Themes for Study and Learning in March

So, first a recap for February:

  1. Future of Work.  This is robots, guaranteed annual income, future of labor, AI, etc.  Did almost no reading in this area in February.  I could give a lot of excuses, but, bottom line, it just didn’t happen.
  2. Antiquity.  I’m interested in the glory that was Greece (and Rome :-)), why it got hammered, and what we can learn about classicism, faith, science, curiosity, paganism, etc.  Read “The Swerve”, some of “The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox”, and most of “Rubicon”.  Did some posting on the topics.
  3. Morning Routines.  I’m trying (yet again) to “Kaizen” my morning routine, so I’ll be looking at stuff like Tim Ferris’ “Tools of Titans”, Mason Currey’s “Daily Rituals”, etc.  I re-read the descriptions of the Pomodoro Technique from the founder and from others.  I understood better why some of the quirky things about Pomodoro are in there — always completing a Pomodoro, for example, and how to combine little tasks into a single Pomo — and generally upped my game here.  At the very end of the month, started thinking about a daily routine variant when on the road, since I’m going on the road a bit more lately.  Basically it’s a matter of making the daily routine portable and pruning things that make no sense on the road (e.g., emptying my study inbox).

OK, so now the new themes for March, which reflect a “swerve” toward a somewhat different project for the year, which I’ll describe in a subsequent post.

  1. Team Formation in startups.  What’s a good team, how do founders pick teams, and how might they do so more effectively.
  2. “Purpose” and startups.  I believe that startups have to stand for something more than making money (although they should also make money!), for practical as well as idealistic reasons.  I want to review the literature and evidence for this point of view.  I guess I’ll start here with “Built to Last”.
  3. “Know-how” and startups.  I want to review the literature on better outcomes for startups where the founder(s) know something special about the domain where they are working, something that gives them an unfair advantage.

As usual, please let me know your thoughts.

Antiquity 3: Reading “Rubicon”

I’m almost done with Tom Holland’s “Rubicon”.  Close enough to the end — we are at the point of Caesar’s showy campaigns in Gaul and the collapse of his first Triumvirate with Pompey and Crassus — to see how the stories are going to work out.

I know now how to a break the spirit of a citizen of the Roman Republic: pour shit on his head.  Or, more to the point, exile him from Rome.  The latter was apparently enough to break the spirit of Cicero, who goes from “pretty square guy” to “mouthpiece for Pompey and Caesar” after just a bit of exile.

(I’m being flip.  How would any of us react to exile, forced separation from our families, the country that gave us life and defines us, etc. etc.?  Not well.)

But a lot of the work of destroying the Roman Republic wasn’t done by threats or blows or exile alone but by the ceaseless slow work of corruption.  Holland tells us the same story a dozen times: a member of the Roman Senate is scared by threats and then seduced by a lucrative governorship or proconsul stint.  He forgets his civic virtues (or, worse, re-imagines his civic virtues to consist of the very things he is doing to betray them).

A pretty potent parable.  Makes me think our Republic doesn’t have much of a chance.


Antiquity 2: The Death of the Roman Republic

(Lest anyone think I’m being systematic here, I’m not.  I jumped to the “Death of the Roman Republic” because, of the twenty books I have on deck to read (about antiquity and other topics) “Rubicon” called out to me to be read.)

So it is not hard to find parallels between the collapse of the Roman Republic in 27 BC and the potential collapse of the American Republic in the era of Trump.

What a book like “Rubicon” (by Tom Holland) does is to frame the establishment of the Roman Empire (which is what happened in 27) with:

  1. The story of the ~100 years which preceded 27
  2. Some themes which the author posits about the Roman Republic — the tension between competitiveness and civic-mindedness, for example — which made the Romans unable to save their democracy
  3. The massive corruption ensuing from the colonies and their corrosive effect on Roman politics and elites.

Americans, too, have been corrupted by our Empire, although our corruption takes a different form than the “loot and slaves” of the Romans.  We are probably in graver danger from the power of super-national corporations that can move capital and jobs rapidly from less complaisant geographies of the world to more complaisant ones.

