The “What Do I Watch?” Problem

You may be familiar with the feeling of scrolling through Netflix and being unable to choose which movie to watch. I had the same feeling while working in one of the world’s largest bookstores. When my options were massive, I was crippled by an inability to commit to a single pursuit.

There is a study that touches upon this topic using jam. A shop presented its customers with a selection of 24 jams for a period of time, then switched to a selection of only 6 jams later for a different set of customers. The results: more people were attracted to the larger selection of jams. However 30% of customers bought a product from the smaller selection while only 3% made a purchase from the larger selection.

The study suggests that when confronted with an overload of choice, we tend towards paralysis. We can see this not only in choosing books and movies, but in careers as well. As children, when we are told that we can grow up to be anything, is it possible we are priming ourselves to not commit to anything at all?

With respect to media, it is helpful to think about Jorge Luis Borges’s short story about the fictional Library of Babel. This library contains all the written text imaginable. For ever book on one subject, there exists a polar opposite. There are multiple editions of the same book that are different only by one letter. Some men pick through the library for books that contain the meaning of life, but all go insane in their search.

It is impossible to conquer the Library of Babel, much like it is impossible to keep up on movies and books at the rate they are being produced and at the ease at which they can be accessed. This is why I have taken to the philosophy that the most important thing is often what is directly in front of you.

Method One: Take Individual Recommendations Seriously

My friend Josh picks books to read as such: someone will recommend something, and if he likes the person, he’ll give it a go. This way the choice of what to read is made for him, and at the very least he will understand the person who recommended the book a little bit more. I find this to be an elegant solution, since it grounds the choice in a directly applicable context: friendship. Whenever someone I like recommends a movie or a book, I am more inclined to commit. It narrows the choice and also provides the opportunity to connect with the other person’s interest. While small-talking with a customer at the cafe, he suggested I watch the movie “The Void” and I immediately did so. At my local burrito spot, one of the servers mentioned that he saw an excellent weird movie called “Santa Sangre”, a film I would have never considered watching before that moment.

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This method, letting other people do the picking for you, is also a way to shake up your routine, or to introduce some creative chaos into your life. Too often we get caught in a cycle of comfortable media rotation. Introducing other people into your media consumption makes it more likely you will see or read something that will change your life.

Method Two: Ride The Wave

Sometimes, we don’t want other people to make choices for us. I know that sometimes I just want to sit down and relax and watch something that I’m interested in. Instead of trying to pick the best thing, if I let go and let my intuition guide me, I will often commit to something more easily. It’s kind of what makes going to a a bookstore magical. There is a serendipitous element to choice in which it is not you doing the choosing, but rather the circumstances around you.

An acquaintance of mine put it elegantly: “I just ride the waves,” she said, in regards to picking what TV show to commit to. Fighting against the tidal wave of media is fruitless, and much like browsing the Library of Babel for a specific title. Instead, what if we were more inclined to reach out and pick a smaller section, or to let subjects find us instead of the other way around?

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There was a time I used to ponder the question “What makes people intelligent?” I concluded that a huge factor that contributes to intelligence is the ability to recognize learning opportunities in your immediate surroundings. The smartest people find curiosities in their walks to work, while staring at their ceilings, or when making small-talk with strangers. It becomes less about picking quality content, but instead bringing a quality thought-process to the content. The most important thing is often what is directly in front of you.

Don’t get me wrong. I think that we all should actively seek out the truth and do adequate research when needed. However I think that choice-paralysis can stop us from being motivated to learning new things. I would rather more people pick up books than avoid them completely because they don’t know where to start. Sometimes starting is the hardest part, and to overcome the overwhelm, it is often best practice to let the media find you.

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Avoiding The “Have You Seen…?” Trap

In modern conversation, you will often find yourself in the following scenario:

A: Have you seen [movie]?

B: No I haven’t! What’s it about?

A: [summarizes film]. You should totally see it.

B: You’re right! I definitely should. Have you seen [different movie]?

