It’s all problems

Spearman was right that people differ in their ability to solve well-defined problems. But he was wrong that well-defined problems are the only kind of problems. “Why can’t I find someone to spend my life with?” “Should I be a dentist or a dancer?” and “How do I get my child to stop crying?” are all important but poorly defined problems. “How can we all get along?” is not a multiple-choice question. Neither is “What do I do when my parents get old?” And getting better at rotating shapes or remembering state capitols is not going to help you solve them.

~ Adam Mastroianni from,

I’m left wondering if the very intelligent are those who can figure out if a problem is, or is not, well-defined. I blast through all sort of work—well-defined problems in Mastroianni’s article—but it doesn’t seem to fulfill me. As soon as I know the problem is well-defined, I lose interest. As soon as I can see a path provided by a solution, I lose interest. Sometimes, I go through the steps to actually do the work. But mostly I just lose interest as soon as know how it would be done.

All of which makes for a vicious cycle: my ability to generate work vastly outstrips my ability to do that work. And I feel the weight of guilt for not doing that work which I feel should be done.


Get to the point

Perhaps the most critical communication skill. Be brief. Use as few words as possible to say what you need, and everyone will appreciate it.

~ Morgan Housel from,

I’m aware that my blog posts, and the weekly 7 for Sunday email derived from them, are often a rambling mess of garage-door-up thinking. I do edit. The key thing that I’m trying to do is to integrate ideas into what I already know, to see what new connections and new ideas I might find. So this post is not at all about telling you, Dear Reader, how to get to the point or even how important it is to get to the point. In fact, I don’t have a point (in this post in particular, and also generally.) Most of the time, if I reach the end of the post and discover I do in fact have a point… well, that’s terrific. I feel it would be cheating to then cover up my work by editing the thing to get more directly to the point.


There is purpose to existence

People should not look at their approaching golden years with dread or apprehension but as perhaps one of the most significant stages in their development as a human being, even during these turbulent times. For me, old age has been a renaissance despite the tragedies of losing my beloved wife and son. It’s why the greatest error anyone can make is to assume that, because an elderly person is in a wheelchair or speaks with quiet deliberation, they have nothing important to contribute to society. It is equally important to not say to yourself if you are in the bloom of youth: “I’d rather be dead than live like that.” As long as there is sentience and an ability to be loved and show love, there is purpose to existence.

~ Harry Leslie Smith from,

“Quiet deliberation,” indeed. I find myself increasingly in that state, (although I am still too–often found in the state of denial.) During interpersonal situations, I find myself thinking: “What could I say here that would actually be useful?” and coming up with “nothing” as my answer I’m left to choose between contributing silence, or contributing social lubrication. That’s a shift of intention which comes from decades of glacial movement towards true self-awareness. I believe it’s time yet again to reschedule my mid-life crisis; it seems I have some more thinking to do.


Dump out the box

In the end, what matters is your lifestyle. The specifics of your work are important only in how they impact your daily experience. As I summarized, when choosing a career path: “Fix the lifestyle you want. Then work backwards from there.” This idea, which I dubbed lifestyle-centric career planning, subverted popular advice from that period which tended to emphasize the importance of passion and dream jobs. In this widely-accepted schema, the full responsibility for your ongoing satisfaction was offloaded to the minutia of your professional endeavors.

~ Cal Newport from,

Somewhere we each have a box full of specific things. I have a plastic storage tub full of electronic accessories—a spare hard drive, a spare ethernet switch, various cables, an extra mouse, the HDMI cable, and the power adapter for the rest of the world. As a kid, I had a huge styrofoam cooler (it’s a long story) full of Lego bricks and parts. I’m not talking about the proverbial “junk drawer.” I’m talking about a proverbial “box” into which we place specific things. My electronics accessories, my printing supplies, my rock climbing gear, and even all the bookcases considered as one “box.” It’s pretty obvious—I hope?—that since we’re continuously adding things to the boxes, we need to periodically “dump out” the box and cull. The cables that don’t fit anything we currently own… The books we didn’t like or enjoy… Every time I dump out some “box” and toss (or sell or donate etc.) some of the items, my life improves.

