Perspectives

Those who have read some of my former books … find things that seem to be total contradictions of much that I have said before. This, however, is true only in some minor respects. For I have discovered that the essence and crux of what I was trying to say in those books was seldom understood … My intention here is to approach the same meaning from entirely different premises…

Watts, Alan W. The Wisdom of Insecurity

I’m still of the opinion that Alan Watts is mostly crazy, but apparently not so crazy that I’ll stop reading what he wrote.  Also, I found this particular thing interesting.

Code is interesting.  When you write code, you get to build something from nothing, totally out of thin air. Notably, it’s entirely made up.  It has no physical manifestation – the real shape of it, the ideas that it imbues exist only in your head.  But even so, there are rules.  There are patterns that come up, that start to reveal themselves as they are repeated through different problems.

For the uninitiated, when you write code, you talk to the computer in any of a variety of particular languages, each with their own syntax and idiosyncrasies.  There are a lot of them – and much like regular, talking-to-each-other-by-flapping-our-mouths languages, they all attempt to do the same thing – tell the computer what to do.  They all have their own nuance, flavor, quirks and sharp edges.

As a result, any problem or idea that is built in a single, particular programming language is going to pick up that nuance, those quirks, those sharp edges – the ones from the language itself.  Identifying which sharp edges actually belong to your idea, your coding style, what you were trying to build, and which ones come by nature of the programming language you chose can be almost impossible – until you write the same thing in another language.  Getting across the same idea, solving the same problem in another language begins to give the real shape of a thing – which difficulties are inherent in the problem you’re solving, or your approach, and which come from the language you chose.

Back to Watts. Watts wrote a bunch of ideas down, in two books.  But he did so from a particular perspective – at the time, he was an Episcopal priest.  As a result, his ideas got all wrapped up in that – the language he used, the perspective he was writing from – and he felt like what he was really trying to get at, really trying to explain or at least explore, was lost.  The sharp quirks of his perspective and the language he used became indistinguishable from the quirks of his ideas.  So he had to try again, from a new perspective, to get at the truth of what he was actually trying to convey.  Because communication is hard, but maybe it’s worth it.

Ideas and the language, metaphors, or perspective used to describe them are inseparable.  The only way to communicate or understand the real shape of a thing is to come at it repeatedly, from different perspectives.

Damned Civilized

He was becoming damned civilized; and soon, he suspected, would come acceptance… then complacency… then the death of creativity.

Arthur C. Clarke | Richter 10

Richter 10 is ostensibly about earthquakes, but really it’s about a crazy, broken man.  Totally nuts.  Unreasonable, and driven well beyond the safety of normalcy by his passion.  His eccentricities also drive his greatness – his creativity, his fight.  Unshackled by the confines and expectations of polite, socially acceptable society, he’s free to chase what’s important to him.

It seems to me that those willing to be a little abnormal, or maybe even willing to actively fight against being normal, are the ones who do the most interesting things.

Shoes

I was in New York over the weekend.  I hadn’t ever been to New York.

We spent an afternoon in Central Park.  It was Sunday afternoon, and the weather was nice – and the park was full of people.  More people than a yokel such as myself can really comprehend easily – where did all these people come from? Where do they all live?  Why are they all here?

But one thought kept coming to me:

Look at all these shoes.

It can be difficult to really understand the vast scale and power of the worldwide human economic machine – but if you get thousands and thousands of people together, and then just start paying attention to their shoes, you can start to get a sense for it.  All those shoes.  Very few of them exact duplicates – there are many similar styles, but not so many perfect matches, even in a sample size so large.  Each pair had to be designed, manufactured, packaged, shipped, delivered to a store, then purchased by a person.  So. Many.  Shoes.

What’s more – shoes aren’t exactly a commodity.  People care about their shoes.  They have to be the right size, to start – but more important than that, they have to be the right style.  We expect our shoes to, on some level, reflect who we are.  So now you’ve got to have this massive infrastructure in place for manufacturing, delivering, and selling the shoes, but you’ve also got to close the loop – the customer’s desires have to inform your shoe designs.  And it works!  I saw thousands and thousands of pairs of shoes, and each one somehow spoke to the person who bought them – made them feel a bit more stylish, or more professional, more athletic, more unique – enough to spend some money and take them home.

The sheer volume, the complexity that makes up the industry that has no focus, no concern other than to protect and decorate your feet, is staggering.

