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Clarity, at speed

Clarity is different for a creator and a consumer.

If you write a series of clear instructions to do a job, but those instructions are difficult to consume (wrong language, no background in the subject, etc.), the instructions are still clear—yet the job doesn't get done. Instructions can be easy to consume, but wrong (I'm thinking of a specific software update that got ahead of its user guide, but you're welcome to insert your own).

What the hell is clarity anyway?

I can tell you what speed is: it's a change in position in an interval of time. Or a change in one thing divided by a change in another thing.

I had an idea when I started typing here. Ironically, the idea has escaped me. Instead there are several murky proto-ideas swimming just beneath the surface of my thoughts. When I reach, they aren't there; when I lean in close to look, I can't resolve them. Lack of clarity, combined with lack of speed. Hi ho. Let's just call it a day.

But there's an idea there waiting to surface and I'm going to keep typing these dammed words until it does. (I meant to type 'damned' but 'dammed' is too good to erase. Let it be.)

Clarity without speed is, to me, a walk in the mountains. Round a bend in the trail and pause, seeing what there is to see. Pause longer, and you can see what isn't there to see as well. I loved the desert mountains for this—whichever desert, it doesn't matter, but I'm picturing the Guadalupe Mountains. There were angles and lines and planes and, depending on the wind, crisply or dully drawn horizons. There were also empty open spaces that, like a vacuum abhorred, filled with thoughts—thoughts that might pour in like a bucket of water, thoughts that would settle out over time into sediment and clear liquid.

Lack of clarity with speed is running until the vision starts to tunnel. Driving the same highway but never seeing the scenes to either side. Jamming content into your earholes and eyeholes nonstop but not being able to resolve any of it into information, knowledge, wisdom.

Clarity at speed is a leprechaun riding a unicorn.

But sometimes you've got a big bag of Things To Do, and a clock that reads Not Enough Time. Grab a saddle.

Make a map, however wrong. Label it. Call everything by its right name. Or the wrong name until you know more. Just agree on the same name because you'll need a clear idea of the landmarks.

Less is not more. Less is less. More is more. Sometimes more is less. More is heavy. Less is light. Taking a moment before setting out to thoughtfully throw out the unneeded—like shaking down your backpack before leaving basecamp—saves effort over the rest of the journey. Unnecessarily wasted effort eats focus.

Take notes, leave notes. Sometimes the notes are helpful, sometimes not. It's not the notes themselves but the notetaking mind that is important. You can see nothing at any speed, if you don't know how to look. Observation is a muscle.

Clarity is the taste needed to know how simply or how completely to define a task to get the job done without inciting murderous resentment from the person who has to use the definition to do the task.

Marcus Aurelius, In Our Time

Trailhead: "Marcus Aurelius". In Our Time (2021-02-25)

This episode of BBC's In Our Time—one of my favorite radio shows (podcasts)—covered his entire life in 50 minutes, although there was an urge to get to Meditations, since that's what Marcus Aurelius is most known for. Two things caught my ear from the part before they got to Meditations.

The first was a reference to his teacher, Fronto. I might not have noticed but for the comment that he was the greatest Roman orator since Cicero—that perked up my ears a little. There's not much there on his Wikipedia page, but one thing I noticed that I would like to track down is a reference to using "unlooked-for and unexpected words" (insperata atque inopinata uerba). Without context, I don't know if that's the mark of a connoisseur or just an affectation.

The second thing was a point brought up by one of the panelists about whether or not Meditations was philosophical at all, or just a collection of homespun wisdom. I suppose it doesn't matter all that much. I've read George Long's translation of Meditations before. Meditations is often hailed as a good book about How To Be Manly. In and of itself, that's not necessarily bad.

So why does this elicit a bit of reflexive side-eye from me? I suppose it's something simple like: it's annoying to hear about people who are Totally Into Stoicism—modern Stoicism as a hustle cult—wax on about the importance of Meditations. Even I highlighted the book to death. It's got some nice passages. And I like the underlying ideas of accepting your job in life and dealing with it without complaining. (Even though that doesn't describe my actual approach to life, just an ideal.)

Meditations as common sense—that's OK. Meditations as a king hell philosophy—that might be a little thick. The book itself is the same either way. I suppose I should decide if I like it or not regardless of how it's packaged and sold by others.

The Captain's Newsletter, 2021-W08 - Here comes your man

The Captain's Newsletter, 2021-W08 - Here comes your man

February made me shiver / With every [email] I delivered / Bad news on the doorstep / I couldn't [subscribe to the newsletter immediately because it's good for you]

Sure, sure... that's not how the song goes. But it could have gone like that—we live in nothing if not a world of possibilities. This week we talk about what happens when the music dies, and then when it resurrects itself. And some other things—I don't remember what, but if it wasn't important, I wouldn't bother you about it like this, now would I?

If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:

—Kurt Vonnegut. "Vonnegut's Blues For America". The Sunday Herald (2006-01-07).

100 days of planks

It's silly, in the big scheme of things, but here's my top accomplishment of 2021 so far: 100 consecutive days of planks.

"Planks" is either (a) just planks, but about 3.5 minutes of them, or (b) this 7-minute routine with planks and side planks and a back bridge. The 3.5 minute version is the buildup of a weekly ratchet: weeks ago it would have started with 60 seconds on Monday, then add 5 seconds every day until Sunday, then start over the next Monday at 65 seconds, and add 5 seconds every day until Sunday, and so on. This week's Monday started at 220 seconds, although I typically do the longer sequence.

I feel like a bro posting this here—but what the hell? This current 100-day run started in November, and there were a few much shorter runs that started in October when I was trying to pull myself out of a dive. It was a pretty miserable summer and fall, virus or not, and if concentrating on a simple habit helped get out of that—great. Fantastic. Super.

Everyone gets down, but getting stuck down is a horror show. There was a saying in endurance running that I thought was trite at the time, but now it seems a lot more pertinent: if you can't run, walk; if you can't walk, walk anyway.

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).)

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?

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.