When Smart Sorting Smarts

I use Path Finder all day. I wouldn't even attempt to list all the reasons in a single blog post, but one little feature that I immediately appreciated when I started using Path Finder a few years ago was the way it sorted sub-folders above files in any given directory. This is definitely more of a Windows take on the visual file system, unlike OS X's Finder, which to my knowledge has always given folders and files equal preference in sorting (at least without hacking .plist files or installing add-ons).

Example of how OS X Finder treats folders equally with files when sorting, while Path Finder places all sub-folders in a given folder up top. This particular folder has 159 objects. In the Finder view, the first "Published Copies" folder is the 145th item, which obviously requires a lot of scrolling to locate.

I just like folders up top because I mainly work out of the list view, and I think it's much more efficient to navigate through visual folder hierarchies when I don't have to scroll down to find sub-folders sprinkled among regular files.

I just recently realized that Path Finder can give sorting priority to other types of file system "objects." By default, Path Finder's settings give preference to package and app files, as well. This was actually causing some friction that I guess was mild enough for me to tolerate for a really long time without digging for a solution.

Most Mac users probably don't realize that a growing number of files that appear to be "files" are actually packages of files. Two common examples on my Mac: .key (Keynote files) and .screenflow (ScreenFlow project files).

The ScreenFlow package sorting was creating the most friction because I usually want to see a ScreenFlow project's exported .mp4 file sitting next to its ScreenFlow project of the same name for folders sorted alphabetically. More importantly, I like to see the most recent .mp4 files at the very top of my primary working ScreenFlow folder when sorting by Date Modified in Path Finder. If package files have priority over regular files and you sort by Date Modified, you'll see the package files grouped at the top. You'll have to scroll down to find where the files begin, with the most recent file appearing first.

Fortunately, the fix is easy. Just tell Path Finder not to give any preference to package files when sorting.

This makes a huge difference in my working ScreenFlow folder and lets me quickly grab the most recent .mp4 files that I've exported simply by sorting by Date Modified.

Comparing the same folder in Path Finder—with and without giving priority to package files. Since all of the .mp4 files on the right were created after the ScreenFlow projects from which they came, the .mp4 files appropriately appear at the top.

It is expected that passive voice will continue to annoy me

This morning I was reading an article on a local news site about weather conditions in my area. A couple of paragraphs in, this sentence poked me in the eye:

Snowfall is expected to end about lunchtime.

Perhaps for other reasons—reasons well beyond the scope of this little post—it touched a nerve, but it got me thinking how much I really hate passive voice in any kind of article or report that gives predictions, forecasts, or recommendations.

Without going all English 101 there are really two problems with passive voice from a practical standpoint:

  1. It's far more taxing on the reader cognitively
  2. It implies a lack of confidence

Rewriting the prediction in an active voice solves both problems:

We expect snowfall to end about lunchtime.

The cognitive problem

The cognitive problem isn't immediately obvious in this case because it's such a short sentence shown in isolation, but if you read thousands of pages of technical papers over the course of a year like I do, you know what it's like to have your head caught in the vise of a passive-voice-infected paper.

I've never seen a study that compares reading times between passively and actively written papers, but I would love to see one if anyone knows of one. Send it to me, please. Based on my (non-scientific) experience, it takes roughly 3–5 times longer to process technical literature riddled with passive voice.

The confidence problem

To me, someone who writes "snowfall is expected to end about lunchtime" just doesn't sound all warm and fuzzy that what they're saying is true.

Passive voice is the unconfident, if subconscious, mind's trick of deflecting responsibility from itself into abstract nothingness. I mean, who expects snowfall to end about lunchtime? The writer? The local news station meteorologist? Dark Sky? Nostradamus?

As a reader I have no idea, and that's kind of the point. There is no "we," "he," or "she," in "snowfall is expected to end about lunchtime." No one is at fault when snowfall ends well before or well after lunchtime.

Snowfall itself cannot expect itself to end about lunchtime, so if I'm being really cynical, I can only conclude that no one expects snowfall to end about lunchtime.

Snowfall is pretty innocuous, but there are plenty of other passively written forecasts in the world that are not. Maybe "inflation is expected to increase" or "it is suspected that vaccines are linked to autism." Many of these will translate to "bullshit is assumed."

