December 31, 2022
If my year was a cup, it frequently spilled over. Was the cup too small, or the contents too much? It's both: turns out I have a small head and there is a lot going on.
A new child, a new war, new work, a new hobby, and a recovery. It was a big year. Here's to a less dense year ahead!
A new baby in the family
Our second child was born in late 2021. Going from zero children to one is obviously a real upheaval, and I wondered if the transition from one to two would be easier. It is not.
The difference between the two in age means you must take care of two people in two very different ways. Their different schedules tear up whatever dependable breaks you used to have as an adult who wished to remain sane. Everyone in the family has to wriggle awkwardly into their new place in the new dynamic, and this is hardest for the elder sibling.
At first the two kids are worlds apart, but the gap between them begins to close shockingly fast. The baby used to be a different kind of beast, but now they play together on the carpet (one building with lego, the other eating it), and everyone has found their footing — in one case, literally.
The thing that also shocks me is learning (again) how much children come into the world with their personality pretty much all there. Undoubtedly our youngest has got a lot of second child adaptations (e.g. you must be able to shout twice as loudly as the older child in order to get what you want), but she's also this beguiling charmer in a way that our son is not. Our first kid ate everything and we were very pleased with our one year old who would happily eat octopus stew, this one will just have some cheese thank you.
It's hard work raising kids, but you get a happiness which is hard to convey to others because it is truly your own. You get the privilege of being in constant company of a new person growing, unfolding. You get to re-live the world through them, and there's nothing like it. They do amazing things which make you gasp in amazement and laugh out loud every other minute.
But in video game terms, the trade for this buff is having your stamina meter cut by half or more. There are many times for both of us when the other demands of this year would bring down this meter to critical levels, whereas previously you'd still have a good third or half of meter left. This is a hard thing to take in a year where my wife's homeland was invaded.
My wife is a Ukrainian from Kyiv. Her family came to stay a few weeks before the war broke out, and it felt completely stupid that we let them return. Don't be daft, stay with us! But they had to go back, because they couldn't abandon their life, their home. Of course they couldn't. Could you?
We're lucky in that our family is relatively safe, though there were some close calls. A line of people waiting to buy bread was machine-gunned right outside our grandparents' apartment. We found this out from a video going around which showed the aftermath, in which grandpa is helping move bodies. Not long after that, their windows were blown out, and it was very difficult to get any kind of medicine. That was probably the darkest point for us.
But somehow people kept coming through. My wife found a group of volunteers in Chernihiv who at one point were cycling around, delivering food and medicine to the elderly. They helped to get some supplies to our family, and my wife has been fundraising for them ever since (by cooking lots of borsch, of course).
On a personal level this war provided a persistent background anxiety evolving from day to day. Have you heard what they found in Bucha? Something's happening near Izium. They sank the Moskva? Our kids have had to watch us anxiously look at our phones many evenings now. It's been stressful, and it is also nothing: we are safe, and watch the war unfold from a screen.
Whereas we used to be able to call our family whenever we wanted, it's increasingly difficult to reach them. When we do get through now, they're in the dark, bundled up, their breath visible. But they're making it work. They were trying to tell me about how they'd modified their wi-fi router to work even when the other things in the house go out. God knows what they'll be able to do by the end of this.
I'm so incredibly proud of my family, of Ukraine, of Ukrainians. They're winning, and will win.
This was my first year of working full-time on open source software, namely Earthstar, a distributed syncable database. I was able to do this thanks to NLnet, who awarded me with a grant of €50,000 to improve the project over the course of the year.
Working with NLnet is great. They are running whatever the opposite of a bureaucracy is. I write open source software, email them about it, and they'd send me the funding for that milestone. Sometimes I would email them about tweaking a milestone here or there, or we'd discuss possible future directions. I'm very happy to be working with them again in the coming year.
The funding itself counts as non-taxable income, which meant that we could live comfortably. I'm the main provider of income for our four-person family, so this was a big relief and something I'd been worried about when switching away from my consultancy work.
Generally I'd work from 9-5 every work day. Sometimes it'd be 10-5, or 8-3. Sometimes I'd stay with the kids the whole morning, or have a big gap in the middle of the day. Not having somewhere you have to show up to is so great when you have two small children.
I never thought I'd be able to work on something like this while also being able to have a balanced, comfortable lifestyle. I worked hard this year, but in a way that felt wholesome at the end of it.
Basically I will pursue this kind of work for as long as is possible.
Earthstar was not created by me, but by Cinnamon, a particularly inspiring and conscientious figure often found roaming the p2p landscape. I'd been contributing to the project for a year or two, and Cinnamon had helped me create the application for NLnet, plan the milestones, and helped sketch out ideas for how they could be implemented. We'd frequently call each other with ideas (some of them quite hare-brained), talk about life, and show off fun experiments we'd put together with Earthstar. They were a true friend, mentor, and co-conspirator.
And then Cinnamon died in late March. It was expected and awful. A great friend and Earthstar's steward, gone.
It is a weird thing working in the codebase of someone who's died. Cinnamon was hopelessly devoted to comments and tests, and there was very much the feeling of living in someone else's house for a while — a house where every available surface was covered in helpful sticky notes / complete explanatory dossiers.
It's very hard to work on something complex by yourself. Having nobody around who also knows that thing intimately, either to seek advice from, or to challenge you, is frustrating. Merging pull requests with 20k changes and zero reviews from anyone else is a hell of a ride.
It is also enormously freeing. Working every day on what you think is the right thing to work on (we'll have to see how that pans out) awards a very deep and fulfilling kind of happiness. It is absolute agility, the kind that lets you fly straight into the side of a mountain and leave a gwil-shaped hole in the side of it.
