Elements of product management

“In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” I’ve been considering this in the context of product management. Why do I want to be a PM? Am I playing the wrong game, for the wrong reasons? I don’t think so. 

This led me back to writing. I boil stories down to five elements:

Character
World
Events
Narration
Authorial Intent

Product management has similar interacting elements:

Business Analysis
UI / UX
Software Development / Engineering
Project Management

The joy I find in writing fiction comes from combining diverse elements into a cohesive story and releasing it into the world. Product management promises a similar satisfaction and another opportunity to create consistently.

But how do the elements interact? In fiction, authorial intent unifies and empowers the elements of character, world, events and narration. An analogous element is required for product management: 

Interface and Integrate

The “author” would be the PO or PM. Their ability to interface across disciplines and integrate collective effort empowers the other elements of product management. This is what authorial intent accomplishes in fiction. 

Another way of looking at these two sets of elements is using the concept of T-shaped skill sets…

A Tale of Two Ts

In fiction writing, the vertical bar can correspond to any single elements, with the remaining four elements arrayed horizontally. Hard sci-fi author Neal Stephenson’s main expertise is world-building. That’s not to deny his skill crafting characters, plotting events or narrating the story. He’s good overall, but world-building is where he truly excels. 

Many PMs have a strong background in tech, having first been developers or engineers. The vertical bar of their T lies in software. Others come from project management, sales or business analysis. I am none of those.

As a writer, I know that there are people who can craft better characters, build more immersive worlds, plot more engaging stories and pen more penetrating prose. But I stand out in the way I imbue my work with authorial intent and pull the elements together. 

My approach to PMing is the same. I know that there will be people with greater experience in software development, deeper insight into UX and more finely honed project management skills. But there aren’t many who can integrate and interface as well as I can.

Tolerance

Yesterday, I received a surprise in the mail: a pack of Sonya Mann’s zines!

In the aftermath, two things struck me. One: I couldn’t create something like this and I’m glad there are people like Sonya who can. Really glad. Two: I don’t really know how to appreciate something like this.

The first point reminds me of this (and other similar takes):

Preferences–be it for art, food, morality or car colour–are wildly divergent. This is both awe-inspiring and humbling.

The second reminds me of my consistent inability to read poetry. Heck it suggests to me that I have a mental block when it comes to anything above a certain threshold of artiness. Or, more accurately, above a certain threshold of abstraction.

I’m lying, actually. Three things struck me upon reception of the zine pack.

The third: Brandolini’s lawThe amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it–has a cousin concerned with tolerance.

The refutation of bullshit is now a defanged tactic and a misguided strategy. The tolerance of bullshit, however, is a timeless human trait. It’s in our very makeup.

Passively, we can take a surprising amount of BS without too much detriment to our mental or physical health. But if we actively create something that is the opposite of BS–something that has meaning to our selves–we can tolerate BS with even more astuteness.

The average person has a mundane job, likely filled with BS. But the average person also probably has a relationship with someone they care about, a family, friends, and things they like to do.

It’s a trope that good always defeats evil, that truth always conquers lies. I’m not going to claim that meaning is the antidote that can detoxify our society at the largest scales. But I am going to claim that, individually, a single morsel of meaning allows us to tolerate a chunk of BS several orders of magnitude larger.

All-context controls

Way back when, a tweet from Tiago Forte stuck in my mind (alas, I can’t find it right now). It talked of “critical controls”. He definitely listed four:

  • TIME
  • ACTIONS
  • KNOWLEDGE
  • OUTPUT

He may have listed five and included…

  • COMMUNICATION

I added a sixth…

  • SECURITY

Because of my forays into product management, some reading around project management, and a general desire to begin navigating this reality more effectively, I’ve been thinking about these “critical controls” more. First, what makes them “critical”? Second, how exactly do they fail? Third, how can knowledge of these controls be used?

