Bullet Journal: Becoming Intentional

I do something called Bullet Journaling. I’ve done it for several years as a way to stay organized. If you look this up and you’ve never heard of it before, you’ll probably be overwhelmed by how complicated it is.

But it only looks that way. Once you do it for a few months, you start to see how simple and beautiful the system is.

The word “journal” is a bit confusing. It’s not a place where I write my feelings or whatever. A bullet journal should be thought of more like a highly efficient planner designed to help you achieve large, unmanageable goals by breaking them into simple tasks.

I couldn’t imagine writing a novel without this method anymore.

What does this have to do with intention?

Intention is one of those concepts that got a bad reputation from New Age gurus of the 90’s. I can almost hear Deepak Chopra saying something like: “Set an intention for the day and it will be manifested.”

That’s not quite what I’m referring to. One of my favorite writers, Anne Dillard, wrote in The Writing Life:

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim.

The concept is so obvious that it’s easy to forget. We often think that as long as we have long-term plans and goals, the meaningless tasks of the everyday don’t really get in the way. But, without intention, your days will fill with these tasks and activities, and then, all of a sudden, you’ve spent a whole life that can’t be gotten back doing essentially nothing you consider valuable.

Okay, so we can answer the question now. Intention, to me, is simply taking stock of the way in which you spend your day, so that you end up spending your life the way you intend.

This is why I opened with talking about the Bullet Journal method. The design of that system forces you to rethink what’s important on a day-to-day, month-to-month, and year-to-year basis.

It has you “migrate” tasks. When you do this, you ask yourself: is this vital? Is this important? Why?

If the answers are: no, no, I don’t know, then you remove it from your life. Don’t overthink it. As soon as you start making excuses, you start filling your life with stuff that doesn’t matter to you. This means you’re committing to living a life that isn’t meaningful to you.

Make sure you’re intentional about how you fill your day.

Let’s take a simple example. Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn to play the piano, but you’re too busy. Somehow the day just gets away from you. In your daily log, start tracking an hourly log to find out if you’re doing things that aren’t intentional.

You have some Twitter feeds that focus your news articles. This was meant to save time in the beginning. But now you realize a bad habit has formed where you go down the comments rabbit hole and the trending topics and on and on. The first hour of your day is shot, you’re filled with rage, and you haven’t even read any actual news articles yet.

You relax with some Netflix at night. But you started that one series that everyone loves. You just don’t get it. It adds no value to your life. But you keep going, because you might as well finish it now that you’ve started it.

And there was that time you wanted to know how hard it would be to make French Onion Soup from scratch, so you looked up a Youtube video on it. The sidebar recommended Binging with Babish and Alex French Guy Cooking and French Cooking Academy (all excellent, by the way).

All of a sudden, you’re subscribed to a dozen great cooking channels giving you hours of video every week. You feel compelled to at least watch a few, because, hey, you subscribed. There’s like, some sort of obligation there, right?

Maybe that last one wasn’t you (hint: it was me).

But you get the point.

Little things become habits really fast. Habits expand to fill those gaps in your day. If you were to ever stop and take stock of this, you’d find several hours a day you could have been learning piano. That Netflix series alone commits you to 60 meaningless hours of your life: gone forever. Sixty hours can get you through the beginner stage—easily.

Ask yourself, was that worth it? In twenty years, will you think it was worth it when you still haven’t even sat down at the piano, and now it feels too late? (It’s not too late; this is just another excuse.)

And maybe you’re thinking: but turning my brain off after a stressful day, watching something I don’t care about is exactly what I need to sleep better. Getting frustrated learning the fingering of a B-flat scale is the opposite of relaxing (seriously, that’s a messed up scale compared to literally all the others).

Great! You’ve answered the why. The Netflix series has value to you. You’re doing it with intention. Don’t cross that off your list. Maybe it’s that Twitter hour in the morning you can cut back on. Maybe right now isn’t the time to learn an instrument, and that’s okay, too.

Intention is what matters.

I’m not advocating everyone use this method.

This was actually just an extremely long-winded introduction to say I’m getting intentional about a few things I haven’t questioned for a while.

Every year, I put up a Goodreads tracker on the blog to show my progress on reading 52 books a year. For something like five years, I’ve read 60+ books a year. As a young, immature writer, this was hugely important.

As I learned about prose style, genre conventions, story structure, characterization, dialogue, etc, I was constantly testing it against a huge variety of books. I saw people who followed convention, people who didn’t, if it worked, and why.

In other words, when I started this practice, it was extremely useful. It had value to me. I did it with intention.

Recently, I’ve re-evaluated this practice. I’m getting rid of it. At this point, I find myself stressing about reading books I don’t enjoy just to check off an arbitrary counter. I’m obviously going to still read, but it will be more intentionally chosen and at whatever pace fits that book.

