5311 words

Springtime in lockdown

One of the strange things about growing up in California is that seasons never seemed to be clearly defined in the traditional sense of having four distinct stages. Rather, there is the warm and dry part of the year, when the grass on the hills is a golden yellow, and the cooler wetter part of the year, when it's replaced by green. Except during severe droughts, when the green season remains partly golden yellow. I largely missed out on the colors of leaves changing in autumn - apart from very fond memories of classroom crafts and decorations, primarily in the run-up to Halloween and Thanksgiving. The experience of flowers blooming in springtime was also slightly lost on me - these things seemed to happen haphazardly, while some plants seemed to remain in bloom for most of the summer. On my first trip to the midwest in November, my first thought at seeing the barren trees as my plane made its final approach, was that there must have either been a severe drought or a wildfire. The effects of seasons on California oaks were never so severe; winter had always just seemed like an excuse for the sun to call it a day earlier.

In grad school, there was one tree that did seem to take notice of the changing seasons. The campus shuttle's route went right by it, standing in Revelle College at the south end of campus, in a lawn set apart from the eucalyptus trees. In spring and summer, the tree's rounded crown was a verdant green, and in autumn and winter, the leaves would turn a brilliant yellow before falling to the ground. This tree was a symbolic marker of my progression toward my degree, as a frequent lack of clear deliverables or milestones often made time appear to stand still.

I didn't fully appreciate springtime until I moved to London. The move brought about my first real winter experience: my office got dark before 3pm, I finally understood (and embraced) the concept of the gloaming, and I experienced SAD. Then, daffodils began to appear, and crocuses, and other flowers. It was an amazing experience - and something that gets repeated whenever we have a less-than-mild winter.

We're a bit beyond that stage now, but spring still brings some magic and a sensation of time's passage when everything else remains largely the same. Outside my balcony, there's a tree that has been a bit overwhelmed by wisteria. Right now, the leaves are mostly the tree's, while the wisteria has just started to bloom. I just missed getting good pictures of last year's bloom, but I should be around this time!

I took advantage of the warming weather and ordered some new bonsai (my Chinese elm succumbed to a combination of overly damp soil and lack of watering while I was in Japan). The most impressive, a buxus harlandii yamadori, is already looking at home. I've been adjusting a dwarf cherry to its container, working it slowly toward a better draining substrate. I also started a number of project bonsai. One is a little Japanese maple in a tiny container with mounded soil and moss over the root. It's happily putting out new leaves. I have a trio of Japanese maples in a larger container as a forest planting, and they too have begun to develop leaves. I also did a forest planting of tsuga, which were rootbound in their planters' pots, but largely seem to be adapting fine, and some miniature plums, in an early 20th-century carved figurative stone carving. These have all developed new growth since I arranged them a week ago. I've also added some air plants and have bamboo on the way!

Thoughts on Workflow

Different processes work for different people and at different times.

Old Research Workflow Tools
OneNote - I used this in grad school with local notebooks, and briefly more recently with local notebooks synced through a third-party cloud service. It's not a bad piece of software, but I dislike its need to hook into Microsoft services (a constant annoyance with Windows).
Evernote - I used this for a year or so before the program's inability to competently handle a wide range of basic tasks and the seeming unwillingness to fix long-standing flaws (like tables and italics) in favor of merchandising and the pursuit of novelty drove me away. The lack of robust built-in privacy/security options was another persistent annoyance.
Nimbus Note - An interesting and very good Evernote alternative, but I never quite got comfortable with the UI. It looks like it's changed since then. Very friendly people here.
Notebooks - I think this is a single-person operation that saves notes as html files. It's fast and lightweight, and the developer is helpful and friendly. I still use this one for musical composition notes (not the actual notation).
.docx/.txt files - Simple, but more work to keep organized and less elegant for someone who doesn't typically keep a hundred browser or application tabs open at once.
Wunderlist - This was a great little app until it was bought by Microsoft. I exported my data and deleted my account the moment I saw the sale announcement. Of course, Microsoft then killed the product off anyway.

