The roaring twenties and the prohibition are back!

Mirriam-Webster dictionary has hailed the “Pandemic” as the word of the year (2020 if you are a little behind on your calendar). It may very well be “Lockdown”.

At my work, with friends from all over the world, we are swapping stories of how our respective governments are dealing with (or not dealing) the pandemic situation.

Seemingly a universal approach is to close down gyms, swimming pools, restaurants, and other places where people tend to spend time together (I was surprised to learn that Jamaica didn’t lock down gyms but introduced a curfew instead and it worked. Go figure.).

In Poland, for example, only organized groups are permitted to exercise, but gym workout equipment and free weights cannot be accessed “on-demand” legally. Legally is the key word here – From the same friends, I get some anecdotal stories about underground gyms, saunas, and hair salons.

In “Secret Gyms and the Economics of Prohibition”, the NPR’s Planet Money Newsletter authors launch an investigation into the illegal ways the gyms are operating under new rules. The story may very well be recounting ordeals of getting alcohol in the 1920s:

“Take the case of Christina, a paralegal and gym enthusiast from Tucson, Arizona, who asked us not to give her last name for fear of being labeled a snitch “

Apart from underground speakeasy establishments, there is of course a grey area of businesses striving to survive and clearly pushing the interpretation of the law. Since outdoor dining is still permitted, enterprising restaurant owners are coming up with outdoor, well, buildings:

I admit it is hard to judge these efforts to help the business stay afloat. Setting aside the responsibility for creating conditions helping spread the infection, I am surprised how quickly the history makes a full circle.

We are back in the roaring 20s, meeting in underground illegal clubs to get our fix of the forbidden fruit (in this case, meeting in person).

I’m most curious what is the 21st century equivalent of Jazz.

Surprising Effects

Did you know that the Frequent Flyer programs are bigger businesses than the airlines themselves?

The Financial Times pegs the value of Delta’s loyalty program at a whopping $26 billion, American Airlines at $24 billion, and United at $20 billion. All of these valuations are comfortably above the market capitalization of the airlines themselves — Delta is worth $19 billion, American $6 billion, and United $10 billion.

Byrne Hobart explains in this fantastic article about classic airline economics:

Loyalty programs aren’t a great business paired with a terrible one, they’re the part of a single unified business that makes it viable. An airline without its highly profitable loyalty program is a company that faces high labor costs, volatile fuel prices, and a rapidly changing demand environment. With loyalty programs, that’s offset by a high-margin, high-growth side business.

Local women crochet sweaters to shield rescued elephants from cold, Elephant Conservation Care Center, India

Time for something heart (and elephant 🐘) warming!

Perverse Incentives, USSR, Deutsche Bank, and Remote Work

Do you ever find yourself thinking “Well, this process is just wasteful? What if we made a rule, so that X. Surely, it would be better“? So did the economical planners of the USSR.

Soviet economics had really 2 goals:

  • Give everybody employment
  • Feed 293 million people and finance the entire endeavour

To some extent, we can even call the experiment a moderate success – the unemployment was definitely defeated. That is a metric that market economies still struggle with, especially now – after covid-related employment shifts.

It’s the economic viability that was not very successful. The USSR was not only much less effective than the western counterpart – it just wasn’t working and could not continue much longer than in 1990.

But why was it so problematic? In Optimizing Things in the USSR Chris Said explores the optimization problems of the Soviet Union. Since the Soviet economy was planned top-down, the rules introduced a lot of unforeseen perverse incentives. For example, there was a permanent shortage of thin metal tubes:

Administrators would often track the total tonnage of a few broad classes of steel tubes in the models, rather than using a more detailed classification scheme. While their models successfully balanced the tonnage of tubes for the broad categories (the output in tons of tube-producing factories matched the input requirements in tons of tube-consuming factories), there were constant surpluses of some specific types of tubes, and shortages of other specific types of tubes. In particular, since tonnage was used as a metric, tube-producing factories were overly incentivized to make easy-to-produce thick tubes. As a result, thin tubes were always in short supply.

At every turn, there were incentives for wastefulness in the name of meeting the goals. Operators acting in good faith had to overcompensate by lying which introduced even more miscalibration to the planning process, thus creating even a bigger problem.

