jstanier Here be dragons.

Fever dreams

I’ve been ill these last 4 days. We’ve both been ill. I’d been hit pretty hard by something bordering flu, but @eleventhleft took the full force of illness, combining flu with a horrid chesty cough where she completely lost her voice. After coming home on Friday to a poorly, struggling partner, I did my best to provide soup, medicine and general care.

As the evening progressed, I could hear a slight wheeze in my own throat. More time passed, and I’d entered that hot-cold-hot phase where within minutes you can be wearing infinitely too few clothes and then infinitely too many. In order to distract ourselves until we were able to move from the sofa, we indulged in a marathon of Michael Portillo’s Great British Railway Journeys.

Michael started in Rebecca’s home city of Carlisle and, over the course of 5 episodes, travelled through the Lake District, down the east coast via Kendal and Liverpool, making his way to Alton. A key facet of the history of life in the North and the birth of the railways therein was the Industrial Revolution, where cities like Manchester became global powerhouses in manufacturing. In each episode, Portillo visited a number of factories including Carr’s, somewhere I forget in Kendal, known for its eponymous mint cake, and one of the UK’s largest sheet glass producers.

Being a relaxing program, and feeling terribly ill, I slipped in and out of something resembling consciousness over the course of a few hours. By bed time, I had a terrible sinus-induced throb putting pressure on the back of my eyes. All I really wanted was to maintain blotto throughout the night, but I had slipped into a fever and my dreams were consumed by having to work in a ceramics factory, not unlike one visited by Portillo, and I was stressed and panicking at the overwhelming speed of the production line. Stacks of chalky bowls and pots kept arriving to be moulded and fired in unbearable heat. I couldn’t keep up and dear me, did it make my head hurt even more.

To make matters worse, my larynx was emitting honking noises not unlike a goose, resulting in swift pokes in the side to get me to roll over and, in the nicest possible way, to shut up. That night amongst fever I slipped in and out of this factory dream, waking up sweaty and short of breath. When I made it through to almost 7am, I popped downstairs and laid on the sofa where I tried my best to imagine calmness rather than roaring flames and dust.

Staring blankly at the wall, I vividly remembered a similar fever dream I had as a child. I recalled being upstairs in my parents’ house and slipping off into a dark montage, in black and white, of factory workers hammering steel. The repeated pummeling gradually slowed down and reverberated more, with the scene switching between the impact of the hammer to an aeroplane descending from the sky. As the metallic sounds slowed down to a crawl, I’d wake up, bolt upright and shaking.

Next time I get ill, I’ll make sure we watch Sesame Street instead.

A reason to get up in the morning

I had a great video call with an old school friend last night. He is currently living in Silicon Valley as the founder of a VC-backed startup, and for numerous reasons he is going to be moving back to the UK. We touched on a number of meaningful topics, as Old Suttonians inevitably do, but one that I particularly enjoyed talking about was ikigai.

According to Wikipedia:

“The word ikigai is usually used to indicate the source of value in one’s life or the things that make one’s life worthwhile. Secondly, the word is used to refer to mental and spiritual circumstances under which individuals feel that their lives are valuable. It’s not necessarily linked to one’s economic status or the present state of society. Even if a person feels that the present is dark, but they have a goal in mind, they may feel ikigai. Behaviours that make us feel ikigai are not actions which we are forced to take—these are natural and spontaneous actions.”

Being a visual learner, I find this Venn diagram a natural way to understand the concept.

Ikigai Venn

Ideally we should all be nudging aspects of our existence towards ikigai, as research has shown that it increases health and happiness and prolongs life. I’ve also found that you can apply this concept with both broad and narrow focuses. With a broad focus, you can evaluate bigger-picture items in your life, such as whether your current job is cultivating meaning, or whether it is giving you the opportunity to do what you’re best at.