Before I answer, some clarification: Time is self-explanatory, as is Actions. Knowledge can be implicit or explicit, individual or collective. Output I count as an increment of a body of work, as a verifiable piece of evidence, something “done”. Communication is varied: public or private, synchronous or asynchronous, one-to-one or one-to-many. Security is also varied: it can mean access to important assets or storage and backup of important information. Additionally, it cuts across the digital and physical realms.

First Q: what makes these six items critical?

I believe that it is that they cannot be permitted to fail. Regardless of your context, letting control of your time, actions, knowledge, output, communication or security slide ends badly. It doesn’t necessarily end life, but it certainly makes it harder.

Second Q: how do they fail?

Each of the six items can slide one of two ways, with one being more common than the other. Imagine a spectrum of control. Somewhere after its start point is “maintain”. Somewhere before its endpoint is “optimise”. Somewhere between these two points is “measure/manage”. Bad stuff happens when these controls fall below the “maintain” marker and go past “optimise” into the realm of over-optimisation.

Insisting on using an end-to-end encryption communication app like Signal is no use when none of your friends care about encryption and won’t download it. It’s possible to spend so much time engineering your digital garden’s infrastructure that you forgot to plant new things, prune the old and water what you already have. Refusing to manage the increasing spiral of responsibilities that comes with age and experience will harm not only yourself, but others around you too.

Third Q: how can knowledge of these controls be used?

The obvious way to use them is pragmatically. Implemented as part of a weekly review (or monthly, or annual review) these controls can greatly enhance our efficiency and effectiveness. It is this context in which they re-entered my mind recently. Every product and project management framework seems to be concerned with at least one of them, and having them in mind has lowered respective learning curves in several instances.

However, there’s a less obvious way to use them: as generators of questions. The questions could be abstract and generic (“Am I making the most of my time?” or “How is my perception of time as a concept determining my usage of it?”) but they can also be high-resolution and granular. Thinly-sliced, in Agile terms. “Why did it take me four hours to write a memo on Thursday afternoon?” for example.

And while we’re here, talking of questions, I think it’s worth mentioning that the four-point Agile Manifesto…

“Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.
Working software over comprehensive documentation.
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.
Responding to change over following a plan.”

…can serve as a generator of answers. Of course, there are others but that’s what’s top of my mind right now.

Why Agile?

In case you missed it, I’m pivoting into product management. As a part of the pivot I have to learn new things. And because writing is a core activity for me, I’ll be documenting my questions and explorations along the way.

The first question I have comes in response to the Agile Manifesto, which is as follows:

“We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.
Working software over comprehensive documentation.
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.
Responding to change over following a plan.

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.”

My question is a simple one: Why?

From recent conversations and readings it seems that the Agile Manifesto was developed for a specific reason: To better enable the research, development, release, sustaining and renewal of complicated products in complex environments.

First point: complicated is not the same as complex. A prosthetic hand is complicated; a human hand is complex. Second, what is it that makes a system complex? After some digging (here, here, here and here), I’ll I’ll narrow it to three things:

  1. A complex system is more than the sum of its parts.
  2. A complex system is unpredictably sensitive to any variation in input, structure or scale.
  3. A complex system’s behaviour cannot be predicted, only modelled probabilistically.

Next question: for a unit to survive–let alone thrive–in a complex system, what does it take? It needs to have just the right amount of size, smarts and speed. The respective spectrums are as follows: small-large, dumb-smart and slow-fast.

For the size spectrum, I like the breakdown I first saw in this Ribbonfarm post, Unflattening Hobbes. The units are individual, pack, troop, tribe and imagined community. (Note: the breakdown was introduced in Pack Experience, and the post includes a good discussion of the differences which I won’t quote here.) The general consensus, in terms of robustness to reality, seems to be:

Pack > Individual / Troop / Tribe / Imagined Community.

Phrased differently: the latter four unit sizes have jockeyed for superiority throughout history, but only the pack has maintained its position throughout.

