Daily life and fulfillment

Usually when I’m happy I tend to think that I am happy despite daily life. I tend to think that spicing things up and doing random things is part of what makes life fun. I still think that, but I also think that doesn’t necessarily imply that not doing that makes life not fun. I find pleasure in doing something well, and I’m getting better at doing my every day things, every day. If you focus on something and focus on getting better at it, then you can find enjoyment.

I love building things. I love it when there’s a problem I can’t quite grasp, but then I start working on it and, as I am working on it, the solution becomes clear. That’s just such a satisfying moment. But it’s also where my flaw lies, because as soon as I grasp the solution I lose interest. I get the fulfillment from thinking about the problem, starting to solve it and finding the solution in my mind, but not from working it out until the end. So after I find the solution it just becomes a chore; yet another thing to finish.

(No moral or life lesson. Just observations.)

 

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Guidelines

I’ve been following three ‘principles’ of sorts lately. I think they’ve been quite useful for me. Maybe they’ll work on other people too. In no particular order:

  • Own it – whatever you do, don’t feel embarrassed about it. Pretend if you have to. Eventually it becomes second nature.
  • Always leave something left to do for the next opportunity. Be it programming, gaming, travel, or that TV show that you were intending to binge-watch. Leaving something open means it’s easy to get back into things the next time.
  • Avoid procrastination by not thinking things through too much and just taking the first step. Don’t try to solve the entire thing in your head from beginning to end, just start somewhere and keep making progress incrementally. It works for me especially on the things I don’t like, because once I’ve started I feel like I might as well finish it.

Mental health, y’all.

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The old ways

EPS_510PS

The last time I shot old-fashioned analog film was back in the early 90s, when I was less than ten years old. It wasn’t old-fashioned back then. But after my girlfriend gave me an old SLR that fits my Canon lenses and promised to develop the film, I quite fondly took it with me on a cycling day and took some photos.

EPS_511PS

Analog is tedious! Shutter times matter a lot, whereas with digital I’m used to using a bit more risky shutter times and just shooting a couple of photos, knowing that usually at least one of them will be sharp. With analog I’m constantly worrying about not wasting film. It helps with the composition and thinking about what you’re doing, but I doubt that it beats the brute force of digital. Not to mention the fact that with digital you can immediately see your result and make adjustments.

EPS_517PS

One thing I will say about analog is that the colours and the contrast is pretty unique, and very distinctive to look at. The images have such a different characteristic that I can hardly apply anything from my usual Photoshop routine of touching up photos. It’ll probably take me a while to figure out how to improve analog photos.

EPS_518PS

Depth of field is fantastic with a 50mm f/1.8, better than I get with my DSLR since that has a crop factor. More experiments to come. (Slowly, because it’s analog :p )

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Fatigue, part two

First off, let’s call the beast by its name: burnout. When I’m working on things, my natural state is to use an unsustainable amount of brainpower. Sometimes I get recharge moments and everything works out ok, but at other times I reach the bottom and cease to be effective. Once I reach that point it’s damn hard to get out of it. It takes weeks or even months to return back to the mindset of peak performance after burnout. I’ve experienced burnout quite a few times in the past, and I know exactly what to do to get myself back from it. But preventing it from happening in the first place, that appears to be a lot trickier. You need willpower to tell yourself to stop working on something interesting, and if you continue working at that point your willpower slowly slips away. It’s easy to get lost. Especially if you’re faced with the exact thing that would keep your brain busy.

An interesting problem is like a burnout virus for the mind. All you need is a problem that is challenging, exciting and complex, but also not complex enough to seem too daunting. Maybe you’ll know how to solve 90% of it and the challenge of solving the remaining 10% is what motivates you to keep working on it. Then after you’ve worked it on for a while you start to realize that the remaining 10% of the problem is actually another problem that is as difficult as the original one. Once again, you know how to solve 90% of that problem and the remaining 10% is a challenge. Repeat ad infinitum. Or until your willpower is gone and you’ve achieved peak burnout. Congratulations.

