The answer is, “2.”

In this situation, before committing to a three year PhD, you better make sure you spend three months trying out research in an internship. And before that, it seems a wise use of your time to allocate three days to try out research on your own. And you better spend three minutes beforehand thinking about whether you like research.

~ ‘jsevillamol’ from, https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/eZCrCB3HiDB55Ccqx/spend-twice-as-much-effort-every-time-you-attempt-to-solve-a

This one caught my eye because the vague heuristic of spending increasing amounts of effort at each attempt to solve a problem felt true. But I was thinking of it from the point of view of fixing some process— Like a broken software system that occasionally catches fire. Putting the fire out is trivial, but the second time I start trying to prevent that little fire. The third time I find I’m more curious as to why does it catch fire, and why didn’t my first fix make a difference. The fourth time I’m taking off the kid gloves and bringing in industrial lighting, and power tools. The fifth time I’m roping in mathematicians and textbooks and wondering if I’m trying to solve the Halting Problem.

Turns out the context of the problem doesn’t matter. The answer is, “2.” Every time you attempt to solve a problem—any sort of problem, any context, any challenge, any unknown—the most efficient application of your effort is to expend just a bit less than twice the effort of your last attempt.

Not, “it feels like twice would be good,” but rather: Doubling your efforts each time is literally the best course of action.

…and now that I’ve written this. My brain dredges up the Exponential Backoff algorithm. That’s been packed in the back of my brain for 30 years. I’ve always known that was the chosen solution to a very hard problem. (“Hard,” as in proven to be impossible to solve generally, so one needs a heuristic and some hope.) They didn’t just pick that algorithm; Turns out it’s the actual best solution.

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Wow! indeed

Caballero found what appears to fit the bill—a star that is very nearly a mirror image of the sun—and is located in the part of the sky where the Wow! signal originated. He notes that there are other possible candidates in the area but suggests his candidate might provide the best launching point for a new research effort by astronomers who have the tools to look for exoplanets.

~ Bob Yirka from, https://phys.org/news/2020-11-amateur-astronomer-alberto-caballero-source.html

The original Wow! Signal was recorded in 1977. It makes me happy to think that the human race has progressed so far as to be able to detect extrasolar planets, in the right place… well, “wow” indeed.

What would it be like to be alive when, (not if, I say,) we find our first neighbor?

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Ready. Aim. Aim.

If you’re holding back and looking for a reason why, and that reason is replaced by another reason, then… you might be stalling.

~ Seth Godin from, https://seths.blog/2020/11/are-you-stalling/

I’m sure I must have been stalling at some point in my life, but ain’t nobody got time for that now. Sometimes my stalling manifested as frenetic deck-chair arranging when I was actually stalling on the rudder improvement project. Sometimes it manifested as deep, pensive stretches of prodigious cogitation. Now I’m all like: Manifest destiny!

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Deeply held beliefs

This book is complicated and ambitious. But there’s one thread in particular that I think is worth underscoring. Crawford notes that the real problem with the current distracted state of our culture is not the prevalence of new distracting technologies. These are simply a reaction to a more fundamental reality: “[W]e are agnostic on the question of what is worth paying attention to — that is, what to value.” In the absence of strongly-held answers to this question our attention remains adrift and unclaimed — we cannot, therefore, be surprised that app-peddlers and sticky websites swooped in to aggressively feast on this abundant resource.

~ Cal Newport, from https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2016/07/15/from-descartes-to-pokemon-matthew-crawfords-quest-to-reclaim-our-attention/

Turns out Crawford was interviewed by Brett McKay, another person I’ve often quoted here. I’ve not yet listened but the episode is Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction.

Originally I thought “social media” itself was the problem. Eventually it became clear to me that social media is the symptom. People want to be fed saccharine lives through their phones because they’ve never been taught that they need to consciously make decisions about what’s important to them.

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Wonder

I’ve a system of daily reminders; of course it’s complicated.

For years now, a few of my reminders have simply been questions. I recently started writing something to go with those questions making them feel more at home with some of my other reminders and prompts which had some exposition with them when I found them. I thought it would be interesting to share what I added to this question today:

WHAT HAVE I BEEN READING? — I’ve performed this experiment countless times. Read less: nothing happens. Read more: ideas, new connections, inspiration, questions, motivation, short-cuts, wonder.

