Because that's what we did last time

It's difficult to think of a better example of cognitive inertia than the milk and bread rush:

This mass accumulation of dairy and dough has become an American snowstorm tradition. The only problem: Milk and bread are pretty bad survival foods. That milk will die fast if your refrigerator loses power, and bread can only offer so much nutrition during its short expiration date.

That which does not kill us makes us do that again.

The survival of the beautiful

Fascinating article by David Rothenberg and imagery by Mike Deal on visualizing whale songs as sheet music. Their video (2:40 min) of whale songs superimposed on nightingales is just as impressive.

I'm no evolutionary biologist, but it seems likely to me that every urge that we, as humans, have to transmit and receive information stems from really ancient wiring. Living things of all kinds were vibrating the earth's atmosphere long before we harnessed radio waves.

It also makes sense to me that evolution would favor elegantly transmitted information. It's probably the reason we "enjoy" music in the first place. Elegance and beauty in nature, like great music, are the products of relentless practice—the kind of practice whales and birds have had for longer than we can imagine.

In some ways, whales and birds may be even more advanced than we are. After all, we only recently dispatched the dial-up modem.

Maybe the evolutionary apex of organic communication is indistinguishable from a song. Maybe music approaches the most fundamental antithesis of universal chaos: the harmonic ordering of waves and particles.

The ascent of failure

This morning, right after my three-year-old son and I lost interest in rebuilding his train set when his 15-month-old sister wrecked it for the third time, my son went for the iPad mini.

It wasn't working either. More specifically, he wanted to watch a Netflix movie, which he couldn't because the iPad was in airplane mode. So he did what he needed to do to fix it: he handed it to dad.

Just then, my daughter toddled up and handed me a ball, which was working just fine.

So there I sat legs crossed on the floor. Netflix in one hand, a ball in the other—two toys with two very different conditions for failure.

The ball has two states of failure: 1) It could get lost or 2) it could run out of air.

The iPad Netflix app has many more than two states of failure. It is beyond me to list them all, but here's a sample:

  • The iPad could get lost
  • The iPad's battery could die
  • Netflix's servers could fail
  • DNS servers could fail
  • Our wireless router could fail
  • The iPad could freeze up
  • The iPad could be in airplane mode
  • The Netflix session could timeout requiring a new sign in, which from my son's perspective is failure since he can't sign in without me

Let's assume the probability of a lost ball is the same as the probability of a lost iPad (very similar incidence rates in my household). Further, let's assume the probability of the ball losing air is zero over short (play-session-long) time periods.

Right away, we see that no matter how well designed the Netflix app might be, its probability of failure is much greater than the ball.

Simply put, as a system gets more complicated, there are more things that can go wrong. For the general public, this intuition is enough, but in terms of Dr. Drang's Venn diagram woodshedding of Marco over misinterpreted probability theory, a system's probability of failure is the sum of many failure possibilities: this could go wrong OR that could go wrong OR if part A fails, parts B, C, and D will also fail immediately.

With an iPad, the more individual probabilities you add on top of the base probability of being lost, the larger the total probability of failure becomes. No matter what.

Pr[Adults are dumb] = ?

As we mature as both individuals and societies, we seem to have his urge to want ever more complicated tools and toys. We also tend to place increasingly complicated expectations on what these things should do.

A modern computer is made of systems within systems. A MacBook is not hardware, not software, but both of them at the same time. And a MacBook is not really the MacBook of our expectations if it can't connect to the Internet—an entirely larger and more complicated system.

With Yosemite and iOS 8, we have even more interdependence through features like Handoff. Now, a MacBook, iPhone, and iPad are no longer three things but a system of things—an ecosystem with an even higher chance of failure by virtue of sitting atop an ever-rising house of cards.

I think it's worth pondering the time we spending fixing our tools and toys versus the time we spending solving problems and actually getting to play.

I'm not convinced that having complex tools is a necessary condition for achieving remarkable results. The Apollo spacecraft's computer was far less complicated than an iPad's after all. Far less. We haven't landed a man on the moon since 1972.

If complexity and connectivity are necessary conditions for the perceived success (the complement of failure) of any given technology, it stands to reason that the risk of technological failure will increase over time, not fall.

I don't see this as a dystopian inevitability though. I think people are at their best and truest selves in the moments following failures. And to a simplistic extent, the human experience is one of either solving problems or creating problems to solve.

If we've learned anything in the last hundred years or so, it's that technology doesn't promise to simplify our lives. It promises to keep our lives extremely interesting.

On Overcast and overwork

A lot of people will probably link to and talk about Marco Arment's Overcast sales numbers post, which Marco provided as data and education for other app developers.

But as illuminating as his numbers will be to the (good natured) people that read Marco's post, I think the most enlightened part is at the very end:

After the self-employment penalties in taxes and benefits, I’m probably coming in under what I could get at a good full-time job in the city, but I don’t have to actually work for someone else on something I don’t care about. I can work in my nice home office, drink my fussy coffee, take a nap after lunch if I want to, and be present for my family as my kid grows up. That’s my definition of success.

