the corner office

a blog, by Colin Pretorius

9 Months Later

I'd sort of forgotten that I had a blog. I'd written up a few more posts at the beginning of the year, but never did the final edit-and-publish. They're up, now. Beyond that, it's just been a busy year of studying and doing things. And of course, COVID-19.

We weathered the initial lockdown, and the madness of March and April. Shortages, stockpiling and kids going stir crazy.

I must admit to having a bit of a first-world freak-out as it became apparent that we wouldn't be getting a home delivery any time soon, and I eyed our toilet roll supply with increasing alarm. But I gave myself a bit of a talking to, reminding myself that my ancestors had gotten by for a very long time with alternative technologies, as it were. And in the end, some friends shared a spare pack with us, and we shared with our neighbours, and then we had a grocery delivery, and nobody had to resort to flannels or sea shells.

In other ways, we did actually have shortages. Our eldest has shouldered off "you're drinking too much milk" admonitions for ages and ages. Apparently suggesting we make him pay for excessive milk consumption out of his pocket money makes me a Grumpy Dad. Until one day, early in the lockdown, he polished off the milk, and we had to say "sorry son, there hasn't been any milk in the shops recently, and there's not likely to be for a few more days". It was a shock for him - his first introduction to Scarcity. And for at least a few weeks after milk supplies returned to normal, he allowed himself no more than a thimbleful a day, even after we told him it was fine, and that milk shortages were unlikely to return. Milk quaffing has since returned mostly to normal, but a "please go gentle on the milk, we're running low" is now taken a little more seriously.

I've continued to work from home - mostly. I go into the office once a week. Ironically, the things I liked least about my commute before are now less of an issue. Walking through the West End no longer entails elbowing your way through hordes of selfie-taking tourists (it's now the occasional tourist looking lost, and a good few boarded up shops and restaurants). The trains and tube are also still really quiet, at least on my route. I've invented a new sport for myself, called 'tube surfing'. The idea is to stand in the open area of the carriage and try to do the entire journey without leaning against or touching anything. Extra marks if you do it with your hands in your pockets.

What else is there to say? The world's turned upside down, and even with vaccines looming, what will 'normal' be like in years to come? I'm grateful we're doing OK, so far. I know many people aren't.

{2020.12.02 19:20}

COVID-19

It says something about my news ignorance that when I saw the Sky News headlines at Charing Cross saying that Nadine Dorries had Coronavirus, my first reaction was "Nadine Dorries is the health minister!?"

The world has changed. I first noticed it on Wednesday morning - the Tube was quieter than normal. Walking to the train station on Wednesday night after lectures, the West End was quiet. Not a ghost town, but quieter than I'd ever seen it.

By Thursday, a person coughing on the train drew nervous glances from everyone around.

We had mixed messages coming from the university: first, an email saying one lecturer at the university had shown symptoms after a visit to Italy, the classes and people possibly affected had been traced and contacted. One email said students should stay at home if they wanted, but another said official government advice was that it was business as usual and lectures were still being held. But tonight at lectures, about 8 of us showed up, and just before the lecture started, the university announced that from next week, face to face lectures are all cancelled.

The West End was even quieter tonight. Surreal.

Most surreal of all - myself and most of my colleagues left the office yesterday afternoon for the last time in who knows how long - we're working from home indefinitely.

{2020.03.13 22:19}

Snow Report 2020

My annual tradition. I thought this year's snow report would end up being "there hasn't been any," but no. On Thursday I was treated to a marvellous five minutes of seeing snow flakes falling past my window at work. That, I've assumed, is it for the year.

Worth mentioning that this has been another winter of storms. I've lost track of the names and how far up the alphabet we've gotten. It started with some nasty ones, by which I mean 60mph gusts blowing things around the garden and flattening the occasional fence in the neighbourhood. During one recent storm we sat in the dark in the lounge one evening with the curtains open, watching the near-horizontal rain under the streetlamps and the trees blowing wildly. It was quite something.

Since then it's mostly degenerated into rain and heavy wind every few days. It's not snow, but it's at least interesting weather, which is better than nothing.

{2020.02.29 14:07}

John Wick Chapter 3: a review in two lines

They excommunicated him so he shot them in the face or kicked them in the nads, if the dogs didn't get there first. Not as entertaining as the first two.

