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Posts tagged as “Wisdom”

[twenty twenty-four day one six oh]: zero inbox

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Okay, the Nebulas are over, and I should blog about that, and I'm a day or two ahead on drawing, which I should post when I get the website backend fixed, and I'm a day behind on blogging, so I should get caught up on all that.

But I just spent about two hours pursuing, and achieving, zero inbox across all three of my major email accounts, so I am VERY tired, and I am going to crash shortly.

Zero inbox is the discipline of clearing ALL the messages from your inbox - either by handling them, or categorizing them into folders for further action. This means what comes into the inbox in the future can be more quickly dealt with (or more easily unsubscribed from).

Now, I have a LOT of email in the folders I filed - probably hundreds of messages. But I had at least twenty thousand messages built up across all three accounts, most of which were spam, promotions, social media notifications, forum posts, or other notifications which were functionally worthless.

Now, even though there are hundreds of messages to process ... they're just in the hundreds.

And that feels way more doable.

Okay I go crash now.

-the Centaur

Pictured: A blast from the past in the Atlanta Airport (while blog images are still down).

[twenty twenty-four day one two nine]: amaze me

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For some reason the shapes of this countertop remind me of a maze - strange little pathways leading towards a drink. I have a fairly strict one-drink-per-day limit (with the sole outstanding exception to that being that you can have a "nightcap" if you drank your one drink much earlier in the day and aren't driving anywhere, but in practice I have only exercised the "nightcap exception" one or two times in my life).

And I have this limit because, at one point in my life, my father started drinking too much. He never got violent or abusive - he actually just got, well, unpleasantly silly. But, for a period of time, my mother and I had to rush to get chores done and dinner ready because my dad loved Canadian Club, and if he had more than one after he got home, he would dissolve into silliness and be unable to talk to over dinner.

That doesn't sound so bad, but that was the worst period of my youth: several years where I essentially didn't have a dad in the evening. And, according to my late Uncle Boo, it sounds like we were lucky; he recounted a story of Dad, drunk, deciding to pick a fight with a man sitting at the third barstool of his favorite bar, just because. (Though I don't know how much to trust this story, as - God bless them - some of the older generation of the family seemed to love to lie to me for some reason, and I have later found out that many of the stories about the family were either exaggerations or straight-up false).

Alcohol seems to affect me differently than Dad. For one, I don't want so much of it: while I love one strong drink, I almost never want more. On the extraordinarily rare occasions (twice?) that I have more than one, or just if the drink is too strong, it gives me a headache, makes me feel nauseous, makes me feel like shit, or all three. And, two, it doesn't seem to make me silly: it makes me, for the lack of a better word, blurry. I have to pick and choose my words with care, and the headache is sitting there, waiting to drop.

But we're different in another way as well: a drink seems to reduce my anger against the world, rather than enhance it. I can't see myself deciding to attack the person who happens to be sitting at the third stool of a bar, just because they're there. In fact, after a good drink, I find myself critically reassessing my internal mental dialogues rattling around in my head about other people - stopping the tape loops, stepping back, and remembering that everyone around me is a person, not a character in my internal narrative.

This may seem odd to some, but one of the persistent elements of my (social) anxiety disorder is stressing out about real and imagined issues with people around me, near and far, past and present. It was an important part of the therapy I took up during the pandemic to deconstruct those narratives, to stop the catastrophizing about potential failure modes, and to learn to move on with my life.

Cognitive behavior therapy helped with this, up to a point. But, I recently noticed, sometimes the narratives tend to stop after a good drink, replaced by a warm, magnanimous feeling. And that can be useful, either when reviewing a situation you've just been in, or fortifying yourself to go into a new situation, so you can build new positive experiences with the people you interact with.

Now, all that being said, I can't recommend drinking. From a scientific perspective, my understanding is that many of the supposed health benefits of alcohol don't really exist, or are outweighed by the negatives of alcohol. The public health recommendation for it is that if you don't drink, don't start.

And my understanding is that alcoholism develops from a combination of predisposition and exposure to alcohol over time - so I really have to dis-recommend drinking alcohol unless you use a structuring tool like my one-drink-per-day limit.

I like to joke that, if you can get drunk on one drink, then, well, it's a really good drink. But, actually, it is possible to get drunk on one drink - and that's too strong. If you have a strict limit of one drink per day that isn't strong enough to get drunk on, I think it would probably be challenging to develop alcoholism.