Recognizing that you’re about to get stuck in this loop is important. It’s the mindset of believing that you’ll solve these kinds of problems immediately, or by just devoting more brain-time to them, because then you’ll get into the willpower-draining self-loop that eventually leads to burnout. There’s always one more thing to solve; one more thing that needs fixing or thinking about. What matters more than solving the problem is keeping yourself in a state where you’re able to solve problems. And draining yourself towards burnout is the exact opposite of what you should be doing. Take time off. Think about other things. Don’t worry if you still think about the problem in the shower or before going to sleep, it’ll drain itself from your brain eventually. No problem is as important as keeping your mental self in its best possible state.

(Yes, this post was totally advice to myself. Felt good to write about it though.)

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Fatigue

I read a great article the other day about how Navy Seals are trained to ignore their body’s signals for pain, because in reality muscles can be pushed a lot harder than when the safety signal goes off. The article also mentioned a seal who did a marathon and ended up breaking his foot because he ignored his pain signals. It doesn’t even seem to be an uncommon thing with pro-athletes. If you’ve got a strong mind then you can force yourself to endure things that are not healthy to endure in the long term.

Yesterday my co-workers and I kicked off an exciting new thing, and we spent several hours thinking of a technical design for what we’re going to program. When the day ended there were still things left undone so I felt excited (at first) to work a little more on the idea to get some important bits fleshed out. As time went on that excitement dissipated, but I forced myself to continue anyway because I was nearing the end. I managed to get a lot done before I went home, but in the evening some of the problems were still stuck in my head, and I found it hard to stop thinking about them.

Today I went to work at the usual time, did all the usual things, and continued deeper into the new idea. But at around 3 o’clock my brain just.. stopped. I ceased to be able to solve problems or find creative solutions to things. I tried forcing myself again to do a little bit more, but the results were not as effective as yesterday. I think I’ve reached a point where it’s just not useful to try to do more. I don’t think that forcing myself to work longer trains my brain to be more effective for a longer period of time. I’ve tried that for over 10 years now, and it just does not work. When my brain runs out of energy then the best thing to do is to just stop, walk away and do something else. Passive entertainment or a braindead session of Minecraft usually does the trick of keeping my mind occupied without feeling bored. But when the energy’s gone I just don’t feel like doing much else.

It seems much easier for me to hit my mental limits than it is to hit my physical limits. During cycling trips there were a few moments during which I really just felt all my muscle strength disappearing, and the only thing I could do was stop and have a snack before I could go on. But those moments were quite rare, whereas I hit my mind’s limits just about every other day at work. It seems like my mind is permanently limited to under 7 hours of useful time when I’m at max capacity. the obvious thing to do is to not push myself so much and spread out the workload a bit more, which in the end is probably more productive. Sometimes you can’t avoid getting fired up for a problem though. Next time I’ll try to spread out my mental load a bit more. Pacing is key. Sustainability improves satisfaction.

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The 9gag data mining scam

(Or: what is your <insert meme here> name? Click here to find out.)

Perhaps you’re an occasional browser of 9gag or similar sites, and have come across images like these before:

Instagram-TropicalHouse-8dc5ec

People inevitably reply in the comments section with their hilarious name. Lately I’ve seen a lot more of these images than usual, and I’m guessing it’s actually an attempt at data mining by some hacker trying to dox people. The questions on the images vary; sometimes it’s the first letter of your name, sometimes it’s the date you were born, the month you were born, the first letter of your mother’s maiden name, and so on. People who are stupid enough to reply to these images with that data eventually create a very usable data trail that can be used by hackers to impersonate them on the phone. So yeah, have fun explaining to your bank that you publicly posted all details about your life in a poorly obfuscated manner.

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Better or worse

A few days ago, as the London Overground was delayed yet again, I looked up at one of those ‘9x% of our trains ran on time in the last 3 months’ posters, and thought to myself: “there’s no way the overground has improved during the time that I’ve been in the UK. Or anything else in this country for that matter”. But it’s easy to complain about things being crap without actually checking them. So I did some research to find out if the things in this country that relate directly to my life have gotten better or worse during the last five years. It’ll also be a good summary post to compare with five years from now, when the effects of the brexit will have come into full force.

