People I interact with sometimes ask me how I accomplish so much. The last time I gave some thought to it, I wrote a blog post about My To-Don't List - all the things I don't spend time on.
A recent conversation with my friend and &yet teammate Adam Brault yielded another insight: the power of long-term projects.
As an example, in the last week I've had two major specifications on security and internationalization approved for publication as RFCs through the IETF. Yet the security document is something I've been laboring on for about 18 months, and the internationalization initiative started 5+ years ago when folks in the Internet community realized that our old approach (based on "stringprep") was unsustainable. Right now at the IETF I'm also pushing to finish a few other long-term efforts, including definitions for SIP-XMPP interoperability that I began probably 10 years ago.
And that's far from a record with me. I've been helping to build Jabber/XMPP (and, more broadly, open communication) technologies for over 15 years. My book The Tao of Roark was 17 years in the making. I've even written a bunch of guitar pieces and songs that have gone unrecorded for almost 30 years. (That's too long!)
What I tend to do is work on these long-term projects in parallel. At any one time I have several on the front burner and others on the back burner. For example, these days I'm spending a lot of time reading all 7000 pages of Thoreau's Journal in preparation for writing a book about his approach to the art of living; however I also continue to do a bit of research on the side into the subjects of subsequent books I have planned on Nietzsche, Aristotle, and Lao Tzu. On the music front, I'm improving my arrangements and performances of six pieces by Yes for solo electric bass, but I'm also practicing some songs by Bob Dylan and my own folk-rock compositions. And even as I finish up an ungodly number of Internet-Drafts at the IETF, I'm also starting to think seriously about some more future-oriented technology initiatives centered on real-time collaboration.
I don't know if working on so many projects in parallel over such long spans of time is the best way to accomplish a lot in life (I always hesitate to say that my way is the right way for anyone else). And it has its hazards: I could get hit by a bus tomorrow and leave all these projects unfinished. Plus it's important to complete something once in a while, if only to get things off my plate. But for me I find that long-term parallel processing is the most effective and engaging approach to getting things done. Your mileage may vary. :-)
Today I had to run an errand and happened to turn on the radio at the top of the hour, so both my favorite jazz station and an AM station I listen to occasionally for baseball games had the news on. Something was happening somewhere! A terrorist attack in the Middle East, political wrangling in the District of Columbia, and other horrors - essentially the same stuff I might have heard on the radio the last time I listened a few years ago.
To what end? This is all mental junk food, designed to give me the intellectual equivalent of a sugar high so that I'll need to get dosed up again a few hours later.
Yes, I used to follow the news. Radio in the car, newspapers in print or on the computer, magazines on the plane, a few weekly TV programs. Political news, economic news, financial news, technology news. You name it, I consumed it.
Oh, I was informed, all right. Stuffed to the gills with facts and figures and opinions and perspectives. But was I happier for all that? Did I make wiser decisions? Was I a better person? Or was I just stressed out?
For the last year or two, I've been on a low information diet. You could even call me a recovering infoholic. Instead of skimming the surfaces of things that people in power think I should care about, I've been trying to dig down into the depths of what truly matters: love, friendship, community, art, science, wisdom, and the long-term projects I'm working on.
Instead of getting upset about the latest Internet security attacks, I help develop solutions. Instead of following the twists and turns of the stock market, I prefer an all-weather, low-maintenance approach called the permanent portfolio. Instead of feeling my blood boil over the skullduggery of politicians everywhere, I focus even harder on the team I work with and other communities where I can have a direct, positive influence.
It's true that you need to be somewhat aware of what's going on in the world, if only so that you can help defend what's important in your life. But I find that reading a few judiciously chosen analyses of longer-term trends tells me most of what I need to know. And, in any case, if something truly momentous happens I'll certainly hear about it. In the meantime, I'll continue to devote my time and energy to the projects and relationships that are within my span of control, and to studiously ignore everything else.