(Previously. I'd thought I'd done a similar review for John Wick 2 which we saw sometime between the first and this one, and was pretty much the same: shooting people in the face for some reason I've long since forgotten)

{2020.02.15 21:23}

Student

Something which happened over the past six months, is that I've become a (part time) student again. I enrolled for an MSc in Applied Statistics at Birkbeck, because as I used to say during my earlier studying days, having free time is highly overrated.

Actually, this comes just over 10 years after the start of my previous foray into the world of studenting, and is both a continuation of what I was doing, and in some sense, taking care of unfinished business. Life, work and everything else back then meant that most of my studies were a stressed-out blur, and while I graduated and got the piece of paper, I never got what I'd really wanted from the experience. This time around, the hope is that things will go differently. With life, work and everything else now being a bit more amenable to it all, I'm also trying to avoid some of the mistakes I made before.

Still, it's a lot of work. I intend to write very little about it because, well, I'm too damned busy.

{2020.01.25 20:45}

Digital Minimalism - 6 Months On

I started my digital declutter almost 6 months ago... and after months of me writing about nothing else, it's time for me to wrap things up and move on.

I'm wary of now calling myself a 'digital minimalist' because 1. it sounds pretentious and 2. I don't know how minimalist I really am. Safer to just say that I read the book, to my own surprise actually started doing the digital declutter recommended by the book, and having ended up changing quite a few of my habits, and I'm rather happy that I did.

My main goals for doing it were to boost my productivity, and to get away from some of the more negative parts of online life. Things are better (but not perfect) on the productivity front, and much, much better on the negativity of online life part.

Six months on:

  • I still don't follow the news and have no urge to find out what's going on the world. I still think this has been the biggest boost to my productivity and general mood.

  • I've visited Facebook about 3 times. Every time I do, I'm reminded why my life is better off without it being a regular feature. I wouldn't go as far as closing my account, and I'm interested in what at least some people are up to. Having not yet figured out how best to use it, I mostly just don't use it at all.

  • I no longer follow politics/economics blogs. I do miss some of the interesting things I used to read (especially non-political), but it's mostly too close to the news and current affairs, and generally not relevant to things I'm more interested in.

  • I spend less time with my phone at hand and I enjoy being free of the reaching-for-my-phone compulsiveness I used to have, and still see in many other people.

  • The boredom/solitude/being alone with your thoughts aspect of the experience has been rewarding and has become something of a renewed interest for me.

There are two areas where things could be better:

  • I still end up going down online rabbit holes. It happens far less frequently than before, but my attempts to manage it via "operating procedures" aren't always successful. I'm in a slightly dangerous limbo where it's infrequent enough that I don't think it's a huge problem, but would be happy for it to not be a problem at all.

  • With the exception of writing more by hand, I've not yet resolved the "do more physical things" versus "not fun" conflict. This is partly because I have very little free time these days, and perhaps I'd do more physical things if that weren't the case. Either way, my DIY list is as long as ever.

And with that, it's time for me to stop talking about Digital Minimalism. Onwards.

{2020.01.06 14:24}

Back To Paper

While I didn't do much in terms of 'going analog', one way in which I did, was by switching back to keeping a paper diary.

I've kept a diary, off and on, since high school. I started an electronic diary (using my blog software) in 2006, and in recent years it's been a regular part of my life. I use it as a (sometimes mundane) record of what I've been up to, but also a place for career and life thoughts, and everything in between.

I've also kept a far less frequently visited paper diary, in which I'd write every few months, and in some cases, years. I think it started with me wanting to get all angsty at some point while studying at my desk, without my laptop at hand, and writing something in an old notebook. It became a diary-away-from-diary where I could reflect on things a bit more, and get more perspective by seeing things spaced further apart than the day to day entries of my main diary.

(One could split hairs about the former being a diary and latter being a journal, but I won't; both had elements of both at times, and I called them both diaries and had no time or need for such pedantry until I started writing this blog post. I digress.)

Point being, the bulk of my diary-writing happened electronically, and was a regular habit. As part of the declutter, thinking about avoiding electronic devices and trying to do more physical things, I asked myself whether the time spent typing at a keyboard mightn't be switched to time spent using pen and paper? I was ambivalent at first, but about a week into my declutter, I took the plunge and switched to my paper diary, exclusively.

I was worried about switching away from electronic diary-keeping for two reasons. The first was searchability - it's going to be a looong time before software can decipher my scribbling. The second reason is that electronic diaries are easily backed up and far more immune to fire and floods. I could scan the paper diaries, but it's a hassle, which is why 'scan old paper diaries' has languished untouched on my TODO list for years.

