permafrost, internet archive

There's a post that's been sitting here in draft form for months that I think may never see the light of day. I can't find the right words to finish it. In short, I found the files from my students.uiuc.edu website on a backup disk. They were gone—I must have deleted them to save space—but they survived. It was a lucky break to find them because they weren't captured on the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine. Trust me. I spent hours looking for evidence of that site, and other sites I had created on the 90s internet. I don't understand what that period causes so much tension when I think about it; see also: AOL Instant Messenger Is Away. It's silly, but that piece bleeds.

I'm going to leave that all alone for now—if I finish it, I finish it. If not, well, so what?

Recently I read two disparate articles that made me think of this terminal draft piece:

Both articles struck a hidden nerve. Why? First, an urge I can't explain except to say that I have it and it's there: the urge to preserve information. It feels awful to lose it—whether it's Brazil's national museum burning down or reading about the destruction of all but a literal handful of Mesoamerican records by the Spanish or old, old books that we know about today only because they are referred to in other books... It feels like a personal thing lost when collective information like that is obliterated. Knowing something—really really knowing something—feels like a permanent state that can't be erased, and when it is erased, it's like cutting out a load-bearing column.

The permafrost article is about finding a cache of old, forgotten movies from 1903 to 1929 in an old, forgotten, filled-in gym swimming pool in Alaska. The Internet Archive article is sort of the opposite: the Internet Archive itself is a remembered cache of media—but if you have the lawyer money to make an inconvenient part of that cache disappear, you can do so.

There is something about media—movies, books, the internet— that seems permanent. If I can see something and you can see something and others can see something, then that's permanent, right? We can objectively say that a thing exists and has always existed and will always exist, right? I really think that is an obvious and natural position to take. But after searching for my own recent, once-publicly-available history, I know it's not right. A thing exists if it exists; but a thing that existed without currently existing... the problem is different.

I've seen dinosaur bones but not a dinosaur: I believe dinosaurs existed. I've never seen any people on the moon but I believe they were there. Thousands of movies were made in the 1900s but are now lost, and I believe they existed, but it really seems that something as compact and portable as a movie should have been preserved. But that's not the case, eh? Dig in: Paul Harris, Library of Congress: 75% of Silent Films Lost, Variety (2013-12-04).

Why does it matter that we existed? That we created something?

Stephen Crane (1899):

A man said to the universe:
"Sir I exist!"
"However," replied the universe,
"The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation."

What does the universe know anyway? Most people consume. I consume. There's no need to record consumption. But creation? Record that. Protect that. Creating something is holy. Being human is more than who you are and what you have. It's the aggregation of the entire body of work.


See also: Paul Auster, Leviathan (1992)

Buffett as a solution to the buffet problem

Maybe there's another way to think about not getting caught up in the buffet problem. Here's an episode of Charlie Rose with Warren Buffett and Bill Gates that made me think of this—video and pertinent transcript below. So, for a single attribute—call it structuredness (sorry)—you could end up hitting the information buffet too hard both by being overstructured and understructured.

Overstructured is planning what information needs to be collected, and then sticking to it dogmatically even when it turns out to be unnecessary, or the wrong path to follow, etc. This is me when I read a book—you'd think there were Serious Consequences to leaving a book unfinished the way I plow ahead through books that I really don't want to finish. Let's leave this thread alone.

Understructured is the opposite—going in without a plan. Although it sounds sloppier, I think it breaks down again into two paths: sloppy and exploratory. Sloppy is just straightahead unthinking consumption. One more link, one more article, one more dinner roll—if you can reach it, put it in your face.

Exploratory is different. I mean "exploratory" in the same manner as "experimenting"—and "experimenting" in the scientific way of thinking about the problem and what needs to be evaluated to understand the problem, not "experimenting" as in just throwing something out there and seeing what happens. The latter is the sloppy path. The former has purpose. That's what I took from the interview below. I don't think that Warren Buffett leaves himself big blocks of unstructured time and blows it by stumbling through links and citations and whatever else is available at the information buffet. (I might be giving him too much credit... but what's the worst that could happen by just assuming that someone is a genius because they're rich?) But to have free time and a hypothesis or two to test, and an idea or two how to prove the hypothesis false, and a good method or two to collect the data and reduce it to information... that would be even more powerful than assuming you know enough to plan all steps of the path forward because—surprise—you don't, and you'll miss all sorts of useful side paths because the plan called for Straight Ahead.

[15:40, Bill Gates] I also remember Warren showing me his calendar. You know, I had every minute packed and I thought that was the only way you could do things. And the fact that he is so careful about—he has days.

