Analogue reality

Brian Kernighan’s Understanding the Digital World introduced me to the difference between digital and analogue signals. The simplest way to think of the difference is to compare a sequence of binary numbers—0s and 1s—to a fractal entity, like a coastline

Imagine an arbitrary sequence of binary numbers When graphed, it will look like a jagged line. There’ll be some flat lines—0 to 0, 1 to 1 etc.—but it’ll be predominantly toothy. Now, look closer; every point on that graph will still be either a zero or a one. No matter how close the eye gets. 

On a typical map, a stretch of coastline will also look like a jagged line. But increase the precision of measurement. Go from a map of the world, to a map of a continent, to a map of a country, to a map of a region, to a map of a coastal town. Maybe lace up some walking boots, head to the coastal town and walk the shore line. What will you find? Probably something like this: looking closer reveals that there’s more to see. Always.

This is analogue reality. And my ignorance of it has, over the past several years, likely been a cause of suffering.

Logging reality

When I fool around with stories nowadays, I sometimes reproduce their events using a simple visual tool: Vonnegut’s story curves. The only difference is that I’ve added a couple additional values. Instead of Vonnegut’s simple + and -, I have a scale that goes like this:

+ +

+

0

– –

It is a simplistic device. But it is helpful, too. Taking it back to reality, such a simple conception can also be used to imagine existence. Every moment maps to a corresponding value— + +, +, 0, – or – -. If most people—me included—logged the entirety of their existence using this method, the average result would be a gently undulating curve with a spattering of sharp peaks and deep valleys.

As a rule—let’s skip over the impact of prospect theory—humans are happier and healthier when they make a deliberate effort to focus on the upside of these imaginary logs of existence. Conversely, humans are unhappier and unhealthier when they focus on the lower half of these theoretical logs.

This seemed perfectly reasonable to me, and perfectly sensible, until two days ago. Two days ago, I realised that perhaps humans are always unhappier and always unhealthier when they perceive reality in such digital terms. Using primitive, clunky values like + + or -, like “good” and “bad”, like “sad” and “amazing”, helps—else how could we communicate—but it also harms.

Losing one’s self

The contemplative arts—which teach both inward-focused and outward-focused reasoning—show one how to see analogue reality. Some contemplative arts—meditative traditions like Buddhism, for example—teach one to experience analogue reality, first in strictly controlled settings, and later in larger and larger swathes of everyday life.

This isn’t new, globally. Entire libraries and entire lifetimes have been devoted to the exploration and excavation of reality’s analogue nature. Heck, ceasing to label experience is a lecture in Mindfulness 101. But it’s taken on a new importance for me.

A while back, in The Lord of the Gap, I wrote:

In magnitude, the present is dwarfed by both the past and the future. It is tiny in comparison to the totality of those two great entities. But not in meaning, for the present’s meaning is immense, threefold. The present is, all at once, result, seed and interface:

– The present is the result of everything that occurred in the past.
– The present is the seed for everything that could occur in the future.
– The present is the interface between the immutable past and the possible futures.

The Lord of the Gap recognises this, and to him or her, The Gap manifests as a Gateway that when stepped through leads to a state of transcendence. The Lord of the Gap escapes time and escapes space. The Lord of the Gap inhabits the present, utterly, and so becomes everything that has happened in the past and everything that could happen in the future.

Specifically, what’s new to me is the analogue nature of each and every moment. Which is another way of saying that each and every moment is truly fractal, complex beyond measure, complex regardless of measure. Seeing this is one thing. Living in alignment with that perception is another. Yet the greatest danger of all is losing one’s self. Entering the Gap and never coming out.

For if it is true that a human being cannot persist in a void, it may also be true that a human being cannot persist in the opposite of a void—which is what I think analogue reality at a sufficient level of depth is akin to.

The status of the wholes 2020

My second in-depth annual review. This post runs long: approximately 10,000 words. I recommend using the page jumps to skip around. My first annual review (2019) is shorter. Read it here.

I doubt I’ll be posting much in the next six months, so sign up for The Magnificent Seven to stay informed. Or just send me an email: matt at swellandcut.com.

Matt.


Contents

  1. Origin Story
  2. Wholesome Bonds
  3. Breathe
  4. Read
  5. Write
  6. Move
  7. Play
  8. Speak
  9. Seven Questions, Courtesy of the Availability Heuristic
  10. An Explicit Switch

1. Origin Story

(Return to Contents)

Last year, I wrote the first Status of the Wholes post. It helped me recalibrate and rethink, so I’m doing it again. Here’s the origin story of the structure that I’ll use as a guide.

  • 26/03/16: I combined three ideas–80/20, Parkinson’s Law and minimum effective dose–to create a daily standard for myself. Shorthand, it looks like: Br / Re / Wr / Mo / Pl. Breathe, read, write, move and play.
  • 25/02/18: After learning about Josh Waitzkin’s method for compressing rituals (“making smaller circles”), I changed the daily standard into a scalable loop. The standard could be compressed, extended and performed multiple times, and different components could be emphasised, or even omitted.
  • Sometime in 2019: a sixth element was added: speak. Its meaning was first relationship focused–talking to my friends and family. But it also included my attempts to pick up some rudimentary French.

Throughout 2020, Br / Re / Wr / Mo / Pl / Sp has been less of a daily standard or a scalable loop and more a touchstone. On a day-to-day basis, I’ve rarely managed to hit each one. But overall–by week and by month–I’ve maintained a semblance of consistency. That six component sequence, as well as providing a guiding structure for my life, will also form the spine of this post. 

I’ll look at my “performance” with respect to each element during 2020, and then I’ll speculate about how 2021 is shaping up and what I would like to accomplish. Think of it as “looking back” and “looking forward”. That’s the structure of the post. But why “wholes”? 


2. Wholesome Bonds

(Return to Contents)

A while back, Joe Norman penned an essay called Generating Wholes. He said:

“In living systems the whole generates the parts. The parts do not exist a priori. In each step of this process we can see that both wholes and parts come from existing wholes. They are not constructed in the usual sense—they are not manufactured. They are synthesized via an unbroken chain of wholes, extending back to the beginning.”

I’ve come to see each element–breathing, reading, writing, moving, playing, speaking–as its own whole. A part of me that is more than a part, if you will. Even more so this year than the last, when I first read that essay.

I also began Status of the Wholes 2019 by describing a samaya bond. I learned of samaya bonds in Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart. It is a sacred vow, an unconditional commitment that a teacher and a student make to one another.

“If the student accepts and trusts the teacher completely and the teacher accepts the student, they can enter into the unconditional relationship called samaya. The teacher will never give up on the student no matter how mixed up he or she might be, and the student will also never leave the teacher, no matter what.”

Breathing, reading, writing, moving, playing and speaking are the teachers; I continue to be their student. 

Enough meta. Let’s get to the meat.


3. Breathe

(Return to Contents)

– Minimal Sitting

If I evaluate 2020 by both the number and consistency of dedicated meditation/breathing sessions, it is an abject failure. I can count the sessions on one hand. 

And even those sessions were half-assed, barely purposeful. Only for the smallest amount of time could I maintain awareness or concentration. Distraction and inattention were synonyms for those few sessions. 

Yet that doesn’t mean that 2020 was a complete fail. In August 2020, I read James Nestor’s Breath. That had some interesting effects.

– Mouth, Meet Tape

The simplest change I implemented thanks to the book is mouth taping overnight. In short, I use some 3M micropore tape to seal my lips together each night.

I won’t go into the benefits of nasal breathing here–check out James’ book and site for that. But I will include part of a short email I sent to James post-book:

“…several years ago, I was a consistent meditator. I felt I had great control of my breathing. I lost it, however, and have since been unable to get it back. But now I’ve started mouth-taping overnight and explicitly nasal breathing, the general tone and control I have over my diaphragm etc is going back to where it used to be. That’s a consequence of reading your book.”

That is not an exaggeration. Mouth taping was transformative.

– Dragon (Dog) Breath

In addition to mouth taping overnight, I adopted nasal breathing as my default during the day. A challenging aspect of that adoption occurred whilst training. During the UK lockdown–and for three months whilst I was furloughed–I was training consistently. Usually with kettlebells. Usually swinging them. Almost every day.

Now, here’s the issue. Boxers are trained to pair short, sharp exhales with each strike of their hand. I was trained to do the same with kettlebell swings. At the apex of the swing, unleash a concise and powerful exhalation. When I switched to nasal breathing, that exhalation had to come from my nose holes, not my mouth hole. It felt strange at first. But I adapted, eventually. I felt like a dragon, puffing tendrils of smoke as a threat to would-be adventurers.

