This weekend, I hit a new milestone – 900 consecutive days of practicing German using Duolingo.
Upon sharing the news with a friend, he asked how fluent I feel. Truthfully, I still feel like I’m pattern-matching. I’m fairly decent at decoding messages and generating approximately correct statements, but I don’t feel that I could carry on a conversation.
That’s not to say there is no value in what I’ve invested so much time in. Last year, my wife and I spent a few days visiting her family in Germany, and I knew enough from practicing on Duolingo to utter a few sentences and follow along on some simple conversations. However, it was a valuable lesson that just because I unlock levels, it doesn’t mean I’m gaining competence. Sometimes, what you think you are learning doesn’t match what you are actually practicing. It’s good to keep this distinction in mind.
Something that I’ve started taking more seriously as of late is the idea that there is a seasonality to learning some things in life. In this case, I mean “seasonality” not in the calendar sense that we experience during the year (Spring, Summer, etc.), but more in a broad metaphorical sense, such as seasons of life. I think there are seasons of our lives where certain lessons are easier to learn than others. This is not to say that you can’t learn them outside of the “right” season, but that some lessons are easier to learn at certain points in your life.
For instance, I’ve heard complaints about the secondary school system’s curriculum not teaching useful skills. Where the modern high school student is wasting their time learning about Shakespeare, the argument goes, they should instead be focusing their attention on more practical matters such as learning how to budget.
I’ve long been skeptical of this criticism for two reasons. First, I don’t think it should be the job of the school to teach every skill that’s deemed important. When people complain that they didn’t learn useful things in school like how to do laundry, how to eat properly, how to do taxes, etc., I place the blame of the lack of skills on them and their parents. Those bits of know-how are readily searchable online now, and short of an accessibility issue with being able to use technology, I see no reason for being ignorant. No, instead, I see school as the domain of more specialized knowledge that would be challenging to teach in the home environment by your parents who otherwise might not be skilled in teaching subjects like the maths, sciences, and humanities.
However, the second reason why I don’t find those arguments persuasive is that there are some concepts that are not easily absorbed at that time of your life. I can only speak from my experience, but when I was a teen, I wasn’t earning an income to support myself, nor was I carrying the bills and debts that would require me to keep a budget. I didn’t have the frame of reference, experience, or need to learn those kinds of skills. Instead, I understood what it meant to set up a budget, but not how to actually keep it.
I’m finding the same for home repair during this season of my life. Prior to owning my own home (where I am directly responsible for its upkeep and my family’s comfort and security), I didn’t feel an incentive to invest time and energy into learning how to maintain the home. Growing up, I would help with the chores and some light maintenance, but otherwise my parents largely were the ones who did the important stuff with troubleshooting problems. Now, those responsibilities fall squarely on my shoulders, and I’ve had a number of instances where I’ve had to pay costly invoices to tradespeople for repairs and work that largely could have been handled by me had I possessed a better understanding of how my home worked.
This is not to say that people don’t learn these skills when they are young. Whether it is through personal interested, a keen disposition, or a patient and knowledgeable parent/mentor, plenty of people know how to do amazing things by hand that puts my simple repairs to shame. Nevertheless, I have now reached a season where I’m more receptive to these lessons, and I’m embracing them with an open mind and a willingness to try.
This week’s post is late. The proximal cause is that because of the Tech Shabbat experiment, I was shutting my computer down for the weekend. Weekends are the most common time I write and prepare to publish my posts. Therefore, an unintended consequence of the Tech Shabbat is that I didn’t have a post ready for Monday.
However, that is a poor excuse when we consider the distal causes of why the post is late, because the Tech Shabbat was a known event in my calendar. It wasn’t something that was unanticipated, and I knew roughly what participating in the Tech Shabbat would entail. I knew, for example, that I had to get my course marking done before the Shabbat if I wanted to give my students their feedback with sufficient time for them to use my feedback in their next assignment. I was able to always get my grading done before the Tech Shabbat began each week of the experiment, so why did I not do the same for the weekly blog posts?
The Tech Shabbat became a convenient excuse to blame, when really the blame lies with a poor writing habit. Maybe I would have finished the posts had I not participated in the Tech Shabbat, but instead of dwelling in a possible else-world, I should focus on fixing the things I have control over, such as my schedule and how I set my priorities.
Proximal causes are easy to fixate on, and are often more expensive to address (it’s why we spend lots of money on shiny new toys that promise to fix our problems). Distal causes can be harder to spot and require longer, steady investment to overcome.
After a bit of a hiatus, it’s time I dust off my keyboard and get to work.
