The Hedge 88: Todd Palino and Getting Things Done

I often feel like I’m “behind” on what I need to get done. Being a bit metacognitive, however, I often find this feeling is more related to not organizing things well, which means I often feel like I have so much to do “right now” that I just don’t know what to do next—hence “processor thrashing on process scheduler.” Todd Palino joins this episode of the Hedge to talk about the “Getting Things Done” technique (or system) of, well … getting things done.

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Time and Mind Savers: RSS Feeds

I began writing this post just to remind readers this blog does have a number of RSS feeds—but then I thought … well, I probably need to explain why that piece of information is important.

The amount of writing, video, and audio being thrown at the average person today is astounding—so much so that, according to a lot of research, most people in the digital world have resorted to relying on social media as their primary source of news. Why do most people get their news from social media? I’m pretty convinced this is largely a matter of “it saves time.” The resulting feed might not be “perfect,” but it’s “close enough,” and no-one wants to spend time seeking out a wide variety of news sources so they will be better informed.

The problem, in this case, is that “close enough” is really a bad idea. We all tend to live in information bubbles of one form or another (although I’m fully convinced it’s much easier to live in a liberal/progressive bubble, being completely insulated from any news that doesn’t support your worldview, than it is to live in a conservative/traditional one). If you think about the role of social media and the news feed on social media services, this makes some kind of sense. The social media service tries to guess at what will keep you interested (engaged, and therefore coming back to the service), but at the same time each social media service also has a worldview they want to promote. The service largely attempts to both cater to what keeps you there and to pull you towards what the service, itself, believes.

The solution is stop getting your news from social media. period, full stop, end of sentence (although I’ve seen a recent paper indicating people find periods and other punctuation marks offensive in some way—when you find a period offensive, maybe it’s time to grow a little thicker skin).

So how should you get information instead? There are a lot of ways, from email based newsletters to watching television (please don’t, television turns everything into entertainment, including things that are not meant to entertain). My suggestion is, however, is through RSS feeds. Grab an account on Feedly or some other service, find the RSS feeds for the sites you find informative, and subscribe to their feeds. Some services have a learning mechanism that tries to accomplish the same thing as social media feeds—building intelligent filters to emphasize things you find important. I don’t tend to use these things; I have learned to just glance at the headline and first paragraph and make a quick decision about whether I think the post is worth reading.

Following RSS feeds can help you stop binging, jumping from place to place on a single site—essentially wasting time. It works against the mechanisms designers use to “increase engagement,” which often just means to consume more of your attention and time than you intended to give away. Following RSS feeds can also help you gain a broader view of the world if you intentionally subscribe to feeds from sites and people you don’t always agree with. It’s healthy to regularly read “the other side.” Following strong, well-written arguments from “the other side” will do much more for your mind than seeing just the facile, emotionally charged, straw-man arguments often presented (and allowed through the filters) on social media.

Further, services like feedly also allow you to follow lots of other things, including twitter accounts, youtube channels, and podcasts. I follow almost all podcasts through feedly, downloading the individual episodes I want to listen to, storing them in a cloud directory, and then deleting the files when I’m done. This gives me one list of things to listen to, rather than a huge playlist full of seemingly never-ending content.

All this said, this blog has a lot of different RSS feeds available. I don’t have a complete list, but these are a good place to start—

I keep these very same links on a page of RSS feeds you can find under the about menu. If you’re interested in the RSS feeds I follow, please reach out to me directly, as feedly no longer has any way to share your feeds other than pushing an OPML file (at least not that I can find).

Slow Learning and Range

Jack of all trades, master of none.

This singular saying—a misquote of Benjamin Franklin (more on this in a moment)—is the defining statement of our time. An alternative form might be the fox knows many small things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.

The rules for success in the modern marketplace, particularly in the technical world, are simple: start early, focus on a single thing, and practice hard.

But when I look around, I find these rules rarely define actual success. Consider my life. I started out with three different interests, starting jazz piano lessons when I was twelve, continuing music through high school, college, and for many years after. At the same time, I was learning electronics—just about everyone in my family is in electronic engineering (or computers, when those came along) in one way or another.

I worked as on airfield electronics for a few years in the US Air Force (one of the reasons I tend to be calm is I’ve faced death up close and personal multiple times, an experience that tends to center your mind), including RADAR, radio, and instrument landing systems. Besides these two, I was highly interested in art and illustration, getting to the point of majoring in art in college for a short time, and making a living doing commercial illustration for a time.

You might notice that none of this really has a lot to do with computer networking. That’s the point.

I once thought I was a bit of an anomaly in this—in fact, I’m a bit of an anomaly throughout my life, including coming rather late to deep philosophy and theology (perhaps a bit too late!).

After reading Range by David Epstein, it turns out I’m wrong. I’m not the exception, I’m the rule. My case is so common as to be almost trivial.

Epstein not only destroys the common view—start early, stay focused, and practice hard—with reasoning, he also gives so many examples of people who have succeeded because they “wandered around” for many years before settling into a single “thing”—and sometimes just never “settling” throughout their entire lives. People who experience many different things, experimenting with ideas, careers, and paths, have what Epstein calls range.