The punch-exhalation was one aspect. When I was training slower, at a lighter tempo, or with heavier weights (think Turkish get-ups), nasal breathing actually felt easier. But when I was training harder and at a higher tempo, I felt constricted. I felt like I couldn’t get enough air, quickly enough.

It was an exercise in discipline and composure. The discipline part was not opening my jaw and sucking in a lungful of air on the sly (as if anyone but me was watching, or even cared). The composure part was reminding myself that I already had enough air. 

In Breath, James talks about overbreathing, how by slackening our jaw and panting we actually take in too much air and promote chronic inefficiency of the respiratory system and its components. That inefficiency can be dispelled only by breaking long habits and finding comfort in less.

Here’s an example. The only time I ever see our dog open her mouth and pant is when she’s hot. The rest of the time, her mouth is closed and her nostrils are flaring. We could have been on the longest walk, engaged in the most frenetic of play. It doesn’t matter. Her chest could be expanding and shrinking like the greatest set of bellows. She’s always nasal breathing, and always looking like an angel whilst doing it. I sure look like no angel.

– The Evils of Walking and Cycling

Finding comfort in less air is a noble aim. In practice, it’s a bitch. 

I mentioned that I was furloughed for three months and training basically every day. I was also walking for several miles with our dog. Those miles happened to be up a mile or two long, steep hill. The challenge of nasal breathing really came home to me on those ascents. There was rarely noise on those walks–no people, no cars. There was only me, desperately clamouring for air with only my nostrils to help. Cycling was worse, though.

I’m a mediocre cyclist at best. Rarely do I top fifteen or twenty miles per ride. But I like diving into the adjacent countryside and getting away from it all. (Un)fortunately, we live in a valley, so going any appreciable distance inevitably requires significant hill climbs. Some defeat me, and I end up walking and pushing my bike. Some I can make it through, however.

Nasal breathing added a new dimension of difficulty to those climbs. Nasal breathing during intense aerobic activity is pretty close to torture. Of course, I’m exaggerating. And I have persisted. Whilst cycling, I’m full nasal. But it wasn’t easy. It isn’t easy. 

The rate at which I can inhale air through my nostrils alone tops out fast. A lot faster than my body agrees to subsist on that rate of oxygen inflow. The period between those two points feels like a vicious street fight, every time.

– Fighting for Breath

One of the gaping absences in my life right now is Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Because pandemic, I haven’t trained since February. But one of the remaining nasal breathing challenges is this activity. I have yet to see how I will cope with nasal breathing whilst drilling and sparring. 

I predict that it will be hard. But also, whilst sparring in particular, I think I’ll have a head start. When sparring, I always wear a mouthguard. This means that I spend a lot of sparring time with my jaw tight and teeth clenched. That’s halfway on the road to nasal breathing… 

– Breathe: 2021

Aside from continuing with the nasal breathing, I don’t have any explicit breathe-related goals for the coming year. A true stretch goal would be the reestablishment of a daily or weekly sit. But it’s not tremendously high on my to-do list.

It’s not that I don’t think breathing matters, nor that I don’t believe stillness is essential. It’s more that I feel now is not the time to expend more than satisfactory effort on this frontier. 


4. Read

(Return to Contents)

– The Reading Sheet

The biggest change on the 2020 reading front was brought about by an insurance concern. We moved house in early 2020 and one of the unlikely scenarios we considered was a fire. If the house burnt down, what would we lose? After I got over the paralysis initiated by the idea of all of my books burning to a cinder, I realised I didn’t know what books I owned. Solution: log ’em on a spreadsheet.

Seven-hundred-odd Excel rows later, I had an up-to-date register of my books. Unexpectedly, however, this exercise in archiving turned into an integral part of my reading workflow. 

– The Columns

For every book on the sheet, I record:

  • Title
  • Author
  • Date (usually, of arrival)
  • Format (paperback, hardcover, ebook)
  • Status (read, unread, quit, authored, relinquished, note-taking, skimmed, pre-ordered, now reading)
  • Condition (new, like new, good, poor, marked up, digital)
  • Type (fiction, non-fiction, hybrid)
  • Genre/type (sci-fi, fantasy, interviews, biography, memoir etc.)
  • Subject/theme
  • Whose book it is (mine or my partner’s)
  • Estimated value
  • Source (strong/weak tie recommendation, series continuation, bibliography, gift, project-related)
  • Ratings (see below)
  • Comments
  • Last updated

That seems like a lot, but it doesn’t take too long. 

– The How of Rating

Note, I said “ratings” not “reviews”. The latter is qualitative and not a developed practice of mine. The former is quantitative and something that I wanted to establish as a practice. Mainly because a rating is an impression of a book that I can access in the future in order to recall my relationship to the text in the past. It won’t give me a wholly accurate, or even wholly reliable, understanding of the book, but it will capture a part of how I felt about it.

The “how” of rating is simple for fiction books. When authoring fiction, I already break it down in various elements:

  • Character: the cast of beings.
  • World: the world the cast inhabits.
  • Events: what happens in the world, to the cast.
  • Narration: how what happens in the world, to the cast, is described.
  • Authorial intent: purity and potency of the author’s purpose.

Non-fiction poses a greater challenge. I needed five categories in which to rate a work of non-fiction. In the end, I settled on:

  • Authorial intent: purity and potency of the author’s purpose.
  • Style: quality of the prose.
  • Rhetoric: persuasiveness of logic, argument or narrative.
  • Density: research, thought or experience communicated per page. 
  • Salience: a book’s individual rightness and its impact upon myself or society. 

Of course, the non-fiction rating parameters are a bit more, ah, vague. But it works for me, for now. Oh, and it’s worth noting that each of these scales is from zero to ten, and I rate in increments of 0.5.

– Half a Roundup

As I said, I began the reading spreadsheet in early 2020. It wasn’t done and operational until the middle of the year. And I didn’t start rating books until a bit later. So I’ll save the comprehensive reading roundup for next year, when I’ll have had a full year of using the sheet. Instead, I’ll do a roundup-lite, including only books with ratings attached. That means I’ll have about half a year’s worth of reading to examine. Here goes…

  • I began a total of 78 books.
  • 20 of those were from the Penguin Little Black Classics collection.
  • Of the 78 began, I quit 5.
  • 40 of the 78 were ebooks. 3 were hardcovers. 35 were paperback.
  • 38 were fiction. 5 were hybrid. 35 were non-fiction.
  • My most read genres were essays and fantasy.
  • The book rated highest for authorial intent (both fiction and non-fiction) was Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind. It scored 9. Anand Giriharadas’ Winner Takes All scored an 8.5.
  • Rothfuss’ The Wise Man’s Fear scored highest on character.
  • Both of Rothfuss’ books scored highest on world, as did Don Winslow’s The Border.
  • Winslow’s The Cartel and The Border scored highest on events.
  • Rothfuss’ books and Katherine Arden’s The Winter of the Witch scored highest on narration.
  • Masha Gessen’s Surviving Autocracy, Brian W. Kernighan’s Understanding the Digital World and Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest scored highest on style.
  • Surviving Autocracy, James Nestor’s Breath, Samuel C. Florman’s The Existential Pleasures of Engineering and Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read scored highest on rhetoric.
  • Blessed Unrest, Understanding the Digital World, Donella H. Meadows’ Thinking in Systems and Cynthia L. Haven’s Conversations with Rene Girard scored highest on density.
  • The Little Black Classic edition of The Communist Manifesto scored highest on salience.

That’s my reading for the second half of 2020, by the numbers. The only thing missing is the top ten books overall…

– Top Ten, By Rating

These are the top ten books, according to my rating system. 

1. The Name of the Wind (Kingkiller Chronicle I) by Patrick Rothfuss (44) and 2a. The Wise Man’s Fear (Kingkiller Chronicles II) by Patrick Rothfuss (43.5)

I read these a while back and decided to give them another run. As with most re-reads, the experience did not disappoint. Rothfuss is masterful in most every dimension.

2b. The Border (Cartel III) by Don Winslow (43.5) and 3a. The Cartel (Cartel II) by Don Winslow (42)

I’ve read a small share of books about the American (not Mexican) drug crisis. Roberto Saviano’s Zero Zero Zero was my first taste. Ioan Grillo’s works were tragic and enthralling in equal measure. Winslow’s Cartel series, and the above two entries in particular, were magnitudes more impactful. 

