What I learned last week (#24)

Learned last week: The search for meaning, tech fossils, tips on reading and my role as a dad.

Favorite book excerpt: I finally got around to reading this and finished it last week. Great read.

We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

from Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

More thinking on right to repair and sustainability in tech: The AirPods are a tragedy offers a great perspective on where we are and what we should be thinking about. I’m also listening to music on wireless Bluetooth headphones as I write this. :/ (Thanks to Ben Tamblyn

Thoughts on reading, taking notes and remembering: I came across quite a few different tips for reading (non-fiction) last week, some in opposition to each other. I’m thinking about putting some of these into practice:

  1. A framework for taking notes and reviewing/revisiting them in The Top 3 Most Effective Ways to Take Notes While Reading
  2. The book How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading
  3. Kevin Systrom’s system of first reading the table of contents to understand the basic structure, then reading the last paragraph of a section/chapter and the end of the book to get the basic arguments, then reading normally (assuming the interest is there). From Kevin Systrom — Tactics, Books, and the Path to a Billion Users.
  4. Naval Ravikant’s system of not taking notes, of scanning books and jumping into the parts that sound interesting, and of not worrying about finishing a book or even reading most of it, especially if it only has one main idea or is not particularly well crafted. From Naval Ravikant: The Angel Philosopher.

Men and parenting article that hits home: What ‘Good’ Dads Get Away With made me reflect on my complicities in our family dynamic. (Hat tip to Marcus Purvis)

Quote I was thinking about:

“What you do matters, but why you do it matters much more.”

Anonymous

What I learned last week (#23)

Learned last week: The best advice on how to set goals, how to be happy, and my idea of a good trip.

Some profound advice on the meaning of life: I’ve read and re-read and shared Hunter S. Thompson’s Letter on Finding Your Purpose and Living a Meaningful Life a bunch over the past week. It’s worth reading the whole thing (not long), but here’s the main message:

As I see it then, the formula runs something like this: a man must choose a path which will let his ABILITIES function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his DESIRES. In doing this, he is fulfilling a need (giving himself identity by functioning in a set pattern toward a set goal), he avoids frustrating his potential (choosing a path which puts no limit on his self-development), and he avoids the terror of seeing his goal wilt or lose its charm as he draws closer to it (rather than bending himself to meet the demands of that which he seeks, he has bent his goal to conform to his own abilities and desires).
 
In short, he has not dedicated his life to reaching a pre-defined goal, but he has rather chosen a way of life he KNOWS he will enjoy. The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important. And it seems almost ridiculous to say that a man MUST function in a pattern of his own choosing; for to let another man define your own goals is to give up one of the most meaningful aspects of life— the definitive act of will which makes a man an individual.

Filing that away in the stuff I want to tell my kids folder…

Book I started reading: Picked up Keep Going by Austin Kleon by chance at a bookstore last week and it’s a potent little book. Here’s my favorite pic so far that about sums it up:

Speaking of keeping going and of finding a chosen way of life: Check out To Spain… and …then to France. This is my idea of a good trip and one I hope to emulate.

From https://mostlydrawing.com/2019/05/04/to-spain/
From https://mostlydrawing.com/2019/05/10/and-then-to-france/

Favorite book excerpt:

In the end it all comes down to this: you have a choice (or more accurately a rolling tangle of choices) between giving your work your best shot and risking that it will not make you happy, or not giving it your best shot — and thereby guaranteeing that it will not make you happy. It becomes a choice between certainty and uncertainty. And curiously, uncertainty is the comforting choice.

From Art & Fear by David Bayles, Ted Orland

New music for work: The artist djblesOne and his Soundcloud and Bboys Bboy Forever (on Spotify). It’s all break beat mixes, all flying jump kick-type energy, and it’s super conducive to getting shit done.

What I learned last week (#22)

Learned last week: The right to repair, the limitations of maps, and doing something kind for yourself.

The right to repair movement: I wasn’t tracking this until recently, but Right to Repair is a National Issue.

All that unfixable stuff doesn’t disappear when we are forced to replace it. It piles up. Electronic waste is the fastest growing part of our waste stream. It is often toxic and poses grave health risks. The increase in this kind of waste is fed both by the growing number of products with electronics in them and the shrinking lifespan of those products. A 2015 study found that “the proportion of all units sold to replace a defective appliance grew from 3.5% in 2004 to 8.3% in 2012, in what [researchers] deemed a ‘remarkable’ increase.”

I love the idea of making our devices serviceable, up-gradable and longer-lasting. I wonder if we’ll look back at the last decade or so as an era of lazy design, manufacturing and business practices as a result.

