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08 May 2016, 07:36

Doing My Best

depression

Photo by Ashley St. John

Sixteen months ago, my daughter was born. After a difficult first week, the first month was great, challenging, but overall things were really good. Then the depression crept back in.

I’ve been dealing with depression for almost as long as I can remember. It comes in waves for me, where sometimes I’ll be generally feeling good, or ok for weeks, then seemingly out of nowhere, the depression knocks me down, and would stick around for one or a few weeks. Life was this cycle of feeling good for a while, getting depressed for a while, then fighting my way out of it and starting the cycle over.

I was generally happy when I would get home from work, but I’d spend the days being miserable, and wanting to quit my job. I don’t have a bad job, and in a lot of ways, it’s a really great job, but this was what was really bothering me at the time.

After Lydia was born, I decided that being depressed was a real hinderance to my ability to be the sort of father that I wanted to be. I wanted to be able to set a good example, and not act irrationally or impulsively because I couldn’t think of an alternative. I wanted to be able to pass on some tools for dealing with life better. So, after years of dealing with this, I made an appointment with a therapist.

I ended up only going to two sessions, because that’s all that I felt like I needed. Those two sessions were so useful, and illuminating, that it has taken me a little over a year to get to a point where I might need to go back for a refresher. The therapist that I met with introduced me to a version of therapy called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (or CBT). CBT’s model is that our thoughts are what cause our feelings, and if we change the way that we think about things, then we can change the way that we feel. It can be broken down into a few parts: cognitions, goals, and behaviors. (As a note, there’s a great book called “Feeling Good” that goes through all the basics of CBT.)

One of the really basic CBT tools is a chart that helps you to identify specifically the thoughts that are triggering your negative emotions, and then asks you to come up with alternate ways to think about the triggering event or that idea that might be more balanced. This requires paying close attention to how you’re feeling, and working backwards from there, which is tricky initially, but you get the hang of it.

Using this technique, I was able to begin to see what was bothering me so much, and it turned out that if I forced myself to restate what was happening, in a way that might be more balanced and not as distorted, I felt better about the situation. After going through this exercise a number of times, I started to internalize the process and could run through this exercise in my head, faster and faster as things happened. I also was becoming more conscious of how I felt, and why I felt that way.

It has also highlighted to me a basic thought pattern that I had of taking a negative default view of things, which I then was able to shift to start take a more positive view. I’ve also started figuring out different strategies for handling difficult situations better, a big part of which is simply setting expectations differently, revising expectations as needed, and changing my approach.

Things aren’t perfect, and probably will never be, but overall, I have been happier in the last year than any other time that I can remember. That’s mostly a result of focusing on the best parts of my life, instead of the few not so great details. At this point, I certainly feel like I have more to give Lydia that will hopefully help her to avoid the trap of depression that I fell into. As a bonus, I can enjoy my time with my family to a much greater extent than before.

08 Sep 2015, 08:21

A life you don't need a vacation from

A friend recently posted the following quote on Facebook:

“My goal is to create a life I don’t need a vacation from.”

My first reaction was, “that is 100% my goal”.

After having a child, and starting a real family, I’ve started thinking a lot more about longer term. There are two things for me that play into this.

The first component for me is burnout. Marissa Mayer wrote a piece for Bloomberg on burnout that I thought was really interesting, and insightful. Kent Nguyen wrote a follow-up piece that I also identified with. These two articles established, and built on the idea that burnout is a build up of resentment caused by giving up doing the things that you love. You can avoid burnout by identifying the things that are important to you, and protecting those things. If you love playing roller soccer every Wednesday night, and not going throws off the rest of your week, then don’t let your boss keep you working through it.

If you love your morning workout, wake up early enough to do it, and don’t start work until you have worked out (yes, you can wake up at 6am, it’s possible). If you’re waking up extra early to work out, then don’t stay at work until 1am, get to sleep early enough that you’ll be able to wake up ready to go. You can’t forego both sleep and things that you love for an extended period of time and not burn out.