Just about halfway through “Rubicon”, to be followed by Mary Beard’s SPQR and then — if it doesn’t put me to sleep — “The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire”, by M. Rostovtzeff.  If you know some better sources, please let me know.

Antiquity 1: The End of the Middle Ages

I cleverly avoided studying “Western Civ” in both high school and college.  A pity, because, although I had studied it in grade school — and thought a grade-school course was enough — it wasn’t.  It would have behooved me to have a go at either Exeter or Harvard, where I would have gotten a world-class exposure.

Instead I’m coming back to it late(r) in life, now in my sixties, and having to play catch-up.  The downside of doing so is that I may not have enough time.  The upside is that I’m a better steward of my time and more in touch with my purposes.

My purpose is 1) to get a hold on how “the modern era” (the era of science, humanism, liberal democracy) arose out of the seemingly unpromising Middle Ages and 2) to figure out and savor exactly what was stunning about what they thought back in antiquity.

(I’m aware that “the Middle Ages” is a catch-all term for 1000 years of history — from, say, the Fall of Rome to 1500 — of wildly varying character.  That topic is also grist for the mill: you see why I’m worried about time?)

So, I’ve read “The Swerve”, by Stephen Greenblatt, and I’m in the midst of “Rubicon”, by Tom Holland and “The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox”, by Stephen Jay Gould (posthumous).

Gould makes the case that the transition from “the Middle Ages” to “the Scientific Revolution” was not a simple struggle between science and dogma but rather a two-step process (at least!), consisting of:

  1. Humanism in revolt against Dogma: in this phase the humanists looked to “Antiquity” (Greece and Rome) for new wisdom that had been forgotten/suppressed by the collapse of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christendom.  Both Greenblatt and Gould make the case that there was both forgetting and suppressing.
  2. Science in revolt against Humanism: Humanism, the reverence from the Ancient, became a dogma in its own right, and science-oriented thinkers in Europe (and, in time, America) touted the virtue of direct observation over reverence for the past.

Greenblatt provides lots of supporting detail which seems to support this point of view.  He is, however, after a different quarry: he wants to emphasize:

  1. What a near thing it was that we ever recovered Lucretius’ Epicurean masterpiece “On the Nature of Things”
  2. How vile the Christianity of the 1500’s was
  3. What had to happen in order for the science-based order to come into being.

These to me represent a more complicated point of view than I’ve been accustomed to, but for historians I’m sure it’s a glib oversimplification.  At any rate, that’s what some reviewers said per the Wikipedia article on Greenblatt’s book.  I’ll take it as my working theory for the time being.

So: 1) there is Truth beyond The Church and 2) Seek Truth from skeptical theories about Nature.

I want to read Lucretius now, of course, but first I want to find out more about Rome (and then probably about Greece).

Themes for study and learning in February

It’s been quite a while since I’ve done this!  I had no idea, and although, of course, the other stuff I’ve been doing has been boundlessly important, I’m sorry to have let this one go.

So, themes for study in February:

  1. Future of Work.  This is robots, guaranteed annual income, future of labor, AI, etc.
  2. Antiquity.  I’m interested in the glory that was Greece (and Rome :-)), why it got hammered, and what we can learn about classicism, faith, science, curiosity, paganism, etc.
  3. Morning Routines.  I’m trying (yet again) to “Kaizen” my morning routine, so I’ll be looking at stuff like Tim Ferris’ “Tools of Titans”, Mason Currey’s “Daily Rituals”, etc.

Thinking outside the box about the Equifax breach

Gus Hurwitz had a thoughtful post about the Equifax breach on the American Enterprise Institute blog.

(Full disclosure: Like most techies, I flirt with Libertarianism but basically don’t think much of it.  Living in Washington DC, which effectively has no government, has taught me a lot about the limitations of the philosophy)

Instead of piling on to Equifax, and pummeling them for not having had better security practices, he instead points out that breaches are quite mundane, and that the vectors whereby breaches occur are quite mundane.  In this case, it sounds as if yet another contractor allowed yet another intrusion because of yet another failure to apply known patches.

What Hurwitz points out, in essence is that the occurrence of these “outlying” events is almost certain in systems of enough size and complexity.  Your one server will almost never go down.  Your 10,000-server farm is certain to have numerous servers down at any point in time.

