Matt Marshall

Matt Marshall's personal blog

Migrating (temporarily?) to Jekyll

I’ve made the decision to migrate this site temporarily away from Brimstone and into a static site. The reasons for this are pretty straightforward and nothing too controversial I hope; time/effort/headspace, and workflow/what I want from this site.

Brimstone, my custom blog/cms/indieweb software, has been a bit creaky for a little while. While I stand by the code and design decisions I made when I first drafted the update a while ago, it’s still running off of Symfony 3.4 which is way behind the newest version. I tried upgrading a few times but I struggled with it. I was going to upgrade by basically re-implementing in the latest version of Symfony in order to implement some features around multi-language posts I’d been toying with but the world kept getting in the way (see recent events and this thing), and it became less and less important. The final nail in the coffin of Brimstone-as-it-was is the fact that, a few days ago, it suddenly stopped rendering <textarea> and <select> tags. I’m not sure why, but I suspect it’s a PHP upgrade on my shared hosting which has broken some of Symfony forms used to generate the HTML forms. This effectively means I can’t write any posts!

It was in my future plans to implement ActivityPub and Micropub endpoints, which would allow me to use desktop and mobile clients to post however, again, that should really come with an upgrade to the rest of the codebase. Right now, it matters more that I can write for my blog at all rather than doing it in a correct or idealised way. Life is still very much happening around me, and if I start a project now then chances are Symfony will move on a little bit further by the time it’s finished and I’ll end up playing catch up again!

The second reason is the type of workflow and presence I want this site to provide me. Over the last few years I’ve been getting more and more into managing more and more of my work and life in Plaintext (got an upcoming post planned about that too!) and it’s been a fantasy of mine for a little while to write a post in a markdown file via a text editor (for articles) or the commandline (for notes) and upload that to my site within a few strokes. My previous workflow was to write articles in a text editor and then copy/paste the markdown into a web form. Not totally crude but required a few step. For notes I’ve always just used the web form straight. I really enjoy hanging out in a text editor and writing this way. I wrote my entire PhD thesis in markdown via a text editor, so it’s a workflow I’m comfortable with.

For these reasons, a static site suits me for the moment. They also mean that this probably won’t be a short-term change. I do love writing software for the indieweb, but ultimately I just kinda like blogging and microblogging. Microblogging is something I do very intermittently, and I’ve noticed I kinda do it in spurts. I still don’t plan on going back to Twitter ever, so I’ll just hold off microblogging for a little while. It may mean more “Update here’s how I’m doing” style articles for the mid-term.

It does mean that I lose the ability to POSSE my notes and articles to Twitter and Mastodon so some folks who’d otherwise read them (friends/colleagues) won’t get the chance to do so but tbh I don’t mind that. The big change is that my URLS and, aha, “permalinks” will be changing. Tbh my permalinks was a design flaw in Brimstone and I didn’t follow the indieweb guidance on URL design. Whoops. There is also the question of what I do with my notes. I, thankfully, wrote a feature in Brimstone to export all my posts as XML files which will be straightforward to iterate over in python and convert to Jekyll posts. I will likely not post further notes but instead create a notes page that archives them, but I’ll need to figure out how best to do that as I am not a very advanced Jekyll user and the aim is to keep things simple for the time being!

In the immediate short-term I’m not going to be doing too much, maybe posting some articles. I won’t even be changing the design of the site much. After my PhD viva and corrections I’ll spend some time learning how to write a Jekyll theme and make the site look like how it used to, as I kinda liked the design. Following that, I’ve been getting into Esperanto lately (I know, I know…) and I’ve had a fantasy of being able to write a post in multiple languages and have them link to each other automatically. Turns out Anthony Granger wrote about an elegant solution to this which I may experiment with.

Anyway, that’s it from me for now: goodbye Brimstone and hello plaintext for a while. At least until compiling the site gets old ;-)

So I'm grieving right now

Hi folks, if you’re reading this then either you’re a close friend/colleague, or one of the few random strangers on the web who read my blog occasionally. This post is intended for the former group.

Basically; my father sadly died this weekend just gone (2021-02-27) after a struggle with COVID-19. He put up a hell of a fight and for a while things were looking like he’d get a little better but sadly he took a rapid turn and deteriorated very quickly. At the end he went quickly and quietly, with his children around him. As you might expect; I am incredibly sad/upset and about to go through my first really heavy grieving process.

I am lucky enough to be surrounded by a very amazing group of friends, colleagues, and comrades who all effectively make up my surrogate family. The chances are if you’re reading this then you’re one of them; and if you’re one of them then you’re so wonderful you’ve probably got yourself all worked up about how you can help me through this. The motivation for this post is to sketch out exactly how you can help this and what my needs are at the moment.

The rest of this post is presented as an FAQ to help you understand how you can help atm.

How are you feeling?

I looked up grieving and it seems I’ve got the standard package tbh: I’m still feeling that it’s a little surreal and I get occasional bouts of deep upset and sadness where I’ll realise what’s going on, and have a cry. I feel deeply regretful for a lot of unsaid things, and a lot of things that were said. I get angry at myself. I get angry at the gods. I mostly get angry at our government for letting this happen. It happened to my dad and it’s happened to ~123,000 others and it was entirely preventable.

