Time is money

Time is money. Kind of.

Spending time is like spending money. You should think carefully about what you spend it on, particularly if you don’t have much.

Saving time is like saving money. It gives you a little more to spend in the future (please do remember to spend it).

Investing time is like investing money. You do it in the hope of future benefits (it doesn’t always pay off, and that is OK).

You can’t borrow time like you can borrow money, though. So do make the most of what you have right now.

Don’t go passing time, you wouldn’t do that with money. Don’t waste it. Spend it.

Books the remix

Andy Matuschak put out a very interesting piece recently, “Why books don’t work“. While the title is slightly clickbait-y, the content is a substantive and thought-provoking argument that non-fiction books are not actually good tools for conveying knowledge. That the central premise of book-based learning – “people absorb knowledge by reading sentences” – is not generally true*. Instead, people depend on “metacognition” (thinking about what they are reading) to actually absorb and internalize what they have read, which is not something that comes easily. And even those books which appear explicitly designed to facilitate learning (e.g. textbooks) depend on context to actually act as useful learning tools, whether that context is a course, a classroom or a discussion group.

The prescribed antidote is fortunately not an accepting shrug, but instead that this is an opportunity to “make new forms… it is possible to design new mediums which embody specific ideas”. To improve on the book medium “so that its “grain” bends in line with how people think and learn”. Matuschak acknowledges that this is a tall order, but proffers Quantum Computing, an initial attempt with his collaborator Michael Nielsen.

Matt Clifford included the piece in his weekly Matt’s Thoughts In Between newsletter (subscribe!), with the salient observation that this is a bet on human design in the face of the evolved book medium (which is often a brave bet to make). But books are a technology that haven’t changed in millenia (even e-readers try to mimic paper as much as possible), while our means of information transmission have transformed and proliferated unimaginably. Now seems as good a time as any to reconsider this cornerstone of human knowledge. And while Matuschak’s piece says “it doesn’t even necessarily mean abandoning paper”, I do think if something replaces the medium, it will likely be dynamic and tech enabled.

With these thoughts fresh in my mind I was interested to come across Going Critical, by Kevin Simler, which weaves interactive simulations into a very interesting piece on diffusion through a network. The piece is interspersed by illustrative examples that deepen understanding of quite complex phenomena in a very intuitive way. I recommend you give it a read.

This particular approach worked very well, and was very memorable. But I think what struck me was how appropriate it was to the specific topic, but that it wouldn’t necessarily be generalisable. Which lead me to a general observation: I think that if something does replace books, it won’t be another monolithic medium, but a rich mixture of forms. Kevin shared a range of his inspirations. I look forward to seeing others’ explorations, and may even break out of the box myself.

*In a perfect and slightly ironic illustration of this phenomenon, I found myself having to revisit the original article quite a bit to remember the details, having read it a few days ago.

Modes of transport

I think quite a bit about modes of transport.

Sometimes you are walking someplace. If you know where you are going, and the route, you can work out approximately how long it will take to get there. Perhaps you can walk faster, to get there a little sooner. Maybe you will get lost. But if you know how to get from A to B, you just have to put one foot in front of the other, over and over again, until you get there.

If you are travelling by train, things are a bit different. With a train, you just have to make it to the station on time, which might require a less-than-dignified jog. The key is knowing which train to catch, and then when to get off, when to catch another train and when to do something else altogether.

You might have gathered that this is a somewhat disorganised metaphor. People often talk about life as a journey, but I don’t think enough consideration is given to the mode of transport, which should really be framing the way you think about your trip. What makes things difficult is that not everyone is on the same route, and that the appropriate vehicle can change over time (I know, I’m getting a bit lost at this point too, but I guess what I’m saying is that there is no Google Maps and that is hard).

Regardless, I think it is all too easy to get lost in logistics, rather than enjoying the ride*. So I’m trying to get better at that.

*Sorry, this got a bit trite. What I am saying is that I run for trains a lot.

Siempo

One of the few daily newsletters I almost always skim is Product Hunt‘s Daily email. Pretty short, digestible and themed (hello Harry Potter), it generally fits quite nicely into a commute or equivalent. The other day the theme was “10 Apps for your mood“. As well as the usual heavyweights (Headspace, Calm), it featured a fewer up-and-comers that launched on Product Hunt in the last year.

