Diary week c/ 27 March 2017 also known as Let's start the Brexshit week but this post is not about that

This post was written 1 year ago.
Thu, 30 Mar 2017
This first entry of my new 'diary streak' is brought to you from a hole. - Although come to think of it, I might already be crawling out of it again.

I just remembered this poem: Autobiography in 5 chapters. I think I might be at chapter 3 now. Let's hope so! And onwards and upwards!

So let me write about coding. This is a vast topic. Technology, programming, is big, and is the single most influential thing that is changing how we work, socialise, and do about everything else. Automation of jobs is already happening, and there's going to be more of it. Like Thanh at Desklodge said recently, at some point the prefix "tech" won't make sense anymore, because everything will involve tech somewhere. It will be the default, so there will be no point in calling it "tech something" anymore.

The tech industry is amazing, daunting, enabling and illness-promoting at the same time. I am absolutely fascinated by it, I by now definitely feel I'm part of it, and it is massive. It has changed my life profoundly and has or is going to, change everybody else's, too.

If you work in tech, especially if you work as a software programmer or web developer, you live precariously. Your mental health is under constant attack (physical health, too, but I think that's easier to mitigate), that is how I see it now. Sitting at a desk for hours, looking at a screen, typing into a keyboard, is not that well suited to human nature for one thing. But a lot of jobs entail that. Programming, if you are not very confident and fast at it, makes you feel like a complete idiot a lot of the time. There is a lot of time pressure, and there will be periods where you get stuck and you will not see much progress for a while. Estimating how long things are going to take is notoriously difficult. Also, you need to keep many things in your head concurrently, and you need to be able to understand code that people have written in gung-ho ways, not thinking of their successors very much (just make the thing work..)

Now, in my own life, I have a really really difficult relationship with coding. For one thing, I think I have not learned it in the best way. I for a long time applied a very unstructured trial-and-error way to get things working, pulling thousands of levers here and there, till I might get a combination where things work. And I sometimes still take that approach, till I realise I must isolate things and start from really small. Build something really small that is working. My confidence is not very good at all, and if that is met with people having low expectations of me, a perfect match is made and I go down, down, down very quickly. The trouble is that the low confidence then often prevents you from getting better, it's absolutely a self-fulfilling prophecy. So, I have progressed over 10 years or so (!) very slowly. But I do know that I can program now, which is a massive relief. Still, there are enough ways left to beat yourself up if you choose to, and I have to fight a constant battle over not choosing to do that. Ms K S Durrani. Katja Self-sabotage Durrani. Shit, when I read that, why am I still here?? And is it just an excuse I am making there? "Haha, you say you are self-sabotaging, when in fact you just aren't very good." - Well, I have a huge interest in overcoming that part of me, I will keep on trying for as long as I can. I always think when I'll manage to keep it in check, then I can help others to do the same. Not only the self-sabotage thing, low confidence in general. If I manage to learn and build stuff, then I can show that it can be done, that that beast that some past well- and not-so-well-meaning figures in your life have planted inside you, can be tamed. I by now see myself as having a long-term condition. There is no point in even trying to get rid of it. You have to learn to live with it. And here's the thing. I think more and more people are living with this kind of beast these days, and it's not only women. We keep collectively digging ourselves into holes. And there is some people who actually have a vested interest in that. Because it keeps us calm and keeps us from opposing them, taking power from them ("TAKE BACK CONTROOOOOL". Fucking hell)

So, I guess this diary will also be about that. And there is another obstacle. That is my "executive functioning" weakness. Groan. I sometimes don't know what is the worse thing, the sabotage/low-confidence or that. Sometimes I wonder if they are actually two sides of the same coin. Yeah, it feels like there is something deep down in me that wants to prevent me from.. having success?

So, after I have now admitted my failures, I want to make it my expressed goal to show myself and others that I can deal with them. And the best way to start to effect change, is to observe what you are doing at the moment. Some very simple measurements I just came up with:
- Time I turn up to work
- Time I go to bed
- Time spent on coding outside job (Codehub and own projects) - at the moment I demonstrate to myself how bad I am by simply not coding very much at all!
So I'll record these every day (except the work thing, which is Monday, Wednesday, Friday). That will also help work towards improving the above-mentioned executive functioning.

And I am glad I did not mention my particular difficulties at my work place at the moment. But yeah, there's been a downward slide, after for a while things had been going quite well. And I will hang on to that. I have been doing good work. I can do it again. But ultimately I think it might also not the right match. We will see.

In the meantime it fills me with great joy that I managed to write again and I feel it will help me. I might be a bit of a wreck, but I am all in all a happy wreck (strangely enough, with all the B&T, or M&T?, stuff going on - but they can be overcome!)

Oh, here is a book about how machines will change the world (again): The second machine age It's excellent, but the authors managed to preface each of the 15 chapters with a quote by A MAN. Because women either do not say stuff, it is not quotable what they say, or they have no authority and therefore there is no point quoting them. Thanks very much, gentlemen!

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Society and the mind

This post was written 1 year ago.
Tue, 28 Mar 2017
My head is so full of so many things these days, that I find it difficult to sort everything. I have never been able to do much of GTD and by now I have accepted that and actually sometimes value it, strangely enough. My mind has a mind of its own it seems, it resists certain things that I tell it to do, and it lets itself be drawn into new directions all of a sudden, and that can sometimes be quite exciting. Still, what I'd like to achieve is some sort of consistency in what I do, especially I would like to get certain things done. It's not that it's completely lacking at the moment, but it could be better.

The one thing that I've not been doing recently that I miss most, and that I feel could simultaneously help the most, is writing. This does not itself fall so much into the action category, rather it could help me find out how I can best put things into action and serve as some kind of documentation, perhaps holding me accountable even. I'd want to do some of it not on this public blog, but then also like to write here because it encourages a certain way of writing.

Last year I had this kind of public diary for a while, and I'd like to pick that up again. And once again, there's two strands in particular - society, politics, large-scale, systems dynamics if you want, and on the other hand, the individual, what goes on in one's own mind, the things one ends up saying, the actions one ends up deploying etc. I've been long fascinated by Marvin Minsky's 'Society of the mind' which looks at how the mechanisms of decision making are very similar at every level of organisation, whether you have an individual, a family, larger groups or indeed a whole country, perhaps even all of humanity.

I am then also interested in the place of the individual in society at large. These days many of us ask ourselves what we can do now that politics both sides of the Atlantic have taken unexpected and quite nasty turns. Although of course this is only the culmination of something that has been bubbling away for a long time, but many of us have not been able to (or have refused to?) see. In any case, how can you contribute to making things less shit? For me this is an ongoing question. Especially as this individual has till this year never been politically active in any way, never been on a march (though came close in 2003, considering going to London for the anti Iraq war march) until the Women's March this January.

This all sounds quite high-flying but what I write won't be, nor do I intend it to be. Though I do want to link to a lot of stuff that I've read or partially read, actually for that reason alone it's worth writing, to build up a collection of things worth to go back to. We'll see how that all goes. In any case I think my obstinate mind recognises the value of writing which makes me hopeful I will write some more. - And while it has been very reluctant to get me out of bed after I woke up early, I managed to write this nevertheless, writing and publishing from my phone :) One idea I have is setting myself reminders each day so I won't forget. One thing that I really want to develop but so far have never succeeded is a note-keeping habit. So I put this here as an intention. In any case I need to go now, but it seems a good start.

