A notch above a monkey

2016 review

XKCD comic: 2017

Around this time last year I wrote that 2016 will be a seminal year and that I felt very optimistic. Turns out it was seminal, but for wrong reasons and I will think twice next time I feel optimistic. The most positive thing I can think of about 2016 is that it is not 2017. Its horrors were really just an overture for things to come.

Not that 2017 started better. My computer died right at the beginning and text editor wiped out most of the early version of this review which is one of the reasons why it is late.

You don't have much if you don't have health and in that regard previous year certainly could be better. I did not eat healthily enough which may have contributed to 3 colds in last months of the year and certainly did not contribute to a pool-side accident which left me with either slightly cracked rib or concussed vertebrae. Since I seem to be mostly fine now I suspect it was the former. On the plus side I did meditate regularly (still recommended) and did more than enough recreation. NHS recommendation is 150 minutes per week and we did almost twice that. This year I will be happy if yearly average comes to half an hour per day. I would also like to find a good book on calisthenics to become more flexible without needing gym. Yoga would do too, but I doubt I have enough time for it. I have also shed some of the excess weight I accumulated in last year, but still have few more kilos to go. Still, like for so many things, 2017 looks scarier. Operations await my family, but hopefully all will turn out fine.

The biggest personal change last year was freelancing again full time, which at times felt all consuming. It was a medium success. I am not in danger of being hungry, am working on things I find interesting and have learned a lot including that I don't like the "traditional" model of freelancing with many, relatively short engagements. Instead I prefer to work on longer lasting projects with at most two clients at a time which is what I am doing now. I am not sure if this could still be adequately described as freelancing or consulting, but it certainly does not feel like employment either. Finding correct label will probably wait until I have a need for one.

On the negative side I learned how I work best by failing some of my clients for which I still feel guilty and ashamed. Another problem is answering what do I do. For example I spend a lot of time last year improving my Python related skills, but effectively did not use them professionally and this year is shaping to be similar. There is a saying that you are in whatever business your customers think you are in. Clearly theirs and my perception were not aligned and it would be nice if this year I succeeded in answering at least who gets to be aligned.

Interestingly freelancing also changed my perception of time which I never felt I have an abundance of. I can't tell how much of a book I will read in an hour or how many useful lines of code will be produced, so wasting it just gives me some vague feeling of loss. However because money is fungible, charging for time makes such loses more comparable to some things I care about (and admittedly to neither of my examples). It probably is a form of greed even though me getting something is rarely what it ends up being compared to.

It can also be a trap which somewhat paradoxically becomes worse if you raise your rate. I have colleagues who have difficulty taking time off because they now know almost exactly how much that would cost them. But it can also be useful if turned into a question if what I am doing right now is the most appropriate use of my time.

Last year I set a goal of giving at least one talk in 2016. I did 4, most of them on the same topic and while I enjoyed presenting, I do not expect to do it in 2017. Neither will I be setting development goals for this year even as I am expecting to learn a lot. In 2016 I learned 4 different Javascript frameworks because of work and I expect what I do to guide most of what I learn this year as well. Open source work will likely suffer too, but I plan to continue being involved in organising local Javascript events which I started to do at the end of last year.

My opinion of the general state of journalism sank to a new low last year, but there are exceptions and I was happy to be involved with Pod črto. Even though this year I am trying to reduce my obligations and ambitions, it would be great if I could do more work like that.

I wrote more, but mostly not the kind of things I had in mind when I set that goal. Hopefully this year will be better including keeping the old promise of having a homeconf once per quarter.

I intend to find time for a new hobby. Something that is fun to do even when you have only minutes to spare, is not computer related and is hopefully more tactile, like building with Legos that I already have. Also spend more effort learning Spanish.

Still all this is is just tweaking life as it passes. Last year and especially last few months of it, as I observed world with increasing horror, I kept thinking what the right response should be?

Surely it isn't doing nothing. There are no problems needing me to be solved, but even my own experience proves that getting involved can matter. Life fully lived is more than just a pursuit of personal comfort and happiness.

Aaron Swartz once said that you should always ask yourself what is the most important problem that needs solving and how you can contribute most. I feel stuck responding to his two part challenge.

First, identifying the most important problem to work on, suffers from abundance of choice. Climate change with all its consequences, EU project continuing viability, rise of (rightwing) populism etc. Right now I am pretty much unqualified to meaningfully help with any of them, but I do feel slightly more qualified about an issue that connects them all which is the role of modern media and the way (mis)information spreads. As this post is already tryingly long, I won't go into details already better described elsewhere.