Mostly I’m very sad.

Are you seeking any professional grief counselling?

It’s only been a few days as of writing. I tend to deal with death pretty calmly, and while this one is admittedly a bit of a doozy I’ve already started processing and accepting things. I am a relatively reflective person (sometimes to my detriment when combined with my tendency to overthink); so I will be trying to keep on top of it and seek professional grief counselling when I feel I need it or if I’m not better after a little while.

As my loved ones (this covers all of you btw) you can support me by keeping an eye on me over time. You know me, and you know how I behave at work and in social settings. This thing will obviously change me in some way (giving me a new perspective etc), but if I’m fundamentally still not well after a longer period of time then I ask you to please gently let me know that I should seek help if I haven’t done so already.

What do you need right now?

The bottom line is that I require a cocktail of needing to know life goes on, and also needing to know people understand that I’m grieving and care for me.

What I would like right now is for people to message me as they normally would, about normal things, but also be a little patient with me in terms of replies. You might catch me on a bad day/hour. I might miss a reply. If I do that, please don’t stop messaging! Just leave it an appropriate amount of time based on how often we talk and just ping something else my way in due course.

Please don’t worry about me trying to “distract myself”; this isn’t that. I’m thinking and reflecting a lot, and processing as much as I can healthily. But I will need something to be there afterwards. Providing a scaffolding of ‘normal’ interactions will give me something to hook onto once the initial stages of very-explicit-grieving start to wane away. I don’t want to come out of this with nothing on the other side.

OK, but can I check in on how you’re feeling?

Yes please! But as mentioned I’m very lucky and you are part of a fantastic squad of people. I get overwhelmed easily at the best of times and if I’m asked to repeat stuff to people a lot I might get a bit stressed out. That said if nobody checks in that’d be worse tbh.

Right now I’d like it if you could spare the time to check in on how I’m feeling every few weeks. That way I’ll know you’re still there and caring but I’m not overwhelmed by keeping people updated all at once.

Can I help? (“If there’s anything you need”)

You can absolutely help. I’m not going to have a lot of headspace over the coming weeks and, awkwardly, I’ve got a house move happening at the same time. If you want to help then please do the following:

  • instead of asking “If there’s anything you need just ask” (or similar) please just ask me if there’s something I specifically need help with now or in the near future
  • do a quick think about practical things you would be comfortable doing to help and ask me about them specifically, framed as a one-time offer of support
  • just keeping offering various things on a regular basis for as long as you’re comfortable

This does a few things for me. It shows me that you’re there and you care. This also means I don’t need to ask for help which is very important to me right now; as I don’t do this at the best of times! By thinking of something you can do ahead of time it means I don’t feel that I’m a burden or putting you out. Some examples:

  • “Hey, I know you’ve got a lot on at the moment. Can I pick something up from Gumtree/Freecycle for you for your new house?”
  • “Hey are you eating ok? I’ve got leftovers and can bring them round so you don’t need to cook tomorrow”
  • “Yo, doing a snack run do you want comfort food?”
  • “Do you need some company? I’m going for a walk and can swing by if you want to join?”
  • “Doing a big shop, anything on your list you need?”

You’ll notice that the above examples deal with mundane bits of everyday life that can become overwhelming during periods of stress; headspace to cook/get shopping in, and then a bit of social comfort thrown in.

Will these needs change?

Possibly. But if they do you won’t need to play catch up. These are my needs right now and one thing I’ve realised is the importance of communication of my needs to people. If they shift then it’s likely I’ll either be in a position where I need professional support which is absolutely not your duty to perform; or I’ll be on the mend thanks to you. In which case thank you so much.

Love you all,

Matt

A year of journaling

As of last night I’ve been journaling every day for a solid year. I began on 2019-11-05, after several months of putting it off. I had just finished returning from a wonderful trip across Europe with one of my closest friends and was very tired and run down; owing from a really weird and busy year of adapting to my new life and work. I’d put off starting to journal for a few reasons: for one I wasn’t sure whether I’d enjoy it or whether I liked the idea of journaling from all these lifestyle blogs; I wasn’t sure what I’d be writing in my journal (like at all) and I don’t blog very much any more so was wondering if I actually had anything to say; and “people who journal” are sometimes (most of the time), quite frankly, annoying.

The reasons I wanted to start a journal were actually pretty much the reasons you’d expect. Do a search for benefits of journaling and you’ll find umpteen lists and blogs dedicated to the habit. Specifically I was keen on: boosts to mood and sense of well-being; potential benefits to long-term memory; and aiding sleep. Don’t get me wrong, I was already sold on other benefits of journaling such as it being an inherently reflexive practice and good for the soul. Brett over at AoM has been pretty good at documenting various aspects of journaling that I knew I’d like. What I knew I wasn’t attracted to was what some blogs centred around which was inevitably tied to being “more productive” and “more creative” at work due to the other benefits.