Current Workflow Tools
Standard Notes - Notes application with end-to-end encryption. It doesn't have the widest range of functionality, but what it does is executed extremely well. Friendly small developer team too!
Todoist - I used to use this and it's returned.

My Typical Process for a New Research Project
I first assess the state of the literature if I'm not already familiar with it. Key points are saved in a Standard Notes page and pdfs of important or useful papers are saved on SpiderOak.
I then write up something like an abstract to build a greater sense of direction for the project. This also helps me highlight specific issues that will need further attention. These are noted in Todoist.
If the potential project is still feasible, interesting, and potentially valuable, I make an entry in my research pipeline (.docx file) with two or three target venues.
At this point, I usually have a Word document with the abstract and a potential title. All files are organized into a project folder in SpiderOak.
Data-cleaning code is kept in one text file, while analytical code is kept in another. Data-intensive projects will often involve multiple files for different data-cleaning tasks and sets of models and figures. I tend to start things in Notepad++, but once I move beyond two or three code files, I create a project in Sublime Text and work from there.
Long-form notes are kept in Standard Notes until I have enough written that whatever notes are left are turned into comments in the document file itself. Any tasks are listed in Todoist so I don't have to remember them myself.

London lockdown so far

The news relating to COVID-19 in the UK just doesn't stop, swirling and swirling about like some sort of never-ending spin cycle. It goes beyond the media coverage - NHS frontline staff being denied tests and then displaying symptoms, Tube station closures, fiscal and monetary stimulus (but too little in the former's case), the question of a universal basic income, the potential for a harder London lockdown (and finally, a long overdue announcement on that today for the entire country). It comes at work, where we have a daily COVID news bulletin focusing on campus-related issues, the ongoing efforts to continue teaching (online) and providing support for students for whome the year has been suddenly and unimaginably interrupted. Stock markets are down to levels we haven't seen in years. We're definitely in a recession (and I feel a bit bad for accurately predicting this one, because I didn't call 'pandemic' as the cause).

Taken in that context, everything seems daunting and anxiety-inducing. But taken from another point of view, things aren't so bad at all. I don't have to go into work physically, which means I can offer a wider range of office hours, even if students don't take me up on that. I get to stay home every day instead of manufacturing excuses to not go into work, although coming off a long cold does make it a bit harder to see that as a positive. But as part of the lockdown, we get to visit Kim's mom to make sure she's healthy and behaving. The change of scenery is welcome, and fortunately, her dad is already back in Singapore, getting his own version of quarantine, in what is hopefully a healthier environment. Taking him to the airport, I couldn't imagine how (predominantly white) Londoners interpreted the less stringent lockdown calls: go to the park and mingle with everyone else in sight. In retrospect, that shouldn't have been so shocking, even after I'd already pretty much been self-isolating for most of two weeks; after all, this is the same country that blithely ignored the experts on Brexit, so why wouldn't they ignore experts on a pandemic and public-health crisis?

Working from home so far has been far more intense than when I go to campus to teach. Lectures need to be updated and recorded, meaning prep takes three times as long, while seminars have to be adjusted for interactive online delivery, which still comes across as more awkward than anything else. On top of this, office hours are done online, and dissertation supervisions are being mandated at the same time. My students themselves generally seem unable or unwilling to figure out the new technological platforms without handholding, and dissertation students are mostly incapable of distinguishing their half-hour meetings from my much shorter office-hour appointments (they're on the same page!).

Once teaching is done for the term, I expect things to improve. I'll still have about half of my dissertation students to meet in April, and will be holding (fewer) office hours, but that will leave time for research and other things with less immediate deadlines.

