Learn to delegate by hiring a Virtual Assistant

What kept me from pursuing a Team Lead role in the past was my tendency to micromanage. I like things done in a particular way, and I used to get annoyed where they weren’t.

Naturally, what got you here won’t get you there. Your expertise, ease of problem-solving, and familiarity with the domain field (say a codebase) become obstacles to delegation. You’re thinking to yourself

I can solve this in a pinch and they’re messing with it for a week“.

That was my main reason to doubt if I can be a capable Team Lead. I decided to test this self-narrative and maybe improve. I hired a Virtual Assistant that would charge me money. I’d lose this money if I didn’t delegate.

Sure enough, in the beginning, I questioned that decision. It was more work to explain to my VA how I want stuff done than doing it myself. Quite often, she would do something different than I’d like. Other times – It would be too slow.

It made me work on my communication, expectations, and, most importantly – the inner game of delegation. I learned to let go and trust her, and I’m delighted now.

I still have a lot to learn about being a great Team Lead, but without these lessons, it would be even more traumatic for my team.

More about hiring a Virtual Assistant

How much does it cost?

I pay ~$15/hour, $200 monthly minimum, but that’s in Poland. I have a contract with a small VA “shop.” I have 1 point of contact, but there are other people managing my affairs.

Why?

Being a better TL was not the only reason I wanted to hire a VA. Because of my specific family situation, I have to manage particular affairs of my grandparents and my mom, which was intruding on my work time. I also value time more than I value money, and buying back some of it seemed like a good way to live a happier life.

There are certain things I hate doing and tend to put off. It’s awesome to be able to delegate that.

What sorts of tasks do you delegate?

Dealing with calling businesses, quarterly checklists of all the utilities for me and my broader family, research of the baby gear (try to hunt used ones where possible), scheduling doctors & home repairs, getting Turkish Airlines to refund me tickets, sort stock photos I bought for the blog, manage online shopping returns, repair my mom’s printer, finding me a local donate-to-a-park scheme, sort my dog’s bark sounds for the ML model, etc.

Highly recommended.

How do you find a great Virtual Assistant?

I took Ramit Sethi’s course “Delegate and Done” about hiring a VA, and not everybody is prepared to go to such lengths (Do you see now why I may have micro managerial issues? 😀 ).

  • I prepared a Google doc with a couple of questions and typical tasks, and I asked candidates to describe how they’d tackle them
  • I Googled VA’s, went on Facebook groups to find VA groups
  • I’ve read what they wrote, sent the doc to ones that sounded good
  • Set up a Zoom call, to see how we chat in person
  • Signed a contract

Organic Governmental Disruption

I rarely meet a person happy about their government. Complaining about legislation seems like a universal bonding experience comparable to football. What if we could improve this situation?

Voluntary Governments makes a case for utilizing blockchain and DAOs to run governments. The main benefit would be a fast pace of iteration, the ability to test different policies quickly, and the dream of curbing the identity politics cesspool. This essay is a review of that post in which I make a case for allowing the government to be disrupted instead of actively working to replace it.

In the original piece, the author argues that if only we were able to A/B test fast enough, we would be able to run our cities and countries with the efficiency of startups.

Why can’t nation states be disrupted or rapidly improved? Because the mechanisms in place don’t allow sufficient A/B testing

The author points out, that the current American 2-party system allows for change, but not improvement. It’s running in circles, and you are only allowed a “narrative flip” every 4 years.

Test option A. Don’t like it? Test option B. Don’t like it? Back to A, and hope it got better since the last time we tried it.

So what’s the alternative then?

Imagine the first digital political party. Supporters contribute money on the Ethereum blockchain, and as long as their donation is more than ten dollars, they receive a voting token. If you join any other parties, you lose your token. Voting controls all decisions of the political party, and the money supports those decisions. Majority vote controls presidential candidate and VP. Majority vote hires campaign manager and sets salary. Majority vote decides campaign trail. Majority vote chooses best logo design. Think that’s the worst way to set up a political party? Okay, you should build one too. Write your own rules into your party’s code. Let’s see who gets elected.

What I love about this proposal is that’s not designed to be disruptive. It’s using the existing system (introducing a new party) with its own rules. That party can, of course, codify those rules into the new default system, if they have enough support, but that’s not required for the plan to work.

The proposed solution is essentially bootstrapping Direct Democracy onto a Representative Democracy system.

But I think the future of governance is different than just more of the past. Once things are digital, we are dealing with exponentials.

The 6 Ds of exponentials

Peter Diamandis, in the book “Bold” has outlined the six forces underlying exponential growth of organizations, technologies, and products:

  • Processes get digitized,
  • Initial small growth is deceptive, so the entire thing is dismissed,
  • Monetary barriers get demonetized, allowing zero marginal cost economy,
  • Physical processes get dematerialized
  • The market forces start being disruptive to the status quo,
  • Once everything is digitized, demonetized and dematerialized, then all the barriers are removed, and things are truly democratized

DAOs and cryptocurrencies are digitizing, dematerializing, and demonetizing both governance, and finance. If we are to believe Peter and follow the exponential framework, disruption and democratization is the only logical outcome.