To put it another way, the attackers on a system like Equifax’ don’t have to coordinate.  They can all try at various times and in various ways, and eventually they will succeed.

The defenders, on the other hand, being a centralized group with a castle and a moat, have to be perfect in their defense or the enemy will get in.  Centralized systems have a very hard time fighting decentralized systems.

So Hurwitz asks an interesting question: how can we make the defense of a system like Equifax’ be more decentralized?

One answer is: notify a consumer when their credit data gets pinged, and require the consumer to affirm that the ping was genuine.

I just signed up, in the wake of the breach, for a service that does just that.  Unfortunately, the service is only alive for 90 days and doesn’t auto-renew.  So I have to remember to do so.  Yet another attack surface.  But better than nothing.

Why not have such a service be the default?

Feeling Better

OK, I’m a slow learner.

But it’s only dawned on me slowly that at least half my problems come from not feeling better.

I don’t mean “feeling better” in the sense of “feeling good.”  I would love to feed good all of the time, but it’s probably not in the cards.

I mean “feeling better” in the sense of “get better at feeling.”  I learned from Jung years ago that you either get absorbed in your feeling — bad! — or you remain mindful while a feeling passes through you — good!

So the aim is to remain mindful even while the feeling is taking place.

So far so good.  So how do you get better at something?  Well, I’ve been reading a lot about Deep Work and deliberate practice, so it was only natural to google about “deliberate practice for feelings.”

Well, pretty thin gruel: there’s a lot about getting better at expressing your feelings (not that there’s anything wrong with that, I suppose) and a lot about deep feelings, but nothing to speak of about using the “deliberate practice” technique for improving your ability to feel.

So I’m reviewing what I know about deep practice:

  • It’s systematically identifying weaknesses in the area and correcting them by repeated practice
  • It’s unpleasant, because you’re always doing stuff you’re not very good at
  • It benefits enormously from having a teacher or coach, although some people (Ben Franklin, e.g.,) seem to have done OK without one.

As I’m toting up this info, all of a sudden it dawns on me: deliberate practice of feelings is nothing but psychotherapy.

In psychotherapy, you are essentially going over feelingful situations again and again, minutely re-rehearsing what you could have done, or what you were really doing, or what you wanted to do.  You are doing this under the watchful ear of a coach — your therapist — who is correcting your self-delusions and forcing you to look straight at what happened internally and externally.

It’s deliberate practice of feelings.

OK, so I’ve been a huge lifetime consumer of psychotherapy services.  And I’ve also been a lifelong skeptic that you needed the therapist (although it’s proven itself time and again: I’m just a cheapskate, in part, and in part a non-joiner of things; I joined plenty in my youth).

So I’ve got to ask: is there any Ben Franklin-style hacks you can do to get the benefits of deliberate practice with feelings without the expense and, yes, cultishness of psychotherapy?

An ongoing question.

Themes for Study and Learning in May

Themes for April, with my self-assessment:

 I was pretty bogged down with my new course and the associated learning stuff, like Intellectual Property and different kinds of startup strategy.  I learned a lot — as I always do — by teaching the material in the course, but I didn’t accomplish much on study and learning themes 1 and 2 below.

  1. Read about plot and suspense.  I basically didn’t get to this at all.   It would get on the goals list for a week and then get shoved to the back by almost anything else.  Maybe just a classic case of “important but not urgent,” but I did some mulling about writing fiction in general during April and it was not especially fruitful or favorable to working away at the fiction-oriented Deliberate Practice.  So, net result: nothing.
  2. Read about Phenomenology and Existentialism .  I had intended to try Heidegger’s “Being and Time” this month, but didn’t get there.  Ditto the remarks above, with the additional observation that, pleasant and interesting as this stuff is, it’s really not essential to my life going forward.  I spent some energy this month reading about focusing on main things (“Essentialism”, by Greg McKeown, which was terrific, and The 80/20 Principle, by Richard Koch, which was OK but not as good.  And, frankly, Phenomenology and Existentialism are not as essential as one might wish.
  3. Learn more about DIY (“do it yourself”).  I did a fair amount of digging about DIY, mostly YouTube videos and Googling, trying to find out more about mudding and interior patching generally.  More on this this month, I think, although not one of the Big Three.