The smarts spectrum is counter-intuitive. The obvious inclination would be to be as far towards smart and as far from dumb as possible. However, the reality is more nuanced than that.

Being dumb can certainly aide survival. A rock, for example, survives in the complex system of nature for a long time. The problem is that it has no agency. I don’t know about you, but I have no desire to be a rock.

Being super smart can work too. I’ve read about some super-genius humans and their exalted level of intelligence certainly allows them to excel. However, it doesn’t seem to result in a quality of life that is many times superior to the average. Better to know a genius, perhaps, than to be one.

Super computers are another angle here. Computationally speaking, they’re smart. But they also rely on a surprisingly complicated technological stack for existence–of course, such dependencies mean net fragility.

The best compromise for a unit is to think smart and act dumb. In the context of an individual playing 4D chess: “Simplify your actions, increase your randomness, complicate the game for the adversary, and try to stay alive.” In the context of a pack navigating in a complex environment: consider diverse perspectives, allow for known and unknown constraints, then act in a co-ordinated, coherent manner on a short timescale.

The speed spectrum is also counter-intuitive. When I refer to speed I mean the speed of straight-line movement as well as the ability to change direction. This results in three qualities: acceleration, deceleration, and re-orientation. Now, it seems plausible to think that maximising these three qualities is desirable. But consider the maxim, Slow is Smooth, Smooth is Fast. Or consider my own maxim, the faster you go, the less you see.

Another way to look at this is via the tech-adoption curve. Units that don’t adapt to change at all, or do so very slowly, don’t tend to do that well. Those who over-adapt to change also don’t do that well–premature optimisation is the root of all evil, move too fast and things break you, etc. So in terms of speed, it seems the best bet is to opt for a tempo that is marginally faster than the mediocre. In Formula One terms: think point-scoring position as opposed to taking pole.

After that brief tour, I think it’s become apparent why the Agile Manifesto came about. Its authors reasoned that to survive and thrive in a complex environment, a unit has to be small (but not too small), smart (but not too smart) and move fast (but not too fast). Thus, they came to value:

“Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.
Working software over comprehensive documentation.
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.
Responding to change over following a plan.”

Shorts and shifts

I may not have been posting but I have been writing.

After Barker, my intention was to take some time off from writing projects and learn (finally!) French. Alors, that didn’t happen. I ended up pitching and writing a short story–Stateless–in a collab with Sonya Mann. It was fun and I began speccing out a few more. Before I knew it I had the makings of a short collection of speculative short stories. Tomorrow, or Wednesday, I’ll have finished the first draft of the final story.

The overarching theme of the collection is violence. The Rory Miller sense of the word. It’ll be mixed genre, including sci-fi, fantastical and realist–speculative, essentially. There might be an intro. There will definitely be an afterword-essay expounding on the theme of violence.

Release date? I don’t know. I’m aiming for the end of July or mid-August, though how rigorous I want to be with the editing is an open question and will determine whether it takes more or less time. Length? Jorge Luis Borges’ Ficciones is approximately 40,000 words. This collection will be half that, max 30,000 words. And spoiler alert: it probably won’t be as good as that particular assemblage of ideas.

Other news? Bien sûr! I’ve abandoned learning French because I’m looking for another job. For those who don’t know, I currently do an unskilled job in a factory. Luckily, this has leant itself well to writing in my spare time. It’s what’s allowed me to write Barker. But now, given certain circumstances, I want to leverage my writing-thinking-producing-creating skills. I won’t get into the details here, but if you know a guy who knows a gal who needs a person, let me know. I think I want to try my hand at product management, but honestly, I’m open to experience.

That’s all for now. More soon, definitely.

What drives capitalism

A basic insight is not the same as an embodied insight. The former is a mere fact, a novel nugget of knowledge or uncanny perception. The latter differs from the former by intensity–an embodied insight is something felt on a deep physiological level. Two examples:

1) Posture.

