I like to listen to podcasts and screencasts at two or three times the recorded speed. The application I use (Instacast) does this with pitch correction, a feature that’s probably built into iOS at this juncture. In short, I can listen to a thirty minute podcast in ten to fifteen minutes and they only sound funny when music plays. I do mean funny; listen to Radiohead’s “Creep” at 3x speed and it comes out downright chipper.

Our brains can process speech at these accelerated rates just fine. In fact, when I listen to some of my favorite podcasters in “real” time, they sound like they’re thinking really hard and speaking slowly, or that they’re flat-out drunk. The interesting bit is when an accelerated speaker has an accent or when there is radio interference with the FM transmitter I use in the car. At this point, all bets are off and I have to slow the podcast down or listen when the signal is better.

The bottom line is that, empirically, human speech has built-in redundancy. We tend to speak at a rate that, if you miss some sounds, you can probably still make out the words. Further, the space in-between words is probably filled with our own thoughts anyway; we only listen part of the time we’re listening.

Nifty things, our brains are.

You know how sometimes, everything is clicking and you’ve just got it? Some people call it flow. On Thursday, I was in a quiping flow. You may have witnessed it on Twitter. I thought it would be fun to try and weave it into a coherent narrative, so here we go.

Sara Flemming started a new blog about digging into the technical mysteries she comes across as she works. It is, brilliantly, titled Visiting All The Turtles.

Upon seeing a press photo of Adele, I had an epiphany. As an SAT analogy, Achilles Heel is probably about like Adele’s eyelashes. All of her singing powers come from those lashes.

There’s not many ways to connect Brian Wilson and Axl Rose, except that they both worked on an album for more than a decade, managed to finish it, and missed the moment when it would have been a huge deal. That said, Brian Wilson’s album Smile is way better and about as genius as you’d expect. It’s better to be a follow-up to Pet Sounds than a follow-up to Use Your Illusion, even though that’s my favorite Guns ‘n Roses album (haters?).

It’s easier to draw a connection between Igor Stravinsky and Brian Wilson. Listen to the former’s ballets or the latter’s albums (not the surf songs) and you’ll always find something strange going on. A flute trill where it doesn’t make sense, a honking bass clarinet, a bizarre harmony. It’s fantastic.

As you can tell, Brian Wilson is a kind of my jam lately. It would be a shame if that guy doesn’t have the opportunity to make all the music that is bouncing around in his head.

I’ve never actually been around someone “vaping”, but I’m pretty sure I don’t like it based on the name alone. Because that word will never get mispronounced or misheard in a booze joint. Great job, tobacco industry!

On contemporary indie/rock music. No value judgement, just an observation of the way it is:

A one. A two. A one two three four.

hits play on drum machine

Semi-related: I am so glad 7-string guitars are (mostly) no longer a thing.

Tinkering with coffee plus condensed milk has brought my iced coffee game way up. I highly recommend it, if you have the means. Just be prepared to stir, a lot.

To wrap it up, on some other music I’ve enjoyed and thought a bit about lately:

Ben Folds taps into pathos. Bruce Springsteen taps into the American Dream. Dave Grohl taps into the part of us that just wants to turn it up.

Listen to suit.

Problems as ever-changing mazes

Problems, puzzles, startups as dynamic mazes:

just running to the entrance of (say) the “movies/music/filesharing/P2P” maze or the “photosharing” maze without any sense for the history of the industry, the players in the maze, the casualties of the past, and the technologies that are likely to move walls and change assumptions

I love this idea about thinking of solving systems as though they were an ever-changing maze, with history (fallen players) embedded within the system. Doubly so when you extend the metaphor to solutions that route around one problem to brazenly take on another problem. If this had a further extension to football playcalling, it would be perfect.

Improv perspectives on changing code

In the last improv class I took, we spent a lot of time focusing on four kinds of scenes that appear in improv with astonishing frequency:

  • Straight/absurd: A character has a strange perspective on the world, another points out the absurdities in what they’re saying and encourages them to say even more absurd things.
  • Peas in a pod: Two characters who are very similar in demeanor, perspective, or motivation interact with each other.
  • Alternate reality: Two characters inhabit a world notably different from ours; maybe gravity is no longer a thing or it’s entirely normal to wear ketchup as formal wear.
  • Real: Two players interact with each other mostly as themselves, bringing their own personalities and perspectives to the scene.

I noticed that, when faced with a puzzle to solve, such as code to write, these kinds of perspectives often pop up too:

  • Peas in a pod: take some code that already exists in an app, clone it somewhere else and make it do something slightly different. Extract the boilerplate and ship it.
  • Real: the code around the functionality I need to change, improve, or add to is already just fine (I probably wrote it or have an awesome team); I just code like I code.
  • Straight/absurd: the code I’m working on has good parts and bad parts; if at all possible I make my changes in the good parts or figure out how to make a new good part for my changes to live in.
  • Alternate reality: the code I’m working with is utterly bizarre and strange; I have to make lots of tactical decisions about how to make progress while bringing some level of sanity to it.

