Wednesday, August 15, 2012


I've been silent here for a long time. I've also been in a bit of a reboot phase for the last few months, probably since around the end of June. I have a confession to make, that the reason for this was that the first six months of this year I simply took on too much. I'm not very good at saying no in general and have always loved the buzz of being busy. To be bored is a waste of the incredibly short time we have here and I find myself frustrated by all the other things that I wish I could pack into the hours of the day and of the night.

A couple of posts ago I wrote about the incredible new explosion in online learning tools (take a look for links), from Khan Academy to Coursera and Udacity and now with EdX in the mix, there are more and more courses online every day, for free, for anybody connected to the web. Some of the best teachers in the world offering their services in a fascinating business model to bring highly advanced skills to the masses. On Coursera alone there are now over 100 courses, from Natural Language Processing to Sociology, from Vaccines to Computer Vision and from Automata theory to the study of Modern and Contemporary American poetry.

The opportunity was too much to miss and I jumped on board in a big way. I signed up to every course that looked interesting, and dove in, head first. I new from the start that it was going to be busy, but didn't know quite what I was taking on or how I wasn't going to be able to say no to finishing the assignments, even if it meant sleepless nights. And that it did. In fact I spent a good few months at the beginning of the year working 18 hour days. I was working in the office during the day, working on assignments and watching course videos at night and then at the weekends working on  other projects, some of which are now finished and some of which are ongoing (working on interdisciplinary areas has been enormously fun!). It was a huge buzz to be doing this and I felt in a great zone. The courses finished off one by one but as they did so a new one started.

South Africa came in the middle of all this and I was teaching a course on a subject I'd never taught before, while giving lectures about my work as well as working on the courses at night. It was all a bit too much.

From South Africa I came back and went off to Denmark, then to the UK then back to Germany, then somehow the Netherlands crept in and I spent a few days in Leiden after a trip through Köln and Neijmegen. Again, more talks, more work, more courses. I don't really remember July, it came and went in a flash with Strings at the end

The next week is going to be the most ridiculous of all time in terms of travel, the last piece of it will be a trip to Japan in about 8 days to spend two weeks at a summer school before spending a few days at the Yukawa Institute where I will give a talk and hopefully be able to discuss with some of the world experts on a problem I'm looking at at the moment.

There are also plans afoot for next year but I'm going to keep these somewhat hidden for the moment. When there is any movement I will talk about it.

So, After working for the first six months like crazy, the courses slowly trickled off and my concentration span trickled off with them. I emerged from this intense period in a completely hyperactive state and unable to concentrate on any one thing for more than a fraction of the time I'd normally be able to commit. I found myself easily distracted and even the simple pleasure of reading a book, which is my normal wind-down activity didn't seem to be happening.

A few weeks passed by like this and I knew that I really needed a break, things were not improving, I felt fully burnt out. There are friends around the world that I would love to have seen, but I knew that this time it had to be a holiday of withdrawal, a trip where I could get away from everything and reboot. I wanted to go somewhere with very little to do, with beautiful streets and cafes where I could sit and read. More than anything I wanted somewhere that I didn't have to fly to! After a little searching I settled on Ljubljana, Slovenia, a mere six hour train ride from Munich. I was recommended this by a Slovenian friend and at the same time was told of all the fantastic natural wonders to go and visit in the country. Normally I would jump at such photo opportunities, but this time I simply wanted a week or so of doing nothing!

And that's what I managed to get. I spent 9 days in Ljubljana doing nothing but sitting in cafes and reading, occasionally talking with street musicians who I would see every day as I wandered around, ate some good food and spent the afternoons exercising. It felt like a true retreat. I didn't have to speak to anyone, I didn't have to think about emails or facebook or traveling from one place to another. I read some great books, probably my favourites being The Brothers Karamazov, Religion For Atheists and Cosmic Anger, the biography of Abdus Salam. I sat in the castle at night under the stars watching the open air cinema, I sat and did nothing, it was perfect!

So, I am back now. Now I go away again and and will be gone for a few weeks, but I'm feeling a lot more ready to get my head down and concentrate, to finish the projects that are ongoing and to start some new ones, as well as to try and figure out a bit more what next year may hold.

For now I'll leave you with a photo from Ljubljana castle. The city is surrounded by mountains and as the yellow light of the sunset cut through the valleys, this castle was bathed in the glow:

church in the hills in the sunset


ana said...

we lived in ljubljana for over a year after coming back from shanghai - and it had exactly the same calming effect in us :)

glad you're feeling better!

Luca said...

I'm partly envying you and partly not. I would love to travel more but I am tired of be a globetrotter, even the idea to go to NYC (3 hours by car, or 6 by bus) tires me.
I guess I got older faster than you! :) Enjoy!

All the courses have been a lot fun: I finished Algo1 at Coursera, great course, great material, a bit of a let-down on the programming assignments but that's where the concurrent Algo course by Udacity came in: I prefer Coursera over Udacity on theory and basics, but when it comes to problems and programmings, Udacity beats Coursera hands-down.

I am enrolled for Udacity debugging course (due to start in a couple of weeks) and a bunch of others at Coursera (Neural Networks, Computing for Data Analysis, and Algo2). Nothing on EdX is interesting me at the moment.

Anyway ... for your reading list, I would suggest Running with Kenyans. It's about running so lots speak to me, but the story may interest non-runners alike: it's about a British journalist who moved to Kenya for 6 months with his family and he's talking about the adventure, from running with Kenyans to general 'life-stuff.'

Enjoy Japan!

Benjamin said...

Hi Jon,
Lovely title, photograph and tale of clearing your mind in Ljubljana. Well done :) Ben.