And so, while I can't recommend alcohol, I can certainly appreciate it as a tool to help chill out about life.

-the Centaur

Pictured: An Ardbeg scotch, I think BizzareBQ, which, despite the gimmicky name, is peaty and rather nice.

With Unexpected Impact

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Continuing on the forest theme, sometimes you come across a tree that you think is just dead. This is a good time of year for it: the foliage is falling, so you can more clearly see all the trees, but some of them still have leaves, making the ones which are completely barren stand out. Often the bark is black and cracking, or all the small branches have fallen off, leaving just a stick. I've twisted a fair few of these out of the ground with one hand and added them to the growing border that is creating our path.

But others are bigger - the kind that tree experts call "widowmakers". You can walk up to one, and just push on it, and it may start to fall - but you get more than you bargained for. The tree's momentum, once started, cannot be stopped, and its weight - even if rotten - is enough to cause a cascading chain reaction, breaking off healthy limbs and knocking over other trees on its way down. These slender systems, dead but balanced in a semblance of life, crash with unexpected impact, ringing out through the forest as they land.

It may be fun to knock over a system you don't like, but the crash can kill you, and it can do a lot of damage to other people as it falls to rest.

-the Centaur

Pictured: Well, I don't have pictures of the trees that fell over, but I do have vines that I've pulled down, which looked twenty feet long but proved to be fifty feet of falling debris that also could kill you.

Sometimes you gotta draw a line

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Sometimes when working on a vast project it transcends "you can't do it all at once" and moves into the territory "it's hard to know where to get started". One such project is trying to bring the woods in our house under control. Apparently the previous owner's yard folks had been trimming the landscaping around the house and throwing the cuttings into the forest, so an entertaining variety of invasive ivy, grapes, something like holly, and other vine-like things were progressively destroying the trees of the forest.

It's been a process. The yard looked like wilderness once you got past the landscaping and was nearly impassable. But, after we were forced to take out the first of our dying trees (NO, well, full disclosure, a delivery truck took out the FIRST of our trees when it ran into it) when it got consumed by ivy one year and threatened to fall on the driveway, we decided to start the multi-year project of rehabilitating the yard.

We took out that tree, then took out another half-dozen. We hired goats that year to eat the vines down to the ground, then followed up with chainsaws and clippers to sever the roots of the vines climbing the trees. The goats decided they were done with it and didn't eat any new growth that came back up, so the next year, we hired a guy to bring in a "mulcher" (really, a bobcat with a giant grinder on the front of it) to clear out runways through the landscape, leaving islands of greenery for the deer and other animals.

Then, we started on the paths.

Our idea - and I'm not saying it's a good or feasible one - is to have paths running through this forest. This would take way, way more money than we want to spend on it - but we're patient, and have time. So, slowly, step by step, we've been taking fallen tree limbs and creating borders for the paths.

Drawing that line is an act of magic - even if it's just with an old rotten piece of wood thrown onto some leaves. As soon as the line is drawn, you know what's inside it, and what's outside it. You know which plants you can leave alone, and which weeds need to be pulled up. And once you've done that, you have an even larger area of order, which brings increased clarity, which brings more opportunities for order.

I don't know if we will ever complete our plan to rehabilitate the forest.

But at least now, there are paths we can walk.

-the Centaur

When it happens, you gotta get on with getting it gone

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Often as we go through our lives we encounter situations where we feel, "I can't take this." There's a lot of subtle reasoning behind this: our emotions are derived from whether we think we can cope with losses (secondary appraisal), how well we think we're doing in relation to others (relative deprivation) and our disproportionate fear of short-term losses compared to short- or long-term gains (myopic loss aversion).

These are reasonable fears. A sufficiently large short-term loss can kill you. SO it's rational to worry more about those. And we can't see ourselves from the outside; looking at how others are doing around us as a guideline is also reasonable. And we certainly don't want to tackle situations we can't cope with.

But we're often wrong about all of that. We often catastrophize potential failures as being far worse than they are, our comparisons with others can become unhelpful if not pathological - and since we unrealistically distort threats, we often far underestimate our ability to cope with problems.

