Continuing the thread of focusing my curiosity, I am experimenting with different approaches to filter my “inputs”.
My primary responsibility, of course, is to deliver YOU the best and more interesting insights about the social and economic consequences of the Internet and thriving in the global consciousness. But that’s only a subset of my reading habits and I want an easy way to filter OUT the articles and books that I’m not interested in so that I can devote more attention to those that will matter to me (and you).
Anne-Laure LeCunff has a mental atlas, further extending the metaphor of notes database as a “mental maps”. Atlas is – after all THE book of maps.
While it may be possible to go through life without ever paying attention to these patterns across various mental and cognitive maps, being aware of the inherent interconnectedness of our thoughts will help guide your daily and long-term decision-making process.
In order to compile my own version, I:
Browsed the books I tend to pick and noted common topics,
Had a look at my blog to see where my attention gravitates,
Of course, scoured my notes for insights
Here is what I ended up with. This is and will continue to be, work in progress.
What should you do when a bird hits your window?
I had to figure that out on Saturday. A poor yellowhammer has crashlanded on my balcony and stopped moving. Quick Googling led me to put her in a cardboard box, safe from the hungry eyes of my dog.
Apparently, you should close the box. After a few hours, when the bird is flapping inside the box – it means it recovered. If the bird won’t regain energy, you should contact wildlife rehabbers – more insights in here.
My little friend escaped her box after 2 hours – I hope the incident is now only a distant memory. Glass skyscrapers are death traps for unexpecting birds, but I was surprised to learn that my balcony is part of the problem.
3 Surprising Effects of the Internet
Beware of Corporate Promises covers a fascinating natural experiment in company ethics. Less than a year ago, nearly 200 CEOs signed a solemn pledge, issued by the Business Roundtable, to stop caring primarily about their shareholders and to serve the needs of their workers, communities, and country too. After the pandemic hit, signers were almost 20 percent more prone to announce layoffs or furloughs Behavioral psychologists have observed an effect they call “moral self-licensing”: If people are allowed to make a token gesture of moral behavior—or simply imagine they’ve done something good—they then feel freer to do something morally dubious, because they’ve reassured themselves that they’re on the side of the angels.
Decomplication: How to Find Simple Solutions to “Hard” Problems by Nat Eliason touches one of my favorite topics – how basics are at the same time undervalued and overcomplicated. The core solutions to many problems, maybe most problems, are extremely simple. In one paragraph each, you can explain how to lose weight, how to gain muscle, how to save money, how to be productive, how to sleep better, how to grow a website, and just about any other popular problem. (…) We’ve been sold complexity our entire lives, and that’s made us undervalue the simple. As a result of the “monetization through complexity” problem, we no longer trust that simple solutions could be valid.
During our pre-pandemic travels, my wife and I visited the King’s Palace in Thailand. The palace complex is of course on the UNESCO world heritage list and THE tourist attraction in Bangkok. It’s positively rococo.
But I came to realize, that the abundance of riches, gold and things to marvel at quickly fizzles out. After 100 golden buddhas you don’t really care how many more are there. You get it. There’s a lot.
At the same time – the cost of seeing these “Tier 1” tourist attractions tends to grow exponentially:
The queues are longer
The security more annoying
The crowds – unbearable.
Because these are “the most famous” things in the world, EVERYBODY goes there. In the meantime, there are “Tier 2” points of interest, where the crowds are less annoying, the queues less painful, but the “awesomeness” only slightly lesser.
My working theory is that the awesomeness curve is concave but the annoyance curve is convex. At many of these “most famous places” they cross – like in Paris:
Strasbourg is a very beautiful city, with much smaller crowds and costs of going there, but delivers more than 50% of the Awesomeness that Paris does. My travel advice is: go to “Tier 2” cities.
In one of the previous emails, I wrote about GPT-3 – a new kid on the block of Artificial Intelligence. Pieter Levels has turned it into a startup idea generator. He has been pretty vocal in the past about ideas being cheap and execution constituting the real challenge. Now he’s selling machine-generated ideas 🤣. Some of them are much better than those I’ve heard during startup events:
A company that’s building software for restaurants that helps them manage their menus, guest lists, and food orders.
A startup that helps students and other young professionals find other people their age who want to live together
The startup is building a digital platform to enable farmers to monitor and manage the health of their crops.
Human Genome has been here for about six million years. MS Excel only slightly shorter, but it has already won. Scientists have to rename some of the Human genes because MS Excel tends to automatically convert them to dates. It’s easy to point jokes and demand fixes on the Microsoft side, but the software update cycles in Academia tend to take a while. Scientists have control over the naming of genes, but not over the university purchasing department.