You should always question anyone who makes recommendations without assuming responsibility or citing someone else.

Use passive voice as a tool for getting better

It's totally fine to write a rough draft in passive voice. The trick is to use it as a self-confidence barometer. If you catch yourself using passive voice when making recommendations or reporting results, ask yourself:

  • Do I really believe what I'm writing?
  • Do I really know who said what I'm writing? If yes, why am I not using their name?
  • Should I publish this at all?
  • Can I say this in simpler language?

And then. . . do the right thing, which is rarely the easy thing. You'll know what I'm talking about when you're at this point.

Cosmos

I recently finished watching all thirteen episodes of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey in Netflix. This is of course the follow-up to Carl Sagan's famous 1980 series Cosmos. Neil deGrasse Tyson narrates the 2014 series with a passionate sincerity that makes it clear that with every word, he's talking about his favorite things in the whole universe.

The writing, visuals, and Tyson's style of delivery make Cosmos almost impossibly accessible for anyone old enough to question their world. I highly recommend this series, especially for school-aged kids—but really for anyone.

Even though I never saw Sagan's original series, I read Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time when I was a teenager. I think it was one of the most important books I read as a kid because it sparked curiosities that remain with me to this day. Tyson has every bit of Sagan and Hawking's ability to talk about very complicated subjects at an almost fifth-grade level of simplicity.

But what I like about Tyson the most is that beyond being a brilliant astrophysicist and speaker, he is a champion of science—almost on a spiritual level.

I think works like Cosmos are some of the most important in our time. Despite existing in the most technologically advanced stage of human civilization, science remains threatened by powerful factions fueled by faith-based fear, politics, and greed. Humanity has experienced periods of intellectualism before—and fallen from them. Perhaps the most important lesson we can take from ancient Greece is that knowledge should not be the privilege of the elite, whose numbers will forever be too few to protect knowledge from those all too eager to give ignorant masses a reason to fear the truth.

Loose thoughts sink costs

Reverting to prior habits isn't necessarily a failure if you look at all new things as experiments rather than unconditional commitments. Reversion can be very rational, especially when it amputates the sunk costs of failed experiments.

Perhaps the reason procrastination is such a prominent, time-tested feature of the human mind is that the current planning self is usually a poor spokesperson for one's future self.

Procrastination is your current actualized self passive aggressively getting back at your unrealistic past self. It's usually better if you can just punch your past self in the throat and move on.

Slate's Working

Last year, Slate released a podcast called Working. The host, David Plotz, interviewed people will all kinds of jobs just to find out what they do all day.

When I came across this podcast, I figured I would listen to part of one episode, then move on. Instead, I listened to all of them—almost hanging on every word. I just have this fascination with what people do with their time and how people define "work."

As fascinating as it was to hear the different aspects of people's jobs—from a porn star to a hospice nurse—it was far more enlightening to hear just how similar skilled people are. Even though they apply their skills in really different contexts, highly professional people approach their work with a fundamental and universal sense of caring. Well, maybe not the waiter.

I hope there's a sequel.

Update: There will be.

Breaker breaker 1-9

Bloomberg:

RadioShack Corp. is preparing to shut down the almost-century-old retail chain in a bankruptcy deal that would sell about half its store leases to Sprint Corp. and close the rest, according to people with knowledge of the discussions.

Amazing RadioShack lasted as long as it did. For me, RadioShack will always be an icon of America's 20th century consumer electronic history—a history I feel fortunate to have caught a piece of.

When I was about ten years old, give or take, in the late 1980s, I bought a handheld CB radio from RadioShack with some allowance money I'd saved. A few other pals in my neighborhood also had CBs. One of my friends managed to rig up a truck CB in his room. He wired it to a car battery and ran a ridiculously high antenna out of his bedroom window that he somehow convinced his parents to let stand.

Our radios were only good for about a 1–2 mile radius, but that was plenty of range for communication during "wars," talking with random truckers passing through, and late-night conversations when we were supposed to be asleep.

Those CBs weren't just our "phones." They were our Internet.

via DF

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.