<![CDATA[Alex Armstrong]]> https://alexarmstrong.net// Sat, 07 Jul 2018 00:00:00 +0000 Sat, 07 Jul 2018 00:00:00 +0000 Statamic Copyright 2018 3600 <![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
<![CDATA[One of those people]]> ]]> "Meditation doesn't work for everyone," she said. "I can't sit still for five minutes. If I tried to meditate, I'd lose my mind. I guess I'm just one of those people."

"I know what you mean," I said. "I'm one of those people who can't fly a commercial aircraft. I'll sit in the cockpit without any training or practice and have no idea what I'm doing. I'll look at the buttons, wondering which one to press. No idea whatsoever. It's my bad genes.

"I also can't play Go, read Arabic or bench press 200 pounds. Not that I've ever tried to do any of those things. But because I don't enjoy playing chess, and found it hard to learn Dutch, and hated gym class in school, I imagine I can't do those things as well. Very bad genes.

"I so envy those people who were born able to play the violin or cook well or program in Python. They just popped out of the womb knowing everything. They never had to spend any time learning or working at anything. They didn't need any feedback, nor had setbacks or frustrating days. It was all just smooth sailing.

"Speaking of which, people who can sail are the worst. Talk about lucky genes!"

She didn't say anything for a long time. And then she did. She said, "You're such an asshat."

Fri, 06 Jul 2018 00:00:00 +0000 https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/07/one-of-those-people https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/07/one-of-those-people
<![CDATA[Some travel observations]]> ]]> I've been traveling quite a bit over the last few months. Here are some idiosyncratic, prejudiced observations:

  • The higher the density of cars, the higher everyone's stress level seems to be. Not just that of drivers, but that of people in general. This seems applicable both within a country (towns vs cities) and globally (developed vs under-developed countries).

  • Conversely, a low density of cars is correlated with good public transport, nice public parks, and a general feeling of chillness. I love cities, but the more I spend time in smaller towns, the more I see the appeal. I must be growing old.

  • When I find myself back in a big city seeing all the posters for everything that's happening, I remember why I like being where the cultural happenings are congregated. So that I can have more things to moan about not doing.

  • Everyone seems to travel with a smaller suitcase than me. I don't know how they do it. Where do they put their second backup umbrella?

  • A related mystery: when people get off the same flight as me they look smart and refreshed, while I look as if I've put on whatever clothes I found at the bottom of the laundry hamper.

  • If a restaurant indicates vegetarian and gluten-free options on its menu, it is more likely to have clean toilets. I'm sure there are other indicators of "attention-to-detail," but as a vegetarian, this one jumps out at me. Although such menus are more common in richer countries (as are clean toilets), the observation holds, and is especially useful, in poorer countries as well.

  • Everyone I travel with somehow manages to strike up conversations with strangers that evolve into deep and meaningful discussions — and I mean about dreams and aspirations here, not just what happened with the sportsball. I find this mystifying, as it never happens to me. That probably tells you something about me.

  • Airport travel tip: Pack your belt in your carry-on. If everyone did so, we’d all get to our destination that much faster. Don’t even get me started on the liquids.

I'm sure I've learned more important things in my travels than I've listed here, but these are the ones I jotted down in a sleepless haze.

Sun, 01 Jul 2018 00:00:00 +0000 https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/07/some-travel-observations https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/07/some-travel-observations
<![CDATA[Wing-building infrastructure]]> ]]> There’s a lot of friction to publishing, though not so much to writing. I have honed my writing tools over the years and can grab any of my devices and get started writing — well, typing — in a matter of seconds.

But when the text of a blog post is done, there’s a significant chunk of work remaining to post it online. I took the first step late last year in simplifying this process by switching from Jekyll, a static site generator, to Statamic, an actual CMS.

“Oh, no," I can hear you say. “Not another post about blogging platforms!”

There’s a whole genre of such blog posts, common among developers and other technical geeks especially.1 But rest easy, this is not one of them.

There’s a lot to like about using a proper CMS over a static site generator, even if you’re technically proficient, like me. The chief feature that a CMS provides is a Control Panel that you can access from your browser to create and update posts, whereas with the generator you have to work with text files and then compile the site.