If it seems that every day a new Note-Taking app hits the market, that is correct. The last few years have brought us Notion, Roam, Obsidian, Foam, and about 20 more I can’t remember.
From the outside Note-Taking or more accurately, Personal Knowledge Management may look like a solved problem. You take a piece of paper, and we’re done with it, right? And why do we need so many notes anyway?
My psychology Master Thesis was about just that: a particular aspect of the fallibility of human memory called The Source Monitoring Error. Scientific research of human memory is in total agreement: it’s terrible, fragile, easily manipulated, and not to be trusted. During the painful birth of my thesis, I adopted Evernote as my “Second Brain” and happily used it for the last 12 years.
All human progress is based on some forms of Note Taking. Books are notes prepared for sharing, and almost all software is some form of a notebook – that is why the field is called Information Technology. When ideas are captured and shared, they can be improved upon and serve as building blocks of new ideas (also Leonardo Da Vinci’s notes are fascinating to this day). When Gutenberg first introduced machinery to the note-taking process, it was kind of a big deal. So, what new has happened in the field over the last few years? Why the sudden revival of interest in note-taking tools?
In 2017, Tiago Forte has started releasing his “Building a Second Brain” course, which is now teaching it’s 11th cohort of (over 1000) students. The course addresses the “Post-Scarcity” nature of information in today’s world:
And many people become “infovores,” force-feeding themselves endless books, articles, and courses, in the hope that something will stick
How do I make what I’m consuming right now easily discoverable for my future self?”
Tiago started with Evernote but has moved to an app-agnostic methodology of storing, retrieving, and summarizing information based on David Allen’s ideas from Getting Things Done. Here is a basic overview of Tiago’s methodology:
Every notebook/folder should be organized in one of the PARA groups (more in this article on Tiago’s site)
Projects that have a deadline (for example a Blog Post)
Areas where you need to perform at a consistent level (say, your Marriage)
Resources which will serve you in the above endeavors
Archives for cold storage (say invoices in case of a tax audit)
You should store your notes in a place where you will need them next time
You should progressively summarize your notes every time you touch them, so they become more refined and “your’s” over time (more here).
The first time you stumble upon a note, you may bold the interesting passages
Then next time you highlight the most relevant parts of that
Third time you look at a note, you may rephrase it in your own words and that will be perfect for just Tweeting
Also in 2017, Sönke Ahrens published the book “How to Take Smart Notes” exploring the productivity system of Niklas Luhmann called Zettelkasten (“slip-box” in german). Each note in Zettelkasten is devoted to one idea and then are connected via strands of references:
Luhmann wrote down interesting or potentially useful ideas he encountered in his reading on uniformly sized index cards
He wrote only on one side of each card to eliminate the need to flip them over, and he limited himself to one idea per card so they could be referenced individually
Each new index card received a sequential number, starting at 1. When a new source was added to that topic, or he found something to supplement it, he would add new index cards with letters as suffixes (1a, 1b, 1c, etc.)
I won’t dive into Notion, because I have dismissed it as another note-taking-app-du-jour. Since my elaborate Second Brain already is in Evernote, I wanted to avoid switching costs. And it seems I was right – Roam appeared just after Notion was touted as “the best and final note-taking system”.
The app directly implements and expands ideas of Vannevar Bush’s Memex and Niklas Luhmann’s Zettelkasten – every note is a node in the graph, connected to the lattice of other concepts. This is exactly like human brain stores memories and what convinced me to try it out.
What made it stick is that it starting delivering on the original promise of the White Paper:
At the simplest level, Roam’s structure makes it inherently easier to store, recall, and cross-reference ideas. This is the primary proposition for students, writers, self-directed learners, and users of existing note-taking apps. For power users, the knowledge graph also unlocks applications in logic and reasoning, Bayesian inference and decision-making, modeling complex problems, and collaborative research.
For me, Roam has the biggest Braindump Bandwidth from everything I tried. It’s like thoughts are downloaded via a Neuralink. I think it’s the confidence that I don’t have to worry about finding this note later that gives me the energy to just write.
Long story short: I built a tool to migrate my notes from Roam to Evernote automatically every evening. I get the benefit of sparking new ideas in my Roam Graph, but I can retrieve them quickly in Evernote, which has an unmatched search mechanism. It will also make the transition smoother. Here it is:
If you use apps like Pocket, Kindle, Hypothes.is, Medium or any other tool that allows you to highlight text, Readwise is a also fantastic tool that syncs to Roam, Notion, and Evernote. You will have your book and article highlights ready to use right in your database.
What should you do?