Creating

So often when we try to create we judge what we are making before its even had a chance to breathe and grow

Ben posted this in relation to a quote from Sister Corita Kent, who I know nothing about, and now feel compelled to hear more from.

About a month ago, I told my brother that I’d write something meaningful to me every day for 100 days on this blog.  It’s been great, and it’s been terrible.  

The beauty of a commitment like that is that I have to write and publish every day.  And a lot of days, the thoughts I’ve had, whatever I’ve written down, I don’t like them.  They’re boring, they’re hard to make sense of, they’re pretentious, or they’re just poorly written.  And I don’t want to post them.  But I do. I thrust them on you poor people, and then I (usually) have them automatically posted to Facebook and Twitter to seal the deal, and ensure people revel in the mediocrity with me.

Just as Ben describes, my default state would be to never publish anything except things that I really like, and I’m really excited about – which means I’d basically never post anything at all.  I’m glad to be forced to follow his advice – to be forced to write, create, and avoid judging too much during the process – something just has to get posted every day.

So take Ben’s advice.  Go make something, and don’t let yourself judge it along the way – just go until you’re done, and let it turn out how it turns out.  Whatever it is, you’ll end up better than when you started.

The phone.

I just started the podcast S-town, put on by the producers of This American Life, and Serial. It’s come up several times over the past few weeks, most recently when my wife recommended it to me this morning. So I gave it a listen.
In the first episode, the host describes an exchange he had with a listener over the past year or two. It started with emails alleging that something was afoot in a small town in the South. 

Eventually, one of the stories is corroborated, and the reporter takes the bait. Upon contacting the listener to get more details, he gets a response: “I would like to talk to you by phone if possible. This is just too much to type.”
When does something become “too much to type”? And why? What conversations necessitate a phone call instead of an email?
I’ll state my bias right up front: I communicate all day long via text. Email, text message, slack, etc – the vast majority of my interaction with other humans – personal and professional- is via text. Text is powerful. In the right hands, it is precise and exact, and ranges from emotionally charged to strictly factual.
So when I hear “This is just too much to type”, I hear “my thoughts are unclear, and I’m interested in having you listen to me ramble”. By the way, my fears are immediately confirmed on the show when the listener launches into descriptions of his mothers dimentia, and the number of stray dogs in the callers house, and town more broadly. You can get away with rambling on he phone, or in person – but in text? In text you don’t have a monopoly on my attention. I can scan ahead, to look for when or if this tangent will wrap back around to the reason for us communicating. The inability to do so means you can hold me hostage indefinitely, or until I’m so annoyed I’ll interrupt.
Speaking on the phone or face to face is far higher bandwidth than text. This is generally touted as a blessing, but let’s consider it more thoroughly, with some examples. Have you ever wondered why salesmen always want to “schedule a call” or meet in person? Why do door to door salesmen still exist, in an age where communicating with anyone without leaving your desk is simple and ubiquitous?
The added bandwidth gives whoever you’re talking to a wealth of information about you (are you nervous? Timid? Eager to please? Uncomfortable with confrontation?), plus an array of tools to use against you to get you to agree. Remember chad? He sold us a standing ovation we didn’t want, but he could only do so because we were in the same room.
For these same reasons, often text is the wrong answer – it is harder to communicate emotion, to foster a connection over text. When I call my kids because I miss them, I want to see their faces, i don’t want to send a text.
But don’t tell me that you need to meet face to face or on the phone to schedule a meeting, or discuss something. Text fits the bill just fine, thanks.

Human Work

The so-called rich elite are in actuality poor as well, disengaged from real human work and therefore from real human accomplishment

Robinson, Kim Stanley | Red Mars (p. 375)

I’ve taken this quote completely out of context, because it’s been so long since I read it that I’ve forgotten the context.  But that’s ok, because I think it stands on its own.

I write code and talk to people for a living.  And those are valuable, fulfilling, enjoyable tasks – writing code is creation, in a very literal sense. Even so, sometimes I feel like I’m “disengaged from real human work”.

Building things is fun.  It’s satisfying.  Handling physical objects, making things that can be seen, touched, admired, used, repaired – it’s a different kind of satisfaction – in some ways it feels more real, maybe more “human”.

Doing human work can help keep us human.   Go bake some bread.  Or build a chair.  Or fix a door that squeaks.

Highlighting for Fun and Profit

I read a lot, almost entirely on the kindle.   I like the kindle.  Some people swear by physical books – the smell, the feel, the weight, the ability to carry them around and look important.  I get it, but I don’t get it.