And let’s face it. I’ll probably still get through 40+ books a year. I’m just not going to have the stress associated with it anymore.

I get that I’m being a bit hypocritical or even egotistical with this, because I will continue to recommend other writers do the high volume method. I think most writers greatly undervalue the process of critical reading for the improvement of their writing. Quantity trumps quality until you reach a certain threshold.

Another intentional practice was mentioned in this post. I’m cutting out forced blog posts and only doing ones that I think add true value to the blog: no more stressing about “Examining Pro’s Prose” or “Found Clunkers.” All of my most read and liked posts were one-off things I was inspired to write anyway.

I’ll also use this time to announce next year’s reading series. I’m still getting value from the “Year of…” series, because I’m focusing on and learning about a very specific thing when doing it.

Ironically, in honor of intentional reading, I’m going to do the “Year of Required Reading.” I want to revisit some books I was required to read in high school and see what I think of them now. I also want to read some books required of students that I didn’t read to see if these modern additions are good ones.

I think it will be a fun series, though it might cause some comments from concerned parents if I think a required book just doesn’t live up to the hype.

So far I’ve only decided on To Kill a Mockingbird and something by Steinbeck (leaning toward Of Mice and Men but could be convinced to do The Grapes of Wrath with argument).

I’ve gotten intentional about a few other personal things that don’t need to be discussed here. But I thought I’d give a bit more explanation about some of the changes.

For those curious, here’s an overview of the Bullet Journal Method:


Thoughts on In the Beginning was the Command Line

I’ve been meaning to read Neal Stepheneson’s In the Beginning was the Command Line for quite some time. It pops up here and there, and I’ve never been able to tell what was in it from these brief encounters. Somehow (OK, I was searching for NetHack stuff) I ran into Garote’s page (Garrett Birkel). He is a programmer and in 2004 wrote some comments in with the full original 1999 essay here. This gave a nice 5 year update to Stephenson’s original. It has been 10 years since that update. I don’t plan on doing much commentary, but I did want to record thoughts I had as they came up.

In the first half of the essay there is a long diatribe on American culture. My first large scale thought is that this should be removed. There are some really nice clarifying analogies throughout the essay, but this is not one. It adds probably 1000 words and layers of unnecessary confusion. A good analogy is the Morlock and Eloi from The Time Machine as the types of people using computers. It doesn’t take long to describe and illustrates the point. Having a huge political discussion about TV ruining people’s brains and being easily distracted by shiny objects is an essay in and of itself and not a useful discussion for the main points.

Speaking of main points, I should probably try to distill them. One is that graphical user interfaces (GUIs) as opposed to the original command line prompt were created for the wrong reason. This led to a lot of bad. It is unclear to me from the essay whether or not this is supposedly inherent in the GUI concept or just because of the original circumstances under which they were made. Another main idea is the history of Linux. It is well-done, but you can find this type of thing in a lot of places. The more interesting historical description was of BeOS, because this is far less known. The last main argument is about the monopoly that proprietary OSes have in the market. We’ll get to that later.

Notes (I don’t distinguish whether the quotes are of Garote or Stephenson, sorry):

“All this hoopla over GUI elements has led some people to predict the death of the keyboard. Then came the Tablet PC from Microsoft — and people have been complaining ever since, because most things that you would use a computer for, still involve letters and numbers.”

This was without question the right thing to say in 2004. Ten years later our move to tablets and phones as our primary computers is so close to being a majority that Microsoft revamped Windows as if no one uses a laptop or desktop anymore. It was widely criticized as a mistake, but I think it says a lot about how far we’ve come since 2004. It may not have been a mistake if they waited 2 more years.

“Even before my Powerbook crashed and obliterated my big file in July 1995, there had been danger signs.”

It is interesting to me to see how much emphasis is put on “losing files” throughout this essay. It seems a point that the 2004 comments still agrees with. I certainly remember those days as well. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen now, but “cloud computing” (which I now just call “using a computer”) is so pervasive that no one should lose work anymore. I could format my hard drive and not lose anything important because my work is stored all over the world on various servers. It would take a major, organized terrorist-level catastrophe to lose work if you take reasonable precautions. I have a 2 TB external storage device to do regular back-ups on, but it just feels a waste now.

“Likewise, commercial OS companies like Apple and Microsoft can’t go around admitting that their software has bugs and that it crashes all the time, any more than Disney can issue press releases stating that Mickey Mouse is an actor in a suit.”

It is interesting that even back in 1999 this was clear. The proprietary OSes had to keep up appearances that they were better than the free alternatives. Despite the marketing that you were actually buying quality, the OSes you paid for were bigger, slower, had fragmentation issues, were more likely to crash, and got viruses. The Windows bloat is so big now (over 20 GB!) that older laptops will waste half their space just for the OS. In effect, the OS you paid for was worse than Linux in every way except for the intuitive GUI and a few select professional-grade programs.