That’s not to say Grillo, Saviano and others didn’t rip and shred my heart into tiny pieces. They did. Winslow just did it better. More comprehensively. 

It’s easy to see that his stories are built atop a rigorous foundation of real-life experiences and research. But Winslow’s stories did to me what no mountain of research can do alone: they emphasised the human element of the drug crisis. The sheer breadth and depth of suffering mixed up with the drug crisis was melded into a stake and driven deep into my being.

3b. Blessed Unrest by Paul Hawken – 42

An older book whose arguments about ecological and environmental crises are, today, somewhat common and accepted. That does not detract from their impact, however. If anything, it does the opposite. Seeing common ideas imparted with great vigour and sincere feeling just demonstrates the inadequacy of today’s responses to ongoing disasters. It also demonstrates our own desensitisation. 

4a. Surviving Autocracy by Masha Gessen – 41.5

I read this in order to get a better understanding of the trajectory the UK has embarked upon. Mission accomplished. 

Because of Gessen, I have some idea of the struggles encountered in Russia as it attempted to transition to modernity. I can also see some of the same patterns being transplanted into British society and culture: the overt corruption, the attempted roll-back of civilian rights (e.g. human rights retraction, starvation of the judiciary), the destruction of public dialogue and measured debate.

Gessen’s book helped me see a little more clearly, but also made me feel a lot more troubled. 

4b. Understanding the Digital World by Brian W. Kernighan – 41.5

I came across Kernighan, and this book in particular, because of his appearance on the Lex Fridman podcast. The book was the perfect mix; neither simplistic nor complicated. It talked of the basic infrastructure of the digital world in simple terms. A solid foundation of understanding atop which I hope to build.

5a. Breath by James Nestor – 41

I only ended up reading this book because, last year, I read Deep, James’ first book. That was a good book, indeed. When I found out James was writing a book about breathing, I preordered it and forgot about it. 

It turned up, I read it, and it resulted in multiple small, subtle and significant changes in my life. I feel fortunate to have encountered it and hope that others find the same benefits as I have–that is, greater health and wellbeing.

5b. The Bear and the Nightingale (Winternight I) by Katherine Arden (41) and 5c. The Winter of the Witch (Winternight III) by Katherine Arden (41)

I read Arden’s Winternight trilogy at the urging of my partner. I was scratching around for something a little different and she suggested this. I’m glad she did. Arden’s trilogy is one of the most charming books I’ve read in a very long time. Sure, there are deeper themes buried within it, but as a story in its own right, it is beautiful.

– Six-Pointed Focus

This year, my reading became primarily digital. And as my Kindle’s default view can contain six books, I ended up having six books on the go at once. Three fiction and three non-fiction. The three fiction were split into:

  • Sci-fi
  • Fantasy
  • Contemporary or classic

The make-up of the three non-fiction changed according to my interests. Currently, it looks like:

  • Computing
  • Ecology/systems
  • Human nature/philosophy.

In addition to digital books, I’ve kept a dead-tree book on the go. Right now, that is the mammoth, twelve book, Complete History of Middle-Earth

However, I think I’ll be altering this set-up. I’ll probably drop to three, perhaps four digital books and maintain the LOTR reading. I simply have less time to read, nowadays, and that will persist for the foreseeable future.

– Now Roaming

Years ago–after being highly influenced by Ryan Holiday–I annotated dead-tree books and transcribed quotes and commentary onto 4×6 index cards. I ended up with several thousand cards before I quit.

Then, I tried implementing a .txt file based system in its stead. That never really got off the ground. The result was that, for the past few years, I’ve just been reading. Not annotating much. Not highlighting. When I first got a Kindle and began using it heavily, I explicitly decided not to highlight. I wanted to try pure reading–reading without an adjacent system or workflow.

Recently, I adopted Roam Research as a tool to help me in a new job. Now, I’ve migrated other significant workflows to it, too. That includes reading. A month or so ago, I began highlighting as I read on my Kindle. And I’m importing those highlights into my Roam graph using Readwise. 

I’m unsure where this will take me and what the result will be. Likely a slowdown in reading throughput. Likely an increased engagement with material read–and thus a higher yield of impact upon my mind and actions. Outside of that? I don’t know. But it is nice to have some friction in my reading process once more… 

– Read: 2021

Once more, no overly specific goals here, apart from “keep reading.” I do want to finish The Complete History of Middle-Earth. I think I’ll manage that, especially because Tolkien’s mythology is fascinating and Christopher Tolkien’s commentary is so insightful.

I would also like to complete a re-read of The Malazan Book of the Fallen that incorporates the material of Steven Erikson’s co-conspirator, Ian C. Esslemont. That’s a maybe, though; such a re-read would probably consume half a year in itself…


5. Write

(Return to Contents)

Barker: A Novel

In the domain of writing, the release of Barker–my debut novel–was the highlight. The TL;DR, in case you missed it:

Demagogic professor James Barker is prevented from delivering a lecture series which appears to deify Adolf Hitler. In response to the censorship he abandons his tenure-track position at a renowned university and founds the Barker Alternative Institute of Learning. 

Several years later, at the apex of its success as a cutting-edge online school, BAIL welcomes its first cohort of in-person attendees. BARKER follows three of these teenage students—Christopher, Alex and George—through their first weeks. 

Orientating themselves in their new environment, forging relationships with fellow students and singular professors, and grappling with BAIL’s alternative curriculum are not the only challenges the trio face. James Barker’s ideas and methods make BAIL the target of activism and force the students to choose where their loyalties lie and whom they will stand by.

It’s available on Amazon (UK and US). The prologue is free to read , and there’s a post-project review for the interested. A lot of ground is covered in the latter, so I won’t repeat myself.

Six months post-release, it’s odd to see the impact Barker has had. I have not sold a million copies, nor has the story been optioned for Hollywood production. But a smattering of worthwhile dialogue has arisen as a result. That, in itself, is a thing I’m proud of. I also remain proud of the work itself. Were I to do it again, there would, obviously, be things I’d change. But nothing fundamental to the nature of the work.

Ss: Six Short Stories

Following closely in the wake of Barker came Ss, my first short story collection. It began with Sonya Mann commissioning Stateless and grew from there. The brief:

A teenager torn between here and there; an orphaned gnome seeking revenge; a dead man asked to help the still-living; a tree longing for its love; the old playing the young’s game; a drug compradore that wants out. ‘Ss’ is a collection of speculative short stories that explores the violence of life.

Ss is also available on Amazon (UK and US). The first story, Stateless can be read on Sonya’s site. Also free to read are the post-project review and the afterword, Strength. As above, much of what I could say has been said already. Follow the links.

– New Beginnings

Novel? Done. Short stories? Check. I’m still in exploratory mode with this fiction thing, so that leaves me with two options; I either write a stupendous, door-stop epic of a book, or write something of intermediate size. I’ve chosen the latter and, as a result, have sketched out and begun drafting a novella.

The approach is neither as in-depth as Barker nor as improvised as Ss. I’ve done a little prep, but not overmuch. All the elements of a story are there, but each is stripped down to its minimum. What I’m working on is not conventional and it represents a conceptual and stylistic challenge. And it is a slow-burner, too. A weekend affair that likely won’t see much love until the tail-end of 2021.

Having self-published three books now, I’m also contemplating my publishing process as a whole. I’d like to build a platform of my own, one that is not reliant on Amazon. Easier said than done, but not impossible.

I’d also like to professionalise the process significantly, especially when it comes to interior and exterior design and macro- and micro-edits. Or half of me would. The other half of me enjoys the monomaniacal control over every single piece of the process, from concept through to line- and word-spacing. It makes me feel like an Artisan.

I’m unsure which inclination to yield to yet–artisan or pragmatist– and I think the decision will ultimately depend on available disposable income instead of philosophical tendencies. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to try to satisfy both.

Another thing I’m near-100% certain I want to begin is adjacent mini-projects, or AMPs. For my next release, I’m thinking artwork or prints. That would allow me to retroactively produce AMPs for the other works, too. 

But artwork is the beginning. I produced 20 “special” editions of Barker–the special part being the greyscale cover. Half of these went to beta-readers and other important people. Further special additions could be built out; soundtracks could be produced; animations or documentaries; shows or exhibits. There’s a capacity for adjacent mini-projects to become adjacent massive-projects, but it’s only sensible to leverage an event as an excuse to experiment and explore further, isn’t it?

