Sunday, September 3, 2017

Practical Minimalism

I have often been drawn to minimalism.  My definition is having only things that serve a purpose or bring you joy, clearing the way to let you focus on what matters.  In particular, I seek two outcomes: reduced cognitive load and reduced decision fatigue.

When I read about minimalism for the first time, I tried things like having only one pen, a pen that I really liked.  Or having only one, good quality comb.  The idea is that with only one, cognitive load is reduced because there's only one to keep track of.  And decision fatigue is gone, because there's only one option, so no decision is required.

I still have that pen and comb, but I also have other pens and other combs.  The reason I bought more pens and combs was simple: convenience.

A lovely fountain pen is a delight to use.  But if I need to make a note and my one and only pen is in another room, I have to stop what I'm doing to go get the pen.  I added a dependency.  I reduced the efficiency of writing that note.  So, I was less likely to write the note down and I tried to rely on memory.  This increased my cognitive load.

Having only one of a thing can add steps to a process, increasing the amount of yak shaving required to do a simple task.  It adds a dependency.

When you have only one of a thing, there is no room for accidents or "what ifs", no keeping things "just in case".  With most things, replacement is only a matter of money and time, and not having it is not life threatening.

But having to replace it means added dependencies.  It means added time spent replacing it.  It means money you didn't plan on spending.  And, if your stuff is non-standard in any way, replacement may be more difficult: replacing a micro-USB cable is easier than replacing a proprietary Sony cable, and replacing "normal" sized clothes is easier than plus-sized clothes.

Put another way, having no backup means not being prepared.  When I compare the stress of extra things vs. the stress of not being prepared, I prefer to be prepared.

Having only one of a thing means having no backup.

One of the traps I fall into after reading about minimalism, is trying to find the perfect thing.  When you have fewer things, the idea is that you really use and enjoy that thing.  So, if your only pen is a cheap pen that only writes after a few scribbles, it's not as pleasant to use as a good pen that writes the first time.  From this, I tried to find The Perfect Pen.  That quest led me to having multiple pens because The Perfect Pen for journaling is not the same as The Perfect Pen for quick notes.

The search for The Perfect anything is both stressful and a fool's errand.  Unless you enjoy the search, that time is wasted - exactly the kind of thing minimalism is trying to avoid.  And, there's often no signal for "good enough".  Yes, a backpack might be functional, it might be pleasant to use, but is it perfect?  There is always room for improvement, so the search continues.

Having things that bring you joy does not mean that everything must be perfect.

After I read about minimalism and start thinking about the stuff in my life, I eventually come to a balance.  I have enough things and a backup.  There is still some decision fatigue, but it is balanced with efficient action.  I have things I like, but they need not be perfect.

The lessons of minimalism are good to examine now and again.  I enjoy my stuff, but I recognize that the stuff itself doesn't bring me happiness.  Stuff is enjoyed by my interactions with it.  It reminds me to focus on what matters in life and not on the stuff I use when doing those things.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

[Sunday (not) in Switzerland] Out of your comfort zone

I'm back in the U.S. for a few weeks.

After moving to Switzerland, I had new appreciation for my coworkers that left their home country for work.  In Switzerland, I can usually fall back to English to get things done, but in the U.S. my coworkers from China and India didn't have the option to fallback to their native language.  I empathize with them more than I ever had before.  The stress of living somewhere you don't speak the language is intense.

Being back in the U.S., I understand the appeal of being in the majority.  It's so freaking easy to be the majority.  Everything is tuned for you.  You're the center of the universe and everything seems custom made.  Today, I had a delightful lunch with flavors I enjoy, with music I knew, in a language I understood, with customs and interactions I was ready for.  And it's not just lunch, but car rentals, hotels, clerks in stores, all of them are following a pattern made for me: a white American.

It's a nice respite for me, but it makes me realize how important it is to go outside your comfort zone. When you travel to a new country, things are different.  It can make you re-examine your life and your place in the world.  It can make you appreciate the differences between your life and a different way of living.

For example, in my pleasant lunch, the waiter brought my check before I asked for it.  In Switzerland, that would be fairly rude.  Yes, I had had my dessert, but maybe I wasn't done yet.  I might have wanted another drink.  In the U.S., it's completely normal.  Neither is right or wrong, just different.

