Saturday, November 2, 2019

On giving up caffeine

As of 2019 I'd been drinking coffee for 15 years. A long time. And for most of that time I couldn't see much reason to give it up. But as I had been working on other habits - diet, exercise, alcohol, tobacco - I wondered: 'what would happen if I was able to stop drinking coffee?'.

So I spent 2019 cutting back, eventually cutting it out of my life completely. This is the story of how I did it, the transition, and after effects.

How I Gave up Caffeine

For years I'd been on a spin-cycle. At first I'd drink more and more coffee as my tolerance grew. Then when I found myself drinking too much I'd cut back, experience some headaches, and start the cycle over again.

Occasionally I'd try to go cold turkey but couldn't handle the withdrawal. Then in late 2018 I realized there was an easier way.

That way was simple - I started mixing the regular coffee beans I bought with caffeine-free ones. There were some hiccups along the way, but for the most part I'd cut the caffeine content in my coffee 2-4% each time I purchased more, and I did this until the mix was completely caffeine-free.

Because I stepped down slowly I had an easier time adjusting to each new level. And by the time I managed to eliminate the caffeine content I wasn't missing it anymore.

Why I Gave up Caffeine

I've always been someone who moves fast. I walk fast, I eat fast, I work fast, I think fast. But it had never dawned on me that the reason I do these things quickly is because my mind moves fast.

Eventually I realized that caffeine was making my mind move even quicker, so quick that it was giving me anxiety. And because caffeine had been a regular part of my life for so long, I missed the connection. I just thought anxiety was a part of who I was.

But after eliminating it from my diet that anxiety dissipated almost completely. My heart rate entered a new even keel, and I felt much more balanced than I had in years.

What Happened as I Quit

When I reached a mix of about 30% regular, 70% caffeine-free coffee it had a profound effect on my day-to-day life. I found myself more grounded, calmer. My observational skills improved markedly, and I was experiencing less anxiety.

I started noticing the little things around me more often, subtleties I had missed while spending so many years overthinking. I started making better decisions, as it was easier to quietly deliberate without reacting spontaneously. With a clear mind I also found it easier to carry on conversation.

I even started enjoying my life more. I found it easier to sit down and focus - whether on TV, books, music, or company - and actually appreciate those things now that my mind wasn't racing.

Later as I tread closer to completely caffeine-free I started sleeping more soundly and regularly, and it became easier, not harder to wake up.

Even stranger I found that I had more energy, not less. Except it was a balanced, calm energy, rather than a frantic over-caffeinated one. I wondered if this could actually be possible?

The Science

Up until I went to university I'd never been a coffee drinker, and some how I'd gotten on fine without it. So how could it be that as adults we're convinced that caffeine is a necessity?

In my experience breaking different addictions I'd tend to believe that I truly needed and enjoyed what I was dependent on.

But addiction is a chicken/egg problem. We consume caffeine because we're reliant on it, and we're reliant on it because we consume it. The consumption perpetuates more consumption, and the kicker - desire.

Where in reality the body is naturally adapted to deal with day-to-day life if you let it do it's thing. It has hormones to wake itself up, hormones to put it to sleep, and for everything else it needs. So in truth caffeine only interferes with what the body does naturally.

And in my past experiences once I broke the addiction I broke the desire too. When I was no longer dependent on a substance, my body started doing that thing naturally, and I stopped craving whatever it was.

After Quitting

After giving up caffeine coffee culture looks strange to me. People spending money on something they don't need, and feeling worse because of it; harder to wake up, harder to get to sleep, stress, and at a greater expense.

And since I've eliminated it from my diet I haven't felt better in a long time, I won't be going back.

Ultimately, caffeine and similar are personal choices, but I share these thoughts because I can now see how unnecessary a caffeinated lifestyle is. I can also see how many have the mistaken assumption that we need it to manage our lives.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Reflections on Software: Ending the Arms Race

My original plan when opening this site was to explore the software industry. But as I continued I realized there were other subjects I wanted to explore just a little bit more. It also dawned on me that writing about the field might not be as important as I first thought.

But with this post I'm going to break that trend and reflect on the industry, why I haven't written about it much, and ending the arms race (or why developers can relax a bit more than they do).

Software as a New Industry

If you take a look at the Stack Overflow Developer Survey from 2019 it's hard to miss that our industry is young - most developers out there are under 35. To me this doesn't point to the innate ability of young people, but rather that there's been an explosion in the number of working developers in the past few decades.

After all, the internet didn't become ubiquitous until the mid-nineties and the industry has only grown since then.

The Software Industry is New. So what?

With the software industry being so new we're seeing rapid change in it's frameworks, management styles, and even government regulations. I won't go into depth here, but this is all to say that we're in the midst of growing pains.