This morning I was thinking: When is the last time I dumped out my box of people? …my box of responsibilities? …my box of things I think I should do? …my box of dreams?


I probably need to work on this

My life is always better when I treat myself as if I were someone I care about.

~ Hugh Hollowell from,

I’m really good at digging in and schlepping through the hard work. I’m really good at figuring out how to make three strange pieces fit together so these four people can make some progress on those five incompatible goals. Lift heavy things. Break a sweat. Get shit done. Go above and beyond. Get this letter to Garcia. Abuse English.

Know what I suck at? Treating myself as if I were someone I care about. Can I say, “no, thank you,” to some opportunity because I’m already overwhelmed? Can I take a nap in my hammock, without first spending significant time weighing the merits of giving in to passing out from exhaustion, versus just. work. a little. more. Can I choose to go do that fun thing with my friends, when my weekly plan says I should get some peak heart-rate workout time today? I’m often heard preaching about self-care, taking time to look back and think, “if this isn’t nice…” but, can I actually do those things?


We almost certainly can’t help

It’s not like, “oh, well this thing came up and I was easily able to bring it up with the first person I came across. Luckily, after revealing this deeply troubling issue of mine this person understood me correctly, didn’t interject themselves into the situation, cared about it as deeply as me, didn’t run away, didn’t deflect with “just be positive”, knew exactly the right things to say to me and left me with actionable advice. I will never have to face this issue again”. But I think that’s exactly how some people think it goes.

~ “Casey” from,

There’s much in that article worth reading slowly. The phrase, “cared about it as deeply as me,” is probably the most important phrase in the entire piece. When one has a serious problem (presuming you have a problem of which you are aware,) there is literally no one that cares as much as one does. That’s how it has to be since each of us is the main character only in our own narrative. That problem is always right there in the foreground, unescapable. For everyone else (…the therapist who sees me once a week for an hour? …the physician who did one operation?) To everyone else, the problem is simply another thing in the narrative they observe outside of themselves. The lesson I take from this is that quite often there is absolutely nothing we can do to help. But every once in a great while, there is something small we can do to help. Do that.



Heroism is more fun but less reliable than good planning.

~ Seth Godin from,

It’s a good point.

And it took me a long time to realize that heroism isn’t even fun. Long ago I used to rush in, sometimes literally, and save the day. I’ve played the theme song from Mission: Impossible while rushing to fix computers in the middle of the night. One time, although I wasn’t rushing but was en route to fix things, I was nearly killed in a car crash, in the middle of the night, on a highway that was deserted, until I was hit from behind, at extreme speed, by two people who were racing side-by-side. I think I just channeled Proust. I digress. Where was I?

It took me a long time to realize that heroism isn’t even fun. Years later, I was reading M. B. Stanier‘s The Coaching Habit (which I recommend, but I more highly recommend his, The Advice Trap) where I found his mention of the “Karpman Drama Triangle”. I’m not even sure if that’s a real thing; It should be a real thing and I’m not going to spoil it by actually looking. Karpman, apparently, identifies the “Rescuer” as one of the three types of people in his dramatic triangle. (When I first read that I thought, “Oh my gawd, I used to always be that person. I’m so glad I’ve totally outgrown that,” while chuckling nervously.) The Rescuer’s core belief is, “Don’t fight, don’t worry, let me jump in and take it on and fix it.” Crap. I’m pretty sure I still have this problem.


Curating your sources

Some people are highly motivated. They will curate their information sources and follow whoever provides the most value. That will likely include some independent writers (maybe “good” ones or maybe “bad” ones).

