The colorful wolf

February 18, 2011

To appreciate beauty

Filed under: Thoughts — randy @ 21:47

I’m not sure how to write about this, but here goes. I was thinking about what truly motivates me, and I realized that there are not a lot of things that do. Most importantly, I am having trouble finding the true motivation required to start a company. I still don’t have the dedication to work on something until I drop dead from exhaustion. I know I could do that if I truly believed in my goal. So I reason that, because I don’t have the dedication, I must not truly believe in my goal. Here’s why.

Why do people start a company? Some people are genuinely entrepreneurial. They enjoy doing company-y things, and they have fun doing it. They enjoy making money, and finding out new ways of making more money. I really don’t. Of course I won’t be unhappy if I make a lot of money, but I can’t see it as a goal. If anything, it’s a nasty workaround that is required to reach a different goal. When I was working as a salaryman it was quite easy to motivate myself. I was doing something that people I knew depended on. By doing my job I could make their lives better. There wasn’t any major need to justify the things I did because it was part of the company culture, and everybody depended on things continuing in the way they were. I’m not saying that’s good, because it isn’t, but it is easy to stay motivated like that. You’re given missions, and you accomplish them. Easy as mud pie.

But when you’re the one giving out the orders, you have to think a lot more about the ‘why’ of things. Entrepreneurs do that with a clear goal. They think “I genuinely want to make this company a success, and I enjoy working for this cause”. I can pretend to think in this way, but no matter how hard I try, I cannot reproduce the genuine feelings. Because to me, that’s not really what it’s about.

So what is it about? For the longest time I did not know the answer to that question, and was not close to reaching it at all. But now I think that I found the one thing that truly motivates me. As the title says, it is to seek out and appreciate the beautiful things in the world. It’s a beautiful thing to say exactly because the word ‘beautiful’ is beautifully subjective and beautifully vague. That sentence probably means something slightly different to everyone who reads it. To me, I have an inner sense of things that I think are beautiful, and all of my best moments in my life are associated with that word. A beautiful piece of source code, a beautiful landscape at a beautiful time of day, seeing a very happy person walk down the street. Even finding a set of beautifully elaborate connections between various internet memes and animes is something I consider to be beautiful.

In purely biological terms, this means that I want to live a life where I can link as many concepts as possible to the concept of ‘beauty’ in my brain. I then want to proceed to trigger these brain cells as much as possible over the course of my life. This requires me to experience a lot of things, because beauty fades over time, and also because you need a strong contrast with less beautiful things so that you can better appreciate the beauty.

After I finished writing the above, I realized that there’s quite a strong connection between the word beauty and the word happy. Interestingly enough we can only use the term ‘happy’ for people, yet we can ascribe the concept of beauty to inanimate objects, even though beauty is entirely subjective and created only by the mind of the person experiencing it. My concept of beauty is perhaps also linked to the concept of ‘Quality’ referred to in the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. That’s a book I highly recommend by the way.

To round it off, I am fairly certain that finding and appreciating [whatever my mind interprets as] beauty is what I live for. There is nothing else in the world that could motivate me more, and everything I do is more or less connected to the idea of finding and experiencing beauty. It’s yet another part of myself that I managed to define just a little bit more clearly.


February 9, 2011


Filed under: Cycling,Dutch,Photography,Thoughts — randy @ 17:23

Bicycle status: bad. The chain is rattling. The brakes are weak. The front brake line has a hole in the protective plastic and is starting to rust. The handlebars are already rusting, which is visible through the gum tape that’s sliding off in some places. In other words, it’s ready for a good old adventure trip!

Well, except for the leak in the tire. After a couple of days I find myself with a flat rear tire, yet I cycled for an hour today and didn’t notice any trouble. It’s just slowly deflating. Fortunately I’ve still got a spare inner tube. Unfortunately that spare inner tube is a used one that I replaced because it was also slowly deflating. I guess it’s time for a new one.

The weather here is getting better. It’s been storming for almost a week non-stop, but finally the sky is clearing up a bit and the wind is slowing down. The sunlight is harsh. Bleak. It’s one of those hard-to-place things that I don’t like about Holland. The sun might be shining at its brightest, yet it doesn’t make you feel warm. It doesn’t make things look warm, even. It limits photographic opportunities and it limits my excitement to go out and take photos. The sun plays no tricks here. In Holland, the colors are always the same.

I tend to prefer warm colors when I take photos, and I usually edit them in if they’re not there in the first place. At least to my own perception this tends to make places look nicer than they really are. In the next two photos, rather than just slapping on a bunch of warm colors, I tried to represent reality a bit better.

Webster says this about ‘bleak’:

1. exposed and barren and often windswept

2. cold, raw

3. a: lacking in warmth, life or kindliness

3. b: not hopeful or encouraging

3. c: severely simple or austere

Without a doubt, all of these definitions apply to the part of Holland that I am living in. If only it could be more colorful.

February 8, 2011

The irony of procrastination, part two

Filed under: Thoughts — randy @ 18:51

Ignore the previous post, procrastination is a great thing and the world needs it.