– An Inconsistent Cadence

After completing Barker and Ss, I didn’t get back to blogging, or even really writing consistently. Mainly because I was looking for a new job and trying to learn new concepts. However, after the release of the two books, I was painfully aware of how poor my marketing efforts and infrastructure were. Replacing “poor” with “non-existent” is probably a more accurate description. 

To remedy that, I took a simple step and began a weekly newsletter: The Magnificent Seven. Of course, there need to be other supporting behaviours and workflows in order to actually sell a new book upon release. But none of it happens without a foundational permission asset. So that is what I’m focusing on building first.

Outside of its marketing purpose, the Magnificent Seven is a fun thing to produce. It provides a reason to cast my gaze a bit wider, think a bit deeper, interact and engage a little more. I’m glad I started it and I have no plans to shut it down.

– Yaks and Product Management

As I mentioned, the summer of my 2020 involved looking for a new job. Ideally, something near product management. For my reasoning, see Elements of product management. I’m happy to report that my mission was a success, and that it threw up some interesting activities along the way.

For starters, the Elements of product management evolved into a live document which I leveraged to explore the components of different disciplines: business analysis, UI/UX, software development/engineering, project management and interfacing/integrating. Check it out here. Looking back at the doc, I actually got a fair amount of work done… 

ECPM alone sparked conversations and new learnings. As did my association with the Yak Collective. Shortly after dipping my toe in the YC Discord, I ended up helping out with Yak Talk, a weekly YC newsletter. I ended up writing a few pieces (see the list here) and learning a fair bit about the ins-and-outs of distributed production and ad-hoc coordination.

Lurking in the YC Discord has itself been a rewarding activity. There’s a unique mix of people, all interested in a diverse array of ideas. It’s been beneficial to be near that energy, even if I haven’t contributed overmuch to it.

– Output and Consistency

In terms of raw output, I think 2020 was a definitive success. In terms of consistency, I’m less certain of its success. Thinking about my writing efforts in 2020, I recall them as more episodic, driven more by mood and rightness of moment than by discipline and determination.

I’m happy with that, of course–something is always better than nothing. But I think, as a writer, I write more and I write better when I rely on routine and ritual, discipline and determination, instead of divine intervention.

Of course, writing is a proxy for thought. Writing more is thinking more; writing better is thinking better. These are fundamental objectives for me.

– Write: 2021

2021 will be a funny year. I had begun with the directive of returning to blogging with a regular cadence. Weekly, to be precise. I don’t think that will happen now. 

If the objective of my writing more and better is to think more and better, I think I will accomplish that by continuing with my stack entry and hitting a milestone or two in that domain.

Which leaves 2021, like the preceding categories, pretty sparse on the explicit objective front. I’m confident I will finish the novella by year’s end. I’m also confident that I’ll maintain the Magnificent Seven. And that’s about it.

Oh, actually, it’s not. A critical aspect of my new job is that it is writing-focused. I spend a lot of time looking at and thinking about words. In 2021, the effect of that will start to shine through. If not to you, dear reader, then most definitely to me.


6. Move

(Return to Contents)

– Fast and Smooth, Slow and Steady

In December of 2019, I read Pavel Tsatsouline’s Simple and Sinister. The actual program, itself an evolution of Pavel’s original “program minimum”, informed basically all of my training efforts in 2020. 

In its simplest form, the program is to be performed 5-7 days a week. It consists of a short, three-step warm-up (KB halos, hip thrusts and prying squats) and two exercises:

  • Kettlebell swings; 10 sets of 10.
  • Turkish get-ups: 10 sets of 1, alternating between sides.

It’s simple and it is sinister. Of course, the details are what make it. 

The idea is that the rest between swing sets are tailored according to breath recovery, not seconds or minutes. Another way to think of this is the “talk test”; if you can speak a medium/long sentence with ease, you can begin another set.

The swings themselves are meant to be optimally powerful. Each one is meant to represent a controlled explosion of near-max effort. The best way to understand this directive is to think “fast and smooth”. Aim to move the kettlebell as fast as possible and as smooth as possible; the result is a faster, harder swing than if you tried to swing with maximal effort and aggression.

The Turkish get-up is the opposite of fast and smooth; slow and steady. If a swing takes barely a second, a TGU can (and should) take a minute. A. Whole. Minute.

In programming terms, I haven’t stuck to any of the prescriptions, aside from the 10×10 and the 10×1. Even those I mix up occasionally. I have a KB set ranging from 16kg to 36kg, so I usually alter the weight each session. Usually, if I do lighter, faster swings, I do heavy TGUs and vice versa. Sometimes I go all-light or all-heavy. I’ll mix in one-handed and two-handed swings. I’ll also sometimes drop the number of swings and extend the sets; think 2, 3, 5, 7 for 15 or 20 sets. Rarely, I also mix in KB high pulls and snatches, too. 

– Furloughed

My training and overall movement efforts were given a boost in the summer of 2020. I was furloughed for three months, which turned out well for me. In movement terms, I ended doing a three mile hill walk with our dog and a KB training session as described above basically every day. Couple this with the nasal breathing above and the usual summer cycles, and my physical capacity definitely increased.

I also read an article called Quarantine Fitness which is pretty close to what I would call a normative training philosophy.

Outside of Simple and Sinister, I’ve found myself coming back to the teachings of Dan John, watching more of Tim Anderson’s Original Strength videos, exposing myself to movement related to and derived from dance (see Nils Teisner, Fighting Monkey, Netflix’s Move), and trying to keep the fundamentals of MovNat in my mind.

– Pre-Work Workout

For the past few years, training efforts have been easy to maintain as my work schedule allowed little deviation. If I was working, I couldn’t train–and I worked three or four days a week. The others I had off, so I trained (mostly). 

In December 2020, I began on a more conventional. Monday-to-Friday, nine-to-five work pattern. This has meant I’ve had to change my training habits. On weekdays, I get out of bed at 0600, get our little woof some breakfast and then I’m warming up. By 0700, I’ve done a session and I’m showering, ready for work at 0800. 

I’ve been maintaining the S&S structure, but sometimes I skip it and just do forty odd minutes of smooth and easy movement in different positions. Skipping has been great as a warm-up tool, too. In near zero-temperatures, my conventional warm ups don’t work fast enough, given my time constraints. Skipping does, though.

This pattern works in the winter as our dog will NOT go outside when it’s dark and cold. In the spring, summer and autumn, I expect I’ll be doing a long walk once awake–possibly with a weighted backpack–and training on my lunch break.

– The Missing Element(s)

The glaring, gaping omission from 2020, movement-wise, has been Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I haven’t trained since February and I miss it terribly. KB training, walking, cycling, swimming–all these are satisfying, but none provide the same sense of aliveness and challenge that Brazilian jiu-jitsu does. I cannot wait to get back to it. 

The other, more fundamental element is described by Ido Portal:

“Regarding that ‘movement practice’ that I keep seeing with people all alone, posing with camera and showing their best and endlessly practised tricks…

That’s not what I believe a movement practice should be or look like. It is my experience that people who practice only or mostly solo work are poor movers, lonely and losing meaning as they continue to empty their practice…

One that moves alone will never be adaptable, capable of complex organisation of the body in motion and exerting any control over always changing scenarios which are where [the] real difficult movement challenges are.

Brazilian jiu-jitsu plugs this gap, to a certain extent. BJJ is as much about reaction to and the tempo of the other as it is about proactivity and control of oneself. But I can’t help feeling that my own training and movement will be limited to a certain level in the absence of a movement partner, or group.

– 23 and 1

Training is a part of movement, but not all of it. I understood this only after reading Katy Bowman’s work a few years back.

If I had one hour to head as far north as possible, and twenty-three hours to head as far south as possible, in which direction would I amass the most distance? And I can’t cheat by hopping on a plane or into a car or riding a bike. I must travel, as Werner Herzog recommends, by foot. 

Movement is like that. We have 24 hours in a day; a single hour of deliberate work–no matter how efficient or frenetic–can never totally offset twenty-three hours of damage.