See also: Novels, Yes And Improv Comedy.

Technology that’s not a startup

Here’s a nice story on technology that isn’t startups: Unhappy truckers and other algorithmic problems. Logistic networks are a technology, just like smartphones. They make our world way better, but they do so invisibly and at a slower pace than the churn of mobile apps, web frameworks, and startups. But they’re still solving problems, moving the needle. They’re just, possibly, less obsessed with technology tribalism and fashion. Some days, that seems like a pretty useful space to find oneself in.

I don’t have time to not teach

It wasn’t too long ago that other developers not knowing the things I know was really frustrating. “How could they not know this?!” I thought that I didn’t have time nor should I be expected to train other developers. If I could learn all this stuff, they can too.

At some point, my perspective on this did a complete turnaround. Now I’m eager to teach other developers things I don’t know. The major benefit is, now they know the things I know! A side benefit is now I know the thing better because I had to teach it.

I was completely wrong when I thought I didn’t have time to teach. Turns out, I don’t have time to not teach other developers the things I think are important.

Overtime means your business is hurting

Overtime is Morphine, Ernie Miller:

A developer who is truly concerned about the health of his or her company also must be careful to ensure the “patient” isn’t developing an unhealthy dependency on their heroics, allowing the company to limp along without experiencing the pain that should accompany unwise choices. Pain is how we learn to avoid repeating mistakes.

I’ve seen too many developers put in a heroic effort, only to repeat it the next day, sometimes without sleeping in. That’s “killing the patient”, to extend Ernie’s metaphor. It’s not the natural state of a business to notice the human cost it might have. The people inside the business have to assess that cost and do something about controlling it.

If your business, or the one you work at, requires regular heroics, consider that it is a broken system. Luckily, software developers are well equipped with mental routines for diagnosing and patching broken systems. Time to hack the organization.

Pet peeve 74: whenever I slip and focus on complaining about who and what instead of thinking about how and why to solve the problem. This is doubly frustrating because I enjoy solving puzzles (i.e. problems) more than I enjoy annoying people.

It’s so, so easy to kvetch. It feels good. But, it’s so much more useful to figure out why the problem happened and how to solve it or break the problem done to solvable subproblems.

Being human: it’s tricky.

Look up every once in a while!

Sometimes, I feel conditioned never to look beyond the first ten feet of the earth. Watch where you’re going, don’t run into things, avoid being eaten by bears. Modern life!

A Texas sunset
I see stuff like this out my office window every day. Be jealous.

When I remind myself to look up, there’s so much great stuff. Trees, antennae, water towers, buildings. Airplanes, birds, superheroes. Never mind the visual pollution of smoke, contrails, and billboards. Nifty things, natural and man-made.

Clouds in particular are nifty. They’re almost always changing, even if you look at the same patch of sky. They have pleasing shapes, and just a little bit of texture. Simple pleasure, clouds are.

And sunsets! Hooo boy, those are great. I thought they were overrated for a long time, but boy was I wrong. Colors, dynamics, fading off into darkness. I’m pretty sure sunsets invented the word “poetic”.

Ed. This originally appeared in my Internet Todo List for Enthusiastic Thinkers. It’s an email thing you can subscribe to. When you do, good things come to you, often via email. It’s free, and it bears no shilling for other people.

The Third Shift

In the days of industrial labor, many factories ran three shifts per day. Three eight-hour shifts per day keeps a factory fully utilized and some business major’s spreadsheets happy. Luckily, for many of us, knowledge/thinking oriented businesses don’t usually follow this paradigm. We’re not (often) pressured to pick up a double shift, possibly freeing time to do useful things that we don’t get paid for.

For the ambitious (possible euphemism), this opens up an interesting opportunity: allocating the second shift to one’s own projects. Writing that great book you’ve got inside you, penciling a comic, running your Etsy business on the side, or bootstrapping that web app you’re dreaming about all make a great fit for a second shift. Find time before or after your day job, and then aim for the sky.

I found it easy to take this logic to the next level and think, well if two shifts works and I can make progress on _two_ things, three shifts might work and then I can do _three_ things! Wake up early, do something awesome. Work the nine to five, do awesome things. Take a couple hours in the evening, do even more awesome things. Seems good, right?

Unfortunately, the third shift is a bandaid over too many projects and lead me to do lower quality work across the board.

I need more physical rest and mental space than working on three things affords. Turning down an extra hour of sleep or the bleeping of an alarm clock is a hard bargain. One side project, as it turns out, is plenty.

That said, the third shift _is_ useful as a “turbo button” that I only press when I really mean it and used only for short-term projects that are important to whatever awesome thing I’m trying to do. A couple weeks waking up early to bang out a presentation or longer-form article are good. Sustaining that for a series of projects doesn’t work for me.

In short: ambition is great, but striking a balance with mental and physical rest is better.