The problem wasn’t working directly with text files. That’s how I write anyway: blog posts, notes, fiction, everything. I love plain text.

But the compilation stuff has always been a hassle. Jekyll is based on Ruby, a petulant ecosystem if there ever was one. Keeping Jekyll up-to-date was a chore. I would sometimes go months between writing a blog post, so when I tried to publish something I had just written I would find myself spending half-an-hour or more to update Jekyll so that I could compile the site and upload it to the server.2

Compare that with a CMS which, unless it’s hacked or becomes grossly out of date, more or less keeps working. You log in, paste your content, save it, and boom — it’s online. The catch is that most CMSs use databases which adds a lot of overhead for a simple personal website like this.

The solution? A platform that offers the power of a CMS, but which uses plain text files for content. In short, Statamic.3

I’ve been using Statamic since 2015 at work, but because it’s a commercial product I’d been too cheap to use it for my personal site. But last fall I bought it as a birthday present to myself.4 The site has lain fallow since then, as you may have noticed. Only two posts published in the last six months.

But as I mentioned yesterday, I want to start writing more frequently here. I tweaked the site’s configuration so that I can paste new content via the Control Panel. I also set up some automation to announce new blog posts on Twitter and Facebook, so that I don’t have to do that manually. There’s a lot more to do, but I’m taking it a step at a time. “Good enough” is plenty good.

I’ll be travelling soon and won’t have access to my laptop. As long as I can paste in a new post via the Control Panel, I’m happy. (This is how this post was published.) I’ll try and make this even more efficient in the coming months. After all, since Statamic reads plain text files, I should be able to build a workflow to export these directly from Ulysses, my writing environment of choice.

Last night, as I was tweaking the site’s configuration, I was stuck on some issue, and so jumped in the Statamic Slack to ask a question or two.

I used to be really active on this Slack a few years back, because, as I mentioned, we use Statamic at work as well. But partly because I have been doing less web development this year, and partly because we’re still using the older version of Statamic at work, I haven’t been that engaged with this community.

But as I posted my questions and received helpful answers from two regulars that I knew from back then, I was reminded why I loved hanging out there in the first place. They are a friendly, helpful, and good-humoured bunch.

A long time ago, they encouraged me to learn PHP when I was ignorant of backend code, and then helped me along. They answered questions about Statamic with incredible patience. More than once one of the CMS’s creators would stay with me for, literally, hours to troubleshoot some thorny issue. I got great advice on software, web design, relationships, music and everything else under the sun. Also, many, many GIFs.

I hope I’ve given some help to others in return, but honestly can’t imagine ever squaring this account. The generosity of the Statamic community cannot be overstated.

One of the hardest, most uncertain periods of my life, was when I moved from working at a local academic library to working remotely with a higher education consortium. Part of that transition was taking the small bit of web development I had been doing at the library and doing it at a much grander scale for the consortium. I was self-taught and most of the time I had no idea I was doing.5 The Statamic folks not only helped me get things done, but showed me how much of web development was making it up as we went along. It was a privilege to have the curtain lifted by some great web craftsmen and seeing how much stitching together there is in making something that, once done, looks made out of whole cloth.

It’s a beautiful realization — that the only trick is muddling along — and it applies equally to life as to web development. As Ray Bradbury put it:

Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off. Build your wings on the way down.

When I first encountered that quote I found it charming, but fundamentally flawed. What happens if you fail to build your wings in time?

Well, if you have a community, they’ll catch you. That’s the deep core of belonging: to feel safe enough to take risks.

The Statamic community helped me to risk changing jobs, which seemed rather mad at the time. I was abandoning a stable job while living in a country in an economic crisis. We didn’t talk about any of that, of course. We talked about matters at hand: site deployments, front-end libraries, recalcitrant templates. And it turned out fine.