Demonetizing finance sounds like a contradiction, but keep in mind that transferring money, banking, and transactions have their own cost. Removing even that small friction can lead to a zero-marginal-cost revolution in finance.

Are we trying to disrupt the government?

The word Disruption has recently become a running joke in tech circles and for good reason. True disruption happens when the market spontaneously shifts into a reality where the old rules don’t apply anymore.

But this is not a planned process, despite what pitch decks claim. The disruption does not come from “I don’t like these rules so let’s throw them out and put something else”. Disruption is an organic, bottom-up process. Everything just changes, because few trends work in tandem and create a self-reinforcing societal shift.

Wilting of the nation states

Just like the author of “Voluntary Governments”, I am convinced that governments will be disrupted, but the end result won’t be something we can easily predict. I’ll try though – this is only one of possible directions:

  1. Blockchain, DAOs, and cryptocurrencies will be used in pieces of the current paper procedures. Let’s say a country starts keeping real estate deeds on the blockchain.
  2. Parts of administration will slowly start using smart contracts, reducing the ambiguity of “wet code” (aka people interpreting the law, like judges, officials, inspectors, etc),
  3. Due to increased transparency and visibility into administration, whole new business models will be enabled at the fringes of governments’ responsibilities,
  4. Those businesses will take more and more of “governments job”, reducing our reliance on the actual government
  5. What’s left for the government to do? I don’t know. We’ll see the first experiments in the Startup Cities

I don’t really want to disrupt the Government

Author admits, that the slow innovation of government can be a feature:

Some might argue that the amount of time it takes to evolve the government is a feature, not a bug. I would even agree with that, to a certain extent. The Lindy Effect is on the government’s side here, and ensuring that changes take months or years means that we only make changes that are safe

There are multiple reasons to be conservative with your government:

  1. Governance has a disproportionate power to create unwanted results (think war), so introducing untested technologies, approaches, and structures is very risky.
  2. Economy and governance are second-order chaotic systems: They react to predictions about possible reactions, in a self-reinforcing loop. Live experiments on such a system can have unintended consequences. Testing it beforehand is virtually impossible since possible side effects turn up many years down the road.
  3. Government is also the ultimate safety valve for everything else. We can grumble about bank bailouts, but to a certain extent, we all pick up the tab so that a policy failure does not spin out of control. If we start experimenting with our backup plan, what if it goes wrong?

I cannot let you do that: A case for expiry date

Evolution is an unmatched iterator. It created literally a whole world (maybe a universe, we don’t know) of highly-adapted species, perfectly matched to their ecological niches. It also created its own safety valve: Apoptosis. Cells are programmed with a “death protocol” to stop runaway mutations.

I would argue that any autonomous governance system should have a built-in “sunset”, ideally in form of expiry date. Isaac Asimov, Stanley Kubrick, and countless other Sci-Fi authors ran mental experiments and reported that even the smartest well-intentioned sets of rules can (and will) go wrong, given sufficient time.

There is nothing I fear more than Runaway Autonomous Bureuocracy, so I’m careful about DAOs.

Medieval Iceland had an expiry system for the law: Lawspeakers. Every 3 years, where the general assembly gathered, Lawspeaker has recited the entire law from memory. If he forgot about an obscure rule – it clearly wasn’t important enough to pass by default. Relying on memory may not be the best way to introduce stability, but I really love this version of legal auto-destruction.

We now have a technology to bake the expiry date into smart contracts. This would introduce long-term uncertainty about future rules, but it would prevent runaway perversion. The expiry date may not be enough though. The second cause of mortality in the USA is cancer – a failure of the Apoptosis check & balance system. We may need a human oversight after all, precisely because it cannot be coded.

The best outcome may be a weaker government

I don’t believe the biggest value of blockchain-powered governance is running a trustless system. I think the core value is making interactions between policy and outcome explicit. If you remove the meat code from between policy and implementation, then you have more clarity about interventions and their outcomes. You can remove the interfering variables from the equations and run real experiments.

Then maybe governance CAN be just first-order chaos. I don’t think we need blockchain to deal with the top-level organization of the government. I think it’s much more valuable in the messy middle, protecting good intentions from turning perverse.

I think we can trust people to try to do a good thing. If only we knew what exactly that is.

What would you do if you had 5 months off?

Editorial note

I will be phasing out the deliber .at domain from this newsletter, and the blog. Everything will be transitioning to piszek .com, and here is why:

Automatic (the company I work for and have written about) has a very generous parental leave policy. Within the first year of your child’s birth, you can take up to six months of paid leave. That’s what I’m doing since last Monday, and I am exhausted.

This is not a vacation of course. Babies tend to have their own ideas about what to do with your time and my chief concern will be keeping my newborn safe and somewhat entertained. But I cannot help but treat this as kind of a sabbatical. I hope to strengthen the bond between my child and me, but I hope to do other stuff, too.