By now it may be pretty obvious that I treat note-taking seriously, but it’s not about fancy tools – for the last 12 years I used ‘basic’ Evernote and enjoyed tremendous benefits.
You can use Apple Notes, Google Keep, or a paper journal – anything but your head. Just remember, that notes are meant to be revisited, used, and processed in context. It’s not about hoarding but enjoying a wider perspective inaccessible to those without a second brain.
Aside: I don’t know if the major note-taking developments of 2017 are related, but Information Technology is full of independent similar breakthroughs- it seems that Zeitgeist is more important than we think. Innovators by Malcolm Gladwell covers that nicely
Success Addicts Choose Being Special Over Being Happyunderscores our obsession with being special and how people sacrifice their happiness for a feeling of superiority. The piece highly resonates with my feelings about Social Media. Many scholars, such as the psychologist Barbara Killinger, have shown that people willingly sacrifice their own well-being through overwork to keep getting hits of success. I know a thing or two about this: As I once found myself confessing to a close friend, “I would prefer to be special than happy.” “the physician Robert Goldman famously found that more than half of aspiring athletes would be willing to take a drug that would kill them in five years in exchange for winning every competition they entered today, “from the Olympic decathlon to the Mr. Universe.”
Where did this tower come from? Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 is a duct tape marvel. Microsoft wizards grabbed freely-available map data from the Internet and generated realistic vistas you can fly over in your aircraft. What they didn’t count on are human errors resulting in some funny glitches explored in this thread.
We live in a post-scarcity world of ideas. So much so, that it’s a bigger problem to manage brilliant insights than to stumble upon them. I use Evernote and Roam as my note-taking tools, Twitter and Pocket for consuming articles, and Kindle for books. To manage this deluge of apps, I previously used a hodge-podge of custom scripts, but now I’ve switched to Readwise. Readwise syncs all these apps (and much more) and helps with recollection implementing spaced repetition. The team behind the app is coming up with creative integrations that I never knew I needed.
A thing I learned this week:
I just finished my week-long Windsurfing lesson – I’ll definitely repeat that. During my ‘commute’ I was listening to David Perell’s podcast with technologist Balaji S. Srinivasan – they chatted a lot about learning by doing, future of media, genomics and a roster of other topics. It occurred to me, that practicing sports is more like applied engineering than watching sports:
Building stuff = Practicing
Theorizing = Watching
Nassim Taleb calls the transition from theory into practice the “Platonic Fold”. But I’d go even further: doing stuff in the real-world and mastering these feedback loops is more different from theory than the branches of the theory are from each other.
The theory of windsurfing was lost on me, but I quickly levelled up while falling from my board.
Patrick Collison, CEO of Stripe published a list of questions occupying his mind when he’s not running a 40B+ payments startup. These are very specific, diverse areas of interest, where he noticed the world should be working better than it is.
Why do there seem to be more examples of rapidly-completed major projects in the past than the present?, Why are so many things so much nicer in Switzerland and Japan?Will end-user applications ever be truly programmable? If so, how? What does religion cause?
People are born curious learning machines – just look at any child! They can find a rock fascinating and worthy of all sorts of experiments to the dismay of their parents trying to make it on time.
Grown-ups are quite curious too. What will happen in the next season of The Mandalorian?Did the politician really say THAT? I wonder what’s for dinner…
All in all, the child’s curiosity is more valuable – it serves them to build the model of the world to use later in life. Somehow the society has managed to direct this innate curiosity to the things that serve this or another media organization. Even in school, being a curious explorer is frowned upon, because it does not fit the curriculum.
There is good news: you can set a rough direction of your explorations! By being more explicit about what you are interested in, you can have a purposeful direction. By being consistent in your pursuits, you can build knowledge over time and focus your effort on what matters to you.
‘Observe the goose’s foot: if it were always open or always closed the creature would not be able to make any kind of movement.’ (…) ‘Why is the fish in the water swifter than the bird in the air when it ought to be the contrary since the water is heavier and thicker than the air?’ (…). ‘Describe the tongue of the woodpecker,’ he instructs himself.
We tend to think of curiosity as an unbridled, raw, and passionate act of pursuing immediate urges. But as both successful artists and long-married couples can tell you: raw and passionate acts of pursuing immediate urges do not constitute a great long-term strategy. By having a research plan, you benefit from compound interest on your curiosity.
Feynman’s 12 Favourite Problems
“Richard Feynman was fond of giving the following advice on how to be a genius. You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say, ‘How did he do it? He must be a genius!”
By having specific areas of interest, Feynman could integrate new learnings with his prior knowledge. More than that, he primed his attention to be alert to anything regarding those problems. He had only 12 of them – instead of doing frantic research „just in case,” he would have only 12 specific angles to consider. He could harness both the power of specificity and diversity because a dozen is not a tiny number.