At the consortium where I work, I spend a lot of time thinking about communities — how to grow and support them. We recently flew almost two dozen people from around the world to the Digital Humanities Summer Institute in Victoria. Their goal was to learn skills that will help them in their digital projects and to become advocates for innovation at their local institutions. But that was only part of it. The more challenging goal is to build a community of digital innovators. In other words, to put together the infrastructure that would allow them to take creative risks. To try. To fail. To succeed.

An infrastructure not of things, but of people: a community.

Statamic turned six this week. Jack McDade, Jason Varga and the rest of the folks involved with Statamic took a risk in devoting themselves to this CMS. Their work enables many sites, including the site for the consortium I work at, as well as this personal blog. Statamic has also spawned a wonderful community.

For me, Statamic has been much more than a CMS. It has been a home.

But tonight I’m also glad that, because of Statamic, I can write these few words and easily publish them.

  1. This genre is almost as large as that of bloggers apologizing for not having blogged in a long time — which I have also engaged in. I wonder if future historians of popular culture will analyze such texts with the same devotion that contemporary scholars show towards the ephemera and marginalia of past centuries. With what eyes will they look upon our posts? Curiosity, bafflement, nostalgia? ↩︎

  2. The actual updating process doesn’t take long, but it would inevitably throw up obscure errors that I would have to hunt down and fix before the updating could be completed successfully. ↩︎

  3. Statamic is literally a portmanteau of “static” and “dynamic”. As its creators joke, no one can pronounce it. But other than that, it’s pretty good. ↩︎

  4. “Honey, I bought you a CMS!” are words that have never been uttered by anyone, ever. ↩︎

  5. I still don’t. ↩︎

Wed, 20 Jun 2018 00:00:00 +0000 https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/06/wing-building-infrastructure https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/06/wing-building-infrastructure
<![CDATA[Promises]]> The less time I have, the more I want to write. I find it suffocating not to write.

I remember reading somewhere that when attending conferences you should turn in early and journal. I was in an academic institute during the first half of June. Every night I would come back to my room and crash – I'd been up for hours, jetlagged on the first several days. At least I got up early enough to meditate in the mornings. But I couldn't find the time to write.

When I'm in a relationship I talk more than I write. Conversation is a substitute for expressing thoughts in writing, but misses that hard clarity that comes with setting words down one after another. I had to revise this paragraph to avoid using the word "squander".

I write – it's not that I don't write. There's a novel trundling along, and I journal haphazardly, though not at conferences. But I miss writing here, in public.

I've made this promise in the past. But here it is again: one blog post a week, starting with now-ish.

I need to re-work my CMS so that it's simpler to publish and announce posts. I don't want to have to fiddle with that. Writing is hard enough. It takes ages to find a good image, so I'll probably skip on those.

These words are, as they always have been and always will, an invitation. I don't know what I'm inviting you to. I'm standing at the door, same as you. We'll go in together, see what we find, what trouble we can get into.

I am intrigued by the challenge of finding the shortest path between my experience and a public expression that is not altogether without merit.

The less time I have, the more I want to write.

I'm not afraid of wasting my time, almost all my best memories are of exactly that. Going to conferences and soaking it all in, talking with my partner in bed, writing.

I can't account for this wellspring of words. They refused to be accounted.

Tue, 19 Jun 2018 00:00:00 +0000 https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/06/promises https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/06/promises
<![CDATA[Base]]> ]]> Some years ago I was ambling down the street of a distant city in search of food, when I remembered something I needed to do when I got back to my hotel room. I pulled my phone from my back pocket and opened my task manager. I tapped out the task and then drew a blank. What context should I assign it?

According to the Getting Things Done (GTD) method, you should always add a context to actionable tasks. Contexts provide a simple way to categorize tasks based on what resource you need to complete the task. Context may be tools (Phone), locations (Home), modes (Errands), and so on.

Tagging your tasks with appropriate context, allows you to filter tasks in your task manager based on what you can do at the time. If you have to be at home in order to do a task, then you probably don’t want to see it when you’re working on your laptop in a coffee shop, or out running errands.

There are plenty of online discussions about the usefulness (or not) of contexts. This isn’t one of them. I find the basic principle sound. My only gripe has been that the contexts suggested in the GTD books don't map well to my life.