Which does not make choosing ways to get involved easier. Writing code is unlikely to be helpful if you are not a part of the teams working on platforms that matter (Facebook, Twitter) and I never will be. Even if I were, ideas currently discussed are unlikely to be effective or can be just as easily abused to make things worse. There might be space for activism. Having done it before, I know how difficult it can be and how temperamentally unsuited I am for it. Before I worry too much about how to achieve my goals, I need to establish what they are.

I don't feel much certainty at the moment, but what I am certain of is that the idea of "Reader", that kept cropping up on this site, is dead. I would still love to have such tool, but last year thoroughly proved it is at best a solution to a minor problem.

Books I read in 2016

...were very few. This year has been a reading disaster. I have never read so few books since I learned to read. My list would be even shorter if it did not contain three items ambitiously described as books by publishers. If I change nothing this year, I will definitely change this.

Which is not to say I did not read much. It was a US presidential election year and I read too many things that on the whole did not do me much good except further erode an already low opinion of mainstream journalism. I may (or not) come back to this in my annual review of past year. Also watched too much (good) TV.

Interestingly all my reading was done either on tablet (first 4 items) or Kindle (last two), both of which worked well and neither being perfect. However I expect this to be more common as convenience can't be ignored.

I haven't read much, but I can still recommend one book: The Oracle of Oil. Generally, I don't see a point in reading biographies and reading a book from the author you personally know also carries a risk of what to do if you don't like their work. Luckily for me Mason's book is excellent. A meticulously researched and engaging story of a father of peak oil kept me interested all the way through and left me pondering the power of wishful groupthink and (in)effectiveness of data substantiated arguments.

  • AngularJS Up & Running by Shyam Seshadri and Brad Green . A good introduction to 1.x version of AngularJS framework that gives you a solid overview of what can be done and how you should go about it without getting lost in advanced specifics.
  • React.js Essentials by Artemij Fedosejev. A gentle introduction to React.js and Flux avoiding rest of React's ecosystem as it does building complex, multi-screen applications. Still good first book to read on the subject.
  • The Secrets Behind Great One-On-One Meetings by Esther Schindler. From a series of recent O'Reilly short books (booklets?). Excellent guide on how to conduct effective one-on-one meetings (or receving one). Recommended for everyone with a job.
  • Designing Culture by Kristi Woolsey. Another booklet, but not as good as the previous one. Too few practical examples and because of author's background it focuses mainly on using architecture/design to influence culture. Still useful if you are in a position to influence or change working environment.
  • La Mujer Alta by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón. Not so much a book as a short story, but it was the first longer text I read mostly in Spanish (with a lot of help from interleaved English text). It is a story I suspect just did not age well since 19th century when it was written. Skip unless you are learning Spanish.
  • The Oracle of Oil: A Maverick Geologist's Quest for a Sustainable Future by Mason Inman. An engaging biography of M.K.Hubbert, the father of "peak oil". It is more than just a story of a brilliant man pushing an unpopular view and provides an opportunity to draw lessons still relevant today.

This year I will achieve my plan of reading more books than last year as I could hardly read fewer. Some fiction would be nice and another Spanish book would be welcome too. My goal is again 15 books, but if I don't read at least 10, then, well... I have a year to think of a suitable punishment.

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Audacity to run an email server

I normally don't write about foreign politics on these pages. Those who know me should already know what I think and others would be smart to ignore pontifications of a random Internet stranger.

Still, I have been following US presidential elections closely this year. Main result of this unhealthy obsession was waste of my time, nerves and that my already low opinion of news media has been further lowered.

Reasons for this are many, but at the top of them it has to be how the "story" of Clinton emails was and still keeps being reported. Matthew Yglesias at Vox explained it better than anyone else I read.

However there are a couple, to the story tangential, parts that bug me:

...But while the use of a private server is legally irrelevant, it’s certainly unusual. And it leaves people wondering: Why did Clinton go out of her way to set up a private server?...


...Hillary Clinton — who is, again, his wife — also set herself up with an account on the same server. This is a bit unusual, but a lot about being married to a former president is unusual...

This is what many of us, non-presidents, do too. However it seems obvious from hysterical reactions of last few months that most people actually do find it unusual. It is a view which in its essence is not any different from "why are you hiding it if you have done nothing wrong".

When did we screw up development of Internet so much that it became more normal to be suspicious of running your own instance of a service that was designed and intended to be used thusly?

I can only describe it as sad that distributed, democratized infrastructure is not just too complex for everyone to run, but that doing so has now been legitimized as cause of suspicion.