In 2014, the GUI issue is fixed. The switch from Windows 7 to Ubuntu is less jarring and more intuitive than the switch from Windows 7 to Windows 8. I claim even the most computer illiterate could handle some of the modern Linux distributions. Now you basically pay for the ability to pay for a few high quality programs. There are certain professions where this is worth it (mostly in the arts, but certainly use Linux for work in STEM areas), but for the average person it is not. Now that WINE is better, you can even run those specialized Windows programs easily in Linux.

The next section is an anecdote about how difficult it was to fix a bug in the Windows NT install on one of Neal Stephenson’s computers versus the simplicity of getting help with Debian. This whole section is basically making the argument that a for-profit software or OS must maintain the illusion of superiority to get people to buy it. This means they hide their bugs which in turn makes it hard to fix. Open source encourages bugs to get posted all over the internet. Thousands of people see the bug and have an opportunity to try to fix it (as opposed to the one, possibly incompetent customer service rep you tell). The solution, when found, usually very quickly, will be posted for all to see and will be incorporated into the next release.

I’m not sure if the cause/effect that is proposed is really the reason for this (he admits later that there are now bug reports for Microsoft and Apple, but they are very difficult to find/use), but it matches my own experiences as well. I only note this here, because I often hear that you are “paying for customer service” or “support” when you choose Windows over Linux. For the above reasons I just don’t believe it. If the Linux community somehow stopped being so darn helpful so quickly, then maybe this would be a point in favor of proprietary software. I don’t see that happening any time soon.

The last part of the essay on the monopoly might be a little outdated. When I buy a computer and Windows comes as part of the package, I feel a little cheated because the first thing I do is delete it. Why did I just pay for something that I was going to immediately delete? The reason this is outdated is because in 2014 you can find “Linux boxes” that come with Linux installed in place of Windows. They are harder to find, so you don’t have as many choices, but this is a big improvement from 2004 where 100% of Dell (or whatever) computers came with Windows.

365 Posts!

This is just a silly short post celebrating the fact that it is the 365th post. Now you can read a post a day of this blog and it would take you a year to get through.

Honestly, I have a pretty cool post planned (another mathematical music theory with a lot more interesting math and maybe even an open problem), but I just have to get around to typing it up. I should probably avoid silly posts like this, because I’ve recently been on an unsubscribing binge in which I unsubscribe to people who do too many posts like this.

Quick Update

Nothing makes blogging stop dead like the start of the quarter. Well, that combined with the fact that I sort of reached the logical end to the topic I was posting on. There are lots of neat things we could do from here, but they are all rather technical (like sliding handles around and cancelling them to make our manifold simpler) but have nice simple geometrical interpretation. So I don’t really feel like going into that, since the bulk of the powerhouse tools of Morse theory that the everyday person needs were covered (I guess that isn’t totally true since we’re missing a few quick things for Lefschetz).

There are a few brief corollaries and applications left over that I’m contemplating. The most interesting to me is the one that says if a manifolds admits a smooth function to \mathbb{R} with exactly two critical points which are both non-degenerate then it is homeomorphic to a sphere. Yes I said homeomorphic! That is what is so interesting. We only have a diffeo if it is dimension less than or equal to 6. There are “exotic S^7‘s”.

I feel ready to move on in general. The next logical step is to develop some homology, but this is a hard question. I certainly do not have the motivation or patience to build this from the ground up starting with definitions. So I’m not sure how to proceed. I also may give up on Lefschetz for a few months and do things more related to things I’m doing for classes.

In other news, I went to a neat talk on harmonic measure theory. Normally I’m not very fond of measure theory, but this was pretty cool. There was even a result that I don’t remember now that had to do with the set on which the measure was full was an algebraic variety or something.

Anyway, figured I’d update at least once this week.

What Now?

I’m done! Well, for now. I’m pretty sure I didn’t pass all three, so I’m still not done with these darned tests.

Now I have to decide what I’m going to talk about. I decided I was going to do no math for a week after these tests were done. But I don’t feel that way now. I actually feel sort of motivated to try to look at some things I don’t have time to look at when school is in session (or when I’m studying for prelims).

From my point of view, my options seem to be Morse theory (something I’ve been threatening to do for probably 6 months now). If I did this, I’d probably just try to get to a few of the results of the form: If M is a manifold that admits a smooth real valued function with precisely two critical points, then it is homeomorphic to a sphere. Or something like that, I haven’t looked at it for awhile, so it might not actually be that. But I think it is really awesome that you can somehow get at topological facts, based purely on what real-valued functions it can admit.