I’ve been following – as best I can, which is to say badly – the GTD methodology for about seven years. In this time, I’ve tried many various contexts to see if I can find more conceptual buckets for my tasks that my mind better.

For example, early on I began to use “Out” (location) instead of “Errands” (mode), because I often need to do something out of the house that I would not call an errand.

Ever since I got a smartphone, I abandoned the “Phone” (tool) context entirely. I take my phone most everywhere, so I use “Anywhere” (location) for tasks that require my phone. It’s true that I don’t take my phone in the shower – but then, I don’t generally review my task list while showering.

In both of cases, I replaced a mode or tool context with a location. Sometimes, things go in other directions.

The GTD book recommends a "Computer" context, which is too broad for someone who works remotely and whose main hobby is writing – both of which I do almost exclusively on my laptop. So I use mode contexts, such as "Research" or "Writing", that imply use of a tool (the laptop).

My most inspired change was abandoning the concept of “Home”.

It seems counterintuitive. Everyone has to curl up somewhere to sleep at night and there are things that you can only do in that location.

But there was something about “Home” that always bothered me. It’s a pretty loaded term. When I started using GTD I was more likely to refer to my house as “my flat” than to “my home”. If I used “home” I probably referred to my parents’ house. Even though I didn’t live there, and hadn’t for some time, I still felt that house as the safe centre of the universe. Everything else was just a point in the maelstrom.

So, at first, I used “Flat” to refer to my then current residence. It's not a change that would suit most people. But it reflected current reality, my thinking at the time, and in so doing, reduced the cognitive friction in using my GTD system.

I don’t remember which city I was in when it occurred me that my hotel room was not my “Flat”, and certainly not my “Home”. I needed to refer to it. It was, like my "Flat", a still point, if a temporary one.

I could have used a throwaway context only when travelling, such as “Hotel”. Thinking back, I’m surprised that this didn’t even occur to me. Instead, spurred by this slight difficulty in categorizing a task, I decided to reconceptualize my relationship to all residences.

For a few moments, I flipped through words in my mind, looking for the right one, until I happened upon base. That was it. A hotel room is the local base from which I operate. But I also have a more permanent base. It was my flat, then, as it was my parent's house before that. It would come to be many other things in the future.

I changed the “Flat” context to “Base” and never looked back. I use this context for every location where I happen to be sleeping, including hotel rooms, friends’ houses, tents, hostels, and of course, my own current residence. It has served me well: a context for a vagabond.1

In the last few weeks, I happened to be travelling for pleasure, then work. Then my relationship ended, precipitating a move out of my girlfriend’s house. While searching for a flat, I'm staying with friends. In just three weeks I have stayed at six different “bases”.

David Allen writes:

Your system has to be easy enough (and complete enough) that you will be motivated to work it even when you have the flu. The system is only as good as what you're willing to maintain when you don't feel like it.2

While this time has been chaotic and stressful, my GTD contexts have handled the current instability of my life without strain.

At first, it doesn't seem like its a big change to go from "Home" or "Flat" (locations) to "Base" (also location). But we talk about being "based" in a place, often for employment, with the understanding that we are not rooted there in the same way that we would be with our "home". So "base" is both a location and a mode. Using this word reflects current reality but it also implies an unconscious aspiration. It sets up a predisposition in favour of temporary residences.

We shape our productivity systems to support our lives and they, in turn, shape us.

In certain corners of the internet, folks blog about how they change task managers, or periodically start their productivity system from scratch. Each time they hope to do it right, or less badly, or just for a change. But after such a system refresh, they find themselves in the same old rut. Why? Because there is a symbiotic relationship between system and life, life and system. I sympathize with such folks, for I am one of them.

I wouldn't survive vagabondage for long, but for a short period, it's been fascinating to experience. Poised between where you're going and what you're leaving behind, there is something beautiful and terrifying in bagging your belongings and moving on. And it's hard to pinpoint where the beauty or the terror lies. It all comes at you at once.

I am comforted by something that Cormac McCarthy said in an interview, remarking on his vagabond life. He said, "Three moves is as a good as a fire."3

Moving can be a way to refresh a system, a life. On to new bases!

