Optimizing, Values, and the Right Answer

Engineers love clear problems with delineated right and wrong answers. Data, especially quantified data they think, is objective and clean. Without painting too strong of a stereotype, they don’t like to muck around with soft skills, or social/political factors in problems. They like to keep engineering pure.

The problem with this view is that it’s not correct – it makes an underlying assumption about what makes something a right or wrong answer to a problem. Most problems that engineers deal with when designing a solution are not value neutral. When we think of problems with clear right or wrong answers, we think of problems that are purely mathematical or having discrete binary solutions (e.g. “will the object handle the forces that it will be subjected to under normal conditions?”). The secret is that all problems have “right” and “wrong” solutions based on the underlying values you are trying to optimize for.

An engineering problem that is optimizing for maximizing return on investment might have different solutions than one that optimizes for addressing systemic inequity for particular people. The tradeoffs are not just opportunity costs, but instead are tradeoffs on which values inform the vision of the final outcome of your solution. When you seek to return on investment, to maximize profit, the answers are pretty clear – drive down expenses, raise prices as high as the market will bear, communicate the value proposition to the customer, and produce enough goods at the right rate to meet demand without excess goods sitting idle. When you seek to address systemic inequity, your solutions will have decidedly different considerations – your expenses will go up as you pay fair wages, prices might not maximize your margins, you will be more candid with your customers, and your manufacturing and distribution will be likely slower and more intentional as you make ethical considerations in your processes. You will also consider all sorts of other externalities that pop up as a result of your solutions, boosting the positives while capping the downsides.

This is not to say that all solutions will be equally easy to implement under any one set of values systems that you choose. However, it’s fallacious to believe that the same answer will always be given for “can we build this?” and “should we build this?” if you aren’t also examining the underlying values that you set in your assumptions.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Cross-Domain Knowledge

I’m a huge fan of cross-domain knowledge. Coming from an academic background in philosophy, I feel my greatest strategy for creating and building a career is leaning in hard to knowledge and skills that are learned in one domain or context, then applying it to a unique area. You get a large confidence boost when you make connections by spotting patterns and connections that map analogical cases to each other.

The first time I truly appreciated this was in my days working for the university gambling lab. We were collecting data on slot machine players by recruiting participants into our study to measure the effects properties of the machine user-interface had in gambler’s cognitive awareness. In other words, did how the graphics and sounds play on the screen help the gambler understand their relative wins and losses over time. In one study, the simulation we were using for participants to play on during the trial had been modified, but on some of the laptops the wrong version of the software was copied over, and we didn’t realize the mistake until the end of the day. Of the three laptops, two had the right software, and one did not. At the end of each session, we uploaded the user data to a secure repository and deleted the local files, which meant that once we were back in the lab, there was no way of knowing which participant file batch came from the defective software.

We thankfully caught the issue early and limited the damage, but afterwards we had an issue with figuring out which files to exclude from analysis. On the face of it, there was no way of knowing from the participant’s biometric data which simulation they used. So instead we had to dig into the debug files that were spit out by the machine to verify that the simulation ran successfully.

All the files were generated in an XML format, however I had neither experience in basic coding nor reading XML files. I had to figure out a way of showing whether the version of the software was correct. To me, the XML files were largely gibberish.

But, I was able to spot a pattern in the files that reminded me of my formal logic courses from undergrad. While I did poorly in the courses at the time, I did retain some of the strategies taught for understanding the structuring of the syntax of formal logic arguments, specifically how nested arguments worked and how assumptions were communicated. I started to see the same structure in the XML code, how sub- and sub-sub arguments were written to call different files into the program, and where those files were being drawn from.

And there it was. At the bottom of one of the debug files, was a list of the files being called on by the simulation. In the broken simulation, the file path to a certain sound that was meant to be played was empty, meaning that when the simulation was supposed to play and auditory cue, there was no file name to look for, and so the simulation moved on.

I compared this with the files we knew came from the working simulators and saw that this was the main difference, giving us the key for finding the bad data points and justifiably excluding them from the overall data set. By finding this, I saved an entire day’s worth of data files (a cost savings that includes the some-30 participant files, their remuneration, three research assistant wages, per diem costs, travel, and consumable materials on site).

I grant that computer programming is entirely built on the foundations of formal logic and mathematics, so it’s not that I was gaining a unique insight into the problem by bringing knowledge from one separate domain into another. However, this was one of the first times I encountered a problem where I lacked the traditional knowledge and skill to address it, so I came at the problem from another angle. It was a case where I gained confidence in myself to be resourceful and tap into previous learning to address new/novel problems.

