+10 hour flight to rediscover childhood passion

My girlfriend and I traveled recently to South Africa. Personally, I have a hate-love relation with traveling. Before leaving, I always prefer to stay home, just relax. At home, I don’t have the chance of missing a flight, getting lost, … Once at the destination, some of the worries leave my mind (but not all).

I actually preferred a holiday closer to home and my girlfriend wanted to go to Africa: a compromise must be made! So, South Africa it was!

A giraffe looking to the right. (Picture was taken by my girlfriend)

The trip

A lodge in a (relatively small) private reserve was our residence of seven nights. All safari’s and other activities were with the other 18 tourists from staying at the same lodge. To increase the curiosity of the guests, the lodge set up a competition: indicate the highest amount of identified species (mammals, birds, trees, …) on a list. For this competition I had three major disadvantages:

  1. my girlfriend couldn’t care less about the list
  2. didn’t have a camera (for postponed identification of the species)
  3. very bad internet (which is actually not a bad thing)

All I could do was rely on my memory and a couple of posters in the lodge with some common species. Spoiler: We didn’t win. But that doesn’t matter!

My childhood passions

As a child, I always had a big interest in nature and everything around it. When learning to read, the fairytales didn’t appeal to me and I hated to read them. Encyclopedia, on the other hand, I found wonderful. Of course, they also have a lot of pictures. During my childhood, my passions underwent an evolution:

  1. Dinosaurs! What young fellow doesn’t find dinosaurs fascinating! (Nowadays, I forgot most of the random facts I knew about them.)
  2. Whales were the next step in my evolution. Whales are even bigger! As I live in Belgium, it is quite hard to see one in the flesh, especially if you don’t live near the coast.
  3. Birds – back to dinosaurs! – was my next obsession. With the added advantage that I could spot them in the backyard of my parents!

 

Eurasian jay by Luc Viatour / https://Lucnix.be

I still remember finding a blue/black feather of the eurasian jay. The feather was one of my dearest possessions for a long time. To be honest, I have no idea where it is now. Probably I put it somewhere I would never lose it, causing me to lose it.

Growing up, other interests emerged: studies, computers, linux, games, watching shows, … If you go to South Africa, the only goal is to see as much of the nature as possible. This revitalized my interest in nature. It had never left me completely, but it got a bit lost with all the other stuff.

Now

Once home (happy to be home, I always like to come back from holidays), I went to my parents home and collected my four most important nature books (2 birds, 1 general and 1 with insects). (I suspect my girlfriend thinks I hit my head somewhere in Africa.)

I have too many things to do to become as consumed by it as I was when I was a kid.  We will see how it evolves. Refreshing my memory and being able to identify most of the common birds/plants might already be a lot of fun!

Pursuing increased productivity

If you are like me, then all help is welcome to increase your productivity and focus. For me, it always has been a problem. While working on a dull task, I get distracted by everything around me. Checking emails, watching a youtube video, tinkering with software settings and configurations… Everything seems more fun than the task at hand. Only when I’m working on something that passionates me or rather annoys me, I can focus 100%. Often I can focus extraordinary well on small cli “project”. The latest example is the automated conversion of pdf files (single or double column) for reading on my e-reader. It really bothered me that it wasn’t working, so I spend a huge amount of on it until it worked.

The attempt

To try and increase my productivity, I started making notes in Vivaldi. I was already using Vivaldi as my everyday browser, so it made sense to use it and not opt for a new, more specialized application. A big part of my work happens in the browser, having my notes in a panel seemed perfect. Other advantages are that the Notes can be synced between different computers and that markdown is supported. I like markdown, as it is easy, quick, supported by a lot of services and I don’t have to use a mouse to go through a bunch of menus! The notes in Vivaldi are saved in the ~/.config/vivaldi/Default/Notes file as a json. Which means I can read it using any tool I want. Initially, my idea was to process the data using python, but I never got around doing this for various reasons on which I will elaborate later.

