Listening Notes: Invisibilia – Emotions Part One 

Link to episode:

  • Emotions don’t happen to us, they are responses to things that happen to us. 
  • In fact, we don’t respond directly to the things that happen to us, but rather we respond to our concept of what happens. We don’t directly respond to the outside world, we respond to our mind’s interpretation of the outside world. 
  • If someone who has been blind from birth gets a cornea transplant, they don’t automatically see what we see. They see blobs of light and dark for days, weeks, and sometimes years, until their mind forms a conceptual understanding of what it takes in. 
  • Everything around us (what we see) and inside us (what we feel) is a blob until we learn how to interpret it.
  • Our brain has four basic reactions: pleasant, unpleasant, aroused, calm. Our brain then reacts to our concepts of what happens to us and makes meanings based on past experience. Those are emotions. 
  • We can change our concepts of the outside world. 
  • The consequence of this is that we can also change our emotions. This means we have control and responsibility over our emotions. 
  • Emotions aren’t objective. Trauma isn’t the same as cells that have corrupted and turned cancerous. 
  • It can be a long a difficult task to change our concepts. But it can be done. We control our experience of reality. 

Using Walks, Drives, and Commutes For Work

I used to think that walking, driving somewhere, and commuting were things that we fundamentally opposed to work. Complete downtime. Even using them to listen to podcasts isn’t working. It is a good use of the time, but it isn’t working.

I now regularly go for walks throughout the workday and take time commuting between my house and coffee shops without stress because I’ve learned how I can best use those periods of time productively for work: I use them to think about a specific problem.

We all think when we walk, drive, and take public transit, but the key is using that time to focus solely on one problem instead of just letting our minds wander. It is tricky, because unlike working at your desk or diningroom table, driving, walking, and commuting are full of opportunites for distraction.

Here is what works for me:

  • I define the problem I’m trying to solve, give it parameters, and write it down in my notebook.
  • I go over the relevant research I’ve done previously. It usually takes me no more than 15 minutes.
  • I forego podcasts and most music. If I’m on the train, sometimes I put instrumental music on to block out the surroundings, but if I’m walking or driving I leave my headphones in my bag. If your mind wanders, notice it and pull it back to the topic at hand without judgment.
  • I have a notebook ready to take notes. If I’m driving, I usually wait until I get to my destination. If I’m walking or taking the train, I can take notes immediately. I used to take notes on my phone, but I find the allure of apps and notifications too distracting, so now I opt to leave my phone in my pocket.

Here is an example from earlier today. I wanted to go work from a coffee shop for a while because I needed some coffee. Here is how I used my time driving there and back:

  • Defining the problem: I have three months of curriculum content to decide upon with TK in a meeting this afternoon and 6 topics to choose from. What best flows from what already exists and how can it be used?
  • Research: Going over the existing 6 topics to choose from and the curriculum elements we’ve already decided on.
  • Today I was driving, so I left podcasts off and just thought as I drove. When my mind wandered off, I noticed it and gently shifted my focus back to the curriculum, just like I’ve been learning to do with my daily meditation practice. (I use Headspace.)
  • When I got to the coffee shop, I wrote down the ideas I had and took a few minutes to refine them.
  • I worked on something else for a while, and then got ready to go home. I reviewed my earlier notes and asked myself, “Where are the holes in this plan? What would make this better?” That is what I focused on while driving home.
  • When I got home, I had 15 minutes to write down my notes and get ready to talk to TK about them.

I do this all time time now, especially on my walks. It is amazing how much framing a specific question before leaving and focusing on that can turn something we usually squander into useful time.

Learning to Draw, Day 6: Pure Contour Exercise

Today I read a section on childhood drawings and then did another exercise to help me shift my perception: Pure Contour Drawing. 

I put my pencil on the paper pad, scrunched my hand together, turned so I couldn’t see the paper, and then tried my best to draw the creases I saw in my hand while a 5 minute timer was running. 

It yielded a strange result, but the point was to intensely focus on edges (in drawing, that is where two items come together) to the exclusion on everything else. Over the 5 minutes, the world drifts away as you get lost in the complexity of your scrunched palm. 

