(Jasdev ⇒ Justin, 7/20/20)
> My advice is to figure out what the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option is, and to use it liberally. And my question in return to you is: what does that look like for you? When you need to disconnect, how do you do it?
> — Justin, in letter #8.
Answering this in a pre-’20 reality was easier. I’d quickly reply with cycling and dance music and while both are still available, an injury I’m nursing is unfortunately preventing the former and the latter — sans concerts — has kept the dancing at my desk:
> @jasdev: A stream of my desk when I realized I can use [an esoteric tool] to solve the problem I’m working on.
> @mergesort: …this is a stream of your desk when you do literally anything.
This is to say, I’m still figuring it out since my previously-analog activities are now an Internet connection away. Yet, two methods-of-disconnect have shaken out so far (I’m fully aware of how nerdy these will sound) —
Forest sessions and getting lost in Math YouTube.
Forest lets you set a timer during which you can’t use your phone, after which you’re rewarded with trees in your virtual garden. I truly mean “can’t use your phone” — the app hooks into iOS’ lifecycle events to detect when you’ve backgrounded it or are futzing with lock screen notifications (I learned this quickly). Forest started clicking when I realized it’s handy for more than just working or studying. Early morning? I can clock in a session to avoid doomscrolling into the day. Lunch hour? I’ll head outside and take in the non-screen-ery.
I’m not perfect at remembering to open Forest, but I haven’t regretted it when I do. It’s made me realize that I — and engineering, overall — can learn a lot from gardeners and their metaphors. In the same way I can’t chart a houseplant’s growth and can instead only make sure it’s getting water, light, and repottings, Forest time has been less about [a task getting done, not checking Twitter, or having an outdoor lunch] and more about providing the conditions for which they can. Disconnecting during COVID has meant creating circumstances where I can let my focus settle on its own accord.
That’s somewhat vague though — where am I settling that focus if I’m retreating from everyday etceteras?
To name a few channels and playlists,
These corners have been fictional refuge from my day’s engineering nonfiction.
It might be surprising to call math “fiction” — and I say the word in the warmest sense. When it comes down to it, whether it’s a proof or theory, the math that draws folks in is that with good old storytelling. Stories about seemingly out-of-right-field problems having left-field solutions (to add sports metaphors to the mix) or embedding ad hoc engineering practices within well-explored abstractions.
Maybe this is a longer phrasing of my latest Twitter bio: “daylight engineering, nightlight mathematics.” How the nonfiction of the first is often the fiction of the second in disguise.
A final — and I promise related — note on dance music. I’ve been listening to Lane 8 and Kasablanca’s Run on repeat while writing this letter and it’s reminding me of how excited I was for its release last week.
There’s a dynamic in the genre where artists will play unreleased tracks during sets and mixes (referred to as “IDs”) and listeners coordinate efforts to identify them. Run was the 32nd song in Lane 8’s four hour (!) Summer Mixtape and I subscribed to notifications for when the dedicated folks on the corresponding 1001Tracklists page would eventually tag the track. The dance community’s ID collecting feels similar to gathering engineering arcana and seeing if they have named counterparts in mathematics.
Do you — or did you — collect anything in the same way the dance genre does for unreleased tracks? Letters to J Bonus Points if you still have the collection around and include a photo.