The thing that pushed me over the edge to start was actually a bad night’s sleep. The benefit I was most interested in from journaling was the potential for a better sleep. A year of stress from work, stress from travel, and stress from my then-shitty PhD thesis was all contributing to a consistently bad sleep cycle. I’d just spent nearly a month travelling across some Central/Eastern European countries, and the latter third of that I spent basically being rained on in Ljubljana and Venice. I was ready for my own bed and every single sign from my exhausted mind and tired body pointed to the fact I was due a good night’s sleep when I returned. Sadly it evaded me. During my undergraduate years I’d read about (sorry can’t find a link) and subsequently adopted a short-term habit of keeping a pad of paper next to my bed to scribble down thoughts before sleeping. This helped me get all the thoughts out of my head and onto paper and stopped my mind racing as much; like software on a laptop and freeing up memory. I abandoned the practice largely because I couldn’t build a habit, but I remembered it working and thought that sitting down and journaling and using that to process my thoughts and feelings would in some way help me sleep.

This gave me the ‘in’ that I needed to start: one of the key things to building a habit is finding a when to do it and I figured that if journaling was going to help me sleep then it’d be most sensible to tie it to my bedtime. This also had the related benefit of giving more structure to my bedtime routine which (supposedly) helps with getting off to sleep. It also gave me a what to journal about. As noted part of my apprehension was centred around not knowing quite what to write about; the slew of journaling prompts just really didn’t appeal to me whereas the idea of just sitting down and getting thoughts out of my head and onto paper seemed reasonable enough as a start. I checked AoM for advice as it was the only site that had written about journaling in a way that made it seem appealing (I swear I’m not a shill for Brett) and this gelled with what they were saying: “Just write about your day. No need to get fancy with those cute little journal prompts. Some days might be pretty routine, but other days you might be feeling philosophical or have a problem that will require you to write more in-depth entries. Just write what comes naturally to you on that day.” (source). With these two points aligned, I had my motivation raised and my barrier to entry reduced sufficiently to start.

I actually had the next day off of work when I arrived back home so spent it around Newcastle centre acquiring bits and pieces and made a point to swing by a stationary shop to grab a notebook that I wanted to use as a dedicated journal. Not wanting to intimidate myself I bought a nondescript A6 lined notebook; figuring that the small page size meant I wasn’t going to be feeling bad about not filling up an entire page with thoughts. Turns out this was definitely the right move. My first entries were barely half a page of A6 each but worked well enough for me to continue and build the habit. Here’s the first page of my journal:

2019-11-05: First day back home after my travels; didn’t sleep well. Watched a movie, read, and bought some misc useful items. Turns out nobody in NCL stocks safety razor blades except ‘Cuban Cigar Club’. It’s cold out and I love it.

2019-11-06: Tired. Back to work today and [redacted] already extended my work day into my evening -_- In the grand scheme of things it means nothing but it irritated me a bit. I did, though, love being back at Goodspace.

And honestly that was it. Really mundane right? As the muscles for journaling were flexed I found myself writing more and more each time. I went from a single paragraph to a main paragraph and a reflection on a problem. Then from that to writing two paragraphs, and then around three or sometimes four. By 2019-11-14 I had found my perfect balance which was to write until I’d just-about filled an entire single side of A6 lined paper. By that point I was using it as a reflective practice and actively teasing out lessons from the day:

2019-11-14: A pleasant day overall; work was 360-based; then Goodspace Tea-Thursday; then CPB Meeting.

An interesting reflection on work – whereas OCDS is stressful because of the granular and specific time tracking which causes me to stress about the time taken / spent on items… 360 is stressful because I don’t do it enough to know all the moving parts and I’m often left needing to do some personal triage before I can get any work done.

A lesson from this is that I should hold a personal version of the weekly check to keep on top of the 360 work

I am aware of the irony that I was not attracted to the benefits of journaling for productivity and that this entry was entirely about making myself really productive. As it happens, I work in an amazing worker-owned business and do stuff I’m passionate about. Other things in my life became regular features of my journal such as my current challenges and approaches in my strength training and running (I took up running around this time too, on 2019-11-17 apparently), my dating life, my struggle with particular thought patterns, my attempts to control my yo-yo eating habits.

As each of these found their way onto the page I was able to interact with that part of my life a little bit more. It’s not all problem-solving and deep reflection. Some of my entries are very mundane and quite a lot of the early ones involve pointing out things that have made me happy. One thing it did allow me to spot was trends; if I’d been writing about struggling to control snacking for around five days in a row it meant that I could dedicate some time to figuring out what was causing that, or realise that it was more of a problem than I thought. With 2020 being so bat-shit (as a result of late-stage capitalism mind, not it just being weird) journaling has helped a lot there too. It lead me to making a few changes since writing down the positive realisations about my relationship to myself and others made that stick. As a result I feel I’m genuinely a better person for it. I’ve clearly kept up the habit as it’s a nice way to sign off my day and I get a lot from it. I’ve managed to totally fill two of the little A6 books and I’ve started on a third. I think once I’m finished with that one I’ll “graduate” to an A5 book. Again, I’ll not try and force myself to fill an entire page but the extra room might allow me to do some interesting things.