He gives several reasons for people with range succeeding. They learn how to fail fast, unlike those who are focused on succeeding at a single thing—he calls this “too much grit.” They also learn to think outside the box—they are not restricted by the “accepted norms” within any field of study. It also turns out that slower learning is much more effective, as shown by multiple experiments.

There are three warnings about becoming a person with range, however—the fox rather than the hedgehog, so-to-speak. First, it takes a long time. Slow learning is, after all slow. Second, range works best in a world full of specialist—like the world we live in right now. In a world full of generalists, specialists are likely to succeed more often than generalist. What is different stands out (both in bad and good ways, by the way). Third, people with range do better with wicked problems—problems that are not easily solved with repetition and linear thought.

Of course, computer networks are clearly wicked problems.

That original quote that bothers me so much? Franklin did not say: jack of all trades, master of non. Instead, he said: jack of all trades, master of one. What a difference a single letter makes.

The Hedge 71: Nick Russo and Automating Productivity

When we think of automation—and more broadly tooling—we tend to think of automating the configuration, monitoring, and (possibly) the monitoring of a network. On the other hand, a friend once observed that when interviewing coders, the first thing he asked was about the tools they had developed and used for making themselves more efficient. This “self-tooling” process turns out to be important not just to be more efficient at work, but to use time more effectively in general. Join Nick Russo, Eyvonne Sharp, Tom Ammon, and Russ White as we discuss self-tooling.

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Focus is a Virtue

The modern world craves our attention—but only in short bursts. To give your attention to any one thing for too long is failing, it seems, because you might miss out on something else of interest. We have entered the long tail of the attention economy, grounded in finding every smaller slices of time in which the user’s attention can be captured and used.

The damage of the attention economy is wide-ranging, including the politicization of everything, and the replacing ideas in politics with hate and fear. But for the network engineering world, the problem is exactly as Ethan describes— Technology mastery will be increasingly in the hands of the very few as a dwindling number of folks are willing, or perhaps even able, to create a mental state of focused learning. The application delivery stacks are enormously more complex than they were 25 years ago. Learning them requires a huge amount of focus over long periods of time.

The problem is obvious for anyone with eyes to see. What is the solution? The good news is there are solutions. The bad news is these solutions are swimming upstream against the major commercial interests of our day, so it’s going to take work and determination. The problems are platform based, while the solutions are personal and hard.

Begin here—treat focus as a virtue. We normally think of virtues as things like being kind, or giving money to charity, or (in the modern world) signaling that we support the right things and think the right way. But virtue reaches far deeper than just believing the right things or being “nice.”

Sertillanges, in The Intellectual Life, says the virtues are bound together. A person with only one virtue will often find that virtue twisted into something it is not. A clump of trees, no matter how small, is more likely to survive a storm than the singular tree, no matter how strong the single tree might be. You must not only develop the virtue of quick thinking, or of curiosity, but also of focus. \

How do you develop focus? I can tell you the wrong way: try to make yourself focus for a long period of time. Maybe this will work for some people but forcing attention onto a single topic often backfires in very spectacular ways.

Instead, I would counsel a two-step program: eliminate distractions and expand slowly.

Sertillanges says, “As to the public, if it sometimes stimulates, it often disturbs, scatters the mind; and by going to pick up two pennies in the street, you may lose a fortune.” What is social media other than “the public?” Simply having too much information to hand can also be problematic, as well—”There are books everywhere and only a few are necessary.”

A distraction people don’t often think about is reading too many books at once. Most of the people I know are reading (if they are, really) five or ten books at once. They switch back and forth between books, picking up a little here and a little there. It’s a dandy application of multitasking to an old technology.

But I don’t think it actually works. Pick up a book and read it. Learn to follow the line of a single argument from start to finish. I find it helpful to outline information-rich books, or books that have complex lines of argument. The act of rethinking what the author is saying, and rebuilding their line of thought, is really helpful.

As for expanding slowly, this means two things. First, don’t try to jump from a six-minute attention span to an hour-long attention span in a day. Try to go from six minutes to eight, and then eight to twelve, etc. Don’t try to have an infinite attention span, either—it just is not humanly possible. Setting unrealistic goals is a recipe for failure.

Second, expand slowly by building mental maps, rather than trying to consume the outer shell first. The outer shell (“what does this command do?”) might be the most immediately useful, but if you stay on the outer shell your entire life, jumping all over the place to find the next bit of useful information, you’re never going to learn to focus.

Further, if you jump all over the place, you’re never going to build the mental maps that will allow you to focus. When I first started reading philosophy, I was often more confused than anything else. It was like jumping into the middle of a conversation—there were (and still are) terms and ideas I had no idea how to relate to. Over time, I built a mental map. While I’m still not able to read philosophy (or theology) like many of my friends who have spent their lives reading this stuff, I am at least becoming somewhat competent.

So… slow down. Remove distractions. Set goals. Build mental maps.

If you want to find the path to success in life, it is going to be through focus.

The Hedge 67: Daniel Beveridge and the Structure of Innovation

Innovation and disruption are part the air we breath in the information technology world. But what is innovation, and how do we become innovators? When you see someone who has invented a lot of things, either shown in patents or standards or software, you might wonder how you can become an innovator, too. In this episode of the Hedge, Tom Ammon, Eyvonne Sharp, and Russ White talk to Daniel Beveridge about the structure of innovation—how to position yourself in a place where you can innovate, and how to launch innovation.

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