When real shit happens, it sometimes puts things into perspective. For me, I used to complain that grad school was hard, and it was, but it wasn't as hard as Grandmother breaking her hip after midnight on Christmas Eve. I used to complain that work was hard, and it was, but not as hard as getting the call that you've lost your mother. And preparing for a complex business trip can be hard, and maybe it is, but it is not as hard as discovering that you misread the expiration date on your passport just before flying.

When any of those things happen, you have to stop fretting about it and just get on with doing it. Now, admittedly, some people can break down when that happens, but for me personally, I find that my emotional fretting turns off, and my mind just focuses on what I need to do to get it done.

Case in point: above is a tree.

My wife and I used to walk under the limbs of that tree almost every night that we took a walk. You'll note you can't do that anymore, because the tree started leaning. As best as our tree doctors can figure, many of the trees that the previous owners planted on the property were planted with the transport basket still on the tree; while the tree would remain healthy for a while, eventually the roots get too big to go through the mesh of the basket, the roots turn inward, the tree becomes root-bound, and the whole basket turns into a big ball bearing as the tree gets bigger and bigger ... and unhealthier and unhealthier, preparing to fall.

This one began leaning a month or two back, but we didn't notice it until one day it just was too low to walk under. Shortly thereafter we saw that the tree was beginning to tear up the ground as it twisted in its great ball bearing. We've done this dance before; this isn't the first tree we've lost to this process, or the second.

Now, after I left Google, we deliberately dialed back our work on fixing up the yard - which, due to the year and a half the house sat between owners, needs a lot of work. It's been a juggling act as I spun up my consulting business, and fretting was involved as we traded a goal to fix this broken thing against an aspiration to improve that thing that versus a desire to maintain this other thing. We're blessed to have this nice yard, but at some points, it can feel like we might be more blessed with a small apartment.

But once we started whacking ourselves in the head with that tree limb we used to walk under, we had to focus, make a decision, and get it done. We had to get on with getting it gone, as I said in the title.

It's sad to lose the tree. But, if there's any silver lining in that, it feels good to know you can solve a problem when you need to. And I find focusing on that is really helpful, because the next time something happens, you can remember times you solved those problems, and use that emotional resource to solve the next one.

-the Centaur

[twenty-six] minus twenty-two: found it

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In the "beyond the last place you'd look for it" department, I found my wife's laptop. It disappeared during her last trip to renovate the old house, and she could not find it, any place she looked. I couldn't find it either, until we had to re-do the floors and I had to move everything out of all the side rooms. Before I put everything back, I staged it into another room and started methodically going through every box. No dice. But then, while moving some of the spare suitcases we'd left here, I noticed one of them was strangely heavy. Huh. What's this I feel in here? Could it be ... a laptop?

So it turns out my wife apparently had used the above small suitcase to transport her laptop and all of its accoutrements (charger, case, etc) but ... perhaps forgot that's where she put it, in all the chaos of moving things from room A to B to paint stuff, only to move it from B to C to fix things, then from C back to A again. Regardless, it was in the wrong room, with the empty suitcases, so it doesn't surprise me that it was hard to find. But I found it ... by methodically searching every place, whether it made sense or not.

Blogging every day.

-the Centaur

do, or do not. there is no blog

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One reason blogging suffers for me is that I always prioritize doing over blogging. That sounds cool and all, but it's actually just another excuse. There's always something more important than doing your laundry ... until you run out of underwear. Blogging has no such hard failure mode, so it's even easier to fall out of the habit. But the reality is, just like laundry, if you set aside a little time for it, you can stay ahead - and you'll feel much healthier and more comfortable if you do.

-the Centaur

Pictured: "Now That's A Steak Burger", a 1-pound monster from Willard Hicks, where I took a break from my million other tasks to catch up on Plans and the Structure of Behavior, the book that introduced idea of the test-operate-test-exit (TOTE) loop as a means for organizing behavior, a device I'm finding useful as I delve into the new field of large language model planning.

[twelve] plus eight, OR: don’t skip a day, or you’ll be sorry

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Yeah. The microblogging will continue until the posting rate reaches 1/day.

I feel that one problem I have with "daily blogging" is that quick posts are no problem. But if I have a longer idea - but can't finish it in time - I then forget to do a shorter post to make up for it.

And missing a post itself is a problem. What I find when trying to build a regular practice (daily blogging, taking karate twice a week, whatever) is that if you skip one time, even for a "really good reason", then mysteriously the next two or three times you'll HAVE to skip for "unavoidable" reasons.