Another example: I drove to the grocery store.  That is not unusual here.  On my way back, there was a pedestrian cross-walk not at a stop-light.  Two men wanted to cross, so I stopped for them.  They hurried across the 3 lanes of car traffic, obviously feeling like they had to hurry to not inconvenience the drivers.  In Switzerland, there would not be 3 lanes of car traffic, but the pedestrians would not hurry, and the drivers would not begrudge them the time it takes to cross the road.  In Switzerland, being a pedestrian is respected, not shamed.

I'm extremely grateful for the experience of living abroad, of immersing myself in a different culture and learning its intricacies.  It has broadened my perspectives on many levels.  I wouldn't trade it for anything.  Still, I will admit that being in the majority for language and culture is a nice break from constantly feeling a little out of place.  I hope that everyone gets a chance to step outside their comfort zone once in a while, just so you can appreciate all the things you take for granted.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

[Sunday in Switzerland] Flowers and some geology

This weekend, we went to walk the Flumserberg Alpenblumenweg (or flower trail).  I got to see a lot of flowers I hadn't seen before along with some stunning views of the mountains in the area.

One of the mountains is called the Sichelkammfalte (or Sichelkamm fold).  The formation of the fold took 5 million years.  Here is a picture of it and of other folds in a mountain nearby.

The trail we walked also had information on some of the interesting rock formations, like the Sichelkammfalt and other interesting stone types.  It was lovely and I would definitely go back again.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

[Sunday in Switzerland] Food!

When people talk about a place having a "different culture", they usually mean some combination of "surface" and "deep" culture.
Surface culture is essentially the cultural norms you can easily identify in a foreign country. Deep culture are the cultural norms not easily detected unless, in fact, you are born and raised in that specific culture OR you spend an extended amount of time in the foreign culture.

One of the big differences in surface culture in Switzerland is the food.  There are some foods that are very similar to foods from the U.S. and some foods that are very different.  I have a few examples on a spectrum below.

More similar

  • Sausage
  • Most potato dishes
  • Bread
  • Cheese
  • Anything spicy or foreign
Less similar

Sausages are very similar, but the spices are different between the U.S. and Switzerland.

Rösti is an amazing potato dish, but it's very similar to hash brown potatoes of a certain style.  In the "starting to diverge" category are also dishes like "Hackfleisch und Hörnli".  It has similar ingredients to "pasta with meat sauce" but the form and flavor is different.

There are more types of bread here, varying in shape and taste.  Bread is much more central to the diet and has a cultural element to it.  A Swiss friend at work said she has fond memories of making Butterzopf as a kid and making crazy braids.

Cheese is omnipresent and varied, but just has different flavors than U.S. cheese.  Cheddar is difficult to find (yes, I know that's originally British).  Colby and Monterey Jack just don't exist here.  Blue cheese is rarely in dishes here while it's enjoying a heyday in the U.S.

Vegetables vary, not in preparation as much as in which vegetables are popular.  Broccoli is rare, spinach is everywhere, and things like aubergine (eggplant), turnip, leeks, and fennel are much more common than in the U.S.

Finally, spicy and foreign foods are the most divergent that I've seen from a U.S. equivalent.  We had burritos for dinner on Friday and the "Mexican Mix" is what prompted this post.  You can see it below.  It tastes weird, but okay. Still, it's not what I would call Mexican.  The Mexican Mix has:
  • Red or kidney beans (fine)
  • Bell peppers (fine)
  • Corn (ok)
  • Leeks (uh, what)
  • Green beans (what the actual hell)

There is also a list of "foods you'd miss if you left Switzerland".  I have tried most of these and some I would miss, others not so much.  I like venison as much as the next person, but it gets old really fast.

