Old year’s resolutions

  • What can you tick off already? Good work on those.
  • What do you need to quit – stop doing, stop trying to do, draw a line under, declare an amnesty for yourself, admit that it won’t get done, and let die with the old year?
  • Perhaps most crucially, what are the little things – acts of kindness that you’ve been thinking it might be nice to do, short emails to friends, decisions, bookings, commitments – that you can do, and get into the habit of doing, starting from right now? Today, the day before you make new year’s resolutions, everything you do is a bonus, a gift of the momentum that a frontlog brings that will make tomorrow better or easier for your future self – the self who’s arriving tomorrow.

Compound interest

We all know about compound interest in the world of money. Save £100 a month for thirty years at one percent interest** and you’ll have a little under £42,000 by the end of that time (compared to £36,000 at zero-percent).

Make that investment at 5% and suddenly you’ll hit £83,000.

10%*** makes almost £228,000.

It takes time, and the commitment to building something steadily. No tricks, no promises of outrageous returns, a degree of risk – but not when compared to not investing at all.

What if the interest we seek for our work – attention, respect, partnership, remuneration – could compound in the same way? Often it seems that we’re after a flash in the pan (Viral. Now.), or that we’re not building anything consistently at all.

Starting with almost nothing, drop by drip, brick by brick, little by little, we can build a mountain.

** 1% annually, calculated monthly

*** A reasonable return from a stocks-and-shares index fund

Governor Jerry Brown, c1976: an approach to protest

I would be part of the entourage and we’d go to some public event… and there outside the event would be the usual protesters about one thing or another. And I’d find myself trying to get Jerry [Brown, Governor of California] in, and we’re all of us late, “Come on, let’s keep moving,” and then he’d see the protesters and he’d veer off and go over and talk to them.

And we’re rolling our eyes, but here’s how he’d talk to protesters: he’d go over to whoever it looked like was being a spokesman, maybe they had the loudhailer or something, and he’d say “Glad you’re here, what’s on your mind?”

And they would start to say their trip, and he would listen for a bit and he’d say, “I think I got it… let me see if I got it.” And then he would say back to them their stance, often better than they had stated it, and you’d see them just melt. Because the thing that they wanted to have happen was for him to be aware of their position, and to understand it, and he’d just shown that he’d done that.

And they had the further hope that since it was known that Jerry occasionally changed his mind and his policy on things, that not only had he heard their position, he might even adopt it at some point. And so he could always engage and diffuse opposition with the fact that he could be persuaded out of a position that he’d publicly taken.

He was not a good speaker, he was not a charismatic character for the longest time, basically an introvert in public life, and yet that characteristic as much as any other – he did a lot of policy, he was very bright and eventually a very capable politician – but that characteristic I think opened him up to a very successful political career.

Stewart Brand speaking on The Tim Ferris Show #281

Expectations: tell us what you do

We’re staying at a simple hotel in North Sulawesi.

The setting is idyllic.

Our hosts are unfailingly pleasant and helpful.

Good food is served three times a day, at regular times… plus or minus an hour.

Our room is cleaned… intermittently, and our bin emptied when we take it to reception ourselves.

We have lights, running water, and even air conditioning… until the power goes off around 7 a.m. each day, after which there’s intermittent generator power until the evening. There’s no coffeemaking or showering unless the power’s on.

All of these things are fine, and part of the fun – but for the first few days the uncertainty was inconvenient and uncomfortable.

Problems like this can be made to disappear with little effort, at no cost, and without changing anything. All it takes is communication and a bit of consistency:

  • “We serve breakfast at 7 a.m. daily. Lunch will be served between 12 and 1 p.m., depending on what time the dive boat gets back.”
  • “We will clean your room once every three days. If you need your bin emptied between times, please leave it at reception and collect it empty later in the day.”
  • “Because we’re on a small island, the power supply is unreliable after 7 a.m. A thermos of hot water will be available for making coffee, and we will run the generator during the heat of the day, from 11.30 a.m. to 3 p.m. for air conditioning. Mains power usually comes back on around 5 p.m.”

