Meme-time: Comfy Questions

A “Comfy Questions” meme has been doing the rounds among some of my blogging friends, most hilariously Moderate Peril. I can’t guarantee to be as amusing or ornery as Roger – in fact, I can guarantee that I won’t be, and won’t even try – but here is my take on this…

How do I drink my tea?

I’m tempted to answer, Roger-fashion, “Out of a mug, how else?” But I’ll restrain myself. I drink tea with milk, no sugar. However I’m also partial to a Chai Latte, which has not only sugar, but also cinnamon and such.

Favorite dessert?

Don’t really have a single fave. However one of my nieces, a 12yo, has developed an interest in baking and made a gorgeous baklava for us all last time her family was over. That could be a fave just because of who made it. I recommend eating baklava with ice-cream!

Favorite season?

Again it’s hard to pick a fave, as each season has its pluses and minuses. I love the Christmas period, so maybe winter, but the weather is often pretty disagreeable then!

What cheers me up?

Goofing around with kids definitely lifts the spirits amazingly.

Dogs or Cats?

When I was small I wanted a dog; when I was older I lived with assorted cats (not mine). However as a grown man I’ve never wanted either. If it was going to be one or the other, and it was practical to fit into my life, I’d go for a dog though. Best I know you can play and have fun with a dog, and dogs look on you as an adored friend and wise master. Whereas a cat thinks it is royalty and you are simply the domestic help.

Dream holiday?

I’ve been lucky enough to do a lot of traveling over the years, and at this point I don’t have anyplace that I’m still really dying to go. Overall it’s the people you’re with that make vacations wonderful, more so than where you are.

So maybe combine a few of my answers already and make it a big family vacation (with parents, siblings, nieces & nephews etc) around Christmastime, and go to somewhere like Lapland, see some Northern Lights and generally feel the Christmas vibe to the max.

How many kids do you want?

At my age I’m old enough that I’m very unlikely to ever have any kids of my own. I was never opposed to having them, but neither was it all important to me to do so.

Favorite weather?

What I love the absolute most is a cool, perfectly clear, sunny winter’s day. However I enjoy a lot of different kinds of weather as well.

What would your last meal be?

There are not many circumstances in which you eat a meal knowing that it will be your last. Are we imagining I committed a horrible crime here? 🙂

Maybe a homemade pizza.

If you could spend 24 hours anywhere, any year, where would you choose?

Realistically, having first seen Roger’s response (“some cunningly contrived, time travel scheme here, where I could set up some sort of long-term investment plan that would pay off big time now”), I would probably go for copying his idea!

Go visit my former self with some hot tips… “Buy that house whatever it takes dummy, it will be worth a fortune in a few years time…. Also Apple stock…. And when you hear about a little thing called Google: buy, buy, buy!”

But if we weren’t being so pragmatic, there are plenty of times and places I’d like to visit.

How about this: Give me 24 hours on the International Space Station! Not too bothered about the exact year!

If I were a ghost, who or where would I haunt?

I would either haunt The White House (selected inhabitants only) or some eminent scientist who scoffs at the idea of ghosts.

Perhaps I would haunt Harvard University, so I could unsettle generations of scoffing scientists. Also if you have to hang out someplace for all eternity, it is not such a bad place to do it.

What is your family ancestry?

I don’t know a great deal about it. To the best of my very limited knowledge my ancestors were most likely pretty humble farmers, coming from places where there would have been not much in the way of records kept. I could be wrong though.

What scares you?

The prospect of global warming scares me, esp after what we saw this summer.

What are you most grateful for?

A few years back I had some serious knee probs, which thankfully were able to be completely sorted out. So now I’m grateful and delighted that I’m fully able to walk, run, jump, whatever.

Dream job?

If I were actually capable of doing it, probably being some kind of top-notch scientist. Possibly a cosmologist.

Do you believe in aliens?

If I had to guess, I would say most likely there are other life forms out there somewhere. But it would be much more interesting to know than to guess.

Favorite sport?

Fave to play is tennis, but fave to watch is soccer. Only when played at a very high level though, and in general I don’t watch that much sports of any kind.