List-making powers of guiding serendipity are not limited to intellectual pursuits. Years ago, I published a bucket list on my blog – partly to brag a little, but mainly to motivate myself to do stuff I knew I love, but somehow neglect to pursue.
But the real power of intentional lists is their serendipity potential. When my wife and I were traveling through Thailand, the company we work for needed support for a conference in India. My friend Rahul spotted on my blog that I always wanted to drive a Royal Enfield – an Indian Harley-Davidson through the mountains.
When I landed in Udaipur, he handed me the keys with a big smile on his face. But… He did not expect that I’ve never driven a motorcycle before.
Well, now I have.
Having a long-running list of questions, goals, and dreams will nudge you during those idle moments towards the outcome of your choice. Instead of random browsing, you can become an expert on the topics that are relevant to you.
Tomorrow is my first Wind Surfing lesson, bucketlist Item #63. This is what Deliberate life is all about.
In this newsletter, I explain how to record your own podcast and what would Darwin say about it (although I didn’t ask him).
It seems like everywhere you turn, somebody is recommending their newsletter or a podcast. Did you know that in April, iTunes has crossed 1 million registered podcasts? During the pandemic, more people started their podcasting careers – this is a great shelter-in-place activity, and an excellent excuse to interview your best friend! And in case you want to invite an expert – it’s easier than ever before because they are not busy traveling all the time.
You don’t need new gear or a studio. A good video-call headset is enough and you can record via Zoom. Stop browsing those fancy microphones!
You don’t need to do any fancy audio editing. In the article, I explain how to do what you need in iTunes and Garageband.
You can publish your podcasts via your blog, or a dedicated service. What matters is the RSS feed (explained in the article). You submit this RSS feed to Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and all the others. New episodes appear automatically once you publish it at the source (your blog or the podcasting service you use )
Doesn’t it mean more competition?
Attention is indeed a finite resource. You can listen to only as many podcasts during the day, and your cognitive load is further limiting that number. If more podcasts are fighting for the same listenership, doesn’t it mean there is no point in producing a new one?
There are more weird niches on the Internet than you realize, even if you account for the fact that there are more niches on the Internet then you realize (see David Perrell’s version). People are roughly the same but have infinite idiosyncrasies, tastes, and life experiences. They want to hear about different topics and may become enamored with a topic that others find mundane.
And for some people – you’re the expert! While the unimaginative „current events” podcast format is saturated, try finding a niche – the more quirky and unusual, the better:
When the obvious ideas are taken, it makes us explore a more unusual and interesting approach. By trial-and-error, you may discover a hungry audience that didn’t know what they craved. Everything on the Internet evolved until it “started working”, and we have a long way to go still.
This concept was novel on November 24, 1859, when Charles Darwin published „On the origin of species”:
“One general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.”
Civilization and the social support system we created removed life-or-death struggle as a daily occurrence. I’m sure everybody reading this newsletter will not have to worry about starvation. Instead, civilization has created a framework for the development of ideas. When more creators can release their’s into the world, they can compete, cross-pollinate, and evolve until all that’s left are the most beautiful and valuable ones.
Painters like Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael didn’t produce the most famous art pieces in history despite the competition of 16th century Florence – they did so, because of healthy competition nudging them to create something better.
This is a story of how I started a podcast, in 3 hours (apart from waiting for iTunes verification), with a total cost of $5/month. And that included my own domain name! I share detailed instructions on launching a brand new podcast on WordPress, and later promoting it on iTunes and Spotify.
Why would you want to start a podcast?
Podcasting has been hailed “the new blogging”. According to Edison Research, 51% of Americans have ever listened to a podcast and the medium use has grown 122% since 2014. Listening to a conversation creates a deeper connection and for some, it is more entertaining than the written word.
Together, with a group of Polish bloggers, we were dreaming about a foray into podcasting. We created Placebo Podcast in hopes of meeting interesting people and frankly – having fun.
The title reads “Your dose of absolutely nothing. Confirmed clinical efficacy”
What are the benefits of podcasting?
You can connect with your audience on a much deeper level thanks to your voice and the unscripted nature of the conversation,
It is a fantastic excuse to reach out and meet interesting people,
Interviewing people can help you practice listening skills
How does it all work?
You may have listened to a podcast on iTunes, Spotify or another app. But did you know that the content you are enjoying does not originate there?
The beating heart of every podcast is it’s RSS feed. It is a particular format of new blog content that other services – like iTunes or Spotify can consume and display in the appropriate apps, Alexa devices and various services.