The case for sabbaticals

When I was studying in Sweden, I learned that it’s quite common to take a gap year between high school and university. I did the opposite – took on the second master’s degree, to get ahead. And it probably did. In the game, I shouldn’t even be playing.

I started contract work when I was 15, and I haven’t had a break longer than 3 weeks since. During that time I got a total of 3 different degrees, and the constant feeling in the back of my head that I have to hurry because the cargo train of obligations is going to catch up with me.

My Friend Paul Millerd has done a fantastic deep-dive exploration of Sabbaticals and their benefits. He concludes that they are essential for knowledge workers to be productive, but more importantly – for humans to live a sane life:

Taking a break is scary but from what I’ve seen it’s probably one of the simplest ways to grapple with one of people’s biggest fears: that they didn’t live a life that they were capable of. Taking a break is a way to take a different perspective of your life, remember the things that mattered to you, and sometimes simply rest and be with the ones that matter to you.

So what are your plans Artur?

  1. Take care of the Baby, of course. I am aspiring to be a lazy parent, and I hope to just go about my own life, with her by my side.
  2. One of the hopes for my newly acquired time is to change my relationship with well, time. I promised my baby not to rush her, but first I need to learn how unrushed time looks like. I know the crying baby is not a perfect catalyst, but we’ll see.
  3. We bought an RV and I hope we’ll roam around Europe soon! Early plans point to Southern Tyrol, Switzerland, and Northern Italy, but that depends on COVID, of course.
  4. Focus on my fitness, particularly nutrition.
  5. Finally, writing. In case you missed it, I was running 2 blogs: deliber.at (pronounced “deliberate”), where I would post about Remote Work and “living the deliberate life”, and piszek.com where I would just explore what strikes my fancy. After COVID, I don’t have to tell anybody about the existence of Remote Work anymore and I struggled to find the new “glorious purpose” for deliber.at.
    As Paul points out in “Case for Sabbaticals”, writing is a common theme amongst the curious folk on leave. That makes total sense – writing helps you think and explore ideas. I am purposefully unbinding myself from the previous shape of this blog and newsletter, and I’m taking you on that journey.
  6. As part of writing, I want to explore my relationship with intellectualism. I am deeply disappointed by the crowds of educated theoreticians’ performance in real-world problems. COVID response has made it abundantly clear that nobody knows anything. I became so tired of “Sitting And Talking About Important World Affairs“™️ that it has interfered with my writing. I still value intellectual curiosity very highly, but mainstream intellectualism has turned into a virtue-signaling circus.
  7. What would you do if you wouldn’t have to work for the next 5 months?

This is the 50th issue of my newsletter, so it’s as good as time as any to change the format into a little more free-flowing. In order to simplify and leave me more space to explore, I’m going to move all my web properties under piszek .com.

Interesting things from around the web

Do you know any good podcasts not about tech?

I am on the prowl for whacky stuff from outside my bubble. I started with “Overheard” by National Geographic. So far, I’ve learned all about the Beavers are moving into the Arctic as the permafrost is thawing, how a group of villagers in Kenya has built a “GiRaft” to safely transport a giraffe off an island, and listened to crazy stories of underwater photographers hanging out with Orcas. I am definitely going to stick with this show. I’m also trying out “Utopian” about failing utopias and Revisionist History

Contemporary Art

My wife has a fantastic thread with contemporary Polish artists, including my favourite Tytus Brzozowski.

Bootstrapping society

1729.com is an interesting project aimed at bootstrapping society of technological progressives with incentivized tasks. I’ve gotten $10 in BTC for working out and writing up my thoughts about habit-forming, and you can win $10 and $100 every week. My favorite task was generating crazy inventions.

Three principles of creating an antifragile plan

Any ambitious endeavor needs a good plan, but they are often either hard to create, hard to get right or damn impossible to execute. Things are changing at warp speed, derailing even the most bulletproof of roadmaps.

Faced with this uncertainty, people tend to :

  • Create an elaborate plan, with multiple steps that need to be executed perfectly in order to succeed. Risk can be minimized by more research, so let’s do more of that.
  • YOLO everything. Since I cannot be certain, why come up with any long-term plan?

The latter also tends to be a frustrated reaction to the futility of the former. Any complex plan requires multiple predictions to be correct. But if the success of the entire endeavor hinges on all of them being right, then it’s only a matter of time until it all fails. We’re all doomed. Might as well YOLO it.

Instead of throwing a tantrum, we can recognize that Elaborate Plan <-> YOLO is a false dichotomy. What you really want, is an antifragile plan. How do you create that?

Three principles of creating an antifragile plan:

  1. Feel the Base: What are the immovable requirements of your plan? What are the things you are dead certain about?
  2. Create Alignment: Things are sometimes uncertain, but the broad direction of where they are going is sometimes clear.
    Ensure your decisions will be compatible or better yet – benefit from those trends.
  3. Conserve Optionality. Make sure it’s easy to change implementation details later. Go with simple solutions if you can.