Tags: politics / mind_stuff /
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If putting one foot in front of the other was all it took

This post was written 2 years ago.
Thu, 02 Jun 2016
On the coach to Bristol, I started writing a blog post about my marathon run. Unfortunately I didn't save it and in one thoughtless swipe I closed all apps, and with it Jota, the little text-editor app I am writing on at the moment. I feel a bit sad about that, as I had written quite a bit already. So here's at least a mini summary.

It was a beautiful day, hotter than expected. There were enough water stations though and especially for the first 9 miles I fell into a comfortable running rhythm and it did not seem much effort at all. I was already becoming quite blasée ("this is easy") all the while telling myself: Hey, you have barely made a quarter yet, it's not going to stay like that!

I have to say I ran quite slowly, all the time, and I think that might be the reason why in the end I ran through the whole thing without too much difficulty. But of course I was lucky, too. I didn't have any cramps, just at mile 16 my left calf tightened up suspiciously, but it never developed any further. I got tired, but nothing ever ached too much.

One good tip I had read in my marathon book, and then also on Rachel Andrew's blog: To split the run in parts. I split it roughly in thirds. I knew that after 9 miles, after going up to Stanley Park and past the two football stadiums we would be back at the Strand and that would be a third. - My support team (my husband and children) were waiting there which was nice. My son ran a bit alongside me and offered me a 'Toxic waste' gum which I refused!

Then followed a longer stretch across town not all of which was that nice, sometimes running along traffic, where just part of the road had been cordoned off for the runners. Still I enjoyed exploring the town that way and also the bands playing along the sides.

My next target was Penny Lane at mile 18. I wondered if they would blast "Penny Lane" from the loudspeakers again as last year when I ran the half, and that was what happened. Also, here I got an energy gel again, something I'd been hoping for since mile 9 when I had the first one. I'd never taken them on the two half marathons I'd run before, and had tried my first one quite recently. To be honest I don't even know how big their effect is, or if it's more of a Placebo. But suddenly they took on that importance. When can I have the next gel? Why on earth did I refuse the offer of that lady running with us ("Does anyone need some gummi bears?") - At a later point a spectator held out a box with Haribos, and then I didn't think twice and took three at once.

So now you definitely know about all the sweets I've been offered! After mile 18 I split the race further down. 4 miles to the sea and then, once I'd made that, the remaining 4 miles would be on the sea promenade. I was going to enjoy that no matter how much I'd be hurting. And I did, although I have to say those miles stretched. The last mile led onto the road again, but there I was greeted again by my children. They'd tracked me on the app. That was really sweet. My son actually ran the last bit with me on the track and that helped to distract me. Past the finishing line, I briefly felt the exertion of it all, and I think for a moment I had tears in my eyes. But I walked on and I kept moving for a while afterwards, walking with my family, and I also had a beer. My muscles soon started to feel sore, and as predicted by @bealers on Twitter, for the next few days it would be really difficult to walk down the stairs!

I loved the race, I loved Liverpool, and might even do this again. Only thing was, being in the last wave and being slow, I sometimes got the impression people were just waiting to clean up behind us. In that sense, the half marathon which starts one hour earlier was nicer. I guess I could just become a bit faster, that would also help. My time for this one was 5 h 37 min, so a km took me just over 8 min on average. But really it was all about finishing and I even ran the whole thing (I tried walking once and immediately realised that wouldn't work), and of that I am a bit proud.

I'm glad I've written all this. I could have written even more, but at least it's something. One reason I'm glad is that it distracted me.

It was such a beautiful weekend in Liverpool, and then Birmingham with the in-laws. Then on Monday night, I took the coach from there back to Bristol. Matin and the children stayed in Birmingham for another night because Matin had to sort something out there.

I only came back because we had the JS101 group the next day. It is important to me and I think if I don't take it serious who will?

At the moment I am hurting quite a bit. It is difficult to describe how sad certain things make me feel. But there is no good way I could explain this further at the moment. I might have made an attempt if I hadn't written about the marathon, but it's better in this case I didn't.

You'll never walk alone <3 <3 <3

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Programming and

This post was written 2 years ago.
Mon, 23 May 2016
It is 6 o'clock in the morning, last night I fell into bed at 11 which is early for me, I had again slept too little the two nights before. I had also run 14k and this time I felt pretty exhausted after it. It might have to do with the fact that I could not have a rest afterwards, it turned out I had to walk one child to her German class, and then pick up child number 2 from his friend, by bike.

But also, there were all these things churning around in my head again. A few days ago I had been so happy about how things were going with our JavaScript group, and about everything in my life in general. I had also speed-read through a book by Tara Mohr which was about how so many women are 'playing small' (the book accordingly is called Playing big ;) ) and it was great to see many conclusions I had come to recently, seen written down there, but also some thoughts and advice that were new to me.

Then yesterday came the backlash. One thing was the tiredness. Then many tiny incidents - conversations I've had, things I've read, and slow porgression with my own projects - adding up in my mind to the "you're still not very good at this" feeling once again. That is of course always true when you set the bar very high. But it's not only that. It's the fear of being 'innately' incapable of certain - quite basic, and for others seemingly easy - things.

But then again, is that not possibbly true for everybody? All of us have some weak spots, where we are challenged more than other people. I suppose it depends a bit on what those are. Some weaknesses create more difficulties (but perhaps also chances?) than others. Also I wonder, how much of it can you change, even if you've spent your whole life with those 'disabilities'.

For example, one thing I find difficult: Continuity. I keep starting and - often accidentally - abandoning things. Which again, might be true for most people. But it is anyway something I struggle with. It is linked to other things. Being interested in too many things, wanting to do everything. Not being able to say 'No'. Not because I find it awkward to say No to somebody, but because I actually want to do everything. And the result of it is, to not be achieving much. There's an interesting concept of a 'motivated underachiever', meaning people are motivated not to achieve.

I will finish this post now. The title might not make much sense, but I will leave it now. It is something I've been wanting to write about, and this entry is simply going to be the start of it. The thing is, programming and everything that goes with it take up a dispropertionately big part of my life. It will always be important if you do it as a job, but it is not that. It might not even have to be a bad thing, but I sometimes wonder how much sense it makes. Anyway, have to go now. To be continued.. ;)

Tags: mind_stuff /
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Diary week c/ 15 November 2015

This post was written 3 years ago.
Mon, 16 Nov 2015
I still have not quite learned to jot down my thoughts in a notebook when they come. I have these whole narratives in my head sometimes, I decide to hang on to them and write them down later, but by the time I get to do that they are gone, of course. This one thing I remember though. I've been thinking to devide my entries into two halves. One dealing with what is going on around me - politics (global, national, local), communities, social life. The other one: things that go on in my head. As I can never become a fully factual (let alone, technical) writer, I might just as well embrace my focus on emotions, psychology, philosophy. The desperate attempt to lead a 'good' life in the double sense: To serve others and bring out the best in them as far as one can do that from the outside. And to live well, and this explicitly means experiencing both pleasurable as well as painful emotions - sometimes very painful ones. The whole range, but with a commitment to oneself, acceptance and compassion. I want to write more about that below. But as I decided to start with external events, I will begin with what has been on the news for days, the attacks in Paris.