For fitting food into the deeper culture, I like the blog called Little Zürich Kitchen.  The author does a great job of talking about food and relating them to the values and traditions of Swiss people.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

[Sunday in Switzerland] Botanical Gardens

Yesterday, we visited the Botanical Gardens.  It's a little early in the spring for most things, but there were some outdoor plants to see and the greenhouses were fun.  It was a beautiful day and I saw many plans that I haven't seen before.
Flowering tree outside

Fascinating drooping flowers

Interesting three leaved plant

Inside, we saw some beautiful tropical flowers.  There were some flowers on long vines above a pond.  The plant was maybe 30 feet above the pond, but the flowers had grown down to nearly touching the water.  Really cool looking: just flowers hanging in space.
These look like eggs to me

Hanging by a thread

We also saw and smelled a plant I had heard of, but never seen before.  A "corpse flower" smells like rotting meat and has a large flower.  We saw an amorphophalus konjac or Devil's Tongue or Voodoo Lily.  Wow, what a smell!  It was like ripe road kill.  Fascinating, but I didn't want to get too close.
I will likely visit the gardens again in a few weeks when more things are in bloom.  It was a very serene place.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

What got you here won't get you there

One of the great things about getting older is the increased perspective and experience as you age.  Sometimes, that perspective makes you realize all the things no one told you would happen as you got older.

I was told my knees would get stiff and uncomfortable at times.

I was told that I would recover from illness and injury more slowly.

No one told me I would always be a beginner at something.

To be fair, I probably could have stopped learning or improving my skills a long time ago and just coasted.  But, where's the fun in that?  Stagnation is boring.  At some point, doing the same thing over and over agin isn't honing your skill, it's just repetition with no chance of improvement.

In articles about gaining skill and "flow", they say the sweet spot to improving is being challenged, but still doing something within your abilities.  If it's too hard, you get overwhelmed and give up.  If it's too easy, you get bored and give up.

What they don't tell you in those articles, or in life, is that improving your skill is not linear.

You improve in bursts - working really hard and diligently at a new skill, you learn a lot, incorporate what you learn into the next day.  Repeat until it become easier.  You're learning less and less each day, but you're refining your skill, really hammering it home until it's second nature.  Then, you start to plateau.  You're learning very little that's new, you've refined what you know, and you're really good at doing the skill.

Because you're so proficient at the skill, it's incredibly alluring to stay in this state.  You're efficient and successful.  Every day feels like an affirmation because you do everything so easily.

But, that's when you start to stagnate.  Stagnation is the signal that it's time to seek the next challenge.

Ready for the next secret?  Life is not a single skill.  And the next thing you may need to learn isn't even the same kind of skill.  What got you good at one skill doesn't always transfer to mastering the next skill.  And, improving each skill doesn't proceed at the same rate.  Nor do you need the same level of mastery of each skill.  To write code is one skill, but you also need to skill at writing a design doc.  It's still writing, but it's not the same skill.

The effect of this is that you never stop being a beginner.  You'll always be learning some new skill where you're a beginner.  And while learning something new is wonderful, it can be exhausting and challenging to your ego.  The temptation to say "but, I was good at skill 1!" and give up on skill 2 and 3 is strong.  But, don't give into it!

"What got you here won't get you to the next level" is advice I have read in several books on career.  You demonstrated skills needed for your current role, but to move on, you have to prove you have the next set of skills needed.  That means honing those skills, possibly starting from nothing.  That means being a beginner.  Again.

Moving to Switzerland, I became a beginner again in life.  I'm still a beginner in German.  I recently became a beginner in a new skill for work.  Being a beginner is difficult - it takes time, attention, and can be hard on your ego.  But if the alternative is stagnation, I guess I'll be a beginner until I die.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

[Sunday in Switzerland] Popsicles and a bit more knitting

I was terribly sick all last week with a bad head cold.  With all my experience with head colds in my life, I know what to expect, and I know what kinds of things make me feel better.  One of those things is popsicles.  Not good popsicles, the cheap bomb-pop style that are just frozen sugar water.  They're cold and soothing on the throat.

The closest thing we found here were these Rakete (rocket) popsicles.  They're far more natural tasting than the U.S. version, and they have a funky thin chocolate coating on the tip.  Strange, but they did the job and made my cold a little more bearable.

I was feeling a bit better by the weekend, so I was able to finish my third mitten.  I made one mitten (post here).  Great!  Then I made a second mitten and it was significantly smaller than the first.  Keeping consistent tension in knitting is hard for me, apparently.