As I noted above, being trained in academic philosophy has pushed me in this direction of career development. On a superficial level, relying on cross-domain knowledge is a career survival strategy because philosophy doesn’t always teach you skills that are easily applicable to the working world. I have sadly, never once, had to use my understanding of Plato’s arguments in my workplace. But on a deeper level, I think training in philosophy naturally pushes you into this kind of problem-solving. Most of my experiences in philosophy involves approaching a thought experiment or line of thinking, considering what it’s trying to tell us, then testing those arguments against counter-factuals and alternative arguments or explanations. To do this well, you have to reduce a problem down into its constitutive parts to tease out relevant intuitions, then test them out, often by porting those intuitions from one context into another to see if they still hold as both valid and sound.

It’s not all that dissimilar to the processes used by engineers or designers to gather data and accurately define the problem they are intending to design for. Whereas the engineer will apply the tools they’ve been taught fairly linearly to create a design for the problem, my strategy is to adopt cross-domain knowledge to make connections where they might previously had not been apparent. The results can often be solved quicker or more efficiently if I had the relevant domain knowledge (e.g. an understanding of coding), however when I lack the specific experience to address the problem, as a generalist thinker I have to rely on analogical thinking and a wider exposure to ideas to suss out those connections. What I lack in a direct approach, I make up for in novelty and creative/divergent thinking, which has the benefit of sometimes opening up new opportunities to explore.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Blocking Distraction

For as much as think I am in control of my impulses, the reality is I am buffeted around by my whims far more than I wish were true. The biggest bane to my daily work is the mighty well of distraction that is YouTube. I’ve lost hours of time in a day allowing my subscriptions to serve me fresh content. I try to justify it to myself – “I’m just going over for a quick mental break,” or “I just need to see a tutorial on how to do x-action in Excel.”

Then, I look up and hours might have passed without me consciously knowing it.

Some time ago, I used a browser blocker to prevent me from accessing the worst offenders for distraction (all social media, YouTube, and Reddit specifically). I’m no stranger to signing an Odysseus contract, which I’ve written about before. However during the pandemic, I relaxed it a bit since, hey, we are all going through a rough time.

As of late, I’m forced to conclude that enough is enough, it’s time to hold myself to a higher standard. I went back in, and toggled StayFocusd back on, and so far have done a better job of accounting for my time. Between blocking distractions, using pomodoro sprints, and writing down what I do in my time blocks (quick estimates, nothing too detailed), I’ve done a pretty good job of limiting distracted time.

It’s not perfect, but it’s more than a 1% improvement, which will hopefully compound over time.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Drip By Drip

A reminder to myself –

I have a tendency to measure progress according to leaps forward in productivity. I block off my calendar with large swaths of time, which gives the illusion that the time spent in a labelled block of time will be proportionate to how far the needle is moved.

But these are just that: illusions.

There are only two kinds of progress I make – the last minute panic against the deadline, and the lesser used but more sustainable drip by drip of micro-steps. The former is very cathartic, but we have to remember that catharsis means to purge, and so in the end you are left drained and must recover.

A focus on small steps, in the 1% change, is harder to track without perspective, but ultimately is an easier trek if you have the focus to stay on the path.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

What I Read in 2021

book lot on table
Photo by Tom Hermans on Unsplash

The calendar has rolled over, meaning it’s time to provide an update on my reading over the last year. For my previous lists, you can see what I read in 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2016.