How do I relax after a long day?

If it’s really been that long then vegging out and collapsing is on the menu! Or in more concrete terms, watching some undemanding-but-good show on streaming, while slumped on the sofa.

Note that this is not the ideal form of evening entertainment, it’s just what I’d have energy for if it had been a really long day.

If I could meet one historical figure, who would I choose and why?

This is again a tough one as there are plenty that come to mind.

I’ll go for Richard Feynman, in part because I’ve got enough idea of what he was like that I’m pretty sure it would be fun and interesting to meet him, rather than turn out badly.

As a teenager he was a big inspiration, and I imagined he’d be a great mentor. Spending time with him you’d maybe pick up a little of his way of looking at things, and it certainly wouldn’t be dull.

If I had to be a teacher, what subject would I teach?

Although I am in no way qualified to teach it, I’d teach English Literature. At least I would be able to read and discuss some good books, and perhaps be a positive influence.

I am interested in (and far better qualified to teach!) various other subjects, but not so keen on how they are treated at school, or are forced on kids who aren’t enthused.

Describe your perfect day?

There’s no such thing, as there are many different kinds of great days.

One is: Go walking with friends somewhere beautiful, say along the coast, and round it off with a great meal.

Describe yourself in a sentence?

“Mostly harmless; he’s just zis guy you know…”

Who makes me laugh the most?

Douglas Adams probably.

What super power would you choose?

I’d take Hiro Nakamura’s abilities.

Favorite animal?

Don’t really have one. Tigers are pretty awesome though.

What is your biggest accomplishment?

Probably helping various people deal with some tough situations.

Which is probably not something I should discuss in any detail in a blog post, hence the vagueness. But there wasn’t anything comfy about those things, so that doesn’t belong in a “Comfy Questions” meme anyhow!

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Developer Appreciation: The Lichess Story

Nowadays lichess is one of the most widely used and best loved chess sites in the world. Remarkably it was started a few years back as a hobby project by one young French developer, Thibault Duplessis. To this day it’s remained a totally free service, and is an open source project.

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! And add a million other thank yous from the chess players around the world you have made your site a second home! ❤

mtnmcallister, Reddit AMA

Initially Thibaut simply wanted to try out certain then new web technologies for fun, and decided to build an online chess game because he liked chess himself and thought it would be relatively simple to build. He was not looking to get any users at all, or to build a large site.

As the site grew in popularity, he continued to work on it as a hobby project, and paid all the running costs for the servers himself. He argued that as the site was his hobby, and he had a well-paid day job to pay for such hobbies among other things, there was no need for anyone else to contribute financially.

Being an open source project, people did of course join up to contribute in other ways, from programming, to translating the site into a large number of languages, to moderating the forums.

Eventually the site became so popular and the feature set so rich that the amount of work needed and the running costs for the servers were beyond what could be managed as a side project. At this point the community stepped in with donor funding, firstly for the servers, and later to pay Thibault a reasonable salary to enable him to work on the site full time.

Last I knew, he was backpacking the world while continuing to work on lichess, funded by a modest salary paid from donations.

I’m not doing office hours; instead I’m traveling around the world, working from everywhere there is an Internet connection.

Some days I will only check in to see if everything is going well, and if I’m not needed to fix an urgent bug, I’ll enjoy a day of hicking, diving, or traveling by bus to a new town.

More often, I’ll wake up early in some cheap hostel, check in with the awesome lichess team on slack, empty the lichess email box (about 50 mails a day, but I get help), and get to work. Fixing the bugs I wrote yesterday, then writing new bugs (a.k.a. features) for tomorrow. Titivating the servers. Reviewing and merging code from contributors. Reading reports and new ideas from the forum. Asking the moderation team and mobile app team how I can help. Taking breaks where I’ll play a few correspondence moves, or a couple blitz games, or check out reddit. Then back to code, and eventually, before I go to sleep, when lichess is the most quiet, I deploy the new fixes and bugs I wrote.

On a good day I can put in about 15h of work. Sometimes 10h, sometimes 5h. In any case I’m on duty 24h/24, 7 days a week; the team has my phone number and will call when something breaks.