To start a podcast, you need a blog. Then you submit it’s RSS feed to podcast services – like iTunes or Spotify.
What is the easiest way to start a blog? With WordPress.com you can be finished in 10 minutes. You don’t have to worry about hosting, hackers, FTP, GIT, NSA, and other scary 3-letter acronyms. The service has been around for more than 10 years and you don’t have to watch out for ground shifting under your feet. You own your domain and can take it to any competitor.
Full transparency: I work for the parent company (Automattic) on an unrelated product line. I was motivated to check out how our podcasting offering works.
These instructions will also work if you have your own installation of WordPress, on your own host. Once you set up a site, and connect a domain – the following tutorial should be similar.
What do you need to start?
Settle upon a memorable and distinctive name,
Record at least three episodes, so when you are published on iTunes, your listeners will have a better taste of your style,
Edit them with intro and outro so that your listeners can recognize your work. Also, if they listen to a standalone episode, it’s good to explain to them what your whole podcast is about and ask them to subscribe,
Make sure iTunes and Spotify present a fetching cover art so that it is easily recognizable on the list of podcasts,
Make sure your episodes have a place to live, where you can connect with your listeners, posts notes, etc – that is your site!,
You have to submit your podcast to iTunes podcasts, Spotify and Google Play. Majority of podcast listeners use one of these services, so you have to meet them where they are,
Promote, promote, promote,
The name of your podcast will help your listeners find you in their favourite podcasting app. Making it memorable was our main goal and trying to be somewhat humorous was the second. We came up with “Placebo – podcast with a confirmed clinical efficacy”.
People will consume your amazing podcast through an app. You have only a few places to stand out:
Cover art should be simple and easy to recognize. Since my podcast is named Placebo, some kind of satirical medical vibe would be best. One of my co-podcasters had a Shutterstock account, where we found a nice graphic. After a few tweaks, tada!
Cover art should have 1400×1400 px, so remember to find big enough image
Itunes limits the summary to 250 characters, so you have to distill the description of your intended content. We wanted to give listeners a taste and encourage them to give us a listen.
We also made sure to link to our site, where they can learn more.
Podcasting Settings on WordPress.com are located here.
How do you record? Do you have fancy gear?
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I write about the psychological and technical aspects of the Internet, focusing on remote work, online economy, and cognitive load. Every monday.
Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash
I have some good news and some bad news for you. Good news:
You don’t need fancy gear!
You have no excuse to keep browsing podcasting gear.
You should get to work right away. Here is what we do:
My podcasting friends live in different cities, so we decided to record our podcast in a distributed fashion.
We are using zoom.us, a teleconferencing software similar to Skype. Because our meetings have 3 participants, we are limited to 40 minutes if we want to keep using the free version. We embraced this limitation – 40 minutes of listening to me can drive anybody mad.
The audio will travel through the magic portals of the Internet to the meeting hosts’ computer, where it will be recorded. After wrapping up, we have a recording to publish. If you decide to go this route, I have a few tips for you:
Buy some decent (not fancy) microphone. I am using Sennheiser SC-160. Just don’t use the earbuds you got with your phone
Jump on a quick call before you start recording to make sure the audio is ok
Turn off video if you want to save transfer for better sound. Video tends to steal from audio quality
Remember to press record! You don’t want to have the most exciting conversation in the history of conversations only to find out you never captured it. Or maybe you do – in which case podcasting may not be a good fit.
After you finish your zoom call, you will have a file `audio_only.m4a`.
Here is how you can edit using most basic tools
Photo by Adam Sherez on Unsplash
What is the best tool? The one you already have. My Mac came with GarageBand preinstalled, so I decided to stick with it. There is now a plethora of fancy podcast-editing setups, but this is just a fun session with friends, not money-making business recording.
Podcast editing in Garage Band
Get your audio logo. This will be the piece of music that will evoke memories of your other episodes and make sure listeners recognize you. I purchased a one for $10, but there are sites with free music you can download,
Fire off Garageband, with a new “Voice” project,
Record your intro. We decided that intro should give a taste what is in the episode and entice the listeners to give it a try,
Record your outro. After the episode, we want to convince the listeners to try other episodes or check out more on our sites. We recorded outro once and reuse it on all episodes.
Now you can overlay your audio logo with your intro and outro.
Drag audio logo file to Garageband
To create nice transitions and regulate audio levels, Select Mix->Automate and select “Volume” from the menu that just appeared under your audio track.