By conserving optionality, you ensure, that the cost of changing a decision you take now is minimal. By creating alignment, you maximize the likelihood of them being correct in the first place. And by feeling the base you make sure that none of them are flat-out wrong.

Go make some decisions, and new antifragile plans. You can always change them.

Deliberate Internet

Let’s send people to Jail, because THE ALGORYTHM can’t be wrong

As you might have figured out by this point, I am quite optimistic about technology. I think it’s a very long lever, that can help lift us up from some of the problems we currently have.

Unfortunately, the virus that is the bureaucracy has learned to use this lever, too. It’s a perfect weapon – Kafkaesque systems of the past have hidden individual enforcers behind a facade of an organization. But now, you can hide behind the almighty algorithm! Not only can you pretend that the mindless drone had to make a certain decision, because of processes – now you can pretend there was no human involved at all!

That’s exactly what happened at the British Post Office: Bad Software Sent Postal Workers to Jail, Because No One Wanted to Admit It Could Be Wrong. The most sickening part of the whole ordeal is that it was a convenient excuse!

There is evidence that the Post Office’s legal department was aware that the software could produce inaccurate results, even before some of the convictions were made. According to the BBC, one of the representatives for the Post Office workers said that the post office “readily accepted the loss of life, liberty and sanity for many ordinary people” in its “pursuit of reputation and profit.”

Why can’t we make up our own titles?

Tiago Forte asks:

Is there any reason we can’t just make up letters and put them after our names? In recognition of our own victories and accomplishments. Why should old educational institutions have that exclusive right?

I have to admit, I have trouble coming with a title other than an Engineer (which I formally am not. I work as an engineer, but have only masters’ degrees).

Do you have a title you would like to award yourself? What’s stopping you? Let me know!

Travelling Salesman, Youtube Algorithm and Basecamp Drama

There will be openings at Basecamp

Basecamp is a quite outspoken remote company. So outspoken in fact, that they have published a book called Remote: Office not required. Their main business however is productivity and email software.

Basecamp founders have quite a personality. In past they have been highly critical about a variety of practices in typical tech companies: Venture Capital, and long working hours.

This week, they distanced themselves from the typical tech company a little bit further: They announced a few changes – particularly banning committees, politics at work, 360 reviews and taking away a few benefits.

  • On one hand, they have every right to do so. Tech companies have been inviting employees to bring their “whole selves” to work, with their opinions, needs that company can cater to (Google is famous for a world-class cafeteria), and enthusiasm. Basecamp has been resisting that trend all along, inviting employees to keep a work-life balance, and publicly bashing the trend of replicating the college campus at the workplace.
  • On the other, because the company is so outspoken about social issues, it attracts people that tend to be outspoken too. People who like to be heard listened to and treated seriously.
  • On the third hand (yes, my metaphor is slipping), Basecamp offered 6 months salary severance package and an excuse to take it for everybody who wants it.. Right before the summer after a year of lockdowns.

Reporters estimate that 1/3rd of the workforce has quit. It sounds dire until you realize that it’s 18 people. Basecamp is not a big company, although a very loud one. Just as their employees, their Twitter corner is loud and interested in social issues as well, and it has resulted in some backlash.

If I weren’t happily employed, I would definitely apply to Basecamp now. They will be on a hiring spree, and I bet it’s still an awesome company to work for.

Oh, and check out their resources about going Remote. They are exceptional.

Hacking Youtube algorithm for a better you

Four years ago I watched a few Youtube videos with smartphone reviews to make an informed choice. Since then, Youtube decided that smarthpone reviews and comic origins of obscure Marvel Comics characters are the only things I can ever be interested in and kept suggesting similar content.

Now that I am trying to figure out solar panels for my new RV, I’m thrown into the rabbit hole of electrical wiring suggested videos. That’s an improvement over comic heroes, but this has led me to consider building my own Lithium-Iron-Phosphate battery (the videos make it look so easy!), which my wife advises against.

Youtube algorithm is a powerful reality-shaping force and I’m desperate to wield it. I intend to deliberately teach the Youtube Algorithm to show me more fitness-related content to shape my reality and normalize a healthier lifestyle.

I’m documenting my wrangling of the algorithm here.

The new face (and lack thereof) of a travelling salesman

A classic Computer Science algorithm is called the “Travelling Salesman Problem”. It’s better explained as The “Amazon Delivery Guy Problem”: How do you plot the shortest route between points on a map?

There are no traveling salesmen anymore, are there? This is one of those legacy names that people in the industry accept but is baffling for everybody else.

I guess the new iteration of traveling salesmen are the dropshipping businesses advertising on Facebook or Instagram. The trick is much easier than knocking door-to-door:

  1. Find a product on aliexpress.com or other platform
  2. Create a brand and a small website for the product
  3. Create a targeted Facebook ad that will target people most likely to be interested
  4. Once I buy the product, it’s fulfilled by the manufacturer/distributor instead of the “salesman”. The salesman most likely has never even touched the product, let alone keep a stock. This is a process called dropshipping.

