<![CDATA[Alex Armstrong]]> https://alexarmstrong.net// Wed, 26 Dec 2018 00:00:00 +0000 Wed, 26 Dec 2018 00:00:00 +0000 Statamic Copyright 2018 3600 <![CDATA[Reviewing your past year: Accomplishments, experiences and ambitions]]> ]]> Every year around New Year’s day I dedicate an hour or so to review my past year and look forward to year to come. I’ve done so since 2013. It’s a wonderful exercise, which always leaves me feeling gratitude — and, sometimes, relief — about all that is past, and hopeful for what is to come.

I first heard about this from David Allen, but I haven’t been able to source it and so can’t check to see how much I’ve adapted what he suggests(fn). I’ve tried more structured methods of reviewing my year, but this is the only process that I’ve consistently finished each year. It’s flexible, simple to do, and rewarding. Also, I have half a decade’s worth of reviews at this point which makes me want to keep doing them.

So here is the reviewing process:

Start a new document in your device, or a fresh page in your notebook, and make three lists: Accomplishments, Experiences and Aspirations.

Accomplishments are the answers to this question: “What are you proud of accomplishing last year?”

I list thos ethings I actively worked on and which supported my goals and needs as I understand them.


  • 2017: Started a Shut Up & Write branch in Thessaloniki
  • 2016: Attended my third Vipassana 10-day course and served as a volunteer at another 10-day course
  • 2015: Changed jobs!
  • 2014: Bought a new laptop (finally!)

Under “Accomplishments” I also list some raw numbers that I keep track of, such as the number of books I read that year, and the number of hours I meditated (outside of retreats). These specific numbers are important to me. I don’t dump a whole bunch of raw “quantified self” data into this list.

Experiences are the answers to this question: “What memorable experiences took place last year?”

Experiences are differentiated from achievements because although important enough for me to remember, I wasn’t the driving force behind them. They sort of just happened on their own, without requiring any special effort or determination.


  • 2017: I decorated a Christmas tree with a loved one (by putting lights on it — not quite what I had imagined, but it still counts)
  • 2016: Went to an improv comedy class.
  • 2015: Visited Edinburgh, after five years
  • 2014: Got my house burgled (had to happen sometime)

Under “Experiences”, I also list all the cities and places I visited that year, whether it was for vacation, work, or other reasons.

Aspirations are the answers to this question: “What accomplishments or experiences would you like to include on these lists a year from now?”

This is a new category I’m trying out this year, instead of more structured methods. I get bogged down when there are too many fiddly bits. But the question of what I would want to be true a year from now is always relevant and fairly straight-forward to answer, even if I can’t see how to get there from here. I’ll determine how useful this is in a year or two.

And that’s it!

All the examples above are real and were drawn from my own notes. I avoided the personal ones, but otherwise tried to give an overview of the sorts of things that I find interesting to record.

Note the absence of a extensive explanations. The lists are for my own benefit and so don’t need to include the context of why things are important to me. I know that already. Part of what makes this review simple to do is how little you need to actually write down if you aren’t over-explaining. Last year I wrote my longest review and it was only a few hundred words.

I try to support my feeble memory by taking notes for these lists over the course of the year. But I don’t do that with any consistency and so always have to spend some time daydreaming about what I did and what happened and so on. Deciding what is important or meaningful enough to record gives this review its resonant power.

If you share your life with a partner, it can be a insightful to do this review together with them and to share some of your lists with each other. Your partner can also help you remember things.

If you are as pretentious as I am, you may find it appealing to make this review into an event. Two years ago, my then-girlfriend and I were travelling through Belgrade around New Year’s. We did our review together while drinking tea at the Hotel Moskva, one of the city’s landmarks, where a host of luminaries have stayed since its opening a hundred years ago. Fancy downtown hotels, lonesome mountain cabins, eccentric seaside cafes, and other such liminal spaces can help you look back with a bit of detachment, and envision a future with unabashed optimism.