[...]

[16:10, Charlie Rose] This is the week [sic] of April, of which there are only three entries for a week.

[...]

[16:20, Charlie Rose] So it taught you what, not to crowd yourself too much and give yourself time to read and think and...

[16:24, Bill Gates] Right. You control your time. And that sitting and thinking may be a much higher priority than a normal CEO, where's there all these demands and you feel like you need to go and see all these people. It's not a proxy of your seriousness that you fill every minute in your schedule.

[16:48, Warren Buffett] And people will want your time. I mean, it's the only thing you can't buy. I mean, I can buy anything I want, basically, but I can't buy time.

Structure is not organization

Here's a paper I just finished reading, and I recommend to you:

Robert H. Waterman, Jr, Thomas J. Peters, and Julien R. Phillips, Structure is not organization, Business Horizons 23:3 (1980-06). (pdf) (notes)

I found this one as a reference in The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins (notes) in the section on securing early wins. That section boils down to: you really need to understand how your organization is put together, and how the various components and functions affect each other, in order to make change work.

This paper is (I think) the source of the McKinsey 7S Framework—the seven S's being:

  1. Structure
  2. Strategy
  3. Systems
  4. Skills
  5. Style
  6. Staff
  7. Superordinate goals

I think that list of traits is mostly obvious, in a subconscious way, but people tend to focus on (1) structure and (2) strategy. I'm not sure what fallacy it is, but I understand the tendency toward thinking that if I just organize a group of people or an organization in a certain way, then a successful outcome will just fall out of it. "If you build it they will come", right? Similarly for strategy: all we ever need is a good plan and we're all set to win.

Structure is king. Strategy is king. We've all experienced how the outcome really goes when we push the lever all the way in either direction.

[p. 17] Our assertion is that productive organization change is not simply a matter of structure, although structure is important. It is not so simple as the interaction between strategy and structure, although strategy is critical too. Our claim is that effective organizational change is really the relationship between structure, strategy, systems, style, skills, staff, and something we call superordinate goals.

One of the important things that the drive for the One True Strategy or Structure completely misses is the importance of the people involved in crafting the ideas and, even more importantly, grinding and polishing them until the ideas work. To forget that is inhumane.

[p. 24] We are often told, “Get the structure ‘right’ and the people will fit” or “Don’t compromise the ‘optimum’ organization for people considerations.” At the other end of the spectrum we are earnestly advised, “The right people can make any organization work.” Neither view is correct. People do count, but staff is only one of our seven variables.

Anyway, the lasting thought I had after reading this is: for complex systems, it's not likely that there's just one factor you need to adjust to fix something that's out of balance. But that's obvious, no? Of course. Who doesn't understand that by intuition, let alone experience? But the 7 S's are a nice, simple basis for a checklist or template to consider when planning to make a change that affects a complex system. (And by "simple" I don't mean it's simple to change anything complex, but that having a short list is as simple as you can hope for.)

A very quiet moment as a solution to the buffet problem

What's the opposite side of the buffet problem? I think it's either (a) practicing the mature person's Art of Discretion when choosing where to invest attention or (b) a Very Quiet Moment.

I don't have much to say or think about (a) without turning it into a research project on decision analysis. (read these, if you're interested in it.) It's a fascinating topic, trying to understand the logic behind the dumb decisions one makes... presumably to make better ones, but it's perhaps more fun to rubberneck the bad ones, smoldering in the median, as they recede in the rearview mirror. Just writing and writing that sentence is an insight into the problem: if the problem is signing up for more work than one can do, focusing on the decisions that precede the work is just shifting the burden, not lightening it.

So: if avoiding the buffet problem is the goal, surrounding oneself in the absence of things to choose might be a better way. Escaping to the wilderness? Not quite—past life. For a few months in 2016, I tried Headspace guided meditation, if only due to susceptibility to podcast advertisements. I don't know if it helped—I don't even know what hypothesis to test to see if it helped—but there's one thing I do know after trying it: it's nearly impossible to be still.

The easiest test is to sit somewhere quietly and concentrate only on breathing. In out etc. Try to get to ten without thinking of anything, lightly guiding the mind away from encroaching thoughts back into some cold dark quiet center. Three times—maximum. Usually less. Three times of concentrating only on that spot in your head where the air catches some turbulence when you breathe in through your nose, and after that the small thoughts that were pawing at the closed door of your mind like a cat burst in and fill the space. The chief one—the one I'm most conscious of after it breaks in—is the one that says "Let's use this time for something productive, let's get something done while we're sitting here". This is pointed 180° from the desired direction. I understand that it's possible to get to 10 and beyond. It's difficult to imagine the discipline to do it, but it's not hard to imagine it's the same kind of discipline needed to avoid the buffet problem.