This has taken on greater meaning for me now that I do “knowledge” work, not physical work. Previously, it wouldn’t be strange for me to manually move five tonnes of material in a shift. Now, the most physical labour I undertake is going up and down two flights of stairs multiple times a day. Left untreated, that would become an issue…

Fortunately, I’ve done something about it. I got myself a standing desk. I did imagine flitting between sitting and standing, but I’ve ended up on my feet all day. I feel more comfortable and more alert that way. I’m also making the effort to train everyday. Alongside that, I tend to pick a movement for the day–press ups, squats, band pull-aparts, sit-throughs–and try to accumulate as many reps as possible. 

– Move: 2021

On the movement front, I have some more deliberate ambitions for 2021. First up, as soon as I’m able, I’ll get back to BJJ. Previously, due to my shift pattern, I’ve only been able to train once, sometimes twice, a week. Barely enough to maintain competency and capacity. Now, when the pandemic fades (fingers crossed it is this year), I’ll up the ante and train three times a week. 

Also, and perhaps more fundamentally, I want to do a quick training session every working day, regardless. It’s an ambitious goal, but I’ll come out better for trying to hold myself to it.

On a more diverse tangent, I would also like to learn to dance. I don’t know whether 2021 will see that fulfilled, but it’s on my mind, certainly.


7. Play

(Return to Contents)

– Activity, Mind, Being

Last year, “play” was only briefly touched on. This year, I think I can examine it in a bit more depth. That’s because, mostly after beginning to learn about computing and programming, I’ve come to appreciate my own relationship to the concept and practice of play.

I think of it in three ways. The first nested within the second; the second nested within the third:

  • Play as an activity
  • Play as a state of mind
  • Play as a mode of being

Play as an activity hasn’t been an issue for a while. Writing is something that has long been equated with play, for me. I don’t have too much of an issue larking and joking and exploring activities via play.

It began to become a state of mind after reading James Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games. It wasn’t always accessible to me, but I was aware of it as an option. I think I’ve become better at accessing deliberately, as opposed to by luck, accident or fortuitous circumstance.

Recently, I think the concept of play has begun to move towards being a dominant mode of being. Here, I don’t mean dominant as in 100%; I mean dominant in the manner that a majority shareholder is dominant. 

– Bleeding and Boring

Play becoming a majority shareholder in my life has made itself apparent primarily in the domain of writing, also in my approach to movement, and now, finally, in my professional life, too. I joined a startup and such a scenario is definitely more amenable to a playful mode of being. The environment is one that encourages openness, allows dialogue and direct communication, and rewards tinkering.

But the reason I claim to understand my relationship to play a little better is that it’s how I’m approaching computing. I recently finished a book about cryptography. The subject, whilst interesting, was too theoretical for me, too abstract. With writing, there’s a directness of feedback, a short and often explicit feedback loop. This is what I like about computing and programming. It may not always be the best way to solve problems and find solutions, but I’m finding that framing my learning as an exercise in play makes everything easier. Especially the difficulties. And play is easier, for me, when it isn’t overly abstract.

If I’m in play mode, a problem becomes an opportunity, a puzzle, as opposed to a pain. Whether the edge I’m exploring is bleeding or boring, play makes it a ridge-line worth remaining upon. 

– Play: 2021

My ambitions in this domain are simple: play more. That doesn’t mean I’ll neglect sincerity, or seriousness. It just means continuing to approach my life as a ridiculously intertwined series of ongoing experiments.


8. Speak

(Return to Contents)

– Three Lenses

The new element… Like play, I see “speak” in three ways.

  • Language
  • Relationships
  • Responsibility

In 2020, I had a second brief flirtation with learning a second language. My first was a while back and was half-hearted. Quarter-hearted, even. This one had a little more commitment behind it. The biggest difference was that I focused on listening and speaking first, as opposed to reading and writing. 

I finished (i)Barker and fancied a diversion, so a second language was what I settled on. But then I got furloughed, and during furlough I decided to change jobs. The language project got dropped, but not before I realised what I need to do next time to actually learn a language:

  • Block off six months and commit for that period.
  • Prioritise listening and speaking entirely.
  • Hire a coach/tutor for weekly, or better, daily lessons.
  • Go on a holiday or trip at the end of the six months.

I recall Dan John saying that fat loss is an all-out war. Well, so is learning another language.

– The Two Rs

The remaining two interpretations of “speak”–relationships and responsibility–are similar.

In my relationships, I’ve always been non-communicative. I’m not good at keeping in touch. I’m–and I have no issue with this, at all–someone inclined to solitude. But that’s hard for people close to me to take sometimes, and worse, I sometimes stay out of touch despite feelings to the contrary. In 2020, this came into a more explicit focus, what with the pandemic and all.

Responsibility also came into sharper focus. The UK, as a nation and state, is not on a good trajectory and I realised, sometime during 2020, that as a citizen it was okay to talk about it. Necessary, even. So that’s what I’ve been trying to do, and I hope I’ve been doing it in a sensible and compassionate manner. 

– Speak: 2021

I’m confident that I won’t be learning a second language in 2021. I’m also confident that relationships and responsibility will continue to be something I have to consciously work on. The “how” of that process isn’t complex. It just involves being honest with myself, honest with the people I care about and honest in how I think about and act in the world.


9. Seven Questions, Courtesy of the Availability Heuristic

(Return to Contents)

– Arbitrary Lessons

This was going to be seven “lessons”. But that’s the sort of thing I’ve long been conflicted about.

On one hand, I like annual reviews and retrospectives that compile “lessons”. I always get (i)something from them, even if that something is an example or insight to avoid at all costs. 

On the other hand, the things that come up in such segments always seem kind of, uh, arbitrary. I think I know why that is, though. Enter the availability heuristic:

The availability heuristic, also known as availability bias, is a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to a given person’s mind when evaluating a specific topic, concept, method or decision. The availability heuristic operates on the notion that if something can be recalled, it must be important, or at least more important than alternative solutions which are not as readily recalled. Subsequently, under the availability heuristic, people tend to heavily weigh their judgments toward more recent information, making new opinions biased toward that latest news.

Another cognitive bias may be at fault for what I sense. But regardless, I wanted to do something a little different: below are seven “lessons” that conclude with questions.

They may not be the most impactful revelations I picked up during 2020; they may just be the most easy to access because they are top of my mind. But I think there’s something in them of value. And ending with questions seems odd now, but next year I’ll answer these seven and propose seven more.

Extra note: I’m aware that this whole Status of the Whole structure is probability tainted with availability bias. Especially as I started assembling it in late December. So, during 2021, I’ll log significant thoughts and events in real-time, instead of retrospectively. That should yield a more authentic year-end review in 2021.

Now, onto the seven!


– Awkward Questions

Questions, as both a concept and a tool, are incredibly powerful. That’s probably why I’ve written about them before. In fact, if I had to choose a piece of punctuation as a symbol for my ideal self, I’m pretty sure it would be a question mark. They’ve served me well over the years.

When I’ve attended workshops or seminars, I’ve made a point of asking at least one good question. I do the same at Brazilian jiu-jitsu sessions. And now in my job, too. But the type of questions I most like to ask are awkward questions.

Awkward questions come in two flavours. The first is a question that is awkward because it is so insightful. Because it makes the asker seem so damn omnipotent. And because it explicitly highlights a nuanced element of a dialogue. Or forces a reconsideration of a matter or process at a fundamental level. This is the sort of question that everybody wants to ask, me included. Unfortunately–at least in my meagre experience–they’re pretty rare.

The second type of awkward question is one I’m intimately familiar with. This question gets its awkwardness from the fact that it makes the asker seem a little dumb. Or incredibly dumb. Imagine asking about the most basic property of a system that everyone is completely familiar with and just takes for granted. Asking why it’s there or how it works; that’s an awkward question.

There are other question types, too. One which particularly aggravates my partner is the counter-factual. Imagine I’m asked to do something. Rather than asking, “Why should I do it this way?”, I like to ask, “What happens if I do it another way?”

Brazilian jiu-jitsu once more: we get shown a move or sequence in intricate detail. We then go off and practice or drill it. Usually, after a few minutes, I’m wondering what happens if, instead of gripping an opponent’s collar, I grip their lapel. So I ask the instructor and, as a reward, learn something I otherwise wouldn’t have. (If you’re wondering why this aggravates my partner, imagine that but in the context of the most basic, everyday tasks.)

Which leads me to the first of my seven questions:

Do we learn more thinking about reality as-is, or reality as it could be?

– Coffee Coin, Food Dice

The secret of Zen is, “When hungry, eat; when tired, sleep.” In similar Zen-spirit, my partner once told me: “If you want a coffee, just have a ?@!?@!? coffee.” 