Darkness and light

I never read up very much about the details. By now I have heard: One attack happened outside the football stadium, the suicide bombers did not manage to get inside, the bloodshed would have been much worse, had they managed. There was a friendly going on between France and Germany. The players heard the explosions outside, but kept focusing on the game. It turned out two of the French players would be affected. One lost a cousin, another one did not know for a while what had happened to his sister, in the end it turned out she managed to escape unscathed. The German team decided to stay in the stadion overnight and the French players out of solidarity stayed with them. I first heard this from my mum, and then again on the radio. It makes you feel so European. The French, our neighbours, not much different from us at all. Standing together, shoulder to shoulder. Even the English anti-French sentiment (as a German you sometimes hear "the ones that we really hate.."; are the French told the same thing I wonder?) will be nullified for now I reckon, when the French and English team play against each other in Wembley tomorrow.

But we need not only think of ourselves as Europeans but citizens of the world. What happened in France happens in other countries on a (almost?) daily basis. Some have pointed out - and I think it's a valid point - that Beirut a few days earlier, after a relatively stable period, saw similar attacks, and no sights around the world were illuminated in the colours of Lebanon. Nobody would expect that, but I can see how the outpouring of grief over French victims can leave a Lebanese person with the question: are our dead less worthy to be mourned? Are we worth less? Which might be exactly at the core of the problem, one of the reasons, why some people become radicalised.

Also, all this does not come out of the blue. We have for years lived very well, in part due to our weapons exports (at least Germany is pretty good at that, as the super exporting nation), benefitting from other countries being at war with each other, or engaged in civil war. We do not want to see our shadow sides anymore, the target is to be productive, and if we have too many negative feelings, we frantically look for a way out, we want to get rid of them, we numb them or medicate them away. I am generalising of course, but I do think there is a tendency to do that. The shadow sides exist elsewhere, in other countries, we project it all out there. We can give those people weapons, they are not us. Or we even fight a war against them, because they are evil and we are the shining light. We are the countries where the enlightenment happened, brighter, more cultural and civilised. Really?

I wish there could be a worldwide commitment to do away with weapons, and to become more aware. To not act on first emotions, not reason by emotion ("because I feel so intensely that things are this way, it must be true"), instead become aware of emotions, go through them and eventually let them go by. This is more difficult of course then just to continue hating somebody, for example. But I feel if we don't collectively learn to do that, all our weaponry will just get deadlier and deadlier and we might in the end very well just destroy ourselves. Our shadow, the monster we've helped to create, is coming back to haunt us already. How to deal with that monster, who knows what the best strategy is. In any case, we can't pretend it has nothing to do with us.

Sugar-coated pills

Somewhat related to the above, but more to the beginning of the post, some random thoughts on psychopharmaca I recently had:

I have often thought that too many people are prescribed antidepressants as a chronic treatment. I used to be a total believer in "you have to take them for at least half a year". Until somebody I know came off them much quicker.

It is a difficult path to walk. If medication can help somebody feel better, be more in charge, more functional and productive, should one deny that medication to them? Maybe not. Perhaps it is more important what choice that person themselves make. Because with milder forms of depression, I believe that it is a perfectly good choice to not take anything against it. And people should not be punished if they make that choice. If they are less successful, less productive, more tearful for a while, would that be so bad? The thing is, a state of relative unhappiness might be telling you something. If you elevate your mood artificially and become really productive, you might be missing a message.

I have not had a major depression for 18 years now. What I do have though is an often 'dysthymic' disposition. Low moods, low confidence, many tears. I feel ocasionally de-pressed, you could perhaps even call it depressive; but this depressive means 'like in a depression' and not actually in a depression. I also find myself tense and stressed quite frequently, and sometimes my body seems to turn into a Cortisol factory. I can feel it. If you believe this book, if I took Prozac or any other SSRI, there's a good chance I'd become much more stable and confident. I could very likely achieve more, be more productive. But I'd not choose to do that.

I wanted to write more about this, but it is simply getting to late now! Good-bye and good night.

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Crunch time diary 3

This post was written 3 years ago.
Tue, 02 Jun 2015
So, this might be last in series. I don't want to keep calling my posts crunch time ;). It is on one hand quite fitting, I have a "now or never" feeling, i.e. if I don't manage to deal with certain things now, if I don't make at least some, small changes somewhere, I never will, and I might better give up everything to do with web development; much more, wanting to teach / help people learn web development. On the other hand, I don't currently feel that stressed.

The thing is, maybe what I have been trying to do here, is to find a conclusion to some stuff that has to do with how my mind works. And the ways in which it works differently from the "accepted norm" (difficult to tell what that even is; it's not me, that much I have found out). That might not have been so apparent in what I was writing, but it is what is underlying a lot of my doubts, especially those about recent activities.

I'd really like to move on from that, and I've not given up hope that I might do that soon. Then eventually, these slightly strange posts whill sink down to the bottom of the pile, and nobody will know about them unless they search, and if they are interested enough I am happy for them to know. Even now, I don't know if anybody at all is going to read this :)

About six weeks ago, I realised something that had briefly been on my radar before, but I had then dismissed (partly because somebody I thought must be in the know, dismissed it). There's a pretty high chance that I have Asperger's syndrome, or at least something that goes in that direction. Something "on the spectrum". I hesitate writing this, as it is so much associated with the male form, which is quite different. Or, because the male version is the one that is generally known, I should rather say, the female expression is different from the male. It is much harder to recognise, because women are — or become? for cultural reasons? — much better at masking it.

The masking is actually a necessity, because as a female you can hardly survive if you don't somehow manage to fit in socially. I for one have spent an enormous amount of energy just on learning social cues and appropriate reactions etc. I think I have over time developed it so much that it feels natural now, "second nature"; I am mostly not acting now (I used to do that a lot). Still, there's always a fear of losing that ability again, and sometimes it temporarily happens. I liked how somebody said you have to become "bilingual". Yes, I feel that's what it is. And — much like I often think in English now — I can feel quite at home in social situations (not always, but most times) because I have been exposed to them so much now, although they still exhaust me. And there is value in being bilingual in that way. There is value in your brain working differently even. But it is hard, and I am not sure if I will ever feel I completely fit in. I fit in within my family, that is a good start. I also have quite a few really good friends who "get" me. (But the number of times I walked through the school gates, and kept having this same thought "I am from a different planet" — do many people think that, I wonder?)

[Edit 30/06/2015 I have been socialising a lot recently and enjoyed it so much, that it seems quite unlikely to me now that I might be autistic. So I can't uphold my diagnosis. - And yet there were times in my life, where I really did go in that direction, definitely as a child and in my teens.]
[Edit 03/07/2015 Last one, I think! Reading about how much autistic traits can vary, and how some things that are easy for neurotypical people often are just harder to learn - not impossible! - for people on the spectrum, another explanation could be this: I just have some autistic traits (enough to make my life a misery at times!), but did eventually learn to socialise and enjoy it, and have always been interested in other people. So would hesitate to call myself Asperger's, but do have quite a few autistic traits. And it makes a lot of difference having found this out, explains so many things, in case you wonder why I go on about it ;) Oh, and if you want to know more, this is a really valuable book - not just for parents of autistic children: Congratulations! Your Child is Strange Only slight criticism: it only uses the male gender, or neutral "the child" to describe autistic children, there is no indication they could be a girl, too]

Popular belief would probably have it that I should also be a good coder then. And for some aspects that is true I think, and there I might be more apt than average. But there are other aspects, where I struggle more than most developers I know. It is hard to describe what it is. And I don't know if I will ever overcome that enough, or manage to develop a stragety to cope with it, so that it won't be a problem anymore. I think it would not even have to be a problem. It is not good for developing confidence I guess, maybe that is the main effect.