Then the whole cycle repeats itself. Sometimes this kind of conversation is fine, but I notice that it creates a loop of trying to one up your conversational partner in tallying up movies that you love against movies that they love. Even if there is overlap between your tastes, the conversation becomes a pissing contest rather than something rewarding or fruitful.

Now that the amount of media available is massive, we essentially are faced with an infinite amount of movies, books, and albums to consume. To constantly match what you have seen against what someone else has seen is fruitless. There needs to be a better way to create meaningful conversation out of comparing our individual experiences with media with other people. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to use movies as my primary example.

Dig Deeper

For starters, try to figure out why this person is telling you about this particular movie. Questions like “Why do you like this film?” “Why do you think I would like this film?” are good places to start. I also try to contextualize media in relation to the present moment. “Explain to me how this film is relevant?” is not necessarily an elegant question for conversation, but it is another angle you can use for digging deeper. The purpose of these questions is to open the dialogue to a broader spectrum of conversation that can result in a new idea or experience.

Example A:

A: Have you seen “Aeon Flux”?

B: No I haven’t! Why do you think I should see this film?

A: Well, it’s an almost direct translation from anime to live action…

Example B:

A: Have you seen “Baby Driver”?

B: No I haven’t! What’s it about?

B: It’s about a kid who drives cars for robbers, but stylized in a way that is centered around the music that constantly plays into his headphones, which he never takes off.

A: [thinks “how is this relevant?”] Huh, that’s interesting because of how relatable that experience is for a lot of people who listen to music a lot on their commutes or at work.

Both of these open the conversation to diverse subject matter, and escape the trap of going back and forth comparing our film-viewing history.

Conversation As a Dance

A lot of the time I only want to talk about coffee or books, but I am learning that being a conversational partner is as much contribution as it is listening. This is sort of a no-brainer for some people, but after working in customer service and meeting hundreds of people in the past couple of years, I sometimes fall into a conversational autopilot that is neither present nor awake. Conversation is assessing the other person’s interest and matching it. If someone doesn’t want to have a conversation, you don’t talk. If someone wants mild, pleasant small-talk, you can potentially reciprocate. But if you’re talking to someone and you touch upon something that they are genuinely interested in, it benefits both participants of the interaction.

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I know two excellent conversationalists who have told me the secret to good talks is finding out what the other person wants to talk about. I believe most of us are chewing on some kind of idea at any given moment, and it is really exciting and special to be given the opportunity to share what that thing is. I like talking to my friend Zac because he shares the same vocabulary for entrepreneurship that I do, so when I tell him what I’m thinking he can come back with feedback that matters to me. I like listening to my friend Elliott talk about music because it occupies such a large portion of his thinking space that he usually has a lot to say about a particular artist or genre. Zac likes listening to me, I like listening to Elliott, and it’s all because we get to share what interests us.

There is a silly stereotype that computers and phones make us more closed off and more awkward in person. I think that this is something people like to say to mask their fear of technological change. People have the potential to be quality conversationalists, and to be able to bring meaningful dialogue to the table while avoiding problems like the “Have you seen…?” trap. It boils down to listening and providing the opportunity for new ideas to enter the space between you and the person across from you.

My Approach Towards Time Management

I had a teacher in high school that I absolutely loathed. Mr. X had a very hands-off approach to teaching, and asked us to read our textbooks and come to class the next day test-ready. “This is how it’s going to be like in college,” he told his students. “It’s all about TIME MANAGEMENT.” Whenever he said the words “TIME MANAGEMENT” he would pound his desk with both hands in a way that really got my goat.

What bothered me the most is that he was right. So much of my personal successes depended on my ability to responsibly manage my time. If you ask any of my friends, I have a fiendish obsession with punctuality (something you may have read about before). What’s interesting about time is that it is a finite resource and for each person there is a limit to the amount of work they can get done in a day. I’m interested in optimizing my productivity in a sustainable way, which means getting as much done as possible without feeling terrible.

I base my approach around the Benjamin Franklin work schedule, which I have pictured below. The basic concept is to wake up, assess “what good” I can do today, and to stop at a set time in order to enjoy myself, and to reflect on my achievements in the evening.

