Notes from the Library

Nov 2011

Thu, 24 Nov 2011

It’s been about a year since all the issues I’m having with my work ethic, surrounding a lack of ability to focus leading to a lack of interest in doing work that seems pointlessly unconstructive, and it’s difficult to assess where I am. Wonderfully, living back here in Balliol itself, Oxford, focuses me in the sense of making me face the real issues by clearing out things I might use to distract myself. There’s no Emacs, playing video games is a social activity more than anything else, there’s no fighting with family members. Recently, I’ve managed to get it into my head that wasting time web browsing isn’t okay, so instead I find myself just sitting here, facing the raw procrastination, desperately looking for something to distract myself with, but not finding one because I’ve cut them out. Eventually I head to the library.

I have got very good at appreciating things others don’t appreciate about many of the experiences that we encounter in Oxford. As time goes by, this is less and less about trying to make myself an identity out of liking philosophy or something. I am slowly convincing myself that the criticisms I level at people for intentionally forming a persona through clothing, language or creeds apply equally well to me and philosophy: I do not mean that having convictions is a bad thing (though my scepticism perhaps leans me more in that direction than most) but that talking them up a lot is abusing things that might otherwise have power. One thing I particularly take issue with is people talking up the word ‘geek’ and talking about being geeks and using geek jokes in a very cliquey kind of way. Do some maths, customise Emacs cos it’s cool, play an obscure board game cos it’s really entertaining, and talk about all these things a lot, of course, obviously, I do all these things too, but don’t wear a T-shirt with a joke that only five other people will get, don’t wear a long brown coat because the main character of Firefly does or call your friends browncoats, don’t speak in the vernacular of Dinosaur Comics all the time, unless it genuinely does come naturally. Why? Because, I’ve realised, it’s no better than a bunch of giggling teenage girls excluding other girls that aren’t as pretty as them (in a very conventional sense of pretty). Yes, I am accusing nerds of doing just what these girls do. Don’t form your identity like this. Don’t consciously worry about your identity at all, in this sense: what matters is maintaining your actual values, and then being happy that what you’re doing is worth doing (which may, depending on your values, just mean ‘because it’s fun’ (probably not a good enough reason for me)).

I think this has got something to do with a general desire to let go of things that don’t matter so that they’re things that don’t matter, rather than being falsely inflated into things that make me talk as if they matter rather a lot.

Got a little side-tracked there. Some things I appreciate around here. ‘The smell of wine and cheap perfume’ in the cold night air because there’s some social event where others are drinking and it doesn’t matter that I’m not, and it’s exciting to be on the approach. The harsh sound of drums when you’re outside somewhere where dance music is being played very loudly, it’s quite wonderful to hear it like that when you haven’t heard it that loud in a while. The atmosphere of a library, the relationships between the librarians of the philosophy library and everyone else who visits the building, and how an oddly organised department has its various interacting personalities. The atmosphere of other libraries where it’s not the case that everyone knows each other. The stress of this week’s housing crisis in Balliol, and the fact that I’m pretty good at dealing with this stress and taking constructive steps to deal with it, while still getting some laughs out of it. The girl you like being nice. How the JCR is only as good as it is because it strays close to the line with its humour, and how this inevitably leads to upset with people who think it’s gone too far. How a lecturer can pause his main thread to give an introduction to another topic his must introduce to go further with the main thread, and how his explanation, even though you already know this topic, is the best five minutes of the week. When you learn that someone who you thought identified herself by going out and drinking actually doesn’t take herself very seriously at all and also has a complete and total handle on her degree, and you vow once more to yourself to try and stop judging. Spending two hours being wowed by how little you know about your subject by your tutor, at around 1am, in the quad. Competing with friends as to who spent more hours doing this with this tutor. It’s-close-to-the-deadline camaraderie.

Then I actually have to do some work and it’s not a pretty sight. And once more I despair.

