Subscription Addiction

October 17, 2020

Subscriptions are becoming quite a trend with software developers. You can see both sides. Here’s a funny, balanced and informative video that goes through the key points in a general setting.

The reason I’m interested in this is that I’m considering taking out another software subscription, to the Ulysses (writing) app. I’m trialling it at present, it’s certainly slick and well-presented (only for macOS and iOS). At the moment I subscribe to the (notetaking) apps Agenda, Bear and Evernote (actually the latter is a bit of a hangover from earlier times and is under review).

Personally I prefer the model mentioned in the video where you own the software and get free updates for a year (such as with the Tinderbox app that I also use). This seems a fairer compromise to me.


The Challenge Of Reinventing Yourself

October 9, 2020

Helpful sketchnote from Tanmay Vora on career reinvention (see his site for many other related sketchnotes).

I’ve commented previously (see here) on how reinvention can be viewed as a sort of personal R&D.


The Maker, Manager and Consumer Roles

September 29, 2020

Interesting quote from David Sparks on thinking about how you spend your time:

“So with this in mind, I’ve been focusing my journaling lately not so much on what I had for lunch, but what I make, manage, and consume. Using tags, I can then see it on a daily, weekly, and even monthly basis. If I look at my week and realize I spent most of my time sharpening pencils and sorting tasks (manager) and not enough time producing content (maker), I know I need to make changes. You can get similar information by tracking your time, but I think there is something more concrete looking at a list of things you’ve made, managed, and consumed over a period of time.”


The Conflicting Emotions Of Writing

September 28, 2020

“E.L. Doctorow said once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.” – Anne Lamott

Quote taken from her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Highlighting a really great analogy and now I’ll read (or at least skim) it looking for some other insights that might resonate with me. Although mentioning novel writing, imo the quote also applies to carrying out activities like research and to a certain extent non-fiction writing.

From another angle, this quote from Tibor Fischer also appeals:

“The trouble with taking writing seriously is the more seriously you take it, the harder it is to write.” -Tibor Fischer, The Thought Gang

These terse and simplified insights sometimes help, motivating the real work and slog that still needs to be done 🙂


Aiming For A (Fairly) Fulfilled Life

September 19, 2020

Currently there is a lot of interest in ‘how to be happy/fulfilled/content’ both in work and in one’s personal life (browse any bookshop). It’s obviously a deep question that people have struggled with and thought about for thousands of years.

In this regard, Oliver Burkeman has been writing articles on ‘human happiness’ for the Guardian Weekend magazine for many years now. Each article has a theme and usually gives two or three viewpoints or approaches, sometimes referring to a variety of books published on the matter (he’s also published some himself). The general approach is to ‘life’, so encompasses both work and personal matters.

He’s now decided to end this phase of his career to move on to new activities. The final article he published recently gives a summary of the main ideas that cropped up again and again (so are maybe ‘principles’). I thought that some of the points were especially interesting as they were not the standard ones you can read in many books and articles.

Here are his eight ‘secrets’ plus some extracted explanatory comments:

So what did I learn? What follows isn’t intended as an exhaustive summary. But these are the principles that surfaced again and again…

1. There will always be too much to do – and this realisation is liberating
The only viable solution is to make a shift: from a life spent trying not to neglect anything, to one spent proactively and consciously choosing what to neglect, in favour of what matters most.

2. When stumped by a life choice, choose “enlargement” over happiness
We’re terrible at predicting what will make us happy: the question swiftly gets bogged down in our narrow preferences for security and control. But the enlargement question elicits a deeper, intuitive response.

3. The capacity to tolerate minor discomfort is a superpower
It’s shocking to realise how readily we set aside even our greatest ambitions in life, merely to avoid easily tolerable levels of unpleasantness…

4. The advice you don’t want to hear is usually the advice you need
The broader point here is that it isn’t fun to confront whatever emotional experiences you’re avoiding – if it were, you wouldn’t avoid them – so the advice that could really help is likely to make you uncomfortable.

5. The future will never provide the reassurance you seek from it
It’s freeing to grasp that no amount of fretting will ever alter this truth. It’s still useful to make plans. But do that with the awareness that a plan is only ever a present-moment statement of intent, not a lasso thrown around the future to bring it under control.

6. The solution to imposter syndrome is to see that you are one
Remember: the reason you can’t hear other people’s inner monologues of self-doubt isn’t that they don’t have them. It’s that you only have access to your own mind.

