Trompe l'oeil

When running, you will sometimes come to a path that, for whatever reason, is difficult to read. While the incline may go up, your eye and, subsequently your mind, says it’s going down. Such visual tricks are called trompe l’oeils, literally “trick of the eye” in French.

Personally, these tricks often have the effect of letting me run harder uphill than I otherwise would, revealing the incredible amount of mental power that goes into distance running. If my mind does not believe I’m going uphill, I run faster, even if I am in fact going uphill. Most people would consider this a cool trick to get you to run faster. Unless you didn’t want to run faster.

In a race, such tricks would be welcome. I am going all-out, pushing myself to the limit to achieve a personal record, or, in rare cases, to actually win the race outright. But in training, such exertions are often unwelcome. Outside of races, pushing yourself as hard as you can go is generally frowned upon. There is no use destroying your capacity to run tomorrow with a hard training run today. Training theory says you should lay down a base of solid, slower running, and save faster, max-heartrate runs for the occasional intense workout.

This, it occurs to me, is a perfect analogy for how we use our ability to reason, and to conversely to simply react. Danny Kahneman would have called this fast thinking and slow thinking. You would expect that in most cases, having a “gut feeling” about something would be great. But in practice, such impulsive decision making often gets us into trouble. Our slow thinking – our ability to reason – ought to be a our base, slow training thinking. This sort of thinking prepares us for moments where we need our fast thinking, or our reactionary thought.

This has sweeping implications for all sorts of personal interactions. I’m quite interested in how this plays into Nate Walker’s ideas of “moral imagination” and radical empathy. You see, most of us are actually not every good at empathyzing. Sympathy comes naturally to a great many people. We can imagine the pain, or anger someone is feeling when we are in the presence of it. But empathy asks us not just to feel someone’s emotional state, but to understand them.

The problem, as I see it, is that, like with running, there are trompe l’oeils all around us. Places where we think we understand why someone is acting the way they are.

“She’s just pissed because I forgot to call last night.”

“He’s still frustrated because he didn’t have time to get coffee this morning”

On the face of it, those very well might be true. Or they might not. When do we know we’re running hard up hill? In most places in life, this is completely unimportant to quickly address someone’s emotional state. Far more important is to be patient, and understanding without necessarily assuming that we can know right now what’s bothering someone, or why they’re doing what they’re doing.

“She struggles with abandonment issues since her father left when she was 8, and while you didn’t call, what upset her most was feeling alone.”

“He was up really late last night stressing about work that was supposed to be done. Not getting cofffee made things worse, but were hardly what cause his foul mood.”

In both of these cases, there are underlying mental states. It requires imagination and trust in our fellow humans to truly empathize in these circumstances. While the road appeared to go down hill, and we were all into bombing down it, the reality is that we burned ourselves out on a training run that tricked us into going up hill. We would have been better served to hold our judgment for a little longer, and asked more questions, and listened more closely. Rarely do we need to exercise empathy quickly, and applying Walker’s “moral imagination” can get us a lot closer to understanding a lot more people, and making all our lives a lot easier.

Email in Emacs

I really did try mu4e. Really. But the setup required a custom emacs build on macos, and I am unfortunately constrained to Macs for work at the moment, so it was kind of a non-starter to jump through so many hoops to get it working. And of course, I also highly value resilience, and nothing says unresilient than not being able to successfully build a crucial feature like mail handling into your editor of choice.

So that occassioned a turn towards notmuch. Oh my, how delightful. At it’s simplest, notmuch is just a xapian-powered tag database for your email. Imagine that, no crazy indexers or long-polling to check for new email. Notmuch just tags and allows you to search your email.

Combined with isync’s mbsync and msmtp, I now have a really functional and resilient email seutp in Emacs. Even more delightful is looking through my tag database and realizing that if I tag things effectively, finding all those board agenda emails for church are just a tag search away.