I don’t really have a ‘winning formula’ as I sit down to write a page in my journal but I do seem to have a habit or a framework. I start with giving an overall impression of my day, then go into the detail about some key events in it and how they made me feel. Being a worker and a human being with hobbies these tend to appear more often than not and I find myself writing about strength training, writing my PhD, cool open data stuff, my awesome flatmate, food etc. I don’t expect this to change particularly but I’ve thumbed through my older entries in preparation for writing this post and I’ve noticed that my focus and style does evolve and change over time, in the order of months rather than days; so I’m excited as to where I’m going next and what my journaling may look like in a year’s time. I’m aware that recently there’s been a bit of a push-back against journaling (e.g. here and here). I think those are making some good points and I’m not so emotionally tied to or dependant on journaling that I’m defensive. In fact I do see myself stopping journaling when it ceases to be useful to me. Until then I’m a bit late to the game because I didn’t spend most of my 20s journaling and I haven’t really reached a point where it’s stopped being useful or becoming a burden. One day I’ll retire the practice but until then I’ll keep writing about my boring day.

Oh, and I do sleep better now ;-)

Finding joy in converting a file

Just had a really nice experience where a loved one asked me to facilitate the conversion of an ebook from epub format to PDF for reading on her computer.

Since converting data is kinda my jam, and I am well-versed in Pandoc this seemed like a one-command job. Pandoc complained at the file being converted for some obscure reason, and manually trying out a few different options under --pdf-engine didn’t yield any results. I next tried Calibre, the popular ebook management software. It has facilities to convert between various readable formats although I’ve historically found its results to be spotty (this might be a case of garbage-in-garbage-out, though). Calibre similarly complained, citing the same reason as Pandoc (something about font encoding I think). Ever the debugger, I asked Calibre to convert the file to mobi which it kindly obliged me. Feeling bold now I asked it to convert the original epub to docx – another success!

With my docx in hand I braced myself and opened the new file in LibreOffice. A quick skim indicated that there were no obviously mangled paragraphs or destroyed pages. From there it was a simple matter to save as PDF et voila – task accomplished! This might mark the first time in history I’ve been happy to see a docx file.

This experience brought me joy because it reminded me of something. I’ve worked in standards for a few years now, and spent a lot of time designing technologies that tried to get it “right”. Where right is either the most technically efficient way, or using the right participatory design technique in the right place, or using the right analytical framework. This exercise gave me a chance to playfully engage my creative problem solving. The “right” thing to do technically might’ve been to try and fix the encoding of the epub file, and I certainly never envisioned using LibreOffice to generate a pdf file when I have the power of Pandoc at my fingertips. But it was nice to play around and hack my way around the problem by stringing tools together in a pipeline.

You should write to your MP, here's a template

Dear…,

This year has been extremely difficult because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The difficulty has been exacerbated by the Government’s mishandling of the crisis, which looks set to worsen with the withdrawal of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme at the end of October.

The Job Retention Scheme, fought for by trade unions and employers as the means to avoid an immediate collapse across sectors and mass job losses, has provided welcome support for the 9.6million people who have used it. The Government have already tried to remove it in April and again in June, and it was only extended to 31st October because of public pressure. We are still in a global pandemic and the increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases is very worrying. Many businesses are unable to trade as normal. Millions of workers are still reliant on the Job Retention scheme and are now facing an agonising worry over the future of their jobs.

The Government needs to support workers and businesses to avoid a catastrophic wave of redundancies and job losses. Other major economies have committed to long-term furlough schemes with Australia and Ireland’s schemes lasting until next March, while Germany and France’s continuing until December 2021. There is now widespread support for a common sense extension to this life line for workers and employers.

I urge you to call on the Government to change course and extend the scheme to at least March 2021 and to create a sustainable plan for the future including support to:

  • The hardest hit sectors, such as aviation and leisure.
  • Those areas placed in local lockdown where businesses cannot reopen.
  • High-risk people who cannot safely return to work.

The economic and human cost of mass unemployment for years to come is unthinkable and it is the responsibility of the government to prevent. Extending the Job Retention Scheme would cost a fraction of the £500bn used to bail out the banks during the global financial crash. The Office for Budget Responsibility projects a nightmare scenario of unemployment spiralling to 4.1 million by the end of the year, with 1.3 million people going straight from the Job Retention Scheme to claiming Universal Credit. And unemployment in a second virus wave could hit 14.8% – close to one in every seven, higher than France, Germany and Italy.

We are far from through this crisis. Cutting the Job Retention Scheme now would significantly damage our economy in the long-run, devastating key sectors with a tide of redundancies. The human cost would be devastating.

I appreciate your urgent support in this matter; we must act fast in order to protect the futures of our businesses and employees. Urge the government to extend the Job Retention Scheme.

Yours sincerely,

Writing a thesis in markdown

In my dark and murky past as a full time PhD Student and in my current alter-ego as someone writing up a PhD Thesis on the evenings and weekends I have spent a lot of time writing things. A lot of academic writing occurs in either Word or LaTeX and since my undergraduate I’ve been firmly in the LaTeX camp; using it to write papers, essays, etc. When I started my PhD I was originally planning to produce my thesis in LaTeX and actually wrote the first drafts of my initial few chapters in it.

I ended up migrating away from LaTeX and these days I, like many others online, try to do most things in Plaintext or Markdown. I don’t want to spend too much of this post saying why as there are entire blogs dedicated to this. Suffice to say that it dovetails very nicely with my views on minimalism and simplicity and allows me to focus on the writing. Just as LaTeX got out of my way when trying to write before, so markdown gets out of my way even more than LaTeX does. In this instance it has made an otherwise troubled PhD experience much more pleasant than if I were to attempt to finish my thesis by other means.