I'm really lucky I have a job that gives me indie-like flexibility with my work projects, hours, and location, too. I feel so lucky that I can be so present at home today because I can't imagine the future hell of wishing I'd spent more time with my kids. That I can make a decent living at the same time is just a bonus bestowed by the internet age.

But having complete control over what I work on and how often I work on it can also be a curse for someone like me. I will be the first to admit that I have this innate propensity to pursue my work in every nook and cranny of time I can find—in and around family life.

The more I mature as a person, though, the easier it's getting to remind myself that work is just a means to money, which itself is only a tool. Money is merely a resource that one must acquire to exist in modern society. Once you make enough to secure survival and take your mind off the next meal, the rest is just a game. A truly enlightened individual will weigh the time they spend playing that game with the other things and people they value in life.

In one of my absolute favorite TED Talks of all time, Nigel Marsh talks about the importance of work-life balance with almost stinging eloquence.

To me, work-life balance is a far more interesting and worthwhile obsession than work itself. Designing your reality is the most important design you'll ever work on. It is the one design that determines everything.

How to draw lines and influence people

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then times have never been better for people who want to tell long lies to audiences with short attention spans. Last year, Eric Portelance wrote a great piece for Medium where he dissected a fantastic falsehood told through a Bloomberg graph of U.S. men's income.

Maybe I'm just getting cranky with age, but I've just gotten so cynical about graphics posted in mainstream places—from news articles to Twitter. Whenever I see a graph or chart depicting any kind of trend in any kind of data, I assume it's been designed to mislead me. A very recent example: The Economist mixed a nice cocktail of confirmation bias, anchoring bias, and data truncation into a graph of shooting deaths versus automobile deaths.

Line graphs, bar charts, and all their two-dimensional friends can be wonderfully effective story tellers. But sadly, it's not always apparent whether the genre is fiction or non-. Most people today don't have the time to check before clicking share.

A better pocket knife with Launch Center Pro and Pythonista

As nice as it is to write a for-my-eyes-only script to solve a specific problem on my Mac, it is satisfying in an entirely new way to write code on a mobile device. It just feels less like "programming" and more like making a better pocket knife.

A mundane problem I wanted to solve:

I love budgeting, but not as much as I love food. It's always been a struggle for me to manage what I'm spending eating out over the course of a month—especially since what my family and I spend at restaurants tends to vary a lot in size and frequency.

It's easy to set a food budget at the beginning of the month, and it's easy to see whether we came in under or over that budget at the end of the month, but it's a lot harder to ascertain whether or not I'm on track as the days of the month tick by.

The pocket knife solution:

I wrote a simple Python script in Pythonista that takes a monthly dollar figure—my remaining food budget for the month—and averages it over the remaining days in the current month:


import datetime, calendar
import sys
import console

budget = float(sys.argv[1])

d = datetime.datetime.today().day
m = datetime.datetime.today().month
y = datetime.datetime.today().year
last = calendar.monthrange(y,m)[1]

remaining_per_day = budget / (last - d)
message = 'You have $' + str(round(remaining_per_day,2)) + ' remaining per day for the next ' + str(last - d) + ' days.'

console.clear()
print message

The Python script itself is fairly unremarkable, but what impressed the hell out of me is that I was able to write it entirely on my iPhone, then slap a "GUI" on it using Launch Center Pro.

I don't even have to open Pythonista to use it. I just tap a Launch Center Pro action, enter a dollar figure, and Launch Center Pro sends it to Pythonista, which runs the script and puts an answer in the console.

This little workflow takes advantage of Pythonista's ability to accept standard input via its URL scheme and Launch Center Pro's ability to send a URL that consists partly of numeric keypad input.

In LCP's action settings, enter Pythonista's URL scheme in the URL field along with [prompt-num], which is LCP's variable for keypad input. The name of the Python script in this example is Budget.py.

This was a mundane problem, but the solution feels remarkable.

To me, Pythonista is a very important app because it feels like an obvious step toward a future where more software creation will happen on devices that we don't think of as "computers" in the conventional sense.

Maybe I'm overblowing all this, but I just think it's amazing that I can write a piece of code on a mobile device, then snap a few blocks together to essentially create a custom app. I can't help but think the future of programming won't feel like "programming"—much like using an iPhone doesn't feel like "computing."

Other resources

Some of the media elements in this post are best viewed in the original.

Caught in our own net

How the Victorians Wired the World is a fascinating documentary of the telegraph's influence on modern life. Though it was made in 2000, near the height of the dot-com bubble, its message is no less profound today.

I think connective technologies are the most powerful influencers of human behavior today. To understand ourselves, we must understand the elemental nature of that which owns our attention. The internet and mobile devices are our masters today, but in many ways, they are far more evolutionary than revolutionary on the grander time scale of technological development.