I'm in the midst of a big push to finish off the ~15 Internet-Drafts I have underway at the IETF, on topics such as security, internationalization, SIP-XMPP interworking, and even Uniform Resource Names (the lesser-known cousin of URLs). The first of these to be published as an RFC is a document entitled "Summarizing Known Attacks on Transport Layer Security (TLS) and Datagram TLS (DTLS)", a.k.a. RFC 7457. Here I'll freely admit that Yaron Scheffer and Ralph Holz did most of the hard work, but they were gracious enough to include me as a co-author. The three of us are also close to finishing a companion document that describes how to address some of these attacks, so look for that soon!
Unfortunately, 2014 was another slow year at the Monadnock Valley Press, the public-domain website and small-scale publishing house I run on the side. Back in January of last year I changed jobs, so I was just as busy as ever (perhaps even more so).
However, I did manage to eke out a bit of publishing here and there: a bunch of works by Thoreau, a few related writings by Emerson, the Last Poems by A.E. Housman, the Maxims and Reflections of Goethe, selected poems by William Butler Yeats, and Pillars of Society (the first of the great modern prose dramas by Ibsen).
We also pulled in a grand total of $312.68 in revenue from our ebooks and print books. That's a 29% increase from 2013, with (as usual) no marketing whatsoever. Perhaps someday we'll actually promote our work. :-)
In 2015 I'm planning to republish the second of Ibsen's prose plays (A Doll's House), the Analects of Confucius, some essays by Montaigne, more works by Emerson and Thoreau, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and perhaps a few other works that I haven't considered quite yet. As always, however, I make no promises because my paid employment takes priority...
Four months ago on August 24th, I made the following notes in my journal as a rough outline of my planned book on Thoreau, now tentatively entitled The Upland Farm: Thoreau on the Art of Living (since there's already a book entitled Walking With Thoreau). Although in my previous thematic exploration I had envisioned the book as a set of four seasonal walks, at the moment I am pondering a journal entry for each month, along with one poem for each season. Here are the notes...
January: a description of the upland farm; quotes from Thoreau's letters to Harrison Blake; the progression from lowland farm (practical life) to the upland farm (transcendental experience) and the need to focus on both; beauty and use, heaven and earth, ideal and real, the transcendental and the natural; the meaning and role of philosophy in Thoreau's art of living; the seasons and their corresponding virtues in Thoreau's outlook (spring = trust / budding; summer = magnanimity / flowering; fall = independence / fruiting; winter = simplicity / dormancy).
February: the beginning of the agricultural year according to Varro; the tension between natural seasons and human seasons; the need of preparation and planning for life; sharpening your tools; the importance and role of intention in human activities; the soul as a garden or orchard, not a wild field or forest.
March: the budding of life; trust, truth, and tree as linguistic cognates (roots, solidity, steadfastness); the running of sap (as in New England maple trees); hope and the promise of spring; the arrival of the earliest spring birds; thawing and melting and the attendant messiness of youth.
Spring Poem: springing up and forward with vigor and energy and hope in the future; elasticity as a leitmotif in Thoreau's thinking; awakening to potential; planting and establishing yourself, becoming solid and rooted; growing up, greening up, drawing from the air and soil of your youth; the dawn and morning of life; correspondences between morning, youth, spring ("in the morning of my life, in the young days of the year, in the springtime of the day").
April: early growth; shielding yourself from outside pressures (cf. Randolph Bourne); storms and rains and late snows; the ice-out of rivers and lakes (final thawing); perhaps a reference to Patriots' Day in Concord (a personal revolution?); indoor nurturing of seedlings (preparation for planting, another instance of humans pushing the seasons forward); the role of home life and other early influences; trust as growing, hopeful, putting down roots (the opposite of independence as a fall virtue).
May: first planting; natural sprouting vs. human planting; the risk of late frosts (as at Walden in his second year there); May 6th the date of Thoreau's death; the shortness of life, the urgency of growth and creation; perfect days of late spring, trust in nature; the flowering of all things; bees and their busy-ness; nature and self pregnant with expectations; early adulthood.