So, I decided to make a third mitten.  I figured that the tension would be closer to one or the other.  I was right and it was closer to the smaller mitten.  Yay!  And now I have a single mitten that I don't know what to do with.  Hot spare?  Try to make a larger mitten again?  I'm still not sure.

On the up-side, some of my experiments from the first mitten did turn out well: the needle alignment and pulling tight when switching needles helped a lot.  There's barely a gap visible where I switched needles.  I also figured out the difference between ssk (slip-slip-knit) and k2tog (knit 2 together) after further research online.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

[Sunday in Switzerland] Adventures in Knitting

I am much faster and more skilled at crochet than I am at knitting.  Some of this is probably temperament: I find it far easier to keep track of a single loop than all those loops in knitting.  Some of my lower skill in knitting is simply lack of experience.

To gain skill in just the physical stitch making in knitting, I started the Irish Hiking Scarf.  I did not plan ahead well, so I have paused the project until I find some more matching yarn or decide how to proceed.  That pattern didn't teach me much - I already knew the difference between knit and pearl and I know how to make a cable.  Still, the practice of making stitches was good.

To really add skill, I wanted something with increments and decrements.  I found at pattern that claims to be "the world's simplest mittens".  The pattern also had an associated blog post with much more detail about all the possibly tricky steps.  That seemed like a good starting point.
One completed mitten
I made a few mistakes on the first mitten that I'll try to fix on the second one.  There's a "make stitch" after putting the thumb on a stitch holder that was almost impossible to keep the tension right on.  I ended up just sewing the gap closed with some extra yarn when I was done.  I am also still unclear on the difference between k2tog (knit two together) and ssk (slip slip knit).  But, the ssk was easier, so I did that for all the decreases.

In general, working with double pointed needles is intimidating - what to do with all those pointy bits?  Mostly it seems "get used to it" is an approach that works.  I think there are always going to be some awkward hand holds with double points.
All the pointy needles!
The tension is tricky when moving between the needles.  In the mitten above, there are 4 accidental seams where I changed needles.  Two are hidden on the edges of the work, but there are looser stitches right down the middle of the front and back of the mitten.  I think I have solved this one, but I won't know for sure until later.  I find that if I keep the previous needle under the new needle, the gap is not as noticeable.  I find it easier to work the new needle and pull the previous one tight in this arrangement.
Previous needle under the next needle
I now also have experience with three different materials for knitting needles: wood, bamboo, and metal.  Metal is what I started with.  It's cheap and, in crochet hooks, I like it quite a bit.  For knitting, I like the slightly stickier finish on wood and bamboo - it makes the stitches less likely to slide off the needle at the wrong time.  I also like the slight give the wood and bamboo have.  Also the sound of natural materials sliding is much more pleasant than metal on metal.  After making one mitten, my favorite material is bamboo.

The quiet and cozy craft of knitting is a great way to spend the long winter evenings.  While I feel I've mostly mastered crochet, there is a lot still to learn in knitting.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

[Sunday in Switzerland] Experiments in baking

Yesterday, I decided to make some cookies.  The recipe is one I really like, but it's a U.S. style recipe with volumes, not weights.  Also, since I have not yet baked anything sweet here, I didn't have some of the basic ingredients, namely powdered sugar and vanilla.

The only powdered sugar I could find, came in this tube, with a built-in sprinkler/sifter top.

I decided to do a conversion to weights in the recipe for future reference.  Things like the butter were easy to search for online.  The others, I weighed.  It turns out that powdered sugar is very light.  Here is 0.5 cup of powdered sugar, weighing in at zero grams.

I also could only find vanilla bean and vanilla paste at the grocery store.  I used vanilla paste and it turned out okay.  One thing I found here that was very hard to find in the U.S. was pre-ground or chopped nuts.  This recipe calls for 0.75 cups (or 95g), which annoying if you're chopping by hand.  And they're exotic nuts, all the way from California.

Finally, the oven was way off.  I'm not sure if it was the oven itself or the smaller size, but the minimum baking time was too long and the cookies got brown (which they shouldn't for this recipe).  Still, they are tasty, even if they're not super attractive.