Author Archives: kirk.kittell

In there

I was thinking about the nature of confidence. Confidence is two things, I think: (1) the belief that something is present-tense real; (2) the belief that something can be future-tense real.

Either way, there seems to be another split: (1) belief; and (2) reality. You don't need either one for the other, but having (1) makes (2) a lot easier.

I've been listening to Pixies a lot the last two weeks. Basically nonstop. I'm not a Big Fan of theirs—for me they were basically just "Where Is My Mind?" I listened to that song on repeat for... months during the Year of Our Virus 2020, as I got accustomed to (was losing my mind to) life within the same four walls. I have no insight into their influence or catalog or anything. It's been fun to discover it. It's been surprising to discover music from the 1980s that could be—to me at least, who is at best a decade out of touch with music—music from today.

Anyway, I can't paint a whole picture. I don't know it. I'm interested but not interested—there aren't many stories about interesting 20-year-olds that I can stomach nowadays, which isn't anyone else's fault but mine. I can just say after reading various articles recently that there's an aspect about them—a few, really—that I can feel personally. There's their comfort with being misfits. There is this mix of assuredness and doubt that resonates with me.

Laura Barton. "Laura Barton talks to 1980s mavericks the Pixies". The Guardian (2005-08-20):

We were like, we want to go to England. We want to go to LA. We want to be real. We want to be on the radar. We were touring out of state well before there was any demand for us to be there.

Even if you don't fit in right, you've got to believe that there's something In There—how else are you going to keep pushing into headwinds? Or no winds at all—no resistance, nothing pushing you, nothing. Confidence is the belief in a Now, but also a belief in a capacity for a Future—not a certainty of a future, but a possibility.

No more Wednesdays

I don't typically freeze in the face of a blank page or screen—which is, I guess, the privilege of someone doesn't have to write to pay the bills, or even write to anyone but himself. But Wednesdays cut the top off my head and scoop me out like a jack-o-lantern pumpkin, leaving a spongy, useless shell. When it's over I sit down and look at this blank white page and mutter, "so what do you want?"

The page never answers. That's how you know it's in charge.

I take classes on Tuesday and Wednesday evening this spring semester (although, mercifully, only for the first half semester on Wednesday). Ostensibly, I have been packing things into my head in class in the evening, and in the morning when I'm reading the papers and articles for class, and the free time around lunch and dinner when I'm scrambling to finish some assignment. That's the story I want to believe—right up until I sit down, tip my head over, and only a few tufts of lint fall out.

It reminds of something—that moment in an endurance race, maybe two-thirds of the way in. Hours in, hours to go, and the crew inside your head has begun to mutiny. What do you think about during the best races? Nothing—a mind as clean as a blank sheet of paper. What do you think about during the worst races? Everything.

The blank page as the thing we want, and thing we don't want.

Busyness as penance, and busyness as paradise, and busyness as perdition.

Gaze into the abyss and.

Gone to heaven

I've been watching this video of Perseverance landing on repeat since it came out yesterday:

What to feel when watching something like that?

Mostly wonder—face rightupclose to the monitor, nothing but Mars in view, imagining the ride down, imagining the feeling of swaying under the parachute, imagining the wait for the thrusters to kick in, imagining the silence at the end of the ride.

Some curiosity—watching the beautiful mad crazy machine work. What was the design meeting like when the direct shot at Mars + parachute + rocket pack + skycrane concept was pitched? Was there an open bar or what? Each of those systems and subsystems and pieces and subpieces and sequences and interconnections and pyros and cutters and sensors and monitors and so on and so on have one job and they have to do it—or else. They're so light but robust, exquisitely designed and built for that one ride to the surface. I can imagine the pause I would feel as I packaged the rover up for its journey to the launch site at Cape Canaveral—a pause that says without saying, "I hope I thought of everything".