Conversely, with a narrow focus, you can apply that framework to individual aspects of your job. For example, when faced with a barrage of seemingly boring tasks such as an avalanche of email or yet more technical test reviews, you can focus on how your actions have a ripple effect on others in the world. Perhaps if you treat your emails with more care and love, you might make someone smile amongst a handful of thoughtless responses. If you mindfully critique a failed technical test, maybe the applicant will be inspired to skill up and apply again in the future.

The best bicycle I've ever had

Let me tell you a bit about my favourite bicycle. It’s not particularly fast, nor is it made of carbon fibre, and I definitely haven’t seen anyone riding along Catalonian rooftops or completing stages of the Tour de France on it. However, I think it’s the best bicycle I’ve ever had. It’s the humble Brompton.

Before purchasing piqued my interest, I very much perceived the bike as the chosen tool of the sleepy London commuter. In my mind, it was something for dorky-looking people in suits to use to avoid getting on the Underground once they emerge from their Southern Rail train at London Victoria. However, my impression has been thoroughly changed. It’s nothing like that at all.

What the Brompton represents is freedom. Those of you who own non-folding bikes know how much of a pain storage is, both at home and also when you’re out in town. Having to carry a lock around is a hinderance, and if your bike is even slightly desirable then you have to worry about someone getting busy with the bolt cutters while you’re buying some milk. The Brompton solves this issue. I store the bike at home under my stairs. I store it at work next to my desk. I carry it into shops with me. It’s always safe, secure and not exposed to the elements.

The luggage system is magnificent. The front bag latch allows me to heft a lot of weight (I’ve carried multiple tins of paint at times) without carrying it on my back. It’s perfect for my laptop and work stuff. I never have to compromise on what I’m packing in there.

It’s the first bike that I’ve had since childhood that makes me want to go exploring. It’s ideal for weaving through towns and cities, and it fits in the luggage rack of a train or in the boot of a car. It’s great for days out or picnics. It’s extremely comfortable to ride. The Sturmey-Archer hub means that there are no external moving parts in the rear gearing. Very little goes wrong with it, especially when you use Schwalbe Marathon tyres.

Curiously, it makes me feel like a kid again. I used to spend most of my early teenage years cycling around my neighbourhood on a BMX. I used to pop into friends’ houses, go into the newsagents and storm through Nonsuch Park (rather recklessly in retrospect; I’m sorry!). The Brompton ignites that passion for exploration. Even though I’m not as carefree as I was, for the moments that I’m dashing around on my little folding bike, the world is just ever-so-slightly better.

Day in the life

I’ve been reading the latest issue of Offscreen magazine, and one of the features I enjoy is seeing what fellow tech professionals get up to on a day-to-day basis. A lot of the time it’s fairly unexciting, but maybe I just like being nosy. Here’s mine for January 4th.

6:45 - My alarm goes off on my phone, and I wake up. Today is the first day back at work after the Christmas holidays and I haven’t been up this early in a couple of weeks. I head downstairs and make an espresso and some muesli. I read some of my book while I’m having breakfast. I get in the shower.

7:45 - I pack my Brompton bag with my work gear, then glance out of the window as the skies open and a clattering downpour begins. I transfer the contents of my bike bag into my backpack, as I’ll be getting the train with Rebecca instead.

8:00 - We get around the corner to the station to find that the train is cancelled. However, it’s stopped raining…

8:05 - We decide to risk walking in. The risk pays off as we get a lovely walk into work through Preston Park. We secretly follow one of my colleagues who is about 40 paces ahead. He walks pretty fast.

8:45 - I’m in the office. I start sifting through my emails, which were luckily quite few over the Christmas holidays. I sift through any Slack conversation that I’ve missed. I check on some AWS spot instances that I’m using to do some performance testing of a rearchitecture of some of our data platform. I send a quick reminder out about Brighton Java as I’ll be speaking there this week.