TL;DR lichess takes as much work as I can or want to put in.

Thibault Duplessis, Reddit AMA

If you are in interested in Thibault’s tale I can recommend his Reddit AMA, plus this episode of the Perpetual Chess Podcast and the following video:

Both are fascinating, inspiring and rather fun even if you haven’t the slightest knowledge about chess. They deal with topics that all developers and gamers can relate to, and offer interesting insights into matters such as:

  • How to build and scale a site
  • What makes a game site a success?
  • Why open source?
  • How to make a community work?
  • How to handle cheats, trolls and those out to game the system

A big thank you to Thibault and the lichess team for making this wonderful site!

Books That Have Stayed With Me

Today is apparently Book Lovers Day. To mark it I thought I would reblog this very relevant piece from my second blog, Planet Pasduil . It arose out of a meme in 2014, and it would be great to have a revival of that meme for Book Lovers Day.

You can see many other people’s books lists in the comments to my original post and via this follow up.

If you’re a lover of books and reading you’ll find plenty of other articles about that on Planet Pasduil as well. If you would like to share your own lists, you can do that in comments below,. Or write your own post!

Happy Book Lovers Day!

Planet Pasduil

Apparently there is a meme on Facebook where people are listing the books that have stayed with them in some way. I first heard of this from The Tolkienist because predictably enough Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit make the Top 10 of those mentioned. (The data is pored over in a little more detail over at The Atlantic.)

I’m not much of a one for Facebook, but I am one for books. I think lists of this kind are both fun and illuminating, especially when it comes to seeing what your friends say.

Here’s my stab at identifying which books have stayed with me the most. Unlike the Facebook meme I’m not going to confine myself to fiction because plenty of non-fiction jumps out at me when I think about this.

So, in no particular order…

  • B-Flight by Bruce Carter. You’ve probably never heard of this but…

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A Writing Process

As part of Blaugust quite a few people are sharing writing tips. Now I’m in no great position for offering tips on getting blog posts written because a) I don’t get that many posts written myself! and b) I have no process for doing blog posts, at least that I am aware of consciously.

However while I don’t have any process when it comes to blogging, I did have a method for academic and business writing that I often used, and which worked well for me. I only remembered this when I saw a piece by Telwyn describing something which has strong similarities to what I used to do.

What problems does this solve?

Before getting into the method, it’s worth explaining why it was useful to me.

While I’ve always been a pretty good writer and generally enjoy writing, I used to run into some frequent problems:

  • Procrastination brought on by staring at a blank page and wondering where and how to start.

  • Feeling befuddled by the complex mass of stuff that seemed to comprise the topic I was supposed to cover, and wondering how any piece of it could be explained when every piece seemed inter-related to everything else.

  • After actually starting, quickly getting bogged down in excessive perfectionism. Not making much progress on the whole because of trying to get the first few bits just so.

Due to these problems getting things written was often quite stressful. It was hard to predict how long anything would take, and it wasn’t uncommon to end up pulling an all-nighter at the last minute to get the thing done.

Finally I evolved this method which made things a lot less fraught.

The Method

1) Jot down headings or phrases for all the matters that should be covered to deal properly with the overall subject. Don’t worry too much about the order of things, or finding the right words for anything, even the headings. This is somewhat of a brain dump, and could look vaguely like a mind-map, with some lines between connected topics. As you might guess from this description, I often found it better to do this step on a large pad of paper first rather than electronically.

2) Expand on one of the headings, putting down what you want to say about it. (This bit is now electronic! No actual writing prose on paper.) Don’t necessarily go through headings in order, if stuck for what to say on one section, just go to another. Or just work on the one that grabs you first. Equally don’t worry about such things as phrasing things well, a proper flow or any other writerly concerns, Just get down what needs to be said about each subtopic. Keeping going until all the subheadings are done.

3) Review whether the structure makes sense. Often after things have been put down it’s clear that the most logical order is a bit different to the one you first came up with. In electronic documents, especially Word docs, things can easily be restructured.