Some insane jealousy—because I'm at the point in my career now where, although I'm not a space cadet anymore, I know several people on programs like this. I would give some of my favorite body parts to slang one of them rovers at Mars, or at another planet or moon or whatever.

It's not really jealousy—it's more subtle than that. It's that inner self-memory that knows the reason for getting into aerospace in the first place, and the feeling of closeness and distance from the once-imagined ideal of what it would be like, what I would be like. I don't think that with real jealousy I could enjoy these landings and rovings as much as I do. Give me a VR headset and some terribly boring panoramas of the deserts of Mars, and leave me alone for a few hours. I just want to sit there for a while and think of nothing, look at the hills, and feel the old urge to go see what's on the other side.

(I've also been listening to a lot of Pixies this week, hence the title, etc. A trip to Mars would be loud (launch) quiet (cruise) loud (landing).)

Chinese language study 2021

What does it mean to learn a language?

I've been trying to learn Chinese for about seven and a half years now. I've tried a number of things: Pimsleur, Popup Chinese, Duolingo, trainchinese, watching TV shows and trying to translate them, old school flashcards on actual index cards, and sitting at the bar and writing characters over and over.

(The last one seems weird, but for two years I was traveling to California for two weeks every four weeks for work, and a man needs to pass the time with his drink somehow.)

So let's start this like a guidance, navigation, and control (GNC) problem, like when you need to point your spacecraft at something. You need, essentially, two things: (1) your current state (where you are, where you're pointing, how fast you're moving, how fast you're rotating); and (2) your desired state (where to point, when to point there, and how steady to hold that pointing). From that, you just have to figure out how to go from (1) to (2).

It's almost too easy.

Except that Chinese is a miserably difficult language to learn. The whole framework of the thing is designed to prevent people from understanding it.

But I want to become fluent—most usefully in terms of conversation, but personally in terms of reading and writing—so the misery is just a stage in the journey.
Learning Chinese includes these aspects:

  1. Listening (it's a tonal language, so words with the same sound but different tones—up, down, down-up, high, neutral—mean different things)
  2. Speaking
  3. Reading
  4. Composing (writing, but with all the work to turn thoughts into words, sentences, etc)
  5. Handwriting

Where am I on each of these?

  1. Listening: 2/5
  2. Speaking: 2/5
  3. Reading: 2/5
  4. Composing: 1/5
  5. Handwriting: 3/5

Chinese characters are the easiest part for me. It matches up really well with my ability to remember spatial patterns. Listening and speaking are hard—listening more so than speaking because it's hard to follow people with different accents, and tones are hard (for me) to detect, and some sounds sound the same to me. Composing is miserable—I can't imagine writing an interesting paragraph in Chinese, nothing more complicated than simple declarative sentences about what I want to do or who I am.

In short, I'm reasonably good at the parts that are least necessary, and worst at the parts I want to do best. Hi ho.

About that GNC problem: you need to know where you are, where you want to be, and (3) have a means to get there.

Listening can be improved through watching TV with captions to assist (Chinese captions, not English captions). Once you get better you can listen to more difficult shows, or listen to things that don't have captions or are audio-only. Speaking can't be faked or worked around. Besides, the point of speaking is to speak to—with—other people. The rest? The rest can be done alone.

That seems to be the most natural split: (1) with others; and (2) without.

Without includes: listening and translating; reading and translating; handwriting; learning vocabulary; learning grammar rules and nuances and so on.

With includes: having a conversation; writing with feedback.

The ratio or with:without should probably about 1:1 or so, based on nothing more than wanting to preserve the importance of feedback and a simple ratio.

I don't think the method to get to fluency is that important, other than giving priority to having conversations with other people. I think it's like dieting or exercising—there's always some other tip or trick or method or pill or whatever. You can really waste your time trying to optimize things that don't matter. You can't optimize anything until you understand enough about it to be able to tell what variables to optimize, and then tell what what is optimal against those variables.