Public transport

To get to work I take the London Overground from Watford Junction to Euston. TFL has nice little yearly reports on the performance of the Overground [1], which they define as (iirc) ‘percentage of trains that ran within 5 minutes of their scheduled time’. According to their yearly reports, the Overground as a whole, which includes a lot more lines than the one I take, had a performance of 94.8% in 2011, and 95.2% in 2015. The only data I could find pertaining specifically to my line date back to 2013, when the Watford-Euston line’s performance was 96.64%. Last month it was 96.96%.

Things are not getting worse, apparently. The cost of taking public transport is increasing, but that’s roughly in line with inflation. What (seriously) worries me is that TFL is constantly claiming that they’re pouring all their profits right back into improving the network, yet they can barely manage even a 1% improvement over 5 years, and there’s still signal failures and train issues almost every day. Worrisome.

Lastly, TFL reporting absolutely sucks. It’s happened to me many times that a train was delayed 5 or more minutes, yet the online status report showed that there were no delays. I’m not sure if this is only happening for the Overground, but the tube lines do seem to get faster updates when something goes wrong there. It’s easy to tell because the Bakerloo line shares its tracks with the Watford-Euston overground, and the status on the website updates much quicker for the Bakerloo than for the Overground when something goes wrong. I don’t think this has improved much over the years, but don’t have enough data to prove it.

Tech salaries

Another area that obviously interests me is what kind of salary I can earn working in IT in London. I found it quite hard to get data on this as well. There’s plenty of numbers floating around, but difficult to compare them because there’s so many different job titles and qualifications out there. Speaking from anecdotal evidence, the numbers I found for average/higher-end Java developers in 2016 are higher than the Java job that I held for a while in 2010, but not significantly higher.

Lacking any other solid basis for comparison, the closest I could find to useful numbers was the average and median salary of someone working at Google. In 2011 the median salary of a Googler was £86.800, and in 2016 the average Googler salary is £160.000. I can’t really use that to decide whether things got better or worse, since median is very different from average, but it’s still interesting data points nonetheless.

House prices

It’s amazing how quickly your opinion on house/apartment prices sways once you’ve bought something yourself. In the year that we were looking for a house or apartment the prices increased insanely quickly. When we started looking we were (barely) able to afford a small house in zone 7, but by the time we found an apartment all houses and bungalows were out of our price range.

Rightmove has some good data to confirm this [2]. In 2011 the average price of a house sold in my area was between £260k and £320k. In 2016 it’s between £390k and £430k. If I was still looking I’d feel pretty crap about this, but I guess we managed to move onto the quickly departing train just before it got away. Let’s see how the brexit affects this, though..

I compared central London prices as well, just for shits and giggles, even though I’ll never be able to afford anything there [3]. In 2011 house prices were around £850k near where I work. In 2016 they’re around £1M. That shit cray.

Crime rates

Ever since we signed for the neighborhood watch mailing list we’re getting the occasional email about break-ins, theft, vandalism and so on. Since we’ve only lived here for less than a year we don’t know how things were like 5 years ago in this area, but there’s plenty of data available to compare. Additionally, we chose our area not in the least based on the low (relative) crime rate, which I’ll get into later.

In 2011 my area had on average around 200 crimes reported per month [4]. in 2016 that’s 130. That’s a pretty decent improvement. I compared my work area in Central London as well, which went down from 230 reports per month to 180 reports. Note that areas are not the same size and not the same number of inhabitants, so you can’t cross-compare. I had always assumed that Ealing, the area I previously lived in, would have much higher crime rates, because it always seemed a lot more dodgier to me than where I live now. But I looked it up and it went down from ~150 reports in 2011 to ~130 reports in 2016. It improved less than my current area, but that’s about all I can say about that.

Road incidents and accidents

Getting out of Greater London by car is a huge pain, even when you’re in zone 7. I see a *lot* of bad drivers on the road, and it pisses me off every time. Apparently, and I still can’t quite believe this, the UK is safer than the Netherlands when it comes to traffic related deaths [5]. The statistics prove me wrong, but based on what I’ve seen people in the Netherlands drive way, way safer than anyone in Greater London. But them’s the stats, so there you go. I’d rant here about the terrible quality of the road infrastructure in the UK which I think hasn’t improved either, but I’ve no hard numbers on them, so I’ll leave it at that.