The other facet of this newness is that there's confusion over who qualifies to work in the field, confusion over what any given developer can do, and confusion over how we as developers should manage our careers. Even HR departments tasked with sourcing developers often have a tenuous understanding of the field.

The point I want to drive home here is that because of this confusion there's become a tendency for us developers to project our ability, learning and skills. Our fear that we'll be out of work one day means that we can often be found ramping up our Github, discussing development online, writing blog posts, and so on - exactly the kind of thing I'd be doing if I focused on software at this site. 

Meeting in the Middle

The above situation raises the question, however, of how to rein in the confusion and simplify how we look at development. A question that when answered will hopefully have us realize that showing off our skills isn't so important after all.

My approach to the confusion would be to simplify the definition of what developers actually do.

As developers we're usually hired into organizations with a functional code base, and spend most of our time maintaining and adding to that base, rather than developing new projects. And even when we are involved in new development there's often preexisting code to model the new development after.

All of this highlights that our field is rarely complicated, and that to work in software a few broad skills are often enough:

 - The ability to read, write, and understand code
 - A broad enough understanding of software to adapt to new technologies
 - An ability to solve abstract problems

Ideally we have some soft skills too, but if we limit the conversation to the production of code we're faced with this question:

Do we have a basic understanding of how software works, and do we have the ability to write it

That's it. It doesn't matter which technologies we've used, which side projects we've worked on, if we have a blog, or are involved in open source. All that matters is that we have a mindset for producing software, a history of doing so, and a genuine interest in the field.

And so everyone who's working in the software industry can bank on this point. Hiring managers need to make sure that their hires meet these criteria, and developers should make sure they meet them too.

Rather than focusing on every last skill, no matter how minor, focus on broader understanding and ability.

Pulling it Back Together

So to turn back to my original comment - why I haven't been writing about the field - it's because the industry doesn't need more people writing about it.

In the midst of the confusion and in the race to express our know-how the knowledge out there on the software industry is astounding. That amount of knowledge is in fact so vast that it's possible to learn anything we want to given enough time, energy, and motivation.

And so while I've considered writing new posts about software since opening this site, my ideas always felt trite or unnecessary. The truth is that I can't say much that hasn't already been said somewhere else, and by someone who likely said it better than I could anyway.

Where's the Humanity?

But if I did have to offer a prescription for both new and old developers, it'd be to focus less on technical skills alone, and to embrace subjects that are far afield from our industry.

In my eight year foray into development I've been much more likely to find developers who are too focused on code, than I am developers who can't solve problems. The truth is - all of us can program - but our real increase in productivity comes from defining problem spaces, learning how to work with a team, understanding our domain, and bringing disparate knowledge into our work.

And beyond productivity broadening our minds makes us better humans, which can be meaningful for reasons beyond job security.

Wrapping Up

The truth is that our field isn't that interesting, and needs no more explanation than any other skilled trade. For a person with the right mindset it's not even that difficult to do well. There's no magic involved or silver-bullet to become ten times more productive. Like other trades, our skill level correlates with our commitment to improving our craft, our commitment to learning.

And for those who have a track record of getting things done there's never going to be a shortage of business owners willing to leverage their skill to solve problems and build products.

So maybe it's time for us to sit back, relax, and end the arms race. To take our roles seriously and commit to continuous improvement, but also recognize that if we can write software well that we don't have much to worry about in terms of career security.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

A Review of 'Deep Work' by Cal Newport

Deep Work by Cal Newport gives an overview of 'Deep Work', why he considers it so important in the modern world, and a few ideas for getting more of it into your life. In this post I'll be going over the book's content with a short review at the end.

To the author the most important, challenging, and meaningful work we can do in our lives is done via long periods of uninterrupted focus. And so he considers it a central task of the modern worker to organize their life in a way so they can get more important things done via that focus.

What's interesting to me here is that to most this is obvious, but the idea is now relevant again with the rise of a barrage of apps sapping our time and attention. Because we live in such a distracted world there's now room for a title like Deep Work to remind us how to get things done.

A Summary

The title is broken out into two sections -  the first outlines what deep work is and why the author believes it's so important, and the second outlines rules for getting more of it into your day-to-day life.

Section One: The Idea

Newport goes into quite a bit of depth in this section, and I would definitely recommend reading the book, but the central idea of the title can be be tied up fairly tidily.

He argues that in the modern workplace (and sometimes at home, too) people find themselves in a constant state of distraction. Instant messaging, e-mail, and social media keep us focused on what he calls shallow work: stuff that keeps us busy but that isn't very important.

This distraction causes a drag on our time and attention, making it harder to do anything that's challenging and takes focus - deep work. And in such a distracting world this creates an opportunity for people who are able to manage their attention to get things done.

Section Two: The Rules

In this section the author lays out four chapters, each offering rules and ideas to put deep work into practice. The chapters all have a guiding theme, but moreover serve as collections of ideas and anecdotes.