I feel as though I am constrained by this one thing. I have this openness to appreciating so many things in my life, but I feel blocked from it. Almost as if I have wasted my time here academically and on every other count because the former constrains the rest. As time goes by I sort out so many things, but never this, the most important thing.

While I do occasionally think, ‘is this what I actually want to do, maybe not given what I’m experiencing?’, I’m not convinced at all of it. Firstly just look at how much I get out of lectures like that which I noted above (I just don’t read up afterwards), and look how I never, ever question ‘is this cool, is this, at a more general level than this particular technical paragraph, interesting?’—the answer here is always yes. Great. But do I have the stamina to actually do it?

I recently said to myself that I would stop using writing about things on here as an excuse not to go out and do them (specifically, to go and do some work), but this post felt different. Just imagine though if I were to start writing about girls I liked here rather than doing anything about them, what carnage. (Though since this blog is not anonymous, that would be a bad idea for so many other reasons.)

Wed, 23 Nov 2011

When I was configuring Emacs over the summer and into last academic year, a process that I completed long ago and haven’t gone back to aside from the occasional snippet documented on this blog, I always did it manually, downloading elisp into my ~/.emacs.d/ folder. There is an Emacs package management system, yup an elisp version of apt-get, that is actually going to come with Emacs 24 with an official GNU repository which sounds great because it’s no longer as transitory as the independently-run system seemed. The main advantage is that it would actually keep my packages up to date rather than being miles behind as my code currently is.

When Emacs 24 finally comes out it might be worth switching to this (as well as el-get which generalises the approach, according to comments on the blog post I just linked to) but I don’t know if it will be worth the effort. My Emacs setup works perfectly for what I use it for, and I don’t use most of the packages I have installed very often anyway and should probably have a clear out, but again, this would require a lot of time and I’m not sure it’s worth it at all. It works fine and so I probably shouldn’t mess with anything.

Sat, 19 Nov 2011

I recently watched a short Internet video, a ‘TED Talk’, about how psychological research has shown that the conventional wisdom that you should tell other people your goals in order to help you stick to them, because you’re more likely to stick to things when it’s embarrassing to tell your friends you have failed, is in fact not true at all. Telling people that you’re committing to running n times a week is in fact less likely to make you run n times because your brain sees part of the challenge as already completed when you tell them about it/write it in a blog post or something similar, and so you immediately throw out a chunk of your perseverance. This information makes me wary of writing this post because in some sense, I’m explaining one of my personal development goals here that I’m actively working on. But I have a great desire to see if I can set this out well and with some elegance for once (as my writing on this blog has degraded in quality of expression of late) and hopefully there won’t be much specific.

I am unsure as to what sort of goal this will come across at. Aside from times of worry when I sit concerned about how little work I’ve done instead of doing it (like earlier tonight, but that’s besides the point I reckon), I am very very relaxed about the things I’m writing about here, at least partially because I have learnt that a certain degree of relaxation is important if goals are to be achieved. I feel that my attitude towards these goals is a good one, and importantly a different one to that which I’ve had before when I’ve written up things I’d like to do and to be on here that involve challenge and perseverance, so I’ll leave my remarks at that and hope that I can get this attitude across, and indeed, hope that I do in fact have the attitude in truth.

The move is one of re-orientation back towards my first year work ethic, perhaps even beyond that: the move is about putting my work back to the top of the list of priorities, because that’s just not where it is right now and not where it has been for a long time. For a little over a year, during term my mind seems to invent itself a list of Important Things, some of which are genuinely important things, most of which are illusions. The general effect of this list of things is that they fuel procrastination, with my mind going “okay wait I can’t work yet I need to make sure these things are in order, so let’s read e-mails, and then, er, let’s check reddit” in a very tenuous transition to continuing to waste time (continuing as it would not be a very efficient e-mail check).