The second part comes in the form of a parable that I read somewhere that’s stuck with me.


fisherman

There was once a businessman who was sitting by the beach in a small Brazilian village. As he sat, he saw a Brazilian fisherman rowing a small boat towards the shore having caught quite few big fish.

The businessman was impressed and asked the fisherman, “How long does it take you to catch so many fish?” The fisherman replied, “Oh, just a short while.” “Then why don’t you stay longer at sea and catch even more?” The businessman was astonished. “This is enough to feed my whole family,” the fisherman said. The businessman then asked, “So, what do you do for the rest of the day?” The fisherman replied, “Well, I usually wake up early in the morning, go out to sea and catch a few fish, then go back and play with my kids. In the afternoon, I take a nap with my wife, and evening comes, I join my buddies in the village for a drink — we play guitar, sing and dance throughout the night.”

The businessman offered a suggestion to the fisherman. “I am a PhD in business management. I could help you to become a more successful person. From now on, you should spend more time at sea and try to catch as many fish as possible. When you have saved enough money, you could buy a bigger boat and catch even more fish. Soon you will be able to afford to buy more boats, set up your own company, your own production plant for canned food and distribution network. By then, you will have moved out of this village and to Sao Paulo, where you can set up HQ to manage your other branches.”

The fisherman continues, “And after that?” The businessman laughs heartily, “After that, you can live like a king in your own house, and when the time is right, you can go public and float your shares in the Stock Exchange, and you will be rich.” The fisherman asks, “And after that?” The businessman says, “After that, you can finally retire, you can move to a house by the fishing village, wake up early in the morning, catch a few fish, then return home to play with kids, have a nice afternoon nap with your wife, and when evening comes, you can join your buddies for a drink, play the guitar, sing and dance throughout the night!”

The fisherman was puzzled, “Isn’t that what I am doing now?”


This version of the story was from here (but not where I originally read it).

The idea is that if you can find some things that you love doing, and you do those every day, then what else do you need? Another component of the fisherman story is about the people. He’s got a family and good friends to spend time with.

If we combine the two ideas, find some things you love and do them, and don’t let people stop you from doing them. Having a group of people to share those experiences with is as important.

As you work on these things, you’ll get to a point where you love the life that you have, and you won’t really feel the need to get away from it. Sure, travel is nice, and seeing family is important, but the point is that you won’t need a break from the day to day, because you will love your day to day.

This is something that I have been trying to do myself, identify different things that I love, people that I want to spend time with, and protecting those activities, and carving out time to spend with people. Most importantly, prioritizing my family and investing time with them. I’m not perfect, but I think that I have been continuously improving along this path, and it has made a huge difference to me.

29 Aug 2015, 14:17

Internet Interactions and a Disclaimer

A friend recently posted about being continually frustrated with seeing offensive posts on Facebook. It seems that she tended to interact with those sorts of posts, Facebook had learned that fact, and showed her more of what she interacted with. My initial advice was to lean on the ‘hide’ and ‘unfollow’ functions that Facebook offers. Then I started thinking a little more about my own behavior.

xkcd Duty Calls

Source XKCD

I used to enjoy visiting the skeptic and atheist communities on Reddit quite a bit. I identified with the thoughts and opinions of the members of those communities, and was generally frustrated with ignorant people selling snake-oil (homeopathy, anti-vaxxers, etc.). Sometimes, this would result in my interacting with people from opposing camps, and typically in an unhealthy way. It’s easy to get into a fight online, and get really worked up over how blind the other person is. Sometimes it spills over into real-life arguments, and tense discussions. Eventually, I had enough of these kinds of interactions, and decided to pull back from those communities.

Once I got away from those communities, I was quite a bit happier. Yes, there are lots of dumb people out there, that say and believe dumb things. However, I don’t think that arguing with them is going to change their mind. In fact, I think that in general, it will do exactly the opposite (since there is evidence to suggest that whenever your views are challenged, you tend to dig in your heels more than open up to opposing views). So, in addition to wearing yourself out, getting frustrated, and dealing with ignorant people, you’re actually accomplishing the opposite of your goal. At least, that was the case for me, and why I’ve completely stopped visiting the atheist and skeptic communities on Reddit and elsewhere.