Work Deeply

The brunt of this chapter covers philosophies for working deeply. For example, the 'Monastic' where a person becomes a recluse and focuses on deep work exclusively. Or the 'Bimodal' where a person focuses half of their time in distraction, and the other half focusing.

The idea was that if a person wants more focus throughout their day they should lay out a plan for how they're going to manage their attention.

Embrace Boredom

In this chapter the author describes boredom as a muscle that needs to be flexed. He explains that people default to social media and search for the next adrenaline rush at every opportunity. Five minutes of downtime? Check your phone. Have nothing going on? Turn on your laptop.

The problem is that we end up spending our lives always checking social media and searching for the next distraction, without ever breaking free and latching onto those things that take effort and provide value and meaning. And by embracing bored moments we become more able to flex this muscle and focus when we need to.

The author goes on to recommend splitting up the time you spend on distracting things, from the time you spend doing important work. Set a policy and stick to it, which he argues will help build your willpower. 

Quit Social Media

In this section Newport recommends quitting social media for 30 days. He reasons that this will give a sense of which accounts you need, and which don't really do much for you.

He explains that people view sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter as default parts of their lives, but when you look at them through a different lens they're just forms of entertainment, and if you don't visit or post most people won't notice.

So a break helps you understand which of these sites are just a drain on your time. And if they do serve no purpose Newport recommends quitting them completely.

Drain the Shallows

In this chapter the author explains the difference between demanding and non-demanding work, and strategies for limiting the non-demanding (or shallow) work from your schedule.

There wasn't really a central focus here, just a set of ideas like becoming harder to reach by email, strategies on how to respond to email, how to schedule your work day, and setting a shallow work budget. 

A Review

I'm not a big reader of books like this, but after reading an article on this title I thought I'd give it a try.

I often find that the popular non-fiction I read doesn't have much depth, is filled with noise, and the ideas in them can be a bit vague. But in this title I found a fair amount of substance.

While it could be repetitive at times all of the chapters had something substantial to offer, and the layout and writing was well executed. It was also a quick and enjoyable read. And while I've laid out the brunt of it in this post, there's plenty more in the book.

Overall, if you're interested in doing more with your time I'd definitely recommend checking it out.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

How western cultural values set us up for failure

A few months ago the hair salon I'd been visiting for a few years closed. I'd gotten to know a few hairdressers at that location, but when I switched to a local First Choice I was at the behest of a new group of people (ok, mostly women).

I've only visited the First Choice a handful of times so far, but let me tell you, there are some interesting women working at the location on Oxford and Gammage. Not one, but two of them have escaped their country of birth to come to Canada. The first came from Poland when it was under Soviet control, and the second came from a war torn Kosovo.

I won't spend too much time on emigration, but what amazed me about these women was that they had come to Canada and started a family from practically nothing. They were hard-working, likely didn't have much money, but were making a life anyway.

After meeting them I couldn't help but take a look at myself.

Truth be told, I've had a fear of failure since finishing up at school. No matter what I do or how well things are going there's a persistent voice in my head that tells me not to screw up. I've had the notion that anything but financial success was something I couldn't accept.

Then I got my haircut, and found out my hairdresser and her husband who drives for Uber are raising three kids.

And that's when it dawned on me - it's not the worry of money problems that really bothers me, it's the crushing expectations that come from growing up in the middle class, being of Western European descent, and a natural Canadian citizen.

Growing up my parents weren't wealthy, but made good salaries and retired with cozy pensions. I made it through post-secondary without much debt, and have had a number of once-in-a-lifetime experiences. All things considered I've lived a charmed life. 

People like me grew up in a culture where wealth was the primary indicator of someone's worth - where social status, trips, cars, homes are what signal your success to others. A culture that fetishized the rich, obsessed over productivity, and tirelessly thought about how to make more money. All at the expense of things that really matter - family, relationships, character, ethics.

But then, there's my hairdresser who came from a country torn apart by war and raised three children. Who may not have a glamorous retirement filled with travel, but she has a family. She may have problems, but she survives.

Thinking about the life my hairdresser leads I can't help but think that the real source of our misery isn't the usual ebb and flow of our lives, but instead the crushing expectations that come from the Western notion of success.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Going Where People Don't Go: On Studying Central Asia

[This post was originally published Aug. 3rd, 2018]

One of the driving forces of my interest in history comes from wanting to learn about the things that most people don't care about. Like a guy who leaves a party a few hours early, walks to a café, and pulls out an obscure book.

I'm not completely sure what led to my interest in Central Asia, it might have been a few minutes on Google Earth. But at some point in the past few years I was thinking about the countries just south of Russia, their odd names, and realized that I knew nothing about them, their history, or the people who lived there. I'm sure that at the time I had never uttered any of their names before.