TitleAuthorDate CompletedPages
1ClanlandsSam Heughan & Graham McTavish01-Jan352
2Lean OutTara Henley03-Jan336
3Moon of the Crusted SnowWaubgeshig Rice05-Jan224
4SovereigntyRyan Michler12-Jan266
5Eat a Peach: A MemoirDavid Chang14-Jan304
6NeverwhereNeil Gaiman19-Jan480
7The Office: The Untold Story…Andy Greene24-Jan464
8Angels & DemonsDan Brown30-Jan736
9*MeditationsMarcus Aurelius07-Feb256
10The PracticeSeth Godin23-Feb272
11*The Righteous MindJonathan Haidt12-Mar528
12A Clash of KingsGeorge R.R. Martin29-Mar1040
13Hold Me TightDr. Sue Johnson26-Apr320
14*To Pixar and BeyondLawrence Levy26-Apr272
15Cool SexDiana Richardson & Wendy Doeleman30-Apr128
16MindfuckChristopher Wylie10-May288
17*The Massey MurderCharlotte Gray24-May336
18*On ImmunityEula Biss21-Jun224
19At The Existentialist CaféSarah Bakewell30-Jul448
20Learn Like a ProBarbara Oakley & Olav Schewe05-Aug160
21The Great InfluenzaJohn M Barry05-Aug560
22The New FatherArmin A. Brott07-Aug336
23EffortlessGreg McKeown07-Aug272
24Can’t EvenAnne Helen Petersen13-Aug304
25The Happiness HypothesisJonathan Haidt13-Aug320
26SwitchChip Heath and Dan Heath16-Aug320
27The Bully PulpitDoris Kearns Goodwin22-Aug912
28Saving JusticeJames Comey22-Aug240
29An Elegant DefenseMatt Richtel27-Aug448
30Infinitely Full of HopeTom Whyman06-Sep218
31*The Black CountTom Reiss22-Sep432
32Think AgainAdam Grant01-Oct320
33Lives of the StoicsRyan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman03-Oct352
34*A Knock on the DoorTruth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada06-Oct296
35Our Own Worst EnemyTom Nichols07-Oct256
36A Storm of SwordsGeorge R.R. Martin11-Oct1216
37How Ike LedSusan Eisenhower17-Oct400
38Braiding SweetgrassRobin Wall Kimmerer29-Oct408
39*Social EmpathyElizabeth Segal05-Nov256
40NoiseDaniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony, Cass R. Sunstein09-Nov464
41Finding Your ElementKen Robinson with Lou Aronica12-Nov320
42The StorytellerDave Grohl14-Nov384
43Why We Make Things and Why It MattersPeter Korn16-Nov176
44For Small Creatures Such As WeSasha Sagan18-Nov288
45Courage is CallingRyan Holiday24-Nov304
46*The Seven Principles for Making Marriage WorkJohn M Gottman and Nan Silver06-Dec288
47Mr. Dickens and His CarolSamantha Silva08-Dec288
48The Ghost of Christmas PastRhys Bowen14-Dec272
49Why We SleepMatthew Walker19-Dec368
50In A HolidazeChristina Lauren20-Dec336
51Christmas Every DayBeth Moran24-Dec408
52A Christmas CarolCharles Dickens24-Dec112
Total19308
Entries whose number is asterisked was read for our bookclub.

This year was a huge step up in the number of books I got through. In 2020 I came in at 38 books, whereas I settled into a good groove and managed 52 books for 2021, or a book per week on average. The big months were January (8 books), August (10 books), and October through December (7 books each month). 2020 was a tough year on everyone as we made the pivot to pandemic life; I was also preoccupied with my wife’s pregnancy and later the birth of our son. For 2021, things settled and we found new normals to operate within. I still relied heavily on audiobooks, but I found that where I made the majority of my reading progress during my work commutes in the before-times, I now find time while walking the dog and doing chores around the house to squeeze in a listen.

I’m also happy to see I continued my trend started in 2020 to move away from predominantly reading self-help and business books. While they are still sprinkled throughout, I embraced more fiction, memoirs, books on history, and discussions of complex social issues.

My book club was down slightly over last year, coming in at 9 books for the year. We also celebrated a birth and added a new member which is exciting. In the table above, the asterisked numbers denote book club entries, but I have included them collected below:

  1. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
  2. The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt
  3. To Pixar and Beyond by Lawrence Levy
  4. The Massey Murder by Charlotte Gray
  5. On Immunity by Eula Biss
  6. The Black Count by Tom Reiss
  7. A Knock on the Door by Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada
  8. Social Empathy by Elizabeth Segal
  9. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John M Gottman and Nan Silver

And to round out the post, here are my top five reads of the year in chronological order:

  1. Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice (this book was so good, I bought two copies and mailed them to friends as gifts – one going all the way to Scotland!)
  2. The Great Influenza by John M Barry (if history doesn’t repeat itself, then at the very least it rhymes, and so learning about the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919 helps to contextualize our experiences over the last two years)
  3. How Ike Led by Susan Eisenhower (I took so many notes reading this book and will revisit the lessons of Dwight Eisenhower often)
  4. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer (this was my first proper introduction to Indigenous ways of knowing, and my worldview has been made richer for it)
  5. Why We Make Things and Why It Matters by Peter Korn (a beautiful memoir and reflection on the nature of making, craft, art, and finding your calling within a career)

2021 was a great year of reading for me. Despite feeling adrift in the monotony of the pandemic (or languishing, as Adam Grant claims it), I found exploring both ideas and fictional worlds to be immensely rewarding. My horizons have expanded and I’m looking forward to continuing this exploration into the new year. I’m intending on tackling more biographies, books on history, and works of fiction. I’ve also decided to explore another genre – comic books! With all the great media being adapted from comic books (and now that I have disposable income), I’m intending on diving into some of the celebrated collected volumes that I missed out back in my Wizard reading days.

Happy New Year!

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

On Tardiness

For all the lip-service paid on this blog about doing the work, I have been posting late recently. My target is supposed to be going live by 9am on Monday mornings, yet I can’t remember the last time I had a post scheduled to go live on time in a while. I think the last time I was ahead was heading out for my honeymoon in 2019, where I had three weeks lead time while I was away.

Part of why I’m behind continues to be working from home – in the before times, I would procrastinate in the office from real work by writing. But since working from home over the last twenty or so months, all time feels like procrastination time. With no one looking over my shoulder, it doesn’t matter what I am doing on my screen so long as I continue to deliver on the goods.