Every day I make a note with the data (for example 20180805). This format guarantees a logic chronological sequence when sorted alphabetically. Vivaldi Notes can’t sort the notes like this, but I was thinking about the postprocessing. The time is formatted as a header 1 (#). Underneath “tags” are set using a block quote (> /work/project1). Text formatted as a header 2 specifies the detailed topic. The remaining text is a list all the things I did, found, concluded… An example is included below:

# 0940
> /ebook/var
## systemctl
PathChanged to PathExistsGlob

“`ini
[Unit]
Description=double column pdf to kobo friendly

[Path]
PathExistsGlob=~/Documents/pdf2convert/dc/*.pdf

[Install]
WantedBy=multi-user.target
“`

bash to
“`bash
#!/bin/bash

path=~/Documents/pdf2convert/dc
converted=~/Documents/pdf2convert/converted
original=~/Documents/pdf2convert/original/
suffix1=_kobo_dc
suffix2=_original

cd $path

for f in *.pdf; do
~/Downloads/k2pdfopt ./$f -ui- -o ../converted/${f%.pdf}${suffix1}.pdf -w 1050 -h 1365 -dpi 265 -fc- -n -cgr 0.05 -m 1.cm -x -f2p -1
mv $f $original${f%.pdf}_original.pdf
chown tw:tw ../converted/${f%.pdf}${suffix1}.pdf
done
“`

Drawbacks

Before starting making the notes, the idea was to use python to post-process my time management. A json can be easily read and then I could look for header 1 and calculate how long I spend on a project using the “tags”. With this data, it is fairly easy to generate nice graphs, illustrating how much or little I can focus. Essential in this process is the standardized formatting of the notes. Here lies the problem: I’m not sure if my formatting now is the best approach. Starting on post-processing code would be a huge waste of time (and that is exactly what I should try to avoid.)

Using the Notes, has another big disadvantage: the search function is not very good. You can find back in which note a certain string was used, but it is not highlighted in the text. Especially when the note is very lengthy, this can become frustrating.

The result

Initially, my productivity increased substantially. After a couple of days, I got a bit tired of documenting all the times I changed doing something or went for a coffee. Now, after a month and a half, my productivity is still slightly higher, taken into account the 35°C in the office as a result of the heatwave. The biggest advantage of my notes is not the increase in output, but having a full documentation of my day. I can now easily find back the one command I used to change some setting, or how I got the result I got. On the long run, this will probably have a bigger effect on my productivity.

I noticed that it aren’t only the tedious tasks that I postpone, but also the critical ones. The tasks with a high impact on the rest of my life, work, … Finding out if a model I worked on works or not, is a task which outcome dictates if the hours, days, months or even years I spend working on it were worth it or not. When I’m not convinced I can deliver good work, is another case when I can’t get started doing something. Naturally, this only escalates the problem. Not a single productivity tool in the world could possibly change this. But hey, all little steps help.

 

Do I need to focus on a single goal?

Captain Ahab, Mandela, Eddy Merckx … all had one single goal in their mind (or it seems that way) and were able to set everything aside in order to reach that goal. Nothing was important, but that lone objective.

The problem

I don’t have this single goal, so no driving force to become a monomaniac. ‘You have to fight for your dream’, but do you have to do when you have 27 dreams? I want to be good in multiple domains, all at the same time: I want to learn how to write (and eventually write) compelling, moving stories, I want to to improve my programming skills and contribute in useful projects, I want to find a interesting job preferable in R&D (and excel in it, but that is an other problem), improving the world a little bit, I want to keep a certain level of fitness (I’m currently failing very hard, but don’t tell anyone), I want to learn to cook delicious meals, I want to read the best books, I want to be loved and have lots of friends. Ow yeah, I also want to waste time by doing nothing, watch shows and movies.

Another problem is my nature: I have difficulties to start working on something, if I do not see a satisfying final product within the (not too distant) future. This also happens when I have too much to do: too much stress results in wasting time. This creates of course more stress

All lists have at least three items, so here is the third: procrastination! It is a hobby of mine. I do it whenever I can. Especially for administrative things I REALLY have to do. Linked with my stress paralysis, this doesn’t help. I even postpone the simplest of tasks, resulting in long to-do lists.