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From The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.

In adapting this structure in my own life, I’ve noticed that there are two key aspects of this mode of thinking that are particularly useful: assessment and enjoyment.

Assessment
If you wake up in the morning and make a reasonable goal for what to do that day, you already have a head start on getting things done. As opposed to approaching the day without a plan, you now have a frame of reference for where you should be directing your energy. Furthermore, by ending the day with reflection, you can see what worked and what didn’t, which informs how to do the next day better than the last. This creates a loop of continuous fine-tuning and adjustments that will help you get close to being your most effective self.

For example, let’s say I wake up and decide I’m going to do three hours of code before I go to my day job. After one hour, I feel horrible, and the next two hours of study are fruitless because none of the information sticks. At the end of the day, I really only got one hour of work done and I am also unhappy. The next day, if I say I will only do an hour and a half of work but with ten minute breaks and diverse subject matter, I will get more done and feel better by the end of the day.

Enjoyment
For me and my workaholic friends, self-care and non-productive play is a foreign concept. We are often alarmed at how good it feels to just hang out and do nothing, especially when our values are centered around how much value we can produce in a day. The Benjamin Franklin work schedule highlights the need for “diversions”, or things that are just nice to do and not necessarily “work.” My rule is that any work I do after 5pm is extra credit. I don’t have to work after 5pm, and if I do it shouldn’t feel like a pain in the ass. This means I can watch movies, listening to music, and hang out guilt-free because I have designated hours for work that are separate from my hours for fun.

Currently, I wake up early to code in the morning, I do my coffee job in the afternoon, and I do whatever my heart desires in the evening. This creates a loop of productivity and enjoyment that I can keep doing instead of burning out and losing my mind (which still happens, but less frequently).

Mr. X, to my ire, was right. It’s all about (pounds desk) TIME MANAGEMENT. And funnily enough, for me it revolves around making sure that I have enough wiggle room to do things that aren’t scheduled. I once read that Gertrude Stein often abandoned her commitments to go on long walks and attend operas. It’s interesting to me that seemingly unproductive time can actually be productive if I allow my mind to wander and play, instead of relentlessly pushing its limits. There is a time and place for everything, and I guess that’s where the science lies.

Finding Haikus In Song Lyrics With JavaScript

When I tell people that I’m learning how to code, almost everyone asks me what I want to make. I like the idea of procedurally generated art, or computer programs that make things that are interesting to read or look at. One of my first projects was making a program that crawled through popular songs and pulled out lines that matched the structure of a haiku.

A haiku is a form of poetry that follows a very strict structure. The poem is always three lines, and each line has a set number of syllables (five in the first line, seven in the second, five in the third). You may have written these in grammar school at some point. They usually look like this:

I am a haiku
I am a perfect haiku
Thanks for listening

Step One: Finding The Lyrics

I wanted to make a program that found song lyrics that happened to match this structure. The next step was understanding how to use an Application Programming Interface, or API. APIs are basically endpoints that allow us to access information from websites. I like to think of them like electrical outlets: we don’t really need to know how electricity is created or moves in order to plug in a toaster. APIs provide a place for us to plug in the “appliances” we make and to use the “electricity” (information) we receive from them.

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To make this project work, I used the Genius API. Genius is a website that specializes in song lyrics and annotation. By using the Genius API, I could use JavaScript to access all the song data that was already available. However, here’s the catch: The Genius API gave me all the information I needed about particular songs, BUT it didn’t give me the text of the lyrics themselves. How frustrating!

Fortunately, many other people encountered this problem before. After some Googling, I found that the best way to get lyrics-text from Genius was to use a web-scraper, or a program that “scrapes” a webpage for relevant information. This took a little bit of trial-and-error, but I ended up with something that flowed like this: my program got the URL of the song-lyrics-page from the Genius API, and then put that URL into a web-scraper that pulled the lyrics out for me so I could use them for my haikus. Phew!

Step Two: Finding The Haikus In Song Lyrics

Now I had a chunk of lyrics-text. Next, I had to count the syllables of each word in the song so that I could find lines that matched the structure of a haiku. Let’s use this arbitrary example to illustrate the concept. Here are some of the lyrics to Taylor Swift’s recent song “…Ready For It?”