My toolkit

If you’re a general fan of either plaintext or markdown then chances are you’re familiar with the majority of these tools.

The core toolset:

  • Atom for my text editor (although any text editor would do)
  • Markdown for markup, using the Pandoc markdown flavour
  • BibTeX for my references / bibliography storage
  • Pandoc for converting to various output formats
  • Zotero and its associated Firefox plugin to manage my bibliography and export BibTeX

Additions:

These may seem quite numerous and complex but thankfully I’ve been working with each of these tools independantly for years and it was very straightforward to put them together. It may be strange to hear a stack of 8 tools being described as “simple” or “minimalist” but the benefit of these is that they’re each very good at one specific job and ultimately they get out of my way when it’s time to write which is something that Word Processors just don’t do. Whether it’s MS Word or even LibreOffice Write; I just can’t seem to master the art of sitting in front of a word processor and writing. I’m constantly fighting with formatting, pasting, and images jumping around. Not to mention the crashing.

Both PureCSS and BetterBibTeX literally disappear once you’ve added them to the toolchain. There’s an initial 2 minute setup where you install BetterBibTeX into Zotero and, maybe, adjust the citation key format to your preferences. After that it just kind of fades away as you benefit from nicer citation key exports.

Zotero and its connector would be part of any academic toolchain as an alternative to proprietary systems so I’m not sure they count as additional burden to be honest. That said once the Zotero Firefox connector is installed it becomes second nature to hit the button and grab the citation for writing.

Git is effectively just my cloud storage and back-up solution. If you’re using a Word Processor to manage this you probably have back-ups on USB keys (good) and a cloud solution (also good) such as (probably) Dropbox, OneDrive, or Google Drive. This supports syncing. Since my thesis is so tiny, effectively being in plaintext, this is handled by Git without any complaint and it also makes sense to allow me to track changes to individual files. The thesis is stored online in a Gitlab repo.

Pandoc facilitates the conversion between the markdown source and formats that people want to read it in. For fun and convenience I wrote a small build script that allows me to build the the thesis quickly since pandoc commands can become quite long. I run this once at the end of every writing session.

In Practice

This is all well and good but what does it look like in practice?

Here’s my folder structure:

* thesis/
  * notes/
    * note-files.md
  * out/
  * src/
    * figs/
      * fig-files.svg
    * bibliography.md
    * chapter-01.md
    * chapter-02.md
    * chapter-03.md
    * chapter-04.md
    * chapter-05.md
    * chapter-06.md
    * chapter-07.md
    * chapter-08.md
    * harvard-newcastle-university.csl
    * index.md
    * thesis.bib
    * web.css
  * templates

The notes folder is just that. If I’m working something through or wanted to take extensive notes on something to have by the thesis but that wouldn’t make sense or would clutter it when it came read a draft of a section they go here.

The out folder isn’t actually included in the git repo as it is where the “builds” of the thesis end up. When you run the build script it automatically generates the thesis in this location.

The src folder is the actual content of the thesis. It only has one subfolder called figs for, you guessed it, figures. Each chapter has its own file which is pretty straightforward. index.md contains some front-matter for configuring the builds and adding metadata. This effectively just makes it easier to manage the pandoc commands. It looks like this:

title: A Rough, Transparent, Draft of my PhD Thesis
author: Matt Marshall
bibliography: src/thesis.bib

css:
 - https://unpkg.com/purecss@1.0.0/build/pure-min.css
 - src/web.css

link-citations: true
csl: src/harvard-newcastle-university.csl

thesis.bib and web.css should be pretty self-explanatory as files: the former is my BibTeX library generated from Zotero and the latter is some custom css that I apply on top of PureCss to make the HTML version look prettier.

The templates folder contains a template for a HTML frontpage used by the build script. In the future it may contain custom pandoc templates for LaTeX or such to generate a thesis with some obligatory frontmatter such as a Newcastle University logo (blerugh).

That’s all there is to it really. 99% of the time I just live in a markdown file for each chapter, and then run a build script to build the thesis in my desired output format.

Referencing workflow

When I need to reference something I need to interact with Zotero but it’s so simple it’s almost embarassing.

  1. In my web browser I hit the Zotero connector button to trigger saving the reference to my Zotero library
  2. In Zotero the reference is already highlighted so I’ll check it has all the information it needs
  3. BetterBibTeX has already done its thing so I copy the citation key over into my document using the pandoc citation syntax e.g. [@strohmayerTechnologiesSocialJustice2017]
  4. Atom’s autosuggest magically starts suggesting it to me whenever I start typing @ in case I need to type it again.

When I’m done writing for a bit or want to check how a paragraph reads I’ll export the Zotero collection used for my thesis into thesis.bib.

Working with others

When you’re writing a thesis it’s generally recommended that you send your work to your supervisor and hopefully they’ll get back to you with comments and opinions on it.

Unfortunately my supervisor isn’t really a markdown person so I was worried initially that there would be a tool/workflow gap. Thankfully from my writing-papers-in-LaTeX days there was the well established practice of using Pandoc to convert the document into a word file and sending it over to receive feedback which is what we’ve landed on.

