Where’ve I been?

Seem to have fallen off the blogging train recently – after I (mostly)
finished drpfd, October rolled on the front of the storms, and I was
(am) caught up among client work, personal projects, and a busy home
life. All of which has been good, just not very public, and definitely
with little time to write Words Which Might Matter.

Still, it’s good to check in. Throughout the maelstrom, I’ve been
learning a lot. For instance!

* Modern CSS units for site responsiveness

in an age where scrollbars are ethereal, and the real difference
between “fixed” and “sticky” positioning.
* How to make things in Pulp ,
the 1-bit editor for Playdate games, and how to
keep a devlog in Discord.
* How to use Carbon Fields , a free
alternative to ACF Pro in WordPress.

Behind the scenes, there’s a lot happening at Writing Our Legacy
too, and I try to keep some time for
relaxing. I really need to meditate more when my brain is trying to
juggle so many things though.

I also keep coming back to personal principles and the “bigger game”
that is social equality, climate change, and building something better.
Maybe I’m not doing enough here, or maybe now is not the right time to
make changes – this dichotomy is, in itself, an interesting conundrum.
Busy-ness leads to routine. Routine leads to acceptance. Acceptance
leads to busy-ness.

There is never the Right Time to break the cycle, so is now the Right
Time to break the cycle?

From Task Lists to the Art of Enjoyment

It must be late summer, as the bindweed in the garden has begun to take over. I spent a few minutes today pulling out some of the runners and untangling the plants it had wrapped around, which gave me some time to think more about why we do things.

As per yesterday, I’m reassessing the general idea of task and to-do lists. A part of me wants to shift to something more enjoyable, and alongside this notion of “joy”, I’ve been mulling over what gives me joy. (Is there a big difference between “joy” and “to enjoy”? Perhaps not semantically, but there’s a lot to be said for thinking about things in terms of verbs – behaviour, temporarily in flow and doomed.to change, rather than the asset- and accumulation-driven realm of nouns.)

What is that feedback loop that makes me enjoy things? Sometimes it’s the simple process of facing a challenge and resolving it in an inventive way. But there still needs to be a reason behind it – I feel like something should be improved as a result, and I think back to the idea that “if you’ve made the world better during your life, you’ve done ok”.

I had this vaguely in mind as I pulled up the strings of weeds with gloved hands. To-do style: “I must clear out the bindweed.” Enjoyment style: “I can improve the garden’s environment.”

But then. I wondered what I was improving. Or rather, who and what it was being improved for. Was I really clearing the weeds so that the small apple tree could grow more vigorously? Or was it to make the garden neater, for me, for the family, for the neighbours? What did the bindweed think about this, or the spiders that scuttled out of the way as I removed the undergrowth around them?

I didn’t have a firm answer. But with that, I kind of realised that there wasn’t necessarily an answer to be found. “Improvement” depended on your point of view – your own values and interests, and your position in the system. In your timescale for awareness, and in your appetite for change.

Plenty of land and cultures have been torn down and apart, based on one idea of “improvement” or another. Entire educational industries try to shoehorn attitudes into learning alongside skillets and opportunities. “Improvement” can be a form of wielding power, an ominous and subjective decision around what is good and bad. Can we ever say that improvement is a net-positive game rather than a zero sum one, that to improve something is always to deny something else?

It is not wrong to want to improve things. It is a natural (and unique) human desire. But it can be wrong to do it without thinking through the power balances involved, and to enforce an aim of improvement where consent, rationale and emotion are bypassed in the process.

Which leads back to a more nuanced perspective about what it means to enjoy something. It can be a delicate thing, if one is aware of the systems involved. Thinking too much about it can severely curtail that getting l hedonistic idea of doing something for the love of it, but perhaps that just means we should tread more carefully, and be proud of the smaller changes that we’re more certain of?

Re-examining my relationship with To-do lists and Life…

[Image: Original Groundlake logo sketched out in biro, re-discovered recently while clearing out old notebooks.]

The bank holiday weekend started out well. We packed the car, left in a semi-timely manner, took the scenic route, and ate our favourite local pizza (one napoli, one pepperoni and pineapple) in the evening. I managed to enter one of my favourite – and dangerous – secondhand bookshops the next day, and spent two days meeting a new family member for the first time. We played table tennis, went to the beach, drank beer and enjoyed a fair bit of Vampire Survivors.

Sunday evening I was a bit weary though, and too tired to be sensible and get an early night. And when Monday came around. It was like my body had given up. And, with it my mind had spiralled down into something of a grump-hole. I crashed pretty hard all day, managing to play the mini-golf I’d hoped to get to all weekend, but having to leave the long drive home to my wife while I mostly stared out the window into the distance.