By the time I started seeing these posts on Facebook, I had learned enough to not engage, and to ‘hide’ posts, and ‘unfollow’ people who frequently posted things that I found overly simplistic and/or offensive.

That said, I don’t think that conversing online is pointless, but it makes a huge difference who you’re talking to, and the tone of the conversation. I think that in general, if you’re able to talk to level-headed people that you might disagree with, and both people are respectful, and reflective, then there’s certainly room for growth and increased understanding on both sides. I would rather have an interesting conversation with someone and change a possibly incorrect opinion than dig my heels in and cling to ideas that do not evolve with my knowledge of the world. Even though I do have trouble with this sometimes.

It’s also why I simply don’t interact with people who post very strongly held opinions that are presented in a pithy, obvious way. Generally, these are in the form of memes that at least half of its potential viewers would find offensive. I want to interact with people who are thoughtful and flexible. I have no interest in entering into a conversation with someone who is gung ho on some topic, whether or not I agree with them. I have little tolerance for continuing conversations that have turned sour, and will quickly exit them.

With that said, I’d like to post the following as a disclaimer for just about anything I write that resembles a stance or opinion.

Disclaimer

I am just a person, trying to figure things out. Whatever you read on this blog, or whatever I post anywhere, is perhaps what I’m thinking and feeling at the time. It is also possible that I’ll take a devil’s advocate position, as a way to try to keep the conversation moving or try to work something out. Opinion posts here are not representative of permanently held views of mine, and instead, should be thought of more fluidly — like this is where I am right now, and I’m using this post to work something out. If you disagree, and can respond thoughtfully and respectfully, then I welcome the discussion. If you’re going to try to fire shots, and pretend like we’re on some cable “news” show where people shout at each other, then please don’t bother.

27 Aug 2015, 07:40

Perfect is the Enemy of Good

Perfectionism can hurt your ability to accomplish your goals. It’s pretty simple, but the idea is that if you are a perfectionist, and you hold yourself to such a high standard that any sort of failure is unbearable then it will be very difficult to get things done, and you’ll likely be miserable.

When you strive to be perfect, and try to uphold a very high standard, you’re dealing in morals and virtues. Now, morals and virtues have their place, but it is not necessarily useful to hold ourselves to a standard and flagellate ourselves when we fail to live up to those unreasonably high standards. In this way, perfectionism is very similar to the problem of shoulds.

This is another idea that I have picked up from the book “Feeling Good”.

lake sunset

Procrastination

When you’re wanting to get things perfect, and organized in your head completely before you start, it’s easy to put off a task until you’re ready. The problem is that a lot of times, you’ll run into issues that you couldn’t have foreseen, and all that planning will be for naught. Not only did it wreck your planning, and your mental model, but you could have learned the same thing by starting earlier.

Over-planning

Whenever I start a new project, I have to choose the language, tools, libraries, and technologies that I’m going to use to do the project. This is sort of a fun excuse to poke around and learn something new, which is great. The problem comes in when I start thinking, “what if the project is successful, will this scale?” This turns out to be a dumb question to begin with, but also one that puts me into a mode of trying way too hard to come up with a perfectly engineered and beautifully designed system before I even start. This also tends to vastly increase the scope of my projects, which leads to me realizing how much time and effort will be involved in building them. Since the project balloons in scope and effort required, it’s easy to say, “well, I’ve only got an hour, there’s no way that I’ll be able to make progress on this in that amount of time, maybe this weekend.”

The projects that I remind myself up front that I don’t need to be perfect, I just need to start are the ones that actually get off the ground.

Rework

I’ve written before about the problem that I have noticed of junior developers coming in and wanting to re-write something from scratch, and this issue is related. I have been guilty of similar issues when coming back to look at code that I had written years prior. Sometimes I’ll have it in my head that it’s not perfect, and needs to be redone completely, so that it’s perfect. This does not usually lead to making progress on the task.