Originally I was going to try to get dokieli set up on the web version of my thesis to facilitate feedback there however I didn’t want to create any additional hoops to jump through. I landed on the workflow of sending my supervisor my chapter in a DOCX file and then receiving that file back with comments which I keep open while I work on the changes in markdown.

I don’t store the feedback in the git repository as this would get bulky quite quickly and I feel that’s a separate concern. I manage feedback by sticking the feedback into a folder that’s synced to my NextCloud instance.

Challenges

There is one very distinct area that I’ve found a challenge when choosing to write my thesis in markdown which is automatic numbering for sections, tables, and figures. Sadly Pandoc doesn’t support this to my knowledge. There is a fork of Pandoc called Scholdoc which is puported to understand Scholarly markdown; a markdown flavour that is purpose-built for academic writing. Its syntax includes provisions for figures and float environments which is pretty neat and the output formats are limited to HTML 5 and DOCX which are fine by me. Theoretically it is exactly what I needed.

Sadly I never got Scholdoc to work and it looks like the last update to the Github repo was way back in 2015 so I suspect it may be abandonware. My solution thusfar in my thesis has been to manually number figures by chapter e.g. Chapter 3 Figure 1 is Fig 3.1 but it would’ve been nice to be able to have this done automatically and update as I add/remove/adjust figures.

If I’m honest it doesn’t bother me too much and forces me to keep it simple and not rely too much on figures in a chapter. If it becomes a problem in later chapters when it comes to crunch time I may introduce an intermediary step where the thesis is converted to LaTeX and tweaked before being transformed into its final PDF form although that would sadly clash with my original plan of using print styles on HTML to manage this.

Summary

I’ve put together a very simple toolkit and structure to write my PhD thesis in markdown. This enables quite a nice and relatively natural rhythm for writing as well as allowing me to present the thesis in various forms for the web and collaboration with my supervisor. There are still challenges and I lose some benefit from not getting automatic numbering which I do with LaTeX, but overall has resulted in a very nice writing experience. I’d recommend this to anyone.

In fact I wrote the first draft of this blog post before I searched the web for writing a thesis in markdown and it turns out this is already an established practice. I’m glad to say that, at a brief glance over the landscape, many of the same things I’ve said are shared experiences. I’ll stick to my own toolchain here but I recommend people look at Tom Pollard’s PhD Markdown Thesis template and I found this post from The Urbanist a pleasant read as well.

Happy writing.

Your brain on liberalism (a quick socialist rant)

I’ve just discovered via r/swoletariat this absolutely fucking unreal 2018 Guardian editorial from Zoe Williams

Do you boast about your fitness? Watch out – you’ll unavoidably become rightwing

Great start there. Bit rich coming from a person whose editorial board posts transphobic shit and Israel apartheaid apologism

Yesterday was Fitness Day. Sorry, let me give that its proper title: #FitnessDay. The space bar is always the first casualty of a manufactured social media movement.

Sweet, hot take! It’s not like hashtags are the most basic way of linking together commentary on a topic in our modern age. Hypertext is based on linked documents, Zoe.

Do too much, and the self-love develops a carapace of self-sufficiency. This is especially a problem for cyclists, who come to think of themselves as an off-grid warrior class, having performed their commute drawing on no more resources than their own glutes, and maybe a sports drink. Unavoidably, over time, this makes you more rightwing, as you descend into an aerobics-powered moral universe where only the weak need each other, and all the strong need is a waterpouch in their backpack that pipes straight into their mouths.

Bit of a fucking leap there imho. How does that work? I enjoy exercise for a variety of spiritual and physical reasons. Not once have I ever thought of myself as self-sufficient, a “warrior” (in a non day-dreamy / roleplay sense). I also don’t own a water pouch. Rude.

How heroic do you find the armed forces? And is that just those in active combat, or also the ones who fix army IT and count parachutes? I found the questions on YouGov’s recent poll peculiar, but I often do when they ask us to make qualitative judgments about one another (do benefit claimants want to work? Are migrants ambitious? – there is no possible answer beyond “I’d have to take this on a case-by-case basis”).

So we’ve tried to draw a straight line from liking exercise to soldier-hero worship? Sweet. No problem there at all.

From the people who brought you the Ostrich Pillow – which lets you nap anywhere, the next best thing to being a baby – comes the three-way hood: you can wear it as a hood, or as a snood, but its unique selling point is “eclipse mode”, where you pull it right over your face and that alerts people to the fact that you don’t want to talk to them. So, someone has just reinvented a pillow case, for a generation of people who have forgotten how to deploy a simple, offputting grumpy face. It’s the hood that says hell-in-a-handcart.

Wait what? This is the conclusion of the article. I’m really confused now. What has this to do with anything? Are we just trying to glue together random pieces of “individualism bad”? I get the sentiment; rugged individualism is misconceived at best and outright fascist propaganda at worst. But as mentioned before we’re hardly the voice of solidarity are we The Guardian. That concluding paragraph indicates that this is nothing more than a strung-together vitriolic ramble. What the hell?

Don’t fucking read The Guardian folks. It’s centrist tripe.

State of my phone 2020-06

My phone intersects on various aspects of my life such as minimalism, de-googling, FLOSS, etc. As a result of that I’m often posting lists of apps on various subreddits to share my practices and I thought it’d be neat to collect it all here.