The one which caught my eye was Siempo, which promises to “turn your phone into a healthier digital experience 📱” (emoji theirs). That sounded pretty good, so I downloaded it to give it a try.

Off the bat the user experience is quite intimidating, as it pretty immediately asks you for every phone permission under the sun, making me instantly suspicious. Perhaps it’s on me – I didn’t know initially that Siempo was a “Launcher” app, effectively replacing your phone’s Home screen and App catalogue. Now I do know that, it makes sense that it would need pretty invasive permissions, but it still feels weird. Whatever the weather I think Siempo could do a better job explaining what is going on before you give it permission to view your blood type, and could also maybe reassure you of the robust privacy of that information. Rant over.

Once you have done all that, you are presented with a basic black and white UI instead of your normal home screen.

I spruced the background up with a photo my brother took of the Green Bridge of Wales. Freebie bug if any Siempo people are reading: the yellow circle space seems to be treated like an icon, as in it shuffles around when I try and rearrange things.

Siempo aims to “put you back in control of your apps and protect you from overuse”, and it is surprising how effective a nondescript home screen is. Colourful branded icons are gone, and most non-core apps require you to search for them, rather than your thumb’s muscle memory taking you there. Introducing this minor friction acts as a reminder, and more than once I find myself putting my phone down to focus on what I was doing as a result.

There is also the concept of “Flagged” apps, which you don’t want to spend time on. Siempo had a few pre-populated – Twitter (guilty), Snapchat (not guilty), YouTube (not guilty) and LinkedIn (on the odd weird occasion). I left them in as they were. These apps don’t show up in the main search results, requiring you to go to a separate taboo section, another simple segregation which is actually quite effective. You can also opt to be reminded when you have spent too much time on a “Flagged” app (if you hand over yet more permissions), some gentle prompts and a counting clock showing up at the top or bottom of your screen.

Siempo lets you batch up notifications, so they only arrive periodically or at a certain time. My phone (a OnePlus) treats the batches kind of strangely (they are all Siempo notifications when they come through), so I haven’t gone for this one yet, but I do see the utility during periods of focused time.

I could think of some additional potential features. Analytics is one, given all the data I know the app has – it would be interesting to know where I am spending all my time, and I have always thought that notification analytics would be cool to see. I would also be interested in Time of day controls or switches, so I can be “at work” or “at home” and have different experiences accordingly. I think there is a trick missed integrating something like Unsplash in the name of lovely photos for people to look at (value-add stuff I know). On a more serious note, the lack of a payment option for the service is a bit unnerving, particularly for a product that has quite so much of your personal information. Everyone’s got to eat, I am happy to pay for digital services I value, and I feel like lots of people are increasingly of that view. If anything, finding a Patreon page with only 5 backers made me all the more anxious, but maybe there is a business model underneath it all that I am unaware of (and happy to update this to reflect that if anyone is in the know).

Overall though I am pretty impressed with Siempo, and at the very least it made me think quite a bit about my phone usage. I have friends who have contemplated ditching their smartphone altogether in favour of a less distracting brick phone – I think this software-based approach is a less drastic middle ground.

It made me think about trust – in giving access to Siempo, I was reminded of how much my smartphone knows or could know about me. Having worked in a couple of tech companies, I actually think the extent to which that data is actively used right now is less than one might suspect (or fear), but things could certainly go in that direction. You are also trusting them to keep your information safe, which is probably actually the bigger concern.

It made me wonder why smartphone makers don’t give you more control over their inbuilt Launcher apps, instead letting addictive apps run amok across your home screen and attention span. Controlling that experience, or at least giving people tools to do so if they want, is something I hope phone companies are thinking about.

So quite a lot taken away from a random app downloaded on a whim, but that is probably because Siempo strikes a very current nerve. Phones at their best are magical devices that create wonderful experiences and foster global connection, phones at their worst are attention slot machines. Siempo is focused on (preventing) the latter, which is certainly a noble cause.

Two percent

I used to work with a man called Michael who changed the way I think about time. It was the first day of the second week of January 2014, and he observed that we were 2 percent through the year.