And as with most procrastination, the longer I go past my deadline (e.g. today), the harder it gets to get to work on the task. It usually results in taking a mulligan for the week, or cobbling together a half-thought into a semi-stream of consciousness post just to have something shipped. You’re welcome.

It feels good to publish, but I shouldn’t consider it a win to get something up for the week for the sake of hitting the metric. At the same time, I should extend myself some measure of kindness and acknowledge that I still did the work.

I still show up to do the work, just not according to what was expected of a professional.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Post #302

I uploaded my post last week without much thought. When I went back to draft some ideas for a future post, I saw that Beachhead was my 301st post. I missed the opportunity to both celebrate the milestone and reflect on its significance.

Earlier this year, I missed the 5-year anniversary of this blog. I let the milestone pass by, unlike years past. I think part of the lack of enthusiasm for these significant milestones is due to general pandemic-induced apathy (we’re all feeling it). But the optimistic side of me also thinks that these milestones are less important than the work itself. I used to be more metrics-driven with my blog, excitedly noting the passing of the first year or the first 100-posts. However now I’m not concerned with reaching a future target but instead focus more on ensuring I’m keeping up with the weekly schedule and trying to come up with decent thoughts worth publishing.

That’s not to say that all of my posts are worth reading. I wouldn’t say I take a lot of pride in the final product of what goes up weekly; I’m not ashamed either. It’s just that the quality of the final draft isn’t as important as sitting down to do the work. Of taking an idea from brainstorm to coherent narrative. I find more satisfaction in putting in the work than the bragging rights of the final product. I try to think of it as more of a craft-mentality rather than creating a masterpiece corpus of writing.

Each post is an exercise that stretches the muscles, practices the movements, and gives me an opportunity to learn and develop slowly over time. At present, this blog operates at a loss (no income is generated to offset the nominal fees I pay for the site and URL). And I’m completely fine with that. At one time I thought about turning this into a brand and trying to monetize it. I’m not opposed to scraping money out of the endeavor, but it’s not the primary focus of this blog.

When I shifted away from the blog being an exercise in becoming a paramedic, it merely became a place to publicly share my practice of writing to meet a deadline. That’s good enough for me. It doesn’t have to seek to achieve anything grand – not everything has to be epic or monetizable. It’s still fun and I feel good shipping the work. As the mass of posts grow, I can look at the incremental progress and take satisfaction in what it represents – time well spent.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

The Art of Self-Discipline

On the days when I’m languishing and finding it difficult to be productive, where procrastination and anxiety keep me in rabbit holes of distraction, and at the end of the day I look at the clock and realize how much time I’ve wasted, it’s easy to write myself off as a lazy, slovenly person. It’s easy to think of myself as the kind of person who does not have discipline, that I wasn’t born with that trait – fatalism has kicked in; I should accept who I am.

But that’s not what self-discipline is. It’s easy to see self-discipline as some sort of binary state when you are comparing yourself against others further along their own paths than where you want to go.

The Romans had a saying that “we can’t all be Cato’s,” referring to the stoic politician who served the State with self-sacrifice. But that saying is wrong. It should be “we aren’t all Cato’s, yet.”

In virtue ethics, your moral character is judged against an abstract ideal – the Stoic Sage. But possessing virtue is not a trait or character state. Possessing virtue is a process of becoming, of doing the right thing at the right time.

Having self-discpline doesn’t mean you are a paragon of discpline. It means you are exercising discpline in the moment. If you fail, it just means you are still working on becoming who you want to be.

The Japanese refer to this as ““, the Way. You never reach perfection, but your life is one long project of incremental progress towards what you are meant to be.

That is the way of self-discipline.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Work Focus While Home Alone

Working from home poses challenges for most folks when it comes to being able to focus. Many of my colleagues noted how difficult the summer months could be while children were home from school. For me, with an infant at home, the distractions were fairly minimal, especially because my wife handled 99% of the care during the working day during her leave from work.

But now she’s gone back to work and our child is at daycare during the day. While you’d think this means my productivity output has jumped by leaps and bounds, it’s actually done the opposite. With no one in the house to bother me, with no one to look over my shoulder, or for me to quickly hide the fact that I’m goofing off watching irrelevant videos on YouTube instead of looking at spreadsheets, the seeming unlimited time means I have a hard time getting started.

This almost seems like a cousin of Parkinson’s law, but instead of work filling the allotted time, the strength of the impulse to get started is negatively correlated with the amount of free (unsupervised) time I find myself with. Quite the opposite, there seems to be more inertia to overcome.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

PS – as a note to my future-self: there is a connection here with what Mel Robbins says about procrastination, that it’s not a function of laziness but instead a coping mechanism for the anxiety felt by the task. I should look into this more.