In the middle of the night, in my dreams
You should see the things we do, baby
In the middle of the night in my dreams
I know I’m gonna be with you
So I take my time
Are you ready for it?
Ooh, are you ready for it?
Baby, let the games begin
Let the games begin
Let the games begin
Baby, let the games begin
Let the games begin
Let the games begin
[from “…Ready For It?” by Taylor Swift]

 

To count syllables, I used a pre-existing program called “syllable” that tells me how many syllables are in a given selection of text. I incorporated this program using NPM, which you can google and read about elsewhere if you are so inclined. My rules were: IF you find a line with five syllables AND the next line has seven syllables AND the line after that has five syllables, give me those three lines. And that, lovely humans, is programming in a nutshell. Here’s a fun little look at what this particular chunk of the program looks like:

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Formatting the code for WordPress was a pain in the ass so here’s an annoying photo of text.

Step Three: Finding Songs With Haikus In Them Using Billboard

Under the terms I defined, it is startlingly difficult to find haikus in song lyrics. For simplicity’s sake, I separate each song into lines and find the syllable count of each line (as opposed to finding 17 syllable units and disregarding lines). Using this method, I did not find a lot of haikus. If I wanted to find haikus in song lyrics, I needed to run this program through a large assortment of songs. What better place to get a list of songs than from Billboard’s Top 100 list?

Fortunately, there was another pre-existing program on NPM called “billboard-top-100” which returns (or “gives me”) a full list of the most popular songs that week, as determined by Billboard, a popular song-ranking publication. Using this program, I generate the list and search each song in the Top 100 for haikus. The flow of my program now looks like this:

Billboard => Genius API => Web Scraper => Haiku Finder

Since running this program, I typically find 3 haikus per 100 songs, which isn’t a great number but makes it that much more satisfying when I come across a good one. I ran the program just now and this is what it spat out:

Screenshot 2017-09-25 at 12.28.50 PM

Notice our example from above made it into the list! Definitely not T-Swift’s most poetic work, but damn she really has a grip on structure.

As you may have noticed, programming sometimes feels like building a Rube Goldberg machine. You are connecting endpoints of things that traditionally aren’t made to fit together, but you are writing code anyway to glue one kind of functionality to another. It’s tedious work to do and learn, but it looks like it can be progressively more fun as you get the handle on the basics.

The Guardian just released an article that argues that pursuing a career in code is not as lucrative as one might imagine, considering how many people are scrambling to get into the industry (link).  I think code is a good thing to learn regardless, but I am now discouraged as a daytime barista looking to jump into a higher pay grade. It is also likely that the need for coders will diminish as programs soon end up writing themselves (this is also already happening).

I like learning, but I’m keeping an eye out for jobs and opportunities that will put me in a better position 5-10 years from now. Code is fun, but perhaps it isn’t as great of an investment as I initially thought. I’m going to keep at it while exploring my other options, and it may help me with short-term gains at least before I catch the wave of an another emerging industry.

Big O Notation & The Programs I’d Like To Write

[Currently Reading: “Cracking the Coding Interview” by Gayle L. McDowell. Chapters I-VII]

I’m not a “computer guy” just yet, so sometimes a lot of the technical terminology that surrounds code escapes me. I’m reading “Cracking the Coding Interview” per the suggestion of my close friends. They tell me that working through the problems in the book will help me a lot with what I’m trying to accomplish. The idea is to throw me into the swimming pool in order to teach me how to swim.

The book so far is a mix of interview strategy and crash courses in coding concepts. The one I’m currently working on is an essential concept called “Big O Notation.” Big O is a way to roughly estimate the time an algorithm will run (runtime). This is useful especially when the algorithm or program is handling a large amount of information, because Big O measures how quickly you will get through the data that is pushed into the algorithm.