  1. The pernickety among you may note that using the same context for both temporary and more stable residences may muddle things. But it works out fine in practice. I use start dates to push off things that you can only do when you’re back at a permanent location. ↩︎

  2. David Allen, "Let the Lists Fall Where They May↩︎

  3. Richard B. Woodward, "Cormac McCarthy's Venomous Fiction" (19 April 1992). ↩︎

Sun, 11 Mar 2018 00:00:00 +0000 https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/03/base https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/03/base
<![CDATA[Strangeness]]> ]]> A friend asked me if I celebrate Thanksgiving yesterday. As a vegetarian, I don’t find this holiday particularly appealing. Also, it’s not at all a thing in Greece, where I live.

Knowing that my father is American, she noted that some people celebrate their "home thing".

I replied:

I don’t even know what my home thing is. I’m more Greek than anything, but I’m an utter stranger here. It doesn’t bother me that much anymore :)

I was born in Greece, but because my father is American, I only have an American passport. I could have requested Greek citizenship at any time since turning eighteen, but I never found a compelling reason to do so1. So I'm an American who's never lived in the US. And, except for brief stints in Amsterdam and Edinburgh, I've always lived in Greece.

I was a kid when I spent two years in Amsterdam. The multiculturalism I encountered there, along with the discovery of good books and weird internet sites, made me an outcast when I returned. If I hadn't been strange before, I sure as hell was then.

My friend refers to people like me as being "hybrid". I prefer a term I heard Richard Quest use two decades ago: "a bit of a fruit salad". That's what it feels like. Not one thing made of two things. Two things put together, while remaining distinct. Not a soup, a salad.

I've wanted to leave Greece since I was a teenager. When I was an undergraduate (still in Greece), one of my professors called Athens my Dublin, a reference to James Joyce's Dubliners, a book in which everyone tries to leave Dublin but fails.

In the intervening years I've travelled some, but never managed to stay gone for long. Edinburgh, where I got my Master's degree, was my most sincere attempt to stay away. But my graduation in 2008 coincided with the financial crisis. I ran out money and returned home.

I was angry for a long time. The way young men are. Like blood in a film, I knew that the anger was unreal, but it still made queasy. I remained angry. The way slightly older young men are. I couldn't find a way out of that anger.

My anger was a cage and the cage had no door.

I was nearing 30 when I heard Jon Kabat-Zinn discussing mindfulness on NPR. His matter-of-fact approach to meditation, free of new age tropes, appealed to my pragmatic side. I put on one of his guided meditations and began practising. Haphazardly, at first. But eventually I settled into a daily practice. Over time you see things when you meditate. You figure things out. Or things figure out themselves.

One day I found myself out of the cage, unsure sure of how I'd got there. Only one explanation accounts for all the facts. I had invented a door, and the key that fit in its lock, and let myself out.

When people asked me whether I felt more Greek or American, I used to say that I felt European. I maintain a kinship with the ideas of Europe – those of Shakespeare, Montaigne, and their descendants. But with all the political and economic finagling going on, it's become harder to defend such posturing. I do, however, bear the mark of Rosacea, a skin condition resulting in facial redness, which is exacerbated by exposure to the sun. Rosacea is a genetic gift from ancient Europeans.

Although I stepped out of my anger, I remain a stranger in Greece. I suspect I would be a stranger everywhere, but that's not some terrible burden. It's enough to belong inside my own skin. More than that, sometimes I can't believe how good it feels.

Like when you turn your face to the sun, and the day is hot for the season and the sun also, and you hear familiar voices near by, and you inhale, and the warm smell of the world flows into your body. You still have Rosacea, so you're going to regret this simile, but it feels so good to be as you are.

So even though I don't celebrate Thanksgiving, I can be thankful for something. For the sheer, wild-eyed strangeness of being a human.

  1. And there is at least one reason to avoid it. Greece is one of 22 countries where military service is compulsory. ↩︎

Fri, 24 Nov 2017 00:00:00 +0000 https://alexarmstrong.net/2017/11/strangeness https://alexarmstrong.net/2017/11/strangeness
<![CDATA[On email and brevity]]> ]]> I write a lot of email.