7. Selflessness is overrated
We respectable types, although women especially, are raised to think a life well spent means helping others – and plenty of self-help gurus stand ready to affirm that kindness, generosity and volunteering are the route to happiness. There’s truth here, but it generally gets tangled up with deep-seated issues of guilt and self-esteem…

And the irony is that you don’t actually serve anyone else by suppressing your true passions anyway. More often than not, by doing your thing – as opposed to what you think you ought to be doing – you kindle a fire that helps keep the rest of us warm.

8. Know when to move on
And then, finally, there’s the one about knowing when something that’s meant a great deal to you has reached its natural endpoint, and that the most creative choice would be to turn to what’s next.

A few assorted personal comments. These aren’t based on research, just recollections from my own experiences. One general aspect is that some of these points are inter-related, so changing one may automatically affect the others.

Too much to do and focusing on what matters – this is of course a perennial problem for most people. Focusing on what matters is not always easy though as ‘what matters’ can have many contexts and these may also be dynamic. It may even be easier for others to see what may be important to you rather than you yourself (wood for the trees). It’s also related to the skill in saying ‘no’ (see here).

Enlargement versus happiness – I thought this was an especially interesting one and also a lot more implementable than guessing what may make you happy (imo a pretty vague concept at the best of times).

Tolerating minor discomfort – helpful to know this before you start something and keep it in mind as you pursue it as it might make the situation more bearable.

The advice you don’t want to hear – I’ve written before (Iceberg Illusion) on some of the difficulties in appreciating thoughtful or creative advice and I hope to come back to this topic in a future post.

Reassurance and planning for the future – it can be helpful to have goals and aims so you actually complete things but at the same time you have to accept that things can change in unforeseeable ways (eg planning to write a book on topic X to find that other subjects are now in vogue).

Knowing when to move on – in my case such moves were sometimes forced and erratic. Certainly preparing for them and researching them beforehand would have been valuable. Also being aware of and getting used to the uncomfortable emotional aspects of change is likely to be a useful activity.

In one’s career, as well as personal life, it’s often useful to take a step back and reflect on things. It’s something that sounds very easy and sensible to do but is often ignored in practice. An opportunity to contemplate and appreciate successes as well as (hopefully learning from) failures. The principles above may be a useful complement to assess progress and to set new or modified directions.


Lining Up The Little Things

September 4, 2020

“You’ve got to think about the big things while you’re doing small things, so that all the small things go in the right direction.” – Alvin Toffler (and many others)

However, not always so easy in practice.


Giving Smart Answers Under Pressure

August 24, 2020

I recently decided to sell my vinyl collection, lovingly kept for years. The traditional hi-fi takes up too much space, changing sides of albums is a chore and (the way it’s set up) it’s primarily for just one room. I now find Sonos and Spotify (and others) a much more flexible and convenient arrangement. I’m not bothered by the slight decrease in sound quality. The latter also allows easy search for known artists and it’s fascinating to discover loads of great new musicians I never knew existed.

For selling the vinyl (that I had an obvious emotional attachment to), I had to come to a rough valuation. As I was moving house at the time and things were hectic, in the end I didn’t pay too much attention to this. I did find sites that gave estimates for individual prices (depending on their condition and the pressing) but going through the whole collection would have taken ages. Also there were comments that the prices were very subjective. So to get a quick solution I did some very rough guesswork and negotiated from that.

What I should have done (obvious in hindsight) was do some guesstimates. At the very least, put records into categories (rock, folk, jazz and classical), estimate average prices plus identify any special items of value which presumably would be few eg early pressings. This valuation is not what you may achieve but at least gives a better starting point to negotiate from. As they say, in negotiations, the one with most knowledge wins! The issue is what is the smartest thing you can do under strict time pressure. I’m not saying I got a bad price it’s just that I’d have a nicer feeling inside if I’d thought things through (I know, that’s life!).

This got me thinking about more general guesstimates, sometimes called Fermi Problems or back-of-the-envelope calculations. Fermi was a highly creative scientist and won the Nobel Prize for his ground breaking work in nuclear physics. He was one of the last ‘giants’ that could encompass and contribute to both experimental and theoretical physics (disciplines that require very different skills). He had a reputation for his seemingly uncanny ability to give good estimates to tricky problems even with little actual data.

A famous example of a Fermi Problem (that he used to tantalise students with) is: How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?