But most people aren’t all that motivated. They just want to get information quickly and go live their lives. So they get their information in three ways:

~ “Dynomight” from,

Whenever “the Internet” comes up (including discussion of anything that runs via the Internet, without the Internet itself getting a specific mention) I trot out this handy aphorism: The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing us that anything related to the Internet was easy to understand. In this article, the anon-/epon-ymous “Dynomight” goes deep into why the mainstream (read: online media platforms that gets all the traffic) winds up being this solidly middling quality of content. To get there, there’s a deep dive involving tourists finding restaurants and a you-must-not-miss mention of Gell-Mann amnesia.



At the slightest hint of boredom, you can now surreptitiously glance at any number of apps or mobile-adapted websites that have been optimized to provide you an immediate and satisfying dose of input from other minds. It’s now possible to completely banish solitude from your life.

~ Cal Newport from,

Newport is on-point. (Although, “surreptitiously” is not how I would describe some people’s use of our current mobile technology.)

There is also an exquisite and rare variety of solitude found in the presence of others. In such instances, the other serves to reinforce the value of the solitude. The implicit suggestion that those present could choose to end the solitude makes it all the more sublime.


Are we alone?

Jupiter’s second Galilean Moon, Europa, with its interior ocean, predominantly crater-less surface, and crisscrosses of cracks and ridges spanning entire hemispheres, makes it one of the most fascinating planetary bodies ever observed. These unique geologic features are possibly indicative of liquid water traveling to the surface from its deep ocean, making Europa a hot spot for the exploration and study of life beyond Earth, also known as astrobiology.

~ Laurence Tognetti from,

My mind boggles. We haven’t quite created intelligence that exceeds our own, but we appear to be close (for better or for worse I can’t really say.) But I’ve been occasionally suffering from vertigo thinking: I may live to see it. The thing that has fascinated us for so long— The thing that I’ve read and seen in fiction my entire life— I may yet live to see that.

But when we find life somewhere besides upon our precious blue marble… I’m gonna lose my mind. Life on (in?) Europa seems bonkers, right? There’d be absolutely no light in that ocean… and yet. We find the bottom of our own tiny (compared to Europa’s) oceans teaming with life around sources of heat. That sounds exactly like Europa.

Also, you should totally go watch the film, Europa Report . . .


Time to think

[…] The problem is that too many workplaces expect their knowledge workers to pull the proverbial lever – today in Microsoft Office form – 40+ hours a week when they’d be better off doing things that look lazy but are actually productive. The result is that most people have thought jobs without being given much time to think […]

~ Morgan Housel from,

That’s an insightful point from Housel. I’ve no real idea if the “too many workplaces” part is true, but my personal experience is that I am quite often doing things which don’t look like productive output. I don’t want to write (say, or even think) “which look lazy” because writing (saying, or even thinking) that reinforces mis-construing productive thinking as that-other-thing I’d prefer to avoid reinforcing.

I’m told that I get a lot done. Sometimes I’m told that I get an inconceivable amount done. I’ve been asked if I have a clone. (To which I reply with a wink and a smirk, “If I did have a clone, how would I get that other myself to do what I myself already don’t want to do? No, it’s just the one me.”) For me, doing the productive thinking—although there’s room to quibble about how productive it really is—is the easy part. It’s easy like: I couldn’t possibly stop thinking like that, all the time. My problem is that I cannot also get myself to do enough proverbial lever pulling.


My daily reflection prompts

Such as are your habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of your mind.

~ Marcus Aurelius, 5.16


I have a series of prompts which are a combination of quotes and small notes I’ve written for myself. I’ve mentioned this a few times in various posts tagged Reflection. As I collect them—pretty rare these days—I record them on slips in the slipbox. In 2019 I posted Daily Reminders describing what I was doing and listed the 42 prompts. Below you will find the current list of 62.

Over the years I’ve taken the time to type them into OmniFocus, the personal productivity software which I use. I carefully created individual “to-dos” for each one, with each scheduled to repeat at just the right number of days, and lined up their initial due dates. Many years later now, every day, one of them comes up digitally as a reflection prompt. While I recognize everyone of them, there are enough of them that I cannot remember which one will be next.