Anyway, that's it for now, and now I will probably not write about it again. I will also call it 'wrong-planet-syndrome', because everything else is too much associated with a certain stereotype that gives a wrong idea.

Tags: codehub / mind_stuff /
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The productivity trap

This post was written 4 years ago.
Sat, 08 Nov 2014
About two months ago, on a warm summer's evening - this summer, that never wanted to end, but now has - I was sitting on the floor by the Arnolfini with some attendees and speakers of this year's JavaScript workshop. Next to gender stereotypes I remember us at some point discussing productivity and how it seems to be so utterly important these days. I heard myself saying: "I have become more productive since I have given up trying to be productive". It was something I had only realised quite recently. People are different, and it seems to me, some are genuinely capable of working steadily most of the time, being efficient and productive. But I have to admit that for me that is difficult, and I am starting to think whether it would even be a desirable world where everybody can do that.

I remember, about five years ago, reading somebody's blog post about how GTD just didn't work for them. At the time I hadn't known about the book, and when I read it a year or so later, it seemed such a revelation. I really did spend two days where I dealt with all the lose ends, I organised all documents worth keeping in stand-up folders and hanging files. I felt so good afterwards. And I had a brief spell of dealing with things immediately, finding the next actions etc. But it didn't last, and I am pretty sure I am not the only one.

There must be thousands of blog posts now where people share their stories of how they managed to become more productive. There's usually a list of tips. And a lot of them are really valuable, like turning off distractions, especially online distractions. But what is a bit questionable in my eyes, is when "time off" is just seen as an opportunity to recharge the batteries. When it is just a means to an end, and the end is to become ever more productive. And I have seen this viewpoint being expressed several times.

Against productivity


Then today, I saw two tweets that were posted in quick succession by two different people. One was pointing to a post on Medium wirtten by Quinn Norton which I could relate to very much. It is called "Against productivity". I could quote endlessly from it. One thought I've had myself is that this demand for productivity started with the industrial revolution. It is not entirely a recent thing. It is just that it has come to a head now. It might be time to stop and think, is this really how we want to live.

And then there is this about the American dream: "I began to think no iteration was quite as vile as this one. Despite all the greed and hatred of the past iterations, no version of the dream had been so mechanical — so dehumanizing — as this dream of productivity."

And the other tweet? It linked to an infographic of "Take back your mornings" - take back your mornings to be more productive. What else?

Productivity paradox


The tricky thing is that on the other hand we are probably happiest when we are productive. When we create something, when we finish a difficult task, when we have done something that makes a difference to others, or even just to ourselves.

I often get restless because I do a lot of "unproductive thinking". I have this habit of "philsophising" all the time. And I most certainly overthink things. It is not always totally useless, sometimes I might be able to see some connections that others don't, and I might get some useful ideas. But on the whole, it often seems a bit too much. And of course it keeps me from being efficient!

So for me, I think the real challenge is to not get too distracted (and the online world really can be a bit of a problem, here) to keep myself from working on some things, that I then do finish and can feel okay about. Also, to not get disheartened by what I am thinking.. although that's not entirely avoidable and maybe shouldn't be. - Act on the good ideas that pop into my head. And ironically you can become distracted from putting good ideas into practice, because you are asked to do so many other thing. Be productive, be busy! And then you forget what it is worth getting busy with!

No "Getting things done" != Getting no Things Done


At least for me, there will always be a tension between the things that I'd like to accomplish and what I do in reality. But I do feel a lot less bad by now, about "wasting" some time by just thinking about things, about life in general, about how the human mind works, about how society works (haha those are the high-brow ones, I am not telling you about what else I think ), without seeing an immediate benefit of it. Perhaps that is something that we have to learn again. That when there's no immediate outcome that doesn't mean that nothing positive has happened in the meantime. And it would be good to accept that; in ourselves, and in other people, too.

People have always got things done, and got some amazing things done, before both the "positive thinking" and the "productivity" industry.

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Giving up Depression

This post was written 4 years ago.
Sun, 02 Nov 2014
This is a uniquely stupid title, you might think. You cannot just 'give up depression', obviously, it's an illness. And I have to agree with you. In fact, I am not sure if I will keep the title. But maybe I should, just for the sense of unease it gives me.

It makes me feel uneasy, because I find it difficult to let go of depression - or perhaps, rather the idea that depression plays a huge role in my life and will always continue to do so. It might be a weird case of Stockholm Syndrome. It has been a companion for so long — and when it wasn't there, the fear of it —, what might a life without it even look like?

The thing that for me personally has come out of the Geek Mental Help Week is that I gradually realised how well (although not necessarily always happy) I have been recently. This was not, because I read other people's articles and thought "They are so much worse off than me". It was rather all the stuff I scribbled down and didn't publish in the end. At the same time, when I was failing to get my article together, the old panic — and I get this panic a lot — resurfaced again. I was scared that I might have actually triggered a bout of depression by focusing so much on it, and it would turn into a prolonged period of depression, and eventually major depression.

(The next bit is a record of some experiences from my 20ies, skip if not interested in that)

I had a few of those in my teens and twenties. For example, a very dark month during my time as an ERASMUS student in Pisa, which was otherwise the happiest year during my studies. One day, I sat on the lawn in front of the leaning tower, and was struck by how my life had become just as wonky as that tower. The German term for crazy - "verrückt" - literally means "shifted". I thought how apt that word was. My reality had shifted, it was as if I was living in a different dimension, and I could not find my way back to what felt normal and familiar. I also remember bumping into some people in the canteen during lunchtime, and finding I could just not coordinate anymore the necessary parts and processes to properly say "Hello". The muscles, my voice, my motivation - I could just not get them to play together in a proper fashion.

Or that time when I joined an acting group. I'd been meant to play a leading role, but decided against it when dates of some of the performances clashed with an excursion I wanted to do at university. Instead I became 'assistant to the director'. Except I was not much help at all, had no initiative, and was more of a burden than assistance, despite spending loads of time at the rehearsals. Instead I smoked like a chimney. I often felt almost paralysed and started calling this state my 'strait-jacket'. When I helped at the performances, I remember being almost completely mute and at some point I thought: At least, if somebody else is feeling insecure and not good about themselves, it might make them feel better when they see me. Sort of, "if you are no good, you can still serve as a bad example". That was really the only use I could find for myself!

But I did not get professional help during those two (and previous) episodes, I somehow came out again. In Italy, one day I suddenly started feeling this rage, not directed at anyone in particular, just rage. And then I gradually got better. In the second case, I had a meltdown where I ended up crying in the director's arms. Again, very gradually came out of it. And then I was an actor in the next play, and had the time of my life! Just neglected my thesis a bit, mmh.