Alas, it is not that simple.

For the past few years I worked a rotating shift pattern, which meant I worked three or four days out of every week. On working days, I didn’t drink coffee. On off days, I drank up to three. Typically at 0700, 0900 and 1100. Rarely after 1200. 

I recently shifted to a more traditional nine-to-five pattern. However, I didn’t want to maintain that level of daily consumption. Chronic consumption of a nootropic diminishes one’s sensitivity to it, and thus its impact. More generally (and perhaps more importantly), chronic consumption of a thing decreases the satisfaction that arises with each instance of engagement. 

I did consider implementing no-coffee days. Barring intake on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, for example. But that requires something called self-control. And with addictive substances I’m betting it’s easier just to outsource consumption entirely. Steve Jobs had his turtleneck; I have my coffee coin. 

Here’s how it works. Not long after waking up (between 0600 and 0700), I flip a coin. Heads: I have a coffee. Tails: I don’t. Mid-morning (between 0900 and 1000), I do the same. Heads: coffee. Tails: none. Finally, at around 1100, I flip again. Heads: drink. Tails: don’t drink. The twist: if I score tails at any point, total coffee consumption for the day is ended.

The result: I often have one coffee, sometimes two, and rarely three. Extra result: even when I do get two successful flips, I rarely flip a third time. I often feel I don’t need a coffee, and it’s usually nearing (or past) 1200 at that point.

Less has lead to more impact and more enjoyment. I think. My coffee-deprived brain could be fooling me. But I’m assuming it’s not, so I’m considering implementing a similar scheme elsewhere. In particular, in relation to fasting.

I’m aware fasting is good for us. Intermittent, acute stimuli are usually better than their chronic counterparts. It’s true of information, and food is really, fundamentally, information. 

I usually skip breakfast. That’s not an issue for me. The issue is regularly implementing longer fasts. Twenty-four hours, forty-eight hours, longer. I did used to schedule one short fast (roughly thirty-six hours, from dinner through to breakfast) each week and one longer fast (two to five days) each month. The problem? I always ended up bailing on the shorter, weekly fasts, and I never even tried the longer ones.

But my experience with the coffee coin has enlightened me regarding the ability of randomness to serve as an arbiter for consumption. So I want a similar structure for fasting and food intake. Assuming I skip breakfast daily, how do I distribute daily and multi-day fasts with an appropriate amount of randomness? I think there’s a potential answer with dice but I need to spec it out. 

In the meantime, here’s the second of my seven questions:

How much randomness is too much randomness?

– Personal Philanthropy

The only time I’ve ever allocated any headspace to the topic of giving was when I wondered about investing in the trivial:

“[Innovation] requires trial and error, bricolage, playfulness and seemingly meaningless experiments. My hypothesis was to be that by investing in low status, irrational things, we could unlock more progress than by focusing exclusively on high status, highly rational investments. Essentially, it’s betting on important higher order effects arising from investments in seemingly trivial things.”

Assuming that I stumbled into a buttload of cash, I wondered whether dropping a large fraction of said cash into Kickstarters might have a bigger impact than ploughing it into funds or bonds (or whatever is the sensible thing). 

Sometime in the past year–possibly as a consequence of reading Slate Star Codex Abridged–giving boomeranged back into my mind. But this time in the guise of a practical choice, not a thought experiment:

If I were to allocate a small amount per month for giving, where would I put it?

My first response, possibly framed by a pivot to a remote job, was to think in terms of a remixed popular adage. “Think global, act local” became “earn global, spend local.” The imperative became: give mindfully, in a way that creates local effects that aren’t frittered away by plug-holes of abstraction or, worse, bureaucracy.

That changed, however, when I started thinking about the difference between charity and philanthropy. The latter (supposedly) is undertaken with a more strategic mindset. So, my question became:

If I were to allocate a small amount per month for giving, where would I put it in order to achieve maximum fertilisation?

The original context for boring edge vs bleeding edge was the tech infrastructure stack. Boring edge equates to machine or assembly language, perhaps even memory storage. Low abstraction parts of the technological ecosystem. Bleeding edge is deep learning, synthetic programming, that sort of thing. Highly abstract.

In the context of personal philanthropy, boring edge vs bleeding edge can also be read as nature vs technology. Individual vs collective action is, I think, straightforward, and when combined with boring vs bleeding edge yields four options giving.

1. Boring Edge / Individual Action

Books have a been a great source of understanding and joy in my life. So, when thinking about a fundamental capability all individuals should have, my mind went to literacy. 

There are some more, uh, edgy takes that regard literacy as the platform upon which cultural brainwashing and insidious propaganda consumption patterns are built. Given the benefit of the doubt, such stances are interesting. They may have some useful components buried within. Not given the BoD, these stances are dumb. On the whole, an increase in average literacy makes good things happen.

2. Boring Edge / Collective Action

The persistence of the environment as we know it seems like a pretty basic thing that humanity as a collective should be able to utilise and, more importantly, strive to protect.

In keeping with the “earn global, spend local” adage, however, I’d be tempted to put my money towards localised causes. Organisations that steward nearby rivers or streams, maintain woodland or coastlines and so on. 

3. Bleeding Edge / Individual Action

I jumped straight to the internet. More specifically, to the maintenance, building and regeneration of its infrastructure and the steering of policies associated with such efforts. In that respect, the Electronic Frontier Foundation are looking like a good option.

4. Bleeding Edge / Collective Action

Given my newly kindled interest in British politics, my mind went to governance. That may seem like an odd choice for bleeding edge. But an important factor of bleeding edge-ness is complexity, and there’s few things more chaotic and complex than modern governance. 

My particular emphasis here, as a citizen of a state with a government that wants to do away with human rights, castrate its own economic capabilities and feast on the lifeblood of its subjects, is on checks and balances. 

Historically, systems of law and order have evolved to protect citizens against especially idiotic/ignorant/greedy/dangerous/deranged/misinformed leaders and their accumulated momentum. In the UK–and in other states–these systems are under siege. A government that feels unconstrained by ethical concerns is often still bound by legal mechanisms. When judicial mechanisms fail too, things get nasty. Fast.

My hope is that my pittance of support could contribute some resistance to such failings. Organisations like The Good Law Project are on my radar, for example. 


I expect there are existing frameworks (and resources) that help individuals like me decide where to put their pennies. In fact, I know there are: *whispers, “effective altruism.” But where’s the fun in using someone else’s perfectly satisfactory solution to my problem? 

No, that’s not the third question. This is:

What is the most unconventional way to bring about beneficial, systemic higher order effects?

– Beyond Human Scale

According to Thoreau, “a (wo)man is rich in proportion to the number of things which (s)he can afford to let alone.” A worthy idea, but one that I feel fits civilisation better than any individual human. 

Modern civilisation–itself a teetering, tottering tower of abstractions–is incredibly rich. As a complex system it perpetuates itself, and a vast number of the entities it contains can afford to let many, many things alone. 

For example, I’m typing this on a PC which I can control using a keyboard, mouse and monitor. I don’t have to worry about how this technological assemblage works, or why; it just does. The same goes for the house I’m in. I don’t need to understand the ins and outs of construction, or architecture; I can just inhabit. Such easily accessible abstraction has a consequence, however.

Any adoption of abstraction comes with a physical cost that must be borne by someone, or something. For example, automating business processes is a great idea. But automation requires software–which must be conceived, developed, released and maintained. This software requires hardware–which, once again, must be conceived, manufactured, tested, released, maintained. Software and hardware themselves require a complicated, entangled mesh of supporting social and environmental infrastructure.

In high abstraction processes (like automation), these human and environmental costs are hidden. This increases the rate of abstraction adoption–there’s visible upside, invisible downside. It also incentivises the creation of processes with an even higher level of abstraction that can better leverage the lower levels. This is how the teetering, tottering tower of civilisation develops. This is the march of technology. This is also why we have inequality. And it is also how we end up living beyond human scale.

A human scale life is one that can be maintained by a small community of fellow humans. A beyond human scale life must be serviced by the entirety of a civilisational structure. And this is the topic of my fourth question:

Will the accumulating social and environmental costs of contemporary civilisation force us to revert to a human scale existence before we achieve civilisational escape velocity and find a way to transcend the costs associated with abstraction?