Even worse, in order to obtain more resources, factory managers in the USSR routinely lied to the central planners about their production capabilities
The situation became so bad that, according to one of the deep state secrets of the USSR, central planners preferred to use the CIA’s analyses of certain Russian commodities rather than reports from local Party bosses!

Perverse Incentives

Setting top-down incentives in the complex system can sometimes hilariously backfire. A fantastic Reddit Thread “What’s a rule that was implemented somewhere, that massively backfired?” lists some:

Can you beat the highscore?

My city has issues with loud bikes/vehicles. So as a deterrant, the city put up decibel meters that displayed how loud your engine is(…) people would pull up to these signs and rev the heck out of their engines to see who could get the highest decibel count.

Missing the “30 minutes or less” Pizza delivery?

When Domino’s said all pizzas would be delivered in 30min. or less or your pizza was FREE. All the delivery drivers kept getting in car accidents to get your pizza to you on time, so it wouldn’t come out of their paycheck

Something to think about if you are organizing a wedding:

A hotel I used to work for decided they were having an alcohol-free holiday party. This didn’t sit well with the people who’d been working there for years and were accustomed to a full bar at the party. The staff parking lot ended up being full of people drinking in their cars trying to get a good buzz to carry them through the party and most people ended up getting way drunker than they would have so the party was a shit show.

You cannot have an alcohol-free wedding (in Poland at least). It’s better if you supply the alcohol – at least you have some control over the quality.

The Cobra Effect

Any good list of perverse incentives cannot omit the “Cobra Effect” (Wikipedia):

The British government was concerned about the number of venomous cobras in Delhi. The government therefore offered a bounty for every dead cobra. Initially this was a successful strategy as large numbers of snakes were killed for the reward. Eventually, however, enterprising people began to breed cobras for the income. When the government became aware of this, the reward program was scrapped, causing the cobra breeders to set the worthless snakes free; the wild cobra population further increased.

“Cobra Effect” is a consequence of the solution that’s worse than a problem it aimed to alleviate.

Deutche Bank and Remote Work

Some people have lucked out during the COVID pandemic and I count myself among them. When I was moving my career towards remote employment 6 years ago, my head was full of remote beaches and waterfalls. However, I found myself very well prepared (comparatively of course) for the challenges of 2020, even with the beach & waterfall shortage in my life. I do realize, that not everybody has had the same fortune, and am very sympathetic towards supporting other workers and actively contribute.

Also, the brilliant minds at Deutsche Bank have decided to optimize this, very much like the Soviet planners. I will let myself copy the key points from CNBC:

  • Deutsche Bank survey found more than half of workers wanted to continue working from home for the 2-3 days a week after the pandemic.
  • According to the Deutsche Bank Research report, a 5% tax rate on those days on the average salary of a remote worker could raise $48 billion a year in the U.S., £6.9 billion in the U.K., and 15.9 billion euros in Germany.
  • This would cover the costs of grants for people who can’t work from home and are on lower incomes.

How can this go wrong? I will leave it out as an exercise for you! Can you find the most perverse incentive this creates? Send me an email!

Deliberate 32 – The perils of prepping

With the Autumn rapidly taking its hold, many parts of the western world are now undergoing a second (or a third) wave of the COVID pandemic.

That second wave, apart from being MUCH more brutal and taking lives or more people – has caused less anxiety and has excited the preppers a tiny bit less. We have been through this, hence it’s not the “big one”.

As far as apocalyptic scenarios go, we are living it. We have been hit with a global threat, affecting not only health, but economies, and our way of life as well. According to my very scientific Google search, 1.31 million have died and 54 million people got infected, with many survivors reporting dangerous side effects.

And yet… We seem to be brushing this off to our detriment. Life feels a little bit more normal than in April, despite the hospitals being just plain full and even basic medical necessities rare commodities.

September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center have claimed the lives of 2977 people, but for COVID, with 500 times greater death toll and an immediate threat of infection, the emotional response around the world does not seem to match.

We are not built to prepare for the mundane.

If we were reasonable people (not that I am implying we are), we would prepare for the most likely scenarios – falling from a wonky chair while reaching the top shelf, a fire caused by that phone battery behind the couch, car accidents created by driving and texting.

