What I learned last week (#28)

Learned last week: A giant of journalism, the beauty of The Alchemist, WeChat the operating system, and more.

Book excerpt I loved, very relevant to fatherhood and my parenting philosophy:

Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

From Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

Author I learned about: I had never heard of A. A. Gill before last week, but after a recommendation I looked him up and the collection Lines in the Sand: Collected Journalism is on my reading list.

“The act of feeding someone,” he says as he shares a scavenged dinner in a King’s Cross homeless shelter, “is the most basic transubstantiation”, a rite central to all religions.

Such glimpses of a loftier truth are the glory of Gill’s essays, and they open metaphysical vistas in journalistic junkets or stunts contrived for the sake of a feature article. On safari in Botswana with his well-travelled twins, huddled around a sparky blaze in the bush, he hears a tribal elder call the pricks of light in the black sky “the campfires of my ancestors”. Gill takes this to mean that “Earth and heaven mirror each other, the countless generations stretching back to the first men” and extending forward, in a tiny appendix, to “me and my kids”.

Elsewhere, he tries his hand at life drawing, and while studying the nude model he’s reminded of our fumbling search for “an empathy with the human condition and the spirit that makes us sparks of the divine”. Not by chance, that image rekindles the Botswana campfire: at their finest, Gill’s essays are what he calls “votive art”, an offering of gratitude as devout as a lighted candle.

From The Guardian’s review of Lines in the Sand

I had never read The Alchemist and was surprised and delighted to discover it: Until last week I didn’t realize I had never read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, mistaking it in my head for another book. I finally read it while on a trip last week and it was one of the most enjoyable experiences in recent memory. While my reaction is certainly due in part to big decisions and changes happening in my life right now, it is, without-a-doubt, a beautiful and moving book.

“If a person is living out his Personal Legend, he knows everything he needs to know. There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.”


WeChat is not a messaging app, it’s the operating system for 1 billion people: Think Facebook has a lot of power? WeChat is watching is a fascinating look at the creation of a deeply centralized ecosystem with interesting, convenient and scary implications.

Hyper-centralization makes life convenient. It also presents a worrying potential for fraud. On a typical day I’ve paid my phone bill, sent money to people, bought groceries, and even sent authorized documents to the bank, all through one app, protected by one password and kept intentionally unencrypted to comply with government data-sharing regulations.

Moreover, the data centralization that has enabled WeChat to map itself neatly onto users’ personal and commercial lives, has now created an opportunity for the government to step in and invite it into their political lives. Beyond sharing data with the government, WeChat is now rolling out a digital ID card. Every Chinese citizen is issued an ID card. It functions like a domestic passport and is needed for any interaction with the state—at hospitals, booking trains, flying domestically, or making bank transactions. In Guangzhou, the provincial government has already debuted a WeChat ID card and there are plans for it to be rolled out across the whole of China. Hijiacking WeChat in the future could grant a hacker everything from a user’s government-approved identity to his or her bank details, address, and coffee preferences.

WeChat’s role in the social-credit system (!?) that is being rolled out is pretty wild:

WeChat’s data centralization makes it a cornerstone of the government’s social-credit system that is feted to appear nationwide in 2020. Mooted in 2014 in a document entitled “Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System,” the plan is to build a system that incentivizes good behavior and punishes that deemed unconducive to the construction of a harmonious society or, as the document itself dictates, a system that will “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”12 Under the pilot scheme, people with outstanding court orders or who have defaulted on loans can’t book high-speed rail tickets and can’t fly in planes.

The nationwide social credit system will be compiled by combining government records with commercial profiles. At present, Ant Financial, the finance-arm of Alibaba, China’s Internet conglomerate, has rolled out “sesame credit,” which gives people a score out of 950 based on their punctuality paying back loans, their purchase history, their social networks (having friends with high scores boosts your own score), and data shared from the government such as court-orders and fines. People with high-scores get preferential loans, can rent cars without deposits and are even guaranteed visas for countries like Luxemburg and Singapore, among other perks. China Rapid Finance, which is partnered with Tencent, is responsible for creating a similar scheme off the back of WeChat data.


