It's late so I won't give this the full treatment. It's a long article, and one I'd heard of and wanted to read.
The immediate reaction is: I had never thought of the useless and incessant drive to optimize tasks and habits and hobbies at home? It's always there—not even necessarily in the back of my mind but the front, because I plan every day. It exacts a toll and it's not clear that it's useful for anything. Forget useful—it's not clear that useful is itself useful at home, at least as far as self-tasks go.
I am a believer, in spite of experience and evidence, that form follows function. A thing should work well, and that is more important than how it looks. Every day something happens to disprove that, but still I row against the current. I'm not proud of it necessarily, it's just a habit.
The most common failure mode for me goes like this: I spend quite a bit of time designing something (good), then building it (good), then tweaking it to make it work (good), then I forget to clean up the environment or the thing itself and it looks like a minor disaster (bad)—even if the thing itself works like a dream.
That impression a person gets when they see or hear or smell something before they can touch it or taste it colors the rest of the experience. Build some shelves but leave the room a mess because you'll get that part tomorrow? You'll have to answer for that—not just the mess, but maybe some questions about the efficacy of the perfectly good shelves. Build some shelves but move the mess into a different room and you'll get that part tomorrow? You're a hero who makes the best shelves. Perhaps the best solution yet is to build the thing and clean the mess, but not every project fits neatly in the space of time before the rest of the world—or at least the part of the world that matters—sees the results.
A song gets caught in your head, and then it stays there—looping, looping, looping.
Today, all day, it's been Tom Waits' "A Sweet Little Bullet from a Pretty Blue Gun" from Blue Valentine (1978). I don't even know the album version that well. It's this version from Austin City Limits in 1979 that I wear out the mental grooves on:
This version drips malevolence.
It's not just the growl—the Tom Waits Instrument #1. That shows up here and there and everywhere in his music, and it doesn't make this song. It's the sneer. It's the lispy S's when a word drags a little longer than it needs to, and your body recoils and leans in at the same time. ("you'll see some young girl / she's got sssssssweet little dreamssss / and pretty blue wishes")
It's the incorporation of the nursery rhymes ("it's rainin', it's pourin' / Hollywood's just fine") and the prayers ("now I lay me down to sleep / I hear the sirens in the street") to accompany the story of the template naive Midwestern girl gone to make it big in Hollywood—no plan, no hope, nothing but a sinister end. ("no that ain't no cherry bomb, baby")
It's hard to sell the appeal of Waits, and I don't try very hard to do it. The music gets inside of you and finds a ventricle to hold on to, or it doesn't. The subject matter can be tiresome—there are five or seven albums of stories of lowlifes and hustlers—or it can be welcome, because he gave the people living in the underbelly of the city a... a what? He told stories about them, from them, through them. He made people that don't exist to the rest of us, for good or ill, exist—in all their good and ill. I've always appreciated that because it's its own form of American music—dark as a view into a driver side window at a stoplight after dark, rumbling as the engine pulling you down highways and sidestreets, strange as the impulse that made you sit a little longer and hit replay to hear it again.
Although we know that "all models are wrong, but some are useful", that only handles the question of why a model can't do everything right. Right? A hurricane model might be able to get windspeed, precipitation, future track in 24 hours, future track in 2 weeks—but everything? No. We want the models to step right up, and give us everything, but each model is tuned to do some things well because each individual problem to solve in a model in the whole damned mess of problems is complicated enough on its own.
So "all models are wrong" is for the naysayers. It could just as easily be used for the True Believers—the ones who think there is such thing as a complete model of a problem if you just reach for it. A model isn't supposed to be right—"right" as in 100% correct about everything. But useful analysis often gets stopped in the quixotic search for a model that does it all.
Actually, maybe it's not a quixotic search, but a search for a holy grail. I always think of this exchange from Monty Python and the Holy Grail whenever someone gets wrapped up too tight in overtuning a model.
Lately I've taken to calling the odd, uncategorized and sometimes uncategorizeable tasks at work "rain dogs". They're the lost tasks, the things that someone meant to do sometime, maybe, and they've lost their way home. Who knows? Maybe once, long ago, a well-meaning person set out to get something done, and they got that thing to be done entered in the project plan, and then years passed and the project moved on and the person moved on, but the task remained. And we look at the task and the task looks at us, and that's just how it is. Impasse. How did you get here? Where is your home?
No one knows. But the task lives on—a weird stray living on the margins of the project, never done because there is no will to do it, never erased because there is no will to remove it. It lingers, alive and unloved, until the project closes.
No one at work listens to Tom Waits, so I'm kind of alone on this one.
"...You see all these dogs out on the street looking lost. They kind of look up at you like: `'scuse me sir, can you, uh, ... (deep voice) can you help me? 'cause the rain has washed away all the scents; the way they got wherever they got. So they can't find their way back home." (Source: "Enigmatic Waits survives, thrives" The San Diego Union-Tribune. By Rip Rense. November 1, 1985)
The version from Big Time (1988) is my favorite. It growls.