Pick something that seems reasonably useful. Cut it down into a small enough chunk so that you can finish it in a few weeks or so. Finish, then adjust.

There's no such thing as optimal anyway. There are things that get the job done, and things that don't.

I've bought a few books about learning Chinese over the years. I've read none of them. I've collected sites that teach Chinese courses. I've finished none of them. My focus has been like a squirrel running from tree to tree, bush to bush. Finishing the Duolingo Chinese course was more about finishing something than the content itself. Finishing something can become a habit, just as much as learning, just as much as knowing.
So: which way do we go? I'll pick one with, and one without.

  • Without: I'm going to work through one of these books I have. Let's start with Fundamental Spoken Chinese (Amazon), which I bought seven years ago or so, but never finished.
  • With: Time to break out Zhongwensday. What? It's a portmanteau: Zhongwen (the Chinese name for the Chinese language) and Wednesday. ) The basic idea is: I will record myself speaking and get some feedback. It sounds horrible. I don't want to. I think it will be useful. I don't think it will necessarily be public—maybe just with some friends on WeChat.

Goals for this year: Goal 2021-06 is to get up to HSK Level 4. I'll do that in the second half of the year, and HSK Level 3 in the first half of the year. So, some time will have to be set aside to make sure I know enough to get that right.

I ought to regularly update /language/chinese. There are some useful and interesting resources out there that I can collect and display.

I don't believe in apps as a way to learn anything in a deep way. Duolingo is nice, but it's candy. I just downloaded Drops today, and it also looks like candy. And there are some others out there. I think they're useful for filling in 5 or 10 minutes here or there, but not as methods on their own.

The Captain's Newsletter, 2021-W07

The Captain's Newsletter, 2021-W07 - The duel

As I laying dying one day, I'm going to spend a brief moment thinking about all of the episodes of my life when I wasn't just wasting time—because a moment will probably encapsulate it. The rest of my life is just chasing one squirrel or another. I'm jealous, sometimes, of the people I've met who have achieved Supreme Focus while working on something. It's a beautiful thing. But sometimes I'm not jealous. The asides, the deviations, the sidetracks, the daydreams, the wrong turns, the missed connections, the strikeouts, the bombs, the faceplants, the wide-rights, the bricks, the clanks, the crash landings—that's where all my good ideas come from. Given the choice, I suppose I'd just do things right at the outset, but I've come to grips with being exceedingly good at crawling out of the broken window of a damaged plan and having Better Luck Next Time.

I want you to subscribe to this newsletter as hard as you can: /captain.

An unnecessary fight to the end

Bear with me—this is a Duolingo blog this week.

Before properly semi-quitting Duolingo after finishing the Chinese course, I wanted to get the one trophy that was eluding me: Legendary—Finish #1 in the Diamond League.

I know it doesn't matter. I really do. But. It's been bothering me in an annoying, low-key way. I've finished second maybe five or six times, including the last two weeks. I've been ahead on the last day, and then put the phone down—as a good human should—only to come back and discover I got bumped out of the top spot when the weekly tournament ended. It doesn't matter. But.

Not gonna happen this week. This week I'm going to stick it out.

It's just that I happened to find another player in my league this week who is committed to the top spot, and the points are spiraling out of control.

I've had a Duolingo account for eight years, using it solidly for two of them and sparingly for two more, and I've earned 6.5% of my total points—ever—today trying to stay on top. It's madness. It's an unjustifiable use of time. But I... want to stop thinking about it. I just want to win the damned thing and be done with it. So I keep hitting the feeder bar, trying to get a few more pellets—working through some Chinese study, working through some Hindi study. (My Hindi language skills, meager as they were, have come back somewhat during this points blitz, so there's that.)

Only twenty more hours to hold on...

