Introspecting Your Own OS

One could take a title like that in a number of directions. OS = Operating System, if you didn’t know.

What this essay is about is: “time management” and the realization that pondering your own time management problems, and those of an operating system, is a way to develop a head for computer systems, often a useful end goal in itself, in a civilization wherein computer fluency is becoming ubiquitous (because computers are).

An operating system has the job of task switching. You know how onerous that can be, from experience. You’re deeply immersed in such and such a task, with full concentration, and by pre-arrangement or bell, or because of your “schedule” you have to switch gears all of a sudden. Maybe someone interrupts you, and you forget everything. Or you startle, and mess up that piece you were gluing, to a ship in a bottle. Frustrating. People get angry at moments like this, because they feel helpless, robbed of decision-making power.

Something to remember at times like this, is how liberating it can be to unplug. That’s how it seems in hindsight, once unplugged. You were stuck in a no-win time-wasting situation it looks like now.

With some time away, doing something else, you will actually do better overall, including with the original task. You were blocking, waiting, spinning a mutex (as a programmer might think of it, or quantum physicist) whereas other tasks could really benefit from your attention.

Waking up from one task to a next may even by life-saving. We know it’s not unusual for people to get lost in their thoughts while driving. Going off in a reverie could get you killed, whereas if you remain appropriately alert, you will see the stop sign, the red light. If you’re a good driver, that means you have learned to task switch seamlessly. You still listen to the radio, but your attention routinely checks the mirrors. Your profile is optimized with the appropriate level of attention.

Attention is what humans bring to the equation, and having any is a luxury in some circumstances. Some situations never get much attention, even with billions of us on board, we being the CPUs on a spherical motherboard, at liberty to move around and hook up in various dimensions. We get scheduled, rewarded, penalized, by the system. We learn to not see certain tasks as “not our business” nor anyone’s business apparently. Those tasks go undone, never get in the jobs queue. The trash piles up. Garbage collection doesn’t happen. No one wants to spend the energy cycles, when other work looks more valuable.

Computers also help us remember the importance of synchronization, of a central clock, in the town square as it were. We’re talking about a clock dividing seconds into gigahertz. The saw teeth on this saw move quickly, with each tooth passing a chance to get work done. Time is framed by clock intervals, cycles, and only so much can happen in a clock cycle. We feel this too, in our lives as humans. Our attention span is of finite length, and our degree of concentration is far from infinite. Partly why task switching is such a pain is that we treasure those times when we’ve achieved a high level of concentration. Interrupting those seems anti-conservative to the point of foolhardy. Why squander what’s in such short supply.

But need attention be in short supply. We wrestle with an attention deficit, there’s never enough. But how is it that we have any? How is it summoned?

Let’s bring our threads together this way: staying in practice around task switching, allowing yourself to be interrupted to switch gears, involves staying in shape with respect to attention, as in your ability to summon it, and keep it. Attention loss is a possible outcome, when we’re made, by environmental pressures, to task switch too much. We become frazzled to the point of disconnected and our systems rebel, by shutting down, and/or by panicking.

Something worth realizing early on in your practice, is that powering entire processes to do little but criticize, only adds the the problem. The deadweight of critical voices further detracts from one’s ability to pay attention. The ability to shut off negativity is priceless. On the other hand, you will sometimes discover a constructive voice on your imagination, offering imaginative solutions or alternatives to the problem at hand. These internal coaches may be key, in helping you reprogram your internal time management system, and/or operating system, as the case may be.

Now that we’re clear that an OS does scheduling, we have neighboring namespaces to think about. For example, there’s prioritization. Simply interrupting B to task switch to A, is a way of saying “A is more important right now?” But what’s the reasoning? Is it because we’re going blindly “round robin” and any process gets only up to a hundred clock cycles, before we switch? Are we time sharing simply because every process gets its cycles, or are we empowered to look at priorities in addition? Do we have a kind of triage? Are some processes decidedly back burner?

We should pause to remember that, as humans, whether a task gets our conscious attention or not is not synonymous with its getting done or not. For one thing, many if not most processes going on in our body, have no requirement nor even need for our attention. Most bodily processes take up no conscious clock cycles. On the other hand, such bodily conditions as hunger or sleepiness will have a strong impact on the quality of our consciousness. There’s a psychological terrain we’re challenged to negotiate, with as much attention is we can muster. Yet sometimes the terrain requires letting the attention go, as we drift off to sleep for those much needed dreams.

In sum, if you’re hoping to understand how computers work better, start with yourself and notice your habits. Start developing more awareness about your habits, realize your ability to task switch by exercising it, and seek to avoid energizing an internal audience of kibbitzers with no constructive criticism. If you manage to internalize a coach, an adviser, count yourself lucky and attend to whatever teachings follow.

Lots online.

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