Because thoughts lead to thoughts... I remembered that I have a copy of the Bhagavad Gita (भगवद्गीता, bhagavad-gītā), a good not-flowery translation (compare to the alternatives...) by Barbara Stoler Miller. I've had it for over ten years, it's tiny, yet I've never finished it. I couldn't get into it—too much abstract stuff about non-action, self, discipline, etc. Anyway, I dug it up and gave it a quick pass. Chapter 6, verses 35-36:

असंशयं महाबाहो मनो दुर्निग्रहं चलम् ।
अभ्यासेन तु कौन्तेय वैराग्येण च गृह्यते

असंशयं महाबाहो मनो दुर्निग्रहं चलम् ।
अभ्यासेन तु कौन्तेय वैराग्येण च गृह्यते

I don't read Sanskrit either—here is Miller's translation:

Without doubt, the mind
is unsteady and hard to hold,
but practice and dispassion
can restrain it, Arjuna.

In my view, discipline eludes
the unrestrained self,
but if he strives to master himself,
a man has the means to reach it.

Buffet problem

Buffet, or not buffet, that is the question.

I'm not talking about the food line this time (though it does remind me of this old thing: Enough).

Every day, every week, every month, I do a little bit of planning ahead, thinking about goals, assigning the things I think I want to do to abstract pieces of future time. It never really works out. It's usually good enough—some of the important things get done—but, honestly, few things are as consistent as the too-long list of disparate things I wanted to accomplish in a day getting yanked out to sea by the furious riptide of Real Life.

For example, here's how I break down goals into "curricula":

  • Chinese curriculum: learning how to speak Chinese
  • Business curriculum: learning how work works—mostly reading books, papers, articles
  • Technical curriculum: keeping technical skills sharp—mostly studying things that can be written into software
  • Physical curriculum: running and strength training
  • Home curriculum: I added this to my list because if I didn't I'd get caught up in my own self and the things I wanted to do and crowd out the obviously more important facets of being better at home
  • Communication curriculum: writing and keeping in touch with people
  • Projects: the other things like professional societies, the Illinois alumni club, etc.—sort of a catchall for things that require time and planning but don't fit in other classifications

Every day, every week, every month, I think about these things, what the goals are, how to break them down, how I want to structure my time to to account for them. Et cetera. Even I know it's a little out of control. It's statistically unlikely to have a week that lines up well enough to do it all. It leads to weird behavior. Contorting to stuff plans into a fixed period of time. Overplanning and overthinking how to find the One True Way to organize a day or week. Feeling ashamed at not getting things done. And even if you do it all, it feels a little robotic and constrained, and there's another funny feeling that doesn't have a name, something like "if I could actually hit the target, was the target maybe a little too easy?"

Standing in the buffet line of possibilities, with your plate that can hold πt2, grabbing promises by the fistful... What can you do about that, really? Want less? Grab less? Be more time-efficient? Sleep less? Plan better? Execute more? Hire people to do things for you? Not all of those things at once, that's just a different flavor of the same thing—a meta-buffet problem.

I admire the people who focus on a single theme, hunker down, and execute. I think that's really the only way. No clever planning tricks. Why are you putting that thing on your plate? Do you really want to eat that? Why?


Here's an interesting take: Chris Brogan, Your Buffet Problem (You Have to Stop), LinkedIn Pulse (2015-05-22)


Follow-up posts:

  1. A very quiet moment as a solution to the buffet problem (2018-12-04)
  2. Buffett as a solution to the buffet problem (2018-12-07)