As I've written more of it, I've gotten better at it. By which I mean I've become more considerate of the person receiving the email, trying to keep my emails brief but also thorough. But these are competing goals, and brevity takes too much time.

As the famous saying, attributed to Blaise Pascal, goes:

If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.

So often being thorough wins over brevity. Because while thoroughness takes time, it's an easier kind of writing.

On the receiving end, it's a different story. Getting a thorough email is disheartening: a wall of text with no end in sight. What should you respond to, if anything?

I have three tricks to make these emails more palatable:

  • If I'm not expecting a response, I mark the email explicitly FYI ("for your information") or NAR ("no action required").
  • If part of the email is actionable while part of it is not, I clearly separate them with a heading and write something like: "You can stop reading here. The rest of this email contains the supporting info that guided my decision" (or whatever is appropriate).
  • Finally, if I am expecting a response, I ask closed questions and style them in bold.

Even with these tricks, I know that when I send a long email, I've made the recipient's day a little bit worse.

Leo Babuta presents another approach to email:

5 sentence emails: I got this idea from Mike Davidson, whose article came at a perfect time as I was limiting other things in my life, and was also trying to keep my emails short at that time. His 5-sentence rule (no email can be longer than 5 sentences) fit in perfectly with everything else I tried to do, and I've adopted it. It forces you to write only what's essential. I broke the rule at first, but I've been pretty good lately. This rule also limits the amount of time you spend replying to email, and makes processing a breeze.

This idea resonates a lot with me. The kinds of email I like to receive are as short as possible, to the point. If I'm missing some information, I'll just ask for it. This approach treats email more as a conversation and less as an exchange of elaborate monologues.

But when I tried this method, I found that I would recast my sentences to squeeze more and more words into them. Short sentences aid understanding. But this method demonizes them.

It's often thought that short sentences cater to the hoi polloi. But Sara Vincent, in talking about how 25 words is the limit on GOV.UK sites, notes that:

[T]he more educated a person is, and the more specialist their knowledge, the more they want it in plain English.

These people often have the least time and most to read. Which means they just want to understand your point and move on, quickly.

Let's say that your typical sentences are verbose, but not uncharitably serpentine. Say, 25 words per sentence. Instead of five sentences, you can give yourself 125 words to work with. So you can retain the spirit of Babuta's suggestion by counting words instead of sentences.

Counting words is more of a hassle, especially since email clients don't provide a word count. But that's only a minor problem for me. I do all my non-trivial writing, including email, in a text editor and then review it with Marked. At my suggestion, the developer of Marked provided instructions to highlight sentences of over 25 words. It chokes if the text has a lot of markup, but it's fine for straight prose – which is most of what I write.

I find the objectivity of counting words rather than sentences to be worth the minor hassle. I still go over this limit, but at least now I have a clear sense of my own long-windedness.

If an email reaches 300 words, then it's time to consider that perhaps this isn't an email at all.

It turns out that I often need to include supporting material. This material isn't really part of that communication, in the same sense that linking to a website or attaching a file is not. None of these should count towards the word limit. After all, the point is to streamline communication not to reduce everything to secret handshakes.

One approach is to keep the email brief and include supporting material as a separate document. Google Docs, with its strong collaboration features, is an excellent choice for this purpose, especially if you want concrete feedback on the supporting material.

There is a danger here that one may send brief emails with links to novella-length documents. All heuristics are subject to misuse. And there are even reasons to abandon brevity altogether.

Guy Kawasaki, who also adheres to the 5-sentence rule, makes the best case for this:

There is one exception to this brevity rule: When you really don't want anything from the recipient, and you simply want to heap praise and kindness upon her. Then you can go on as long as you like!

I like that even more. We are so unpractised in gratitude, that it is almost impossible to overappreciate. But Kawasaki also implies that verbosity stems from the sender's ego, their fear of being misunderstood.

Instead of trying to be thorough, or even brief, we should make the effort to write in good faith, with the intention to be understood. After all, an email's recipient is always another human – like us.