– An AI Researcher and a Monk Walk into a Bar

In a recent discussion with Zat Rana, he noted that the explorations of consciousness undertaken in spiritual and religious disciplines such as Buddhism are remarkably systematic. Rigourous, even. This chimed with something I’ve been thinking about recently…

It seems to me that multi-disciplinary researchers focusing on artificial intelligence–such as Joscha Bach and François Chollet–are exploring the same fundamental questions as people dedicated to consistent contemplative practice. Both groups are looking at the mechanics of consciousness itself, and the implications those mechanics have upon the structures of consciousness.

AI researchers want to understand how impressions become thoughts and knit together to form beliefs that influence behaviour; contemplative practitioners systematically test the interactions between their own impressions, their thoughts, their beliefs and their behaviour. The way both groups go about this is different, but the desired ends of both groups seems remarkably congruent; an understanding of consciousness. This leads to my fifth question:

What would be the result of a significant, prolonged collaborative exploration of consciousness undertaken by AI researchers and contemplative practitioners? 

– Escaping the Cycle of Reciprocal Violence

The Viennese triangle is not a biscuit. It is also not the same thing as the Vienna Circle–a scenius whose members have left many fingerprints upon the pages of history. The Viennese triangle is rooted in the foundation of psychotherapy. In its three corners sit Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler and Viktor Frankl. 

Freud posited that pleasure was central to human existence. Adler posited that it was power that mattered above all else. Frankl proposed meaning as the most important component of human life. 

The will to pleasure; the will to power; the will to meaning. From my perspective, Frankl comes closest to being right. Pleasure and power matter to the human psyche, of course, but both are eclipsed by the salience of meaning. However, I feel there is something much more fundamental to humanity. Something that sits deeper than the Viennese triangle. That thing is what Rene Girard, the last of the hedgehogs, spent much of his life articulating: mimetic desire.

This is not the place to dive deep into Girardian thought, but I will mention a particular observation that I came across in Cynthia Haven’s Prophet of Envy. Girard says:

“In the animal world, you have what they call dominance patterns. How are they established? The males fighting for the females. And the males are so eager to fight for the females that sometimes, when the females disappear, they continue fighting just because they are mimetically aroused. The fight becomes more important than the object. But they will never kill each other, whereas human beings invented vengeance. Vengeance is the ultimate form of mimetic rivalry, because each act of vengeance is the exact imitation of the preceding one. If you study vengeance, you’ll realize how mimetic imitation is all over the place in all manifestations of desire. In human beings, it’s pushed to such an extreme that it can result in death. Vengeance cannot be limited.”

Animals have an in-built kill switch for excessive mimetic escalation. Humans have only a cultural one–one that is quickly becoming extinct; religion.

Girard goes on to say–perhaps later in that particular interview, perhaps later in the book–that there are three existential threats facing human kind:

  • Editing of the human genome
  • Ecological collapse
  • Nuclear weapons

The latter is individual mimetic escalation propagated on the civilisational scale. 

Now, here’s the sixth question. Take Girard at face value and assume that adopting the creed of Christianity will dampen the downside of mimetic desire by providing a positive model–God, via Christ–and by revealing the futility of reciprocal violence as a mechanism. That’s one way to escape the cycles of reciprocal violence humanity is prone to. Another is to castrate desire at the source; this is the approach Buddhism takes. Desire is destroyed by prolonged observation and by the removal of oneself from society, which itself incentivises imitative behaviour. My question:

Outside of sincere adoption of Christianity or Buddhism, what can we, as a society, do to systematically avert escalating cycles of reciprocal violence?

– Slouching Towards Systems Thinking

I only recently read Donella H. Meadows book, Thinking In Systems. Around the same time, I dipped a toe into David Chapman’s Meaningness and realised what meta-rationality is. They’re similar, obviously. 

There’s a temptation associated with this powerful, newfound knowledge, however. Especially when, at the end of Meadows’ book, there’s a handy list of places to intervene in a system. The temptation: go out into the world and be a Systems Thinker. Apply the Knowledge.

Unfortunately, I’m not placing much trust in that temptation, in that yearning. Instead of bootstrapping myself into systems thinking, I want to slouch. Says Venkatesh Rao:

“It is not just individuals who slouch. Good organizations slouch, getting into a rhythm of breathing in and out in response to the opportunities and threats in the environment. Good organizations sag into the scaffolding of their best habits, letting inertia take over for a while. Good leaders and managers know this. There is a time to take control and direct behaviours, and there is a time to let go of the reins and let slouching reign.”

I intend to hold systems thinking in my mind and deliberately do nothing with it. Despite Meadows articulating the proper places to intervene in a system, I think the real difficulty lies in deciding when to intervene. 

From this observation comes the seventh and final question–and it’s a pretty nebulous one at that:

When is the best time to intervene in any given system? 


10. An Explicit Switch

(Return to Contents)

Dropping 10,000 words with myself as the inspiration is quite the indulgence. But it’s also important. Reflection carries a similar weight to its counterpart, action. I hesitate to state what I think is the perfect ratio of the two, nor the ideal tempo at which to switch between the different states. But one must switch occasionally, and explicitly. 

We’re always implicitly reflecting upon actions and acting upon reflections, processing information, searching for signal, discarding what we deem to be noise. But to reflect explicitly, upon occasion, is a powerful practice. For it is only when we stop–or are stopped by something–that the semantic shifts in our lives and our outlooks can occur.

Now Roaming

I’m ninety-five percent certain that I’m going to dig into Roam Research (and utilise RoamBrain). The difference this time, in comparison to other attempted adoptions of second brains and notation systems, is that it won’t be totalitarian in nature. I’m constraining the use-case upfront so that, if I think it’s a bust, I don’t feel too bad about sunk costs.

If you have any constructive advice to offer, let me know.

The labyrinth challenge

I’m writing a novella intermittently and the most recent drafting session raised a challenge. I need to create a labyrinth with two constraints.

  1. The labyrinth contains three destinations: A, B and C. Continuous lefts at four-point intersections lead to A; continuous straight-aheads lead to B; continuous rights lead to C.
  2. Choosing different directions at four-point intersections avoids A, B and C and keeps one within the confines of the labyrinth.

In the novella, this labyrinth is set within the bend of a river. A visual representation (obviously wrong and not to scale):

I’m only half-concerned that such a structure is conceptually possible (author = God, after all) but I thought it would be interesting to see if anyone:

a) knows of similar structures that exist and/or
b) knows how to begin creating one.

If it turns out that it’s possible to create a labyrinth like this, I may look into producing a map of some sorts as an AMP (adjacent mini-project) to accompany the novella when it is eventually done.

certainties.append

This is not a post about the intricacies of programming–I can barely sense, yet alone articulate, any intricacies. It’s a short post about an updated belief…

I’m in the midst of learning about interactive programming in Python. This morning, I was toying around with a key functionality: lists. Like most programming languages, Python includes a variety of methods to manipulate basic data types like lists. One of these methods is append. The append method is used to add one item to the end of a list.

For a while, I’ve maintained a semi-private list. This list is called certainties. It contains one item. The entirety of the list can be formulated as:

The only certainty in life is that the fragile will break.

Now, I would like to append an item to certainties. Now, it contains two items. Now, it can be formulated as:

The only certainties in life are that the fragile will break and the broken can heal.

The first iteration of the list was not exactly synonymous with rainbows, unicorns and lolipops. The second iteration is, at best, equivalent to bleak, plus a twist of lemon. But that’s okay. The joy of life is in the possible, not the certain. The second item in the list serves to remind me of that.

Everything plus one

Four models concerning the theory of individual habit formation:

The commonalities between these four models is easy to detect, even if you rely only upon my simplistic descriptions. A commonality that is slightly harder to detect, however, concerns the number of habits that are changeable at any one time.

A foundational assumption of the habit formation domain is that habit (re)formation is most likely to succeed when only one habit at a time is changed or learned. It is possible to change multiple habits at once but the likelihood of “success” drops dramatically for every extra attempted change. This seems sensible and correct, assuming habit alteration takes place on a ceteris parabus canvas. What if it doesn’t?

My speculation: if everything is changing, every extra attempted change increases the likelihood of successful new habit formation.

Starting a new job (especially if it requires changes in established norms of space and time), moving house (especially if it means moving to a whole new town, region or country), and exiting a significant romantic relationship all classify as scenarios where (i)everything is changing. There are likely more.

Let’s take an extreme example. Imagine someone who is moving to a new house in a new part of the country and starting a new job because they’re fleeing from the tendrils of a messy break-up. So much has already changed in their life that adding one more thing isn’t going to cause much more disruption. This sad soul has never woken up in the morning and done a yoga flow? They can now. They’ve never abstained from drinking during the week? This is their chance. They’ve never engaged in adult education or tried learning a new craft in the evening. Smell that opportunity!