But the fact that these scenarios are happening (because they are highly probable) is getting us habituated. Because we hear about it all the time, we are less likely to treat them seriously. When is the last time you checked the expiry date of a fire extinguisher in your car?

Our imagination is captivated by rare and extreme events, and prepper culture is focused on the Zombie Apocalypse AKA Mad Max scenario.

Doomsday prepping for Less Crazy Folk

In today’s issue, I highly recommend reading “Disaster Planning for Less Crazy Folk” by Michał. It offers a very balanced and practical approach to preparing:

Perhaps throwing out old junk, reorganizing the contents of kitchen cabinets, adding earthquake latches, or fixing a broken lock would be a better use of your time than ordering space-age prepper gadgets from Amazon.

He also advises against going deep into the amazon prepper rabbit hole:

Here’s my advice: keep the bulk of your savings in cash, stocks, and other assets you can easily liquidate or put to use today; even if you genuinely worry about the apocalypse, plan to spend no more than 2-4% of your money on essential prepper supplies.

If you need more convincing about validity of his advice, this post was last updated early 2018. Does this sound familiar in 2020?

When it comes to transmittable diseases, your best bet is avoiding exposure: if there’s something really nasty making rounds in your community, stay home – or at the very least, avoid public transport and other crowds. With that in mind, N95 masks ($2 a piece) probably provide adequate protection against most airborne diseases. The other major transmission vector is hand contact, so don’t touch other people, avoid public-use surfaces, wear gloves, and resist the instinct to touch your face without first washing or disinfecting your hands. We subconsciously touch our faces a lot more frequently than we suspect.

Here is what I put on my todo list:

  • Keep wearing that damn mask
  • Get fire extinguishers for my apartment, my mom’s place, and my car. Install smoke detectors.
  • Fill up my car. There is a downside to having your tank full and ready,
  • Stockpile flashlights, basic over the counter medicine, and water (5 gallons per family member)
  • Wear a damn helmet (which I never do) while biking (which I do often).
  • Download a copy of Simple English Wikipedia for offline use (250 MB, choose “pages-meta-current”)

The perils of prepping

I am sure there are many quotes about being prepared and the superiority of prevention over treatment. But all the good-hearted advice is usually missing one key point:

It’s just so damn tedious.

Fire extinguishers will need checkups (I opted for one with 20-year shelf life), batteries will leak (which can even spoil your electronics stash), mice will get into your flour stockpile. Prepping makes you accumulate more stuff. Stuff needs it’s own prepping. You want to have a life, so you opt-out of the prepper treadmill. It has worked out so far, hasn’t it?

On the other end of the spectrum, you have career preppers, who have optimized their lives around being prepared. But for them, the covid epidemic is a little disappointing, because they braced for the exciting future – Zombie Apocalypse and the total collapse of the market. They seem to even be hoping a little bit for the end-of-the-world, so they can feel validated.

Being a practical prepper requires you to do a bare minimum of mundane, common sense things you already know you should be doing.

All the details are there in Michał’s article.

As far as the tediousness goes, put your car oil checkups, fire alarm battery replacements, medicine, and fire extinguisher expiry dates, and all the rest of this mundane stuff on your calendar. And set a reminder.

Deliberate 31 – Infectious diseases and investment basics

In case you are searching frantically in your email spam folder for my previous emails from the last 5 weeks – don’t worry! Nothing is wrong with your inbox, I have indeed skipped them 😱.

My wife and I have been battling COVID infection, hidden away in our cabin to make sure we don’t spread the disease to our neighbors. We are perfectly healthy now – I have even returned to my workout regimen, but the whole ordeal was not fun.

I wouldn’t normally keep you updated about my health, but watch out. We took great care to not contract the virus and despite being in very good shape – the symptoms were not that mild. I know, that you probably have heard enough coverage of both COVID and US Elections to last you for decades, so I’ll keep my takeaways brief:

  • I had very little fever and consider measuring temperature in public places a joke,
  • Loss of taste and smell was complete for both my wife and I,
  • The rest of the sympthoms were flu-like, but I was exhausted for 2 weeks,
  • The “brain fog” took longer to subside, resulting with you lacking the comforting embrace of my newsletter
  • I took 10 000 IU of Vitamin D for a week and I think it helped. This is not considered a safe dose, please don’t change your mind on my word alone, but read up
  • This is all serious. Stay safe, wear a mask.