New blog that I’m reading: I heard about Shane Parrish and the Farnam Street blog (https://fs.blog) from a recent Making Sense podcast and it’s like discovering Wait But Why all over again, I can’t stop reading it. One idea/model that caught my attention was Understanding the Limitations of Maps.

Bill Bryson explains in A Short History of Nearly Everything, “such are the distances, in fact, that it isn’t possible, in any practical terms, to draw the solar system to scale. … On a diagram of the solar system to scale, with the Earth reduced to about the diameter of a pea, Jupiter would be over a thousand feet away, and Pluto would be a mile and half distant (and about the size of a bacterium, so you wouldn’t be able to see it anyway).”

Maps are furthermore a single visual perspective chosen because you believe it the best one for what you are trying to communicate. This perspective is both literal — what I actually see from my eyes, and figurative — the bias that guides the choices I make

Favorite book excerpt of last week:

“…having the intention to meditate is itself a meditation. This practice encourages you to arise an intention to do something kind and beneficial for yourself daily, and over time, that self-directed kindness becomes a valuable mental habit.”

from Chade-Meng “Meng” Tan’s section titled Three Tips from a Google Engineer in Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss

Quote I’m pondering:

“Be brave. Take risks. Nothing can substitute experience.”

Paul Coelho

New music I’m listening too while working: GoGo Penguin – A Humdrum Star. Artist info below.

GoGo Penguin are a band from Manchester, UK, featuring pianist Chris Illingworth, bassist Nick Blacka, and drummer Rob Turner. The band’s music features break-beats, minimalist piano melodies, powerful basslines, drums inspired from electronica and anthemic riffs. They compose and perform as a unit. Their music incorporates elements of electronica, trip-hop, jazz, rock and classical music.

What I learned last week (#21)

Learned last week: Many of us are late bloomers, mindfulness has pitfalls, and podcasts haven’t killed music (at least for me).

The later in life bloom: I feel like I’m just getting started now, and am about to reach 40. This week I came across The Art of Blooming Late and it definitely struck a chord. First, the set-up:

Rich Karlgaard, the publisher of Forbes magazine and author of Late Bloomers, argues that our culture’s obsession with early achievement dissuades us from pursuing our passions. Instead of having varied interests, studying widely, and taking our time—essentials for self-discovery—we’re encouraged to ace tests, become specialists right away, and pursue safe, stable, and lucrative careers. As a result, most of us end up choosing professional excellence over personal fulfillment, and often we lose ourselves in the process.

Then, my favorite part:

The authors of Dark Horse, Todd Rose and Ogi Ogas of Harvard’s School of Education, noticed the negative effects of early specialization in a study of people who came out of nowhere to achieve great success. “Despite feeling bored or frustrated, underutilized or overwhelmed,” the two write, “most dark horses reluctantly plodded along for years before finally coming to the realization that they were not living a fulfilling life.” Then, after a period of restless, quiet ambition, these seemingly average people—administrative assistants, engineers, IT managers—were able to transform their “cravings, predilections, and fascinations” into successful careers as master sommeliers, lifestyle entrepreneurs, and celebrated craftsmen.

I was also reminded this week that the legendary management author Peter Drucker wrote 35 books in his life, two-thirds of them after the age of 65

An interesting perspective on meditation as its popularity grows: The Problem with Mindfulness gives some perspective that mindfulness is a big term and certain aspects of practices put under this umbrella aren’t for everyone.

In a 2014 study, for example, Tim Lomas, a lecturer in positive psychology at the University of East London, and colleagues, found that a quarter of the 30 male meditators they interviewed had troubling episodes—some encountered hard-to-manage thoughts and feelings; some exacerbated their depression and anxiety; and some became psychotic. One guy, a beginner, tried out an advanced method of deconstructing the self. “I crashed, lying on the floor sobbing,” he said. “I had a really strong sense of impermanence without the context, without the positivity. The crushing experience of despair was very strong…You just feel like you don’t exist, you’re nothing. It’s nihilistic, pretty terrifying.” Some negative experiences were less intense. “Doing mindfulness, you don’t like yourself sometimes,” another man said. “You just become aware, ‘Actually, I’m a bit of a shit.’” Lomas and his colleagues concluded, “Our paper raises important issues around safeguarding those who practice meditation, both within therapeutic settings and in the community.”

I love music AND podcasts, but: Are podcasts killing music or just wasting our time? While many of my commutes these days are done with a podcast playing, I still often opt for music and sometimes even 10 mins of silence.

Quote that resonated with me last week: “Music is the space between the notes” – Claude Debussy

New music I’m listening to: Chemical Brothers – No Geography. Great album for doing work or a weekend afternoon with the kids.