In this, case in point, I started writing a longer article on debugging software. There was more to it than I expected - I had wanted to make an off-the-cuff comment, and found my thoughts rapidly expanding - and then the next day I was flying, and the next day catching up on work, and the next day owed my part of the annual report to the church board, and so on. And then its DAYS later and boom no posts. I think at this point I am 8 behind in numbered posts, though there were a few un-numbered ones which I would count, except, if I don't, it makes the problem harder, which helps build the discipline I'm trying to build.

SO! Let's get back on that horse then. Update metadata, hit publish.

-the Centaur

Pictured: my evening work ritual, 2-3 times a week when I'm not having dinner with my wife, is to go to some place to eat (preferably one with a bar or high top tables, so I can stretch out my bum knee), crack open a book, and read a chunk of a chapter while having a nice meal. Most of my books get read this way.

Information Hygiene

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Our world is big. Big, and complicated, filled with many more things than any one person can know. We rely on each other to find out things beyond our individual capacities and to share them so we can succeed as a species: there's water over the next hill, hard red berries are poisonous, and the man in the trading village called Honest Sam is not to be trusted.

To survive, we must constantly take information, just as we must eat to live. But just like eating, consuming information indiscriminately can make us sick. Even when we eat good food, we must clean our teeth and got to the bathroom - and bad food should be avoided. In the same way, we have to digest information to make it useful, we need to discard information that's no longer relevant, and we need to avoid misinformation so we don't pick up false beliefs. We need habits of information hygiene.

Whenever you listen to someone, you absorb some of their thought process and make it your own. You can't help it: that the purpose of language, and that's what understanding someone means. The downside is your brain is a mess of different overlapping modules all working together, and not all of them can distinguish between what's logically true and false. This means learning about the beliefs of someone you violently disagree with can make you start to believe in them, even if you consciously think they're wrong. One acquaintance I knew started studying a religion with the intent of exposing it. He thought it was a cult, and his opinion about that never changed. But at one point, he found himself starting to believe what he read, even though, then and now, he found their beliefs logically ridiculous.

This doesn't mean we need to shut out information from people we disagree with - but it does mean we can't uncritically accept information from people we agree with. You are the easiest person for yourself to fool: we have a cognitive flaw called confirmation bias which makes us more willing to accept information that confirms our prior beliefs rather than ones that deny it. Another flaw called cognitive dissonance makes us want to actively resolve conflicts between our beliefs and new information, leading to a rush of relief when they are reconciled; combined with confirmation bias, people's beliefs can actually be strengthened by contradictory information.

So, as an exercise in information hygiene for those involved in one of those charged political conversations that dominate our modern landscape, try this. Take one piece of information that you've gotten from a trusted source, and ask yourself: how might this be wrong? Take one piece of information from an untrusted source, and ask yourself, how might this be right? Then take it one step further: research those chinks in your armor, or those sparks of light in your opponent's darkness, and see if you can find evidence pro or con. Try to keep an open mind: no-one's asking you to actually change your mind, just to see if you can tell whether the situation is actually as black and white as you thought.

-the Centaur

Pictured: the book pile, containing some books I'm reading to answer a skeptical friend's questions, and other books for my own interest.

Back to the Cone of Shame

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Well, Gabby had his stitches out and his collar off for all of twelve hours before we were back in the emergency room. He was cleared for activity, but then re-opened the wound. The lesson: I should have said something. I knew we were taking the stitches out and returning him to activity too soon; they doctor gave us a window of 10-14 days, but the technician scheduled us for a 10-day return. That day, I was a bit iffy about the stitches, but they went ahead and removed them. I clarified: is he ready for activity? Can he go out? They said yes. Well, they were wrong, and I should have said something at the day of the original appointment scheduling, at least putting it off until Monday. Failing that, I should have said something before the stitches came out. Failing that, I should have used my own discretion and left the collar on for a few more days. Failing that, I failed my cat. The late-night emergency doc didn't think the cut had reopened the underlying wound and that it didn't warrant stitches ... but it looks worse today. I kept him inside overnight and today; let's see how he's doing and whether I should exercise my discretion and take him back in. -the Centaur Pictured: Cancer cat, abscess cat, aka Lenora and Gabby.