Now clicking on your audio track will create a graph that will help you create fade in and out
Drop your recording file, adjust the volume
Export the audio file
To make sure iTunes presents your image next to the episode as well, you have to edit what is called ID3 tags. The easiest way to do this is iTunes. Select your file, click “information”
After you edit the information in iTunes, upload your cover art and click OK, your episode will appear in iTunes Podcast library. You can find this file in your Home Directory / Music / iTunes / Podcasts
Uploading to WordPress
On WordPress.com, each episode of your podcast will be a separate WordPress post. You will have a unique link to share with your audience, a way for them to listen to your episode without the app and the place to share notes and links to the episode.
Maybe it is my scout upbringing ( “be prepared” ), but I like to double-check things. I recommend submitting your podcast feed to a service like https://podba.se/validate/ .
The online validator will do a few checks and reassure you that you are ready to submit your podcast to iTunes or Spotify.
Time to go live
Photo by SpaceX on Unsplash
You have your domain and a site for your podcast,
You recorded a few episodes, gave them intro and an outro,
Uploaded them and published on your site,
Checked your podcast feed and everything is working
Now it’s time to publish your podcast to the world!
As I mentioned, majority of people consume podcasts through an app. Be it iTunes podcasts, Spotify, Google Play, etc. Fortunately, they all work by checking your RSS feed. After you submit it to those services, your podcasting magic will work seamlessly!
After your podcast is reviewed and approved in the libraries, remember to publish those links on your site. That way you will be able to promote your beautiful WordPress.com domain and when somebody visits your site, they will be able to choose their preferred podcast consuming technology. We put these buttons right up at the top:
As you can see, publishing a podcast is not hard. That means a lot of people can do it – and indeed, they do. The number of podcasts is exploding, and that is a good thing – more and more quality content (like yours) will be created.
But it also means more competition.
You will have to promote your podcast on Social Media or meet with other podcasters to appear on their shows. I do plan on doing that myself, and I will share my findings.
Now that you have everything set up, whenever you publish a new post with the audio file, it will automatically be picked up by iTunes and Spotify.
Your listeners will marvel at your brilliance, and advertisers will fly bags of money directly into your mansion so you can fill up your Jacuzzi with $100 bills.
Or, you end up like me, with about ten people listening to you 🙂
I have just finished „The Overstory” by Richard Powers. This delightful book recounts the story of a group of individuals and their relationships with trees and time. The trees are the real heroes of this fiction, and their stories unfold at the speed of wood.
Richard Powers has read over 120 books about trees as research, but his deep insights do not stop at flora. While learning the story of Neelay Mehta (one of the characters that is not a tree), I was immersed by the real and visceral depiction of the early Internet days and the current startup culture of San Francisco. I am sure Nick Hoel from midwest or Patricia Westerford were also true to their respective backgrounds.
I consider The Overstory one of the most compelling, beautiful, and essential fiction books. If my recommendation is not enough, take Hugh Jackman’s or Columbia University’s, which awarded the author a Pulitzer Prize.
Why is this newsletter about the consequences of the Internet devoted to trees? Even in computer science, we have learned a lot from them. Concepts like „branches” and „roots” are used by programmers daily, and it’s impossible to pass any job interview without a question about „tree balancing algorithms”. Trees are the mainstays of human consciousness – mighty Yggdrasil connected the many worlds of the Norse mythology, while the first people of Abrahamic religions did something involving a tree.
What are the lessons for the connected age?
Just like many rings add up to the thick trunk, the real advantage is built with compounding and time, not with viral sensations. On the Internet, it’s always a good idea to own your platform (steady trunk), so you can branch out.
Success may require sending many acorns out there before one takes hold. Somebody’s success may look overnight to you, but in fact, they endured rejection after rejection and kept trying despite unfavorable weather and the barren soil. The Internet makes it easier to send more acorns that ever before.
What inspiration can you take from the trees?
To make this issue (a)cornier, I couldn’t resist including this photo of my wife and me planting a tree at our wedding.
I thing I wrote
„Taking a walk to get unstuck” explores the Japanese tradition of forest bathing to improve mental health, how Plato has screwed us all, how Remote Work can bring us closer to our roots (pun intended), and outside – where we belong.
Tree surprising consequences of the Internet
Climate Strike Software License The things you use daily are based on freely-maintained software. From servers delivering you fresh Instagram photos, to factory equipment protocols that helped machine your sunglasses, to this very blog built on WordPress, the entire economy is running on top of Open Source. Just how all knowledge is built on top of previous discoveries. A group of maintainers had the idea to forbid the companies causing the climate change from using any software licensed under Climate Strike Software License. Quite often, software dependencies resemble trees themselves. If enough projects at the Root adopt this license, seemingly unrelated projects will use it as well, fossil fuel companies will have more operating costs, and renewable energy will win in the open market.