Some folks balk at reviewing their year around New Year’s day, a moment deeply associated with consumerism and socially-induced “resolutions”. If you belong to this faction — and I don’t blame you — your birthday is excellent alternative date. It’s unique to you and it occurs on the same day every year.

I hope you found this helpful. Give this review a shot and let me know how it went!

Wed, 26 Dec 2018 00:00:00 +0000 https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/12/reviewing-your-past-year https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/12/reviewing-your-past-year
<![CDATA[Choker]]> Walking along the waterfront, I stopped at the stall of a lady who handmakes jewelry.

"I'm looking for a necklace," I said.

"For you?"

"To gift." I looked over her merchandise. "This one is nice," I said, pointing to a silvery necklace with a little heart.

"This is tight, " she said, clutching her throat with one hand. "Like a choker."

"It's an interesting message to give to someone."

"You mean to say it says that love... what? It has you in a stranglehold?"

I nodded.

"I hadn't thought of that," she said. "Doesn't it though?"

"I don't think love does anything you don't let it do."

"Maybe you haven't really loved."

"Maybe I haven't," I said and thanked her.

I kept walking. I sensed (or imagined) her following me with her eyes. The jewelry lady hadn't said I overthink things but I knew she was thinking it.

Thu, 06 Dec 2018 00:00:00 +0000 https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/12/choker https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/12/choker
<![CDATA[Quickly create new Google Docs, Sheets, Slides and Forms]]> I suspect there’s a vanishingly small audience for this tip, but this has never stopped me writing about something before.

If, like me, you have to create new Google Docs and Sheets all the time, you might be tired of having to navigate to the approriate Google site, waiting for it to load, clicking on the New button, and so on.

Instead you can bookmark the following URLs in your browser which will automatically create a new document:

It used to be that the URLs for these were long and hard to remember. But as I researched this I discovered that Google literally five days ago announced all these shorthand URLs:

Rejoice lazy Google Docs users!

Oh, and if you are logged in with several users, these links will create a document using the first user.

Oh #2, if you’re using G Suite, the URLs remain long and hard to remember.

The source for this blog post is — what else? — StackExchange.

Tue, 30 Oct 2018 00:00:00 +0000 https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/10/quickly-create-new-google-docs-sheets-slides-and-forms https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/10/quickly-create-new-google-docs-sheets-slides-and-forms
<![CDATA[A better number]]> The Cretan greengrocer weighed my items, bagged them, and now he was tapping sums on a calculator.

"Nine euro," he said.

Opening my wallet, I saw that the smallest bill inside was a fifty. In small shops like this it's considered discourteous to use large bills, as you will drain the till of change.

"Would you be upset with me if I told you I only had a fifty?"

He looked at me over the rim of his glasses. "Yes. Yes, I would."

"I only have a fifty," I said and held the bill out.

He plucked it from my fingers. He rummaged through the till and in the metal box he kept unlocked in a drawer underneath the till. He checked all four of his pants' pockets. But apparently failed to turn up enough change.

"Here," he said, placing a one-euro coin in my hand, followed by the fifty euro bill I'd given him.

"What's this?" I asked.

"Next time," he said, "you'll give me ten euro."

"I could just owe you the nine…"

"No, it's good like this. Ten is a better number."

I thanked him and left the shop with a bag of produce I hadn't paid for and an extra euro I hadn't asked for.

They say Greeks are no good with money. That's not true. They're just playing a different game altogether.

Mon, 29 Oct 2018 00:00:00 +0000 https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/10/a-better-number https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/10/a-better-number
<![CDATA[Greeks and books]]> It's commonly held in Greece that Greeks don't read books. Anecdotally, it seems true.

I live in Thessaloniki, the second most populous city in Greece, and work remotely, spending about half my working hours in cafés. I choose quiet, smoke-free, tastefully-lit cafés with unobtrusive music, comfortable seating and good coffee and tea options. In other words, the sort of places you'd expect to see a lot of readers. But there are none.