My most recent training session consisted of kettlebell movements and ended with time on my homemade balance beam. The aim was to accumulate three total minutes of balancing on each leg. Somewhere around the fifth minute I “got” posture.

For a while, I’ve known about posture’s relationship to various things; strength, co-ordination, perception by others and personal psychology. However, being 6′ 3″ (6′ 2.5″ if I’m not being generous) I’ve spent most of my life stooping. For the first five minutes I saw the consequence of this. Observers of those minutes would have seen me teetering and tottering, flailing my arms and non-balancing leg in a borderline-insane manner.

But past the fifth minute? I raised my eyes and my chin. I set my scapula and relaxed my shoulders. I held my femur close to its socket, where it belongs. And then it was easy. So easy.

2) Power Generation / The Nervous System.

My day job is in a factory. A few weeks ago, I was at one one end of the room when my colleague dropped a pallet to the floor. For those who haven’t heard it, when a pallet is stood vertically on its edge and tipped over it hits the ground with a gunshot-like sound. Especially if that floor is concrete.

I was standing at the other end of the room. As soon as that sound hit my ears, I felt an electrical current flow down my spine, through my leg, into my heel and dissipate in the ground. I make it sound like something out of a fantasy series but that is how I experienced it.

I have a history in various sports and martial arts and one of the things I was taught early on is that all power is drawn from the ground and ends up back there. The gathering steps for a vertical jump; the windup for a punch or a kick; the throwing of an object. They start and end with the ground. This is why we regard professional athletes with such awe–their movement doesn’t usually leak energy. They have a profound economy of movement.

As with posture, I’d understood this intellectually. Now, I had lived it.


Embodied insight is something more advanced than basic insight. But there are higher levels. I suspect that we would call enlightenment is an accumulation of embodied insight in a very specific domain. Expertise is probably similar. Embodied insight is perhaps the atom that makes up beings or states of enlightenment and expertise. This isn’t revolutionary. However, it is confined to the individual. Is there an analogous process for collectives? Are there cultural instances of embodied insight? I suspect so.

The examples I referenced above are, in the grand scheme of things, mundane. Nothing special. But they triggered a profound reaction to something already intellectually acknowledged. Sound familiar to current events? The Black Lives Matter protests going on around the world were sparked by a similarly innocuous event–by that, I mean George Floyd’s death was another instance of an established pattern of police brutality, not an irrelevant, unnecessary loss of life. Somehow, and for some reason, a transition from basic insight to embodied insight was triggered.

Systemic racism is an undeniable part of our culture. See this thread from criminal defense attorney Greg Doucette–it contains 450+ instances of police brutality from the recent weeks alone. As many point out, if this is what happens on camera with the world watching, imagine what happens without witnesses. Or consider an anecdote I saw (and have since been unable to find again) on Vinay Gupta’s Twitter. It reminds me of the concept of the veil of ignorance. The anecdote:

A race educator is giving a lecture and asks all students who would like to be treated like black people to raise their hands. No response. She repeats the request: raise your hands if you would like to be treated like a black person. Nothing. This, she explains, demonstrates that you all know there is a pervasive problem.

So, if racism is systemic–if it is an established pattern in the weave of society–why has nothing like this happened before? Why does it take so long for culture to embody such insights? A possible answer: the masses are female and the ruling classes (elites, incumbents, the “haves” etc.) are male. Let me explain.

The fourth book in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series is called Tehanu. It marks a shift from a coming-of-age story with a male protagonist to an examination of female roles in everyday life during times of great deeds. Early on, Le Guin writes:

