Details and the Devil

Details are exhausting. What percentage of people who accept terms and conditions read them? How much attention do you pay to the oil with which you cook your food? What about the material of the frying pan? (hint: Teflon prior to 2013, not looking so good for the health) Maybe you pay attention to these things when cook at home, but what about when you go out to eat? Given that oils and pan materials vary greatly in health related studies, it would seem important – but how many details can we worry about?

I was thinking about this while studying the German language. In German, the cases are specific. The articles change depending on their role in the sentence. This allows you to say something like “Den Apfel hat das Madchen” which to an untrained eye looks like “The apple has the girl”, but the sentence actually says, “The girl has the apple.” One letter changes the entire sentence. Den Apfel versus Der Apfel and who owns who is completely changed.

This led me to thinking about the expression, “the devil is in the details”. It is a common expression. One that I use or hear when something goes wrong, or when someone does something “careless”. One is reminded that we should pay more attention. That the details matter. But to what extent or end? This can be exhausting. I am not a lawyer – so even if I read the terms and conditions, would I understand them? Should I understand all the details behind this website? Every line of code? What about the binary sequences that make it up? Its details all the way down.

This got me curious, where did this devil in the details phrase come from, and why inflict it on the population? Everyone can’t be expected to know everything. So I looked it up and to my surprise, it appears that it derives from an earlier phrase, “God is in the details”. What a different notion. In the details await opportunity. By looking closer, by learning a bit more you might unravel mysteries.

I find this thought invigorating. The terms and conditions are now not a legal trap waiting to catch me, they are an opportunity to learn. If you take a few extra minutes to learn about health studies about oil and cooking, you might improve your health and share with your family and improve their health. God is in the details. Delightful.

On Feedback

“When feedback is immediate, clear, and concrete, people learn quickly.When feedback is delayed, abstract, and opaque, people rarely learn.” James Clear

I have recently started trading on RobinHood. It is fun – which might be a problem. But the fun part of trading is that you get direct feedback. Decisions are rewarded or punished. It is the same reason I love the chess.com puzzle feature. You are immediately rewarded or punished. Feedback is instant.

For so much of life, feedback is not immediate. Goals are distant or unquantified. Success is not something measurable in data. How do you measure happiness? This is both wonderful and tiring. We should not seek to measure everything, but if you want to grow – feedback is required.

Only Up

I have never seen a stock that only went up. I have never seen a tide that only rises. I have never seen someone only breathe in.

Often our minds are set on growth, and we do not stop to think about decay. For us to advance, part of us must die.

A gardener is aware of the seasons. There is a time and a place to sow, and a time to harvest. A fresh tomato is only fresh for a moment. 

Learning new things means unlearning old things. Progress is not only up.

Unforgiven

I watched the movie “Unforgiven” last night. I had no preconceptions other than a recommendation from a friend that it was “great”. Unforgiven is a Clint Eastwood Western made in the 1990s. I found the movie enjoyably jarring. It was peaceful and chaotic. The cinematography was beautiful and distant.

The movie starts violently, and ends rather violently. But the violence is not natural. No one thinks the violence is normal or warranted. All of the characters seem to inhabit a violent world, and are forced to violence, but against their will. 

Thinking about the movie after I watched it, I was struck by how on the nose the point of the movie was, and how I had missed it while I was watching the movie. There are no good guys. Everyone is tainted. 

In one scene, Clint Eastwood is waiting for payment with a young kid who has just killed for the first time. The kid is confessing and drinking whiskey. Clint Eastwood is squinting towards the horizon. The kid says, “well I guess they had it coming” – to which Clint responds, “we all have it coming, kid”. That is the essence of the movie. We all have it coming.

In our own “cancel culture” of 2020, this struck me as apropos. In Unforgiven, no one is innocent. Everyone is a combination of good and bad. If you look for the good, you’ll find some. If you look for the bad, you’ll find some. In our own culture, it feels like we are in a righteous pursuit of saints only. Who wouldn’t love a nation of saints? Perhaps we get there, perhaps we end up revealing a nation of hypocrites. 