Now that we are on a role, a fourth item: easily demotivated. I want to be proud of my work. I’m not extremely smart or skilled, which is a problem if you want your work to be perfect before you show it so someone. Often I lose interest before the task is finished or I get lost in details. Resulting in me wasting time on non-essential details, causing frustration: ‘I worked for x hours on project y and only got this “far”!!’ so I don’t show it to anyone. and everyone thins I didn’t do anything.

Solution?

I could try to put aside all my goals, except one. But who wants to live without making love and friends a goal? On the other hand, you can not live on love alone. So, let say I would select one goal, combined with love and friends. The obvious choice for my single goal would be work related. If you have to do something for around 8 hours a day and it provides money for your existence, why not make it your number one priority?

Immediately, a problem arises. I don’t have a clear idea of what exactly I would want to do for the rest of my life. In one month, I have my doctoral degree in engineering sciences. And honestly, I have no idea what the future will bring. I hope I can land a job withing my domain of my current hobbies and interests, but I’m also wanting to learn some new skills and dive into a new subjects.

Can I even become so focused? Focus is not my strongest characteristic… (sadly). According to recent studies you become more productive if you work in shorter bursts and limit your time at work. During some months, I was in my office for often more than 12 hours a day. I have to admit, productive was not a word you could use to describe me. But what I’m wondering, is how you should renewal your energy. I’m wondering if you have to stop doing intense tasks all together, or can you do another task, not related with work? If the latter is possible, I could work on multiple goals, without impeding my work. On the contrary, it should be beneficial! Should I then plan everything in detail? Taking control over every second of my day? Seems a bit impossible, because sometimes, squandering time can be so much fun! Personally, I learned some useful skills during these periods: most of my linux know-how for example. I’m not a linux professional, but I can perform some tasks in a fraction of the time my colleagues can.

A first step for me will be tracking my time in the office: this will motivate me and give a beter picture of how I work on a daily basis. We will see what the future brings!

 

The (blogging) road so far

More than a month ago, I published my first post. After seven days of intens blogging, a couple of weeks of complete silence and a new year, it seems to me the right moment to make a first evaluation of my experiences and thoughts.

A first observation: it is more addictive than I ever imagined. I didn’t expect that someone would read my posts, so after receiving the first positive comment, I wanted more. My hunger for approval resulted in  4 posts within the first seven days. I burned through a lot of the stories I wanted to share, leaving behind the fear that I will run out off ideas.

After this first burst of blogging, I stopped. Of the eight posts on community front page of vivaldi, three were mine! This seemed a bit much. I was even a bit disappointed in the amount of full length blogs on the community page. Of course I realized that it is a staring community, but after I noticed that a couple of people were reading my posts, I hoped/expected a vivid community with daily posts about diverse topics and lively discussions.

My free time was very limited with the preparations of my PhD defense and a project meeting. After the first week of blogging, I needed some rest and didn’t feel motivated to start a new post. I decided to take a break for about a week, but this became more than a month!

Until today, the post with the most responses was ‘My essential software’ . I should have expected this, but this type of posts is not something I really want to do often. It is just a list, without a story or some real personal insights. After publishing  ‘How a reptile can move people on the other hand, I was nervous. It had some personal, emotional parts, which I almost never share with others. Obviously, I was hoping for some (positive) comments. (I’m really thankful for the nice comments by the way. So thanks!)

I’m pretty sure I will continue to write posts for this blog. I think the best approach would be to stick with a fixed schedule. One post would be a nice rhythm, keeping the (potential) readers interested, without boring them. Sadly, I think I lack the time, experience and inspiration to do this. We will see how it goes.

My PhD experience (so far)

After obtaining my master’s degree in electromechanical engineering (option aerospace to be complete), I was asked if I was interested in doing a PhD. I didn’t think I was very suited for the job: I didn’t really enjoy writing the master thesis and I’m not that smart.

Then why?

I still had – although I knew it was not correct – the romanticized image of scientific research: a group of young people, driven by the desire to decipher the world and make it a better place. Of course I wanted to try to earn my place among those people! I wanted – like almost everyone – to make a difference and maybe a PhD could realize this. Why not?