Sun, 08 Oct 2017 00:00:00 +0000 https://alexarmstrong.net/2017/10/on-email-and-brevity https://alexarmstrong.net/2017/10/on-email-and-brevity
<![CDATA[Hell yeah]]> ]]> This blog has been quiet, though my life – including my writing life – has been busier than ever. There are plenty of things I've wanted to write but didn't get round to starting. Or I did start them, but didn't finish them. Or I finished them, but didn't like them well enough to publish them. So it goes.

I've been with someone for the better part of a year now. This relationship also brought me to a new city. A few months ago, we decided to double our daily meditation and are now sitting for two hours each day. My yoga practice has fallen by the wayside and I've began to feel the negative impact on my body. Over this summer, I have to make some decisions regarding my professional life that I'll have to live with for the next four years. As my work has become more varied, it has become harder to be good at it. I've been working on my novel at a pace which, though more promising than on previous projects, is still pretty slow. I started a writing club that helps me stick to it. My social circle has dwindled. I've read less this year than I did last year. My diet has improved, though eating better takes more time.

For these reasons, and more, I've been trying to figure out how to prioritize the various aspects of my life. I've read enough self-help books to kind of know what to do. I made a mind map. I made lists. I reviewed my weekly schedule. I tried to think of what I'd write in an affirmation – if I believed that writing daily affirmations was a helpful way to spend one's time. I talked to people, sought their advice, followed it up with research.

But I am still stuck. I want to do more things than I can do.

I have discovered that I'm smart, but almost never smart enough. Even when I know what I should do, I somehow manage not to do it.

If I need to take something with me when I leave the next morning, I put it in my backpack the night before. If it's too big to fit, I put it in front of the front door. I don't put it next to the door. I put it in front of the door, making it physically impossible for me to leave the flat without tripping over the thing I need to take.

I surround myself with tactics like this, much to the amusement of anyone who's ever lived with me. I can't say it's a point of pride. But it works.

What I need is a heuristic to use when I'm trying to decide whether something should be a priority. Not to determine its rank in relation to other priorities – just whether it's something I should bother with at all. The heuristic would have to be simple and apply consistently across diverse domains.

Luckily, Derek Sivers has written about just such a heuristic:

You can use this same rule on yourself if you’re often overcommitted or too scattered. If you’re not saying, “Hell yeah!” about something, say no. When deciding whether to do something, if you feel anything less than “Wow! That would be amazing! Absolutely! Hell yeah!” then say no.

When you say no to most things, you leave room in your life to throw yourself completely into that rare thing that makes you say, “Hell yeah!”

For every event you get invited to, every request to start a new project, if you’re not saying, “Hell yeah!” about it, say no.

We’re all busy. We’ve all taken on too much. Saying yes to less is the way out.1

I love how simply this idea cuts through the dross. Just do fewer things. Which ones? The ones you're really excited about.

Excitement might mean different things to different people. I find that I'm excited about those things in which I find meaning, which bring me joy, or which are of service to others. The things about which I actually care.

I haven't tested it at length, but over a couple days this heuristic has helped unstick my thinking, though there's still much to do.

In recent months I abandoned my usual discipline to limit what I try to do at any given time. Overcommitting inevitably leads to disappointing myself and others. There's no easy path once you go over this cliff. I just have to pare down what I'm trying to tackle. I'll have to walk back some things, give others up, make some people unhappy.

Will it be hard to do? Yes. Is it worth doing? Hell yeah.

  1. Derek Sivers, Anything You Want: 40 Lessons for a New Kind of Entrepreneur (2011). ↩︎

Fri, 28 Jul 2017 00:00:00 +0000 https://alexarmstrong.net/2017/07/hell-yeah https://alexarmstrong.net/2017/07/hell-yeah
<![CDATA[Waiting for a sign]]> ]]> I drew the shutters of the bar I worked at around one in the morning. Ch— used to work there as well. That's how we first met. But she had quit in a huff a few weeks earlier and began working at a nearby club.