I’ve been thinking more about life and energy since then. Not that it’s a new thing, I guess I often feel pretty exhausted – there’s a cycle of feeling okay, taking on too much, and then getting overwhelmed and wanting it to all go away. I suspect that’s a decent description of a light form of manic-depression. But that’s me. And I feel like I’m unpicking it a bit more this time round.

I am, however, slightly sick of simply trying to change up my “routine”, or find short-hand ways to be more “effective”, “productive”, “GTD”, etc. I’m generally on board with that and have multiple methods to organise things – they usually work, although at times I think it means my threshold is simply higher, so I get more of a rebound effect when I do get to that limit.

So perhaps I’m missing a whole realm of alternative answers here. Ones that don’t just restructure the pieces on the board, but actually change the rules of the game. For instance, I’ve noticed that a more organised to-do list (even if just 2 or 3 items long) can simply turn into a to-fret list, a machine for making you concerned about whether you’ve ticked your own boxes or not. It can remove a lot of the joy and creativity of doing, and I know myself well enough to know that it’s that joy which keeps me going – without it, the overhead of worry either creates or amplifies the down side of the cycle.

I have a festering belief that (my) focus methods should simply set some basic guidelines, such as time spent, and on a particular area/client/topic/etc, and that I should then encourage myself to enjoy improving that space as much as possible.

Sure, task lists are still a good way of organising and breaking down possible work to avoid confusion, but it’s about shifting the starting point for going into that work. It’s about returning to the reasons for why you started doing something in the first place. It’s all about Intent.

I’m going to give this a mindful go, alongside other small tweaks to try to improve my rest cycles (less coffee, more reading, more water, slowing down generally). I don’t want to set out any specific steps for how I’m going to do it though, other than a few minutes of thought time before I begin things – that would seem to defeat the whole point of it. And I don’t want it to be just a work thing, despite this being my work notes blog. I feel like it’s a me thing, across everything I do.

Let’s go.

From 2022 to 2023, reflections on freelancing, anarchism, creativity, and hope

Well here we are, I’m sitting at a keyboard and the date is 2023. It’s quite a nice year to type to be honest, a certain flick of the fingers to it, and slightly easier than the repeated keypresses of 2022.

I ended the year in a gentle fashion. Once the rains of yesterday morning had wrapped up their charade, I went for a short walk along Eastbourne’s seafront, out of town and down past the wooden groynes to where the cliffs start.

I walked by myself, in and out of my own thoughts and other people’s dogs. Many years ago, I read that the most important meeting you can have is with yourself, and I let my mind wander of its own accord as I pushed through the strong winds ahead.

Wooden groynes on Eastbourne beach under an overcast sky

Realising anarchism

Two "realisations" remained with me as I walked back into town with the wind at my back.

First, I am actually more … "fiercely individualistic" than I would otherwise think. Not that I hate other people, or working with others – quite the opposite. More that I desire some level of control over my own life, in terms of both the creative side of what to do, and the structural side of how to do it.

It feels somewhat "selfish" to admit this, perhaps, but at the same time it’s important to understand what drives oneself, and also helps explain a lot of my own philosophy, including leaning to a liberal-anarchist politic, through to the importance of mutual respect, mutual aid, and distributed and equal learning and opportunities. This quote from Errico Malatesta sums it up well:

“By definition an anarchist is he who does not wish to be oppressed nor wishes to be him self an oppressor; who wants the greatest well-being, freedom and development for all human beings. His ideas, his wishes have their origin in a feeling of sympathy, love and respect for humanity: a feeling which must be sufficiently strong to induce him to want the well-being of others as much as his own…” — Errico Malatesta

Over time, I’ve ended up working in smaller and smaller companies, and going freelance feels like a continuation of this trend. It’s been hard work mentally at times, to not have a lot of the safety net of an employer, but I can’t deny that I enjoy setting my own destiny and not having to negotiate a lot of daily routine with bosses and HR departments. That is a shift that I’m profoundly grateful for, whatever else has happened.

Doing and not doing

Second, I had a realisation that productivity when you’re self-organising is much more a matter of thinking "I will" rather than "I must", "I should", or "I want to". This last year, I’ve spent too much of my time thinking and planning in the manner of "Oh, I should do that", or "I’d love to do that", but a pattern I notice in people I follow and admire is a different intent, one in which you "do or do not, there is no try".

Yoda surrounded by business chart, a mug reading "World's Best Boss" and in a suit, with a poster saying "Do or Do Not. There is no Try."

If I had a new year’s resolution, it would be to simplify things somewhat. I’m bouncing around a lot between contexts and tasks and projects and thoughts and content to read and watch and play. All of that can often leave me feeling somewhat bewildered, tired, and like I’m running in circles. Some of it is necessary, of course, but a lot of it isn’t.