If I spend hours and hours on end ‘working’, I get the job done, but, depending on the task, I can be more productive with a decent amount of procrastination. After staring at the same screen for hours you can lose track of what you’re doing. With just a little bit of procrastination to loosen your mind you may find yourself solving the problem in five minutes instead of five hours. Keeping the mind creative and free is extremely important, and procrastination helps.

A recent practical example comes to mind. I was thinking about how to design a website for a mobile phone. In-between learning about html, xhtml and whatnot I got bored and checked Hacker News, which happened to feature JQuery Mobile, a framework for building mobile websites. It was exactly what I needed, popping up in front of me at exactly the right time, but there are other examples of less convenient timings as well. I learned about Django, Hibernate, SQLite, Android mostly by procrastinating, reading articles about those topics while working on projects that had nothing to do with them. The knowledge lingers in my brain and helps me make decisions at a later stage, for example when deciding which server-side framework to use, or how to store data on a mobile device. If I had just kept my head down and kept programming I would not have learned a lot of  topics.

Mostly though, I really want to emphasize that among all the people I know, the people who procrastinate the most are also the most interesting to talk to. On the scale of salaryman versus freedom loving hippies, procrastinators are tending towards the fun side. And that might be more important in life than just being productive.

(but it might not be…)


February 7, 2011

The irony of procrastination

Filed under: Tech,Thoughts — randy @ 20:44
Tags: ,

Programming is not fun. The perfect piece of software is also the most boring piece of software. Even the most exciting project consists of 90% boring code and only 10% exciting code, and that’s an optimistic estimate. So what do I do when I am faced with a boring task? I procrastinate.

When I procrastinate I know that I’m doing something wrong. I feel guilty for it, so I punish myself by doing other tasks that I don’t like to do, or by watching a movie, but not the movie I really wanted to watch. In other words, I am an expert at wasting time. I do realize this, and lately I’ve been developing even more elaborate excuses in philosophical directions. “I don’t want to work on this because I don’t believe it will make money.”, “I don’t want to work on this because I can think of something better. (but I haven’t), “I don’t want to work on this because life is meaningless and we’re all going to die”. My reality distortion field could use some improvement.

A project I’m working on right now involves building an online shopping system (well, sort of) consisting of a mobile website and an administrator area. It’s not the most exciting project to begin with, but even then there are parts of the project that I like to work on more than others. For instance, dealing with user registration and authentication is an incredibly boring thing to do, and has little to no relation at all to the business logic. It’s something I just want to get over with as quickly as possible, yet I can’t. Code like this requires time and attention to detail. It has to be properly tested and properly thought out, otherwise obvious bugs will appear. I am frustrated that I cannot program this part of the project any more quicker. Despite all the programmer optimizations like a brilliant library with pre-made components, dual screens, superfast IDE hotkeys, a development server that redeploys automatically whenever you save a file, fact is that there is still a minimum amount of time that must be spent to get a task like this done properly.

And that’s where the reverse-logic comes in. The task is boring. The time required is more than expected. Why not stop working and surf the net for a while? And then watch a movie? And then go downstairs and walk around a bit? And then it’s time for dinner. And then you’ve completely forgotten about the task until you come back to your PC and your IDE is still there, staring back at you.

Even if you’re only making progress very slowly, progress is progress. Even if you fail, you will have learned something. Another project I’m working on involves text detection. I spent about a week learning the basics, reading and misunderstanding papers. I spent another week teaching myself how to do a specific machine learning technique. The results were horrible. None of my training methods worked. Even though I failed at this particular way of doing it, I learned a lot about the theory and the tools involved.

Doing anything is better than doing nothing. Or more specifically, if you want to accomplish task A then doing a very tiny bit of work on task A is better than doing a lot of work on task B. I honestly don’t have the patience to work on the same task for a very long amount of time, which is why I chose to work on multiple projects at once. I do tend to prioritize whichever project is at a more ‘fun’ state, but I rarely if ever let a project lie dormant for longer than two days. I’m quite happy with the way I’m developing now, except for one thing: procrastination. I need to build up some developer stamina so I can keep coding for longer periods of time without losing interest.

Lastly, going off on a tangent for a bit, one of the things that helps keep me motivated is pride in ownership. It’s the thing I hated the most about extreme/pair programming: the code produced is extremely generic, and after you’re done with it it’s no longer your responsibility. That does not motivate me at all. Much like the rest of my generation I don’t believe in a blame culture, but that doesn’t mean you can just remove ownership on all code and still have as much motivation. Note that I’m not saying anything about quality of the code. If the developer is sufficiently skilled there should(!) be no difference. But at least with an ownership culture you will something very concrete to be proud of.

So, to summarize, my main techniques of fighting procrastination are to do multiple projects at once and to take pride in ownership. The main point though, is to simply spend time on your project, even if your progress is slow. Staring at your IDE for an hour and writing only 10 lines of code is better than watching a movie and writing nothing. Doing this is not easy, especially in the beginning. You have to build it up slowly and strike the right balance.