When You Give a Tree an Email Address The city of Melbourne assigned trees email addresses so citizens could report problems. Instead, people wrote thousands of love letters to their favorite trees.
Treehouse rentals are booming, according to Airbnb CEO. Not only are people booking rentals outside of cities, but they’re also looking for “something more private, intimate, smaller, unique, special — something that could be a destination in and of itself,” he said. To be honest, I always dreamed of opening a Treehouse resort. I forfeited that plan, when the pandemic hit, concluding that hospitality is risky. But maybe that’s a perfect opportunity to start something unique?
The printing of this issue of Deliberate Internet has not harmed any trees. It was solely focused on a single topic, gathering from different perspectives – what do you think? Do you like that approach or you prefer a medley? Let me know!
Congratulations! You have decided to help out a Non-Profit. Full of energy, and good intentions, you have embarked on a journey to use your professional skills to help a cause.
It’s a win-win: Surely, with a better website / CRM / tech, they will be able to help a few more people. You, on the other hand, will meet interesting folk, do something purposeful (as opposed to optimizing button colors at your day job), and learn a few things.
Here is what you need to know to not go insane:
The benefits of helping a Non-profit
You probably have personal reasons to help a Non-profit. Working on hard problems with friends is one of the most fulfilling things you can do with your life. If you are not working on a world-changing startup and you need a respite from the drudgery of corporate existence, a Non-Profit may be your best next bet – the purpose and mission are plentiful.
Non-profits are also a great place to meet interesting, like-minded people. Working side-by-side you can make real friends and create deeper connections, than you would build by exchanging the latest plots of TV shows over coffee at work.
But there also are powerful benefits directly translating to your career.
My entire programming journey started from helping a Non-profit – a scout team I was a part of. I made my first website in 1998, graduated to building one for dad’s business, and later launched a WordPress web agency. Now I work at WordPress.com, periodically reporting to the creator of WordPress himself. During that journey, I helped my high school, a local TEDx chapter, and a non-profit supporting remote work.
Working on projects is the best way to learn – you get to experiment with real-world problems and you get to try out different approaches and fail; building that tacit knowledge that makes one an expert.
Since you are not paid for your contributions, there is a shared understanding of what can be expected of you in a Non-Profit. You have a mandate to play a little, try out things your way, and goof off. To further boost learning, it feels more like play than work, encoding the knowledge much more effectively.
As with everything in life, the downsides are directly correlated to the upsides. Yes, in a Non-Profit, you can be a bit unpredictable and inexperienced. It does not feel like work and you get a breather from a corporate feel of a professional workplace.
But guess what – other people get to do that too. If you have just reserved a weekend to finish that signup page, and the people preparing the copy (texts) decided to be unprofessional – it suddenly becomes a problem.
The Hero’s (that’s you) Journey
Let’s assume you volunteered to create a website for your favorite Non-profit. Don’t be surprised, if the whole process goes like this:
You start full of energy and ideas.
The non-profit is eager to launch a new website because they have project X coming up. Project X is the most important thing, and the website (meaning you) is a blocker.
You jump straight into work! You cannot be a blocker, right? You ramp up and are ready to implement the most important piece.
The texts and promotional materials are not ready, despite previous promises.
You try to work around these requirements – project X is most important, right?
You get a call. It seems that the “About the Team” page is most important now.
Let’s do a photoshoot for the Team!
You still don’t have materials for project X, but you got 10 pages of UI corrections, including a bigger logo, different button colors, and some creative ideas about the slider.
You start implementing those changes, still have no materials about project X.
Wait, there are changes to the changes now. Can you revert to the old button color?
Sometime, after a few weeks, we finally got the Project X page to work. The placeholder photos you chose are still there. “About the Team” page that got 3 meetings, photoshoot, and 12 hours of your time has gotten a total of 100 visitors this month.
Things to watch out in a Non-profit
The price of free time
Professional environments have learned a long time ago, that time is money. If everybody is salaried, the easiest way to turn a profit is to stop wasting people’s time. The correlation is clear and obvious.
I do realize that corporate environments waste mindblowing eons of their employees’ time. This is due to the scale. Big organisms being less nimble is a law of physics called inertia.
Non-profits, however, have a peculiar relationship with money. They are called Non-Profits. Duh! They get funded through donations, grants, and sometimes sales – but they are incentivized not to run a tight operation. Volunteers’ time is treated as free, so wastefulness is not controlled. It’s up to you to say no, which is hard because non-profits attract precisely the people least likely to defend their time.
It’s everybody else’s side-gig, too
As I mentioned – you can learn, and experiment with new techniques and approaches. But other people do too. If your work depends on graphic design, don’t be surprised when the designer comes up with something out-of-the-box, which naturally will be harder for you to implement, than the run-of-the-mill website.