I wish I was more able to retain just one project/book/game at a time, for instance – my brain has always jumped around a lot but I’m at a time of life, and humans are at a point of societal evolution, where this is easier than ever, and it’s no excuse to let a naturally busy brain be exploited by an unnaturally busy culture.

Negotiating hope

At 11.59pm last night, I ritually and ceremoniously finished off a bottle of whisky. Not just any bottle of whisky, this was a leaving present from OCSI, and so it had been on the go for the last year at least – I’ve been sipping from it when I hit certain work-related milestones, such as first client, first payment, first tax return, etc.

With the 2021-22 tax year out of the way (barring some minor admin tasks), I wanted to stop looking backwards. I have an excitedly progressive feel about 2023, but I realise that in order to really jump on my own bandwagon, so to speak, I need to bring my full self and my whole energy to it. I need to use those meetings with myself to fire myself up, check myself over, and really make sure that what I want and what I’m doing are, if not totally defined, then at least in alignment.

I’m also "secretly" positive about 2023 in general. I know it’s not particularly easy or fashionable to feel positive about the world, hence the "secret". But at the same time, I’m a great believer in Hope, and believe that without it, we sink rapidly into bitter depression and uselessness – something I’ve been repeatedly close to as I’ve watched the news in 2022.

So I think there must be an inherent mental resilience that hangs on to that – "Hardcore Hope Negotiation" as I put it – even if others tell you that things are so, so awful right now. We need a productive form of optimism right now, both spiritually and societally. And we need tools and practices to encourage and capture that, which channel imagination and creativity into the world.

For every tablet and smart speaker expecting us to buy something, we need a blog post that kicks back and publishes something fresh. We need games that deliver new ideas, and music tracks that break economic models. We need to think outwardly more than inwardly. To have confidence that we can produce something around the nugget or an idea, a feeling, a thread of humanity.

Change is coming, whether we like it or now – governments will be forced to work out their (within and between state) details one way or another, and they will do it among a background of increasing difficult weather patterns that get harder to ignore. The future is already here. And it’s better to get ourselves prepared, and to be on its side.

Alright, here we go.

Graffiti on a red brick wall reflected in a puddle.

Lessons (un)learned from an architect

I have a vague desire to transform, maybe pivot this blogspace a bit. What started out as a place to publish and reflect on the week feels like it needs to evolve in line with my own circumstances. That link between the structure of a space (a digital space, in this instance) and the needs of the inhabitant (myself as writer, more than you, as reader) feels more acute than ever.

To say this is to reframe the practice of weeknoting itself. It is to speculate and accept that the form and cadence of weekly reflections feeds the need of some sort of routine cycle to begin with. It slots neatly into a pattern that – rightly – embraces incremental change and regulated planning. It is a good tool to fit in with regular sprints and fast-paced calendars, for instance.

(Which isn’t to say it isn’t useful in other contexts – just that there is a synchronicity of rhythms there, which may or may not be naturally true in other patterns such as longer reflection cycles, or less repeated and regular approaches.)

However, the repeated comparison to architecture above is not accidental. Today I found myself re-reading a Monade post on 7 things to unlearn, from Paulo Mendes da Rocha, a Brazilian architect working in a mainly-brutalist approach.

A view of the National Coach Museum in Lisbon

Rule #1 is particularly related to weeknoting: "Art is no longer to be made mysterious". We have reached a state of knowledge working and the attention economy where there is more value in showing how you work, than in keeping secrets. Sadly though, technology is still becoming more complex and more opaque, a trend which seems to be increasing with each extra tool and acronym that gets released.

This, and the other 6 rules, all strike me straight in the heart and chime with my own relationship not with structural engineering, but with software and hardware engineering.

It is hard for me to read sci-fi (extending to solarpunk) these days, for instance, and rule #2 digs at this somewhat: "It’s impossible to imagine formations and formal transformations if you don’t know how to do them." – that is, imagination is tied to a pragmatic concept of being able to build something. As an engineer, I’m aware that ideas are cheap, and implementation is where the magic lies. Time has run out for wishful thinking.

Rules #5 and #6 deal with destruction and beginnings, and the revolutionary need to believe in yourself as a creator rolls forwards into rule #7. This is Mendes da Rocha’s relationship with dreaming, and with the forces that drive us to face truths, to invent, and to re-invent.

"Those who don’t know don’t even ask; don’t even know what to ask. So, what we are talking about here is the possibility of trying to show something whilst working within that confused and erratic context."

That quote sums up where this blog is at currently – my contexts (both individual and global) have perhaps never been more confused and erratic.

Finding some hope in the chaos is often like looking for a shell buried among a beach of stones. But it’s still in there, and there is still the possibility of finding it.