make sense of things too.

I’m still far from getting really good at this, but as I build up chunks and figure out what order to put them in, I’ll get better.

Your turn

When it comes to the things that you’re learning, what are different ways “awesome” could look and feel like? Are those futures powerful enough to pull you toward them? What do you need to do to get a little closer to those futures?

Enjoy the prep work

In sewing, the actual sewing–the stitching of layers of fabric together–seems to be such a small part of it.

There’s choosing a sewing pattern, or making one up.

There’s choosing the fabric, thinking of how it feels, drapes, stretches, handles, and washes.

There’s tracing, marking, and adjusting the pattern.

There’s cutting the fabric. Accuracy in this step makes everything else easier.

There’s marking and pinning. How you pin it together depends on how you want the finished piece to feel like.

Sometimes there’s lining, sometimes there’s interfacing. I haven’t learned how to really work with these yet.

And then – sewing! But just a little at a time, because…

There’s pressing, which is a little like ironing except with more time and pressure. This is what creates those creases and curves. It’s important to do this. If you skip it, your seams might pucker or puff. Things just don’t hang right without it.

Sometimes you trim things with scissors, or carefully rip threads and resew if needed.

And then more pinning, more sewing, more pressing, more cutting… So much of sewing is outside that narrow definition of “sewing.”

Cooking is like that too: choosing tastes, recipes, ingredients; preparing the ingredients; cooking!; adjusting the taste; serving.

What are the writing equivalents? Researching, outlining, writing, revising, packaging.

Coding? Planning, coding, testing… Maybe testing is like pressing – it helps make different pieces of code fit together neatly.

It’s like these activities have a part where you can say “This is it! I’m sewing/cooking/writing/coding!” But all the other parts might be even more important than that one bit. Hmm.

The trick, perhaps, is to enjoy those other parts as well, even if you don’t feel you’re making good progress, even if it’s not the part with the pay-off or the glamour. Doing the prep work well makes the main work more effective and enjoyable.

I wonder if life works the same way too…

Emacs Org Mode and the power of plain text

When I build a tool for other people to use and I want to store data, I usually have to think in terms of relational databases: tables, fields, and queries. There are other kinds of databases out there, like ones with flexible documents or ones that are optimized for graphs, but I haven’t gotten the hang of them yet.

When I build a tool for myself and I want to store data, I usually use plain text. (Or maybe a spreadsheet, but now that I’m getting the hang of Org Mode tables, I’m leaning more and more towards text.)

2015-02-02 Plain text -- index card #data #organization #pkm #org

2015-02-02 Plain text – index card #data #organization #pkm #org

I like the flexibility of plain text. Sometimes I want to organize my thoughts in an outline or an index. Sometimes I want to make a graph, like the way I wanted to visualize how my goals are related to each other. Sometimes I change my mind about what I want. (All the time, actually. =) ) Plain text lets me add structure the way I want to. It’s all in my text editor, so I can move things around or reorganize things using the tools in Emacs.

Sure, sometimes I mess up because of formatting mistakes or the lack of validation. For example, typos in my personal ledger show up when the numbers don’t match my bank balances or there’s a new category with a misspelled name. But these are easy enough to catch and fix, and I can’t completely guard against them with a database anyway. And it’s nice to know that version control can let me visually step through the changes or recover from mistakes.

What about speed? Databases can be much faster than plain text for large quantities of data, for sure. I tend to work with pretty small quantities of data. For example, my blog index has 3257 lines, and the file that I’m drafting this in is under a megabyte. Even with whatever Emacs Lisp I’ve written to extract or cross-reference data, I’m still mostly bottlenecked by my brain instead of my computer. Sure, it took me a little longer to figure out how to do table calculations using Org Mode, but now that I have some notes on that, I should be able to come up with future calculations more easily. Besides, if I need to analyze things quickly, I can export and then crunch the numbers using a different tool.

Speaking of tools, staying with lightly-structured plain text lets me build a toolkit of text manipulation techniques. When I’m editing things in Emacs, scripting with Emacs Lisp, searching with grep, or writing Javascript/Ruby/Perl code to work with text, I’m developing skills that I can use in a wide range of situations.

If you’re interested in keeping your data in plain text with Org Mode, here are some tips that can help you learn how to work with your information.

Start with tables

  1. Learn how to use keyboard shortcuts to create, move, or delete rows and columns.
  2. Learn how to sort tables.
  3. Learn how to use the column with specifier (ex: <10>) to limit the displayed size of your column while still being able to add more information.
  4. Use Org Mode’s support for calculations to do math or perform other operations on your table.

Consider using properties

Org tables don’t do well with paragraphs or more complex information, so you might want to use Org subtrees with properties.

You can use Org columns to display property values, or use Org dynamic blocks to put a summary of the values into your Org Mode file. See org-collector.el for a propview report.

If you want more control, you can work with the information using Emacs Lisp. You can use org-entry-get, org-entry-get-multivalued-property, or org-entry-get-with-inheritance to get the value of the property. If you want to go through all the subtrees (or a subset of them), use org-map-entries to call your own function at each of the matching headlines in the scope. org-heading-components will give you the information from the current heading, and you can use org-end-of-subtree to give you the boundary of the subtree if you want to process it further.

You can parse Org Mode lists with org-list-struct. I haven’t dug into this deeply yet, but it looks interesting.

Parse free-form text

In addition to working with tables and properties, you can write functions that use regular expressions or other techniques to extract data from text. re-builder can be useful for visual feedback while you’re figuring out the right regular expression to build. Remember, you’re in Emacs, so you don’t have to come up with the perfect regular expression that extracts all the data in one go. You can search for a regular expression, use a command like forward-line, save something to a variable, and so forth. Try thinking about how you would do something by hand, and then using repeat-complex-command to see what functions Emacs called when you did that.

save-restriction, narrow-to-region, and save-excursion are very useful when it comes to limiting the scope of your processing or saving your position, so check them out in the Emacs Lisp manual.

I find plain text to be really useful when I’m figuring things out (so, all the time), since I don’t have to build a complex interface for working with it. As I learn more about Org Mode’s features, I find myself using it for more and more of my data. Org’s slogan is “Organize your life in plain text!” – and I think it just might be serious about that!