Quitting bookface, one year on

I quit Facebook (what I've called bookface for ages) at the end of 2018. I'd announced it to my contacts there about a month in advance, but apparently people either thought I was joking or didn't see the post thanks to bookface's feed algorithm. The experience itself has been quite interesting. I'd slowly weaned myself of checking in on the site over a month or so prior to deleting my account, so it wasn't like I was going cold turkey. The best part has been the way I've freed myself from a lot of potentially toxic interactions. Aggressively blocking and unfriending people helped to an extent with this issue, but didn't fix things like disappearing entirely. Social media's effect on mental health has been in the media quite a bit over the past few months, and I have to admit that mine improved since I quit. Maybe not for the expected reasons though - it wasn't the fear of missing out on everyone else's experiences that caused a problem, so much as the fear of bookface misusing my personal information, as it's had a habit of doing on a mass basis.

What's changed since then? I now have a much smaller social circle. A lot of people seem to have forgotten that I exist now that I'm no longer a click away on bookface, for better or worse. I'm still on Linkedin, email, and a wide range of chat apps, but I never realized exactly how much most people have built their communications around bookface's offerings. Probably because I never really bought into them myself. A smaller social circle isn't a bad thing. I haven't had much luck making meaningful friends on my own in the UK, and this prevents the awkward bookfaceconnectionwithsomeone with whom I no longer wish to interact. It also means that the relationships I maintain are more actively maintained: there's no more passive reliance on posts and likes, but actual interactions. This is something I longed for with bookface, and while I wish I could have these sorts of interactions and relationships with more people, particularly those who have played a meaningful role in my life in the past, having a few good friends keeps things from becoming overwhelming. I can't say I don't have regrets though - there are several people with whom I am no longer in touch, whose perspectives on life remain valuable to me, and I suspect will continue to do so far into the future.

A bit of housekeeping

I noticed it's been about a year since I've written anything here. That's been for a number of reasons. For the most part, I've never quite been sure of what to make of this platform. How does it complement the blogging features of my personal website? And until very recently (as in, today), I also did not grasp the flexibility or customizability of Listed.to. I think the most similar platform I found to Listed.to was Write.as, which does not appear to be under active development.

Anyhow, it's fairly simple to customize the look of this thing with a CSS note. I haven't done anything fancy, just hidden post text on the main page and customized some colors. I'll probably adjust the font next, but there's no rush.

My intent moving forward is to treat this more as an open journal than anything else. Obviously, very private thoughts are kept private. Without search indexing or public listing on Listed.to, I'm guessing any audience here would be friends or family. For stuff I don't mind going super public - like students, colleagues, and journalists reading - I'll use the blog function on my website, although those posts will be primarily related to work. Or wine, if I get back into the habit of regularly taking tasting notes and putting them into my phone or computer. That reminds me, I've got some good notes from a few Japanese wineries to add...

I'll probably crosspost some of the personal and wine-related topics here. Other posts are likely to range from a collection of thoughts on a particular subject to lists of things. Setting and updating post dates is a simple feature. So are emailing subscribers and publishing private posts that don't appear on the blog itself!

Anyhow, onward and upward!

Cure for Pain

'I feel sorry for him,' my mom commented as we pulled into a spot in the parking structure for my grad-school apartment. We'd spent most of the day driving around San Diego county - I don't remember exactly what we'd seen that day - and my playlist was malfunctioning, playing Jon Foreman's 'The Cure for Pain' what seemed like every three tracks. I can't recall exactly what the previously-played song had been, but it ended on a high note and I made a joke about it, pointing out that, according to the lyrics, things worked out in the end. I think it was something by Bob Dylan, so it involved some long and convoluted story. Mom persisted, pointing out that in Jon's song, things didn't lead to a clean resolution: he was depressed about something and there was no end in sight. There was unsolved pain. I knew what she meant, but I didn't want to admit it, because the song spoke to me for reasons I was unwilling to admit.