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Epidemiology and economics

It is increasingly clear that neither of these assumptions is correct. Despite the claims of epidemiologists, our best efforts have never been able to reduce the number of newly reported COVID-19 cases for the world as a whole for any significant period of time. In fact, the latest week seems to be the highest week so far.

~ Gail Tverberg from, https://ourfiniteworld.com/2020/09/23/reaching-the-end-of-early-stimulus-whats-ahead/

It’s not meant as a doom-and-gloom quote. The article goes on to talk about how our economies really work and what’s really going on.

I’ve a tag for Tverberg for a reason. You should read everything she’s ever written—which would be hard because you’d have to also wade through the amazing, museum-piece that is The Oil Drum. I use that site as a litmus test for anyone who ever mentions “energy”—”Have you heard of The Oil Drum site?” If they have, then I’m really listening.

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All that will be

Let me tell you, then, how you must think of me. I am as happy and lively as in my best days. Indeed, these days are my best, for my mind is now free of preoccupations and has leisure for its own concerns; now it amuses itself with lighter studies and now, pressing keenly after truth, it rises to the contemplation of its own nature and the nature of the universe. First it investigates the continents and their position, then the laws which govern the sea which surrounds them with its alternate ebb and flow, and then it examines the stretch which lies between heaven and earth and teems with such tumultuous and terrifying phenomena as thunder and lightning and gales and the precipitation of rain and snow and hail. Finally, when it has traversed the lower reaches, it bursts through to the realms above where it enjoys the fairest spectacle of things divine and, mindful of its eternity, moves freely among all that was and all that will be world without end.

~ Seneca, from Consolation of Helvia (20)

This type and period of writing is referred to as “silver point.” It’s highly polished, almost performance art in itself. Some pieces of silver point—including in my opinion swaths of Seneca’s writing—are tortuous to the language. (As I understand it, tortuous in the original as well as the English.)

What I’ve quoted is the ending of his letter. 2,000 years later, sounds to me like the human experience remains identical.

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Personal knowledge systems

Continuing my deep dive—hopefully it doesn’t become a drowning—into Knowledge Systems: Yesterday I spent a little time tinkering with Discourse to see what I could do with it. There is a mind-numbing array of tools that could be used, but I keep coming back to the point that I don’t actually understand what I’m trying to build.

I’ve spent significant time thinking about that, and reading about that, but it’s still not clear. It’s like standing in an aisle of tools each shiny and powerful; I know people who have piles of tools. Fortunately, the best way to understand is to build. And so building I am. (Out of sight privately, sorry.)

I seem to recall hearing a metaphor about house building: Start with a sofa in the lawn, add features as needed. Be prepared to knock it down and start again.

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Slip boxes aka zettelkasten

Zettelkasten is usually mentioned as a note-taking method. However, the end goal of Zettelkasten is not gathering and collecting notes, but rather creating a competent and knowledgeable communication partner. The main interaction with the slip-box is not when we are writing and adding new notes, because the slip-box is not there to be an archive of our memory and knowledge. Slip-box is there to be an apparatus with which we think. Therefore, the main interaction is when we communicate with the slip-box by confronting ourselves and our thinking with our prior knowledge.

~ Eva Thomas from, https://medium.com/@ethomasv/understanding-zettelkasten-d0ca5bb1f80e

This appears to be part four of a series: On knowledge systems, Push and pull, and Commonplace notebooks. Depending where you are on your personal journey you may have been sitting back, chuckling, waiting for me to “discover” zettelkasten. …to which I reply, “y u no email me about zettelkasten?!”

Now this idea I definitely have seen before. I can recall stumbling on the idea very early in my personal productivity and self-awareness journey. Without looking, I’ll bet I found it first on 43 Folders. I had the distinct pleasure of following along through Merlin Mann’s journey—trying to keep up, but not succeeding at the time. (Posts on that site run from 2004, through 2011.) If you just went, “43 Folders? …what’s that?” You need to go look at 43 Folders.