These could be shared with guests before booking, and again on arrival, so everyone knows what’s going on. No more questions to staff, no more confused or disgruntled guests.

Communicate clearly. Create the right expectations. Fulfill them. Everybody wins.

Expectations: flaw to feature

We decided to explore the garden before we ordered our food. The manager caught us just as we were starting down the path. He was apologetic:

“Excuse me… sorry… the food can take a long time to come at the restaurant – up to an hour after you order it. We suggest that you order first and then enjoy the garden while you wait.”

It was good advice. The food took about an hour to come, but the gardens were big and beautiful, so we had a good time waiting. And the food was worth the wait.

We were glad he caught us, too – with two young kids, it would have been one of those minor parenting catastrophes if we’d explored and then ordered and then had to wait.

I chatted to the manager later, and he explained that people often complained about this, but the thing was, their food was fresh, often picked-to-order, and cooked ‘homestyle’. Good food takes time.

The thing is, he didn’t need to apologise – he just needed to turn the slowness of the food slow from a flaw (and apparently one that he had to explain and apologise for to every guest) to a feature.

Not: “Sorry to inform you, but the food takes a long time to come here.”

Instead: “We serve slow food here. Good, wholesome, freshly picked food which takes time to prepare. If you prefer fast food, go to McDonald’s. Please order on arrival, and enjoy the gardens as you wait.”

Promote it on the website. Put up notices and point them out to people on arrival.

“This is what we do and how we do it, and why. You are welcome.”

Make the wait deliberate, part of the experience that everyone signs up to and enjoys, and you’ve turned slow service into selling point – an oasis of time to share with friends. You’ve made a restaurant that prepares you to enjoy your meal at the same time your meal is prepared for you.

You’ve turned a complaining guest into someone who’ll tell their friends about the fantastic time they had slowing down for an hour in your garden-oasis.

The Gardenia Country Inn is in Tomohon, North Sulawesi. Worth the trip, and worth the wait.

Peter Morville on Category and Taxonomy (1)

While findability comes first, we must also remember that categories are about more than retrieval. Classification helps our users to understand.

Through splitting, lumping and labeling, we reveal choices and invite questions.

Of course, all taxonomies are imperfect, as is the language they’re built on… like maps and myths, taxonomies hide more than they reveal. They bury complexity to tell a story, and they always miss someone out. Some things, like luggage, get lost by accident, while others – people, places, ideas – are buried by design.

Either way, each glitch in the matrix subtly changes understanding and behaviour, which is why this work has moral weight. Classification has consequences, as Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star argue in Sorting Things Out:

“Each category valorizes some point of view and silences another. This is not inherently a bad thing – indeed, it is inescapable. But it is an ethical choice, and as such it is dangerous – not bad, but dangerous.”

Peter MorvilleIntertwingled (Amazon link here)

The Gift

Everything changes if you can see the thing you’re doing as a gift.

Doing it as a gift transforms

  • the thing you don’t want to do, or don’t want to do right now;
  • the thing you don’t want to do in the way you know you should do it;
  • the thing you said yes to that seemed like a good idea at the time;
  • the thing that makes you nervous, that will make you feel stupid if it goes wrong;
  • the work you put in early, building momentum when it isn’t urgent;
  • the work you do late, putting in extra hours to get it done on time;
  • the thing that you might really be doing for yourself, but that could be for them;
  • the chances that what you do might bring about the change that you seek.

Suddenly you’re not

  • doing your duty, but being generous to another person;
  • grinding out an obligation, but choosing to do something well;
  • a fool who should have known better, but someone who offered to show up;
  • at the same risk of embarrassment – if you look foolish, you’ll be a likeable, generous fool;
  • spending time on something because you have to, but preparing an act of kindness;
  • pulling a ridiculous all-nighter, but staying up to wrap a present;
  • thinking about what will make it go well for you, but focusing on what will make it useful/fun/a good gift for the gift’s recipients;
  • trying to change anyone per se, but to make them richer by sharing something you’ve made.