I often see students with books. They can be identified by the piles of notes and books, and the fact that they're mostly checking Facebook or talking on their phone. But they're not reading, they're studying, if that.

I almost never see regular adults just reading a book for pleasure. I saw one today and was so surprised I tried to recall the last time I had seen someone reading who wasn't an obvious tourist – easily recognizeable by their pasty, sunburnt skin and foreign-language books. I racked my brain, but the last person I can recall seeing reading for pleasure was in late July – three months ago.

I realize that this isn't a particularly scientific observation. You can make of it what you will.

It breaks my heart.

Thu, 11 Oct 2018 00:00:00 +0000 https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/10/greeks-and-books https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/10/greeks-and-books
<![CDATA[We refugees]]> Living in Greece, where many folks have become stranded on their way from violence and persecution to the safety of Europe, the topic of refugees is often in the news and on our minds. You hear about the horrors of the journey, the squalor of the camps, the violence inflicted by or upon these marginalized groups. It is hard to know what to think about an issue as challenging as this.

Recently, I came across an essay by Hannah Arendt addressing the vagaries of of Jewish refugees in 1943, when the essay was published. It is "We Refugees" and starts like this:

In the first place, we don't like to be called "refugees."

The rest of the essay is as cheerfully contrarian as its opening and remarkably applicable to the refugee crisis facing Europe today – or, one might say, still – especially the foreboding message of its closing sentences:

Those few refugees who insist upon telling the truth, even to the point of “indecency,” get in exchange for their unpopularity one priceless advantage: history is no longer a closed book to them and politics is no longer the privilege of Gentiles. They know that the outlawing of the Jewish people in Europe has been followed closely by the outlawing of most European nations. Refugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples—if they keep their identity. For the first time Jewish history is not separate but tied up with that of all other nations. The comity of European peoples went to pieces when, and because, it allowed its weakest member to be excluded and persecuted.

The text is available online and, if you're the aural type, there is also a reading of the essay on YouTube.

I heard about this essay in the In Our Time podcast, whose episode on Hannah Arendt can serve as a brief introduction to her life and work.

Tue, 21 Aug 2018 00:00:00 +0000 https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/08/we-refugees https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/08/we-refugees
<![CDATA[More often than not]]> I took some time off over the last couple of weeks to spend time with family and friends, go camping, and attend a meditation retreat. I’m now settled near Athens, by the sea.

That’s part of the reason I haven’t been writing here. The other is that I’m suffering, once more, from a spell of anxiety and doubt.

There are two habits I have to expend effort to maintain but which, if I don’t do, I’m utterly miserable. One is meditation and the other is writing.

I’ve been meditating daily, but not for as long, nor as deeply, as I would like. I feel anxious, distracted and peevish. Meditation often serves as a balm for such feelings, but recently they’ve been driving me off the cushion. 1 I’ll insist on sitting every day and hopefully, moment by moment, this anxiety will settle down. What else is there?

On the other hand, I’ve hardly been writing at all these weeks. Even before my break, I’d been busy with work and other matters and haven’t been paying as much attention as I’d like to my novel-in-progress. I’m past the half-way point of the first draft, but every time I look at it I see all the things that are terrible with it, especially those dubious decisions that are so embedded in the story or the style that cannot be salvaged in editing.

But that was the challenge: to try and write a novel — not A Great Novel, mind you, just a readable one. That still seems possible, and writing it is teaching me a lot about how to better approach the next one. But it’s a painful process, one which I enjoy with decreasing frequency. Every time I start writing it feels like I’m starting all over again. I feel sluggish and uninspired. Everything is a fight, nothing falls into place.

This experience reminds me of what exercising infrequently feels like. Every time you go to the gym, or go for a run, or whatever, it feels unpleasant — both during and, especially, after. There are good moments usually, but mostly it’s a slog.

