What I learned last week (#40)

Learned last week: The prison economy, we’ve ruined childhood, being a zero, and more.

Playing tourist last week: Family in town meant we got to play tourist! The city bus tour, the museums, eating out, it was all in play this week. Also received my first bottle of Scotch (how was this the first?), in a bottle of Balblair 12 year. Next week will mark two months in Scotland!


Quote I’ve been thinking about:

“Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.”

John Wooden

How the Prison Economy Works:

To make a large cash payment, a prisoner asks a friend on the outside to buy a MoneyPak and to pass on the dots once they have done so. These 14 digits can then be exchanged with a guard or another prisoner for something in the prison, including drugs. By exchanging dots instead of cash, the prisoners keep their hands clean. The free people on the outside – one buying the MoneyPak, the other receiving its value on a Green Dot card – do not need to meet each other, know each other or link bank accounts. Using prepaid cards in this way creates an informal currency that is durable, divisible into payments as small as the MoneyPak minimum of $20, and is accepted everywhere.


How I Wrote Shape Up: I shared the Shape Up e-book before and this is the story of how it was written.

“I didn’t know how to write a book. But I knew how to give a workshop.”

It’s an inspiring read from a process and tools perspective. But I love the idea that it’s OK to not know how to do something and still trying anyway. A good place to start is with the closest thing that you do know how to do. Build from there. You can do it.


Something from the fs.blog newsletter that I made me think: We Have Ruined Childhood.

…kids today “have fewer opportunities to practice social-emotional skills, whether it’s because they live in a violent community where they can’t go outside, or whether it’s because there’s overprotection of kids and they don’t get the independence to walk down to the corner store.” They don’t learn “how to start a friendship, how to start a relationship, what to do when someone’s bothering you, how to solve a problem.”

Many parents and pediatricians speculate about the role that screen time and social media might play in this social deficit. But it’s important to acknowledge that simply taking away or limiting screens is not enough. Children turn to screens because opportunities for real-life human interaction have vanished; the public places and spaces where kids used to learn to be people have been decimated or deemed too dangerous for those under 18.


Favorite book excerpt:

“Over the years, I’ve realized that in any new situation, whether it involves an elevator or a rocket ship, you will almost certainly be viewed in one of three ways. As a minus one: actively harmful, someone who creates problems. Or as a zero: your impact is neutral and doesn’t tip the balance one way or the other. Or you’ll be seen as a plus one: someone who actively adds value.

Everyone wants to be a plus one, of course. But proclaiming your plus-oneness at the outset almost guarantees you’ll be perceived as a minus one, regardless of the skills you bring to the table. This might seem self evident, but it can’t be, because so many people do it.”

Chris Hadfield, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

You have to be a zero before you can be a plus one.

What I learned last week (#29)

Learned last week: Looking back upstream, awkward memorization, the new kilogram, and more.

Favorite book excerpt of the week:

Look back upstream. If you have come to your planned ending and it doesn’t seem to be working, run your eye up the page and the page before that. You may see that your best ending is somewhere in there, that you were finished before you thought you were.

From Draft No. 4 by John McPhee

This idea of “done before you realize it” made me think about applications beyond writing. It’s about overworking anything, be it a piece of art, a status update, or a work project.


A great way to approach presenting pretty much anything: Don’t try to memorize a presentation, tell us a story! String a few stories together and you have your presentation. From the great Seth Godin post Awkward memorization.


Something I never knew that surprised me: The new kilogram.

For more than a century, the kilogram had a very simple definition: It was the mass of a hunk of platinum-iridium alloy that’s been housed at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Sèvres, France since 1889.

It’s called the International Prototype Kilogram (a.k.a. Big K, or Le Grand K), and it has many copies around the world — including several at NIST in Gaithersburg, Maryland — that are used to calibrate scales and make sure the whole world is on one system of measurement.

The problem is that Big K is a manmade object, and therefore, it is imperfect. If Big K changes, everything else has to adjust. And this has happened. Big K is not constant. It has lost around 50 micrograms (about the mass of an eyelash) since it was created. But, frustratingly, when Big K loses mass, it’s still exactly one kilogram, per the old definition.