I could work through Topology from the Differentiable Viewpoint and learn some things about cobordism (a term I hear thrown around a lot, but only vaguely know that it is in reference to what manifolds are boundaries of other ones or something).

I could pick up where I left off on the algebraic geometry, although I’ll probably do that during school since I’ll be taking algebraic geometry, so it might not be the best choice for right now.

I could do some of Bott and Tu’s book. I’ve only actually read the first part, and am quit curious as to what is in the rest of it.

I could try for the third time to read Zwiebach’s A First Course in String Theory, because I’m darned determined to learn what string theory is. Although, I suspect it will go even worse this time than last time considering its been well over a year since I took quantum mechanics.

Or I could switch gears and do some posts on books I’ve read (which are quite a few since my last book post) and movies I’ve seen. It is still the case that every day my Lost in the Funhouse post has the most hits. Darn you “survey of modern american lit classes” for causing so much confusion.

Or you could suggest something, and I might ignore it or actually do it.

Categories? Rings?

Well, things can get ultra busy around mid-terms. I don’t think I’ve posted in two weeks. What I really wanted to do next was to post some category theory basics. I’m not sure if I should, though, since so many math blogs have already done this. I then wanted to go on to define the fundamental group purely in categorical language. It turns out to be a really nice construction compared to the tedious typical way.

Instead, I’ve recently become quite interested in rings. There also seems to be a very large lack of “pure” ring theory in the blogosphere. Sure rings pop up and are needed by people doing things with algebraic geometry, say, but using ring theory isn’t the same as developing it.

I’m going to cover the basics quite quickly with the assumption of previous exposure, since I really want to get to some of the more interesting constructions (i.e. localization), then I’ll slow it down.

Ring: We have a set with two operations, we’ll call them addition and multiplication. The addition part forms an abelian group, and the multiplication…well, it puts you back in the set and is associative. We need a way to relate these operations, so we also require that a(x+y)=ax+ay and (x+y)b=xb+yb, i.e. there is a distributive law in effect. Note that there is not required in general to be a multiplicative identity, multiplicative inverses, or commuting of the multiplication.

NOTE: Until I say otherwise I will assume the ring is commutative (meaning multiplication) with 1 (meaning having a mult identity). R will always denote this.

Subring: A subset of R that is itself a ring.

Ideal: A subring that “swallows” multiplication. So I\subset R is an ideal if for any a\in I we have that ra\in I for all r\in R.

Prime ideal: An ideal I is prime if for element ab\in I we have that either a\in I or b\in I.

Principal ideal: An ideal I is principal if it is generated by a single element. So an ideal is generated by “a” if I=Ra=\{ra: r\in R\}.

Maximal ideal: A proper ideal I such that there is no other ideal K with the property I\subset K\subset R (where all containments are proper).

Domain: A ring in which the cancellation law holds. i.e. if ab=ac and a\neq 0, then b=c. Note that no element can divide zero, so if ab=0, then either a=0 or b=0.

We can quotient in the natural way: R/I is the set of cosets of I where our operations are (a+I)+(b+I)=(a+b)+I and (a+I)(b+I)=ab+I. We get the nice result that any ideal of R/I is of the form K/I where K is an ideal of R (and I\subset K\subset R).

I think that may lay down all the terminology I’ll need to get started. I’m not sure if I’ll really use any of these terms for awhile, though.

Common rings: \mathbb{Z}, \mathbb{Q}, \mathbb{R}, \mathbb{C}. Note that we can get \mathbb{Q} from \mathbb{Z} by taking “quotients.” This can be made precise for any domain. It is called the fraction field of R denoted Frac(R).

Let me take some time to explain this, since it is the motivation for localization. We want to form a field F that contains R as a subring such that the elements of F, say f\in F have the form f=ab^{-1} where b\neq 0. Note that this “looks” like division, and in fact is division in the case of \mathbb{Z}.

To make this process precise takes a bit of work, though. Set up X=\{(a,b)\in R\times R : b\neq 0\}. Define (a,b)~ (c,d) iff ad=bc. This is done since we want our relation to look like fractions, a/b , so a/b=c/d if we can cross-multiply and get the same thing. It is straightforward to check that this defines an equivalence relation. Now we let F be the set of equivalence classes.

Our operations on F should mimic those of fractions, so our addition is [a,b]+[c,d]=[ad+bc, bd] and [a,b][c,d]=[ac,bd]. These are well-defined and it is just computation to check that the axioms of a field are satisfied. (If you want a hint: the zero is [0,1] and the 1 is [1,1], the additive inverse of [a,b] is [-a,b] and the mult inverse is [b,a]).

Before finishing up, I want to point out how restrictive we had to be. We want a more general way of doing this. We don’t want to require that R be a domain, and we don’t want to have to take fractions with every single element in R. It turns out this general process is extremely useful and it is called localization.