Tomorrow: A modified version of this with the viewfinder and my whole hand. 

Listening Notes: Venkatesh Rao on The Three Types of Decision Makers, Mental Models, and How to Process Information | The Knowledge Podcast

Listening Notes for Venkatesh Rao on The Three Types of Decision Makers, Mental Models, and How to Process Information | The Knowledge Podcast

Link to the podcast:

Types of Decision Makers

  • Evidence-based
  • Moral (right vs wrong)
  • Tribal (emotional/affiliation decision-making)

Staying grounded in reality by maintaining cracks in your mental models. (Note: I first need to codify my existing mental models)

From Wikipedia: Red Queen effect is an evolutionary hypothesis which proposes that organisms must constantly adapt, evolve, and proliferate not merely to gain reproductive advantage, but also simply to survive while pitted against ever-evolving opposing organisms in an ever-changing environment. The phenomenon’s name is derived from a statement that the Red Queen made to Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass in her explanation of the nature of Looking-Glass Land: “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”

Venkatesh Rao only takes notes when he is doing academic research (for references and quotes). He optimizes normal reading for serendipity. Note taking, he thinks, interferes with that.

How do we structure organizations as we get more and more independent workers/free agents?

There are two ways of looking at the Uber situation:

  1. Drivers not getting paid enough based on their being the necessary labor (drivers) (1920s labor style)
  2. Drivers training an AI data set for self-driving cars, so being paid as researchers helping the tech transition.

Not picking a book that influenced you the most. Influence is difficult to measure. I read quite a bit and different books do different things for me at various points in my life. There are books that were important to me at a particular time that I wouldn’t even have finished the first chapter of at another time. There are books I reread every few years, but I think it has more to do with personal attachment and what I need, not necessarily what will work for someone else. This is what I like to tell people: Go read more. Read things that give you joy. Read things you are curious about.

That was a good keynote. Makes me excited about Apple’s future again. I’m preordering a 10.5″ iPad Pro. I’ve been waiting a full year for an update to the line and this looks incredible.

Learning to Draw, Day 5: Upside Down Tufted Titmouse

Today was the last upside down copying exercise: Picking a line drawing on your own and copying it. I searched around for a few minutes on Google Images and found a drawing of a Tufted Titmouse from

Here is the upside down comparison:

And the rightside up comparison:

I felt my focus shift a few times, which was interesting. Whenever I stopped to take a drink of my coffee, it was gone. But shortly after, I was able to zoom back in on small details and get back to copying them. I forced myself to disregard the eye and beak, and just focused on them as shapes. I found the feet to be very difficult, though. I think I got caught up thinking about them as feed. I think they turned out worse than the rest of the drawing.

This was easier than the last two days, partly because it is less complex, and partly because I’m enjoying it more.

Tomorrow I’m reading a section on childhood drawing development and doing a “pure contour” drawing exercise.

Learning to Draw, Day 4: Upside Down Knight

Betty Edwards in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain recommends copying 2-3 line drawings upside down to get a sense of how it feels to shift to a different way of seeing. Today I copied a line drawing of a knight on a horse by an unknown German artist.

It was easier than yesterday’s drawing, though it took me just as long. I didn’t leave enough room for the helmet and the proportions are still off, but I think I did a decent job overall.

Here is the upside down comparison:

And the rightside up comparison:

Learning to Draw, Day 3: Copying Upside Down

Yesterday I had about 30 pages of information about the brain and how it works and a short symmetrical vase (an optical illusion made out of two face profiles) drawing exercise to do. That took up the whole hour I set aside with only a few squiggly lines on a piece of paper to show, so I didn’t think it was worth a post.

Today’s exercise was 99% drawing: Copying Picasso’s portrait of Igor Stravinsky upside down to force my brain to see lines and shapes instead of a face, hands, etc. To shift your brain into a different way of seeing. I had to fight myself a few times when I was working on the hands and face, but I ultimately slowed down and focused in on the individual lines and shapes that composed them.

