I'm Alex Kearney, a PhD student studying Computer Science at the University of Alberta. I focus on Artificial Intelligence and Epistemology.

I talk a lot about travel, dev, yeg, grad-school, indieweb, japan 2019, japan, art, tech, and article

I’ve finally fixed my laptop 👩🏼‍💻✨

I need to pick a favourite twitter handle for my intern directory page: an unexpectedly overwhelming decision.

  • Went to a story slam
  • Ate pasta
  • Watched The Post and The Irishman
  • Went to Dylan's choral recital

  • Reviewed a book
  • Had Katya over for coffee
  • Lost my keys
  • Found a glove I lost mid-December in a snow-drift
  • Started converting research code into reusable libraries
  • Worked on a sweater
  • Lost a lab-mate
  • Started flat hunting

  • went up to Canmore to visit my parents
  • tried to go skiing; parking for sunshine was lined up to the highway
  • went on a cafe crawl
  • started reading american gods
  • had a new-years hackathon party
  • karaoke with all the cool kids
  • got my visa application in order
  • took a breather after holiday madness
  • started reviewing a book

Thoughts on what I will and won't do in 2020: reclaiming attention and quality time.

Dylan and I had a really busy end of the year. Between his family's Christmas parties and my family's Cristmas parties, and our friends' Christmas parties there wasn't room to breathe. During the chaotic final weeks of 2019, I noticed something: In spite of the hectic social schedule, I felt way better than most of the preceding year. It had been over a week since I looked at slack, at reddit, or any real idle media. You know, the stuff that fills the gaps in life when you're too tired or too burnt out to do anything else.

I want to keep that feeling going. Here's my analysis of it and plan to keep the party rolling in 2020.

A Disclaimer

A grad student once told me it was a shame that I spent so much time knitting. The implication being that time knitting is time I could've spent doing research. The joke's on them. The time I spent knitting left me relaxed and ready to do good work while draped in cozy, bespoke knitwear.

I'm not on a quest to become a technological Ubermensch. I'm not trying to optimise my life to make my code that much better. I just want to feel good and do cool things, not chase an impossible ideal.

Modified Project Cyclops

First, I'm going to be more careful with how I spend my attention.

CGP Grey had a great post on attention where he introduced project cyclops. Grey noticed that he had been fractured by so many attention grabbing things. It culminated in an announcement that he was going to take a hiatus from social media to recalibrate. Grey wanted to be able to focus on meaningful tasks for long periods of time, and felt that activities like listening to podcasts, or cruising social media were training him to not be able to maintain that focus.

Figuring out what's splicing attention resonates with me. I've thought a lot about what's bogarting my time over the past couple of years, and have made some mostly positive changes. Two years ago, I felt that online conversations were pulling me in too many directions. That I wasn't able to get as much done because of online chats. I used to be a regular on a number of IRC channels, and spent too much of my time juggling between various messaging apps. By no means was in the top quartile of messagers, but I found it straining.

I resolved to spend less time jumping between different online chats. If I was in the middle of something, I would finish that up before tabbing over to a conversation. Emotionally, it was an overwhelming relief to trim online conversations back and focus on the people and activities that are physically around me.

Last year I took my instant-messaging hermitude a step further and turned off most of my notifications. It hurts some of my relationships: friends that are far away are sometimes more difficult to keep in touch with, but the laid-back communication style feels more healthy. When I'm talking to my far-away friends, I'm concentrated on them. I don't feel like I'm being pulled apart at the seams as much.

As helpful as this quietude has been, I've found attention is not the whole picture. Even though I've cut out a number of attention-eating activities, I've never recovered the feeling of productivity and ease that I've hoped to.

It's not just about cutting out activities that are productivity-eaters, it's about replacing them with more restorative activities.

Reflecting back on the holiday season, I didn't feel better just because my attention wasn't on reddit, or I wasn't reading twitter: it's also because the activities that were replacing them were better quality---at least to me.

More Than Attention

Not all leisure is created equally. It's not just about how an activity fractures attention, but what you get out of an activity. The loss when spending time on social media isn't just a lack of productivity. It is also a loss of time that could have been spent on things that make me feel better.