4) Now polish up to make the thing well-written and readable. Improve the clarity, expand on things that might not be self-evident to readers, put in those nice segues from one section to another, add explanations of how what we discussed in Section 4 applies to Section 5 etc.

5) If appropriate to the type of piece write conclusions / recommendations / management summary etc that sums up what you had to say.

6) If writing to a word limit, trim or expand as needed. In my case I normally have to work to make things more concise. Even if there’s no word limit, it’s useful for me to check if I can say things in a simpler and more readable way.

7) Finalize, pretty up, sort out things like a Table of Contents and publish.

Applicable to Blogging?

I suspect that while I don’t do any of this consciously for blog posts, I used the method enough times before there even were such things as blogs that to an extent it’s become semi-automatic for me, and I do use elements of the method unconsciously.

Blog posts are usually short enough that the “headings” don’t have to be set out explicitly but are just “jotted down” mentally. I then feel comfortable banging out a first cut confident that there will be another pass or two to bring sanity to the mess later on. When everything seems publication-ready, there is that last check, and while there are no Tables of Contents and the like to add, it’s at that point I think about things like tags. Finally I hit publish.

Optimistically you could say that maybe my writing skills have gone through those three classic stages of development: 1) Conscious incompetence, 2) Conscious competence, 3) Unconscious competence.

A Paradox of Play

In my last post I presented reasons why play is an important part of life, is highly beneficial to both children and adults, and is most likely a biological necessity not only for humans but many types of animal as well.

This being so, why don’t we take play more seriously? I think part of the explanation lies in a paradox about play.

This is from Stuart Brown’s working definition of play:

… the first quality of play that sets it off from other activities is its apparent purposelessness. Play activities don’t seem to have any survival value. They don’t help in getting money or food. They are not done for their practical value. Play is done for its own sake… It is also voluntary — it is not obligatory or required by duty.

For something to truly be play, and give the experience of playing, it has to be something that you do for the heck of it, without attaching any greater purpose or significance to it. If you were to do the same activities but motivated by an earnest desire for self-improvement because you know play is meant to be good for you, the activity would automatically cease to be play, the fun would greatly diminish or go out of it altogether, and you wouldn’t get the benefits of playing!

Taking play too seriously destroys it!

Now of course one can “work at” aspects of one’s play. For example you might have a training schedule for your sport, practice sessions for your musical instrument and so on. As long as the ultimate context remains that you follow your pursuit for its own sake, and from your own choosing, this generally doesn’t undermine experiencing playfulness.

The sweet spot of taking things seriously but also lightly is often the most rewarding of all.

At times naturally our “taking things seriously” can get out of hand, and then the once refreshing and delightful hobby becomes another chore to be gotten through. When this happens we start to lose enthusiasm and eventually feel burned out altogether.

“Lightness” also has two major pitfalls. Firstly, while pure spontaneous goofing around is a necessary and rewarding form of play, in many kinds of hobbies that is not enough to make for a satisfying amount of progress. You might be writing your novel for the heck of it, but if you don’t seem to be getting anywhere after months of intermittent writing, you’ll probably get disheartened. Oftentimes your hobby becomes much more fulfilling when you “get serious” about it.

The second pitfall is where we came in: You take your play so lightly that you think it’s not important to make room for it. This can happen with an individual’s personal decisions, but also with choices that societies make. When there is pressure to be achieving ever higher grades, it’s easy for school authorities do decide that fripperies like sport, art and music are relatively dispensable. And when budgets are under stress, why not just sell off the playing fields? So we do that for while, maybe a generation, and then start to worry about inactivity and obesity in kids.

The paradox of play makes our play lives a bit of a balancing act. Sometimes everything is just great, other times it veers off too much one way or the other. Sometimes we need to “lighten up”, other times “get serious”. Perhaps we can take that as a fun challenge in itself!

The Necessity of Play

I’ve written before about the work of psychologist Stuart Brown, an expert on play in both humans and animals. Yesterday I was reading his book and was struck by a key point: play is a biological necessity.