February 4, 2011

The meaning of life (yet again)

Filed under: Thoughts — randy @ 1:13

I am in the fortunate position of having friends that always seem to more depressed than myself. This is probably part of the reason that I am still sane, because the topic of depression comes up a lot. Oftentimes though, the underlying reason is the same: we all don’t know what to do with our lives.

This article, which is worth reading (and so is the article it refers to), talks about two kinds of motivation: intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. We are taught extrinsic motivation in school and by our parents. They force us to do things we don’t like, and after a while we get good at it and we are rewarded. We grow to like those rewards, and as such we grow to like that which we are good at. Extrinsic motivation is easy. Find something to do, find an appropriate reward, and you’re set for life.

Extrinsic motivation is easy in that you just have to do what other people tell you, and you can feel that you are satisfied by doing that. But if ever your extrinsic motivation fails you, then you will have to look inside yourself for motivation. And that might not be the easiest thing if your main experience is with extrinsic motivation. You will need to learn to reward yourself for whatever it is that you do, and that seems a bit fake to me.

Intrinsic motivation is what separates the machines from the humans, the garbage workers from the philosophers, the masses from the enlightened. I would go so far as to say that if you don’t have intrinsic motivation, your life is not worth living. If everything you do is to get praise from others, then what value is there in your life?

Obviously I wouldn’t say this if I was very extrinsically motivated. But the truth is, although I am very intrinsically motivated, I do not have any strong intrinsic convictions or goals. I’ve got a whole list of things that I don’t care about in life, but I haven’t quite found what I do want to accomplish. I’m searching, of course. I quit my job in London because I realized it was not motivating me at all, and I decided that having no job or working for myself for a while is a better match with my intrinsic goals. I still don’t know what those goals are! For the moment I’ve put in two placeholders: travelling and learning.

Why travelling? Because new experiences will open your mind to new ideas, new concepts, that you would never get if you stayed at home. The Travel Channel on your TV is not a substitute, you actually have to go somewhere to experience it. Travelling is not an end goal for me, but I believe I will get a better understanding of the world by travelling, and as such it should help me to figure out what I want to eventually do with my life.

Why learning? Learning is rather generic. Very practically speaking, when I think about learning, I am thinking about learning new programming languages, new frameworks, new techniques. It is the niche that I am quite comfortable in and in which I can learn new things the fastest and with the least amount of frustration. The other side of learning is actually trying out new things that I know nothing about, like scuba diving, starting a company or investing in stocks. (Note that I generally hate money, but I do think there is value in absorbing information about it).

Some people I know are very extrinsically motivated. The article I cited earlier mentions that being very extrinsically motivated harms creativity. Based on the people I know I can confirm that. But most people I know do have some level of intrinsic motivation. And most of them don’t know what it is that motivates them either. I wonder if people who are both truly intrinsically motivated and know what it is that drives them, are happier than people who are completely extrinsically motivated. Or one might rephrase that as: are stupid people happier than smart people? Probably they are.

I haven’t posted my thoughts on this blog for a while, but reading about extrinsic and intrinsic motivations made me realize something. Lately I tend to be careful with my wording on this blog, especially when I was still searching for a job. I didn’t want potential employers to read something they didn’t agree with. A very cowardly move, in my opinion, especially considering the kind of craziness I would put up on this blog a couple of years ago when I was living the (not-so) wild life in Japan. Right now though, I am committed to my way of life, and writing whatever the hell I want on the internet is part of my way of life. Abstaining from doing something might gain you one thing, but doing it might gain you something else.

Oh, and the meaning of life? 42, of course.

January 31, 2011

I am a digital hoarder

Filed under: Tech,Thoughts — randy @ 20:46

See: compulsive hoarding.

I don’t hoard real-life items at all. In fact I’m quite the opposite. I want my real life to be as light-weight and portable as possible, and therefore I tend to throw away things that other people will still think are useful. In the digital world though, I am quite the opposite. My hard disk tends to fill up more and more and more with unsorted photos, music and videos. When I see a video I like on youtube, I download it. When I listen to a song that I like, I must have it. When I finish watching an anime that I liked I must have everything related to it on my hard drive. It’s become quite the obsession.

But what to do with all that stuff? As a proper IT-savvy person I make regular backups of my stuff, and running a RAID 1 mirror on my most vital possessions means that I’m unlikely to lose anything by accident (fingers crossed). Yet over the years I have accumulated stuff that is unsorted, and so messy that I couldn’t even begin sorting it. Other things are sorted but I’ve lost interest in them. Occassionally I find things on my hard disk that I used to like five or ten years ago, but don’t have any particular feelings about any more. I used to just leave it where it was, but lately I do try to delete stuff, or at least archive it to another place. I tend to enjoy organizing my ‘possessions’, putting everything in the right place, trimming it down wherever possible. It’s like a little garden of digital goodies.

So yes, I am a compulsive digital hoarder. And I’m perfectly okay with that.


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