When I was practising Ashtanga yoga regularly, a big changed happened when I switched from practising two or three times a week to four or more. Not only was my body more pliant due to the regular practice, but it was easier for me to get into the mental state that best supported that practice. A state of focus both disciplined and open-hearted, bearing within it a mix of precise technique and exploratory playfulness.

There are lots of articles on the internet espousing that the key to success in such matters is building daily habits. Doing something every single day — preferably at the same time, the same place, and with the most expensive paraphernalia available on Amazon.

I have some objections to this approach, and I’m not just talking about its consumerist underpinnings. My chief objection is that I just need a goodly chunk of time to get into a supportive mode for whatever it is I’m doing. There people who can write in twenty-minute chunks, or meditate for ten minutes here and there. That doesn’t work for me. It’s probably got something to do with how my attention works (or doesn’t).

When writing, it can take me up to half-an-hour to get into a groove, to fall into the daydream of the scene I’m writing. I’m almost equally slow in meditation, where my mind often needs ten or even twenty minutes to settle down.

At the same time, there is significant value in maintaining a regular practice. I’ve long made my peace with meditation and just sit every day. Even when the meditation doesn’t feel productive, I find that if I skip a day or two, which sometimes happens when travelling, I feel out-of-sorts. So the daily habit itself is crucial for me.

I’ve never managed to cobble together a habit of writing. My experience hosting a weekly writing group over the last year has shown that I need long sessions of about two hours to write in, and that anything less than three such sessions per week is too little. Even this amount of about six hours feels limited — progress on the novel is so slow. I’ve tried several times to establish a writing habit of about ten hours per week, but it didn’t stick. Too many things tug at my attention. The balance between regularity of practice and depth (or, in this case, length) eludes me.

For now, all that I know is that for a core habit, one that is part of my identity, such as meditation or writing, I need to work at it more often than not. In other words, I should work at it on most days of the week. I haven’t found an easy path to get there. Maybe there isn’t one. Maybe the only path is this to insist.

  1. These days I sit on a pink yoga brick, because it’s easier to travel with. This ease is related to the size, not the color. ↩︎

Tue, 14 Aug 2018 00:00:00 +0000 https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/08/more-often-than-not https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/08/more-often-than-not
<![CDATA[The Smiths]]> ]]> We were having a perfectly fine conversation until she said, “I love this song!”

She tugged my arm, not the one holding the drink, the other one, towards the center of the club, where folks sloppily danced.

I looked up at the rafters, like an animal sniffing out its prey. I recognized the jangly guitar riff, but couldn’t place the song. I lowered my eyes and swirled the ice in my drink, figuring I’d rather not try to dance an unfamiliar song.

“I don’t know it,” I said.

“It’s the Smiths!” she said, rolling her eyes, but still smiling. “I have so much to teach you.”

She kissed me on the cheek and, keeping her eyes on me, danced to the center of the room.

The singer crooned:

Take me out tonight
Where there's music and there's people
And they're young and alive

All through the song she danced looking at me, not diverting her eyes once.

My ego and her cynicism got on really well
And we would say,
"What would you do in case I die?"
Or, "What if I had AIDS?"
Or, "Don't you like the Smiths?"
Or, "Let's shag now."

Gurb Song by Migala

We were lying on the bed as the laptop shuffled through an indie playlist. The current song faded out and was followed by a familiar jangle of guitars. Take me out tonight…

“This is a really good song,” I said.

“What is it?” she asked.

“You don’t know it?” I arched my eyebrow, pointlessly, since she couldn’t see my face. “It’s the Smiths.”

Memories galloped through my head. Nights of dancing, or not dancing. Walking out of a darkened campus, feeling terribly alone, and murmuring the opening verses over and over. Helping a friend who wanted to write the next hit Balkan pop song by loosely translating this song into Greek – and laughing so hard when he sang it that I fell off my chair and injured myself.

Sleepily, she said, “The who?”

Looking up at the inscrutable geography of the ceiling, I recalled a song by Migala where a couple ask each other life and death questions. The final question, the most important one, is if the lover likes the Smiths.