But I don’t have to make it sound better than it was: it was also very convenient. PhD students are well paid in Belgium and it meant staying in the world I already knew for five years. Back then, saying I was not very happy is a bit of an understatement: it was the most awful time in my life. I felt terrible. A change of environment would maybe have helped, but I didn’t want to risk it getting worse (although I didn’t thing that was possible).

Start!

So I started my PhD. At that time I didn’t drink coffee, now I live on that black liquid!

It was in a different department than my master’s thesis, so obviously the subject was something completely new. The only thing that was constant: it had to do with numerical simulation.

The first problem: the department didn’t have any experience in modelling and couldn’t really provide the guidance I needed. Therefore I changed departments (and subject) after around 2 months. Which was actually totally out of character for me. In the new department, it got a bit more (not a lot) more guidance. But all in all, I didn’t do great.

After maybe a year, it got better: I didn’t feel bad al the time anymore. I discovered cycling to set my mind off my worries, that improved my work. Still, far from ideal, but I got (some) results. I got some new hope I could see it all through.

A drawback

Funding problems! No funding for my subject. But my supervisor still wanted me to work on that topic. His solution: keep on working on the initial subject, until we find some extra funding, but until then, combine it with a complete different topic. What could go wrong? (hint: no extra finding was found.)

The bad

The things that went wrong: supervisor didn’t care about the new project, but I still had to go to all the meetings and pretend I was working fulltime on that topic. In reality I worked a couple of weeks on it every six months. As you can imagine, after six months I forgot all the details of what I had been done for the previous consortium meeting. So I lost some extra valuable time. Result: a growing hatred towards the project. Not very motivating and consequently I didn’t master the needed expertise to approach the problem correctly. Nightmare material for someone who is always doubting himself and has almost no confidence. So I have two topics: one on which I was allowed to work on almost fulltime on and one (the project) I had to do in between.

If by change, a new PhD student would read this: learn to say “NO, I can not do that.” and learn to complain to the supervisor when a problem (lack of time, no good project proposal, …) arises. IMMEDIATELY! Back then, I thought I could pull it off by working crazy hours. Shocker: I couldn’t and felt unmotivated for that project, leading to a huge lack of focus. Waiting to sound the alarm only made it worse: it is to late to complain.

Furthermore, the academic world is really focused on publishing, publishing is everything. Publishing good research comes only on the second place. This can be really frustrating.

There is a lot of competition between search centers for the same funding: project proposals have to be ambitious. That would be ok, if realizing at least 75% of the proposal was realistic. Some professors promise The Holy Grail withing the domain. Eventually ending up with objectives no one can realize (my project). And yes, once the money is there, it is your problem.

Always unforeseen problems! Inaccurate measurements, IT problems, unavailable data, lack of equipment, … and supervisors often expect you to solve everything yesterday.

The good

It wasn’t all bad of course, otherwise even I would probably have quit along time ago.

You are surrounded by young people with all more or less a passion for science, research or the academic environment. You become better at writing, structuring, organizing your work, to teach, … and if all goes well, you earn your PhD degree. You have very flexible hours: you want to start late or from home? No problem. There are also a lot of opportunities to meet people and to travel.

If I would start over, I would do approach it all a bit differently. Now I know how I have to organize my work to get them done. Online tools like Trello, confluence, python notebooks (server), overleaf …. To bad I only got to know these tools about a year ago (better late than never).

Conclusion

Today, I have emailed my text to the members of the jury of my PhD defense (Belgian system: private defense of maximum 3 hours and a public one). In one month, my private defense is planned. I still am terrified about the part (<30% of the complete document) discussing the new project I didn’t had time for.

Even writing this post didn’t really go as planned… My initial aim was to write down my experiences as some sort of guide for other (starting) PhD students. I felt I had to sketch my situation and that resulting in this elaborated lamentation: more negative than initially intended and to long.

How a reptile can move people

In my first post I talk about how I look up to good storytellers, independent of the medium they use. One of those people is John Green. Surprisingly, I do not mean John Green as the writer, but as the youtuber (I never read on of his books, so I can’t say anything about those). Last week he posted a new video which fascinated me and that is why I want to talk about it!