Aside from the convenience, both in being able to carry all books easily, but also in purchasing, my favorite thing about reading on the kindle is highlighting.  I tend to be moved by particular passages in books – the punchline, the careful phrasing used for the literary climax of an important point, or even a throwaway filler line that, for whatever reason, feels profound.  Without a mechanism to note them as important or notable, I’ll lose them – and benefit for only the few minutes they stay at the front of my mind.

Highlighting provides that mechanism.  Not only does the physical act of marking the passage to be highlighted give the line or thought a little extra sticking power in my brain, but it’s easy and convenient to scan the highlights of a book when you’re looking to quickly be reminded of the high points or particularly moving ideas.

Try highlighting.  Alternatively, if you already do, go scan back through some past highlights, and relive only the best parts of a recent book you enjoyed.

Bonus:  I recently discovered Your Highlights, which lists all your highlights, regardless of book.  Handy.

Your Ultimate Guide For Waking Up Early

If I ever legitimately write a post titled “Your Ultimate Guide For Waking Up Early”, I want you, gentle reader, to drive to my house and punch me right in the face.  Don’t announce your purpose, don’t even ring the doorbell.  Walk in, find me, punch me in the face.  Please don’t punch my children.  I’ll be the one with the beard, typing furiously.

I’ve had this simmering for several months now, maybe longer.  Im far more worked up about it than is justified. There’s this cult – especially in tech, but I’m sure it exists outside of tech, in which we’ve all decided that the holy grail is to operate at 100% efficiency.  All the time.  To be so amazingly productive that not one minute of any day is wasted.  And I get it.  Life is short, we’re all dying (note: That’s 3 posts in a row that mention death.  I swear things are fine, mom), so you better be operating at 110% all the time if you’re going to get yours.

There’s something so gross about this.  I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is, but I’m going to make some wild guesses about what it might be.  Don’t ask me to back these up, I’ll have forgotten them by the time we next talk (undoubtedly because I didn’t read the ultimate guide to never forgetting all the stuff).

Suffering is awesome

I legitimately think that deep down inside, people – especially Americans – imbue some deep value on suffering.  Like something that is awful is worth doing for the sole reason that it’s awful.  Fun things are of questionable value.  Terrible things?  Now you’re proper adulting. Then we get to wear it like a badge of honor: “I’m so tired I’m essentially useless, but the fact that I didn’t sleep in past 5:30 is proof of my commitment to being an adult”.

Other people do it

Indra Nooyi, the CEO of PepsiCo, gets up at 4:30 AM.  Aren’t you excited to do it now?  Maybe if you do, you too will be the CEO of PepsiCo.  Setting my alarm as we speak.

You are gross and pathetic

This, I think, is really the heart of what we all want.  We’ve got to be better – we’ve got to get rid of whatever we are and be something else.  The CEO of Pepsi.  Smarter.  In better shape.  More productive.  I guess we’re back to “Other People Do It”.  If It’s good enough for Indra, damnit, it’s good enough for me.

I started to make a joke about dressing like her, but then I remembered that this is totally a thing.

Anything you didn’t plan out ahead of time is valueless

Going hand in hand with the “Here’s why you should wake up early” advice is the “you should schedule every second of your morning”, and here’s Mark Zuckerberg’s morning, which you should duplicate.  Or don’t, but I mean, he started Facebook.  I guess maybe your ideas are ok too.


I just don’t buy it.   Yes, many successful people have well defined morning routines.  Many successful people get up very early.  And there are bits and pieces of their lives, their ideas, their routines, that are valuable to me, to you, to everyone.  But to accept their life entirely, and to assume that you ought to  be doing just what they do in order to achieve your goals is lazy, and it frustrates me.

So I don’t know, do whatever.  If you want to get up early, get up early.  Don’t do it because Tim Cook starts replying to emails at 4:30 AM, so you should too.  Do it because you like being up early, or because that’s when the gym is less crowded, or because you like going to bed early so that’s naturally when you wake up.  Or maybe just because you want to take the afternoon off.

And now that you’re out of the way, it will be that much easier for me to climb to the top, what with my perfect morning routine and my same-outfit-everyday.

Being “Yourself”

I’ve had an idea rolling around in my head for weeks now, probably longer – but every time I try to write about it, I get hung up.  Sometimes when I get like this it’s because I feel like the topic is particularly important, or interesting, and whatever I write isn’t quite good enough – I’m not doing the topic, the idea, justice.  That’s lame.  It’s an excuse to never write anything, to never get anywhere on the topic.  I’d rather just write what comes, and at another time, write about it again.  So here we are.