If you see an interesting product advertising on Facebook, check aliexpress for honest reviews. That way I learned I can buy the portable dishwasher 10x cheaper and it’s probably not as great as advertised originally.

Surprising consequences

  1. Hieronymus Bosch’s painting named “Garden Of Earthly Delights” is… a lot. Amazingly, very little is known about Bosh’s intentions, but the masterpiece is so full of symbolism, that somebody created a Twitter account that posts a fragment of the painting every few hours. It has been doing so since 2016. Highly recommended.
  2. Better Air Is the Easiest Way Not to Die is an article about well, you guessed it – Air Quality. I concur that Basics are important to get right, and Air is pretty high on that list. The author was kind enough to attach a quotable summary:
    • If you have an ultrasonic humidifier, kill it.
    • Monitor local air quality like the weather.
    • No incense.
    • Extinguish candles with a lid.
    • Be careful about smoke when cooking.
    • Get a particle counter.
    • Use an air purifier at home all the time. (Move this to #1 if the outdoor air has high particulate levels where you live.)
    • Install a HEPA cabin air filter in your car.
    • Avoid aerosols.
    • Use a mask very carefully when in dirty air.
  3. I learned on Bored Panda that my hometown uses a crazy setup of clams (yes, the crustaceans) to control the water supply for the City Of Warsaw.
    city of Warsaw gets its water from a river and “the main water pump has 8 clams that have triggers attached to their shells. If the water gets too toxic, they close, and the triggers shut off the city’s water supply automatically.” There’s a whole documentary on that, called Fat Kathy

How Starcraft can help your career.

Did you know that Starcraft 2 is remastered, and free to play now? Or that it can help your career? No, you don’t have to become a pro gamer.

We are organizing another Remote Meetup with my team and I was searching for a game we could play together to bond. Shopify CEO, Tobi Luttke is a huge fan of Starcraft 2, and (contrary to me), a gamer. I struggled to reconcile that with my prior experience – I just didn’t like that game so much when I played it first.

I firmly believe that I learned more about building businesses from playing Starcraft than I’ve learned from business books – Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke

Years ago, I preferred the “landrush” approach to strategy games (my fav being Red Alert 2 mostly because of corny soviet-inspired humor). I would get all my factories in place, get my ducks in a row, produce a giant army (of soldiers, not ducks), and only when I was ready, I would attack the opponent.

What makes Starcraft different (and was bugging me at the time) is that you cannot wait too long. The battlefield is always evolving, and waiting for the conditions to be perfect is a losing strategy. It immediately became an experience similar to my workday, where I have to prioritize things as they come along, not as I wish them to be.

Mike has an excellent article on Starcraft & Shopify that goes DEEP into this topic:

StarCraft is like a constantly evolving game of chess with incomplete information about the opponent’s layout, pieces, and attack/defense strategies. You must continually “read and adjust” your go-to-battle strategy as you learn more about your opponent’s positioning, buildings, and army composition. It’s an iterative loop.

Speaking of Shopify, Alex Danco has a great article “Six Lessons From Six Months at Shopify”, where he points out another game popular there:

It’s the one game that anyone at Shopify can expense. Because it’s just bound to be good for Shopify if people play Factorio for a little while. We’re building supply chains for our customers; logistics networks; and Factorio makes a game out of that kind of thinking. And you know what, it’s actually not surprising, cause that kind of thinking is super fun.

(I’m also super proud of my Brother-in-Law who helps make Factorio. Go Jerzy!)

Alex’s article also has a really good piece of career advice, that I have used inside Automattic with great success:

Familiarize yourself with the dozen senior people at Shopify who have the final call on really important decisions, from Tobi and Harley on down. You need to familiarize yourself with their operating philosophy around business and around how Shopify works. Go consume every written memo and every podcast episode (we have a great internal podcast called Context) they’ve ever done, get inside their heads, learn their perspectives and their preferences, and learn what gets them to say Yes to things.

Having an “internal model” of your “superiors” is an excellent way of not only doing what they want, but also making them do what you want.

If you know how somebody thinks, and operates lets you frame your ideas in a way that is appealing to them, or adjust them to meet mutual goals. It’s a first step of leading UP the chain of command.

Games and other media can help you understand well, the game being played around you. Don’t be clueless.

Surprising Consequences

Free stock & Free PR.

Austin Distel is a recurring revenue consultant that found an interesting way to stand out. He contributed loads of high-quality, free, and useful stock photos to Unsplash.com – THE site with free images for your blog posts. In return, he gets powerful SEO, branding & recognizability.

Check it out – chances are, you might have seen his face on the web. It’s the type of win-win solution that I love the most.

What can you do to help others help yourself?

Tyler Cowen is a Remote Believer now.

Tyler Cowen is a professor of economy at George Mason University. He has a wildly popular blog Marginal Revolution, and a podcast “Conversations with Tyler”. For the podcast, he used to interview interesting people from around the world, travelling to meet them.