The first time that I got help was after I'd fallen in love with a PhD student at the place where I did my Master's thesis, and it didn't work out. I had shared a 'transcendental kiss' with him once (it really was that, and for him too, I know that!), but mostly tried to 'act cool', while at the same time I started to believe it was my destiny to be with this man. I accumulated all kinds of 'evidence' for this, too. And we did get quite close to.. okay, let's leave that. And then, well, he went off to South America, but came back a year later for his viva. I knew he had to come back, and I waited for him, and I waited for him to realise that he loved me. So much arrrrrgggggggghhhhhhhh. If I could tell my twenty-something-old self just one thing, if I could tell any girl just one thing: DO NOT WAIT FOR A MAN (unless I mean there are valid reasons, like you are already together and waiting for him to come out of hospital or something). DO YOUR OWN THING.*

I didn't very much do my own thing at all. I spent a whole year after leaving university, hanging around. Among the few things I got myself to do was once working for the post-office, and once writing an article for the local pages of a Munich newspaper (I thought I could become a science journalist eventually; but I only managed to write one article about genetically modified tomatoes). I met the PhD guy again, when he invited everyone (including me) to a pub after his viva, on which occasion he uttered the unforgettable words: "I don't love you. I could never love you". (He could be quite dramatic, just as me). That was when this whole world that I had built up in my head, collapsed. And a month later, I collapsed, too. One night, I could not sleep at all, and it felt like I had pins and needles all over my body, while my mind was completely numb. The next day I went to my parents' house. It was my mum's birthday. When she walked across the lawn to greet me, I cried and just pointed to my head. - I stayed at my parents' house for some weeks. I got to see a doctor and was prescribed Amitriptyline, and when that stopped working after a while, Fluoxetine. I got therapy, too, and eventually started crawling back out of the hole..

I've not had it as badly anymore since then. I just know I never want to go back there. That's why I sometimes get a panic when low moods persist for a bit. Perhaps it is the panics that keep me from getting it.

Depression versus Crisis


There's one thing I am not quite sure about. Because, you see, up till now, I was thinking: I keep having bouts of depression.

I just started describing what happens then, but find there's no point in going on too much about it. Because in a way I probably feel a bit ashamed about what triggers these bouts, when there are people who have real problems, like losing somebody they love. What is a kind of confidence crisis, where I suddenly believe I am an inadequate person, against that? And yet, they do happen. They follow a certain pattern, and I get distraught, I cry, I have negative thoughts. When my husband comes home, he helps me - challenges the thoughts and otherwise is there while I 'go through' the crisis. As for the negative thoughts, reading David Burn's book (which I believe is the best book you can read about cognitive distortions) has helped a great deal, but there are moments when all the insights I've gained are flushed away in one big wave of all-too-familiar thoughts and emotions.

The question is, what is meant by the term 'depression'? Robert Sapolsky says in his lecture on depression: "Right off the bat, we have a semantic problem". He then goes on to make a distinction between 'everyday depression' (that we all experience every now and then), 'reactive depression' (somebody reacts badly to something, is impaired for a few weeks, then gets out) and 'major depression' (somebody reacts badly to an event, slides into low mood, and weeks, months later has still not got out).

Elsewhere I have read that depression can last any amount of time, sometimes just half an hour, and there was no distinction made between different types. So, I will just make a distinction here for myself: Depression which is also a biomedical condition, versus a crisis with depressive symptoms. Or, in short: Depression versus Crisis.

Because, you see I do keep getting these crises, and they follow a certain pattern. And they are problematic in some ways, in what they prevent me from doing, and in keeping me 'locked down' in an unhelpful thinking pattern. But can I call them depressions? - And might there not be a way to challenge them, and make them become less frequent? Also, there is actually a part of me that can come across as quite confident. What if I managed to focus more on that?

And then there is this: Like, I am convinced, a lot of other people, I am so bogged down in things, and feel the pressure of all the things I am supposed to do, that often it can be difficult, to just feel happy or even just okay for a while, when in reality, there would be enough reason to do so.

On Halloween night, just after I had submitted my — I think now, pretty strange — post for Geek Mental Help Week, I kept feeling so calm. And suddenly there was another, very powerful, feeling that I had not known before. I can't quite describe it. It was beautiful. Like some sort of veil had been lifted from me. And I just felt well.

Since then I think: What if I could indeed give depression up? What if it was - by now (and for now) - my choice?

Coping strategies


So, this is a brief summary of the things that helped me, and keep helping me:

Acceptance

There are various different aspects to this:
  • Accept that your current experience is what it is.
  • Accept yourself fully
  • Even accept your inner critic (before you tell it politely, but firmly, to shut up: "I know you mean well, I have heard you, now please go." - ha, I only just remembered this; I don't really do this. But I will do now!)
  • Accept that other people behave in ways that irritate you, or that you might find hurtful. Try not to immediately criticise them, but understand that there are reasons for them acting like that that you might not know of.
I could go on. By far the most important thing though, is to accept yourself, and develop self-compassion. You cannot be kind to others, if you are not first kind to yourself. This is such a simple rule, and yet it took me so long to come across it, and still longer to make any real progress with it.

Find out what makes you feel good, do more of it

I once saw a tweet that said something like this: "Three most important factors for good mood: Good sleep, exercise, meditation". Recently, I have managed to have a better sleeping pattern (although it's pretty much down the drain tonight). And I started to go running. The latter is probably the external factor that has helped by far the most in my case.

Likewise, the advice could be: Find out what doesn't make you feel good, do less of it. But I am not good at that at all so far! I want to try and do that though. For example, not spend so much time on the computer when I am not working.. And have boundaries between different aspects of my life. When I am with the children, I want to be with my children, not start writing emails from my phone. When I cook, I stick with the cooking, and don't go to the computer inbetween to check emails and Twitter.. As I said, I have not been very good with this so far, but then I was maybe never as aware of all this as I am now.

Mindfulness and CBT

Probably, the single most helpful thing for me has been Mindfulness and meditation. Be present with whatever you are experiencing (see 'Acceptance' above). Recognise that your emotions, and your thoughts, are just passing events. This is a very short but ultimately of course insufficient summary. You have to really experience it, to feel the benefits of this approach.

I have not specifically had any CBT (Cognitive behavioural therapy) recently, but would count the David Burns book mentioned above as such. And it really did help, too, and still helps when I remember doing it, to discover how certain thoughts and beliefs you have, are distorted.

I just realised that what is missing from this list, is what many others have put first: "Talk about it". It is missing from my list, because I have already for a long time been able to talk about it. But, of course, it is helpful. Although there is caveats to this. You might feel, you can't keep going on about it all the time, you don't want to become a burden. Also, talking might not always help as much as you'd have hoped. Still, if you never talked to anybody about it, if you just cannot 'sort it out' by yourself anymore it is important to do that, rather than suffer in silence.

See also "Resources" below.

Can I help others?


I'd hope so.

And I'd hope that writing this all down, in whatever convoluted ways, might help someone besides me, too. I also hope that the Geek Mental Help Week, well - helped. What I can see coming out of it: People feeling less alone, and seeing mental illness as less of a weakness (as some successful and well-known figures in the web industry talked about theirs). Also: Pointing out how helpful talking can be. How helpful psychotherapy can be.

For me, there is a wider, almost political dimension to this: If we don't just 'medicate the problem away' and recognise that it is not just a medical condition, as the so often quoted broken leg is, we might be better able to change the conditions that make us depressed in the first place. - What I mean: If it was just this illness that comes out of the blue, and you just take some drugs and it goes away again; then nobody might start to question why so many people suffer from it, and ask themselves if there's something we can change.

If we manage to accept that we don't always have to be productive, if we collectively managed to move away a bit from the maniacal pace at which the tech industry is moving. If we recognized that there is no point trying to learn all the new things, putting yourself under that pressure. If instead we managed to fully accept ourselves, with all our 'shortcomings', that would mean that we'd have more time to think, to properly see things, and, as was said in one of the contributions to Geek Mental Help, to properly see each other. And we might not be so easily manipulated by corporate interests.