Cure for Pain - Jon Foreman

*I'm not sure why it always goes downhill
Why broken cisterns never could stay filled
I've spent ten years singing gravity away
But the water keeps on falling from the sky

*And here tonight while the stars are blacking out
With every hope and dream I've ever had in doubt
I've spent ten years trying to sing these doubts away
But the water keeps on falling from my eyes

*And heaven knows... heaven knows
I tried to find a cure for the pain
Oh my Lord, to suffer like you do...
It would be a lie to run away

*So blood is fire pulsing through our veins
We're either riders, or fools behind the reins
I've spent ten years trying to sing it all away
But the water keeps on falling from my tries

*And heaven knows... heaven knows
I tried to find a cure for the pain
Oh my Lord, to suffer like you do...
It would be a lie to run away
A lie to run
It would be a lie
It would be a lie to run away

*It keeps on falling
It keeps on falling
It keeps on falling
It keeps on falling
The water keeps on falling from my eyes

And heaven knows... heaven knows
I tried to find a cure for the pain
Oh my Lord, to suffer like you do...
It would be a lie to run away
It would be a lie to run away
It would be a lie to run away

The lyrics express vivid grief and hurt; there is no escape, no victory. For much of grad school (as well as at least half of undergrad and part of high school), I struggled with dysthymia (persistent depressive disorder, according to the DSM-5). At some points, this was simply due to a lack of sleep; in others, relationship breakdowns or the feeling that I wasn't going anywhere and might never do so. From the moment I discovered this song, up until my final year or two of grad school, its hopelessness seemed to define my state of mind. Much more recently, these lyrics have spoken to me from the perspective of grief and loss.

In high school, I developed a particular appreciation for the thirteenth Psalm. This is a lament; it is noteworthy for its brevity at six verses and just over 100 words in most English-language translations. It is also notable for the change in tone, from one of despair to one of hope: Verses one and two speak of separation, despair, grief, desolation; Verses three and four shift to demands, an expectation the the Lord will respond favorably; the final two verses carry a tone of hope, triumph and confidence. The enemy, literal or figurative, has been vanquished. For those of us who have emerged from our battle victorious, it speaks of our victory; for those of us who have yet to emerge from the battlefield, it provides the hope that things will improve, that we will emerge unscathed, or stronger for our wounds. As Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, we are more than conquerors!

Psalm 13, NIV
How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Look on me and answer, LORD my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
And my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the LORD’s praise, for he has been good to me.

As I've dealt with grief in its many and varied forms since my mom passed away four years ago, both of these songs have provided comfort. The sheer despair in Cure for Pain acknowledged the depth of my loss while Psalm 13 reminded me of the hope I have in Christ (of which my mom would have been quick to remind me) and the promise that things will improve.

And where am I now, on the fourth anniversary of Mom's death? It's a daily battle. The focus on mental health as a result of CBT, ACT, and mindfulness therapies has given me an opportunity to step back from daily routines and demands to reflect on things. Sometimes that helps, sometimes it doesn't, even after so many years. And Psalm 13? It never fails to provide at least a little comfort.

28 February 2019

February hates me.

Three years and three days ago, my mother passed away. And the most salient lesson I learned was that in Britain, friends are the people who kinda stick with you in the good times only to totally and completely desert you in the bad. Since pretty much all of my British friends were from an Anglican evangelical church, and I've seen the same pattern before - several times - maybe the same also holds true for evangelical Christians. I vividly remember trying to teach one last class as I knew the end was near, while Kim arranged flights, then breaking down in front of a couple of colleagues, and the chat with the head of department in the leafy square outside the office. And then the bad news arriving at the gate in Heathrow, the long flight back, and then the car ride to my childhood home. My dog waiting forever by the door for her best friend to come home. The funeral - torn between joy at seeing so many family friends and the stark realization that Mom was really gone. For at least a year, I was haunted by dreams of Mom, in the latter stages of her illness, and needing to convey some message of utmost importance, but knowing that her chemotherapy had ravaged her mind to the extent to where she couldn't comprehend. At some point, though, the dreams changed, to happier circumstances, and Mom in better health.