Doesn’t count

If you’re trying to lose weight, putting yourself on a strict diet, and you eat a bit of chocolate, or miss a workout, what happens? Does the day go out the window, and become a cheat day? Does it wreck your whole week? I’ve done that before.

For me, when I was trying to be really strict on a diet, and I slipped on a meal, it would usually turn that day into a cheat day. If I missed a workout, it could easily wreck the week.

If you allow yourself some small failures, but keep focused on the goal, it is much easier to stick to diet and exercise.

Conclusion

This post was overly-ambitious, preachy, sloppy, and I probably shouldn’t have written it. How do I delete this?

22 Aug 2015, 21:09

Should vs I'd like to

incomplete streaks

I used to think that there was a lot of stuff that I should do. I have many interests, and ideally would like to pursue as many as possible. I would make lists, and schedules, and invariably, not get to everything, or not follow the schedule at all. This, would typically lead to guilt, and a general feeling of “I’m not doing what I should be doing”. That I was feeling guilty and already not doing what I should be lead me to skip even more things that I felt I should be doing. By the end of the day, I’d feel like I hadn’t accomplished much, and after longer stretches of this, I would get more and more depressed.

I’m reading a book called “Feeling Good”, which is about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (in short, an effective, non-pharmaceutical treatment for depression). The general idea of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) is that our thoughts generate our feelings, and that if we change our thoughts, we can change how we feel about things. One of the key points to the book is that depressed people tend to have distorted views of the world in one way or another. Among the list of cognitive distortions is “Should Statements”. Here’s a quick description from the linked Wikipedia page:

Should statements: doing, or expecting others to do, what they morally should or ought to do irrespective of the particular case the person is faced with. This involves conforming strenuously to ethical categorical imperatives which, by definition, “always apply,” or to hypothetical imperatives which apply in that general type of case. Albert Ellis termed this “musturbation”. Psychotherapist Michael C. Graham describes this as “expecting the world to be different than it is”.

Example: After a performance, a concert pianist believes he or she should not have made so many mistakes. Or, while waiting for an appointment, thinking that the service provider should be on time, and feeling bitter and resentful as a result.

I think that I had been falling into that trap a lot. That said, I still had things that I wanted to do every day, and I still wanted to have some way to remind myself every day of those things. I started using an app that’s designed to track daily tasks like this. (The one that I’m using is Streaks, though there are many out there.)

Using an app, in and of itself doesn’t solve the problem though. I could still beat myself up about the things that I don’t get done. So, I have also shifted the way in which I communicate this to myself. Instead of saying that there are things that I should do, I say that there are things that I would like to do. If I don’t happen to get to them, that’s ok, there’s always tomorrow. I can’t do everything all the time, and I have figured out that I don’t think that I could accomplish everything on my list and get work done.

Here’s my full list of things that I’d like to do every day (in no particular order):

  • No beer today
  • Learn one new thing
  • 1 interview prep question
  • Consume News
  • Brain Training
  • Play with Raena
  • Plan day
  • CBT
  • Headspace
  • Hack
  • Exercise
  • Spend time with Elizabeth
  • Spend time with Lydia
  • Wake up early
  • Take a walk

Most days, I’m able to do the following:

  • No beer today
  • 1 interview prep question
  • Consume News
  • Exercise
  • Spend time with Elizabeth
  • Spend time with Lydia
  • Wake up early

Whereas, I rarely do these:

  • Learn one new thing
  • Brain Training
  • Plan day
  • CBT
  • Headspace
  • Hack

If I look at the list of things that I have done in a day, that I wanted to do, I can feel good about getting those things done. As long as there’s not something critical that I’m skipping every day, then that’s all this needs to be. A gentle nudge to remind me of the stuff that I said I’d like to do, and a pat on the back for those things that I did.

completed streaks

Hopefully, you’re not strapping yourself with lots of things that you should be doing, and are instead doing things that you’d like to do.