The situation now is that the genuinely important things on the list have almost all dried up, as I have been dropping as many responsibilities as possible for I am a third year. To get more work done, then, I just need to work on clearing out my internal monologue of non-important things that I pretend are important.

I think a few examples of items from this list might make this clearer. For about two weeks more I am still on the JCR Committee, so that does involve staying on top of e-mail to a certain extent to make sure that the things I want to do get done. In fact I have barely achieved anything of what I wanted to this term—mostly not my fault as the person I am forced to work with, someone from the MCR Committee, isn’t really invested in his role at all—but I think my brain still uses it as an excuse. Why think seriously about work when I can instead think about how important and mighty I am (I’m really not anymore)? Let’s check e-mail again, and not actually do any JCR stuff.

Another example is keeping in touch with the sort of general large social group of Balliol. I am definitely not very in touch anymore: the JCR is a different place, sadly, and the people that made is great for me have moved on to some extent; I feel like a lonely fourth year already and I’m only a third year. Rumours about what’s happening in the elections, for example, reached me after they reached everyone else. I almost never go to the bar when last year I would be there at least three nights a week. The freshers, sadly, aren’t very friendly. This is all fine because times change and people move on and I have finals and so don’t have time to waste sitting around in the JCR for five hours a day. It makes me sad but I’m understanding about it. But my mind uses it as an excuse, thinking that I should head down and talk to person x who is always hanging around, but of I never actually go and do that, it’s just subconciously running under the surface and causing me to waste time.

Hopefully I have managed to make clear this phenomenon I have been experiencing. Further it is hopefully clear how a reprioritisation is needed. It’s a case of reprioritisation in the sense of developing different habits of thought and different cycles of deciding what to do. I’ll now try to paint a picture of something like what I’m aiming at.

Each day I get up and shower and have breakfast as I do now, all very normal, I have good habits established about this sort of thing—not perfect, but good. Now, it may be the case that there is an impeding deadline, in which case work focuses around that. Otherwise I just head to the library and start doing some work, not worrying about whether it’s the most efficient work or about what stage I’m at, but just doing the work; this very act will definitely reduce aforementioned worries, anyway. With minimal lectures, that is, just those that are actually valuable, this work can just continue. And with nothing else to be done, and breaks not centered around the computer, extra slots of time can be gained here and there that might otherwise be lost to e-mail or something. At some point in the day I will need to stop, empty my inbox, do any errands or other todo items scheduled for the day, though these will be minimal as I’m getting myself out of commitments. This is something I sit down and purposefully do, because I’m aware that it’s something to be just done and completed, instead of seeing work as something to be just done and completed, because work is an ongoing thing, and the most important thing.

If someone wants to play StarCraft or someone else suggests an interesting looking talk to attend and I’m on top of work, the above is interrupted. And if I decide I want to see someone I haven’t seen in ages or get invited to someone’s house for dinner or something, that can happen. If I get totally stuck with work and switching subject or whatever doesn’t help, I can play a game of StarCraft or read something, or, as is more likely to happen, just sit quietly for a while and then try again. All these things are short because they’re not important. Occasionally I might want to sit down and pursue one of my projects. If work is going okay I can choose, purposefully, to do this. Such a project might be reading something substantial, prepping a bop set, training some skill in StarCraft, something like that.

I am not sure how to go about getting to anything like this. This is okay; I’m just keeping it in mind right now and I’ve set myself a couple of small goals for the next month that will take me towards this picture. I should now say a little about why I think the position is valuable: it reflects the correct way to study an academic subject, and it’s the only way I am going to succeed in my exams in June which I need if I want to go on studying the subject. And I do: there are so many parts of it I love, even if I don’t always love the hard work. Time to cultivate the habits I need to succeed with that, somehow.

Quite surprised at myself today. Throughout this week I’ve been sticking to my 90m Skyrim limit, although that resolved itself into just two days of actually having time to play, but today when the pressure was off a little bit I ended up playing for about four hours. I didn’t think I would do something like that.