The tricky part for me comes to calculating Big O times. There are a handful of rules and math concepts that you need to grasp in order to calculate how long an algorithm will run. It has been a while since I’ve seen anything that looks like math, so it takes a little extra effort to make that jump again. However, from looking at examples and working through exercises, I get the sense that it will be relatively simple to determine Big O notation eventually. It will probably take me O(N) to get through the brunt of it though (lol).

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This is a stock photo of a hardworking individual.

“Cracking The Coding Interview” also describes interview practices company-by-company. McDowell highlights the differences between a Facebook interview versus an Amazon interview and that kind of thing. What’s funny about these is how often McDowell mentions that companies are looking for someone who is enthusiastic about their product. I guess this is a no-brainer, but I can see how someone might forget to express how excited they are about, say, Microsoft, while in a technical coding interview. A lot of the time when I tell people that I’m learning computer programming, they ask me what I’d like to make. I don’t have a very good answer for that yet, because truthfully I just want to get out of customer service and retail as soon as possible.

The thing that excites me the most is the possibility of making computer-generated art (novels, poetry), which is cool but I am afraid that there is little-to-no money in this kind of thing. But I hope that I’m wrong, because it would be super interesting to develop programs that write television shows or articles that make sense and also hold a human audience. I also tell people that I’m interested in the cross-over between code and customer service. I know for a fact that an Amazon Echo device could have done 80% of my job as a bookseller, and I would be interested in developing services and products that do just that.

I know a lot of people are afraid of being put out of work by robots, and I believe this shift is inevitable. I don’t think the answer is telling technological progress to stop, but rather we should see what kinds of opportunities blossom once robots take a lot of the grunt-work away from us. Perhaps the massive shift away from human work will put pressure on our governments to provide Universal Basic Income for the population. Hopefully this kind of policy would allow us to spend our time on more meaningful pursuits.

My Favorite Wikipedia Pages

At a previous job, I spent a lot of time looking at Wikipedia pages to fill time. After a while, I realized that I returned to some pages over and over again. These pages were interesting because they elevated the medium of the Wikipedia page by becoming a piece that felt more like art than a reference page. I sat down with my friends and tried to hash out what exactly makes a Wikipedia page great, and we settled on the following criteria.

  1. The page must have good one liners. The page must be quotable for easy sharing and to leave you will a snippet that stays in your mind long after you’ve read the article.
  2. The page should have a compelling narrative. Stories are always good, and the page should draw you into one.
  3. The page should have interesting subsections. There is nothing better than scrolling down to the “Controversy” portion of someone’s Wikipedia page. My personal favorite is skipping directly to “Early Life” and “Early Career” since I want to see what successful people were doing at around my age.
  4. The page must excel at being a Wikipedia page. Interesting people and subjects are great, but I am interested in how these people fit into the format that Wikipedia has designed for us, from the table of contents to the footnotes.

That being said, here are some of my favorites.

Will Smith. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Will_Smith).
I think about Will Smith’s Wikipedia page a lot, mostly because of the “Religious Beliefs” subsection. Will Smith and his family seem to be very spiritual people (just look at the interview with Willow and Jaden Smith in which they delve into their own personal philosophies). In the “Religious Beliefs” section of the Wikipedia page, there is a whole paragraph dedicated to the fact that he has spoken favorably of Scientology (though is not a Scientologist). “”I just think a lot of the ideas in Scientology are brilliant and revolutionary and non-religious,” he says. I am a little confused how and why this made it onto Will Smith’s Wikipedia page, alongside all of his other accomplishments. I understand the controversy surrounding Scientology and by no means endorse it. I wonder why Will Smith’s opinion on the matter holds any weight in the debate, especially when this quote illustrates that the ideas in Scientology are, to him, non-religious. I guess I just think about Will Smith in many regards*, none of which include this offhand mention of Scientology.

Lord Byron. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lord_Byron).
I looked up Lord Byron after watching the movie “The Trip” with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. I was blown away. Lord Byron was the biggest fuckboy ever to tread planet Earth. His Wikipedia page is expansive and divided into wild chapters of his various escapades. Byron’s Wikipedia page was particularly useful to me because the information was tangentially work-related and I felt like I wouldn’t get in trouble for studying literary history. But also I was there for all of the insane fuckery that Lord Byron got himself into. This page requires multiple visits, and the subsections read well by themselves (“Fondness For Animals”, “Education and Early Loves”, “Political Career”). The fact that all of this is plotted out in an outlines and structured manner when Byron’s life seem to be the opposite of outlined and structured makes it a great read.