So, the May themes will be:

  1. Pathways to Entrepreneurs.  This theme re-emerges because I’m trying to dust off and get traction on my EBE Project from last fall.  The idea here is to figure out how to get academic research into the hands of entrepreneurs (and useful to them!).
  2. Retirement Jobs.  I’ve been selling the idea of actual jobs  in retirement short (as opposed to projects or little gigs).  I want to find out if there’s actually a possibility of a) getting a real job in retirement and b) getting satisfaction from it.
  3. Better Investments.  I’ve been asset allocating and rebalancing for years and want to find out if I could get better returns by investing more actively.

Themes for Study and Learning in April

Themes for March, with my self-assessment:

  1. Continue with Fascism and Totalitarianism.  Will be helpful to an essay I’m trying to write this month, as well as inherently useful.  I didn’t write the essay in March, and probably won’t in April, so the theme is a little moot for my immediate needs.  It continues to be an important issue for America, but so far kleptocracy and incompetence seem like worse threats than fascism (although it’s waiting in the wings).
  2. Read about Intellectual Property.  I have to teach the topic at the end of month, and I’ve always — as a self-respecting software guy — kind of hated and dissed the subject.  Time to know more.  I read a few things, somewhat thin gruel, and had a couple of great conversations.  Probably not on the docket for April.
  3. Read about plot and suspense.  I’m trying to get better at this in my own writing through “deliberate practice”, so I’ll be actively researching the topic as well.  I’ll continue this one in April.  I had a hard time doing this deliberate practice (as all the shills for deliberate practice say one will), but it’s very helpful.  I’m going to keep it up and try to notch it up.

So the April themes will be:

  1. Read about plot and suspense, per above.
  2. Read about Phenomenology and Existentialism .  I got halfway through “At the Existensialist Cafe” this month, with great pleasure, and it inspired me to have a go at Heidegger’s “Being and Time” this month.  Wish me luck.
  3. Learn more about DIY (“do it yourself”).  I’m a moderate DIY-er around the home, but want to learn more, especially about woodworking and plumbing.

Themes for Study and Learning in March

Well, February flew by “study and learning”-wise.  Hmm.  I’ve heard and repeated many times that the perception of time is logarithmic: proportional to how much time has passed for one.  So a month now — and especially a shortie like February — is nothing like a month when I was 8.  Sigh.

Anyhow, here were the themes for February, with my self-assessment:

  1. Continue with Fascism and Totalitarianism.  Hopefully Arendt will become available soon at the library (or I may just have to spring for it).  Open to other suggestions.  Progress: Not much.  I gave up on the original Arendt and purchased “The Portable Hannah Arendt” at some point in Feb.  I read most of the Preface, but still have to get to Ms. Arendt.  See below, carried forward.
  2. PowerPoint innards.  I have a scheme to code a web app which will check your PowerPoint deck for “5 common Intelligent Pitching flaws” per my work on Intelligent Pitching over the last couple of years.  See back posts for more.  Progress: I read two days about ppt innards, and made some progress with “deliberate practice” on the python open-source ppt parsing lib (grok-ing all the makefile commands, for example).  To be continued, but not in March
  3. Poker.  I’m in a regular poker game but not getting any better at it.  Time to buckle down and do some reading and deliberate practice.  Progress: I started “Education of a Poker Player”, by Herbert Yardley.  Read the first chapter, which was all about “tells”.  Great stuff, and great for serious poker, but doesn’t help me with my group, where we play whatever game the dealer wants and they’re usually glitzy and whacky, so tells don’t help much.

And, looking forward for March:

  1. Continue with Fascism and Totalitarianism.  Will be helpful to an essay I’m trying to write this month, as well as inherently useful.
  2. Read about Intellectual Property.  I have to teach the topic at the end of month, and I’ve always — as a self-respecting software guy — kind of hated and dissed the subject.  Time to know more.
  3. Read about plot and suspense.  I’m trying to get better at this in my own writing through “deliberate practice”, so I’ll be actively researching the topic as well.

Comments always welcome.

Benefit from my 35 years of tech industry experience