Favorite quote was from Sam (as written by his teachers on a father’s day card):

“Thank you for taking me to coffee store and playing trucks!

Love Sam”

Good mornings

As life has gotten more fluid and less predictable, I am finding a lot of magic in my mornings.

Mornings are my favorite part of the day, and I typically protect them fiercely, to the point where I have been reflecting on whether I’m being well disciplined (my intention) or overly rigid (definitely not my intention). I’ve learned the hard way that morning routines are made to be disrupted, especially with young children in the mix. Add in moving to another country, leaving work and selling all belongings, including the bed you sleep on, and the idea of holding tight to a morning routine seems like a perfect recipe for unhappiness. So yeah, I’ve been trying to take a softer approach as of late.

The week before last, I spent a rare Friday morning with Sam because Kav wasn’t feeling good. She usually gets up to watch the kids on work mornings (she’s the best) but this morning I had the rare sense that I ought to forgo my routine to help out. I made coffee (for me) and poured milk (for Sam) and put on some music (Damien Jurado in this case) and we sat on the couch in mostly silence, he on my lap, watching the birds in the trees out back. The only break in silence between us being when a new bird flew into view, Sam pointing and saying, “Daddy Nick that birdie go high!” or “Not sunny Dad, cloudy”.

Eventually, Sam and I started in on some important topics, like which one of the Paw Patrol was his favorite (Marshall), which was mine (Chase), and the same for his Mom (Rubble) and sister (Sky). Vivian came down after a while and joined us, and they both pretended I was a pillow instead of a person, and tried to find ways to “get comfortable” on me that involved poking, prodding and wrestling me as much as possible. Once that slowed I got up to make breakfast, only to have them quickly grab on to my legs and hold fast while I walked around the kitchen, pretending to be some type of growth that couldn’t be easily shaken off.

Later, Sam followed me upstairs into the shower (he would stand in the shower all day if you let him), and we sang a few songs and used our fingers to draw fruit on the foggy shower door until we were wrinkly. In time Kav was able to take over and I resumed my regularly scheduled programming and went to work.

Fast forward to the past week. I got a surprise visit from Vivian just after 6am while I was starting my workout, and I subsequently spent the morning in my garage doing pull-ups (and other exercises) while Vivian took notes on how many reps I did and then made the numbers into animals in between sets while I rested. I varied the number of reps in my sets so that we could get different numbers and make interesting animal number combos. Instead of 10 reps each time, I did 8, then 12, then 9, then 13.

When I did my push-up sets she joined in too, doing 3 or 4 push-ups alongside me. She thought it was funny how my nose touched the mat each time and cracked up, making me also laugh in mid-rep, which surprisingly added to the challenge and seemed like it made for a better work out. When I reached for my towel to wipe off the sweat from my brow she told me her friends at school get really sweaty and sometimes “they come in from recess with their hair soaking wet.” Burpees were her favorite. Both because of the name (“It sounds like buuuuurrrp”) and because it had to be done “fast” (her own conclusion after watching me for a few minutes). During my cool down she flipped to a blank page of my notebook and drew a horse, and then a fence, and then I drew a cowboy and a squirrel, and we made up a story about what they were all doing together and going to do together next.

Eventually I resumed my regularly scheduled programming and went to work.

With all of the craziness of moving to another country, resigning from a place I’ve worked for 13 years, saying goodbye to a place I’ve lived for 27 years, and doing all the usual stuff that comes with trying to be a good husband, father and son, I would expect that I might not only be more stressed, but also be letting more of the smaller moments in life go unnoticed, and I’m trying to not judge myself to harshly for this. However, quite the opposite has happened, and I’ve found that my appreciation for the magic of everyday moments has grown right along with the craziness increasing.

As life has gotten more fluid and less predictable, my approach to my routine, and my mornings, is softer and more malleable. I am finding a lot of magic in it all. I’ve thought about both of these mornings every day since, and I’m paying attention to the one I am having right now.

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