<![CDATA[Alex Armstrong]]> https://alexarmstrong.net// Tue, 21 Aug 2018 00:00:00 +0000 Tue, 21 Aug 2018 00:00:00 +0000 Statamic Copyright 2018 3600 <![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.

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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. ↩︎

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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."

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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.

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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. ↩︎

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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.

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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). ↩︎

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