The real story of Malaysian flight 370: I was following this story for a little while but, inevitably, had forgotten about it. What Really Happened to Malaysia’s Missing Airplane was a super interesting and worthwhile read.

Less than a week after the disappearance, The Wall Street Journal published the first report about the satellite transmissions, indicating that the airplane had most likely stayed aloft for hours after going silent. Malaysian officials eventually admitted that the account was true. The Malaysian regime was said to be one of the most corrupt in the region. It was also proving itself to be furtive, fearful, and unreliable in its investigation of the flight. Accident investigators dispatched from Europe, Australia, and the United States were shocked by the disarray they encountered. Because the Malaysians withheld what they knew, the initial sea searches were concentrated in the wrong place—the South China Sea—and found no floating debris. Had the Malaysians told the truth right away, such debris might have been found and used to identify the airplane’s approximate location; the black boxes might have been recovered. The underwater search for them ultimately centered on a narrow swath of ocean thousands of miles away. But even a narrow swath of the ocean is a big place. It took two years to find the black boxes from Air France 447, which crashed into the Atlantic on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in 2009—and the searchers had known exactly where to look.

Lots of interesting backstory on the searchers and the conspiracies throughout…

In truth, a lot can now be known with certainty about the fate of MH370. First, the disappearance was an intentional act. It is inconceivable that the known flight path, accompanied by radio and electronic silence, was caused by any combination of system failure and human error. Computer glitch, control-system collapse, squall lines, ice, lightning strike, bird strike, meteorite, volcanic ash, mechanical failure, sensor failure, instrument failure, radio failure, electrical failure, fire, smoke, explosive decompression, cargo explosion, pilot confusion, medical emergency, bomb, war, or act of God—none of these can explain the flight path.

Second, despite theories to the contrary, control of the plane was not seized remotely from within the electrical-equipment bay, a space under the forward galley. Pages could be spent explaining why. Control was seized from within the cockpit.


Quote that’s made me think:

“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”

Bernard Baruch

What I learned last week (#9)

My perfect lunch, the importance of the subliminal self, and a simple journal exercise.

  • This lunchtime meal is close to perfect for me: The aptly name Perfect Protein Salad from our local grocery chain PCC has it all. I always bought it from their deli, and once I got their cookbook and started to make it, it has become a standard. It’s a multi-day process, starting with cooking the garbanzo beans (starting with dry) and spelt berries days in advance, but it’s worth it. I add a half jalapeño to spice things up as well as some hemp seeds. It’s good to grab straight from the fridge and eat cold and is light enough to not induce the afternoon lull that heavier food does.
Perfect Protein Salad recipe from the book Cooking from Scratch
  • More on the role of the sub-conscious and the creative process: This article on the French Polymath Henri Ponicare is great and has a bunch of interesting links throughout. “The subliminal self is in no way inferior to the conscious self; it is not purely automatic; it is capable of discernment; it has tact, delicacy; it knows how to choose, to divine.”
  • I remembered this simple journal exercise that I did in a course last year: I’m not a big fan of thinking about where I want to be in 5 years or 10 years, but this simple exercise is surprisingly hard to start and equally surprising where it leads. Try it.
    Exercise: 10 minutes of free-writing (the only rule is that you can’t stop writing!). If you don’t know what to write, just write “I don’t know what to write” until something else comes up. The topic is what is my best possible future? Start with “In 5 years, I will…”. No constraints – you can change anything you want about your current life.
  • Another perspective on creativity:

“We don’t know where we get our ideas from. What we do know is that they do not come from our laptops.”

John Cleese

Enjoy the week ahead!

I started this blog…

Let’s start at the beginning.

I started this blog because I enjoy writing about and sharing ideas. I started it not because I presume to have a wealth of original things to say, but because I am constantly learning new things that are useful to me in the context of my life and there’s something about documenting and rehashing those things  that’s helping them to stick.

I started this blog because I want to be a better writer and the only way to get better at something is to DO IT.

I also started this blog because my wife and I are moving with our two kiddos (age 2 and 5) to another country and I we’ll have a hell of a lot to talk about over the coming year that, at a minimum, will be cool to document and just maybe there will be some things that will also be useful to others. I started this blog to rope my wife and kiddos into contributing to a creative project with me and seeing what happens as a result.

I started this blog and now we write!