In my local area there were around 110 serious or fatal incidents reported in 2011 [6]. This number went up to ~120 in 2015. A mild increase, but hardly statistically significant. If you take a larger area of north-west Greater London, there were ~1400 incidents in 2011, which went down to about 1200 in 2015. I’m not sure if that increase is on par with the increase in car ownership [7].

Deprivation

One of the best sources of information when selecting a place to live is the deprivation index, which combines a bunch of useful indexes like income, crime rate, employment etc., and gives each area a relative ranking compared to all the other areas in England. The area I live in ranked better (lower depravity) than ~91% of all other areas in 2010 [8], but that went significantly down to ~83% in 2015 [9].

Even when checking the absolute numbers, both overall and for each important subdomain (income, crime, health, employment), my area got worse in every metric over the past five years. I really did not expect that. Given that the relative ranking dropped even further, apparently my area got worse at a a faster rate than the rest of the country. People in my area are now poorer, unhealthier, less employed and more criminal than five years ago.

This appears to contradict my crime rates findings, which suggests that the number of crimes reported decreased over the years. The only way I can explain this result is that the area of the deprivation index is quite small compared to the crime reporting area. It’s quite possible that my immediate local area has gotten slightly worse, and my greater local area has still improved. In fact, looking at my county’s score, it did improve slightly over the past five years. But not significantly.

Conclusion

I was quite wrong about the public transport I use getting worse over the years, but it didn’t get much better either, which is definitely not a good sign. The deprivation index roughly confirmed what I suspected, although I didn’t think my (tiny, immediate, local) area was that much better five years ago. The thing that surprised me the most was how much the crime rate dropped over the past five years. There’s very clear progress there, and I’m very happy with that.

For future research it would be interesting to compare this with neighborhoods in other countries. I wonder if other countries I’ve lived in have experienced similar trends in crime, transport and deprivation. My suspicion is that the UK is a bit slow to change, but that’s something to find out.

Sources

[1]: https://tfl.gov.uk/corporate/publications-and-reports/
[2]: http://www.rightmove.co.uk/house-prices-in-my-area.html
[3]: http://landregistry.data.gov.uk/app/ukhpi/explore
[4]: https://www.police.uk/
[5]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_traffic-related_death_rate
[6]: http://www.crashmap.co.uk/Search
[7]: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-35312562
[8]: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/english-indices-of-deprivation-2010
[9]: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/english-indices-of-deprivation-2015

Cool depravity map bonus: http://dclgapps.communities.gov.uk/imd/idmap.html

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The Brexit

I swore to myself I wouldn’t let this crap get into my head, but I am bombarded my brexit-ness in my daily life so I might as well write a bit about it. Is it a good idea? I have no fucking clue. I’m not allowed to vote, despite being a EU citizen who has lived in the UK for over five years already. I never bothered to do the required research about whether or not the UK leaving the EU is a good idea. My gut instinct says it’s a bad idea, but I have not poured across the countless articles and documents describing what the effects of leaving versus staying would be. But I am really annoyed at how politicians and media are turning something that could be a purely rational decision based on empirical data and facts into one of bullshit propaganda and dumbing-down of the issue to appeal to the mass public. It utterly disgusts me how this turned out. A politician got stabbed because of her position on the brexit, other politicians are using it for their own personal gain and the more ignorant among the population are using it as an excuse to spew some generic anti-foreigner hate. Regardless of the final outcome, I already am not happy about how this turned out.

Seriously though, do people really see the world as a whole being a better place if the UK and the EU go their separate ways? Even if the UK gets stronger in the short term, I believe if you look at it in a timespan of 10-20 years, the UK won’t be stronger from leaving. I have no hard arguments for this, it’s all probabilities based on reading stuff on the internet and talking to people who know more about it than me. It might be the best game-theoretical decision to maximize your own benefits right now, and then later, as soon as you get more benefit from rejoining, get back in. But the whole would suffer from that, and the end result could be better for everyone involved if the UK stays in. In the long term.

Also, why the hell are votes not weighted? There should be a general political knowledge test to see how much a voter understands about politics in general, and then another specific one about whichever problem or party or thing being voted on. People who have more knowledge about the issues should be better able to predict what would be the best course of action, and they should get votes that weigh heavier than those of people who know nothing and just vote whatever their family or friends are voting. I seriously don’t get why this is not a thing yet. Would love to hear counterarguments to this.

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