29 Sep 2014, 15:41

Don't even try, unless you have some sort of natural ability

There was an article on Slate recently, called Practice Does Not Make Perfect, the following is my response to that article.

Image Source

These sorts of articles really bug me. They might as well have titled it, “Don’t even try, unless you have some sort of natural ability”. That advice might play well for the handful of savants who are exceptionally good at something when they’re young, but doesn’t really mean anything for the rest of us. That some people have greater natural abilities than others seems so obvious that it is barely worth mentioning. You don’t need much experience in the world to bump into someone who is able to grasp certain things more quickly and easily than you.

However, the argument that encouraging practice harms society is asinine. This sort of thinking encourages is a sort of socioeconomic fatalism, where some people are destined to be the captains of industry, amazing scientists, or great artists. As opposed to encouraging people to devote their time and energy to reaching for their goals. Honestly, that socioeconomic fatalism is just about the most harmful paradigm that I can think of, and it has been pervasive enough, at least in my experience, to do anything and everything required to combat it.

This is not to say that hard work is all that it takes. But surely it’s not going to be as harmful as the author claims. Two quick examples. First, let’s say that someone wants to become a software engineer, and studies very hard, and does everything in their power that they can reasonably do to achieve that goal. However, after years of practice, they still don’t have the skills required to be a productive programmer in the field. Is this failure that harmful? Aren’t there a lot of things that you can do with that knowledge, that many cannot? Perhaps they can do QA, or documentation, or something that is perhaps not a core development job, but still takes a fair amount of technical understanding. By spending that time, the person put themselves in a much better position than they would have been not studying.

Another example is one that the author brought up, which is becoming a heart surgeon. Moving towards that goal is going to make you more and more qualified for all sorts of jobs that are not doing heart surgery, but that are living in that space, and requiring a knowledge of what is involved.

Again, this is not an excuse for societal differences, and I think that it’s also obvious that money, access, and opportunity play big roles in an individual’s success. In fact, Gladwell himself discusses some of these things in the same book that he talks about the 10,000 hours rule. One of the most important things is a person’s upbringing, and their views on authority. People from lower socioeconomic circles tend to be brought up to treat authority figures in a way that is more humble, thinking that they are not as good. Whereas those from a higher socioeconomic status tend to treat authority figures with respect, but more as equals. This small difference shapes the way that we think about the world, and how we handle the things that come our way. Shifting that world view is difficult and takes a lot of time. 

17 Jun 2013, 16:53

Restore the national moto "E Pluribus Unum". | We the People: Your Voice in Our Government

Restore the national moto “E Pluribus Unum”. | We the People: Your Voice in Our Government

https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/restore-national-moto-e-pluribus-unum/58JXzNBB

Go back to our original motto, as opposed to the religious one that was introduced in 1954. “E Pluribus Unum” means “out of many, one”, a unifying statement that does a great job of summing up the true nature of this country.

17 Jun 2013, 06:22

Meta Art

Meta Art

I had an idea for an art project that I’ve been wanting to try out for a few months now, and today, I finally got around to doing it. The general idea was to create some painting, or piece, and then attach a description to it, as you might see in a gallery, or in a museum. My idea was a bit more meta.

Before I describe much more, let’s look at the results:

All paintings

You probably can’t read the description, here it is:

P. Munio Zubizarreta
нигилизм, 2003
wax on canvas

Working through a crippling depression, Zubizarreta created this series to show the hollowness of existence. Having suffered several personal tragedies within the span of the last four years of his life, Zubizarreta was near his breaking point, and had lost all hope. Out of touch with his remaining friends and relatives, Zubizarreta had become a recluse, his only escapes were his art and the heroin that would eventually kill him.

No, my name is not P. Munio Zubizarreta, and as far as I know, P. Munio Zubizarreta doesn’t even exist. The story is fictional. I thought it might be interesting to super-impose meaning onto art that may not really mean anything on its own. When you see a painting with a caption, and a little blurb about it, the blurb can change your perception of the work. That’s what I wanted to do here, to change people’s perceptions of the work, by adding a little story. Thus, meta art, the art is the reaction that people have to the combination of the images and the story that has been created.