What I learned last week (#20)

Learned last week: Thoughts on what drives us, the power of name-your-price, umpires are wrong a lot, and more.

Quote I’ve been pondering: “It’s not how well you play the game. It’s deciding what game you want to play.” – Kwame Appiah

Favorite book excerpt of the week: From Gabor Mate’s  section in Tribe of Mentors by Tim Ferriss: “don’t confuse being driven with being authentically animated by an inner calling. One state leaves you depleted and unfulfilled; the other fuels your soul and makes your heart sing.”

A simple way to win customers and make a fair wage: We spent our Saturday morning out with the kids at Seattle Center, and grandma got the kids balloon animals after being lured by a particularly funny and gregarious vendor in one of the main public spaces. When she went to pay and asked how much, he said there is no set price, you can pay us what you feel like.

Shocked, she ended up paying 10 dollars for 3 minutes of this guy’s time, a pretty good hourly rate. I bet he gets more than that more often than he gets less. This made me think of other areas where I would pay more than the set price because the product is so enjoyable (just like the 3 minutes spent with this vendor). I would do this with more music and art if it was convenient (I guess this is what Patreon is for).

Umpires in baseball are wrong (a lot): This is a long-read but as a fan of baseball I found it super interesting. The video near the beginning showing the worst calls is golden

New music for focus time at work: Etudes for Piano Vol 1. No. 1 – 10 by Philip Glass has been great for focus time at work or writing. I’m going to check out more of his stuff. (Hat tip to Scott)

Being a beginner again and always

For my next role, I should be looking at a “lateral” move, or even better, a “higher level” role. What if I did the opposite? What if I started over?

A lot of people are asking about what I’m going to do when I get over to Scotland. Where am I going to work? Am I going to continue with Microsoft? Are there opportunities with other gaming companies? 

I don’t have anything lined up yet, I say. This is followed by some knowing nods and smiles. I’m sure you’ll have no trouble finding something is a common response. I don’t disagree, but I also don’t want to agree so easily. I feel comfortable with where I’m at professionally, and that’s my issue. The expectation of most is that I will go for the equivalent of a “lateral” move, or even better, get a “higher level” role for my next job. What if I did the opposite? What if I started over?

Menu sketch
Me writing out the code and design for an accordion menu I would implement on my university’s homepage using Actionscript in Flash back in 2000.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved art and design, and grew up learning about it through the lens of games. My interest in technology was born of game consoles, PC games, and remote control cars. How interfaces and images appeared and were arranged on a screen, and how input devices manipulated those images, was inextricably linked with how I created and what I wanted to create. I was also (and am still) a meticulously organized person, and I’ve always held tension between those often opposing forces: the creative who dives in not knowing where something will go on one side and the cartographer charting a detailed plan on the other.

The intersection of this making and organizing is where my career in tech began. Around the end of 1999, I started to notice how much visual creativity and storytelling were happening online, and I wanted to be a part of it. A friend of mine was making websites, so I joined him and suddenly I was building and (over) designing websites for academic departments at my university. I also set-up my own site (philnick.com), hosting it with a company called MediaTemple.net (solely because other web design artists were also using them). I was hooked by the combination of design and technology and freedom I had publishing on the web. Information taxonomy mixed with art! These were the days of figuring out how to bend table-based layouts to one’s will using single pixel spacers and CSS wizardry. The days of using FTP clients to publish a new version of WordPress and it’s MySQL back end. The days where Macromedia made Flash and the coolest sites had their menus and hero sections of homepages rendered with it. It was maddeningly hard to learn how to do it all and there was nothing else I wanted to do.

Scanned drawings for PhilNick.com
Some layout sketches for my original blog. I wanted a unique style so I hand drew the UI and then scanned them in and cut them into table layouts using Macromedia Fireworks.

I’ve previously written about this time as good hard work, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that it’s the time in my life where I felt most creative, where I had full agency to learn, create and do. I knew there was no barrier other than time to making it happen. I was solving problems though experimentation, banging my head on the wall more often than not, and I was teaching and learning with others at the university technology department, and with like minded friends. My career at Microsoft owes itself to the momentum I gained during this time.

Early academic department website screenshots
Screenshots of some early departmental website designs I did. Bad by today’s standards but back then the web wasn’t as pretty as it is today.

I’ve never lost that love of creating and publishing work, and helping and supporting others use technology to create themselves. However, I’ve gotten further away from it as my career has progressed. Up until recently, It had been a long time since I was last making, designing and creating things with technology. My recent role (with Minecraft) has gotten me into making again, and non-coincidentally I’ve also jumped back into sharing my writing and illustrating online as a committed side-gig. It’s been amazing how it’s fueled all other aspects of my life and made me a better dad and a husband. The energy is flowing in the right direction, and I want it to stay that way.

“Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another.”

Albert Einstein

So what do I want to do for work next? I’m not sure but I know what I don’t want to do. Instead of looking for a job that’s lateral or “higher level”, I’m looking for something that will allow me learn something new. I’d like to go back to the beginning, to actually being a beginner again and having to figure something out from scratch. I’d like to learn how to design and implement new user interfaces, bring stories to life using narrative, illustration, music and some code, or create a new way for creative collaboration and sharing. I’d like to do it both for income as well as incorporate it in projects with my kids and their education. I’d like to do it with others, in a way that’s not crazy.

I’m not sure that this will lead to in terms of my next role, salary, etc. It could certainly lead to less money. It will almost certainly lead to some raised eyebrows. I know it will lead to a lot of new learning, new connections and great experience.

Beginning again might not make sense to most, but it makes sense to me. I can only hope it’s one of many more.

What I learned last week (#19)

Learned last week: the small things are the big things, robocalling sucks, a new coffee preparation, and more.

Drawing kids is hard: We were traveling all last week and I tried making some time to draw the kids at the breakfast table (in ink as is my norm right now). It was a (fun) disaster.

A book excerpt that made me think: In Draft No 4 by John McPhee lies the following quote from Cary Grant: “A thousand details add up to one impression.” The implication is that the small things really are the big things. Focus on doing the next thing the best you can, and the next, and the next. Create as many of these chains as you can. That is the definition of quality.

All about the robocall crisis: I get a few of these calls every week and my wife gets way more than I do. This gave me some backstory (and lots of interesting reading) on the cat-and-mouse game of robcalls: The robocall crisis will never be totally fixed.

A new coffee preparation: Found on the board of a coffee shop in Tofino, a cortado is a coffee preparation originating from Spain, consisting of half espresso, half milk. It’s similar to a flat white, but without the “textured” milk that is typical of Italian preparations. I still prefer my coffee black, but when I’m in the mood for something different, this is my new go-to.

My new goes-in-anything sauce: I’m super late to this party but Franks hot sauce is going in my pantry. It’s not really hot, and it’s got a acidic bite that can help balance any dish. When I was at a cooking class not long ago, they added it to anything that needed more acid (French cooking, Italian cooking, you name it).

What I learned last week (#18)

Learned last week: re-learning to code is for me, places for Americans to travel, and how to make my drawings come to life.

  • A book excerpt I appreciated: “While mankind is very intelligent in relation to other species, we have the intelligence of moss growing on a rock compared to nature as a whole.” – from Ray Dalio’s Principles.
  • I want to (re)learn how to code (at least enough to make a few utilities): I have some ideas on little things I’d like to build to make my journaling/note taking/writing easier and I want to do some things on my blog. I used to do light coding as a web designer (JavaScript, Flash/Actionscript, and some ASP.NET). This post, Ten Lessons I Learned While Teaching Myself to Code, and my current reading of Draft No. 4 by John McPhee, is pushing me to dive back in.
  • Some ideas on where to travel: I want to do a year travel with the kids, or perhaps living in a few different places, and reading this list gave me some ideas on how to think about it. France is definitely on the list.
  • A cool app for animating your own art: I’m grateful to have been turned on to the PuppetMaster app last week, and just like that we have a project for spring break this week: drawing the animated story of… (to be continued)
  • A great purchase that I rediscovered: I write a lot and am a fan of fountain pens (one of many rabbit holes I like to follow). I’ve collected a few pens over the past couple years, and I recently picked up my TWISBI Vac700 and remembered why it’s king: filling is easy, the extra-fine nib is superb and it’s got a heft to it that just feels right.

What I learned last week (#17)

Learned last week: Lego keeps getting cooler, the backstory of The Matrix, the vulnerable world hypothesis, and music for creativity.

  • Lego keeps getting cooler: Just saw this full Lego build of a McLaren Senna. It’s drive-able!

    Like the Bugatti Chiron, this is noted as the first interactive McLaren LEGO model which you can drive since it boasts a working V8 engine. The impressive feat took nearly 5,000 hours to complete with the assistance of 42 workers, while the supercar is composed of 467,854 blocks and weighs 3,748 pounds.

    The video at the end of the designers talking about design is fascinating. (Hat tip to Scott for this)
  • I love considering mysteries of the unknown: I heard about the vulnerable world hypothesis by Nick Bostrom, which asks us to consider the “urn of invention”.

