Sea of Troubles

On Being Lost

Last weekend, I walked the Gibberagong Track. It’s a lovely hike, starting in the back-blocks of Wahroonga: a firetrail along a ridge, then switchbacks down a spur, and then a couple of kilometers of winding path running parallel to a large creek. The track was generally well worn, with a few rough patches, occasional boulders to clamber over, and smaller creeks to cross.

At one point, the path took a sharp left turn downhill toward the creek. Upon reaching the creek, the path was no longer clear. It ended in a curve of rock extending a couple of meters in each direction, and soft wetland near that. I knew from the map that the trail headed north and didn’t cross the creek, so kept moving in that direction. On the other side of the wet ground, there still wasn’t an obvious path, but a few clear trails, so I pressed on.

A few minutes later, it started to become clear that this wasn’t the track. Starting to worry, I remembered Bob Cooper’s advice and sat down on the nearest rock and took a break: ate a snack, drank some water, cleaned my sunglasses, checked the map again. Since this wasn’t the path, I’d track back to the soft ground and strike out again, closer to the river.

This new direction quickly proved fruitless. After about ten more minutes, I was starting to panic. I was clearly off the trail. Oddly, I kept moving forward. I’m not sure why; perhaps I thought that if I kept moving I would find it.

During this time, something interesting and strange was going on in my head. My instincts were screaming the textbook answer: go back to the known trail and re-evaluate. Yet, I pressed on. I think I was afraid that I was permanently lost, and that moving felt like I was doing something about it. I found myself covering up that fear by insisting that I just didn’t want to be late for the people picking me up at the end, and I had no mobile phone reception to warn them, so I couldn’t afford to back-track and lose time. Layered on top of that was overconfidence, grounded in my equipment and my training. I had, after all, a good map, a compass, a GPS receiver, and equipment that would allow me to survive (albeit uncomfortably) most of a week in the wild without great difficulty. I was even carrying water purification tablets.

Finally, embarrassingly far down the wrong path, the gut instinct won out. I said “This is not the path” a couple of times out loud, and stopped. And turned around, heading back. About fifteen minutes later, I was back at the point I had arrived at the creek, and I climbed back up to the point where the trail turned down. From here, I had a little mobile reception, so called my wife to tell her I’d be arriving late and why.

From the higher vantage point required to get signal, I could see glimpses of the right path between the trees; rather than turning left, it continued straight ahead, but the next few metres were obscured by some particularly large boulders over which one climbed, which is why I’d missed it the first time. Heartened, I jumped the rocks and charged down the right track. I was quickly glad that I hadn’t simply forged a path forward in the scrub; in a couple of places, that tactic would have required either swimming or serious rock-climbing, neither of which I was remotely prepared for.

In all, I ended up making up much of the lost time and arrived roughly on time.

It’s fading quickly, and seems all a bit surreal now. In all, I was off the trail less than an hour and never in any great danger, even in the short term. Despite this, my emotional response was totally disproportionate, which I’m surprised by. I’m very irritated that it took me so long to back-track to the trail.

The rationalisation process is also interesting to contemplate; where else in my life am I rationalising the wrong path, despite gut instinct to the contrary?

What role did preparation and experience have in driving me down the wrong path? Perhaps, if I hadn’t invested in map familiarity, and didn’t know how to use my compass and GPS, I might have given up and turned back earlier. It brought back the Zen idea of Beginner’s Mind, of the need to challenge one’s assumed knowledge and recapture a sense of curious inexperience.

All up, everything’s okay, but I’m still chewing on the lessons I should take out of this, and how to both prepare better and respond more appropriately to adversity.


My family’s preparations for an emergency are inadequate. I’ll bet yours are too.

My concern here is not the zombie apocalypse or airborne haemorragic fever pandemic, but the mundane emergencies of once or twice a decade. In 1991, severe storms caused flash flooding in the suburb where we now live. Last month, a fire caused an evacuation of a Brisbane apartment building, excluding some residents from returning to their homes. Extended power outages, house fire, fallen trees, serious storms: any of these things could cause us to be without our usual utilities (power, water) or need to leave urgently.

As context, my concern is preparing for the kinds of situations we’re likely to experience in Sydney, Australia. We live in a outer suburb, near a hospital, our property is on a slight slope, and our boundary is about ten metres from a natural watercourse. In collecting together equipment and supplies, I’m therefore prejudicing things that are available from Australian suppliers wherever practical, given the shipping costs.

➞ Dennis the Constitutional Peasant

A bit of a flashback today:

Listen. Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony. […] You can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just ‘cause some watery tart threw a sword at you! […] I mean, if I went ‘round saying I was an emperor just because some moistened bint had lobbed a scimitar at me, they’d put me away!

Fountain Pen Ink Permanence

Fountain pen ink must be water based, in order for the capilliary action in the pen to work. Unfortunately, this means most fountain pen inks are inherently washable – if your notes get soaked in the rain or run through the washing machine, you’ll get back a mess. While I’m not convinced anyone will read anything I’ve written after I’m gone, I can’t stand losing information to accidents.

Ballpoint inks and some rollerballs (like the Uni-balls with “Super Ink”) are generally pretty water resistant. They seem much less enjoyable to write with, and certainly don’t come with the “fiddleability” that appeals to one’s inner geek.

For a long-time, I’ve been trying to use water-resistant inks in fountain pens to try to get the best of both worlds. The two Montblanc pens I’ve favoured at work, are usually loaded with Montblanc blue-black (now “Midnight Blue”), which is an iron gall ink, and is therefore pretty water resistant.