I attended a digital summit last week organized by a reputable platform. I’m going to deliberately keep this post’s detail vague because I’m not upset by being upsold to the point of it changing my opinion about the platform or the purpose of the summit. On the other hand, it clarified a few things about the nature of online business that I thankfully only paid a few bucks to learn.
The summit was meant to bring together content creators to discuss the business of making money online. I’ve flirted with this idea, and I have some project ideas for online content that I intend to provide for free for the ethics boards I serve, so I thought learning about some of the business and strategic best-practices would help me think through the project steps.
The three-day event brought together a few creators I’m familiar with, and I bought in at the early bird pricing, so I thought even if I attended the equivalent of one-day’s worth of sessions, I wouldn’t feel bad having put down some money for the access.
The first session was about creating an online course using the best practices used on the platform. Since I work in academia, I’m aware of some of the work that goes into creating a course. I would charitably say that I’m not the best fit for the target audience of the course, but I took notes and found some of their insights useful.
But just after halfway through the scheduled event, they switched from presenting about the tools and tactics of content creation to discussing some of the exclusive perks that could be available for a limited time to the summit attendees. As I sat watching, I was amazed that a lot of the various tactics they discussed in the previous 40-minutes were being applied to the session attendees in an effort to upsell a package. For a limited time, if you bought into a $100+ monthly subscription, you’d have access to a half-dozen pre-recorded courses, a half-dozen 2-month trial access to software, a more in-depth set of lessons about all the topics we just learned about, and a few other odds and ends (like unlimited replay of the summit sessions).
I don’t blame the platform for choosing to go this route, but I was shaking my head when I thought that I paid to be given a reduced-value presentation of a larger set of courses, and was being upsold on it. I paid to be sold to. I was even interested in one of the keynote Q&A’s and was disappointed that it was a twenty minute video call. The guest speaker has put out more value for free on his various social media channels than what I received at the summit.
Again, I’m not above this – I think there is some value in what I learned, and I’m not necessarily the target audience, so it’s wrong of me to complain about not liking the content. I just hate that I had to pay a small price to learn this lesson about the nature of online content creation. It’s a series of remixes of content (a cousin of the animated bibliography, it seems), trickled out slowly to optimize the conversion rate of your mailing list.
I understand that in order to make money online, you have to play the game. The problem is I hate that the game is mostly concerned with optimizing for views, rather than genuinely trying to help solve problems. Perhaps it’s a signal that I should heed. If I don’t want to play the game by the rules, I either have to get out of the game, or be so good that I invent a new category. Either way, my main takeaway: creating content online is going to remain a side initiative for me, rather than my main source of income for the foreseeable future.
I’ve been mulling over a quote I wrote down in my notebook back in March, especially as it relates to my productive output at both work and for my personal projects:
“Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” ~Paul Batalden
At the end of the day, I’ll look back at my lists of tasks and feel frustrated that another day has slipped by thanks to my monkey brain’s inability to focus. Of course, this is placing the blame on the wrong focus because it’s ignoring two important facts: it assumes I’m not in control of my behaviours when I blame it on my “monkey brain,” and it assumes that I’m setting myself up for success merely by sitting at my computer. Both of these are patently untrue. I have control over my environment and (to borrow a phrase from Jocko Willink) I should be taking extreme ownership over my work situation.
If I find myself frustrated with my lack of output, I have to look at the system that my productivity is set against. If I spend my day getting lost down YouTube video and blog holes, then it’s because my system is optimized for it.
If I’m allowing myself to give in to temptation or distraction, it’s because it’s easier to fall back on things that are psychologically comforting and there is too much friction to get started on the real work.
Motivation is a flywheel – I have to overcome inertia to get the wheel turning, and it takes time before inertia helps the wheel turn freely. If the system is optimized to prevent me turning the flywheel, then it’s important to look at the system for fixes, rather than bemoaning the outcomes.
It’s not a quick fix. It will take time, effort, and a direction to push towards that will start the flywheel. I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. If the flywheel grounds to a halt, then it’s my job to stop, reset, appraise, and re-engage.
It’s taken me six weeks, but I think I’ve finally found a good system for working from home. Like many people who are fortunate to work from home during the pandemic, I’ve been struggling with keeping my normal routines while working from my computer at home. I won’t pretend that I had a perfectly productive system when I used to commute to the office everyday, but where I had the illusion of being productive simply by being at work and conversing with my colleagues, at home I am totally cut off from those signifiers of “work.” In the last few weeks, I’ve had spurts of productive time, but those were relatively few in number.
Late last week, however, I found a good combination that allowed me to really focus on moving my tasks along. I’ll share some of the tools that have been working for me.