June: first hot days; the turning of the seasons from spring to summer; tremendous growth; pruning and weeding and other forms of active cultivation in life (the upland farm is indeed a farm requiring intentional guidance - pure nature is not enough); flourishing; birth of the next generation; formation of fruits that will be harvested later in life.
Summer Poem: the longest day; midsummer; reflection forward and back to the winter solstice; complexity, profusion, complexity; yet an incipient turn toward simplicity; the great noon (as also in Nietzsche); generosity and benevolence of nature and humanity.
July: the high heat of summer; lightning and thunder (his play on Thor and Thoreau - his birthday on July 12th); magnanimity as greatness or nobility of soul; activity and ambition yet also days of enervation; constant work outside; the time of greatest "spending" of life energy; magnanimity = great hearted, high minded, having noble feelings, generous, giving; great-hearted activity (the opposite of simplicity as a winter virtue).
August: cooler days and longer nights; hint of autumn; first fruits of summer growth; making hay; looking forward to fall; transition from great-hearted ambition and activity to reflection and independence; a slowing down and mellowing of life; a sense of growing maturity.
September: growing independence; thoughts of harvesting the fruits of one's efforts; further mellowing, growing darkness, lengthening shadows, drier air; tinges of autumnal tints; harvests; departure of summer birds; emergence of a more reflective attitude to life; independence of thought and action as autonomy, self-governance, self-reliance, even heroism (the opposite of trust as a spring virtue).
Fall Poem: independence; reflection; meaning; dedication to greater knowledge and wisdom; beauty over usefulness; color, vividness, peak of one's character; differentiation; love of change and late growth; autumnal tints.
October: height of autumn; the actual fall of the leaves; high and peak color of the New England forest; migration of birds; great harvest and celebration of achievements; early frosts and Indian Summer; more night than day; slowing pace; the movement of life indoors again (warmth of home life); a looking back more than forward; memories of spring and summer; late fruits such as apples and nuts (a certain piquant nuttiness and savor to one's days).
November: snow and cold; little remaining green; great simplicity; reflection; increasing focus on essentials of life; recognition of coming dormancy; little time outdoors; rest from labors, repairing; sloughing off of error and experience.
December: end and beginning; summation of day/year/life; sleep and dormancy; time for choices and resolutions; making peace, dying well; celebration of life; segue to new year and renewed life (even if not one's own); ideals; essential simplicity as having few wants, having true needs, also being earnest and sincere (the opposite of great-hearted activity as a summer virtue).
Winter Poem: darkness and light; the darkest hour, yet a celebration of light that will return; cold but not coldness; an evergreen approach to life; learning from experience; life and death; rebirth; transcendence.
Lately I've been listening a lot to the music of the a cappella group Pentatonix. On the surface, their music is stylistically not the kind of thing I typically like - I very much prefer Bach, Ellington, and Yes to recent pop.
Yet their music, despite its pop roots, has a strongly progressive element: the arrangements are adventuresome, the center of musical focus changes throughout each song from one voice to another, each person in the group is a virtuoso, etc. I don't know if there's a genre of progressive a capella (progcapella?), but if not then they're founding it.
Reflecting on why I like Pentatonix has led me to think about the similarities between progressive music across different styles. Clearly my favorite band, Yes, is one of the greatest progressive rock groups. I also love the music of Hot Rize, which was a kind of progressive bluegrass outfit (currently reunited, albeit without their original and very progressive guitar player, Charles Sawtelle, who passed away some years ago). I'm a fan of progressive folk groups like Fairport Convention, Mellow Candle, and Steeleye Span. Going back further, the Duke Ellington Orchestra can be seen as a progressive swing band (compare their orchestrations and compositions to more conventional swing bands of the time).
To sample the more progressive side of Pentatonix, I'd recommend especially their songs "I Need Your Love" and "Daft Punk" (they're quite popular on YouTube so their videos are easy to find). While listening, keep in mind that they don't play any instruments - all the sounds are produced by the singers, including the crazy percussion and synthesizer sounds from beatboxer Kevin Olusola (for example at the two-minute mark of "Love Again").
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