The greeting/intro

The video starts with John telling his bother – the viewers – how the past months were though for him, as he was stressed about the book, the tour and so on. Already a good start! For some reason, I always find it reassuring that even a successful person as John Green has similar worries as me. My worries are of course not about a book, but about everything I have or should or would do or be. Of course I known that everyone has worries, but still it feels good to hear you are not alone.

The tuatara

Here comes the reptile: the tuatara, an inhabitant of New Zealand that plays some role in the new book of John. He further tells us that the New Zealand five cent coins featured this animal. Ok, I did not know what a tuatara was, let alone that its image used to be on coins.

To thank people on the tour, John wanted to give people a tuatara coin. So now we know why he was providing us with all the information about this coin and low value coins in general. It is a nice and original gesture. Problem! He could not buy  enough of those as New Zealand stopped minting them. Solution needed!

The moving part

He reached out to local people, which is not a big problem as vlogbrother has a big community of loyal fans. It started steadily, until one teacher managed to collect the coins from all over the country. People who had never heard of John started sending their coins and stories to the teacher. Who then mailed them to John. It is probably a bit softhearted of me, even a bit to emotional, but I was moved by John thanking all those people and telling his viewers about it. It was probably more due to the way he tells it and how it still seems to touch him, that I felt moved. To see how strangers can encourage someone in a difficult time, even without knowing it is something beautiful to see. The sincere way John talks about it, makes you realize that those strangers made his difficult time a bit easier. If you have or had a difficult time yourself, you know the value of those and how they can make your day just a bit brighter.

My essential software

Once in a while you install a piece of software because you read a review online, a friend recommended it, or you just stumbled upon it and want to try it for a short time. A lot of those packages I remove after some time, while others, I start to love. Whenever I use a computer of someone else, I can’t help but miss those pieces of software and I wonder how other people can feel at home on their computer without it.

linux

I use a linux distribution for my daily work (and spare time)  for around 8 years. I started with Ubuntu, tried Fedora, used Mint and openSUSE  for a while and finally fell in love with archlinux. When using a computer with Windows installed, the things I miss the most are the very fast and useful (terminal) tools. I rely heavily on tools like find, ssh, grep, cat, vim , diff, …. to complete almost any task.

LastPass

At first I was skeptical: it didn’t seem very safe and reliable to use a tool to save all your passwords, sensitive files, … in the cloud. Pass, a linux tool that saves everything in a folder-like structure with each file encrypted using gpg, was my solution for all the generation and storage of all the passwords a modern internet user needs. I knew my passwords were safe, but it was unusable for passwords I needed on different computers. After LastPass solved the problems google found after a thorough review withing a minimum of time (I don’t remember how many days) and the recommendations of a colleague, I gave it a try. From that moment on, no more weak passwords for me!

Vivaldi

I stumbled upon Vivaldi after some random IT-related browsing. “How can a new browser compete with Firefox?” was my first thought. In the past, I was a very satisfied Opera user, until I was disappointed with the new direction of the browser after it was sold to a Chinese company. When I read that Vivaldi is a new project from some of the people that developed Opera, I wanted to give it a try. Immediately I loved some of the unique features of Vivaldi (page tiling for example) and all the features keep on getting better (download panel, screenshots, history, …)! There are some disadvantages of course: Vivaldi uses a lot of RAM and doesn’t have a syncing feature (yet). Knowing that Vivaldi values its users and make sure to protect their privacy, makes it only better.

drop-down terminal

It does’t really matter which drop-down terminal it is, I just want to have one!

git

Ok, everyone who codes will know this one, but I use it for almost everything: config files, latex projects (papers, thesis, …) Combined with bitbucket, github or a repository on dropbox, you have immediately a backup.

dropbox

If I need to share a file quickly, or make an emergency backup of something, dropbox is the software I use. The support for linux is probably a bit less extensive compared to Windows, but everything does what it is supposed to do. For running multiple instances of dropbox, you will need to do some manual fiddling for example, but it will work eventually.