This at first site seems an impossible problem but on reflection some educated guesses can be made that give a good approximation to the answer (see here):

  1. Assume population of Chicago is roughly 3,000,000 (actually 2,693,976 in 2019)
  2. Assume average family size is 4, so number of families is about 750,000
  3. If one in five families owns a piano (seems a bit high but rounds things for easy calculation), then 150,000 pianos to be tuned in principal
  4. If the average piano tuner works 5 days a week and tunes 4 pianos a day for 50 weeks a year (2 week vacation), he/she can service 1,000 pianos.
  5. So, for these two estimates to match, there must be about 150 piano tuners in Chicago.

Obviously you can contest each assumption, see how sensitive it is to changes and so on. But the main point is that some simple and quick reasoning can give an initial ball-park figure (ie order of magnitude 100 tuners). You’re now working from a situation of some knowledge rather than no knowledge.

Recently I came across a site, Street of Walls, that goes through a number of these problems in a business setting. For instance, they might be the sort of question you get in a demanding job interview for management consultancy.

Examples they give (with typical ‘answers’) include:

  • How many flat screen televisions have been sold in Australia in the past 12 months?
  • How many iPhones are currently being used in China?
  • What is the revenue of Peugeots sold in France per year?

These questions might all sound crazily difficult but using the approach of the piano tuner example above, it might be educational to try the above questions prior to looking at the answers. Remember, you’re not looking for ‘the’ answer rather a reasonable and quick approximation to it. In some sense, this is the first step, to reframe the question into something manageable. Also, to keep your cool.

This approach to developing intelligent guesses also reminds me of something that the famous physicist Richard Feynman said (and probably many others too). When you start a problem make some bold educated guesses. If a more careful analysis gives a very different answer, figure out what you missed in the back-of-the envelope approach and try to learn from it. With a bit of luck, your intuition and guesswork will steadily improve and deepen as a result.

I’ve written about the topic of guesstimates previously, motivated by some thoughts of Seth Godin:

“When I interview people for jobs, I always ask, “How many gas stations do you think there are in the United States?” Not because I care how many gas stations there are, but because it gives me an insight into how people solve problems.

The vast majority of people who answer this question (Iʼve asked it more than 1,000 times over the years) start their answer with, “Letʼs see…there are 50 states.” They then go on to analyze their town, figure out how many gas stations there are, and multiply from there…”

He mentions this is not a good approach as it doesn’t deal with easily scalable quantities and ends up with another totally different way forward:

“Instead of starting the business that makes stuff for people just like you, do some real re-search. Go to the library. Donʼt invent something that requires you to have a handle on the purchasing habits, the psychographics, and the changing demographics of the whole country. Instead, find a thriving industry and emulate and improve on the market leader. Sheʼs already done your homework for you.”

This could be an additional point you could use in the interview. More details in my original post here.

Finally, as an aside, on the topic of extremely demanding and somewhat crazy interview questions, see here.


Dialogue Versus Discussion

June 30, 2020

How much dialogue do you have a day? See here.


The Biases We Often Have, Mostly Unknowingly

June 16, 2020

Good infographic of some of the more well-known cognitive biases. A full list (over 150 of them) is available here:

“Although the reality of most of these biases is confirmed by reproducible research, there are often controversies about how to classify these biases or how to explain them…

There are also controversies over some of these biases as to whether they count as useless or irrational, or whether they result in useful attitudes or behavior. For example, when getting to know others, people tend to ask leading questions which seem biased towards confirming their assumptions about the person. However, this kind of confirmation bias has also been argued to be an example of social skill: a way to establish a connection with the other person.”

It’s often useful to review these biases prior to making final decisions as it can shed deeper insights into why you’re taking the approach you favour.

At the same time, worth bearing in mind that:

“Your personal experiences make up maybe 0.00000001% of what’s happened in the world but maybe 80% of how you think the world works… We’re all biased to our own personal history.” – Morgan Housel


Data Visualization and Insight

June 5, 2020

Quite a while ago, whilst at the IBM Scientific Centre in Winchester, I worked in the (then) emerging field of data visualisation. Interest in the subject has never left me. It’s of course now much more commonplace due to vastly better and cheaper hardware and software but doing it well or in new ways is still a challenge.

I quite like the site Information Is Beautiful. Here are some screenshots on their presentation of coronavirus data. The graphs on the web are now interactive which make them much better (you can focus on specific items and get detailed information). As you can see it’s helpful to present the data in different ways, potentially leading to new insights.