Why are we obssessed with sharing what we like with others? What if they don’t like what we like? What if they do?

“It's just a song I like,” I said and rolled out of bed. I shut the lid of the laptop, silening Morrissey mid-croon.

"It's nice," she said, eyes closed.

I placed my finger on the light switch and hesitated, taking a few moments to just watch her. Then I turned off the light and lay back on the bed. She nestled her head on my chest and we slept.

Sat, 28 Jul 2018 00:00:00 +0000 https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/07/the-smiths https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/07/the-smiths
<![CDATA[Whiskey Tango Foxtrot]]> ]]> Ten years ago I had a complex trip to organize that required lining up several flights on very tight deadlines. I needed some help figuring it all out, and so I visited a travel agent.

As he talked on the phone with who-knows-who, I noticed that he read off booking references using words to stand in for letters: "Alpha" for "A, "Bravo" for "B", and so on. I was impressed that this travel agent was savvy to this obscure language, because I had only heard it used before by the US military in films and shows.

Through exposure to film, everyone knows the first few:

  • Alpha
  • Bravo
  • Charlie
  • Delta

But then it gets tricky:

  • Er, Ebola?
  • Foxy Freud
  • Geronimo!
  • Something with H. Hold! No, I didn't mean for you to hold. I just meant… Ah, hell, they put me on hold. I should've just said "hell" to begin with.
  • “I” as in: I can’t think of a word that starts with “I”.

I was in a conversation with a support person awhile back, and needed to tell them my device’s serial number. For the life of me, I couldn’t get them to understand what I saying:

“The first letter is an N,” I said.

“An M?” he replied.

“No, not an M. It’s an N.”

“That’s what I said: M.”

“N! As in… let me think of a word. Nice.”

“OK, got it. M, as in mice.”

Exasperated, I did a quick search and found the list of words that travel agent -- and countless actors pretending to be marines -- have used. It's not that obscure after all. It’s called the NATO phonetic alphabet and runs thus:

Alfa, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, Juliett, Kilo, Lima, Mike, November, Oscar, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Sierra, Tango, Uniform, Victor, Whiskey, X-ray, Yankee, Zulu

Just copy the alphabet above to your notes and use it as needed.

This system also proposes alternate pronunciations for numbers. So instead of “nine” for 9, you’re supposed to say “niner”. I’ve never found numbers to be much of a problem unless the line is really bad.

But if you think that might be useful, or you’re just high-minded about your use of international standards, you can bookmark the following handy image (courtesy of Wikipedia), which provides pronunciation for both letters and numbers:

A final advantage of using this alphabet on your calls with support staff is the pleasure of sounding world-wise. When you rattle off a few of these while on the phone with someone, you can almost hear their eyebrow arch.

Or maybe it’s just their eyes rolling.

Sat, 21 Jul 2018 00:00:00 +0000 https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/07/whiskey-tango-foxtrot https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/07/whiskey-tango-foxtrot
<![CDATA[Let's Encrypt like it's 2016]]> Last night I secured this site using certificates from Let's Encrypt. I've been meaning to do this for a long time, but since the site has no interactivity I wasn't worried about any potential security risks.

That was until I migrated from Jekyll, which produced a static site, to Statamic, which generates pages dynamically and also provides an admin interface. Since this admin interface is accessible through the web, it is worth securing the site – if only for my own benefit.

The site is hosted on a virtual private server I share with some friends, and which I access via SSH. (There's no GUI to speak of.) At the suggestion of those friends, I used the acme.sh script to issue certificates. It was a simple process to set up and I am hopeful that the certificates will be automatically renewed in 30 days.

If you notice any weirdness in the next few days or in about a month from now, let me know. It's probably something related to this.

Sat, 07 Jul 2018 00:00:00 +0000 https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/07/lets-encrypt-like-its-2016 https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/07/lets-encrypt-like-its-2016