Periscope depth

When we have a bit of time to relax, we tend to spend time on activities that provide us with a quick dopamine hit. This is especially the case when we spend our downtime in the digital world. The key to relaxation is to invest in strategies that make your mind less stimulated. Usually this means spending more time in the analog world.

~ Chris Bailey from,

That analog world can be outside moving or inside doing some yoga, sipping coffee, reading, or spending time with people physically present. The more time I can spend in the analog world, the better my life is.

I have a lot of hard-learned knowledge around what works for me in the morning, and I urge you to experiment to find out what works for you. For years I’ve been using the word “surfacing” to refer to that moment when I transition from simply being myself, to engaging with the world through technology. Surfacing is a submarine reference; Like a submarine, at some point each morning—sometimes after Noon—I sneak up to periscope depth and without making a ripple on the surface I peek to see what in the world might be close at hand. I know that once I break the surface, my life that day changes. One moment, I’m out of sight being self-directed (not necessarily selfish, but rather directing myself) and the next moment there’s an endless world vying for my attention.

My point is not that there’s something wrong with the world. (There is, but that’s not my point.) My point is that the world is simply present. It is ever-present. It’s not the world’s responsibility to not bother me. It is my responsibility to choose. I must choose when to engage and when to be the void. I must choose how to be present for those to whom I am beholden, and I must choose to not waste my energies on everything else. Because there is literally an infinite amount of everything else and chasing that is a fool’s errand.


The yellow bow tie in your eye

I mean it took 10 minutes sitting in a cafe staring at my laptop screen and repeatedly cocking my head back and forth, like an absolute goon, but I can see Haidinger’s brushes!

~ Matt Webb from,

If you like what I’m doing, you’ll probably also like Webb’s Interconnected. I was skimming through, and spun off digging into optics and eyes and yellow bow ties. I’ve never (or I’ve completely forgotten) known about this before today. Like Webb, I was astounded to realize that I can see Haidinger’s brushes. It’s an optical phenomenon in the macula of the retina. Not everyone has the biology to see it, but with certain light coming into your eye this defect of our magnificent optical systems is revealed. Just when I think, “meh, what wonders could possibly be left…”


The gaming problem

As the power of AI grows, we need to have evidence of its sentience. That is why we must return to the minds of animals.

~ Kristin Andrews and Jonathan Birch from,

This article ate my face. I was scrolling through a long list of things I’d marked for later reading, I glanced at the first paragraph of this article… and a half-hour later I realized it must be included here. I couldn’t even figure out what to pull-quote because that requires choosing the most-important theme. The article goes deeply into multiple intriguing topics, including sentience, evolution, pain, and artificial intelligence. I punted and just quoted the sub-title of the article.

The biggest new-to-me thing I encountered is a sublime concept called the gaming problem in assessing sentience. It’s about gaming, in the sense of “gaming the system of assessment.” If you’re clicking through to the article, just ignore me and go read…

…okay, still here? Here’s my explanation of the gaming problem:

Imagine you want to wonder if an octopus is sentient. You might then go off and perform polite experiments on octopods. You might then set about wondering what your experiments tell you. You might wonder if the octopods are intelligent enough to try to deceive you. (For example, if they are intelligent enough, they might realize you’re a scientist studying them, and that convincing you they are sentient and kind, would be in their best interest.) But you definitely do not need to wonder if the octopods have studied all of human history to figure out how to deceive you—they definitely have not because living in water they have no access to our stored knowledge. Therefore, when studying octopods, you do not have to worry about them using knowledge of humans to game your system of study.

Now, imagine you want to wonder if an AI is sentient. You might wonder will the AI try to deceive you into thinking it’s sentient when it actually isn’t. We know that we humans deceive each other often; We write about it a lot, and our deception is seen in every other form of media too. Any AI created by humans will have access to a lot (most? all??) of human knowledge and would therefore certainly have access to plenty of information about how to deceive a person, what works, and what doesn’t. So why would an AI not game your system of study to convince you it is sentient?

That’s the gaming problem in assessing sentience.