I have a barebones android phone without any of the Google framework in; meaning I don’t have the playstore etc. My apps tend to be from F-Droid so non-commercial, open, and quite pragmatic.

My minimalism here is embodied through only really carrying around what I need on the phone, as there’s not really the chance to get distracting apps and choosing apps with very minimal or functional designs.

A lot of my apps are default system apps which are generally omitted from this list. My main tension point is around the audio apps as I have three – one for each podcasts, music, and audiobooks. I’ve not found a good single app that does all three well at all and each of the ones I’ve chosen are exquisitely designed. So I guess they’re minimal in the sense they’re really good at one thing.

Apps that I use:

  • AudioAntennaPod for Podcasts, Voice for audiobooks, and Odyssey for music. I tried to use the default Music app for android but it’s become abandonware and wasn’t playing tracks in any reasonable or predictable order. Odyssey is blazing fast, looks pretty, and follows material design well.
  • Cloud syncNextcloud as my dropbox alternative and DAVx^5 to sync my calendar and contacts to my Nextcloud server without Google’s involvement. DAVx^5 kinda gets out of the way and I don’t need to open it ever, but included it here for completeness
  • Email – default android email client
  • Web browserGNU Ice cat mobile
  • File browsing – I’ve recently switched to Material Files after Amaze had become abandonware. I tried to use the default system file browser, honestly I tried. But it wasn’t showing folders properly, wouldn’t copy/paste well at all. I hated it but tbh I hate Google even more for making it abandonware.
  • Security – I’m a tecchie so carry around encryption keys in OpenKeychain and passwords in Password Store
  • MessagingSignal
  • NotesMarkor
  • WellbeingLoop Habits Tracker to track habits like exercise, diet, etc. and Red Moon to make my phone less harsh on my eyes
  • MapsOSMand+
  • Misc – I use Newpipe for YouTube videos although the context of my phone this is usually to use its audio download feature to nab a music track. I also, weirdly, have Loyalty card keychain installed. I only have a Co-op membership card myself (co-ops ftw), but carry around my friends’ cards on this to nab them the points for things.

And that’s it really. Other than the clock / calculator which I use sometimes and my sadly proprietary banking app. No social apps. I also installed a minimalist greyscale icon set and have a greyscale wallpaper. Occasionally Telegram makes an appearance on my phone for specific times when I need to contact someone who uses it, but mostly I use Telegram on my laptop.

Routine is a tool, not the point

I seem to have given off the impression that my routine is the most important thing in the world to me and while this is partially true on the surface; it is for wholly different reasons than most people think. I think folks might view me as having this rigid, highly-disciplined, approach to constructing my day. And that deviation from it causes me severe distress. From my perspective, I’ve developed routines as a tool to ensure that I manage to fit in the things which are important to me.

Contrary to what neoliberal “self-help” books say to you, we don’t each have the same 24 hours a day. The ruling classes have staff and people they pay to do labour. Beyoncé has a staff to deal with mundane things so she can focus on what’s important to her either personally or professionally. This means that within a given rotation of the planet some people have several hundred hours of other people’s time feeding into their lives, and 24h to do what they want. Some of us (probably most of us) don’t even necessarily have a full 24h or even 18h to ourselves (18h presumes only a 6h sleep by the way). We work (notably for others), we have responsibilities of care, to feed ourselves, to provide for a family (whatever shape your family has).

Not all of this work is drudgery, and is an essential part of being human. The work that we enjoy naturally energises us and the work we hate naturally exhausts us. I’d also argue that sometimes it’s more complicated than that and something we hate doing under certain combinations of circumstance becomes something we look forward to doing under different conditions. For example; I thoroughly enjoy cooking for myself and others but if I’ve had to work late I often dislike the fact that now I need to spend some of my previous evening time just feeding myself to be able to work the next day.

Often it’s little things that can keep us going. Small moments to take for ourselves to feed our wellbeing. We’re told this all the time through the class-war that is self-help, and even through well-meaning interactions with others (usually Liberals).

What is not often talked about is the stress that comes about when you’ve done the reflecting and have arrived at a bunch of things that you know make you feel better; but you’ve been unable to fit them in because of X or Y. You then get to experience the underlying problem of not having the space for feeding your well-being (which was the problem in the first place) but now you’ve got an additional level of stress caused by the fact that you now know you could’ve felt better and what you could’ve done to achieve this if only things were a little different.

In my experience something about knowing this makes it feel worse; you can now imagine how you could’ve felt just a little better as you deal with the next round of things-you-have-to-do. Does eating spicy pizza once a fortnight/week/month make you feel good? Does meditation, running, or strength training? Maybe you like to go to the pub for a quiet drink at the end of week, or a local gig. Good on you for knowing this (seriously) but now you also know you haven’t been able to do these things. Ignorance wasn’t bliss, but this now feels a little sad and you can feel yourself fraying at the edges.

Routine is the way I manage to actually fit a few of my favourite things in. I’m not inflexible at all and in fact, given the appropriate space, will fall into more of a natural rhythm than anything resembling a routine. I know that exercise is one of the foundation stones to making myself feel well. I get up at an early hour and don’t stay up late because that’s what’s necessary to being able to fit it in consistently and in a way that makes me happy. I know that spending some time alone during the week reading or watching a movie on my laptop is essential to keeping me sane, so that’s why I’ve drawn a line around some of my evenings.