Hell Week – Round #1

One week a quarter, I will be conducting my own personal Hell Week. This is my first round.

Why would I do this? Despite my best intentions, I regress to comfort. I watch TV instead of working on a book. I run a mile less because I am not feeling it. I hit snooze because my first meeting is not until later.

Some argue that the main obstacle to our growth is our desire to stay inside our comfort zone. The goal of Hell Week is to shatter the comfort zone.

Rules for round 1 of Hell Week:

  • Hell Week will go from August 1st at 5:30am to August 8th at 5:30am
  • Must wake up (and not return to bed) by 5:30am
  • Must complete throughout the course of the day – 500 pushup, 500 squats, and 500 ab moves*
  • Must run 35 miles over the course of the week
  • Follow a 16:8 Intermittent Fast until the 36 hour fast
  • 36 hour fast starting Wednesday August 5th until the 7th
  • Must complete 5,000+ word article
  • No TV
  • No Instagram
  • No Twitter from 5:30am to 12pm
  • Cold shower every day
  • Meditate 20 minutes everyday
  • One 45 minute Meditation

I will track my fasts with the app zero. I will use the Waking Up App to track meditations. I will use Nike+ Running app to track runs.

The goal is to reach a point where I do not want to continue, and to push through that point. To realize that there was a reason I created the challenge in the first place and to trim a little fat off my soul.

Bonsai as Anchors

A bonsai is simply a tree in a pot. Of course, we all conjure up something more in our mind when we think of a bonsai. Mr. Miyagi carefully pruning. Or a 100 year old tree in some exhibit perhaps. Bonsais feel…unattainable. But, at their core – bonsais are simply a tree in a pot.

Over the course of this pandemic, I have reintroduced myself to the world of bonsai. A world that has always had outsized appeal in my heart. One of my first additions to my apartment when I got a place of my own was a bonsai. And then another. I ended up with 7. One was a beautiful redwood forest that was about 15 years old. They all died the first summer I had them. I had a 12 day trip and the water system I attempted was no match for the southern heat.

I have not let myself get back into bonsai over the past decade. The amount of travel and general chaos in my life did not allow for the level of care a bonsai deserves. And then the pandemic came. We started working around the house more and I noticed all sorts of small trees growing in our yard. I started to dig them up and put them in pots.

I have a maple that is holding on. An oak that is doing much better than I could have imagined. And then I went to Lowes. I bought a boxwood and a barberry. And then we visited a Japanese maple nursery and I bought a 3 foot Peve Stanley Japanese maple. My love has been rekindled.

On the whole, bonsai, as an art, is still well beyond me. I have watched many hours of bonsai videos and read many articles. (I highly recommend Bonsai Mirai) Each type of tree has its own wants and needs. Every location has its own challenges.

But for me, right now, bonsais are trees in pots. I water them everyday. I spend time with them. And for me, they serve as an anchor.

While everything around us is changing so much, my trees only change a little. A new leaf here or there. The boxwood took off faster than I expected after I repotted it. But on the whole – they feel manageable. They feel like life at a pace that is understandable – enjoyable. And then I log on to Twitter.

Love, Hate and Chess.com

My relationship with the Chess.com puzzle feature is borderline masochistic. The premise is simple – you are presented with a chess game that has progressed to a certain point and it is up to you to make the next move. 

There is one correct move you can make. If you make that move, you may be prompted to make another move – of which there is only one correct move. Sometimes the puzzle can involve up to 4 or even 5 moves, I believe. If any one of those moves is not perfect, you lose points off your ranking.

I have completed over 2,400+ chess puzzles. I occasionally go through periods where I pay extra and can do 25 puzzles a day – but usually I am limited to the 5 free puzzles a day. I also go for months without any puzzles, but I always return.

My ranking is a miserable 713 currently. Here is my all time chart:


My ranking never really gets any better. And that is the point of this post. The source of the masochism. I desire to actually improve, rather than just play for fun.