Early in his book he recounts a striking incident in the Canadian far north:

Hudson seemed to be a very dead dog. That’s what musher Brian La Doone thought as he watched … a polar bear quickstep across the snowfield, straight toward the sled dogs … La Doone spent much of his life in the polar bear’s territory, and judging from the appearance of this particular bear he knew it had not eaten in months. With a skull-crushing bite or a swipe of its massive claws, the bear could easily rip open one of his dogs within seconds.

But Hudson had other things on his mind … Hudson didn’t bark or flee. Instead, he wagged his tail and bowed, a classic play signal.

To La Doone’s astonishment, the bear responded to the dog’s invitation. Bear and sled dog began a playful romp in the snow…

After fifteen minutes, the bear wandered away, still hungry but seemingly sated by this much-needed dose of fun. La Doone couldn’t believe what he’d just witnessed, and yet he was even more astonished when the same bear returned the next day … for another round of frolicking with Hudson … Every night for a week, the polar bear and Hudson met for a playdate…

Photos of this kind of play can be seen in his TED talk on YouTube.

What does this have to do with the supposed necessity of play? Brown’s argument runs like this:

  1. Play is widespread in a large variety of animals
  2. Life in the wild is tough, and evolution does not permit resources to be wasted on frivolous luxuries, least of all on such an enormous scale
  3. Therefore play must be a biological necessity, and one that serves an important purpose across large swathes of the animal kingdom

In his book he discusses what functions play might serve, including examining the effects of play deprivation on animals and among people. Among other things he makes an illuminating comparison in suggesting that play be considered in the same category as sleep and dreaming. They serve complex purposes, many of which we don’t yet understand, and in the past people have greatly underestimated the downsides of skimping on them.

Among other things, sleep and dreaming play an important role in consolidating the learning from the waking day. And play is also a crucial component of learning. In another context I have heard it said that “Some things can only be learned through play”.

If we replace “play” with “natural curiosity, exploration, and trying stuff out for the heck of it” it’s pretty clear that it’s an important element in developing many kinds of skills.

Stuart Brown explains how for example NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has found that one of the key markers of the kind of people they need is that they enjoyed making and fixing things like radios and such as a hobby in childhood. People with stellar academics from top schools turn out not to be good enough practical problem solvers for them if they hadn’t had early experiences of just goofing around with technology.

Likewise James Gleick in his biography of Richard Feynman ponders what made some of Feynman’s childhood contemporaries successful scientists and some not. The most noticeable thing to him was that those who excelled as adults were those who also did things like recreational math puzzles for enjoyment. In other words those for whom math or science or engineering was also play.

So, make room for a bit of play in your life!

Thinking about blogging? A TL;DR for Newbies

Over the years I’ve written quite a few posts designed to help people who were thinking about getting started with blogging. Here is the TL;DR version of those rather long thoughts!

What could I get out of blogging?

You can have fun talking about things that interest you, feel part of the community, and make lasting friends.

See Reflections on the NBI and Bloggy Christmas: Unexpected Parties for more about this.

Can anyone be a blogger? Can I?

Yes you can.

See To Blog or not to Blog? for more on this, including why whatever reasons you think you can’t are not really a problem. And discussion of my hangups before starting!

Where should I blog?

I recommend going with a free WordPress.com blog. Just like this one!

If you want to know more about the pros and cons of different options read my post on Where to Blog?.

What should my blog be about?

Keep it pretty broad.

You can read more detailed discussion in Blogging: To niche or not to niche?

What should I call it?

I have no clue.

You can read about my lack of a clue in more depth in Thinking Names. Maybe you’ll be inspired by some of the great names mentioned!

Can I make money doing this?

Hell no. But it is fun.

Explained in greater length in the sadly unfinished series on Careers, Hobbies and Fun (Part 1, Part 2). See also MMO Writing: Pros vs Amateurs.

But what about…?

I deliberately kept this post very short as I think that is more helpful to newbie bloggers. If you read any of the links, you know that keeping things short doesn’t come naturally to me!

If you have any questions that I didn’t cover, you can try asking me in the comments section below, or on Twitter (see sidebar widget). No guarantees I will have a good answer, or even time to answer at all. But someone in the community probably will have!

I wish you good luck in your blogging adventures.