It can come across as rigid, as if the routine itself is what keeps me going - but it’s the activities within it that I care about. The routine is the tool, not the point. In order to do what I love and feel non-alienated from certain elements of my life I need to feed my soul. In order to feed my soul I need to create the time to do so. Except we cannot create time. So I draw a line in the sand based on my needs.

For some things it’s not even about time but just scheduling things on certain days to ensure I get around to them. I have a bunch of favourite foods and while I enjoy most things, there are certain things that transcend culinary pleasure into a joy. Sometimes it’s pizza, or sometimes it’s sushi. You get the point. I seem to have a rough schedule of eating these things on particular nights to the point where it seems quite funny to outsiders. Friday, for example, is spicy-veggie-bbq pizza night. Sunday lunchtime is veggie-sausage-wraps. Every second Thursday I give up my evening to do activism, so I buy in some sushi. It’s not that I need to have these things on those exact days - it’s just roughly the best time I’ve chosen to fit them in and ensure I get around to eating my favourite foods. Is it weird to make sure you eat your favourite foods? I hope not. I enjoy most food and actually only eat things I like; but certain foods just make me feel warm and fuzzy inside and I kinda like feeling warm and fuzzy.

All of these things serve to put fuel in the tank. If I have enough fuel in my tank it means I can enjoy very spontaneous things or have energy to work really hard in a given direction for a while. If I’m enjoying myself and I’ve built up a good foundation, it doesn’t matter to me that I skip a single workout or don’t get to eat pizza for a few weeks. But every time I don’t, I lose a little bit of what I know makes me serene and happy in a particular way I need. It’s not that I don’t enjoy heading out to the Philippines for work, or staying up late at a pub quiz with friends – I just need the energy to do it. To get that energy I need to make time for things that put the fuel in the tank.

So yeah - my routine is my tool, not my point. I kinda just want to keep doing things I enjoy and in a world where I own less than 100% of my time I’m going to need to schedule them in. Thank you to everyone who’s patient with me when I say I can’t come out to play because I want to stay in and eat pizza before getting up for a 0600 strength training session in the park.

Review of TURF @ Goodspace in Newcastle upon Tyne

This was posted as a review to Coworker.com as part of the nomination for the 2019 Coworker members’ choice awards. I am reproducing it here for longevity and access, in case someone searches for Goodspace and the original review is no longer up

It is hard to describe in words how unique and special TURF @ Goodspace is, and how much good it has done both for personally for me and the city of Newcastle at large.

To get the standard stuff out of the way: the staff are beyond friendly and incredibly helpful; the wifi is blazing fast and can handle international conference calls (Google, Skype) without breaking a sweat; the facilities are great (unlimited tea and coffee for your stay); the space is very comfortable with a variety of desks, nooks, and crannies to cosy down in and get some work done; the rates are incredibly affordable (since they’re a non-profit) and flexible. You can come in for half a day or book a permanent desk (like I do). The space is always immaculately clean and the atmosphere is always relaxed and productive.

Further to being just a generally good place to work, spending even a short amount of time in the space should be enough to realise that TURF @ Goodspace is special. TURF itself is a large open-plan space operated as a co-working space within “Goodspace” who also provide affordable office space to small charities in the Newcastle area as well as the most affordable bookable meeting spaces in the city (for groups such as political parties, churches, activists, etc). This means that when you come to work in TURF you’ll be meeting charity workers having impact on local peoples’ lives and joining a vibrant community of people who genuinely care for each other. Goodspace is managed by a charity which means they’re not motivated by profit and aren’t liable to cut corners; they’re motivated by creating a space which is friendly and safe and to have that impact the city positively through the work they enable.

This spills over into the culture there. You don’t just rent a desk from Goodspace – you become a member during your stay there. If you’re around long-term you’ll get a say in the overall running of the space, but members visiting for a few hours or a few days are equally valued. Since the charity which runs the space cares about the staff they’re both passionate and well-skilled at their roles and will bend over backwards to accommodate you – and they’re always looking for ways to make Goodspace even better. In addition to their outstanding performance at their roles Goodspace go above-and-beyond by creating regular events for members and staff such as on thursday where tea and cake are brought out to encourage everyone to take a well-deserved break. It’s an opportunity to catch up with everyone’s projects and personal lives, and swap ideas and learn from each other. In the space reception there are regular collections / distributions for food banks, the Red Box Project and many more. The community at TURF and Goodspace all look out for each other and in turn have a great deal of positive impact in the city.

Even though TURF @ Goodspace is the most affordable co-working space in Newcastle, I would pay to come here even if it were double the cost of competitors. It’s like somebody consciously took all of the positive aspects of working in an office, and replaced all the negative aspects with empathy and respect for each worker there. Additionally every single pound spent here goes directly back into the Newcastle community since Goodspace provide: charities with affordable infrastructure; their workers with a living wage and good living conditions; and impact through affordable bookable spaces. In a world where co-working is dominated by WeWork and Regus I feel very lucky to be able to access Goodspace every day.