Talent is bullshit

Marty is a death camp survivor. He’s got the tattoo. He never speaks about the experience directly (I only know through my friend Pablo, who originally introduced me to Marty) but he’ll make remarks from time to time whose gist is, “Appreciate life. Never complain. Work hard and do your best.”

Marty has one other mantra: “Talent is bullshit.”

~ Steven Pressfield from,

It’s worth reading simply because Pressfield wrote it; He doesn’t write that much on his blog and so I make time to read it all. Marty (who is a fictionalized version of a real person Pressfield knew) consuls a tidy, four points. I was gut-punched to realize that while I excel at the last two, “Work hard and do your best,” and I suck at the first two, “Appreciate life. Never complain.” The complaining bit I have made reasonable progress on. These days I don’t often complain, and when I do complain I am able to see it’s ridiculous indignation at its core. But that first one, “Appreciate life,”… yikes! I seriously suck at that.


Forward is the best option

Because forward is the best option. Let’s go with one that makes the most sense–and if you don’t have a better plan, you should be responsible enough to back the one that’s most likely to work, even, especially, if you don’t like it.

~ Seth Godin from,

For me, this “rhythms” with things like “having skin in the game” and with Theodore Roosevelt’s famous idea of “the man in the arena“. But I like Godin’s turn of phrasing better.

Skin-in-the-game and man-in-the-arena feel focused on requiring one to earn the right to participate in guiding the direction of things (a project, a company, a nation, the human race.) While Godin’s—in my opinion—suggests that the value of your contribution should be judged by how it moves things forward (including contributing to the discussion of what does “forward” mean.)



Any analysis of Haiti must state two facts. First, Haiti is the only country where slavery was defeated by a slave revolution. Second, Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world, and the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. Now that I’ve stated these facts, I’d like to explore deeper. What do we know about Haiti’s poverty? How does this relate to its history? And why does it compare so unfavourably with the Dominican Republic?

~ Craig Palsson from,

In recent years I’ve been trying to pay attention to when I’m geographical ignorant. (Tip: Check out Atlas Obscura.) Hispaniola has always interested me and I can recall—probably in junior high?—thinking, “wait wat? _Islands_ can be divided into multiple countries? How does that happen?” (Which of course makes no sense. People love to fight over things and draw borders.) Anyway. I’ve long known that Haiti and the Dominican Republic were neighbors, but I never took the time to dig into any history. The other day I spun off following a train of thought about the Vente de la Louisiane and it turns out that that story has it’s beginnings in Haiti.


A cure for hiccups

[It] boils down to a simple breathing exercise. First, exhale completely, then inhale a deep breath. Wait 10 seconds, then—without exhaling—inhale a little more. Wait another five seconds, then top up the breath again. Finally, exhale.

~ Uri Bram from,

Sometimes I straight-up do public service announcements. Here, have a cure for hiccups!

If you’ve thought about how proper breathing works, you’ll quickly realize those instructions involve incrementally, increasingly flexing your diaphragm muscle. (If that isn’t obvious, the Thoracic diaphragm page on Wikipedia has you covered.) The muscle spasm is part of a feedback loop involving two of our nerves, and intentionally activating the muscle breaks that feedback. The trick is that you need to really flex it… flex it much harder than you normally do when breathing.

Note that if you do the “hold your breath” part of the exercise by closing your glottis (what’s that?) and relaxing your diaphragm, you’re doing it wrong. The entire point of the exercise is to flex, flex, flex and hold tension in the diaphragm muscle.


Overlooked truths

Peoples’ desire to have an opinion far exceeds the number of things that need to be opined on. “I don’t know” is a phrase that should be praised for its honesty, not belittled for its detachment.

~ Morgan Housel from,

Collaborative Fund is an investment firm so everything there is about investing. Mostly about investing. Well, actually, it turns out that investing is at its core just people doing stuff for reasons. Posts like this one from Housel read like investment (or “financial”) advice, and their lessons directly generalize. I’ve already mentioned that “I don’t know” is how how I avoid making the mistake of trying to have an opinion about everything. There are several other nuggets in there too.