My current plan is to keep a journal of mistakes and revisit them. Chess.com also now has a learning feature. I will work on those puzzles with the same focus. I will also document my thoughts upon looking at a difficult board and reflect on if there is a better chain of thoughts through which I can analyze the board.

My goal is to break 900 by August 31st.

This experiment has more to do with growth in learning than chess specifically. Chess is an arena that gives immediate feedback so it will be my current training ground. I am hoping the lessons learned in improving my chess puzzle score can be applied to any area I wish to improve.

How hard did you go?

At the end of a Nike+ training workout you are asked, “how hard was that for you?” Another way of asking the question might be – how much effort did you put in?

I was doing exercises measured in duration – so if I wanted to go harder, I simply needed to go faster. This is one of the ideas behind Crossfit. The exercise could be as simple as 300 pushups – not difficult for world’s most elite athletes. But competing against each other as fast as you can – it becomes more difficult.

So “how hard was that for you”? You get to slide a bar between 1-10. When I slide this bar, I often want to stop on 7. And then I hear the voice of our first realtor. When we would go visit homes, she would say “rate the house on a scale of 1-10 but you can’t use 7”. 

So I push the bar up to 8. And then I think – why is this not at a 10? Why am I not giving my max effort? 

The answer is ego. The answer to many problems is usually ego. We seek self-preservation over growth. We want to think, “that was easy and I could have gone way harder”. Even though we were just making strange noises a few seconds ago. 

I don’t think that putting 7 or 8 is wrong – I just wonder if it is right? What would happen if you had to slide a scale at the beginning of the workout that asked, how much effort are you about to put in? Would we say 8? Should we seek 10?

The “30 Day Challenge”

Photo by Tomáš Malík from Pexels

“I meditated 1 hour every day for 30 days”, there are tons of these click-bait headlines out there. Why do they work? Matt D’Avella has built a subscriber base of 2.8 million followers on this formula. I am one of the followers – but why?

The question must be broken into two parts – why do people attempt 30 day challenges and why do people love to watch other people do them?

Making a change in one’s life is hard. There are some great books out there devoted to this – my personal favorite is Atomic Habits by James Clear. But the concepts are all the same. We often know the things that we should be doing. Procrastinate less, eat better, wake up earlier, stop binging tv and start working on a side project – but we struggle to act on them.

The reason is straight forward – change is hard. Make change can feel like trying to move a boulder. The 30 day challenge provides a pile of rocks. It’s manageable. And it works. But perhaps not the way it would seem.

Most people don’t make it through the 30 day challenge. Therefore, they think 30 day challenges don’t work. I argue that the challenge succeeds if you fail because it reveals to you what you need to fix. Examine the issues that prevented you from achieving the goal and restart. That is the only way things get done. The ability to fail and fix is the foundation of progress.

The other side of the equation is our love of watching people do things. “Improvement porn”. Some part of the brain gets triggered to release the same chemicals as if we accomplished the thing ourself – without the effort. 
I think watching people strive is beneficial – but only as much as it prompts you to action. If you notice yourself watching many of these videos without making progress – it’s time for a change.

If you are looking for some ideas on 30 day challenges, here’s a great article that features many.

Personally, I am going to try to sell 30 things this month.

Face Masks and Communication

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels

How are masks changing communication? 

Some studies estimate as much as 93% of communication is nonverbal. I think the number is much lower – but we do send many communication signals nonverbally. The most information dense area of nonverbal communication is people’s facial expressions. Because of COVID-19, all of a sudden, everyone has half of their face covered. We have unwittingly entered into an unmeasured experiment.

For a more in depth dive on this I like Markham Heid’s piece over on Elemental, “Face masks hide what words can’t say”.

The other day I experienced this first hand. A routine interaction in my office building escalated to a lecture from a stranger on proper behavior – something I have never experienced. (We were both wearing face masks. The lesson was on…rudeness? Not sure.)

This was a completely foreign situation for me and I blame the mask. Perhaps our face says more than we know. 

Have you had any strange communication experiences with masks?