It is also an open invitation to yak shaving, which I indulged in a few times. Some of it was a waste of time, but more often than not it uncovered ideas and directions that would turn into central parts of the year's project, and eventually new collaborator-friends.
For example: syncing. Syncing in Earthstar had gone through various levels of quality, but it had always been wildly inefficient. Being dissatisfied enough by this to explore it meant finding out about range-based set reconciliation, a fun and fruitful collaboration with Aljoscha, and Earthstar finally having efficient sync.
Another reason I'd been able to work alone for so long without going completely bonkers was thanks to the "Worm Blossom group", a group of p2p practitioners who basically kept showing up after an initial disastrous open phone call. We've been calling in on a Mumble server every Monday first thing in the morning for most of the year. We talk about our work, our struggles, our victories, life, and that time they though they ate hemlock. I'm so, so grateful to these companions.
Things I thought I was going to get around to but didn't
I really thought that I was going to be doing a lot more community stuff this year. More workshops, streaming, or making presentations for conferences. I thought I was going to be writing in this blog a lot more. But I pretty much was just able to do all the programming work I wanted to do and not a lot besides.
I made one presentation at FOSDEM 2022. It helped me focus my thinking about Earthstar, and was received well. But it takes a lot of time for me to produce things like that, and it was very hard against the backdrop of all my other responsibilities.
I thought I'd be waltzing about, being Earthstar's irresistible ambassador. But I was really here to do the plumbing. This could change in the coming year: having laid the groundwork, knowing more about how I work, and what work needs to be done will hopefully mean more time for community / being irresistible.
The intense of amount of implementation also means that I am just not thinking in a political / theoretical frame as much as I should be. I don't want to just be funded to work on distributed whatever, I want Earthstar to offer a real alternative that empowers people. But I think I may have failed in completing my funded work if I'd tried to take this on too. This was a year of maximum capacity.
Late last year I bought a new journal. In previous years I'd bought several Hobonichi Techo, and they'd remained mostly empty. But this year I wrote in my journal every single day.
I just use it as a diary, and write short entries about the most notable or enjoyable things which happened to me that day.
Each day has about 3-5 different entries, and for each one I draw a 15 x 15 millimetre illustration to go with it. I must have drawn about 1500 of these tiny things over the course of the year. They range from impressionistic to iconic, and they've been a great exercise in conveying ideas in a very small amount of space.
The short entries and the tiny pictures make a good format for browsing and recalling the thoughts, feelings, and misconceptions of those times. A paragraph and a drawing is just enough to jog my (not great) memory.
The most popular category for entries is food, followed by entries about work. It is great to keep a short journal on work like this just so you can see how many times you're worrying about the wrong thing entirely.
The rest is the stuff life is made of: things I did with the kids; household improvements; interesting or unexpected conversations and meetings. Things that often get lost in the cracks of my (still not great) memory.
I write in my journal the evening with a cup of tea or occasionally a glass of beer. It marks the turning point of the day after the kids have been put to bed and the kitchen's been cleaned. It became a part of the day.
There's no way to know, but I suspect journaling kept me from being overwhelmed in a year with an awful lot of whelm.
I have a few notebooks that I keep in the back of the cover, and these are for thinking things through. I don't know why, but as a lot of people have noticed, writing on paper helps you think much better than writing on a computer does. It's great to have notebooks where the contents are pretty disposable, they're just there to be something to write on when the moment calls for it.
I have a new journal waiting in its packaging, ready to open on January 1st. I smile thinking about the outsized satisfaction of opening it for the first time.
About five years ago I began to experience problems with sleeping which eventually blew out into full-on insomnia. I would often not be able to sleep until the sun would come up, often for days at a time. This is frightening to go through, and really disruptive to just about every aspect of your life. It really sucks when you have children who you want to give your best self to. It makes you afraid to schedule things with your friends, driving, or any occasion which requires 'your best self'.
2021 was the absolute low-point. I was desperate to make it stop. I'd tried many things, from seeing a sleep therapist, cognitive behavioural therapy, hypnosis, to acupuncture. Some of these had put a dent in the problem, but none of them had really led to the feeling that I had meaningfully beat back this problem.
Underlying everything was the idea that there must be some physical cause to the problem, a vitamin deficiency, some hard-to-detect condition, some bug which I just had to identify and then the whole thing would unravel. I had many tests done, blood work, an evening where my sleep and brainwaves were monitored: all showed there nothing was wrong with me. I felt disappointed. I was taken in by this mechanistic view of myself because it's so much easier than facing the idea that I'd thought myself into this position.
Taking a proactive and structured approach to beating insomnia is a trap that many people sufferers of the condition fall into, and I was another one of them. Most things in life react very well to sustained effort: learning a new language, exercise. We learn that if we make the effort, we will probably reach our goal. Sleep falls into the other 1% where effort only takes you further away from what you want.
There is no single defining moment that set me on the path to recovery. Many unrelated strands came together over time, leading to the idea that I had to stop trying, and I had to stop being so affected by the idea of not sleeping.
This led to two pretty concrete rules:
- If I'd have trouble sleeping at night, I would get out of bed and go do something enjoyable.
- If I'd have a bad night, I'd continue the next day normally as if nothing had happened.
Following both of these starved my insomnia. Without my effort, my anger, my grief to subsist on, it quickly began to wither. It took time — five years of psychological struggle isn't overcome overnight — but wither it did.
I sleep normally about 95% of the time now, jut like I have for most of my life. I still have the occasional night where it's difficult to get to sleep. It usually precedes days I've deemed 'important'. I have some version of the night before exams stress, except the exam is life. There's still work to do with the expectations I place on myself.