On the other hand, there were good reasons to switch to paper-writing. I knew that I sometimes rambled on too much and the immediate productivity change was - I hoped - that the impedance of writing by hand would keep me more focused so that I spent less time doing it. Beyond that, I was curious about the idea that without being able to use a text editor, and without the write/edit/write/edit cycle that typified my diary-keeping (and blog-writing), I'd be more inclined to think ahead, and better structure my thoughts.

(I'd recently read an article about the famous - and sometimes famously cranky - Computer Science pioneer Edsger Dijkstra, who insisted that his students submit hand-written assignments: his belief was that the number of corrections in students' writing was a sign of how not well thought through their ideas were.)

Finally, it was one way to be more analog, and try to get some of the touted benefits of doing physical things, that didn't require me trudging through the long and un-thrilling list of DIY projects I need to do at home.

When it came to the end of my declutter, I was still undecided. I wasn't sure whether to wrap it all up and go back to the electronic diary, or to stick with pen and paper. I decided that since I was mostly undecided, I may as well just keep writing by hand.

A few months later, and I'm glad I did. I'm not sure that I've really saved much time relative to my old keyboard-based diarising, or whether my diary entries are any more structured or better thought out than they were as text files, but I've come to enjoy it, and the practice of writing. It is, in one small way, a case where a physical activity has supplanted and is more satisfying than its electronic equivalent. Scanning the old (and new) paper diaries should probably more of a priority, again.

{2019.12.01 22:00}

On Leisure

Another chapter of Digital Minimalism which gave me food for thought was the one on reclaiming leisure. The gist of this chapter is "ok, you're not spending all night on Netflix or Twitter, now what?" Unsurprisingly, Newport favours and pushes pretty hard on physical hobbies and activities (especially doing/making/fixing things) as a form of what he calls high-quality leisure. This got me thinking about my physical hobbies of the past - drawing, guitar, etc etc etc, all of which lost out as I became an adult with a PC, and pretty much died completely when I got online in the 90s.

On the other hand, I hate DIY with a passion, and had a hard time squaring that with the book saying "fix stuff, you'll feel better for it." I wasn't sure whether I'd become a full convert but armed with my 'attitude matters' mantra, it was enough for me to consider re-evaluating my views, or at least be more open-minded about it.

I wouldn't say that I succeeded much. The problem is, a lot of this stuff I see as work, not leisure. To me, working on a pet programming project, is leisure. Studying something interesting, is leisure. Playing Minecraft or Snakes and Ladders with my sons, is leisure. Writing a blog post is leisure. Fixing a broken curtain rail, is not leisure.

But maybe it is? What is leisure? Is it "doing things I think are fun?" The OED says "use of free time for enjoyment" - I like that definition the most. No amount of positive attitude is going to turn curtain rail fixing into "enjoyment" for me. Maybe a better definition would be "things which make me feel rested and less stressed," which might allow for a sense of satisfaction or accomplishment, having repaired said curtain rail.

This is probably closer to what the book is aiming at. A lot of emphasis is given to the idea of high quality leisure, of which making or fixing things, of crafting and handiness being rewarding and satisfying, is only one aspect. The bigger idea is that that you get a lot more from your leisure time if you're exerting or pushing yourself in some way. Favour demanding activity over passive consumption is one of the lessons from the chapter. This sounds counterintuitive, but doing nothing is overrated, is how I think the book puts it.

No arguments from me on the passive consumption front; I'm hardly a couch potato. The two problems remain: first, the demanding things I enjoy doing most tend to involve a computer screen, and second, curtain rail repairs aren't fun. I haven't done a great deal on the screenless leisure front, but I did try to think of ways to be more 'analog,' and I'll write about one thing I did in particular, separately.

{2019.11.17 22:01}

On Giving Up The News

As a younger adult I was generally unaware of current affairs. I never read the news and had no inclination to. Sure, I'd see headlines and sometimes see the news on TV or hear it on the radio, but for me it was unimportant, and mostly ignored. I can't say I was engaged in nobler pursuits or anything, but the point is that whatever was going on in the wider world wasn't a big part of my day to day life, and that suited me fine.

It changed with 9/11. In the days and then weeks after, I would regularly visit news sites to see if there were any new developments. And then even when things quietened down, I kept going back. I have a distinct memory, where I found myself doing the news equivalent of what had been an old internet joke about email: you hit refresh, there's nothing new, so you hit refresh again.