On a ceteris parabus canvas, adopting a morning yoga habit, changing an alcohol consumption habit and adding in a new and explicit learning behaviour is likely to fail. On a canvas where everything is changing, novel habits and behaviours are nothing more than features of a new environment which already requires major adaptation and orientation.

Of course, there’s a hidden aspect to such aggressive change; it will likely involve significant discomfort. Discomfort that could even be experienced as pain. Human minds (especially mature adults) are wired to seek solace in the continuation of the status quo. Which means a modification is in order…

My speculation, vers. 2: if everything is changing, every extra attempted change increases the likelihood of successful new habit formation (provided one can tolerate the associated psychological disorientation).

NBD

Like a child with a high time preference who desperately wants a marshmallow, I couldn’t wait. I finished Winslow’s Cartel Trilogy last night (read it!) and gave in. I was going to wait until I’d finished Slate Star Codex Abridged. I didn’t. Couldn’t. I caved and got myself five new Kindle reads. Hence; NBD.

New. Book. Day.

I’m still making my way through the Little Black Classics–most recently, number thirteen, John Keats–but I prefer to read these slowly, on empty mornings. Unfortunately, due to a mixture of internally and externally imposed constraints, these are not particularly regular. So, to supplement the LBCs and SSCA, I have:

At times, it feels like the practice of reading is hard-coded into my DNA. Books–or, more accurately, the people that write them–have given me so much. Changed me in countless, incomprehensible ways. I have faith that the above will continue to catalyse my ongoing, never-ending metamorphosis…

The strange loop of super active omittance

I’m making a deliberate effort to use my notebook as an unconstrained, free-thinking journal. In a recent entry, I riffed on “swell and cut” as a process and started listing synonyms for the process. One was “commit and omit”. This evolved into the following table:

Commit has a positive valence but in two senses. A passive commit means doing something. It’s relatively easy, in basically any scenario, to do something. An active commit means doing the right thing. As we all know, that is much harder.

Omit has a negative valence but in three senses. A passive omit means doing nothing. Again, standard and easy fare. An active omit is slightly more complex; it means avoiding the right thing. I couldn’t decide whether this was easier or harder than doing the right thing, so I allocated them the same difficulty. And yes, I’m aware of the semantic complexities of defining action versus inaction–I’m just opting for selectively applied ignorance. A super active omit means negating the right thing. It’s this last that I find most interesting.

Negating the right thing can mean a few things. Rolling back a hastily deployed software update; a societal wide attempt at degrowth; exiting a less-than-suitable relationship. But what do these examples have to do with strange loops? Straight from the annals of Wikipedia (emphasis mine):

“And yet when I say ‘strange loop’, I have something else in mind — a less concrete, more elusive notion. What I mean by ‘strange loop’ is — here goes a first stab, anyway — not a physical circuit but an abstract loop in which, in the series of stages that constitute the cycling-around, there is a shift from one level of abstraction (or structure) to another, which feels like an upwards movement in an hierarchy, and yet somehow the successive ‘upward’ shifts turn out to give rise to a closed cycle. That is, despite one’s sense of departing ever further from one’s origin, one winds up, to one’s shock, exactly where one had started out. In short, a strange loop is a paradoxical level-crossing feedback loop. (pp. 101-102)”

In the context of the above examples, software is regressed to a previous version, a person exiting a relationship returns to single-status and a society that degrowths executes a weird time hop. In each case, however, the state returned to is different due to the presence of insight and the gathering of now-invisible experience.

(Confession: the above is likely inconsequential. However, it refused to give up its tenancy in my mind so I thought I’d persuade it to take up residency in yours. Let me know if I am successful…)

Fat tails and boring edges

In light of feedback received during my ongoing search for my first product management role, I re-read Taylor Pearson’s article, How to Get Lucky: Focus on the Fat Tails. The following section stuck:

Almost everyone systematically under-allocates resources to the fat tails. We tend to spend most of our time and energy thinking about the middle, because we see the world through a bell curve lens, and most of the area in a bell curve is in the middle. But in reality, we live in an 80/20 world, where the top 1% of fat tails account for 50% of the results. The people who understand this seem to know how to attract luck, but really they’ve just adopted the 80/20 curve model.”

In terms of job/work hunting, that means de-emphasising traditional methods (cover letters and CV submits) in favour of fat-tailed methods (asking people questions, attending meet-ups regularly, joining virtual conferences, working in public). Visually:

I’ve considered the “focus on fat tails” approach in another domain, too: stack entry.

ASSAYING THE INTERNET

For a long while technology has been an interest. But it’s never been more than that. It’s been like an invitation to dinner that I’ve never taken the host up on. Until now. Recently, I decided I wanted to build a simulation model that would allow me to play with the mechanics of trust de- and re-generation. One problem: I don’t know how to code. The agents in hash.ai’s agent-based models are programmed in either Python or Javascript; I decided to start by learning Python. The above wasn’t as whimsical a decision as it sounds.

The internet is an integrated software-hardware stack. For example, the Internet protocol suite is modelled with four layers: link layer, internet layer, transport layer and application layer. Visually:

I’ve spoke with people about learning to code before and my preference has always been to enter the stack at one of two points: the bleeding edge or the boring edge.

BLEEDING, BORING, LUMPY

I recently listened to Dawn Song’s appearance on the Lex Fridman podcast. Dawn Song does all sorts of interesting things and one of those things involves neural program synthesisbuilding a program that can solve a problem by writing its own program. That is bleeding edge.

In the same episode Lex Fridman also mentioned that he was looking for an expert in Fortran. Fortran is a third-generation programming language but one that is older and increasingly hard to find “experts” in. Below third-gen languages there are second-gen languages (assembly languages) and first-gen languages (machine-level languages). That is boring edge.

In contrast to the bleeding and boring edges of the stack is what Taylor Pearson called the body of a bell curve: the lumpy middle. Entering the stack at the lumpy middle is, on most accounts, fine. It’s okay. Reasonable. The most sensible. After all, the lumpy middle is lumpy for a reason; the skills and knowledge contained there are both readily available and relatively valuable. But I think entering at the bleeding or boring edge is a better proposition, both in the short-term and the long-term.

Short-term: I suspect learning about the bleeding or boring edge is just more exciting. Long-term, I suspect it turns out to be much more valuable. Until expertise in the boring edge is needed and until the functionality of the bleeding edge is realised, both are undervalued, but when those times inevitably come a premium can be had. In other words, the fat tail of the technological stack is the bleeding edge and the boring edge.

Another reason not to begin in the lumpy middle: generally, I suspect it is easier to move from one of the B-edges to the lumpy middle (or even straight to the other side) than it is to do the reverse. I don’t have data (even anecdotal) to back this up; it’s just a hunch (feel free to inform me otherwise).

As to choosing between the two edges in the context of stack entry: I think it depends on one’s preference for abstraction. Bleeding edge competencies tend to revolve around system-level problems and solutions–the realm of high abstraction. Think Elon Musk’s dallying with rockets and brain chips or attempts to solve super wicked problems like climate change or wealth inequality. Boring edge competencies tend to revolve around component-level problems and solutions–the realm of minimal abstraction. Think circuit board design.

Personally–as I think my objective to toy with simulation models and the joy I find in writing stories demonstrates–I lean towards abstraction.

Cull and craft

Hurrah! My Elements & Components of Product Management project is past the initial stage. I’ve collated five-hundred-odd ideas from the disciplines of business analysis, UI/UX design, software development, project management and interfacing/integration. Now I have to cull eighty percent of them and create a shortlist, leaving me with roughly twenty per discipline.

The end goal is to have a selection of powerful ideas that can be used as long levers by a product manager. Before I get there, however, I have to figure out the method and criteria for selection.

As well as this, I’ve just begun exploring the hash.ai tool-stack (my profile is here: hash.ai/@matthew). I want to modify one of the existing information/opinion spread models to reflect something like this:

Why? Although I have an interest in tech, I’ve never actually built something before. Fooling around with agent-based modelling not only aligns with my tendency to start hard and ratchet down in difficulty (instead of the more reasonable reverse approach), it is also something I’m actually interested in. The going, of course, will be slow–I’m no coder. But didn’t someone once say, “slow is fast, fast is smooth”?