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Look at this fuck-o.

Minnesota Nice. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minnesota_nice).
I visited this page after watching the Coen Brother’s “Fargo” (1996). Regional cultural differences were relevant to me at the time. I was living in Portland where people seemed to be generally friendlier than other place I had visited. I think about this page a lot, especially when I move to new towns and try to get a sense of the cultural climate. Living in Seattle is refreshing after living in Portland, since people are more inclined to be just outright nasty. I sometimes think it is directly linked to population density, that the more tightly packed people are crammed into a given space, the more of an asshole they will typically be in everyday life.

Here are some honorable mentions for some Wikpedia pages that my friends and I like that also may tickle your interests.

Everyone has their favorite topic, so you can imagine that this list goes on for a while. When I asked my friends what their favorite pages were, everyone had an enthusiastic response. This thrills me, because it shows me that people are curious and excited about the things they find, especially in a kind of dry format. Information, when organized neatly, can be a sublime experience.


*Most often in the context of the movie “I, Robot”.

How “The Wire” Frames My Career Perspective

I watched “The Wire” recently and was completely hooked for two reasons. First, it is a well-written, well-performed, and extremely compelling television series. Secondly, it helped me gain some cognitive tools for how to optimize my life and career aspirations by helping me process my environment differently.

David Simon spent twelve years reporting on crime for the Baltimore Sun before losing his respect for journalism. Convinced that news had little effect on the population, he began to write books about crime and drug trade, along with the TV series “The Wire”. He said that the show  is “really about the American city, and about how we live together. It’s about how institutions have an effect on individuals. Whether one is a cop, a longshoreman, a drug dealer, a politician, a judge or a lawyer, all are ultimately compromised and must contend with whatever institution to which they are committed.”

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David Simon, creator of “The Wire”.

What makes “The Wire” so interesting is the well-researched insight into how and why people get involved in crime, or any other business in urban environments. It is heavily influenced by the design of a city or system, and how the people within it move to find their own path of least resistance. Sure, we all have an illusion of free-will, but sometimes immediate gains depend on the structure of what surrounds us.

This has helped my career  by practicing a “zoom out” every once in a while, where I evaluate my role in the larger system. I try to stay in touch with my skill set, and then see where I can place those skills easily in a system for maximum gain. For example, I recently switched my career from bookseller to barista and doubled the amount of money that I make per hour. By “zooming out”, I saw that my career as a bookseller had no future and no paths to something valuable or profitable in the short term, and sticking with the job would only prolong my financial woes. I quit immediately and picked up a coffee job in Seattle, and now I work in a industry that pays some of its employees more money that most booksellers.

It is so easy to lose scope. Our day to day lives encourage us to keep blinders on in order to focus on the tasks at hand. However, a regular practice of contemplating the infinite (whether it be in church, at yoga, or while meditating on the bus) allows us to realize that (1) we are are small units within much larger structures and (2) our problems are even smaller units within these structures.

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Broadening scope is like giving yourself a road map to optimize your value. Once you have this map, you start to see routes to a better career. You see which businesses, social circles, and institutions can bring you closer to your goals. As a barista, I get to meet a high volume of customers on a regular basis. I make more money and get more flexibility with my schedule. Living in Seattle, I get to meet with my friends who are software developers more often. I have maximized my social capital, I have a job that suits my needs, and I have much more opportunities to develop my programming skills.

Watching “The Wire” is like watching all of the cogs and gears of a clock turn. Applying this framework to my surroundings is endlessly fascinating, and also gives me reason to learn more about the architecture of my environment. I am now watching a lot of “current economics” videos on Khan Academy because I have a newly developed interest in how my cities spin, and hopefully it will allow me to create my own effective sub-system within it.