I had never thought of one week in those terms. A year is obviously a significant amount of time, while weeks seem to come and go. Two percent is little enough to make sense with how weeks feel, but large enough to make each week very meaningful and precious. It is daunting to think about a fortnight as nearly five percent (!), and I now can’t plan a long weekend without thinking about it as one percent of my days this year.

I think a decent amount about time (it is the only thing we have, but that is a topic for another day). Wait But Why‘s bits on the subject are particularly thought-provoking and terrifying, while my cousin’s edict to “max your days” is always ringing in my ears.

If I told Mike how often I thought about two percent, and by extension about him, I think he would probably find it kind of strange.

Shut it down #001

I have a habit of keeping quite a lot of browser tabs open. I know I am not the only one.

On my laptop, my tabs tend to be related to what I am currently working on. I can deal with that. On my phone they tend to be a mixture of things I hope to read in the future, and some things which I have read already and thought were good, but which I didn’t know what to do with. That is a bit more bothersome, because it is accretive over time, so now I have loads.

The good news is I now have a place to find closure, right here on the internet. Thank you for witnessing my decluttering, where I Shut It Down to browser-tab-zero.

12 Things I learned from Chris Dixon about Startups

This has been in my tabs for a while; it’s an article I have re-read a couple of times. The toy / hobby / weekend metaphor for good startup ideas is pretty well-known by now, but it is always worth revisiting. I like the idea of a good startup idea being predicated on a secret, and of moving from uncertainty to value creation. I feel like the transition of technology from bits to atoms is still pretty nascent, which is exciting. Meanwhile the market-size narrative challenge for startups is evergreen. The importance of getting rejected often is hard to internalize, but I see the value (in setting ambitious goals). While the parting message for entrepreneurs (“get ready to feel sick to your stomach for the next five years”) can certainly be considered fair warning.

The Psychology of Human Misjudgement by Charles T. Munger

A long one but a good one, a chimera of several talks Munger made in the early 90s, where he highlights biases which lead to bad decision-making. Far from an academic study (as he himself acknowledges somewhat gleefully), it nonetheless (or perhaps as a result?) is very thought-provoking.

He starts with the always underappreciated power of incentives (“I think I’ve been in the top five percent of my age cohorts almost all my adult life in understanding the power of incentives, and yet I’ve always underestimated that power”), before making his way via the biases of loving and hating, through man’s dislike of inconsistency and doubt, touching on the dangers of optimism, and loss aversion (“Deprival Superreaction Tendency”), as well as ways in which “leaders … display followership akin to that of teenagers” due to Social Proof Tendency. The Twaddle tendency has an entertaining bee-based comparison, but it all comes together with the “Lollapalooza Tendency”, which considers the potential dangers when many different tendencies are brought to bear at once. An irreverent waltz, and worth a read on a long train ride or equivalent.

Do things that don’t scale by Paul Graham

Something of a classic, and certainly a phrase that is now part of Silicon Valley lore. People were presumably talking about Delight prior to 2013, but I like how it is described here (“You should take extraordinary measures not just to acquire users, but also to make them happy… existing conventions are not the upper bound on user experience”). Pithy warnings too, about relying on Big launches and partnerships

It’s interesting to see companies like Superhuman push the “do things that don’t scale” approach even further in 2019 (1 to 1 onboarding for a consumer internet product). Paul hasn’t written an essay since 2017, which is a shame (though he is alive and well on Twitter).

practicalAI

Not an article, but a collection of intro-to-AI notebooks. It recommends using Google Colab, which I had last used when it was very much an internal-only Google tool, so cool to see it in the wild. A few topics still waiting to be covered, but a nice starting point nonetheless.

The art of decision making

Much is made of the importance of good decision-making. In this piece Joshua Rothman breaks down the things that make that difficult, with his decision to become a parent as a case-study.

Decisions are often more gradual than they are discrete (“it’s a momentous choice, but I can’t pinpoint the making of it in space or time”), are often are limited by past choices (so-called “bounded rationality”), and can’t be understood on a single scale. There is certainly scope to improve decision-making (“scenario planning … seeking out diverse perspectives on the choice, challenging your assumptions, making an explicit effort to map the variables”), as we “ask ourselves what we value, then seek to maximize that value”. But it becomes more difficult once you realise that what we value might shift over time in a way that isn’t always predictable (“Why should today’s values determine tomorrow’s?”).