I lived nearby, in a one-room flat without its own bathroom. Since I got up at noon, I wasn't nearly tired enough to go to bed. I ate a couple slices of pizza, watching the punks dance and shout in the plaza. When I finished eating, I headed to the club where she worked.

I sat on the bar while she worked, sipping a scotch with a single ice cube and read T.S. Eliot. When she had a moment to herself, she came and sat next to me. I put the book down. We would smoke and share our dreams of the future. She wanted to make hand-crafted jewellery. I wanted to be a writer of some sort.

It was a rock club, and the music was obnoxiously loud. We leaned in close to hear each other. I wanted to look at her face as deeply as if I was drinking to quench a vast thirst. But I had to look away from her to hear, lest our lips should meet.

I told her about a poem that made me think of her. She told me that the owner had made a pass at her yesterday, when they were closing. The way he did it scared her. Then she laughed it off and went to serve drinks.

When I was too drunk to read, I stared at the bottles, shelved high behind the bar. Their geometric arrangement, glittering in the din, afforded me some comfort. A place for the mind to focus and rest. I tried not to follow her with my eyes as she moved in the club, but I doubt I succeeded.

Her shift ended at three. We clambered outside together. I stared up and down the empty street. The night was blank above us. On other nights, this is when she would abandon me. She always had somewhere to go, other people to be with. The buses would not start running until five, and she lived too far away to take a cab. So there was always this time she had to kill.

Tonight she asked me what we were going to do.

My heart skipped a beat. I didn't have a plan. The possibility of needing one had not occurred to me. Something yanked at my stomach.

She locked her arm in mine and I knew everything would be fine. We wandered around, to see what we might find. We went to a nearby bar where a common friend of ours was playing music, but they'd closed up early. I reminded her about that poem I thought she would like. I had the copy at my flat. It wasn't far. In a turn of events the like of which has not occurred before, or after, or possibly ever, she agreed to come back to my flat to hear a poem recited.

By the time we got there, we had forgotten about it. We ended up sitting on my bed, playing cards, drinking cheap white wine. We didn't turn the radio on. The flat was blessedly silent. The only sounds came from us. The only writhing, living beings.

I wanted to lean in and kiss her, but I wasn't sure how she would react. Did she want me to? I wasn't going to be like the other guys in her life.

I waited for a sign. Something that would make clear her intentions.

We had known each other for less than a month, but I had been hounding her ever since. At first I thought her beautiful, if a bit silly. But it wasn't her looks that caused me to seek her out in the night. It was that stubborn optimism, which I'd first dismissed as naïveté. I came to see it for the strength that it was, for the puzzle piece I lacked. For she was, in her cheerful wilfulness, the opposite of myself.

We played cards. We emptied the bottle of wine. Birds began to chirp. Dawn broke. It was a quarter to six. I offered to accompany her to the bus. She refused, but then accepted. We walked slightly apart, without speaking.

At the bus stop, in the amber light of the morning, she hugged me and kissed me on the cheek, tearing up as she did so. I didn't understand why, and she had to get on the bus before I could ask her.

I went looking for her, but she wasn't working the next couple nights. I became sullen -- I was sullen a lot in that decade -- and avoided her. Two weeks passed before I went to the club again. She told me she was planning to quit. She wanted to check out a goth bar that had opened in a new location and was looking for staff. We headed there together after her shift ended. I wanted her to explain but I couldn't find a way to ask. I watched her dance with another man, one she'd just met.

I put my drink down. I told her I had to go, and went.

The memory of that young man from long ago, playing cards in the cramped room, strangled by longing, arose in my mind during meditation. On account of details that you can infer from the story, as well as those that you cannot, my limbs were flooded by successive waves of embarrassment and shame. Eventually the agitation subsided, and I was present again in my body. As my mind settled once more, a smile formed on my lips. I wished I could have imparted a piece of now-obvious wisdom to my younger self: She was sitting on your bed at four in the morning. What the hell other sign were you looking for?

Tue, 30 May 2017 00:00:00 +0000 https://alexarmstrong.net/2017/05/waiting-for-a-sign https://alexarmstrong.net/2017/05/waiting-for-a-sign