There's a limited amount of not only time, but also energy you can spend on projects. To use a metaphor: you can only drain a battery so much before you have to charge. During some of the more stressful parts of 2019, the biggest issue was not time-management; the biggest road-block to some of the projects I was working on was simply that I did not have the energy to continue working on them.

Not every activity is equally restorative. For me, reading reddit for half an hour doesn't feel as refreshing as, say, knitting for half an hour. Knitting is a better charger than in the battery-filling game than twitter is. The downside of all of this is, the more I'm spending time taking short breaks, the closer I'm getting burn-out.

Working through lunch and spending little chunks of time throughout the day reading forums is a net-negative. I'm getting closer to burn-out even though I might be spending the same amount of time relaxing.

I also need to set better expectations

The chief motivation for these small, useless breaks was to get more done. This is a result of my terrible habit of setting unrealistic expectations for project milestones. I was always crunching to get things done.

In grad-school, you're largely responsible for managing your own progress. From the project timelines, to the actual grunt work, to the administrative overhead. It's just you. You're the PM, the dev, and the administrator.

I was crunching because I was constantly putting the bar too high. The pressure wasn't because rampant procrastination. There were no looming deadlines. I was crunching towards my own self-inflicted nothing.

As a result, I was never really satisfied with progress made. Even when I was making progress, it was less progress than I wanted, so it wasn't good progress.

It's demoralising.

In short

  1. No working through lunch
  2. No reddit
  3. No twitter
  4. Slack and Email at scheduled times of day
  5. Do one thing at a time (no split-screening; no multi-projects)
  6. Double the amount of time you allocate for a task
  7. Build breather room into your schedule

But What am I Going to Do?

This is a lot of talk about what I'm not going to do 2020. What about the things I am going to do? I feel best when I'm building things. In 2020, I'm going to build more things.

I want to make

Last year I worked on a few physical projects. I knit a number of sweaters and socks. I hauled my camera around with me and snapped some shots I'm proud of. I got back into pottery. I took some classes in new crafts.

Working on all these projects was restorative.

I want to continue this into 2020 and focus on doing more with the skills I have, rather than forcing myself through the pangs of early malformed projects.

I want to code

Last year was a big lull for programming: especially personal projects. There's an oddly strong correlation between how grumpy I am and how long it's been since I've worked on a coding project. The best way out of a funk is more programming.

Unfortunately, I've not had much more work to do on my indieweb blog, and I've haven't had many small one-off projects to work on. A rare exception to this coding drought last year was ParityBot. At the beginning of the year I was asked to come help build a twitter bot that tweets out positive messages when it detects hateful tweets. What separated ParityBot from other projects was that I could hop-in and collaborate for a short period of time, and jump out when I was done. It was focused, and I didn't try to over-architect things.

ParityBot was a small project with a clear, achievable notion of success.

In 2020 I hope to tackle more projects that can be either 1) chunked out into small, satisfying pieces; or, 2) can be done over the course of an afternoon.

I want to write

I wrote a bit more last year about personal events (like travelling) and academic things (like my notes): I took hodge-podge notes and turned them into tiny academic posts. This has been useful for me (it forces me to clarify my notes) and it also has been useful for sharing my literature reviews with other students.

This academic-posting two advantages: 1. It's a good way to solidify thoughts. 2. Writing more is the path to writing better.

This year I hope to be more fastidious in my conversion of my lab-notebook into useful posts.

2019 is a wrap Here's what I did last year.

This was a busy academic year. I co-organised a workshop. I took a big leap in my work and submitted some philosophically oriented work to RLDM [1,2], one of which was chosen for a spotlight talk. I received a fellowship from Borealis AI for 2018-2019. I contributed to a few other projects, including a twitterbot for combating online harassment and an exploration of my meta-learning method in a continual learning robotics setting. I ended up presenting at a philosophy workshop in Porto.

Most importantly, this year I passed my candidacy exam. The only thing separating me from completing my PhD is my thesis.

I did some career development this year. As I chart out the end of grad-school, I've started queuing up internships to try a few roles out. Oddly, all of the work I've done is research-oriented. I've never had an industrial job before.

I managed to snag a ticket to Grace Hopper Conference. Last year I spent most of GHC managing the group of. While rewarding, I didn't really get to focus on experiencing the conference myself. This year, I got to meet a lot more people, and have a much better idea of how I could fit into different organisations.