Or you could put it this way, perhaps: To fully accept yourself is a revolutionary act. - I am sure somebody must have said that before me!

Should I stay or should I go?


Just to finish off on a personal note. I do have some (not insubstantial) doubts about all this. This whole post, my opinions expressed in it. My ah so brillant 'advice'. Do I have the authority to write any of this? Do I have the authority to give advice? Even to wonder if I could be out of the 'field of vision' of depression for a while?

Especially, within the tech community, what authority do I have? The thing is, for a long time I really didn't know if I even belonged. I felt so unsure that any of what I was doing was any good.

I am not as unequivocally commercial as most people in that community. You need to be 'commercial' if you want to properly earn money. And I don't need to (or feel the need to) earn as much money as others, as my husband is the main breadwinner. This might at first sight, be a big advantage I have. But my situation comes with its own set of problems. Foremost, in my case, really bad confidence. And I probably do manage to do less (although on the other hand, possibly more than some people think!) than somebody who works full time. Less in volume, that's clear anyway. But less in terms of skills? Well, that's an interesting question, and one I don't really have an answer to at the moment.

Then, I also have certain ideas of where I want to be heading. I want to become good at programming and be able to make applications. To "hack".

A lot of my above-mentioned "crises" revolve around that: Does it make any sense what I am doing? Would it not be better to give it all up? Just take any job, so I can earn some money in addition to my husband's (It could even be things like database entry, online editor; something to do with the web or technology, just not as ambitious?)

Basically: Am I doing the right thing?

And again, this seems so self-indulgent. What kind of problem is this?? Compared to people who have to flee their home country? Who experienced physical and emotional abuse? - But then, everybody has to deal with their own life, and if that is what you find difficult at the moment, it just is.

I am just starting this experiment. I have left my "regular freelancer" role at an agency, and started something new, where I work together with somebody who is my mentor. I don't want to write about the ins and outs of this at the moment. It does look like we both benefit from it, which is what I'd always wanted from a mentor relationship. That is a good start. The rest we will see.

The important thing for me will be: I will give myself permission to just learn and code, without asking myself if it makes sense, and if I will be good enough. Just for three months. No looking at the outcome. Just throw myself into it. It is an experiment. I hope to write about it soon, and it will hopefully be positive.

Then there's CodeHub :) Don't let me get started on that!



Resources


- Robert Sapolsky video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOAgplgTxfc "It's a biochemical disorder with a genetic component with early experience influences where somebody can't appreciate sunsets."

- The Mindful Way through Depression
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/112588.The_Mindful_Way_through_Depression

 
- Feeling Good by David Burns
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/46674.Feeling_Good

 
Self-Compassion / Self-Acceptance
- Self-Acceptance project: http://live.soundstrue.com/selfacceptance/
- Lovingkindness by Sharon Salzberg http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/38215.Lovingkindness



* There is a passage in the book "La mort heureuse" (A Happy Death) by Camus, where the protagonist says to a woman called Catherine: 'Ne renonce jamais, Catherine. Tu as tant de choses en toi et la plus noble de toutes, le sens du bonheur. N'attends pas la vie d'un homme, c'est pour cela que tant de femmes se trompent. Mais attends-la de toi-même!' (I wrote this from memory, there might be mistakes in it. I think I had an English and a French version of this book for some reason, I did not read the book in French, but have always remembered this one sentence). — 'Never give up, Catherine. You've got so many things in you, and the noblest of all, the sense for happiness. That's where so many women go wrong. Don't expect life from a man. Expect it from yourself!' - And yes, it's kind of ironic that a man had to tell me that.

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Geek Mental Help Week - About 'Social Pain'

This post was written 4 years ago.
Wed, 29 Oct 2014

In case you've been directed here from the GeekMentalHelp site, please note: I have in the meantime written a second post, about depression. In that article, I mention some resources and strategies that helped me.

This week's "Geek Mental Help Week" has had quite a strange, and profound, effect on me. I have to admit this, even though I had previously decided I would try and not pay much attention to it at all; because I somewhat agree with a post on that very site, stating that campaigns to raise awareness can be a double-edged sword and it can be a bit overwhelming. - But as I'd expected, I kept being drawn to the site, and I am now glad I read the articles on there. What made the biggest impression on me were the posts that people wrote about their experiences with mental illness. There is such an openness and honesty. And I feel I want to be there as a 'listener', a witness to the trauma people went through, which in some cases was very grave.

And then I'd also started to pen an article for it. For two weeks I collected a lot of thoughts, quotes, resources. Next, I ordered them and started to string the whole thing into a narrative. I sat the whole of Sunday in front of my computer. I had tried to write this 'witty' article about all I knew about depression. But I made a mistake. I thought I could take myself out of it, write about my experiences objectively, from a bird's eye's view. It didn't work, and I felt very disillusioned and frustrated.

Instead I am publishing the below for Geek Mental Help Week. I wrote it about a year ago, and while I put it on my blog, I never tweeted about it.

Perhaps this is my way of saying "Here I am, and this is what I've struggled with and sometimes still do. If it is similar for you, you are not the only one."

I think for me, and many others, the web has always been about connecting, too. You can reach out to others in a way that was not previously possible. For me, this week has been about exactly that in the end. The likes of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, can easily make us forget that we can communicate in 'long form', too, and how liberating and comforting that can be.

I also felt reminded of a post I had read during the summer holidays, Everyone I know is broken-hearted by Josh Ellis. I found the last three paragraphs quite moving. "I don't believe anymore that the answer lies in more or better tech, or even awareness. I think the only thing that can save us is us. I think we need to find ways to tribe up again, to find each other and put our arms around each other and make that charm against the dark." Perhaps initiatives like this can be a step towards that.

Here is my post from a year ago:
(- I felt tempted to edit this and move things around, it might be a bit clunky; but after this week's difficulties with writing I am just leaving it as I wrote it back then)

About loneliness and becoming an apprentice bodhisattva

(from 24 November 2013)

Quite recently, I started re-reading parts of a book by Kamalamani. The book is called "Meditating with Character" but is about much more than meditation! Yesterday I hit on a few pages that I felt the strong urge to photograph and tweet, just because I find them so relevant to the current state of (world) affairs. I am posting them here instead.

Then today I saw a link to an article called "Life of solitude: A loneliness crisis is looming". This article is very strongly related to the message about connectedness in what I read yesterday. Furthermore, it is about a topic that is very close to my heart: Loneliness, and in a wider context, something I would call "social pain".

Social pain is something I have been thinking about quite a lot in recent years. Partly, because of the role it has played in my own life. But also because I increasingly realise how much it (or fear of it) shapes the way we live, the structure of groups, organisations and so on. And last but not least, because of its seeming prevalence in today's 'connected' age.

I think the main insight for me is that social pain can be just as excruciating - and actually has a strong physical component - as what we call physical pain. I have sometimes had this thought: The pain of pushing two children into this world without pain relief, and smashing both bones in my lower leg (on a separate occasion!), have not come near the social pain I have felt in my life. But then that comparison is flawed. Because that physical pain was limited to brief periods of time, of course. So really you would have to ask, would living with constant pain be preferable to social isolation? That isn't a good comparison either, as constant pain in itself has great potential to make you depressed. A recurring pain, cancer with chance of survival, loss of a limb? - It is difficult to answer. I do think anyhow that social isolation ranks pretty high on the list of undesirable and painful things.