First, using headphones to play noise while I work helps me make the mental shift in context from “home” to “work”. I have two sets of headphones at home, and both work well – a wired set of Sony headphones with noise canceling function, as well as a set of Philips Bluetooth headphones that also cancel noise actively.
I don’t just listen to music, however. I find most music to be distracting to my workflow – even lyric-less songs. My mind tends to pick up on the melody, and I’ll focus on that instead of the task at hand. I have two sources of noise I currently use – a pomodoro Chrome extension that plays fuzzy white noise (and conveniently tracks my pomodoro sessions), as well as a pomodoro video on YouTube that includes a visual timer and ticking clock. The white noise blocks out ambient noises that otherwise gets through my headphone’s noise canceling feature, and the ticking noise helps me focus.
Speaking of pomodoros, I use the pomodoro method to break down the tasks into manageable chunks. It also has the benefit of bypassing my motivation drive. Rather than committing to working an 8-hour work day, I commit to the next 25-minute block of work.
I have a lot of projects and tasks to keep track of, so I use two systems to prioritize and track my work. For long term, multi-step tasks, I have set up a dedicated board on Trello to manage where each project is in the pipeline. I have created buckets that I can move tasks through, from the general pool of tasks, to the planning phase, into an active phase, and if the project is put on hold, I can take notes on what I need to do to push things along while the task is in limbo.
For day to day task planning, I went simple and set up a text file that I number tasks as I think of them for the day, then I keep track of what I accomplish each day in a growing list. I usually would do this in my notebook, but I liked being able to cleanly re-order tasks. On paper, you can only order tasks in the initial stack you wrote them in, but if something changes during the day (e.g. a meeting gets scheduled on short notice), it’s harder to move things around.
Aside from the Microsoft Office tools provided by my employer (Outlook, Teams, Sharepoint, and OneNote), that covers my current workflow. Depending on how long the stay-home order is in place, I might update how this system evolves. It’ll also be interesting to see what of this system I port back with me to the office (I have a feeling I might bring the headphones to help me focus).
If you have any systems or tools you like, I’m curious to hear about it in the comment section.
Note – this is an experimental posting format. I’ve thought about increasing the number of posts I commit to per week, but I don’t want to add unnecessary work if I’m not willing to stick it out. Let’s be honest: sometimes it’s really hard to get a single post out each Monday that I’m satisfied with, so increasing my posting frequency just to for the sake of increasing my output is a terrible idea. I will run a short experiment to see how easy it is for me to get out a Friday Round-up for the next month. If the experiment goes well, I’ll consider making it a part of the regular rotation.
Many of the bloggers and thinkers I follow have some sort of curated list they share on a regular basis of the best pieces of content they came across in their weekly browsing. During this week, I came across a few thought provoking posts that I felt deserved to be shared.
Here is my round-up list for the week ending on April 24th:
We should be reminded that maps are not the terrain, and that models are predictions (read: guesses), not certainty. We rely on models to help us understand the world, but we should remember that they have their limitations.
Paired nicely with Seth Godin’s post above, Dr. Attia gives a good lay-primer on how a model is created, and what the limitations are when trying to model something like a virus when so little is known about it. The two takeaways I have from this piece are: we should be more willing to accept that good models gives us ranges, not fixed numbers (and we should be more comfortable with the ambiguity); and just because the worst case didn’t arrive, it doesn’t mean that the model was overblown – we need to find out more about why the model was off. It might be that the virus isn’t as dangerous as we initially thought, or it might be that physical distancing greatly impacted the viruses capacity to spread (it’s probably a little of both), but until we know which side maps to reality, we can’t be confident of what we should do next.
This is actually something I’ve used for some time, but wanted to share. When I’m trying to focus, I have discovered that I can’t listen to music (even of the lo-fi variety) because I find the melodies too distracting. However, I’ve found it helpful for me to listen to regularly repeating noises, such as white noise and ticking metronome sounds. I’ve experimented with a few options, such as a 10-hour “cosmic white noise” video, but while working from home during the pandemic, I’ve settled on this Pomodoro video that I also have paired with a Pomodoro Chrome browser extension that plays white noise (the ticking gives me focus, the white noise blocks out ambient sounds in my room). Forcing myself to focus in 25-minute spurts keeps me on track while I move through my to do list.
Let me know if you find any of these interesting or useful. Also, feel free to share your best round-ups in the comments below.
From time to time, I catch myself thinking some pretty stupid stuff for entirely dumb reasons. A piece of information finds a way to bypass any critical thinking faculties I proudly think I possess and worms its way into my belief web. Almost like a virus, which is a great segue.