    One way of looking at human creativity is as a process of pulling balls out of a giant urn. The balls represent possible ideas, discoveries, technological inventions. Over the course of history, we have extracted a great many balls—mostly white (beneficial) but also various shades of grey(moderately harmful ones and mixed blessings). The cumulative effect on the human condition has so far been overwhelmingly positive, and may be much better still in the future. The global population has grown about three orders of magnitude over the last ten thousand years, and in the last two centuries per capita income, standards of living, and life expectancy have also risen. What we haven’t extracted, so far, is a black ball: a technology that invariably or by default destroys the civilization that invents it.  The reason is not that we have been particularly careful or wise in our technology policy. We have just been lucky.

    Here’s a video of Sam Harris’s discussion with Nick on the topic: Sam Harris and Nick Bostrom – Pulling a Black Ball from the Urn of Invention. Similar to the great barrier in the Fermi paradox.
  • Some new music for creative work: I recently discovered Makaya McKraven, and his (double) album Universal Beings is my jam right now for writing or working sessions. From his site:

    Makaya McCraven is a beat scientist. The bleeding edge drummer, producer, and sonic collagist is one of Chicago’s savviest cultural players and a multi-talented force whose inventive process & intuitive, cinematic style defy categorization.

    Check out Suite Haus for a taste of what I’m talking about (the transitions over the course of that track are mwwwaah!). Your mileage may vary but for me it does the trick.
  • One of the my favorite films turns 20: Like many, I was blown away by the Matrix when it came out. This is an interesting story about how it came to be: How the Matrix Built a Bullet-Proof Legacy.

    One of the great misunderstandings about Keanu is that people don’t think he’s smart,” says di Bonaventura. “Maybe it’s because of the Bill & Ted movies. But Keanu gives me books I cannot make heads nor tails of. And in Keanu, the Wachowskis found somebody who was an intellectual searcher.”

    The famous bullet time shot on the rooftop with agent smith:

    That single shot would take nearly two years to complete and run an estimated $750,000 in computer costs. It quickly proved to be a worthwhile investment. Libreri remembers one internal screening of Matrix footage during which Reeves—seated in the front row—began lying back in his chair, excitedly re-creating his rooftop bends. At that same session, the team previewed another key effects sequence, in which a camera swirls around Trinity as she leaps up and kicks a cop. According to Libreri,”Joel Silver got up and said, ‘That’s it! This is where everybody’s going to get up and scream!'”
  • A quote that captures what I’ve been trying to focus on: “What you get will never make you happy; who you become will make you very happy or very sad.” – Jim Rohn

What I learned last week (#16)

Learned last week: you have a duty to be happy, the future is a mirrorworld, coldbrew makes everything better, and lots of new music.

  • A quote I shared: “There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy. By being happy we sow anonymous benefits upon the world.” – Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Some new music for work: “I have lots of ideas, how do I pick the best one? Execute on as many as possible, the right one idea will pick you.” I heard this on Choose Yourself by Star Slinger. I don’t know if this is his originally, but based on all the advice in this song (including many I recognize from other sources) I’m guessing it’s not. Regardless, a lot of the bits in this track have stuck with me. His instrumental albums are right my alley for music to have on when I’m working. If you’re interested, I recommend starting with Volume 1.
  • A great essay on the future: I picked up a (physical!) copy of Wired before a flight last week as I had heard about Kevin Kelly’s Mirrorworld essay. It was a really fun read. Wired has been putting out so much good content recently that I thought about subscribing, just because I felt like I should support it, but their site wouldn’t do anything when I tried to give them money and support has been horrendous. I tried!
  • My new afternoon snack: Last week I spotted a tub of overnight oats with coldbrew, cacao and dates in an airport grab-and-go market. I make overnight oats frequently but had never thought of combining my afternoon caffeine needs with this snack! It’s now in my fridge as a regular go-to. Here’s a rough guideline for making (you can experiment freely and not go wrong): mix 1 cup oats, 1/2 cup almond, coconut or other nut milk, 1/2 cup cold brew (change the ratio of liquid according to your caffeine needs), 1 cup gluten-free rolled oats, a tablespoon of cacao, and finely chopped dates. Let sit overnight. I like to also add some combination of walnuts, granola, or fresh fruit in the morning when I grab a bit to take to work.
  • Something new to play when I don’t know what to play: KEXP listener’s favorite songs of all time was published as part of their spring fundraising drive. It’s one of those lists I put on when I’m hanging out with the kids or friends and/or not really sure what to go for. Listening to it inevitably leads to something great. Here’s a playlist with the top part of the list, it’s 600 songs deep so I’ll keep adding to it.