Other pens have mostly been inked with Noodler’s Black. This ink claims to be “bulletproof”, resisting any attempt at removal that doesn’t destroy the paper as well. I also really like the colour of this ink; it’s a very bold black in the right nib.

Neither black or blue-black is really good for annotating and editing documents; it’s too easy to miss an editing mark in a page of text. Consequently, there’s often another pen inked (with a fine or EF nib) with a brighter colour: Noodler’s Purple Martin, Navy, and Forest Green; Montblanc Lavender Purple, Oyster Grey, and Racing Green. I wondered about the water-fastness of these inks, even though they aren’t advertised as being waterproof.

So, a test was in order. Rather than just testing water resistance, we pushed a little harder: the test pages were soaked in scalding hot water with laundry detergent for ten minutes, then rinsed in cold and left to dry. There were two test pages: one full of all sorts of ink, and one with three permanent inks.

➞ Focusing on the Wrong Things

David Smith, writing on his blog, says he stopped most of his analytics collection on his personal projects, because they were driving behaviours he didn’t want. His conclusion is very thoughtful:

The broader point is how important it is to be introspective about how we are using all the tools and services we interact with. The insane variety of inputs that are vying for our attention aren’t all worthwhile. If I’m not careful I’m easily swept up into things that are wasting my time and not helping me improve. It is a constant fight to curate my attention to only those things that are actually worthwhile.

I like this, very much. It’s a succinct statement of something I’ve been trying to pursue for a while.

➞ Paul Carr: The Future of Journalism

Paul Carr, writing at PandoDaily, about NSFWCORP’s future:

After we announced the Print Edition, lots of usually cynical editors and journalists Tweeted us as an example of a business that’s “proving” you can pay for great journalism and make money. We haven’t proved a damn thing. Between now and the end of the year, a thousand things could go wrong. Our print edition could flop, our digital subscriptions could tank, our writers could all flee for some even better funded startup. We could get sued into oblivion. For NSFWCORP to be a sustainable business, protected against all of those risk factors, we need to be generating at least a million dollars in revenue a year. Then we’ll have proved something.

NSFWCORP is doing some really exciting work (if a little… NSFW), and I’m very happy to be a subscriber. I upgraded my subscription to print pretty much immediately.

How I Use Notebooks

For a long time, I was exclusively a devotee of Moleskine notebooks. I took all my notes at work in the large (roughly B5) grid notebooks; there’s a nearly two-foot-high stack of them in my desk, representing more than half a decade of meetings. At some point though, something turned me off them. I’m not quite sure what: perhaps the paper quality changed or the price started to really get to me. Either way, I used Rhodia pads pretty extensively and became fond of Leuchtturm1917 notebooks (essentially, the Germans doing Moleskine right).

At the moment, I’m mostly writing in a Raven’s Wing notebook, which is probably sacrilege given how hard they are to find now (hint), and it’s very nice. I really understand the demands they apparently receive to reprint them.

While I go back and forward on what I take notes in, I have a pretty stable system for how I use notebooks. This system owes much to Bill Westerman’s GSD approach and Thomas Limoncelli’s Time Management for System Administrators (not that I’m really a sysadmin any more). See also Leo Babauta’s Zen To Done system, which is an excellent simplification of GTD.

Field Notes Gentlemen’s Memo Book Cover

I’ve tried, over the years, to get into the habit of carrying a small notebook with me. I’ve tried lots: a couple of variants of the Levenger pocket briefcase, blank business cards in my wallet, pocket Moleskines, pocket Leuchtturm1917 notebooks. Nothing really stuck though. The 3x5 card solutions didn’t contain any sense of narrative continuity, and the notebooks were worn out long before they were full.

Something (The Pen Addict Podcast maybe?) reminded me of Field Notes memo books. I thought I’d give them a try.

Given that one of my main concerns is durability, I bought the Field Notes Gentlemen’s Memo Book Cover, along with a Colors subscription. I wanted to carry and use them in a work context where the rural, folksy charm of the notebooks might not quite fit in, and the leather cover will.

The cover feels very nice. It’s slightly thinner than wallet leather, but an excellent match for the use case. Any thicker and the inner flap would make writing on the backs of the first few pages unworkable.

The design of the flaps makes it perfect to sneak little bits of paper in there. I keep a 3x5 card with actions in the front flap and receipts in the back (which is helping me avoid swollen wallet syndrome).

The cover helps the notebooks last longer and stand up better. It’s a great fit in both the inner pocket in my jacket, or the back pocket of my jeans.

My only (tiny) gripe is that the cover is slightly wider than an open notebook; this means that when it’s closed, the edges don’t quite line up perfectly.

All in all, I’m very happy with the purchase.

Review: TWSBI Pens

TWSBI is a manufacturer of fountain pens. Long a contract manufacturer for other brands, they are now developing and producing their own products. I recently bought two pens — the Diamond Mini and the Vac700 — and wanted to share my first impressions.

➞ Mat Honan: How I Resurrected My Digital Life After an Epic Hacking

Mat Honan has written eloquently about the he has lessons learned from his recent ordeal. Most chilling is his commentary on the processes around account management:

We don’t own our account security. And as more information about us lives online in ever more locations, we have to make sure that those we entrust it with have taken the necessary steps to keep us safe. That’s not happening now. And until it does, what happened to me could happen to you.