A tangent: sometimes I think that it would be interesting to turn work into a kind of game—points for this, points for that, have a leaderboard, crown winners, etc. I've got my doubts, though. Something that gets your team to work hard and finish things—that's good. But when I think of how my brain works in cases like this, where it locks onto this stupid need to have more points, then I know that gamification could go very wrong. I don't think I have an obsessive personality—see the other eight years of not caring so much about this one thing—but the potential is there, apparently. And I think that you might be able to mess people up with work-like-a-game if they were obsessive about games. Getting good performance from your people is good, but driving them nuts is not.

Nicole Lewis. "Be Careful: Gamification at Work Can Go Very Wrong". Society for Human Resource Management (2019-02-28).

Also worth a look: the references section of the Gamification page on Wikipedia: Gamification#References.

Another thing: how effective is the learning when I'm focused more on earning points? I have to answer questions correctly—identifying Chinese characters or Hindi letters, being able to write what I've heard, being able to translate simple sentences to and from the target language—but, like any game, the idea is to score, not to absorb the most learning. What that might mean anyway.

Work from home killed the radio


I drove so much today that I got to listen to an entire episode of This American Life: #731 What Lies Beneath.

That's a partial truth, I guess—I listened to most of it while parked and waiting for my time to pick up dinner. (Nixta. Yes.) But it was an Exciting Fact that I drove for nearly an hour somewhere, anywhere.

I don't listen to the radio anymore. "The radio" is "podcasts" now anyway. The radio was a Special Treat as I drove 20 minutes to work in the morning, and then 30 minutes back in the evening. The drive—which I don't miss, not for a moment—could be reclaimed somewhat by dripping a bit of information into my brain. Now the radio is gone. It's still there in my phone, entirely forgotten except for the occasional times I'll listen to it while washing dishes.

Basically all of the information I consume now is in text format. Few videos, few audios.


If I was ever going to waste time at work and watch videos or listen to podcasts, now would be the time, no? I could sit there, two computer screens right in front of me at home, and listen to and watch whatever I want, whenever I want. But I don't. I can't explain it. What I do typically: even during work, while wasting a bit of time, I don't sit around and read either, but when I find an article that I'd like to read I throw it in Instapaper for later instead of reading it on the spot.

My focus is a thing shattered into a million pieces these days—"these days", i.e., the last year—but for some reason I can't even waste time effectively.


I thought I was going to bring this post home with some kind of self-understanding, but I'm still confused. On one hand, it doesn't matter much—consuming information or entertainment via one media or the other, so what? On the other hand, the change went the other direction that what I would have expected. Are there any secondary effects? Is that life with less human contact—having words to read and not faces to see or voices to hear—causing some longer term changes?

I do the best I can between high spots

Trailhead: Jan Ascher and Fleur Tonies. "How to turn everyday stress into ‘optimal stress’ ". McKinsey Quarterly (2021-02-18).

Taking stress advice from a consulting firm is either incredibly smart or incredibly stupid. Incredibly smart: those that thrive in a top-tier consulting environment surely must have figured out how to deal with their stress well enough. Incredibly stupid: learning how to live with high levels of stress is about as smart as learning how to live with high levels of shotgun wounds (assuming there is an alternative, etc.).

I am a simple man. I like sports analogies. They break down problems into small pieces that my monkey brain can digest.

The analogy between sports and stress helps illuminate a big challenge in managing stress: poor self-awareness. At the gym, for example, we’re acutely aware of when we’re straining muscles or resting them (the two phases of supercompensation). And when we consciously add new, varied exercises (behaviors) to our workout, we become stronger and more flexible over time.

The same should be true for managing stress. Yet at any given time, we’re unaware of which stress state we’re in (engagement or recovery), let alone consciously seeking behavior changes that would improve the efficacy of either state. Managing stress, therefore, starts with self-awareness.