And with alumni access to the libraries at the University of Western Ontario there were a huge number of books on the region right at my fingertips. So over a few month span I started checking out titles. The brunt of what I read about at the time were happenings in the region during the Soviet era, but to this day I'm still reading bits and pieces of it's long history.

And even despite my interest there isn't a ton to say to wow my friends, family, or online connections. For the most part the region is poor, close to agrarian (withholding Kazakhstan), with governments that are a hold over from the authoritarian Soviet days. For most of it's history Central Asia has existed as a kind of conduit between Europe and East Asia, landlocked from sea routes, and in the modern era it's held minimal global importance.

Yet to me there is something assuredly worthwhile about studying the region. That thing isn't as much any utility. It's the satisfaction that comes from looking in a place that no one else ever looks, taking a few extra steps around the corner and going somewhere that people don't go. 

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Reflections After Studying the Indigenous

A few years ago a bit of curiosity came over me about the indigenous of North America. Usually when people think about natives they think of the post-colonial era, and the political battles they've had with Europeans, but that's not what interested me. What interested me was what had happened during the thousands of years before Europeans arrived.

I wondered:
  •  How they survived
  •  What their cultural customs were
  •  About their religious beliefs

When I started out down this path it was difficult to find books on the topic, as a lot of what I came across focused on the colonial era. But with enough persistence I eventually stumbled on some decent books that had both compiled missionary accounts and given a good overview of how natives actually lived.

And after going through the books it seems like many Canadians have had their views of the indigenous shaded by the caricatures we see of them in popular media. Many of us look at Native culture as flat, two-dimensional, and, even if sub-consciously, inferior to the European brand, while in reality their lives were much more interesting than given credit for.

And while it may be true that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle was a simpler mode of life, it was really just that - a lifestyle granted to communities who were in a different stage of technical progress, and who were based in a different environment.

But I digress.

The Indigenous in Contrast

What fascinated me the most about the Native way of life was the essentialism of their lifestyle. Because the majority of tribes in North America hadn't developed robust agriculture, their technologies were still fairly unspecialized. This meant that their way of life was 'close to the land' as they say, in sharp contrast to the Agrarian societies of the world.

The things they did to survive were closely tied to seasonal cycles, and subject to famine and the elements. They were close to nature.

This created a situation where the lives of different tribes were tightly tied to the environment they lived in. If they lived in the Arctic they could only hunt for animal life that lived there, and they could only build housing from the materials they had available to them. If they lived in Mexico they could only produce alcohol from the plant-life indigenous to that region, the Agave. 

But at the same time, and this is the kicker, when you pared back the complexity that was present in fuller, Agrarian societies of the world the basic elements of life were still there. Natives were not much different than those living in Europe:

  • their lives centered around finding food
  • they developed communities with a hierarchical structure
  • the family unit existed
  • they developed and discovered drugs and alcohol
  • conflict was a problem
  • tribal groups had religions and creation stories
The Agave

Indigenous Religion

One of the big reasons I set out to study natives at all was to learn about their religious customs. I've been studying religion for a few years, and the beliefs of hunter-gatherers was something that I'd not come across yet. 

One major thing I ended up noting here was that the religions of the indigenous were similar to that of Europeans in that they all contained a creation story. Before the invent of science the people of most communities around the world had a need to explain their existence, and so wherever you went in the Americas you'd find natives with beliefs about the world's creation and the Gods who controlled things.

The other major aspects of their customs were animism and educational myths.

On the first part, they believed that the animals they hunted had spirits, and that if they respected these animals it would lead to more successful hunts.

On the second part, in the majority of native tribes there came to be myths that were instructive for their youth. Children were taught that survival in the wilderness was serious, and that they had to adhere to strict rules and customs if they wanted to survive.

Flipping Over to Africa 

After studying the natives of North America I also spent some time with African culture. And in a lot of ways their lives were analogous with their North American counterparts. If someone wanted to study modes of living as a whole they wouldn't want to contrast different groups of hunter-gatherers, but rather hunter-gather communities with agrarian and modern ones.

On the whole I found it surprising how closely the lives of the African indigenous paralleled those in North America. Similar religions, similar hunting methods, similar tribal structures and habitation. In some sense their lives came about because that's what the environment dictated.

Wrapping Up

I know that blog posts and articles often have a teachable, lesson, or insight, but this one doesn't. Instead, this is just a topic that I've been interested in reading and writing about, and this site gives me a vehicle to do that writing. 

With subjects like this I'm also getting into territory where few people would have any interest, but that's not a concern. A while back I was writing on Medium and over time you could see the things people writing about becoming a bit clickbaity, and based on topics that would gather wide audiences, and inevitably profit. I'm not writing for profit, or for any other reason beside it being an enjoyable way to spend my time, and share with friends, family, and acquaintances.

And in that way writing about stuff like this is serving an even greater purpose than making money: doing something in my life that isn't about making money.