A week in review, 2018-W48

Wrote

Read

  • Mark Singer, Ricky Jay's Magical Secrets, The New Yorker (1993-04-05). (notes) At McCabe’s, he was doing improvisational patter. He had his stuff down so well he was just free. He had the guts to bring people onstage and really play with them, instead of having to be so careful that they might see something that would cause him to blow what he was trying to do. He was very casual, but his language had a Shakespearean feel. He was brutal with hecklers—not because it would throw him off. He just didn’t like hecklers. He vaporized them.
  • Michael D. Watkins and Max H. Bazerman, Predictable Surprises: The Disasters You Should Have Seen Coming, Harvard Business Review 81:3 (2003-04). (notes) Put another way, decision makers focus on an "impact horizon" that is too narrow, neglecting the implications for key constituencies.
  • Kate Bernot, Why hundreds of breweries all plan to make the exact same IPA, The Takeout (2018-11-21). To further raise funds for fire relief, Sierra Nevada has created an IPA called Resilience IPA, with 100 percent of sales going to the Camp Fire fund. The brewery’s founder, Ken Grossman, then called on every brewery in America to brew the same beer, providing the recipe for Resilience so others could replicate it and donate further proceeds to the fund.
  • Keith Rollag, Salvatore Parise and Rob Cross, Getting New Hires Up to Speed Quickly, Sloan Management Review (Winter 2005). (notes) Newcomers represent one of a company's most important and underutilized assets—a source of fresh ideas, perspectives, expertise and industry contacts that an organization can leverage to become more innovative and competitive. [...] The challenge is to capture the fresh ideas and insights from newcomers before they either become socialized into old ways of thinking or simply give up trying to change the system.
  • Russ Parsons, Julie, Julia and me: Now it can be told, The Los Angeles Times (2009-08-12). So that solves part of the mystery of Julia's dis: professional pride. This won't come as a surprise to anyone who knew her well. One of the marvelous things about Julia Child was that even with all of the honors she had earned, she still approached her work with the earnestness (and competitiveness) of a beginner.

Listened

  • 657: How Your Identity Changes When You Change Jobs, HBR IdeaCast (2018-11-20). (notes) The only way we learn is by doing something different, see what happens, and whether that's something useful or not. And so the process of learning requires doing some different things. What's fun about the idea of playfulness is it's not play in the literal sense of the word, but playfulness in the sense of giving yourself license not to be consistent, and giving yourself the freedom to just try things out without necessarily having a very specific purpose. It replaces the logic of efficiency with the logic of exploration.
  • Mythbusting China’s Social Credit System, The Sinica Podcast (2018-11-22).
  • CHP-209-The History of the Jewish Refugees in China Part 2, The China History Podcast (2018-11-18).

Watched

Julie & Julia (2009)

Upcoming

Now Reading: Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language

Richard M. Roberts and Roger J. Kreuz, Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language (2017). (notes)

How did I find this book? Accidentally. I was searching for a copy of a paper, Susan Brennan, The Grounding Problem in Conversations With and Through Computers, which is collected in Social and Cognitive Approaches to Interpersonal Communication. I found that book in Google Books, and in the "related books" section I saw Becoming Fluent. "Roberts and Kreuz report evidence that adults can learn new languages even more easily than children." OK—sold. When I found out the St. Louis Public Library had a copy I jumped right into the queue for it.

The authors start out with three myths they intend to tear down:

Myth 1: Adults cannot acquire a foreign language as easily as children.

Myth 2: Adults should learn foreign languages the way children learn languages.

Myth 3: When learning a foreign language, try not to use your first language.

Sounds good—I need all the help I can get.

Rabbit hole: structured reflection

Every day, every week, every month, at work and at home, I spend some time planning the upcoming day, week, or month. One of these days I ought to share the templates I use—Evernote at home, OneNote at work. (One of These Days™.) I've found it to be a useful habit for getting some of the things I want to do done.

That's half of the point here. I finished reading Michael Watkins' The First 90 Days (notes) over the weekend in preparation for a shift to a new team at work. I've never treated a job transition in a systematic way before—"I'll just wing it"—and I wanted to do it right this time. In Chapter 9, "Manage Yourself", the three main points boiled down to: plan, reflect, and get advisers. The first and the last seem clear to me, even though I only practice the first. (I used to also consult with advisers, although I didn't know that's what I was doing or that it was important—I've also been putting that back together.) Reflecting is the obvious missing piece to what I do. What's the point of planning if you don't loop back around and ask yourself if the plan worked?

The suggestion in the book was to use structured reflection, a term that seemed a little fluffy. A template was given with some questions to ask yourself and think about—a decent starting point. Now I list and describe three things that worked and three things that didn't work every day before signing off at work, and then the same at home. There is some tension about feeling constrained by a process or becoming a robot, but honestly I think that's more about the chafing of starting a new habit. There is plenty of freedom and creativity within the constraint.

Then I thought: why not look for more and better questions? Why not see if there's any evidence that it works? When I threw "structured reflection" into Google—and more importantly, Google Scholar—I discovered that structured reflection wasn't an idea created by the author, but something that's been studied and developed, especially it seems in nursing and education.