This exercise took me well over an hour and was very difficult. I almost gave up once when I spent 15 minutes drawing a detailed section, only to realize I had miscalculated and it was far away from where it needed to be. I’ve never had so much mental anguish over using an eraser.

Here is the upside down comparison:

And here is the rightside up comparison:

I know the proportions and spacing are pretty off in places, but I was surprised at how it turned out. It was much better than I expected. I’m glad I didn’t give up. (I really was close. I swore, pulled my shirt up over my eyes, and shouted about how difficult it is. Not my best moment today.)

Learning to Draw, Day 1

This month I’m learning to draw. This is a skill I’ve never had. I once thought that there are analytical people and artistic people, but I’m no longer willing to accept that. Just like swimming or writing is a particular skill that can be taught and learned, drawing and calculus are both skills that can be taught and learned. I already know calculus (all the way through real analysis), so it is time to learn to draw.

My guide this month is Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. I’m going to post my progress here.

Today was my pre-instruction drawings to establish my starting point and have something to gauge my progress against.

I had to do three drawings:

  1. A self portrait drawn while looking in the mirror
  2. Someone else (or a photo of them) from memory alone, nothing on-hand to reference
  3. My hand

Here they are:

My self-portrait. I framed it up correctly from my perspective. Impossible to get a photo of the same perspective.

1 (1).jpg

Amanda, with the photo I had in mind:

My hand:


I want to eventually draw illustrations for blog posts and pause to draw plants while I hike.

I have a long way to go, but I can’t get worse than I already am. The introduction to Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain emphasizes that learning to draw is actually more about learning different ways of seeing than it is about learning how to hold a pencil. I’m hoping to learn those different modes of seeing over the next 29 days!

Forget Daily “Work/Life Balance”

Forget about daily work/life balance. Juggling too many things at once leads to stress and poor performance. Trying to balance everything by offsetting stuff with other stuff just leads to too much stuff. Set your priorities for each day (or each week or part of each day) and focus intensely on those few things.

Working 9-5 and ignoring work outside of those hours is suboptimal. Ignoring your personal life from 9-5 is suboptimal, too. Our energy, focus, and priorities don’t match up with traditionally scheduled hours.

Sometimes, like this past week, I have an intense push to get some curriculum changes out at Praxis. I spent less time with Amanda, cooked less, and read less than I’d like to. Trying to balance all of those things would have led to performing poorly at all of them. Instead, I got the curriculum work wrapped up this week by working a lot more than 8 hours a day and I’m unplugging for most of the weekend to spend time with Amanda.

Other weeks, I have fewer deliverables, so I spend more time reading in the morning to learn more and gain inspiration before I start working. Some weeks I focus on writing more or working on personal projects. This month I’m taking time every day to meditate and learn to draw.

The point is to deliberately pick a few things you want to do, own the tradeoffs, and intensely focus on those items.

I’m fortunate enough to have a very understanding spouse who tends to work in a similar way. Not having guilt about focusing on work at 11pm on a Wednesday is helpful. On days where one or both of us need to focus on work, we make the most out of the time we do get together: early mornings, late evenings, and time between calls. We focus on that time, even if it is short, and make it count.

Don’t try to balance everything every day. Do a few things each day, but do them well.

A Prediction for the 2020 Election

I think that the 2020 presidential election will finally be when we’ll see colors other than red, white, and blue showing up as main branding colors in a mainstream candidate. 

The 2016 election and people’s response to Trump paved the way for “outsiders” and given people permission to color outside the lines. 

I’d love for that to lead to a fracturing of the two party system into dozens of smaller parties, but I don’t think that is going to happen anytime soon. We’ll have to settle for more exciting campaign branding. Baby steps. 

How to Avoid Pastoralism

I’m rereading Breaking Smart Season 1 right now and I got to thinking about Rao’s concept of pastoralism vs prometheanism and how to avoid it. 

Whenever you find yourself pining for a specific technological solution, especially one that was dreamt up more than 15 years ago, ask yourself whether or not you want the actual specified solution or to solve the problem which the thing you pine for was supposed to solve. 