However, the Covid remote work experiment has forced him to try doing that over the Internet. Despite his previous conviction that remote interviews will not be the same, to his surprise the episodes were just as good as the one in-person. There are milions of such stories.

Of course a fair amount of the economic activity will return to in-person. But enough people got forced to try otherwise, and didn’t resent the experience. Tyler still plans to travel post-covid, but estimates that a significant number of interviews are going to be remote from now on.

And that is the beauty of Real Remote™️. You can choose to do it, whenever it makes most sense, and you don’t have to be committed one or the other mode of operation.

Lessons Learned from Apple

Avy Faingezicht has shared his lessons he learned at Apple. I’m going to leave a few quotes here:

Everyone is winging it. Yes, experts too. What we call expertise is nothing but a mix of self-deception, ruthless focus, pattern matching ability, and just enough training data.

Truly, there are no adults.

Things happen because people make them happen

People are willing to listen to faceless systems more than they are willing to listen to other people’s opinions. Bake opinions into CI checks and no one will break them. Pick your rules carefully.

“Rules” that have long outlived their use is one of my biggest pet peeves.

Addressing the unaddressed

I recently stumbled onto this mythology-inspired artist. “Leonardo Di Vintage is my favourite”:

From mythology studio

Everybody knows how an address looks like, and everybody has one – right?

The first time I traveled to Japan I was shocked to learn that the addressing scheme works differently than in the west: The blocks are the ones that have names, not the streets. A few years later, contracting in the middle east taught me about whole countries having problems with addressing, and have to resort to landmarks.

Irish Postal system (AnPost) has a very flexible addressing scheme. This Tumblr blog set out to test just how flexible.

Starlink, 5G, and Mobile Internet are all rolling out in parts of the world known as “developing”, and bring with them the opportunities of the global economy, and the global job market to previously underserved populations.

Despite the Internet being very much location-agnostic, banking services, and regulatory requirements are not. Several projects are looking to address the unaddressed, bridging the gap between digital and physical location.

  • What3Words is a geolocation scheme based on a combination of 3 words. The globe is covered by a grid, and every square is identified by 3 English words. For example, our family’s favorite tree is located at Require.Travel.Blues. The problem with the adoption of what3words has been the licensing system of the company behind it.
  • Google has recently rolled out something similar – “plus codes“. You can find them in your Google Maps App when you try to share the location. The same tree is located at 9G4352QH+PX (11 characters), or “52QH+PX Warsaw, Poland” (7 characters + locality).
Google Maps App has an interface to find the plus codes.

Helping Non-Profits

I’ve helped a couple of non-profits in my programming career. They are always full of optimistic, energized, driven and fun people – completely opposite to most of the ‘corporate’ workplaces. I quickly learned, that every coin has two sides, and corporations are still around for a reason.

As with everything in life, the downsides are directly correlated to the upsides. Yes, in a Non-Profit, you can be a bit unpredictable and inexperienced. It does not feel like work and you get a breather from a corporate feel of a professional workplace. But guess what – other people get to do that too.

More advice on how to manage your relationship with the NGO you’re helping in “The price of free time: programmer’s guide to helping a Non-profit”.

Deliberate Internet

I miss my bar

Stuck at home during a yet-another lockdown? I miss My Bar will recreate a Main Street cocktail bar ambient sounds in your headphones, while Sounds of The Pub will do the same for a hip Pub.

Yes, I am sick of lockdowns, too.

Nirvana Fallacy

Anne-Laure wrote an article that I wanted to tackle for a long time. Only better. In “Nirvana Fallacy”, she dissects a limiting belief that prevents constructive solutions:

Nirvana fallacy is based on faulty reasoning, where an argument assumes that a solution should be rejected because some part of the problem still exists after the solution is applied

Here is an example straight from 2020:

Fallacy: “Wearing a mask is useless because it will not fully protect me or others from coronavirus.”

The public debate very often misses the point that done is better than perfect and there is an opportunity cost to waiting for well, nirvana:

In each case, the danger is clear: by aiming for a perfect solution, we may ignore a useful solution; by aiming to completely solve a problem, we may fail to at least improve a situation.

Happy International Forest Day! Here is a podcast.

Yes, I am writing about Trees AGAIN. How could I not? I just learned that today, March 21 is designated as International Forests Day! And I was just sitting here thinking that 1st day of Spring is a nice holiday.

You can celebrate that important day by listening to the superbly named “Completely Arbotrary” podcast, where hosts review and rate a new tree every week.

Competence is fractal. Plus transgenic trees.

Imagine being hired at your dream company. Finally, you move from the current pond limiting your potential to an ocean of new possibilities and challenges. You’d get to learn from the smartest people you ever hoped to meet, and challenge yourself in ways you never thought possible.

And yet, after a while, you’d find yourself shocked that in your new peer group not everybody is the smartest fish in the sea. Some of your new colleagues would be less driven, less experienced, or less capable even than you!