Investment Basics

Like any normal person struck with an infectious disease, I started reviewing my investments. I considered my strategy pretty solid, but I discovered that due to a law quirk, the tax rate on the dywidends from S&P500 ETF that I own may be 30% instead of 0.

The most infuriating aspect of it all is that this is one of 7 ETFs we have available on the Warsaw Stock Exchange, it took me 3 days of research and I still don’t have an answer!

I consider financial literacy a topic much more important than the crap (putting it mildly) we learn about past battles at school. After oh-god-how-many years of public education, I have to dig and scramble to understand the foundational pieces of how this capitalist country works.

I decided to start collecting the missing “Deliberate Lessons From Dad” so I can pass them on to my future children. If I can start them investing in ETFs by the age of 5, they will be unstoppable!

On to the lessons!

Here is my best advice about investing

  • Choose Index Funds or ETFs with low fees that are automatically managed. Low fees will accelerate your returns and automatic management will remove human error out of the loop. Right now the best funds are SP500 from Black Rock or Vanguard. Holding an index will give you returns as the economy grows. No worse and no better.
  • Compliment with Government Bonds and Gold (Physical)
  • Dollar-Cost Average your entire portfolio
  • Put your Dividend – Yielding stock in your tax-protected retirement accounts. That way, the compound interest from the dividend will be tax-free, and it will compound faster.
  • Rebalance often and mercilessly. If you have a target of 60% stocks in your account – if their price falls, you will buy more to adjust your wallet %. When they rise again, you will sell some and convert to bonds. With rebalancing, the market roller coaster works in your favor!

Read the in-depth tutorial on Piszek.com

Surprising consequences of the Internet

Mars is a Free Planet

Starlink Terms of Service are already prepared to claim “Mars a free planet, that recognizes no authority from an Earth-Based government”.

Lucky Martians.

Zoom fatigue, Manatees, and Twitter AI

For the last week, I have been on Zoom non-stop for 4 hours a day.

Since everybody on my team works in a different country, it’s hard for us to hang out under the 2020 world order. Usually, we’d fly to some exotic location to eat on the company dime work hard, but that is not possible. So we elected to meet over Zoom during a Remote Meetup.

It was quite a ride, but I have to tell you – Zoom Fatigue is real. I was exhausted. Meetup, however, was a stellar success. I promise to share a playbook so you can have a peek on how professionals (just joking, there are no adults here) do it or even repeat our mistakes.

For now, I’m gonna try to limit my screen time. Here is a picture of Manatees eating sweet potatoes – their favorite autumn snack:

Image

A few years ago I got to meet the “Cows of the Sea” (this is how Manatee translates to Polish) during my travels in Florida. Oh, I miss real meetups.

Three surprising consequences of the Internet

  • Last week, a “game” on Twitter exemplified the biases of Artificial Intelligence models in a hilarious way.
    When you post a really tall image on Twitter, the “Artificial Intelligence” (really a machine learning model, but I’m simplifying) tries to crop an image to space it has available. It tries to detect the “most valuable” place in the pic. Somebody had an idea to put 2 images at the ends of a very long “empty” canvas, to see which one would it choose, thus uncovering the bias.
    Predictably, white men were picked more often than any other group, with some… quirks.
    Search for “Testing Something” on Twitter, to see for yourself.

  • Build Personal Moats
    A lot of successful businesses have “moats” – a barrier that is hard to cross by a competitor. In the article, Eric Torenberg advises finding a “personal” moat – a unique quality that will differentiate you from other people. You don’t have to be “super good” at it – it’s better to aim at a unique intersection than will bring you joy. I dug up a question from there that I stored in my Question’s vault:
    “If you were magically given 10,000 hours to be amazing at something, what would it be?”
  • The Attack of the Civilization-State
    This fantastic article about the cultural expansion of China made me realize, that we have a different concept of a “state” in the west. And we – of course – use that framework to judge all the other countries in the world. But it’s not the only yardstick around.
    It is remarkable, when one thinks about it, that every controversial issue being decided in a successful democracy such as India should be subject to a final determination of its legitimacy by Western political and intellectual authorities. No one seems to take seriously the possibility that an editorial in The Hindu could settle the issue, but the leading newspapers in New York, Washington or London gladly take up the task. Cultural assimilation meant political dependence.