This is probably why people “are in fact more casual and cavalier in the way they handle their big decisions than in the way they handle their ordinary decisions”, in the words of Edna Ullmann-Margalit. Certainly food for thought as you think about your own decisions and those you observe others making, both before and after the fact.

MakerDAO Sponsor Bounties for ETHDenver

A bit rogue I suppose, but I am always interested by the sponsor-suggestions for hackathon-type projects, as it tends to capture what is top-of-mind in a given industry or companies. It’s been cool to see the evolution and growth of the MakerDAO stablecoin project, so I was interested to see their areas of focus – in this case wallets, lending and zero-knowledge proofs.

Heuristics to Generate Startup Ideas

A well trodden path, but some good thoughts in this one. I particularly like “Tools inside a big company” and “Revisit ideas that were too early”. “Understand how teens communicate” is sadly probably beyond me at this point (I am not sure I was that in touch when I was a teenager myself…).

What is Amazon by Zack Kanter

A tour de force. On the evolution of the retailer algorithm, from the “bounded” physical world of Walmart to the “unbounded” digital world of Amazon, and the importance of the third party-marketplace in the new world (vs the old world’s vendor selection model). On how Amazon’s need to grow at internet scale made it necessary for them to become a “platform; that is, an aggregation of resources made available through a series of interfaces“. On the edict from Jeff Bezos, for all teams to build as if for external customers, to enable the business to transform into, and scale as a platform (“Platforms became part of the algorithm”). A dissection of Ads, designated a misstep (but one that may be “impossibly addictive”, given the revenue). And a riff on the risks of its “Wild West for sellers”. I definitely share Zack’s parting sentiment: “I remain fascinated to see what will happen next.”

Open Jobs: Making labour markets smarter and more empowering for jobseekers

I have been thinking quite a lot recently about the future of work and closing supply-demand gaps in labour markets. Nesta have a bunch of interesting articles on the topic, and this one is right on:

“although 75.3 per cent of adults in the UK are in jobs, this headline figure masks some deep inefficiencies and problems of stagnant pay, social mobility and productivity and major failures in the transition to work”

The sell is for their Open Jobs project, which aims to address issues with data, policy and pilots.

How not to fail by Jessica Livingston

Taken from a talk given to the Female Founders Conference, it’s all good stuff. Make something people want, know if you are default alive, keep expenses low, and more. YC content is pretty pervasive these days in startup-article-land, but that’s probably because they know what they are doing.

How the UK lost Brexit

Fascinating dissection of the negotiations between the UK and the EU in the aftermath of the EU referendum, and how the UK were outmanoeuvred time and time again. Bloody red lines, cherry-picking and Barnier.

Holloway About Page

I don’t know much about them, but I like what they are doing (“We publish fully digital Guides to high-stakes, complex subjects”). One to keep an eye on.

The Rawlsian Diagnosis of Donald Trump by Samuel Scheffler

On Rawls and the importance of reciprocity in liberal societies: a proposal that American society has in recent decades seen “the failure to achieve—or even to strive seriously to achieve—an ideal of reciprocity”. A suggestion that this failure has contributed to the rise of Trump in a manner predicted by rather than contradicting Rawlsian liberalism, as “U.S. institutions have come closer to maximizing the position of the best-off group than to maximizing the position of the worst-off group”. Interesting, but definitely on the academic end of the spectrum.

Invisible Asymptotes by Eugene Wei

I first came across Eugene’s Status-as-a-Service article in February, which I also recommend. This piece introduces Invisible Asymptotes, where a single factor limits growth beyond a certain point unless addressed appropriately (if it can be), starting with Amazon’s first: shipping cost (which people hate to “to literally an irrational degree”) . A whistle-stop tour through tech Royalty’s varied and different invisible asymptotes, some more practical words of advice, plus some reflections on the asymptotes in all of our lives (“In my experience, the most successful people I know are much more conscious of their own personal asymptotes at a much earlier age than others”). An interesting way to think about potential and future growth in all walks.

And that is that. My phone feels lighter already, thanks for closing down my tabs with me. Until next time.