The way I manage stress is actually an awful lot like how I used to train for running—stupid with reasonably good results that allow me to justify continued stupidity. I'm reliving a memory now of running in the San Gabriels, up and over Whitney Saddle from Newhall to Sylmar then back to Newhall, but collapsing on the last four-mile downhill, crawling, puking, crawling. That was inconvenient, but normal. It was just training. No pain no gain, eh? It worked, I suppose. It was unlikely to have a worse time in a race than that. That run was peak bad. It was the kind of experience that could be recalled during a low point in a race, providing a positive response to the often-asked question, "could it get any worse than this?"

That has no place in the rest of life, for the most part. At work? Nah. Maybe if you're a firefighter or a soldier or a cop, where resilience is a necessity. For a White Collar Hero? Definitely not. But I often find myself cranking up the stress internally anyway. Nearly all of the time this is useless, detrimental. But every so often an occasion will arrive that feels catastrophic for most people—but for me, I've found my calm place. I'm not planning for it, I'm just made for it, for good or ill.

I'm scrolling through the article and the advice is sound. Drink yr water. Look at yr dog for 30 seconds. Take a walk around the block you miserable bastard. Then sit back down and produce.

When managed well, however, stress can be a path to personal growth. To turn stress into an opportunity for growth is to find your optimal stress point. The key is understanding our own stress so that we can better harness our body’s normal stress response, rather than only being subservient to it.

Sometimes I read things like this and I don't even want to improve anymore. There's no fault with any of what was written there. It could fit neatly in between advertisements for supplements on The Tim Ferriss Show. It's just weird in a way that only superachievers would find normal. Stress will find me, ready or not, and we wrestle. Sometimes I win, sometimes he wins. I don't want to understand it. I have genes. They're not the kind of genes that produce organisms that like to chill out. My goal isn't to optimize stress—what a gross phrase, "optimize stress"—but to just not subject anyone else to any negative downstream effects from it.

Vonnegut, Bluebeard: “I can’t help it,” I said. “My soul knows my meat is doing bad things, and is embarrassed. But my meat just keeps right on doing bad, dumb things.”

Also, Vonnegut, Bluebeard: "I've got news for Mr. Santayana: we're doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That's what it is to be alive."

Go ahead and learn how to deal with your stress in useful ways. I'm not going to journal about it or monitor my heart rate or whatever. If someone wants to live an optimal life that's fine, I guess. The pedant in me wants to ask: what variable are you optimizing for anyway? But maybe it's just because I don't have my own favorite variable. I like running face-first into difficult things to see if I can survive. We all have our kinks.

I have never seen much point in getting heavy with stupid people or Jesus freaks, just as long as they don't bother me. In a world as weird and cruel as this one we have made for ourselves, I figure anybody who can find peace and personal happiness without ripping off somebody else deserves to be left alone. They will not inherit the earth, but then neither will I... And I have learned to live, as it were, with the idea that I will never find peace and happiness, either. But as long as I know there's a pretty good chance I can get my hands on either one of them every once in a while, I do the best I can between high spots.

—Hunter S. Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time

White blood cells

Trailhead: My Bottom Line: David Jones, Havas, BBC (2021-03-23)

I think if our industry changes then it has the most amazing opportunity, but if it doesn't it will go the same way as the Polaroids and Kodaks. And I think today it's increasingly a disadvantage to have had a bigger legacy business, and I think the speed with which we turn our businesses into fully digital businesses is going to be the key thing that determines whether our industry is successful or has a tough time ahead of it.

I don't really think of things like that. "If we don't change, then we'll be dead". That's foreign to me—because it's sort of built in as an assumption in the model of my brain. There's no strategy to it. There's no thought. It's just there. Of course things have to change. That's the wave that I ride. (That's how I perceive myself—as riding some wave—but the reality is probably a lot more staid.)

I don't care much about the advertising industry that this statement is referring to. We covered it in a case in OB 565 Leading Change today: Havas: Change Faster, Multimedia Case. I care about it as much as it is an interesting window through which to see what it looks like when A CEO tries to head off future disruption of a well-established company by evangelizing change. That part is interesting. And so is seeing how the white blood cells of a well-established company kill the change.