Other people, like you, will cut corners. The designer has a family to feed, probably a day job and the thing called life. She can’t check every resolution, think about dimensions of headlines when you cram 100 characters in a title and give the proper attention to everything.
Last, but not least – without salary, recognition becomes the currency. Don’t be surprised, that “about the team” is treated as the most important page on the entire website (even if the visitors don’t care) – this is the equity paid to volunteers. Being paid with recognition also drives some folk to seek more of that compensation – they will contribute to discussions, where they have not much expertise nor understanding. These are perfect bikeshedding conditions. Beware.
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I write about the psychological and technical aspects of the Internet, focusing on remote work, online economy, and cognitive load. Every monday.
Non-profits are passion-driven
Most non-profits have a mission to fix a particular problem in the world. Hunger, poor education, lack of equality, climate change – these are all areas society is failing at and non-profits are stepping in to help.
Many people are driven to work on these problems because they feel strongly about putting up with the collective screwups of society. Non-profits tend to attract people who approach most of the problems with passion and purpose, with no patience for tedious reasoning.
This leads to:
Urgency is the sole method of prioritization. Things are made urgent to ensure their completion, not because they actually are time-sensitive.
Since urgency=priority, the priorities are fluid over time.
Yesterday’s priority is forgotten today because somebody who feels more strongly comes in with more passion.
Flashy things are more important than fulfilling the initial purpose. If you are working on a website, prepare for multiple CTAs.
Non-profit survival techniques
These techniques helped me stay sane while working within a few organizations.
Find a senior member of the organization to “report to”. Ideally somebody with corporate experience, and some tenure inside the Non-Profit. You don’t want to report to a committee.
Never agree to do anything ASAP. Chances are, that before you get to it – the original request will change or be forgotten. Save yourself the revert. Bonus points for batching change requests into sprints.
They will promise you texts, materials, and whatever else you’ll need. You WILL NOT get them on time. Plan accordingly.
Record yourself changing stuff in the interface – this will be a good v1 for documentation so that everyone else can implement tiny changes themselves
If you are creating a website – for goodness sake, use WordPress. It will save you from reinventing the wheel.
With WP, you have ready tutorials to send people to, so you don’t have to fix every typo yourself. Chances are, that other folks have WP experience too.
The next person dealing with the system will know what to do with it.
Use a ready template, don’t work with an empty canvas. Yes, it will be less original than a custom-made design, but you will be able to get off the ground and focus on what’s important – content and functionality. You have no idea how many tiny details come together to make a template work. Implementing custom design without an hourly rate will lead to an endless back-and-forth on every detail. It costs them nothing to throw in another change. The constraints of an existing template work in your favor.
Every statement you hear will be over-hyped – it’s a function of passion-driven project management. You have to do the mental math of halving the emotional charge of all statements.
Remember to have fun. Despite unreasonable requests, the people you are working with are probably quite awesome. Don’t forget that, and schedule some time to meet them as people – not vendors of website updates.
Working in a Non-Profit is a process of realizing that the corporate environment has its advantages and lessons to teach you as well.
Coming to work on Monday to a well-oiled machine, where every cog (including you) is humming nicely, where the work flows seamlessly through the paths of well-established processes, where everything has its place is a refreshing experience. Of course, sometime around Wednesday you are sick of it all, yearning for the freedom and creativity you get to enjoy in your organization.
„Artur, your opinions always seem a bit extreme” – my friend, when we were discussing the public education last week. Education is one of my hot topics, and you can expect a related essay from me soon.
I enjoy people having strong opinions, people experimenting with their way of thinking, and trying out something new. That appreciation of experimentation extends to culture. I consider all four Avengers movies to be quite average, but Thor Ragnarok (trailer) is one of the best ones out there. Rise of Skywalker is disappointing, but The Mandalorian is excellent. Popular franchises suffer from the curse of their own popularity. They have to appeal to everyone and thus cater to the lowest common denominator.
Less-popular offshoots, like Mandalorian, Guardians of the Galaxy, or The Umbrella Academy, are not scrutinized as strongly by studio executives. Not every plotline has to be sanitized, and not every single thing has to be optimized to death.
That leaves room for creativity, exploration, and pure fun. Education could be the same way if we stopped trying to extract production value out of the kids.
3 Interesting effects of the Internet
In „Ladders of Wealth Creation”, Nathan Barry (creator of ConvertKit ) lays out differences between selling your time, productizing your services, and selling a product. He also shared an insight that would have saved me 5 years of failed entrepreneurship: „You can skip ahead, but you still have to learn the lessons from each step”