How can that be? In my dream job, a pinnacle of workplaces, and the awesomest place on the planet earth™️?

I came to the conclusion that competence is fractal. Companies, rooms (and reservoirs) have a different average competence. But inside those, the competence is distributed unequally – there are people less competent, average, and spectacularly capable. You can also keep “zooming”, and any subset will have a similar distribution.

In the 1960s, Benoit Mandelbrot has observed the same property of chaotic events in financial markets. Inspired by this behavior, he continued the work on what he later named Fractals.

8 MANDELBROT SET IMAGES ideas in 2021 | fractals, benoît mandelbrot, fractal  art
A “Mandelbrot Set” – a particular fractal. Click for a trippy fractal video.

Assuming your dream workplace will be full of superstar players may be caused by the over-prescription of Gaussian distribution. As Nassim Taleb points out in Black Swan, the Gaussian curve only works for properties physically limited to a certain range – like height. In my experience, competence is not such a phenomenon.

Any room you enter will have a broad distribution of competence, and I like to focus on 2 particular consequences:

  1. It’s better to enter the rooms where I have more to learn, but will be at the lower end of distribution at the beginning,
  2. I have every right to be at this lower end. Somebody has to.

Trees!

I know right? Always a good time to talk about trees.

Transgenic Chestnuts

Richard Powers’s “Overstory” inspired me to write about trees previously. One of the heroes of the book is American Chestnut, an iconic and once plentiful tree that sadly is not around anymore. As the Sierra club recounts in “The Demise and Potential Revival of the American Chestnut”:

Between 1904 and 1940, some 3.5 billion American chestnut trees, the giants of the Appalachian hardwood forest, succumbed to a fungal blight called Cryphonectria parasitica.

From the same article I learned that thanks to genetic engineering, there is hope:

The fungus in question attacks only the trunk of mature American Chestnut trees. Roots of these once ubiquitous giants are constantly (100 years later!) producing offshoots, which meet their gruesome fate after few years but still are able to pollinate. The American Chestnut Foundation has a blight-resistant, genetically engineered specimen (“Darling 58”) that could mate and produce healthy (and genetically diverse) offspring of the currently attacked millions of wild trees. Wild.

Aside: The same Nassim Taleb praising Mandelbrottian distribution over the Gaussian one is a huge opponent of GMOs. His argument is that there is too much we don’t know about their interaction with the environment.

Hungry Trees

Yes, more trees. this time swallowing trespassing signs. Because we shouldn’t be telling trees what to (or not to) do.

Go for a walk (preferrably in the forest)

“It’s a Superpower’: How Walking Makes Us Healthier, Happier and Brainier” (The Guardian)

One of the great overlooked superpowers we have is that, when we get up and walk, our senses are sharpened. Rhythms that would previously be quiet suddenly come to life, and the way our brain interacts with our body changes.

Read more about the benefits of walking on deliber.at

History is not that Deliberate

History is not only written by the winners. It’s also rewritten by people with an agenda.

Scholars and experts not only scour past events to highlight their favorite version but also according to their own philosophy of history. The most common are:

  • Great Man Theory – Churchill, Lincoln, Caesar, Charlemagne, Stalin. The greats have disproportionate influence over the events, and everything is basically backdrop. These heroes are the causes, and the rest of history is the effect.
  • Parametric Determinism – Geopolitics, class struggle, famines, droughts, and migrations are the lead dominoes causing history to play this way, or the other.

These theories pretend like the history is unfolding neatly, and if there is something the western culture cherishes it’s neatly categorized explanations. But I don’t buy it.

The world is chaotic, messy, and unpredictable. Random shit happens, and I’m here to tell you that it’s ok to subscribe to the random shit school of history, also known as the Butterfly Effect. In a sufficiently complicated system, the interactions between events are often random and tangled. The result is neither the intended outcome nor the best one. Moreover, once something catches on, it’s hard to change, even if the situation is clearly suboptimal.

  • QWERTY keyboard layout is by far the most popular in the world. It’s also objectively the worst. It was designed to prevent ‘locking’ in the mechanical typewriters, so it makes you move your fingers around the most, which is why your wrists hurt. Colemak and Dvorak on the other hand (pun intended) – were modernized for computers and the English language.
  • Tesla had to prove that electric cars are a viable alternative to the combustion engine. But we almost had electric cars since the birth of motorization. Edison thought electric cars are superior technology and Henry Ford was working on prototypes.
  • Recommended daily exercise is 10 000 steps because Japanese character for 10 000 looks like a man walking: 万

Almost everything you see around you is not that way because it’s a final evolutionary stage, but because of the complicated and mostly random history behind it. Except for crabs. Crabs are the final evolutionary stage of everything.

The answer? Be Deliberate. You should accept expert opinion, but dig in, and strive to understand it from the first principles. The world is messy and simple causal relationships are rare. Most explanations you hear in the news make up a good story, nothing more.