A year ago today I nearly killed myself. I can't recall much of my thought processes leading up to the event or really much of the several months - year? - prior. I stopped feeling - joy, peace, happiness, pain. I guess it was a combination of increased administrative and student-welfare duties for which I was never trained or prepared, with a deterioration of administrative support over two years, along with unresolved bereavement. All I recall of the day is feeling a bit annoyed that I wore my Tudor Black Bay instead of my favorite watch, the Slim d'Hermes, and realizing I'd need to remove it before slitting my wrists. The only reason I didn't was that my office mate walked in unexpectedly because he had a meeting with a student I knew. The seminars I taught that evening were completely unreal. I recall bits and pieces of the aftermath. The most vivid memories are of the side effects of the antidepressants as I adjusted to them. The perhaps perverse joy I felt in response to the memory loss, nausea, headaches, dizziness, and other problems just meant to me that I could feel things again. It was like making the transition from black and white photography to color, or from silent film to talkies.

Much of the year since has been one of self-realization and self-discovery. I've worked hard to find a better work-life balance. The end of my administrative term helped, as has sabbatical, and I've been able to focus more clearly on the things that matter for my career. Outside of work, I've rediscovered hobbies and passions that had fallen by the wayside. My mood has steadily improved and its volatility has diminished. Here's to hoping this trend continues throughout 2019.

Quitting Bookface

I quit bookface at the end of last year. I posted a message on my wall, but it seems that bookface has become such an embedded part of life that the most common reaction was that it was a joke. I'm guessing it also didn't get much visibility because I deleted most of my network during the 2016 US presidential campaign to get away from the Trump lovers and Bernie bros; one notable component of bookface's feed algorithm is that it doesn't seem to weight social ties in anyway. Consequently, the more Facebook friends one has, the more interactions posts receive, and the more likely they are to appear in feeds with little scrolling. Conversely, I also noticed that when I substantially cut down my friend list, my feed became dominated by posts from people with lots of friends.

Media coverage of bookface and other social-media giants often focuses on their network effects. We stay registered and active because many of our friends are as well. What's likely far more important for user retention is what we call the power of weak ties. Close friends and family with whom you frequently interact are less likely to keep you on a platform because you'll typically have multiple means of communication; it is those to whom you are less close - the 'weak ties' - who keep you tied to any specific platform. Over the last few years, I removed just about all of the weak ties in my bookface network.

In truth, it was just a matter of time before the negative aspects of the bookface experience outweighed the positives. The pervasive data collection and advertising had been a concern for years, but could be minimized through careful management of interactions with the bookface ecosystem and a handful of general tools (Adblock/uBlock, NoScript, DNSCrypt, etc.). SocialFixer and later FB Purity made the web UI usable, but over the past year or so, page loading had begun to drag on and on. Without these tools, the UI looks like it was designed by a braindead skunk, even after it loads. Over the past year or two, this has only worsened, with the pushing of Messenger for all mobile messaging and the pushing of Stories necessitating multiple clicks just to update your wall.

One thing I noticed in particular about using bookface was that it encourages laziness in maintaining relationships. It's easier to send a vague like/thumbs-up click to someone than actually ask how they are. In my experience, this was especially apparent after going through a couple of difficult years. Probably the most important personal aspect of my motivation to quit bookface is that I want to do a better job of actively keeping in touch with people I care about. While this involves moving forward from an incredibly problematic platform for mass communication, I anticipate the more meaningful relationships will thrive.

Captain Haddock

Apparently Loch Lommond wasn't always the whisky brand for Captain Haddock. It's interesting that the actual Loch Lommond distillery opened at the same time as the name change in the Tintin books. I was really excited when I first discovered Loch Lommond, but it was a disappointment to learn that there wasn't any intentional overlap between the two!

New Cello!

Trying this out as a blogging/journaling platform...

My new cello arrived today! Crafted by Wang Zhiguo this year from nicely figured 20+ year-old Bosnian maple for the back and sides and 200 year-old Chinese spruce for the top. The spruce came from beams that were part of a Qing dynasty home in Beijing that was demolished in preparation for the Beijing Olympics.