Of course, such things were always available in Gmail or a mail client. But I was always unimpressed with how slow Thunderbird or got with lots of messages. And Google is reading all my messages, so that sucks too.

Combine the ease of syncing and tagging messages, and the fact that they exist in a directory on my computer, synced via Dropbox to all my other computers and my email suddenly mine again, not living on an IMAP server that I hope doesn’t fail me.

Doomed Emacs

After a year or so of dedicating myself to getting Spacemacs setup just right, I made a pretty substanial jump a few weeks ago. I’m now running doom-emacs which provides fewer nice surprises (missing evil-surround shortcuts by default) than spacemacs, but loads much … much faster. The other day I found myself coding while sharing my screen on Zoom and is was painfully obvious what price I was paying for spacemacs not cleaning up after itself and generally lazy loading things leading to less than fast context switching.

I was willing to struggle through some the slower operations for my own sake, but getting caught with other people watching as my editor on a brand new computer struggled to do basic things like searching for symbols in the codebase was embarrassing.

I’m not done with Spacemacs. I still love the idea, and I also believe that half the problem was likely the way I was using it and configuring it. But part of the appeal of spacemacs are the defaults. And it was the defaults that was making it hard to use it on a daily basis.

Another nice aspect of Doom Emacs is that aside from a handful of evil-mode shortcuts, a lot of what you’re encouraged to use are stock emacs keystrokes. That means that I’m not learning some cryptic layer on org mode when I use emacs, I using the default keystrokes that I will find in vanilla emacs. That’s very useful and will hopefully make me a more respectable member of the emacs community, rather than a vim outcast.

Continuous tool improvement

I was reviewing the feeds I subscribe to in elfeed this evening when it occurred to me that a lot of my feeds have to do with Emacs. I will often blow through updates on feeds, making sure to only pickup things that are truly useful. But I discovered an amazingly high signal to noise ratio regarding tips for using Emacs more effectively. This got me thinking about how I couldn’t possible remember all this stuff, so I tossed some of the things I was learning in my file to review later. At that point, it dawned on my how important tool choice is, and how important it is to learn how to use your tools effectively and be receptive to learning new things about them.

This could apply equally to any well made tool for any discipline (woodworking, drawing, research), but for me that means Emacs. Not everyone is going to ever need to touch Emacs. For me, I can’t imagine not having it, and everytime I learn something new, I get a little more effective with it.

For reference, tonight I learned how to make all URLs, regardless of buffer, clickable I also learned how to break an org-mode block in two with a single keystroke to insert a comment.

Reading Lists

Oh Goodreads. Your website is a cluttered mess. Your UX hasn’t been improved in years. The only value I derive from keeping my reading list on you is that my friends can see what I’m reading. Which is a neat trick, but since I’ve mostly given up on Facebook too, it not really enough to keep me.

I was an early adopter of Goodreads, but my life has taken a turn towards the personal and the text-based. I use Emacs (via spacemacs) as much as I can. Org-mode might be the single most impressive IDEA rendered into software I’ve ever seen. It simply makes the things I use on a regular basis more powerful and expressive, which is not something I can say for Word, Twitter, or Chrome. Those are merely tools. They don’t amplify my ability to document and create.

Really the post Leaving Goodreads is what convinced me to go, one more time, back to my reading list in org mode. But the killer feature this time around was ox-hugo, which allows me to easily dump Org-mode subtrees into a hugo-powered blog directory. A simple rsync later and I can publish random subtrees, including book reviews!

The whole thing is so elegant, I couldn’t have dreamed up the process if I had tried. The whole thing was truly an evolution of tools, and one that was only possible because each tool, Emacs, spacemacs, org-mode, hugo, ox-hugo, does it’s job so elegantly.

Running Tired

After an angsty 25+ years of my life, I’ve come around to love running. This is obvious to anyone who knows me. I discovered it as a great hobby when you live in a rural area and can’t get together on a regular basis to play sports. Combined with the ability to track running with technology, it has become a hobby that at this point I would even if I couldn’t track, or had access to regular sports events. I just love being out on the road, listening to nature (or music) and feeling the air and precipitation.

