On life optimisation

Lots of time for navel-gazing in a pandemic, turns out.

My computer broke the other week. Apparently it’s a common occurrence of MacBook Pros of my vintage: an integrated cable that connects the motherboard to the screen wraps around the edge of the motherboard, and with enough openings and closings of the lid, the cable wears through and the display fails. I can’t bring it in to the Apple Store as they’re all closed. So my computer sits shut on the arm of the sofa. When I see it, I feel a little wistful. When this is all over I should be able to bring it in and have the lid replaced, hopefully at no charge.

I don’t know whether the computer is getting old or not. I bought it about three years ago. Is three years a long time to own a computer? It doesn’t seem like it.

I’m writing this on the computer that I used previous to this MacBook Pro: another MacBook Pro from 2009. Just after starting university, I spilled a cup of root beer on my previous computer and pleaded with my parents to buy me a new computer. I got this computer during a visit to Orlando. I remember it sitting in my backpack as I passed through customs at Dorval, worried about not declaring the fact that I purchased a computer in a different country.

That’s not what I want to talk about

I spend not an insignificant of my brain calories each day trying to find little ways to optimise my day. Attempts to squeeze more out of my allotted seconds.

I waste a lot of those seconds. I can’t bring myself to operate at peak efficiency with my time, much of the time. Most of the time. This causes me a good deal of anxiety. Which I realise defeats the purpose.

But during those times when I can bring myself to motivation, or bring motivation to my self, I feel like a machine. Really just wringing my human experience dry. Listening to podcasts at 2.5x speed. Steadfastly refusing to unsubscribe, as the list of unlistened-to episodes pile up in the face of a missing commute.

I’m reading Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book, which is a bit of a revelation. I’ve always been a bit disappointed with my inability to hold on to books I’ve read. The Mill on the Floss came up as an answer on University Challenge the other day, and I couldn’t remember anything about it except for that there was a climactic flood. I don’t remember much of Tess of the d’Urbevilles except for that SPOILER ALERT she dies in the end. I can’t count the number of books that I read in university but don’t even remember reading. Hell, I read Cal Newport’s Deep Work at the end of last year sometime I can barely remember the thesis.

So I think I’m more than a little bit susceptible to Adler’s assertion that by putting a little bit more effort into it, you can hold onto books. That you can, to use his words “make the book yours.” I want to make a book mine. He talks about scribbling all over books, really wrestling with the author, being honest with yourself and with the capital-t Truth as you come to grips and form judgments.

I want to listen to you, Adler. I want to follow your advice. I want to wring more meaning, more experience, out of the meagre couple of hours each day that I don’t just feel like lying around on the sofa playing GTA IV. I don’t want to spend 45 minutes scrolling through Reddit each morning before getting up to read. I don’t want to lie in bed until 10:30 thinking of nothing at all, no matter how good for me it might be to turn my brain off. I want to read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I want to watch every single video on Laracasts. I want to competently compose functions to dramatic effect. I want to write readable, efficient, bug-free code. I want to do meaningful work. I want to know things and I want to communicate the things that I know to people that I love and respect in an effort to make things better for them. I want to leave things better than I found them.

Is that what this is all about? How I leave things? What sort of a mark I make? Whether or not I make a mark?

Is this a death drive thing?

I don’t think this is a death drive thing. I know I’m not going to be around forever, but I don’t think about that very often. I know that a day will come when I can no longer do the things I do now, but that day seems far enough off that I never think about it. When I try to think about it, like now, it skips around in my mind like a drop of water in a hot nonstick pan. It doesn’t stick, it doesn’t stick, and it’s gone.

What am I stressing about? If I don’t listen to my podcasts? If I don’t read twenty books this year? If I don’t write a function that can walk an HTML document? If I don’t become effective with Go? If I don’t learn the Vue composition API right this very minute?

Will I stop being useful?

I’m useful to people. I can provide things for people, right now, in a way that I never really could before. In a way that I never thought I would be able to, up until a couple of years ago when I figured out how to make the Internet do what I wanted it to. When I thought I could be a writer, when I taught English in Yubetsu, when I briefly played with the idea of trying to do journalism, when I wanted to write copy for Fjallraven.

If I let up for a week. If I let up for two months, six months, would I be marginally less useful? Would I stop being useful altogether? Is all of this talk of human usefulness a shorthand for some sort of deep capitalistic brainwashing? Sounds like it. Twitter would certainly say so.

I certainly don’t keep people around because they’re useful to me. I keep them around because they make me feel good about myself, or because they’re entertaining, or because we share first principles in common, or because we have a similar worldview and there’s some untouchable good feeling in coming to terms with someone else in that way.

So why do I feel that my usefulness is my only attractive dimension? And is that why I try to self-optimise my time, when I can force myself to self-optimise?

I’ve been writing for 45 minutes or so

I could have been reading more of Adler’s book.

In the past 45 minutes or so I think I’ve come to see this relentless, fruitless, endless, -less, -less, -less pursuit of learning optimisation as somehow corrupt. I don’t know how I’ve gotten here. But Adler’s book doesn’t feel corrupt. I don’t think that I would be digging myself any deeper into this capitalist, human-as-utile-product hole by performing a close reading of Montaigne or Aristotle. By reading both the both of Kant’s critiques of reason, both pure & practical. And I might want to. I read one or the other in university, but all I’ve taken away from it is the categorical imperative. And even that’s just a loose ‘do unto others’-esque formulation in the back of my head. Only really to be pulled out for University Challenge.

It feels good to write, though. It feels good to put this out there, on this old computer, this computer I’ve spent so much time with, back in the days I don’t remember. It feels good to put it on the Internet, where it’ll live forever. Feels good to think that someone I know might read it—that you might find it. I hope there’s something useful for you in these 1500 or so words. Something that you can have and take with you. Preferably something that can’t be turned into money. I struggle with things like these.

But I hope that I have been, even in some small way, useful to you, as writing this out has been useful to me.