Gifts

  • are free (gratis) to the recipient because they’re paid for by the giver;
  • are free (libre) to be received or left;
  • are best if specific (“it’s for you“) rather than generic (“who wants this?”);
  • aren’t designed to create obligation, but to create new possibilities, generate multiplying gifts.

Happy Christmas 2018.

The new possible

My sister (let’s call her Sharky) bought me a book for Christmas.

Sharky lives in Argentina.

She bought the book from a shop in the UK.

I’m on holiday in a remote part of Indonesia.

She bought the book, told me about it, and I was reading it, in less than ten minutes.

This is the new reality – actually, not even that new anymore. Any information product (book, film, music, software, design) can go anywhere, in effectively no time.

The new possible consists of the things that this reality enables – not just instant access to information products, but information to go into products (3d printing designs, specifications) or for the delivery of products and services (your exact requirements or preferences, your real-time location, your purchase history, your credit rating).

What becomes possible in your field when the information is so relevant and so available, when the transaction becomes so fast, so frictionless?

AirBnB, and Uber are cannonical examples of the new possible, to which I’d add the fact that this year, Sharky bought me a Christmas present.

Scrapbook: Niall Ferguson on culture, text-for-profit, libraries, search and literacy

Niall Ferguson was speaking at the Long Now Foundation, responding to a question from Stewart Brand about how ads and the profit-motive influenced the nature of search and the internet echo-chamber.

Google and Facebook in particular are platforms driven by user-engagement and time-on-platform (the source of their ad revenue) and as a result tend to give us more of what we like or agree with already, filtering out sources that might challenge our views. 

If you look back on the way the printing press developed, there was a for profit wing that ultimately did finance itself by selling ads, and it evolved into newspapers and magazines.

But that was only a fraction of all the printed content that was out there. Most printed content was accessible free through things called libraries, and libraries were non profit.

Public libraries gradually began to spread in the protestant realms because remember, Protestantism insisted on literacy. A country like mine, Scotland, went from very low literacy to very high literacy because of the reformation. Schools had libraries. Books were regarded as a public good. And this meant that most printed content was not provided by profit making institutions. It was essentially free, and crucially, catalogued in increasingly effective and – I’ll call them objective – ways.

Anybody who’s spent time in one of the great libraries of the world, say the Cambridge University Library, knows that the books are sorted in such a way that you find the book that you’re after, and next to it are books on similar topics. This is an incredibly valuable thing if you’re doing serious research. 

Google is not like that. You may think that Google is like that, but you’re wrong, because that is not how search works…

Niall Ferguson – The Long Now Foundation – Networks and Power

Deep literacy: Kevin Kelly on more than reading

… producing books with ease on Gutenberg’s press did not fully unleash text. Real literacy also required a long list of innovations and techniques that permitted ordinary readers and writers to manipulate text in ways that made it useful. For instance, quotation symbols make it simple to indicate where one has borrowed text from another writer. We don’t have a parallel notation in film yet, but we need one.

Once you have a large text document, you need a table of contents to find your way through it. That requires page numbers. Somebody invented them in the 13th century. Where is the equivalent in video?

Longer texts require an alphabetic index, devised by the Greeks and later developed for libraries of books. Someday soon with AI we’ll have a way to index the full content of a film.

Footnotes, invented in about the 12th century, allow tangential information to be displayed outside the linear argument of the main text. And that would be useful in video as well.

And bibliographic citations (invented in the 13th century) enable scholars and skeptics to systematically consult sources that influence or clarify the content. Imagine a video with citations. These days, of courses we have hyperlinks, which connect one piece of text to another, and tags, which categorise using a selected word or phrase for later viewing.

All these inventions (and more) permit any literate person to cut and paste ideas, annotate them with her own thoughts, link them to related ideas, search through vast libraries of work, browse subjects quickly, resequence texts, refind material, remix ideas, quote experts, and sample bits of beloved artists.

These tools, more than reading, are the foundations of literacy.

Kevin KellyThe Inevitable