As Brené Brown puts it, "We are hard-wired for connectedness". In other ages, we were born into structures that provided that connection (but had of course all sorts of other problems we don't have these days). Now, it is not so clear cut. Often we have to create our communities ourselves, and in many cases we might feel a stronger connection with people in those groups than those we were born into. But we have to find or create them first, and the way there can be full of anxiety and provide some pain in itself. Yet I believe it is always worth to persist in this.

I have below written down something about my own experiences of isolation and rejection. I did not do this to get your sympathy. It is rather to illustrate what effects an experience like that can have. Perhaps mostly, to say: Look after your children. And I could add: Look after yourself and each other, because we really are all interconnected.

As far as I am concerned, I am actually genuinely happy with where I am now, so in a way, I can now see what happened to me as a necessary step to this point. - And then of course I am grateful for all the good things that have happened, and the people I've met. And for the plasticity of the brain.. - Still, I would never wish upon my children the isolation I felt. I could not bear knowing them in a situation like that. (I think my mother was simply not aware of it. Moreover she has had more trauma in her past than I've ever had.)

Now I just feel I want to move on from all that, and instead become an apprentice bodhisattva as described in the pages below.

So, I leave you with this excerpt from Kamalamani's book, and below that, the thing I wrote about my early years (but really, don't feel compelled to read that!)

From Kamalamani's book "Meditating with Character" - Chapter 4 - Why embodiment matters




My story (part of it, by far not all)


One line that struck me in the article about loneliness was: "Inside every lonely adult is a kid eating lunch by herself on a bench." I am not a lonely adult anymore, but I was that kid. When I was 5 my family moved to Paris, and I was sent to a nursery there for a year. It's a commonly accepted notion that children pick up a new language quite naturally at that age, but I didn't. I can't really explain the reasons, I guess I was just quite shy. I was also - probably still am - quite sensitive and an introvert.

It did not take long for the French children to move from initial strong interest in the newcomer, to finding it really odd that I could not understand them. They also bullied me on occasion - stepping on my toes, putting sand in my mouth *. But I also remember a girl who held my hand and was friendly to me, and how immensely comforting that was. Still, the overwhelming feeling of those days was that of isolation. An extreme isolation. I could not put a name to it then of course, but it was definitely painful. I ended up developing a survival strategy. That strategy consisted in completely retreating into myself, to "live in my head". I also completely stopped talking for the hours I was in the nursery. (I did not have the right language to talk with!)

When people have psychological problems, often it is partly because of survival strategies that are not helpful anymore. Those strategies have started to get in the way of a healthier behaviour and attitude. It took me an incredibly long time to realise that in a situation where I ended up feeling excluded, it was often me who took the first step towards that exclusion. It was my old survival strategy of shutting everything and everybody out that made me appear "weird". The shutting out happened as a reaction to the slightest sign of rejection or sometimes just apparent lack of interest. - The thing is I had never learned very well to read my "peers'" attitude towards me, because I was so isolated and did not interact with them very much. I did have my siblings, but those were people I already new!

Back in Germany, I was able to develop friendships, but often had difficulties with groups of people - to become integrated in a group. Then in my teenage years, a further difficulty presented itself. My beloved mum, at roughly the age I am now, was struggling with mental health. As one consequence, she often seemed to despise me. Any criticism was never put into words, but rather delivered as a turning away from me, of not paying attention and not talking. That way it was difficult to understand what was actually wrong with me. But from some strong reactions (silent disapproving glares in my direction mainly), I gathered: I must not appear clever. I must not praise myself, not say anything that could even be construed as self-praise. I must not be selfish and self-absorbed (the latter is pretty difficult, I can tell you, if you keep trying to find out what the heck is wrong with you!). Oh, and I must not talk so much! That was also difficult to achieve, because I was still very quiet at school, but then bursting to tell things at home. In fact, any kind of enthusiasm seemed to be kind of repulsive. While as a result of this episode I pretty much lost the ability to feel pride in the things I do, I am glad to say I never lost the ability to be enthusiastic **.

Possible 'costs' of all this: Many periods of depression from teenage years on, some prolonged and heavy. Various antidepressants over the course of a year - that is now 15 years ago, thankfully, and I've not needed them since, though often craved to go back. Two to three years of therapy - some in Germany, some here. The final year of therapy was really helpful by the way. Low confidence. For a long time, the belief that I was actually a bad and selfish person. - To be fair, the self-absorption is still pretty pronounced, although I might get better at that, too. It sometimes makes me sad to think how much better I could have used all that time and energy I lost. And yet, on the other side, I think it helps me to understand other people better, and that could be helpful in some way.


* Oddly, I quite liked the boy who put sand in my mouth before and after the event. When my parents were looking for a baby name, I suggested "Stéphane" because I still 'fancied' that boy. I did get a brother a bit later, and he was called Stefan.

** My mother is a lovely person, and I have far more to be grateful for than to complain about. She was very stressed and ill.

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Uncomfortable comfort zones

This post was written 5 years ago.
Fri, 23 Aug 2013

A rant and two mini book reviews

This is going to be more of a diary entry than any thought-through blog post. But I feel a massive urge to write, about so many things. And yet seem to be suffering from some kind of mental congestion. Where I read so much, fiction, non-fiction, books about web dev, but seem very little able to then communicate any of it, or use it in a creative way. Anyway that is what it feels like. But while that doesn't feel great, it's more and more the reading itself that I find unsettling. Not the books I've been reading, but the papers.

Thoughts that come at night

Journalists can give you the creeps (think "phone-hacking"), corporate data-hunger can give you the creeps, but governments (not only one, but a string of them!) starting to behave in the same and possibly worse ways… I can't even find a word for that. It becomes all the more perplexing, because we are all just so comfortable. What do I have to complain about? Maybe nothing yet, personally, but it does already affect others personally, and by the looks of it, will affect more and more people until there might be hardly anybody left who isn't affected.

I say "by the looks of it". Is it the media exaggerating, manipulating? One's own mind painting things more bleakly than they actually are? Do we know all the relevant facts? If there are things that resonate with what you know about the Stasi, Fascism, Nazism, is that a red herring? At least here the press can still report, right? What about all the despotic regimes, the atrocities you hear about. Are they not worthier of your outrage? But this is no excuse, and the reporting is already not totally free anymore.

And then, in some ways I do actually feel personally affected, because a government that orders the "symbolic" destruction of hard-drives to flex there muscle has for me lost every credibility and trustworthiness and I don't feel at all they represent the people they are meant to serve. I feel outrage about how it will affect many people on a subconscious level and that again most likely includes me. And quite a few journalists. You can say what you want, this is an intimidating act, it has zero to do with assuring security, but all with creating a shock effect.

Can we do anything to stop a gradual erosion of our freedom? Can I do anything? I have to say I don't know. I have never felt a very political person. But a lot of people will say that of themselves, and that is exactly why it is difficult. We have just been so comfortable and we are conditioned to worry so much more about status, about the things we have and we think we need. Maybe it is just what humans are like anyway. And we, in the Western world, just happen to have come to this point in our history where things start to go awry. Or maybe they have for a long time already. That's the thing, where do you draw the line? What does freedom actually mean?