There's nothing mean-spirited about killing change. Rule #1 of an organism is: survive. That which threatens you is trying to kill you. Of course that's not objectively true, but tell that to your amygdala.

I don't know. I'm a white blood cell and a pathogen. I change things because it's natural to me and I resist change because I am a part of an organism.

A line from Fight Club that I always fall back on: "Nothing is static, everything is evolving, everything is falling apart."

Or: "How everything you ever love will reject you or die. Everything you ever create will be thrown away. Everything you're proud of will end up as trash."

I think it comes across as a negative outlook. But there is something... lighter about it. You can see a thing as it is, as it will be, as it was, as you would like it to be. How it will be and how you would like it to be will diverge—always. You might be able to affect a thing in a positive way, but there will be something missing, something chipped, something faded. That's OK. That's what it is to be alive. The burden is lighter when you accept it, and do what you can.

Finished with Duolingo Chinese course

Back in July, I made it to the Diamond League in Duolingo, and it was only semi-ironically that I declared it my major accomplishment for the year. 2020: take your wins where you could get them, I say.

Many days later—308 "consecutive" days, although there are a few streak freeze days in there—I finished the Chinese course:

Please clap.

OK, simmer down.

When I started using Duolingo in 2013, there wasn't even a Chinese course. I mostly did the Spanish course (to better understand the local language in California) with a little bit of Portuguese (since our main customer at Mason was Embraer down in Brazil).

Duolingo works well for me because it is a game—it reaches right into that part of my brain that counts points and acknowledges streaks even though they're meaningless. You don't win anything, but you have many of the ceremonies of advancing in tournaments and winning. Even much of the content itself has limited educational value—but it has some value, so if you keep going, you get something out of it. The language content isn't optimal—whatever "optimal" might mean here, I'm not very concerned about defining—but your knowledge will follow an upward trend.

Duolingo is dessert. You can't (shouldn't) live off it, but it is nice and good and has its place in the world and I'm not going to stop eating it.

I've been thinking of bailing out of the Duolingo Chinese course for ages now, but more than wanting to finish the course for its content, I believed in the value of sticking to something to the end because my self-education history is a scrapyard of partially-finished projects. It's a weakness of mine to have some other plan catch my attention before the finish line, and then run after that; then another one, then run there; then another and run; and so on and so on. (Bokonon: "Round and round and round we spin, / With feet of lead and wings of tin".)

So: I stuck this one out. Now what?

On Duolingo? I don't know. I think it could come in handy to study the language for places where I'm planning to travel, if the language is available. I think the app is good for languages you don't plan to master, but just want to learn a bit about. The other languages aren't my focus, though.

Chinese? See, this one I want to master, so I have to figure out the next path. A simple, discrete goal for this year is to get up to HSK Level 4. A certification like that is a lot of vocabulary and grammar patterns—useful stuff, but in and of itself not very interesting. I don't care about a certification, but it is a landmark off in the distance that I can walk toward. Not not-moving is key.

It would be more interesting to be able to read good literature in Chinese. It would be more interesting to understand what the crosstalk performers are joking about. It would be more interesting to be able to both understand what people are saying to me and say something back to them—not just something but something witty and hilarious. (The people of the Chinese-speaking world deserve this Content and I must not deprive them of it.)

So I'll make a new path. I don't know what it is yet, but I'll head off in some direction, then adapt and adapt and adapt. It's a little bit like hiking. Sometimes it's best to know exactly where you want to go and how to get there. Sometimes it's even better to have a rough idea of where to go, no idea how to get there, and then have an open-ended adventure as you find or don't find a destination. I've found some places in India and Inyo County and Ingersoll Scout Reservation that have stuck in my memories all these years, and I don't know where they are, what they are, or how I got there. It's a matter of taste to decide which type of trip to take when it's time to set out, and then again when you're out there, and then again when you've returned.