A perfect example of this happened last week in relation to the COVID-19 news, and I thought it important to share here, both as an exercise in humility to remind myself that I should not think myself above falling for false information, and as my contribution to correcting misinformation floating around the web.
Through a friend’s Stories on Instagram, I saw the following screencap from Twitter:
My immediate thought was to nod my head in approval and take some smug satisfaction that of course I’m smart enough to already know this is true.
Thankfully, some small part at the back of my brain immediately raised a red flag and called for a timeout to review the facts. I’m so glad that unconscious part was there.
It said to me “Hang on… is hand-sanitizer ‘anti-bacterial’?”
I mean, yes, technically it is. But is it “anti-bacterial” in the same way that it is getting implied in this tweet? The way the information is framed, it treats the hand-sanitizer’s anti-bacterial properties as being exclusively what it was designed for, like antibiotics. For example, you can’t take antibiotics for the cold or flu, because those are not bacterial infections but viral infections.
According to the author on the topic of alcohol-based hand sanitizers (ABHS),
There are some special cases where ABHS are not effective against some kinds of non-enveloped viruses (e.g. norovirus), but for the purposes of what is happening around the world, ABHS are effective. It is also the case that the main precaution to protect yourself is to thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water, and follow other safety precautions as prescribed.
The tweet, while right about the need for us to wash our hands and not overly rely on hand-sanitizers, is factually wrong generally. Thanks to a mix of accurate information (bacteria =/= virus) and inaccurate information(“hand sanitizer is not anti-bacterial”), and a packaging that appeals to my “I’m smarter than you” personality, I nearly fell for its memetic misinformation.
There are a number of lessons I’ve taken from this experience:
My network is not immune to false beliefs, so I must still guard against accepting information based on in-group status.
Misinformation that closely resembles true facts will tap into my confirmation bias.
I’m more likely to agree with statements that are coded with smarmy or condescending tonality because it carries greater transmission weight in online discourse.
Appeals to authority (science) resonate with me – because this was coming from a scientist who is tired of misinformation (I, too, am tired of misinformation), I’m more likely to agree with something that sounds like something I believe.
Just because someone says they are a scientist, doesn’t make the status true, nor does it mean what they are saying is automatically right.
Even if the person is factually a scientist, if they are speaking outside of their primary domain, being a scientist does not confer special epistemological status.
In the aftermath, the tweet was pulled and the person tried to correct the misinformation, but the incident highlights that the norms of Twitter (and social media more broadly) are entirely antithetical to nuance and contextual understanding.
It’s interesting how much information spread (memetics) resembles pathogen spreading. If the harmful thing attacking us is sufficiently designed to sidestep our defenses, whether that’s our body’s immune system or our critical thinking faculties, the invading thing can easily integrate within, establish itself within our web, and prepare to spread.
The one thing that really bums me out about this event is the inadvertent harm that comes to scientific authority. We as a society are caught in a period of intense distrust of the establishment that is coinciding with the largest explosion of information our species has ever seen. The result of this is not that good information is scarce, but rather the signal-to-noise ratio is so imbalanced that good information is getting swept away in the tide. If people grow distrustful of the sources of information that will help protect us, then forget worrying about gatekeepers that keep knowledge hidden; there will be no one left to listen.
I was watching the dark comedy “The Death of Stalin” the other day and noticed an interesting scene that imparted some wisdom about relationship management. Early in the movie, Nikita Khrushchev, played by Steve Buscemi, has returned home at the end of a long day with Joseph Stalin and other politicians. As he undresses for the evening, he is listing off a series of topics to his wife, who is in bed and taking notes in a book. As he lists off the topics, he comments on which topics landed well with Stalin, and which he should avoid in the future.
Setting aside the bleakness of needing to make notes on things that will keep you alive around a dictator, it was an unexpected example of good relationship management in action.
I’ve done stuff similar to this. At first, I thought it was a sleazy practice, but after overcoming those initial thoughts, I realized it’s an entirely effective way of keeping track of important details either early in a relationship (here, I mean relationship in an extended sense, not in a romantic sense), or for relationships with infrequent contact points.
If it’s worth maintaining a good relationship, then it’s beneficial to reflect on your interactions and take notes on things worth remembering. Whether you use a book as in the film, or making notes in your phone’s contact cards, it can be helpful for refreshing yourself when you interact with a person again. I’ve made notes on business hours, names of employees at a shop, the names of a person’s significant others, and even early in my relationship with my wife I would note ideas for the future.
Far from sleazy, it’s a useful way of paying attention and making others feel special because you’ve taken the time to learn and remember details about them. And, instead of relying on your memory, you can have the confidence that you’ll get the particulars right and avoid looking like a fool.