Man Machines

Here is something I really wanted to write about. Two books I have read recently, quite different books, but both, in a wider sense, about how the mind works. Both, in my view, with some implications for individuals and society. I wonder whether I will be able to write much about the first one, as I finished reading it a few weeks ago.

It is called "The Emotion Machine", written by Marvin Minsky in 2006. It is kind of a sequel to "Society of mind" from 1986, about which I have written in another blog post. And like last time, I stumbled across it in my parents' house. So, let me see what I can retrieve.. Ha, this is actually a topic in the book! How do we retrieve memories. Anyway, these are a few things that bubble up. Some of this might be a bit inaccurate, but it is about ideas (that is how the mind works…):

  • The mind is organised in layers, each of which employs different "resources" (in the 1986 book those where called "agents"). High-level resources draw on subsets of other resources which themselves draw on others. There can be conflicts between different resources. If one system uses different subsets from another, we can do things in parallel (like walking and talking at the same time). But most things we have do to serially to do them well.
  • The self as a constant unchangeable agent is an illusion. There is no such thing as a self that makes decisions. It is always several parts of our mind working together.
  • Moreover, we cannot directly command the mind at our will. We cannot tell it to ignore certain needs. That would be detrimental in fact, for if we could decide to put off eating or sleeping forever that would do us harm. But not only that, things might demand our attention even if we would like to ignore them, and depending on what state of mind we are in different resources get precedence.
  • To decide what behaviour wil eventually be deployed, there are different layers of our mind exerting their influence. "Censors" are at work that stem from previous experiences, and they can stop things even reaching our consciousness. Minsky references Freud here. What is sometimes experienced in meditation as state of total peace (enlightenment?) is possibly the temporary absence of censors.
  • In our language we have a lot of "suitcase" words, that can mean slightly different things in different contexts. For example "to give" can mean physically giving something to somebody else, transfer ownership, lend… This can also make it difficult to give accurate definitions of things. How do you define "consciousness"? But far from this being a weakness of our language, it is actually a strength. You can make more connections between things if there isn't one exclusive definition.
  • When you see a familiar object, there is massive input from regions of your brain that store memories, not just from the visual cortex. So what you have learned in the past about that type of object probably contributes more to the picture than what you actually see.

This is a random list. There is much more to the book. And it gives a fascinating insight into how the brain might work. It is humbling and awe-inspiring at the same time. We are such intricate, ingenious machines! We are just not able to command them very well (or not at all?). Especially not always to our own benefit. Perhaps this is a result of my age, but I feel more and more that we are really a product, of our genetics plus all our experiences plus society plus the people we are close to plus individual circumstances and so on, rather than these largely unchangeable beings that have a personality. But of course you still move and live "as if", it is what we have learned to do, and it is our frame of reference. So while it is fascinating to follow Minsky along, in the end you cannot keep looking at things this way. Unless you worked at a "Thinking machines" lab I guess, then you would probably switch into this mode for several hours each day! In any case, we need to use the "I" as a model in our everyday lives.

One thing I took from this book for myself is that really, if we want to make any changes to our habits or ways of thinking, we have to do it in a very indirect way. This probably varies for different people, but my mind pretty much has "a mind of its own", I find it nearly impossible to order it to do anything. Any plan I make seems doomed to fail, unless there is an outside pressure, like I have an appointment with somebody. I also was reminded how powerful meditation can be, and I would so much like to do more of it again. But ironically, this is one of the things I find impossible to tell my mind to do. As is writing for that matter, and I cannot tell you what a massive relief it is to find myself writing now. Massive, massive, massive.

As I said, I feel there are implications for society, too. It might be difficult to put this into words. Basically, I guess at the level of society you find the same patterns repeated as in our mind. And in fact, Minsky's 1986 book was called "Society of Mind", it works in the other direction as well. Our mind is a society of resources that work together. Likewise, our society generates an Übermind which goes in the direction that the most powerful resources (or agents, I think that might be a better term actually) determine it to go. And sadly, you have a mixture of "bully-in-the-playground" and "old boys club" phenomena here, in our current society. The ones who shout the loudest and punch the hardest, get the attention. And decisions get made by the ruling classes, and a shocking number of times in secret it seems. It is an interesting question now, how we can make the more thoughtful and sensible parts of that Übermind be heard more. Giving them a voice should be engrained in the structure of our societies, and that is what constitutions and the law are meant to do. Yet it looks like the power of those agents that keep things in check, aber being eroded, and that is scary, I can't help saying that again.

Also, those in power employ certain tactics to manipulate the public. I just hope - and believe - that they, too, often get things wrong in that respect. Whatever psychological knowledge they might have, they will not be able to steer the collective of our minds, as much as they would like to.

Are you ready to be Wholehearted?

On to the second book. I actually stumbled over that, too! In a motorway service station, in the over-priced WHSmith shop, of all places. The book is called "Daring Greatly", subtitle "How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead". Quite a mouthful, and I have to confess that I normally have an aversion to titles like that and the books they normally adorn. But there are exceptions. And the exception here is that it is written by Brené Brown who has given one of my all-time favourite TED talks, and that upon brief inspection of the contents, I just really wanted to have this book.

I read the book in a single day. My most concise description of it would be: It is telling the truth. The truth that lies at the heart of our experience of being human. This is the other side of Minsky, this is the "illusion" that the mind creates, which is, for us, the truth we live in. It is telling this truth in very pragmatic terms, with only passing references to such things as mindfulness (her therapist tells her: "Less thinking. More feeling." Something I can fully subscribe to). Based on qualitative research. Not quantitative, thankfully! One of my pet peaves in TED talks, is the total straightness of curves and absence of standard deviations in the "statistics" they show there. So, what is this truth. In short: To be able to live life to the full, we need to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to be seen. We also need to be prepared for some (sometimes immense) discomfort and pain. And we need to build up something Brené Brown calls "shame resilience". As a good summary of her conclusions, just watch the TED talk.

It is not at all an easy feat. In fact, BB herself says that she has created a roadmap with her research, but is not necessarily a good traveller along that map. At the start of her journey, she states, she was "2 for 10" and is still not always able to embrace the hallmarks of "Wholeheartedness", a term she has coined for the ability to live life to the full and with authenticity.

In any case, the themes of this book are really important to me. Shame is something I have felt a lot, especially in my earlier life. And it has this tendency to self-perpetuate, and to operate in silent. So, kudos to Brené Brown for dragging it out in the open like that and give it a good "beating". I say, it is important to me, but it should be to everybody really, including a lot of people who are not even aware of how shame, fear of failure, illusions of scarcity, shape their lives. I wish this idea does in fact spread and enter the collective unconscious, without ever becoming too dogmatic, that is always the danger.

To conclude, one quote from the section on parenting. That chapter had a bit of an eye-opening effect with some thoughts I had not previously come across or forgotten. One thing worth noting is that your actions and the way you present yourself to the world, has a much greater influence than anything you say to your child. This is again something I believe to be absolutely true. And this. It seems an important message in our safety-obsessed times of helicopter-parenting:

"I no longer see rescuing and intervening as unhelpful, I now think about it as dangerous. Don't get me wrong — I still struggle and I still step in when I shouldn't, but I now think twice before I let my discomfort dictate my behaviours. Here's why: Hope is a function of struggle. If we want our children to develop high levels of hopefulness, we have to let them struggle. And let me tell you, next to love and belonging, I'm not sure I want anything more for my kids than a deep sense of hopefulness."




This post was written 5 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)
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