…oh sorry, I was off on a tangent there. I just realized Mann has a podcast that’s on episode #503. Shit. Another thing I probably need to listen too. I’ll just say: My web site serialize tool can drip podcast show notes pages at me too, so I’ll drip all those so I can skim the show notes, and I’ll just listen to the few that are “must listen” [in my opinion of course.]

*shudder* I’m all over the map today. Zettelkasten, right.

When I first encountered it, I got stuck on the idea that it’s “notes” in “boxes.” Why would anyone want to do that, now that we have (back then) web sites where you can tag stuff, search, edit, etc.? Now I see this part—trimming my lead quote down—is the neat part:

The end goal of Zettelkasten is creating a competent and knowledgeable communication partner. The slip-box is there to be an apparatus with which we think. Therefore, the main interaction is when we communicate with the slip-box by confronting ourselves and our thinking with our prior knowledge.

Do you see it now? The slip-box system can be slips of paper, digital notes/files, or many other implementations. The original slip-boxes (physical things, pre-Internet… actually, pre-electricity,) were used by one person. Using modern technology we can implement one that allows people to collaborate too. (If we wanted. Not saying I necessarily want that.)

Oh, and guess what I built four years ago. A very complicated, (that’s not a compliment,) system for weaving together references, summaries, and articles on a site called Hilbert’s Library. It was literally my first attempt to build a knowledge management system. I’m now thinking it’s over-designed—I mean yes, sure… I over-think and over-design everything. But I mean that now I see why the design I built into it actually gets in the way of it being maximally useful as a knowledge management system.

What? Oh, yes, people have built lots of ways to implement slip-boxes. Notably, Emvi does that (among other things, because zettelkasten can be confusing so they pitch it in various use cases.)

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Commonplace notebooks

Continuing my train of thought from On knowledge systems and Push and pull, today I want to dive into something called a commonplace book. (For the third time: no denouement today.) In line with more modern language usage, I’m going to prefer commonplace notebook; books are today commonplace, and we use the word “notebook” for the ones we create privately.

Settle in, this is about to get tangential.

I first encountered this idea at 8am, November 13th, 2020. Literally. I’ve never heard of the idea of a “commonplace book” previously. And here I am in the midst of finally pulling on a thread which I’ve been calling a quest for a knowledge system… trying to solve a problem which is as yet ill formed. I’ve been reading through the entire Farnam Street web site; it’s like 5,000 non-trivial web pages skimming a few every day for well over a year. This November 13th a little before 8am I happen to reach, John Locke’s Method of Organizing Common Place Books. Which, probably is not worth clicking through. First off, “common” modifies “place” so we can drop “common” without fundamentally changing the meaning—so sayeth grammar. Therefore Locke’s method is for organizing books about places. I very nearly didn’t even skim it. But I did. And realized it’s his method for organizing commonplace books. Oh my god Becky, that’s completely different. Wait, what’s a commonplace book? (There’s a link in that post about Locke’s method.) POW!

Commonplace books are personal knowledge libraries; notebooks full of collected ideas and bits of wisdom all mixed up together. Here, we take a look at their history and benefits.

~ from https://fs.blog/2014/07/networked-knowledge-and-combinatorial-creativity/

Am I on Candid Camera? This is so apropos of my recent thinking, it’s H.P. Lovecraft level eery.

Zooming out…

The knowledge system I’m seeking is not simply a repository into which I want to toss everything. For example, Evernote is not a solution that will work. It’s too easy to put things in. (Likewise for any home-grown version I might cook up with documents or cloud storage.) Sure, Evernote and other solutions are eminently searchable—that’s a good thing. But I continue to avoid such tools because… well, because I don’t want simply a giant collection of everything. I don’t want to simply amass everything I’ve ever been exposed to. (We already have an Internet. We don’t need Craig’s Internet assembled within the other.) But, I’ll call these desirables the “power” features.

I’m intrigued by the commonplace notebook solution as it requires a good bit of effort to add things. Effort is required to evaluate each new idea to be added. Effort is required to see how it “hangs together with” the rest of what I know, at the time when I encounter the new thing. This suggests individual, manual and mental labor, [meaning I have to do everything, possibly even including manually writing things down on paper] is also a desirable feature.

Some combination of those “power” and “manual” features feels like a sweet spot.

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