Before the internet, we had forms of instant communication unconstrained by distance. Before the telegraph, we did not.

via Hypertext

The only free economy

Money seems to enable free societies. The free economies of the world seem to be proof that exchanging some socially agreed-on proxy of value for real things is better than trading real things directly.

But does money really free the individuals of those societies? What's the value of money to one's self?

Modern money (fiat money) itself has no intrinsic value. It only has value to the extent that people imagine it has value.

Money can only be valued on a relative basis. A U.S. dollar will always be worth less (or more) than a euro. Someone with "a lot of money" can only exist if there are those who have a lot less. Manmade currencies are simply social contracts valued on the relative emotions of those who exchange them.

In fact, being a system created by people—for people—money is all emotion. For all the real problems solved by money, it creates at least as many imaginary ones.

At an individual level, once money solves the problems of basic survival, the human mind becomes temporarily starved of problems, so it naturally begins creating new ones with the money left over. I think this is largely because the socially accepted definition of "enough money" is forever pegged at "more than I have now."

Behaviorally, I think a capitalist mindset can lead to a looking-glass reality of true emotional prosperity. Everything is inverted. Going up is really going down. Those chasing heaven are actually barrelling toward hell.

"Ascension" in a capitalist economy is like riding an elevator in an infinitely high Wall Street sky scraper. The catch: demons lurk on all the floors below. The higher you go, the higher you must go. This is the paradox of loss aversion—the beast yet to be slain by the First World. To escape the fear of falling, we perpetually climb higher. Not because we truly want more, but because we're terrified of less.

"If Bill Gates woke up tomorrow with Oprah's money, he'd jump out a fuckin' window. . ." —Chris Rock

To an observer from another world, modern financial systems would probably seem like a twisted game of "heads I win, tails you lose." Winners' highs rapidly melt into progressively worse hangovers, forcing them to play for even higher highs. Losers are cursed with envy of the ostensible winners.

Ultimately, money fails at providing anyone lasting satisfaction because its quantity and value aren't constrained by anything real. It's all in our heads, and the evils of our imaginations know no bounds.

If there's any real currency in the universe it's time.

Time is completely immune from the whims of human emotion, and ignoring the effects of extreme gravity or speed, time's value is constant for all of us. Being independent of our existence and our perceptions, time follows simpler, less emotional rules than manmade money.

First, time can only be spent; it can not be amassed. Second, time must be spent at a fixed rate. Third, time is infinite in total—there's enough for everyone who has been and who will be—but our individual endowment of time is both finite and essentially beyond our control.

Unlike money, we can't choose whether or not we spend time. We can't save it for later. We can only choose what we spend time thinking about right now. There is no currency more equitable and free-flowing in its current state than time.

In any given day, a very rich person has the ability to buy vastly more than a very poor person. But in that same day, they will spend exactly the same amount of time.

In Walden Thoreau said ". . . a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone."

I've come to the conclusion that freedom is the greatest form of riches anyone can achieve. But being free—truly free—is something that can only be bought from myself. Since manmade money can only be a liability in an economy of one, it's worthless as a medium of exchange for freedom. The only currency that can buy my freedom is the time I spend choosing to be free.

Surprisingly, I've found that freedom can only come from self-discipline and ruthlessly dictating priorities—choosing what to do in advance as much as possible. More importantly, freedom is about choosing what not to do in advance.

And for all the plans that fall apart, freedom is in the Cool Hand Lucan process of accepting, getting up, and planning again.

Only through the consistent practice of planning, self-discipline, and acceptance can I be set free to care as deeply as possible about what I'm doing in any given moment.

This takes a lot of effort, and with practice, it gets easier. But never perfect.

All I know is that when I'm operating at the very highest level across my three most fundamental identities—professional, parent/spouse, and self—I have full awareness not only of how I plan to spend my time, but why I'm spending it that way.

In those moments I am fully aware. I am rich. I am free.

OmniFocus outside of the GTD box

Hilton Lipschitz:

I do not use OmniFocus the GTD way (at least I do not think I do given that I have not read the book). I do use OmniFocus the way that works best for me.

So many great ideas in one post. One of my favorites:

Chase tasks are special tasks to remind me to chase people for information or deliverables.

OS X Shell Tricks

Brett Terpstra and Ryan Irelan are two of my favorite people on the internet, and when I found out they came together to make a course on OS X Shell Tricks on Mijingo.com, I couldn't resist. I got a lot out of this course considering that I was pretty weak on Shell commands coming into it. The section on files and directories alone was worth it to me.

As someone who makes a lot of educational video myself, I have a lot of respect for the quality of Mijingo's products. Another thing I'm realizing more and more: When it comes to any form of online education, I usually can't afford the time cost of "free." Give me a reasonably priced video course with high production values over wasted hours of YouTube searching any day.