I've put off internships mostly because of the interview process. Getting prepped for technical interviews and taking the time to actually sit them means re-directing a significant amount of energy away from the research and projects I'm working on. I can't do everything all the time. I finally bit the bullet this year and did some interviews. Although a small thing, it's a big milestone for me. It's not as scary as I made it out to be. It even paid off: I'm going to be working at Twitter for a few months in the new year and have more interviews queued up.

I worked on more diverse creative projects this year. I tackled projects in some new mediums and some old mediums. I used to be a very active potter in high-school and one of my greatest regrets is not keeping it up. Pottery is one of those meditative arts that takes all of your focus and attention: a good diversion during the crush of grad-school life. This year, Maren and Anna invited me to come join their pottery class. Seven years without practice, but I've still got it.

I tried new crafts including natural dying and embroidery and knitting socks. In the final hours of 2019, I even managed to help Kat spin up a knitting machine. Hopefully the skills from these humble projects will prove useful in 2020.

I got a lot of travelling done this year. There was hardly a month where I wasn't on the move. Some of my trips were big productions, years in the making. I went to Japan for three weeks after my candidacy exam. This was my first trip to Asia and the biggest trip since I went down the Danube in 2016.

Some of my trips were spontaneous. Dylan and Mikayla invited me sea-kayaking around the Johnston Strait, where we saw orcas and waded through the mist.

Most of my trips were tacked onto work-related trips where possible. The workshop in the Barbados had opportunities for me to go diving for the first time in four years. I went to RLDM and spent time meeting up with friends and enjoying the art galleries. I eeked out a chance to see the Tate modern for the first time in ten years during a layover. I presented some of my work in porto and had a chance to explore the city while visiting with a research group. I take the chance to explore where I can get it.

I really improved my photography this year---especially travel photography. I spent a lot more time carrying around a camera, and it shows. Even just slipping my little point-and-shoot in my pocket has provided a lot of opportunities. It helps that Dylan is patient and encouraging: sometimes even joining me to freeze late at night on a quest to get a good shot of the stars.

I picked up development on my indieblog. I started the year off trying to add more social protocols and interface better with federated sites like mastodon. After wrestling with web-specs and confirming, yes, I was implementing them as specified I gave up. I learned a lesson from this: working on more protocols is fun programmings sake. Adding webfingers and trying to doesn't make, nor does it really change the accessibility of my blog.

After learning this lesson, I spent the rest of the year making minor chages to encourage better usability. The bulk of this turned out to be small UI changes to make it more comfortable to post, but I did also add some smaller features.

1) This year involved a lot travel, and I added a wysiwyg editor to quickly chart out my trips and resolve placenames to geo coordinates.

2) I wanted to spend more time on academic posts, so I added mathjax for mathematical type-setting on my blog.

3) I have an impression video is the future, so I added a dead-easy manual way to add videos to my site.

It's these small, quick changes that have proven to be the most useful, but it's had an unexpected consequence...

I didn't do a lot of programming this year and it's a shame. One of the greatest joys in (my) life is programming. There's a clear---and positive---reason why I've done less programming this year: my indieblog is stable. Much of the external programming projects were small incremental additions to my blog. There's not much more I feel like adding. I have all the bells and whistles I need to sustain myself for the time being (although there's always maintenance and refactoring to do). Most of the changes I would want to make would require lots of effort. I started this project midway through university. There's a lot of cruft, cowboy code, and naivete to clear out. I don't have the gumption to do it.

I think it's time for a new big project.

Dylan and I rang in the new year with a project night at Kat and Rory's. Kat has an old knitting machine that we managed to get going again---a passap vario. By 2:30 in the morning, we had our first machine knit project: a cape.

It feels good to ring in the new year with a silly and achievable project. I've learned something new, I've made something small, and the year's just begun.

Cafe crawling through Canmore.

Dylan and I made our way up to Canmore this weekend. We stopped by the old lake I used to swim in as a kid to try some astrophotography. I captured Rundle mountain with a whisp of the milky way streaking up after a little practice.

There's still a lot to figure out, but I'm happy with my first attempt.