‘What’s wrong with men?’ Tenar inquired cautiously.
As cautiously, lowering her voice, Moss replied, ‘I don’t know, my dearie. I’ve thought on it. Often I’ve thought on it. The best I can say it is like this. A man’s in his skin, see, like a nut in its shell.’ She held up her long, bent, wet fingers as if holding a walnut. ‘It’s hard and strong, that shell, and it’s all full of him. Full of grand man-meat, man-self. And that’s all. That’s all there is. It’s all him and nothing else, inside.’
Tenar pondered awhile and finally asked, ‘But if he’s a wizard–‘
‘Then it’s all his power, inside. His power’s himself, see. That’s how it is with him. And that’s all. When his power goes he’s gone. Empty.’ She cracked the unseen walnut and tossed the shells away. ‘Nothing.’
‘And a woman, then?’
‘Oh, well, dearie, a woman’s a different thing entirely. Who knows where a woman begins and ends? Listen, mistress, I have roots, I have roots deeper than this island. Deeper than the sea, older than the raising of the lands. I go back into the dark. … I go back into the dark! Before the moon was. No one knows, no one knows, no one can say what I am, what a woman is, a woman of power, a woman’s power, deeper than the roots of trees, deeper than the roots of islands, older than the Making, older than the moon. Who dares asks questions of the dark? Who’ll ask the dark its name?’

Further on:

‘But you said you don’t get unless you give. Is it different, then, for men and for women?’
‘What isn’t, dearie?’
‘I don’t know,’ Tenar said. ‘It seems to me we make up most of the differences, and then complain about ’em. I don’t see why the Art Magic, why power, should be different for a man witch and a woman witch. Unless the power itself is different. Or the art.’
‘A man gives out, dearie. A woman takes in.’

Towards the end, Le Guin concludes:

‘”A woman on Gont” can’t become archmage. No woman can be archmage. She’d unmake what she became in becoming it. The Mages of Roke are men — their power is the power of men, their knowledge is the knowledge of men. Both manhood and magery are built on one rock: power belongs to men. If women had power, what would men be but women who can’t bear children? And what would women be but men who can?’
‘Hah!’ went Tenar; and presently, with some cunning, she said, ‘Haven’t there been queens? Weren’t they women of power?’
‘A queen’s only a she-king,’ said Ged.
She snorted.
‘I mean, men give her power. They let her use their power. But it isn’t hers, is it? It isn’t because she’s a woman that she’s powerful, but despite it.’
She nodded. She stretched, sitting back from the spinning wheel. ‘What is a woman’s power, then?’ she asked.
‘I don’t think we know.’
‘When has a woman power because she’s a woman? With her children, I suppose. For a while. . .’
‘In her house, maybe.’
She looked around the kitchen. ‘But the doors are shut,’ she said, ‘the doors are locked.’
‘Because you’re valuable.’
‘Oh, yes. We’re precious. So long as we’re powerless . . . I remember when I first learned that! Kossil threatened me — me, the One Priestess of the Tombs. And I realised that I was helpless. I had the honour; but she had the power, from the God-King, the man. Oh, it made me angry! And frightened me . . . Lark and I talked about this once. She said, “Why are men afraid of women?”‘
‘If your strength is only the other’s weakness, you live in fear,’ Ged said.

In Le Guin’s world, and indeed in our own, women have less power. Yet, despite that, men–the ones with power–yield. Why is that? It is because women–by refusing to yield, by erecting barriers of inconvenience–can make men’s power irrelevant.

Switch back to thinking about this at the cultural level, as the ruling classes as men and the masses as women. In the wannabe-libertarian UK, why was the prospect of a strict lockdown so thoroughly detested by the government? It didn’t matter that it would save lives because it would damage the economy. Nevertheless, the populace demanded some action so something was done, though with reluctance. Around the world, why do establishments decry protests? Because protests–violent or not–interrupt standard operating procedure.

That is how women gain power relative to men, how the masses gain power relative to the ruling classes; by slowly and periodically crossing things from the list they’re willing to tolerate.

This could also be the key driver behind the ideology of capitalism. Imagine the ruling classes stopped pushing for more and instead were content with enough. How would that change the balance of power? Answer: the masses would slowly gain ground on the ruling classes. Being masculine, they don’t want that. So they push and push and push, at worst preserving their advantage, at best enlarging it. And this is the biggest question for the future of human society: Can the masses grow their intolerance faster than the rulers can grow their advantage?