9:30 - We have a meeting about the various projects that are going on in Engineering at the moment, and which members of staff are allocated to them. We discuss whether that’s a good balance given everything that we want to achieve, and work out how we should maintain that allocation over the next few months.

11:00 - I join a (late) stand-up about the data platform rearchitecture project, then I head back to my desk to get on with some work.

12:00 - We have a weekly check-in with the CTO about how the rearchitecture project is going. We identify any risks, what the critical path looks like, and whether there’s any more work that we could begin in parallel while we wait for some long-running tests to roll in.

12:30 - I head over to the Earth & Stars for lunch with some of our new starters. We have a great conversation about Facebook’s infrastructure, what it’s like to work at Apple, living in San Francisco, and image recognition.

13:45 - Back in the office. I make a quick Aeropress coffee with Rebecca as we cross paths in the kitchen.

14:15 - I finish writing some automated load tests for the rearchitecture. I set them off running, and monitor the query speed results as they come back. I then record the results alongside the other storage alternatives that we’re considering. I begin preparing for the next stage of load tests that we’re going to do, as we’re hoping to make a technology decision in the next week or so.

16:45 I realise that there are a bunch of things I’m not going to get around to today, so I move them to tomorrow in my to-do list. I do however start arranging my trip to visit the San Francisco office next month, to spend some time working with my team out there.

17:35 I pack up and pop to the breakout area to wait for Rebecca to finish up. I watch the ball during a game of table tennis that’s happening at the moment. It’s quite hypnotic, and I’m rather tired after my first day back. My eyelids get heavy.

17:40 A quick peek out of the window and it’s pouring it down, so we walk to Brighton station to get the train back to Preston Park. We pick up some ingredients for dinner at the other end.

18:30 Vegetables get chopped while we have a conversation about meaning in life and work. We discuss some plans for the future, and how busy our first day back was. We cook, eat and wash up.

20:15 I make a couple of decaf coffees: an espresso for myself, and a cortado for Rebecca.

20:20 We sit down to play Diablo 3. However, after about 30 minutes we discover we’re too tired to concentrate, so we stick an episode of Frasier on instead.

21:30 To bed, for another couple of episodes of Frasier. However, I’m out like a light before the theme tune finishes. See you tomorrow.

Gently does it

It’s inevitable that many use the new year as an opportunity to make changes in their lives. In fact, it’s been quite difficult to avoid seeing the announcements of what people are committing to on social media, whether that be via lists shared on Facebook, or via pictures of the healthier food that folk are starting to prepare for themselves on Instagram. I am fully supportive of resolutions at this time of the year, but I’ve learned one small piece of advice: be easy on yourself.

The self that many wish to inhabit may be many moons away from where the self currently resides. It may take a very long time - maybe longer than a lifetime - to reach the perfect self that is longed for, and that is absolutely fine; without the desire to consistently improve, humanity would be much worse off. Yet, big drastic changes are often very challenging and can cause a lot of stress.

I’ve begun reading Essential Zen Habits by Leo Babauta. I’ve read his blog for a long time. The book introduces a much gentler, kinder approach to introducing new habits into our lives, and softly moulding the ones that we already have. The most telling aspect of this approach is that on day 5 of the first week, the reader is still just contemplating how the change will fit into their routine and where they will find the physical space to do it. The process of making something habitual lasts about 6 weeks, which translates to the first half of the book. The latter half is an index of help and advice for when things aren’t working out, or when the new habit is more difficult than it seems. It’s refreshing to see such a kind and thoughtful approach to change, rather than a chest-pounding mega-list that encourages overwork and burnout.

So far I highly recommend the book, and I’ll be making some small changes throughout the year. The text manages to communicate much more than is committed to paper: the matter is thought-provoking, especially when I consider how strict I often am with myself at work. Be gentle with yourself, as all change is tough. We all can make mistakes and find it hard to be forgiving of our own actions, but often we are crueller to ourselves than we are to others. Aim for small things, softly and slowly, and be forgiving.