There isn’t a Jordi in the mountains, and  a Jordi outside of the mountains.  I’m just one, you can’t divide me into two.

This comes from “Unbound”, which I posted about a couple weeks ago.  Direct link to the quote here.  In context, he’s referring to the fact that he feels part of the mountains – that he just is who he is, honestly, no matter where he is.


Earlier this week, I was at a conference with some coworkers.  I like these people – I enjoy hanging out with them, they’re smart, caring, friendly – a good bunch all around.  I look forward to seeing them.  The conference was a few days long, and generally had 4 tracks running at a time – so we all went to whatever session most interested us.  Sometimes I found myself in a session with two or three others, sometimes there was no one else in the room that I knew.

I went to one session – more of a forum, or small group discussion than a lecture, and introduced myself to a few of the people at my table – all strangers, doing similar work to me.  I thought about the kinds of topics I could add value or speak intelligently on.  Just before the session started, one of my coworkers coincidentally walked in and sat at a table near me.

Upon noticing, my feelings about the session – about talking, sharing, etc, changed.  Not for the worse, necessarily, but there was a difference.  The suddenness of the change struck me – it was distinct, and obvious.  Why?

When the room was full of people I didn’t know, I was free to say whatever, and behave however came naturally to me, without much concern beyond whether I was adding value to the conversation, or getting what I wanted to get out of it. In this sense, in spite of the fact that the room was full of people, I was alone.  It was a room full of strangers, who I hadn’t seen before, and wouldn’t likely see again.

As soon as someone I knew arrived, things changed: now I had to be myself.  “Myself”. A persona consistent and cohesive with who I am the rest of the time – or who I think that person expects me to be, based on our past interactions. And that’s work.  I don’t think this version of “myself” is really measurably different than the person I am when I’m alone, but there’s some part deep down inside that feels particularly concerned with making sure I’m on brand all the time.

My brother recently commented about how great airports are.  They’re absolutely full of people, but none of the people know who you are, or particularly care.  They’re all busy with their own lives, and you’re completely anonymous.  You’ve never seen any of them before, and you’ll never see any of them again.  You are no one, or you’re whoever you want to be.

I think this might be part of the reason why introverts enjoy being alone, or why it feels so draining for introverts to spend too much of their day with other people.  Alone is easy, quiet, relaxing.  It requires no thought, no effort.  It’s honest.  Conversely,  it’s work to maintain a persona, even if the persona is exactly who you are when alone.  The constant awareness, the subtle effort underlying all your choices – your words, your mannerisms, your reactions.

Back to Jordi (who apparently is now my spirit animal): I’d like to be able to turn that background process – the one making sure you are who everyone expects you to be – off.  After all: there is only one Jordi.

Chauffeur Knowledge

In this world we have two kinds of knowledge, one is Planck knowledge, the people who really know, they paid the dues they have the aptitude.

Then we got chauffeur knowledge, they have learned to prattle the talk. They have a big head of hair, they have a fine temper in the voice, they make a hell of an impression, but in the end they’ve got chauffeur knowledge

– Charlie Munger, 2007 USC Law School Commencement Speech

I found this quote in The Two Types of Knowledge: The Max Planck/Chauffeur Test, which is a great read on the newly (to me) discovered, and seemingly pretty great Farnam Street Blog.

We’ve all met people like this – and speaking from personal experience, it’s infuriating.  I often can’t quite put my finger on why exactly I’m so frustrated – they’re saying the right things generally, but something about it is just not quite right, and it’s being glossed over, hidden, or defensively tossed to the side when poked at as unimportant.

This quote, but further, this article, sheds some light on the problem for me – it’s dishonesty.  Being able to repeat something is not the same thing as knowing it and having the ability to form your own honest opinion or idea about it.

If that’s the case, that’s fine!  Nobody knows everything, and it’s perfectly ok to not know everything, and to acknowledge it and give your opinion based on what you do know (even if all you have is chauffeur knowledge) – but the key is admitting what you don’t know, and being open to what you do.

I know that I’ve slipped into the chauffeur knowledge trap before.  I’d like to not do it again.  Fortunately, Farnam Street (with the help of Ralf Dobelli, author of The Art of Thinking Clearly has this advice:

True experts recognize the limits of what they know and what they do not know. If they find themselves outside their circle of competence, they keep quiet or simply say, “I don’t know.”