Quit your desk

Things I’ve quit doing at my desk:

Many writers maintain a private writing hut. The hut has one purpose: it’s the place they go to write. They don’t do anything else there. Once they can’t write any more, they go do something else. I think we need to think of our desks in the same way: these are places where we get work done.

I like my desk, but I know the hours I can sit at it and get work done before fatigue sets in are finite. I try to mix in standing at our bar-height dining table, sitting on the couch (most recently, with three dogs), working from coffee shops and occasionally sitting on the front or back porch.

The big idea from that article, burning a hole in my head, is that we should step away from our desks when we’re not working (for me, telling computers to do things). Thinking can happen on a walk, standing outside, or in the shower. Socializing can happen from the couch or mobile device. Procrastinating by reading, surfing, social networking, etc. can happen anywhere.

Once I freed my mind from the idea that I’m only working the moments my butt is in a chair at a desk in front of a computer, my work improved and my life got better. Quit your desk and find out for yourself.

Coffee and other warmups

Making a cup of coffee sometimes helps me prepare for the process of solving puzzles with computers. Something about choosing AeroPress, French press, Chemex, or Clever; heating the water to 212F or 200F; medium-fine, medium, or coarse grinding of the beans. The weighing and grinding of the beans, boiling the water, rinsing the filter, pouring the water, waiting, pouring more water, agitating, pressing the coffee, discarding the filter and grinds. Now I’m left with a cup that I made for myself. A minor victory for the day.

All sorts of things require warm-ups. Stretching, air-squatting, or a quick jog lets my body know it’s almost time to exert itself. Word association or playing little games tells my brain it’s time to improvise.

Updating some documentation. A tiny, superficial refactoring or layout change to some code. Drawing a picture in my notebook. Making some coffee. That’s how I know it’s time to solve puzzles.

Off my grid

Courtney regularly drives an hour southwest of Austin, past Dripping Springs, to practice dog agility at a barn her friend rents. It’s amazingly quiet once you get past the city, past the backroads, and out into the hills and trees. It was an overcast evening when I went with her so the sunset was a no-show. Yet, the serenity and variety of it wasn’t lost on me.

Ignorance: pros and cons

We can often, but not always, choose to ignore those on the internet, on TV, and in our lives with different ideas, philosophies, or opinions about the world. Whether intentional or accidental, this is ignorance.

Ignorance is handy because it can keep us sane. We can’t know all the things or have all the experiences. We all value things based on our own experiences and learnings. We cross-reference that with our ego and emotions and come up with our “truths”. Conflicting “truths” can hurt, and so we only let some kinds of them in and trim our lives to exclude the others. This is helpful for reducing stress and making for more happy days.

It’s not great though, because it isolates us from seeing more of the world and understanding it more clearly. Many media fights/beefs/arguments are rooted in conflicting “truths” and collisions of ignorance. You ignore the value of a supportive government, I ignore the value of maximum personal liberty, and boom! we’re arguing. We’re not getting things done.

Personally, that arguing is stressful. I’d rather not get worked up about politics, governance, and technical minutiae if at all possible. Therefore, I selectively engage in ignorance. I try to double check my assumptions and ignorance occasionally; I find ignorance is a useful tactic, not a long-term strategy.

If you could imagine a world where empathy ruled and everyone possessed a superpower for compromise, you might see a world where ignorance isn’t so much of a problem and amazing things can get done. Oh, what a fantastic, science-fiction world!

Ignorance is bliss and that which prevents us from achieving really big things. Use your ignorance carefully and with consideration.

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.