This fall semester I'm taking two half-semester classes at Wash U: FIN 532 Investment Theory, then FIN 532B Data Analytics for Investments. I don't have any particular love for either class, nor for the topic, but I wanted to take a more analytical class after taking softer classes (negotiation, change management, power and politics) all year. So I'll hang out with the quantitative kids this semester, especially since I picked one of the sections with the MS Finance students, who are predominantly plugging in from China. Maybe I'll learn some topic-specific Chinese as well.
The topic-disinterest is itself a form of interest. It's like a negative light shone on the things that I don't know much about because I would typically only learn something about the things I'm interested in. It's a kind of interest in filling in the gaps. I don't want to spend too much of my time forcing myself to learn things I don't care about, but as a general rule it's useful to do it sometimes.
I'm down to 16.5 credit hours remaining, and this will cover 3 of them. At this point in the year, I'm just trying to grind through—Mule Time, maybe you've heard of it—so 3 credit hours is enough. Also it's the limit of what the home office will sponsor for the year, so why not shuffle the remaining hours to next year.
I suppose, now, that I could have started a daily habit of something more useful 281 days ago, but here we are. Core strength is good, although with a slouchy posture it does lose some of its efficacy. Today, after ratcheting up the time—every day increase 5 seconds, every Monday back it off to 5 seconds longer than the previous Monday, every day increase 5 seconds, and so on and so on—I got up to doing 6 (continuous) minutes of planks. It's not a meaningful accomplishment except in Bro Land, but I have a timeshare there so it's OK for me to celebrate.
Months ago, this daily habit was something that I was latching on to just to get through the days/weeks/months of the pandemic that had just smashed themselves into an indistinguishable mass, like a loaf of sliced bread dropped in the sink. Having something that needed to be done Daily kept the world—the small world, the local world, the one inside my head—in order. Now I accept the daily as useful that gets done in order to keep the streak alive—something I neither look forward to nor think about, something I just know I need to do before I go to bed. It's in a gray area between the habit serving me and me serving the habit, but it doesn't take much time, and the payoff is good for the effort, so it seems like a no-brainer.
Habits are compound interest. Put something in, keep putting something in, take more out later. The opposite is true as well, but the debt accumulates, and the collector comes some day, ready or not.
There are a million forms of this advice—and none of them good—but: choose your habits well. Get something out of them for yourself. Get something out of them for someone else. Avoid the ones that rack up debts—debts in dollars, debts in liver cells, whatever. There's no sense getting to the end of the world—the one in your head—with a pristine machine, but there's even less sense dulling the blade if you want to make something with it.
So there I was, shuffling through articles that I hadn't read yet in Instapaper. Up comes an edition of Oliver Burkeman's The Imperfectionist newsletter: "Dailyish". In it he links to an interview he did with Jerry Seinfeld in 2014 for The Guardian: "Jerry Seinfeld on how to be funny without sex and swearing". In that article I discovered that there was an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee that had Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks in it. I practically ran to find the remote control so that I could pull it up on Netflix.
I love Mel Brooks. For good or ill, he's been a big inspiration to me, mainly through Spaceballs and Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Those are the finished works, but his interviews are even better—they're kinetic, maniacal. Even at 80-something in the show above, he's still jumping out of his chair and running for the door to give the full measure of slapstick to his jokes.
The best interview is his 1975 in Playboy—you can read it here, not there.
PLAYBOY: What’s so special about your comedy?
BROOKS (snatching up the receiver as the phone rings): This is Mel Brooks. We want 73 party hats, 400 balloons, a cake for 125 and any of the girls that are available in those costumes you sent up before. Thank you! (Slams the receiver down) You were saying?
I don't know if "aspire" is the right word here. We'll make it work. That sort of immediate reaction to whatever is immediately available, and then taking off at a dead run in whichever direction is there to go, careening off whatever is there to careen off, knowing that he can run and jump off whatever he wants to and stick the landing—maybe not stick the landing, but a landing—that's what I try to do. It's not polished, but it is practice. That kind of full throttle will run you directly into a wall if you don't know how to drive. Move and move and move and see what works and feed it back into the system and keep moving.
I don't work well without a bit of pressure. I'm not sure if that's healthy or not. When there are more stakes riding on something, or when the probability of failure is a bit high—it's easier to concentrate, to sift out the useful work from the useless work.
It's like when the going is smooth, or if there is little pressure, I'm some kind of nebula of free-floating particles that might have the same mass as a planet or star, the same potential for order and purpose, but none of the strength. It's all there but it doesn't come together. Under pressure something forms out of that shapelessness.
I don't know if the better approach is to be able to meet all challenges vigorously—the great and the small alike—or if my approach is etched in, a well-worn groove that has always been there and will always be waiting for me when I need it.
I prefer pressure—sometimes, not all the time—because of the calmness it brings. Inside my head is a giant soundboard, like in a recording study, and when the time is right, I can lean over and turn down channels, one by one, until only the crystal sound of what needs to be done is left. I don't want to tune out so much all the time—life is in all that noise—but there's that feeling when the channels fade out, a closed-eye pursed-lip puff of air, a weight being lifted, then a breath in, eyes open, and stride out into the field.