Then came blogging, and current affairs became even more topical. And then we moved to the UK, and politics here wasn't as dysfunctional as it was back home, and it was interesting, and soon I was better informed about UK politics than I'd ever been about SA politics. I liked the idea of being well informed, of being able to weigh in when people were discussing matters of the day. I had a bunch of news links I'd rotate through, and blogs with opinions and discussion and links to even more news.

None of it was good for me. Wasting time on news sites and blogs was one part of it, but the other was just the negativity of it all. I'd be annoyed by the partisanship I'd see from most people on social media, or in life generally, and I made a point of reading both left and right-leaning websites, for "balance". I'd joke that this just made me twice as angry - which was true. And I mean true. The news just made me angry.

That was mostly politics, but even non-political news isn't great, because bad things get reported far more often than good things. So politics or otherwise, following the news boiled down to me expending time and mental energy on negative and depressing things.

Why do it? Whatever the benefits, the detriment wasn't worth it, and part of me knew this. A good few posts on this blog have been variants on "I should just give up the news."

Last year, I read a blog post by Australian academic Jason Collins, entitled How I focus (and live). He wrote something which stuck with me:

I used to apply a filter to political news of "if this was happening in Canada, would I care?" That eliminated most political news, but I have found that after a few years, I have become so disconnected from Australian politics that most of it flows around me. I don’t recognise most politicians, and I feel unconnected to any of the personalities.

There was something about this idea of disconnecting, of not caring about things that weren't really that important to me, of instead being preoccupied with things I valued more, of being free of the news, which appealed to me.

No surprise then, that my digital declutter started with me intentionally avoiding the news one day, and when I put together my declutter list of things I'd stop doing, it was right at the top.

The strange thing is ... I'd expected giving up the news to be difficult, especially with all the excitement that's been happening in the country this year. But it wasn't. In fact, of all the things I did as part of my declutter, it was probably the easiest. It was as though having committed to doing it, a switch flipped inside of me, and I very quickly lost interest.

For the most part, I still know what's going on. Headlines are everywhere, I occasionally scan the Bloomberg front page at work to see what's going on in the markets. And if big things happen, people talk about it.

But since starting the declutter, it isn't so much that I don't know, as that I don't want to know. No longer following the news, I've developed something of a Pavlovian aversion to it. Faced with a newspaper or the prospect of visiting a news site, my thought process now is something along the lines of: likely to make me unhappy; avoid.

Digital Minimalism suggests giving up low-quality news sources, and instead consuming higher-quality news, less frequently. Which is to say, the book doesn't say you shouldn't follow the news, just that you should "optimise" how you consume it. I started the declutter expecting to re-establish some form of optimised, higher-quality news intake once it was over, but it quickly became clear to me that my personal, optimal level of news consumption is around zero.

In this respect, my sense of identity has changed. I'm no longer the well-informed dude who can hit the ground running in political conversations. Now, my first question is invariably to ask what's happened. ("Oh, there's going to be an election?") Then maybe I can still say something useful based on my background knowledge and first principles, if you will, but that's it. If I'm still newsless in a year or two's time, will I have even that?

I consider it a small price to pay, though. In the past few months I've gotten back whatever time I'd have devoted to following the news, and I'm far and away happier without it. Much like my younger self, whatever's happening out there just isn't that important to me, and it's hard to believe I ever thought it was.

{2019.11.07 21:18}

On Solitude III

My final post on solitude: has any of this really made a difference?

In some respects it's hard to say. If it's good for your mental well-being, how do you measure it? I wasn't solitude-deprived before, how do I calibrate for the changes I made? It's not like I was MISERABLE before and feel AWESOME now. How do you decide that staring into space and thinking about things without music is better than staring into space and thinking about things with music? When is staring out the window on a train better for you than reading a book? Sometimes I do one, sometimes I do the other, I can't say which is better.

What I can say, is that having tried some of these things, I keep doing them, and that has to be uh, saying something.

I've become more open-minded about "boredom". Maybe it's just awareness, maybe it's just a slight attitude change, but I feel less averse to being bored. And I enjoy letting my mind wander, and I do it more often than before.

As for waiting in queues and so on without a phone, it no longer bothers me, and in fact, not only does it not bother me, I rather like it. Beyond the opportunities to just be with my thoughts, I like being free of the itch. It's a small thing, but it's liberating.

I mentioned previously the small 'literature' of pro-solitude books, and a number of them are now on my reading list. I've always had an interest in solitude and that's been re-awakened, slightly. If I think the small changes I made brought benefits, what else is possible?

{2019.10.30 19:12}

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