I also thought that it would be kind of fun to have a description that contrasted strongly with the piece. The title, according to Google Translate, means nihilism in Russian. The story is depressing, whereas the images are bright and colorful.

17 Jun 2013, 03:16

My request to the US Copyright Office to make the exemption of circumvention of hardware permanent for mobile computing devices

My request to the US Copyright Office to make the exemption of circumvention of hardware permanent for mobile computing devices

Originally submitted by emil10001 on Thu, 01/26/2012 - 14:44

I am writing in to request that the exemption of circumvention of copyright protection systems be made permanent for device classes 4 and 5. Not extending the exemption will harm both the consumers and the manufacturers of mobile computing devices. Not allowing software modifications may violate the license of the software that the manufacturers use.

The ability for a community of users to legally, and easily, alter or replace the firmware that has shipped with their devices has made a large impact on the mobile computing world. Communities have picked up support for many smartphones and tablets and have continued development for these platforms long after the manufacturer had dropped support for them. This has increased the value of the hardware to the consumer. A consumer who has the ability to purchase a device, for which a community supported firmware is offered, will be assured that their device will be supported for an appropriate amount of time. They will be able to feel comfortable in that their major investment in such a rapidly changing technology will not be a poor investment, only providing them with six months, or a year’s support on a device that they are contractually stuck with for two years. It is in the manufacturer’s best interest to cultivate such a community and to encourage development of this sort. However, in cases where the manufacturer is disinterested, or prevented by the mobile network operator, the consumer should not be punished. Instead, the consumer should be provided the basic protection of being allowed to use their device as they see fit, for as long as they can make their device useful, and as long as they are not doing harm – which would be a separately addressable issue anyway.

Further, many devices ship with software licensed under the GPL. In order to comply with the GPL, manufacturers must provide source code and other necessary pieces to their consumers. Limiting the consumers’ ability to use the provided code would at the very least violate the intent of the GPL, but it may also violate the letter of the license. The GPL is used as a license to ensure that the code contributed for free by the large community of software developers, like myself, is not stolen by large corporations, with large budgets, and put to use in proprietary systems. Rather, we require that code that we release under the GPL be made available, such that users can modify it to fit their needs. If the exception for circumvention is not made permanent, it could have a chilling effect on the mobile computing industry, as manufacturers of devices might be put in a difficult position of not being able to use the operating systems that their consumers demand (Android).

Thank you, emil10001

Help the EFF’s efforts in this cause here.

17 Jun 2013, 03:16

Oppose PROTECT-IP

Oppose PROTECT-IP

Originally submitted by emil10001 on Wed, 11/02/2011 - 10:01

I wrote a letter to Congress, and you can too! The PROTECT-IP act, if passed, has the potential to break the internet. Claims could be made about a website that the operators of that site would be unable to defend, and their site would be permanently blacklisted. My letter follows.

Oppose S. 968: Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act of 2011

Dear Sen. Bill Nelson and Sen. Marco Rubio:

I oppose S. 968 (“Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act of 2011”) because as the owner of a small internet based business, this bill has me worried. If passed, it has the potential to kill my business. Someone could claim that I am infringing on their copyright, and without my knowledge, or ability to defend myself, my site could be blacklisted, and I would be unable to continue to get new business. Potential clients might see this as a black-mark and avoid doing business with me.

While I do not host much in the way of video, I have posted several videos that I have recorded. Someone could make the claim that I was not the owner. I also have a site that mainly consists philosophical essays, and someone who might be offended by this may claim that I have stolen their work. There are many other dangers that arise from such a piece of legislation as this bill.

As I see it, you run the risk of putting many legitimate businesses in jeopardy by passing this bill. You would break the internet’s architecture. And, you would be trampling free speech. I fail to see how this could possibly be something worth supporting.

emil10001 Florida’s 22nd district

This letter is pending delivery to Sen. Bill Nelson [D, FL] and Sen. Marco Rubio [R, FL].