If it is the later, you should work on a new solution that takes into account the changed social and economic situation in the time that has elapsed and what is now technically possible that wasn’t before.

Don’t keep working toward a technically difficult, but outdated, solution just for nostalgia’s sake. Question your motives and work toward solving the problem again. 

Focused vs Unfocused Reading

  1. The gap between focused and unfocused reading is huge, especially when compounded over time. 
  2. Reducing distractions can lead to huge improvements in the number of pages read and understood. Maybe even more than traditional speed reading methods. 
  3. On my flight to Chicago this weekend, I read half of James Hogan’s Inherit the Stars. On the flight back to NYC, I reread 60% of Breaking Smart Season 1. Each leg was a little over 2 hours. I got through much more of each of these books than I have in equivalent amounts of time at home. It was like I had tunnel vision on the flight because I couldn’t get up and had no distractions available. 
  4. I need to do a better job at implementing airplane-like focus at home so that I can cover more ground in less time. I’m going though the 10 Days to Faster Reading book right now, but its methods aren’t that appealing to me. Working on my focus might be a better route. 

Cronuts (Finally)

After watching the Cronut craze and wanting to try one for the last few years, I finally decided to go get some. I work from home and set my own hours, so why not? I preordered them two weeks ago, worked late night on a project, and took the morning to go pick some up and take them to my wife’s office. 

The verdict: They were delicious. The May flavor is Raspberry Earl Grey. 

I’ve had a few knockoffs, but I’m glad I tried the original. Dominque Ansel Bakery has incredible standards and hits the mark every time. The dough was crispy on the outside, soft and flakey on the inside, and the filling was creamy and rich. 

I’m glad I picked some up via preorder and avoided the lines. I got to check this off the NYC list. I probably won’t do it again because they weren’t good enough to justify the effort a second time, but damn they were good the first time. 

New Music Friday: Indie Edition

Dr. Quandry. Guy out of Boston I’ve been following since 2008. Experimental instrumental stuff. Great working music.

I recommend listening to his new album, Wayfarers II.

He also has an album of sitar stuff that I find strangely interesting: Quanny Sitar

My answer to “What are the best things to do on weekends as a student at Hillsdale College?” on Quora

Over at Quora: What are the best things to do on weekends as a student at Hillsdale College?

My answer:

Take a break from studying and spend the weekends increasing your hiring potential after you graduate by doing one of the following things:

  • Work at either an on-campus job, one in town, or a remote online job and build up marketable skills for your resume. I was a photographer for the External Affairs office and a tech for the campus’s IT Services while I was at Hillsdale. Both of these things taught me a lot about problem solving, working with other people, and about building a portfolio of transferrable skills. They also put money in my pocket.
  • Freelance work. Learn something like design, web development, copy editing, etc. Build yourself a website and take on a few clients to make some extra money and to build up your portfolio. I taught myself how to build and customize WordPress sites at Hillsdale when I wasn’t studying.
  • Blog. The more you write, the better you will get at it. One of the most rewarding things I did for myself during my Hillsdale years was blogging every single day of my sophomore year. This taught me a lot about discipline, deadlines, producing on a schedule, and distilling my ideas. My writing improved dramatically over that year. Blogging on your own domain name will also help build your personal brand and set your apart from your peers upon graduation.
  • Projects. Tons and tons of projects. This is something I wish I had done more of during my undergrad years. Take everything you want to learn and turn it into a month-long project.
    • Want to learn photography? Get a camera (or borrow one) and take photos of different subjects each week for a month.
    • Want to improve your photography skills? Take only black and white photos for a month. Or focus on lighting for a month.
    • Build a 1-page webapp that has simple functionality to learn a popular javascript framework.
    • Prefer something more academic because you want to go to grad school? Write a series of profiles on famous people from history or current-day. Choose a subject and profile 10 lesser-known but important figures in the space.

The point I’m trying to make with this post is that if you intend to stand out after graduation, you need to do something that the rest of your peers aren’t willing to do. Yes, I know the academics are difficult (I was in the Honors program and I graduated early), but so is getting a job after graduation. Set yourself up for success by doing something other than studying all weekend every weekend.