Novel complete

San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, the Trans-Siberian Railway, the Pyramids and Tolstoy’s War and Peace were huge projects that took many years to complete. I suspect that, in accordance with Hofstadter’s Law, they took longer than first thought. My novel, Barker, is not of the same scale but it too fell afoul of its deadlines. Initially, I had pencilled in the end of 2019 as the completion date. But here we are, halfway through 2020 (no comment on its content), and I still have the ebook version to produce. That’s okay, though. There’s been no publisher or agent making hmppphh noises over my shoulder.

Barker’s 270-something pages represent two-plus years of my life. Thumbing through a proof-copy I can’t help feeling underwhelmed. But that is one of the great asymmetries with books and one of the reasons they are cherished the world over—what takes an author years to create and compile can be digested by a reader in mere hours. Words are the densest of materials.

Of course, in contrast to the underwhelm and the anticlimax there is pride. Design-wise (inside and out) I think Barker is pretty close to a Proper Book. Content-wise, I can claim with certainty that it is Not Bad—my beta-readers and partner said so. What I cannot claim is the extent of the novel’s merits. That is for the discerning reader to decide. However, one thing that I do hope shines through is the fun I had whilst writing it. It was less a rollercoaster than a long bicycle ride. Gruelling climbs were offset by pleasant periods of coasting and exhilarating descents.

Also of interest is the title; at some point in the last one to three months Hitler, My Hero became Barker. It’s no understatement to say I agonised over this. Both titles have their pros and cons but the issue was choosing which to emphasise. Feedback from readers, friends and family didn’t help. There was a near-perfect divide in preference. Usually, I am the most stubborn of asses but this decision turned me into the most flaky of weathervanes. In the end, I deferred to the judgement of my partner. I was loath to do this at first. I saw it as some sort of cowardice or moral failing. Maybe it is? I don’t know. But on the other hand, I am lucky to have someone beside me whose judgement I trust. So while she cast the deciding vote, the responsibility for the title falls to me. If you hate it, my bad. If you love it, also my bad—though I will forward your sentiments onward.

To summarise: Barker: A Novel by Matthew Samuel Sweet is available as a paperback right now on Amazon: US – UK – DE – FR – ES – IT – JP – CA

The ebook will arrive soon and after that I’ll do an after-project review. In the meantime, buy yourself a copy. Buy someone else a copy. Read it. Review it. Tell me you love it or hate it or that it evokes no reaction whatsoever. Post a picture of your dog chewing it. Share links on social media. Talk about it with your friends and family, your allies and enemies. Invite me on your podcast to talk about it or lobby your favourite blogger or podcast-host in my favour. Heck, sling several copies into a travel-sack and become a zealous missionary, spreading the Barker-gospel to the New World. Or don’t. I’ve read hundreds of novels and 99% of the time I do nothing more than purchase them, read them, then retire them to my bookshelf. No harm if you do the same.

Finally: thank you. Everyone who has come into contact with my life in some manner over the last few years has contributed to Barker in some way. Locard’s exchange principle holds for creative works just as much as forensics: every contact leaves a trace (though not every trace can be contacted). So here’s to hoping those traces continue to accumulate and become something of greater meaning.

Non-note-taking

For years now, I’ve been an advocate of note-taking, of marginalia (see here). It started with Ryan Holiday’s reading to lead and Robert Greene’s index card system. Since then, I’ve learned of Montaigne’s tendency to date stamp and summarise his thoughts on a book once he completed it. I’ve read Shane Parrish’s arguments for being a demanding reader. I’ve absorbed diatribes about the importance of progressive summation and compression. Recently, I’ve been thinking that I’ll try out Roam Research for my next non-fiction writing project–the whitepaper is particularly persuasive.