So I’m uninstalling it for now to prevent this happening again, and so I thought I’d note down a few comments on my experience so far to see how they compare to when I reinstall it, which probably won’t be until after this academic year I imagine.

Overall I’m not too impressed. The game’s presentation is in general very good, in that I like the style they’ve gone for, and the NPCs are often interesting and enjoyable to listen to. Particularly, dungeons look absolutely great, with a variety of visuals and lights and whatever. I haven’t done many quests and I am told these are very good and that they may change my opinion of the game, and yeah I have enjoyed the parts of the main quest that I’ve done and I like the equivalent of the Mage’s Guild, the setup is nice. Also I want to learn more about what happened after the Oblivion Crisis and why Vvardenfell is uninhabitable. I’d quite like to know what’s going on with the High Elves.

There have, though, been major holes in the presentation during this questing that have bothered me. Firstly the outskirts of Whiterun looks terrible. It’s bleak but not in a cool way. Then when you kill your first Dragon and this involves attempting to defend the city of Whiterun, you are sent with a troop of I think five soldiers, which is pathetic: this is a massive threat to what is perhaps the capital city of Skyrim, you should have an army at your back! The Mage’s Guild base feels rather barren of people once you’re inside (aside from the library, which is really really cool), though I do like the “magic is academia” thing they have going, more impressively than in Oblivion and Morrowind. They even have the academic paper writing style in some of the (fantasy) academic texts in there down pat, it’s pretty sweet, and they manage to make it cool.

My issue is that beyond this prettiness, and some decent enough questing at least when you compare with Oblivion, there is absolutely nothing else that stands out to me. It does not have Morrowind’s two massive strengths, the alien uniqueness of its world and the extremely-strange-at-first uniqueness of its hard-nosed adventuring. If the former of these comes when you’re more invested in the game, then I hope to discover that at some point in the future, but I haven’t seen it yet. It certainly doesn’t have the latter, which I guess is fair enough as it would not appeal to today’s audience. And so we just have a standard enough sequel to Oblivion, which I didn’t like, so I’m just not bothered.

As for the more direct gameplay, that is the combat, it’s okay, but I don’t see it as a major advance on Oblivion. In general, I really do feel like I’m playing an Oblivion expansion or something with some UI improvements, and some simplification of character progression. I keep referring to the game as ‘Oblivion’ to myself and others.

I am definitely aware that part of this is that I have, very sadly, grown out of immersion single-player games to a certain extent. This is sad because I used to get so much out of such experiences, I mean Morrowind was such a worthwhile use of my teenage years, I maintain. The only reason I spent four hours playing today was procrastination, really. So for now I’ll get back to StarCraft, which doesn’t really work for procrastination in quite the same way.

I just want to hear “you n’wah” as I get charged by a bunch of dark elves in a elegantly constructed dungeon with wooden walkways suspended over water deep in the bowels of the earth.

Tue, 15 Nov 2011

There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart's desire. The other is to get it.—George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman

Desires fluctuate. So should we actually trust and act upon desires? I am distinctly aware that things that I on occasion desire above all else are things I desire to get as far away from as possible once I’ve got hold of them, whatever they are.

Central tenet of Buddhism is that desire is bad. Socrates supposedly though the same:

The fewer our wants the more we resemble the gods.1

HOWEVER being motivated to always get better is also important. Is this different from desire? If we can make a Kantian story work in which it’s rational to desire, as he would put it, ‘one’s own perfection and the happiness of others’, then this is okay, but if such a story doesn’t work—and few nowadays would such an account convincing I suspect—then my initial gloss is that the idea that desire is generally not so great leads to a conclusion of not doing very much at all.

Humean thoughts about reason being the slave of the passions etc.etc. might work here but I disagree with Hume on that one so not much use to me.

Footnotes

1

Whether this is the Platonic Socrates or the real one I have no idea

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