Mental atlas and corporate promises

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).

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, Richard Feynman had his 12 favorite problems and Patrick Collison has a question list.

Mental Atlas

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.
  • There is a kind of rock that can grow, move, and even multiply. Trovants produce bulbous “growths” from minerals in the rainwater – at a rate of 5cm every 1000 years. Since they accumulate new material on the inside – their shapes approach that of the Michelin man.

Roam Research Alfred workflow

If you are a Roam user – have a look at my Alfred workflow that lets you search your notes blazingly fast, use Roam as a snippet manager and a bookmark DB.

The concavity of fun and the Buddhas

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.

Violetta has a fantastic explainer on Convexity .

Three surprising effects of the Internet

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. I highly recommend visiting the home page of the Yale Art School: https://www.art.yale.edu/

Question to ponder

Why don’t you do the things you know you should be doing?

What is going on with all those note-taking apps?

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?

Second Brain

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:

  1. Every notebook/folder should be organized in one of the PARA groups (more in this article on Tiago’s site)
    1. Projects that have a deadline (for example a Blog Post)
    2. Areas where you need to perform at a consistent level (say, your Marriage)
    3. Resources which will serve you in the above endeavors
    4. Archives for cold storage (say invoices in case of a tax audit)
  2. You should store your notes in a place where you will need them next time
  3. You should progressively summarize your notes every time you touch them, so they become more refined and “your’s” over time (more here).
    1. The first time you stumble upon a note, you may bold the interesting passages
    2. Then next time you highlight the most relevant parts of that
    3. Third time you look at a note, you may rephrase it in your own words and that will be perfect for just Tweeting

Sönke Ahrens

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.)

Thanks to the book, Zettelkasten entered the public discourse inspiring new developers to create more Note-Taking apps. (Tiago also has a great summary of Sonnke Ahrens’s book.)

Notion

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”.

Roam Research

Can you guess when Roam started? Yup, Roam White Paper was written during the winter of 2017/2018. ( Here is a good primer on the tool ).

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.

Using Roam and Evernote together

I outlined the elaborate system of bots connecting to my Evernote account in an essay about my philosophy of automation. Naturally, I didn’t want it going to waste. Furthermore, as Anne-Laure Le Cunff asserts in How to Choose the Right Note-Taking App, Evernote serves perfectly as a library, whereas Roam is a fantastic garden.

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

Watch out for assigned identities

Remote Work is quite different from sitting in an office: It’s not just changing your work chair for the couch at home. With Remote Work, there is no assigned seating at all.

  • Nobody walks you to your desk
  • Nobody tells you how to live
  • Nobody tells you who you are

The transition from Office to Remote is a tricky one. You will have to answer many questions for yourself:

  • How do I get coffee?
    • Obviously, it’s Aeropress
  • What is the best desk?
    • IKEA Bekant
  • How do I structure my day? Do I keep 9-to-5?
  • When do I exercise if not on the way to work?
  • Do I see my kids more often?

When you don’t answer these questions for yourself – you will get pulled into a new identity, where you don’t have to think. Watch out, the gravity of ‘popular‘ identities is strong!

Paul Millerd is an expert on the Future of Work – and more importantly – advocates for more “life” in the work-life balance.
My new piece about Remote Worker identities is in issue 105 of his splendid “Boundless” newsletter

Three Surprising Effects of the Internet

  • Success Addicts Choose Being Special Over Being Happy underscores 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.

Compound Interest on your curiosity

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?

See the full list on Patrick’s site

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.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s to-do lists

In Leonardo Da Vinci’s biography by Walter Isaacson, we can learn the curiosity lists of the original polymath:

‘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!”

Gian-Carlo Rota, Ten Lessons I Wish I Had Been Taught

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.

My Bucketlist

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.

When I land in a new country, and there’s no pandemic, the first thing I consult is my bucket list – it nudged me to attend The Grand Tea Ceremony in Tokyo or try a croissant-making class in Paris. Without it, I’d just Google „things to do in…” and just tick off the usual attractions with the crowds.

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.

I was too scared to snap a photo while driving amidst cows and hills, so this is what you get.

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.