But that’s not what this is about. This post is about when I’m less than joyful on a run. A big part of running is making it a habit so that it isn’t a struggle. The hope is that you can condition yourself to be able to use relatively little effort to get out there. That’s the goal. Of course, reality being what it is, running it not always effortless.

The last few weeks I’ve changed my diet and had an explosion of personal and professional commitments. The changes in routine have led to runs that have been crammed in my schedule sideways and at times that are not my favorite. Which ultimately has led to runs that would normally be close to effortless, requiring more effort. But there’s an opportunity here too. The opportunity is to toughten my mental state to run while under effort. Even when things don’t go right, we have to practice a combination of mindfulness and grounding in your ability to push through, while still listening to your body and not pushing too hard.

Another Engine

Once, I used Jekyll. Then I switched to Pelican. I’m finally here on Hugo, and hoping that this will make it easier to keep things updated. The eternal question when chosing a method to publish a blog is, why publish a blog. I don’t really have an answer for that yet. I wish I did. Honestly, I do. You don’t have to believe me, because I believe in myself, and if this is all one big simulation, you don’t matter anyway.

Incidentally, perhaps the best part of this transition is the ox-hugo plugin, which makes writing new posts and publishing them a dream. Now, instead of some complicated cocktail of adding a new file with the write filename and proper metadata, I can just org-mode capture the thing. The more I use emacs (and specifically spacemacs), the more in love I am.


Campaigning has been a very interesting trip. The most memoroable aspect of running for select board so far has been finding people standing up along side me and asking how they can help me gain a seat at the table. Mostly, that’s because I tend to think of myself as a relatively unimportant person. And I am, even now. Yet my desire to serve the town intersects with a lot of other folks’ desires for their town, and I’m amazed that they see me as someone who can help them.

Mostly, what that means to me is that this has become a responsibility. Not that I didn’t already know that to a certain degree, but extent to which service is really responsiblity has fully dawned on me now.

Coaching soccer

This is my second year coaching the middle school soccer team here in Castine. Each year I am filled with apprehension about the make up of the team, and wether coaching is actually something I can do. All those kids, just looking at you to say something, anything really, so long as it relates to soccer.

And yet here I am. My second year of telling kids what to do. Interestingly, what’s most stood out from year to year is the growth of the players. Fifth graders last year who had trouble paying attention and looked at me like I was speaking Greek when I told them to hustle to the ball, have become easily motivated. Older players seem almost excited to step into leadership roles, whether in the goal or taking a midfield position with lots of running.

Really, it’s the same as watching my own kids grow up. The miracle of humanity is how we grow and develop our own personality quirks and motivations which are at once totally our own, and also clearly cobbled together by experiences we’ve shared. For my part, I love it.

Off days

We’re all entitled to having off days, but it doesn’t make them any easier to work around. I woke up today without much ambition, despite the fact that we have chickens that need to be slaughtered. To add insult to injury, after we decided not to worry about slaughter, I went downstairs to discover that the toilet is not filling. There’s simply no water in the supply line. To make things weirder, the sink that’s on the same line works fine. We’ve been working thorugh issues with sediment in our well water, and it seems like this is probably related. But we really have no idea.

Yesterday was a funny day too where matters beyond my control led to me not being very responsive at work. That carries it’s own stress as deadlines loom and people expect a certain result and you have to explain why the result is not there yet. Effectively, today is a day where the rug feels slightly frayed around the edges. Life is hardly falling apart, but things are just starting to slip a little bit.

We’re all entitled to days like these, but it doesn’t make it any easier to weather, especially when working on remainig stoic about life, it can feel like a setback. That said, the feeling of discouragment is really pride. Pride that you thought you had things under control, when in reality you were never in control of the things around you, but simply your respones to the things around you. Centering in these moments involves acknowledging that all you can do is control your response and actions, and doing your best to return to those