Here are some interesting references on the topic that I found, though I haven't read them all yet:

A week in review, 2018-W47

Wrote

Read

  • Douglas Rushkoff, Universal Basic Income Is Silicon Valley’s Latest Scam, Medium (2018-10-10). When it's looked at the way a software developer would, it's clear that UBI is really little more than a patch to a program that's fundamentally flawed. The real purpose of digital capitalism is to extract value from the economy and deliver it to those at the top. If consumers find a way to retain some of that value for themselves, the thinking goes, you're doing something wrong or "leaving money on the table."
  • Steven G. Rogelberg, Cliff Scott and John Kello, The Science and Fiction of Meetings, Sloan Management Review (2007-01-01). Although most employees believe that they have above-average meeting-oriented skills, that cannot be so. The reality is that many companies would see significant improvements if employees simply learned some of the basics: when to call meetings, how to prepare an agenda, how to encourage participation and how to manage cultural differences and resolve conflicts.
  • Evan Osnos, Facebook and the Age of Manipulation, The New Yorker (2018-11-15). The portrait of Facebook presented in the Times, as in other reports over the past two years, is no longer that of a hacker but, rather, that of a practiced participant in this golden age of manipulation, in which influential organizations—companies, candidates, murky political actors—use their power to shape political outcomes in ways they don’t disclose and that the public rarely fully understands.
  • Stephen Johnson, The True Story Behind the Legendary "Lost Ending" of THE SHINING, Thirteenth Floor (2016-03-10).
  • Kelly Boutsalis, Reclaiming our Mohawk heritage, one app-supplied word at a time, Mashable (2018-11-15).

Listened

Watched

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Photo

Creamy Brussels Sprouts and Bacon Gratin with Shallots and Gruyère

Upcoming

Forced incidental social relationships

I read an article last week by Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian: Why do we feel so busy? It's all our hidden 'shadow work' (2018-10-12). I thought it was an interesting article—it explained how we might feel a little busier now because we buy products and services, we're also picking up more of the delivery, setup, service, etc. work. It seemed like a reasonable argument.

One of the references was to Craig Lambert and his book Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day. And at the very bottom of the Guardian article there was a link to a presentation by Lambert at Google in Cambridge, Mass. I didn't like the presentation much, and I doubt I'll read the book. Some of the ideas were interesting and unexpected—the professionalization of kids' sports affecting not just the kids but also causing an extra unpaid burden on the parents to keep up—but a lot of it seemed like it was yearning for Mayberry. I didn't agree with the screed against surveys at all. This review on Goodreads pokes at the book enough, and I haven't read it anyway, so I'll leave it there and move on.

I probably wouldn't have watched the entire video if I hadn't told myself I was going to sit on an exercise bike for an entire hour and watch it. I didn't want to break that important contract. The second-to-last question was redeeming. It didn't even talk about burdens or time or money or any of the other critical points to the argument, but rather the social consequences:

[0:52:07] Anyway, to me, though, the really interesting thing that you're getting at is the change in social relationships and a kind of atomization because I think one of the reasons people like to do this is that in many cases it saves time, but another really important reason is that a lot of people just don't like dealing with other people. They would rather check in at a kiosk than deal with somebody behind the counter. They would rather serve their own food than deal with the waitress. There's something about this that I think is kind of disturbing. A lot of people just don't want to have those kind of incidental social relationships that we used to be forced to have. I think there's something pretty disturbing about that, and I think it is changing the quality of our relationships. And one effect that it might be having is that the amount of social interaction that people of different social classes have with each other may be being reduced. I'm not sure about this, but one hypothesis, that some of these changes are basically making more of my interactions be with people of my own social class, and not as many with people of other social classes, in particular of less affluent people. And if that's really true, I think that could have profound effects on our social life.

And that made me think of a line from A.J. Jacobs in his recent stint on James Altucher's podcast 410 – AJ Jacobs: Ten Superpowers of 'Extreme Gratitude', The James Altucher Show (2018-11-15)):

The barista told me people just use her as a vending machine when they get their morning cup of coffee. Nobody looks her in the eyes.

So there's an obvious tension there. I like to save money on things, which often means doing the work myself. And companies like to save money, which often means getting me to do the work for them. But mix that all over larger and larger sets of people, and all of the connections between them, and imagine that they can opt out of those connections more frequently... and you can imagine that as an element in a feedback loop driving people to become more annoyed when they can't opt out of a connection, driving people to seek more isolation, driving... etc.

There needs to be a balance between just completing a transaction and treating a human as a human, not a human as robot. I think that feedback loop leads somewhere ugly, a one-way trip to Us Versus Them. I don't think it's reversible, but I always avoid the automated checkout lane at the grocery store as an act of harmless and mostly useless sabotage.


Postscript. What will the updated reference to the good old days that never really existed be for our generation? We should leave Mayberry to the folks for whom it was contemporary nostalgia, I think.