Yet, whilst I’ve always been a low-key advocate of such systems and practices, I’ve always struggled to remain a practitioner. For example, my most recent dead-tree reads are the second volume of Volker Ullrich’s Hitler biography and two of Steven Erikson’s Malazan prequel novels. Both have many folded pages, highlighted passages and scrawled notations. But all three are back on the shelf, notes un-extracted. Before that, over several years, I accumulated roughly eight thousand hand-written index cards. But because I couldn’t be bothered to transcribe them to .txt files, I ditched them–they went in the recycling box, not the bin, which must have been an interesting occurrence for whichever bin (wo)man came across them.

Nowadays, I read a lot on my Kindle. And I don’t do highlights. In part because the Kindle is a tad clunky, but mainly because I wouldn’t know what to do with them. Actually, I do know what to do with them–create a commonplace book, digital or analog. The thing is, I’m just not sure that it’s necessary for me.

No matter the mechanics, no matter my intent or ambition, I remain unable to find a sustainable system for creating a commonplace book. I’ve tried, but nothing takes. I like the enhanced interaction that marginalia yields–I think I’ll forever read dead-tree books with a pen, now–but I can’t for the life of me find a way to channel that practice and build a comprehensive piece of infrastructure with it. So, perhaps I just shouldn’t bother trying anymore?

Complicating my pivot to non-note-taking is my reading of Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. It’s settled a lot of anxiety I’ve had when it comes to books and reading, and it’s also provided assurance that I will be okay, even if I don’t note-take and create a dazzling commonplace like the Good Writer that I’m trying to be.

The upside to all this is that I can read more, faster. In 2019–across digital and dead-tree forms–I read about one hundred books. I’m on course for the same this year (I’ll probably do an annual reading post for 2020 that covers my reading for the period). The tradeoff, of course, is that I spend less time with whatever I happen to be reading. This is the exact opposite approach to the dogma I’ve been carrying around–see The faster I go, the less I see–and the conflict still makes me uncomfortable. But I’m going to try living with it for a while.

Nassim Taleb’s take on procrastination is making this approach easier. From Antifragile:

“Few understand that procrastination is our natural defense, letting things take care of themselves and exercise their antifragility; it results from some ecological or naturalistic wisdom, and is not always bad — at an existential level, it is my body rebelling against its entrapment. It is my soul fighting the Procrustean bed of modernity.”

Another thing that’s making it easier is a focusing on the concept of transience. In Eastern and Western philosophy, we are admonished to recognise the fleeting, temporary nature of existence. Friends that come and go. Feelings that manifest as the most important thing in the world one day and fade into irrelevance the next. So on and so forth.

Through this lens, my non-note-taking could be seen as a sort of philosophical surrender. Contrary: non-note-taking could also be seen as a symptom of my own chronic lethargy. For now though, I’ll give my self the benefit of the doubt and opt for the former.

The coming anger

The current climate has compelled me to rethink my approach to a fundamental emotion: anger. Previously, I’ve seen it through two lenses. The first lens positions anger as a political tool. The second lens positions anger as a manifestation of weakness.

ANGER AS A POLITICAL TOOL

Rory Miller knows about conflict, but more importantly he understands violence. In one of his books–Meditations on Violence, I think–he explains a continuum of how we exert our will upon one another in social situations. He cites four types of people; nice, manipulative, assertive and aggressive. There are tradeoffs and nuances which I won’t go into, but generally the nice are controlled by the manipulative, the manipulative are controlled by the assertive, and the assertive are kept in check by the aggressive.

Now think about anger and its effect… Most people are nice, some are manipulative, and a few are assertive. Not many are aggressive (at the civilisational scale, this is by design). So one of the simplest ways to control others is to manufacture a facade of anger. Any slightly evil person has to–if they hope to climb the ladders of society–be prepared to use anger, or at the least to confront it. It is a tactic, a useful one.

ANGER AS A WEAKNESS

This one is easier to parse. A Jedi falls to the dark side when he embraces his/her anger. Stoicism teaches anger is the necrotising of an un-satisfiable desire for something or other. Anger, in many contexts, is cited as nothing more than a manifestation of uncertainty, confusion, fear, weakness or depravity.

ANGER AS A MORAL IMPERATIVE

However, there is another alternative: anger as a moral imperative. There’s a reason Patrick Rothfuss writes of the “three things all wise men fear: the sea in storm, a night with no moon, and the anger of a gentle man.”

Moral anger is a totally different beast from anger-as-weakness or anger-as-political-tool. It’s range in time and space is long, not short; it doesn’t blaze so much as smoulder; like a glacier, it is slow to build yet nigh impossible to halt; it is the catalyst for revolution and the cause of civilisation-wide resets. And when I look around me now, I feel it. The world, as a collective, is fucking angry. And so am I, if I’m honest. Need I describe why?


Supposedly, Keynes said that “Markets can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.” Likewise, the powerful and the influential have been getting by based on the fact that we can’t organise our anger quicker than they can organise and spew their lies. It’s been this way, I think, for decades, but with the clusterfuck of crises at our feet and on the horizon, it won’t remain that way.

The anger pooling in hearts and minds around the world–an anger that is justified–will not be denied much longer. It will seek, and it will find, an outlet. Like pressure building in a system of pipes, it could be deliberately bled. Those in control–or those who claim to be–could respond. They could release their desperate stranglehold, they could quit it with the lies and deceptions, they could share the gains and help mitigate the wholly unnecessary losses. But they won’t.

Consequence? The system, left unbled, will blow. People, sick of the pain and the suffering, will fight. People, sick of the pain and suffering, will die. There will be winners, there will be losers, but more importantly there will be no-one who remains untouched by the coming anger.

The tempo of (in)competence

Whilst struck dumb by an audio instruction to recall a previously learnt sentence in French, I had a realisation. The sort that, whilst intriguing, isn’t pretty. Here goes: we correlate linguistic incompetency with stupidity.

I suspect I thought this because I was imagining the look on my own face at that moment–slack jaw, furrowed brow, eyes glazed, head tilted askew. The kind of face one imagines gracing a mountain troll when the hero(ine) vexes it with fundamental logic. The epitome of dumb.

I guess this is some subset of the outgroup bias (or it’s just a malfunction in my own cognition). An other who cannot (or struggles to) speak your native language whilst situated in your native country is unconsciously perceived to be of lesser intelligence. Obviously, this is nonsense, but it provides a weird window into the human psyche. It also raises a question: how does tempo relate to the perception of incompetence?

Imagine you’ve conducted three different interviews over the course of a single afternoon. Assume all persons gave the same answers to a set of questions. Person one did not pause before responding to any of the questions. Person two paused for two to three seconds before responding to each question. Person three paused for ten seconds before responding.

If we travel in time and insert our consciousness into the three separate moments where the first syllable emerges from each of the interviewee, what will we be thinking? Here’s my guess:

  • We won’t think anything about person one; there’s no time. Effect on perception: neutral.
  • We’ll think person two is thoughtful and considerate, possibly high status. Effect on perception: positive.
  • We’ll think person three is an idiot. We’ll likely be annoyed. Effect on perception: negative.

This is a blog post, not an Odyssean treatise, so I’ll leave you to ponder other scenarios. But to me, it does seem there’s a tempo that we associate with competence and its opposite. And it’s not as simple as fast; neutral, moderate; good, slow; bad. There’s way more nuance depending on the situation–an interview, a performance in a sport and the construction of a sculpture, will all have varying tempos of competence and incompetence. But it’s worth thinking about.

Imagine, cynic that you are in this hypothetical scenario, that a situation requires you to present the appearance of competence. Unfortunately, you lack the time to invest in gaining it in substance and opt to gain it in style. Outside of exploiting the halo effect, or relying on cronyism and/or nepotism, a good tactic may be to mimic the tempo of competence.