Some absurd stuff to keep you on your toes

One

In 2006 the Scottish government set out to rename their fleet of de-icing trucks (gritters), and they asked the most capable crowd for help: they ran a competition in primary schools. The result was glorious, as you can see on the live map. Some of my favourite trucks are named:

  • Lord Coldemort
  • David Plowie
  • For Your Ice Only
  • Gritney Spears
  • I Want To Break Freeze
  • Ice Breaker
  • Luke Snowalker
  • Sir Grits A Lot
  • Yes Sir Ice Can Boogie

Two

Soviets planned to build a fleet of nuclear-powered Zeppelins because what the Hinderburg catastrophe clearly lacked is an atomic bomb.

Three

After Home Offices became the mandatory workplace of no choice in 2020, Fisher-Price decided to also teach the new reality to the young ones:

Four

There is an official international standard for brewing tea – ISO 3103

Roam TODO exploder

If you use Roam Research, you might enjoy the plugin I made that makes your TODOs explode when you complete them. Here is a video.

Welcome to the talent wars

I believe (and hope) that the war as we know it is fundamentally an outdated concept. Jurisdictions (like Miami) will compete to attract talent, but that is not good news for unskilled labor, like gig workers.

  1. When we were fighters, we were fighting over herds of game and their territory,
  2. Then, the agricultural revolution came. The most important asset became fertile land, and the wars were fought over that.
  3. After the Scientific Revolution, we learned to process raw resources like metals, coal, and later oil.
  4. We are now experiencing the digital revolution. The new resource is going to be talent and talent is not easily captured in traditional warfare.
ValueAfter RevolutionWhat are wars fought overCountries that benefit
Fertile landAgricultural revolutionLand & peasants
You want to conquer easily arable land
Fertile Crescent, Mediterranean
Mined Resources (Metals, Oil)Scientific RevolutionResource-rich landColonial powers, plus resource-rich countries like Germany and the USA
TalentDigital revolutionNo wars, but hostile takeovers of talentAnybody who started educating in STEM like crazy 10 years ago

Two classes of employees.

Remote Work transition is certainly accelerating, but not everybody is benefitting from this situation. It has also lead to a new sort of class divide:

  • Talent” – highly skilled, and specialized experts that are constantly honing their craft and navigating the changing demands of the job market. During lockdowns, these people are known as the “Zoom Class” (because they can ride out the pandemic while working over zoom).
  • Gig workers“, who we treat as a utility, and depend on to provide us with the endless stream of Amazon purchases and Uber Eats orders. Also known as the “Heroes

Nick Rimedio, who serves on the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, said the lockdowns had widened a class divide. While quarantine has been almost relaxing for what he called the wealthy “Zoom class,” it has been a nightmare for the poor and middle class who have storefronts or work service jobs in businesses in the area, he said.

New York Times

Talent is the new Oil

Automation is coming after our jobs, and I have written before how to protect yourself against that. But in the meantime, workers take time to train. With technological progress, complexity in many industries is unfathomable and requires highly trained labor. Which takes time, and can be rushed only to a point.

Training somebody to do basic programming tasks can be done in 6 months, but the way of thinking about the world needed to succeed in the information economy takes years to acquire.

We are post-scarcity on almost everything else, and I believe the talent will be the new frontier.

On the commodity metaphor

While drafting this newsletter, I wanted to compare “Gig Workers” to commodity and “Talent” to differentiable products. But I don’t think that’s entirely correct. There is a huge pool of the talent group that has commodity-like properties.

The majority of tech workers are uniform and replaceable enough. I’m sure that’s the case in many other specialized fields – creme de la creme will be irreplaceable, but the others will eventually be automated away.

The promised talent wars

War is a bit of a clickbait, but various initiatives around the world are trying to capitalize on the location independence of the “Talent” group.

  • When you bring together talented people who like to create things, Startups & new industries will take care of themselves. We have seen this in Florence, Venice, Paris, and later New York and Silicon Valley
  • These people tend to be compensated well (an argument can be made that unfairly so), which means higher tax revenue
  • They also have more discretionary income, some of which they will spend locally,
  • Children of educated&motivated people tend to turn out the same way. This is a flywheel for the community.

Miami

For a while now, Silicon Valley is downright hostile to the tech industry, behaving like an abusive partner that took your passport. Lockdowns took away any benefit of staying in San Francisco (meetups, conferences, and chance encounters), and multiple tech giants have adopted Remote Work (latest big news is Spotify pointing out that “Work isn’t something our people come to the office for, it’s something they do”).

Francis Suarez, the mayor of Miami jumped on the chance of turning the city into a tech hub and his efforts are inspiring. He is personally helping tech influencers move to his constituency, and now he’s reaching out to SV employees by the means of a billboard. In San Francisco.

“Thinking about moving to Miami? DM me”.

I’m not able to put together a coherent sentence about how transformative can it be to have supportive, effective, and accessible local legislation. Books will be written about the emergence of the Miami tech hub.

It’s not only about talent. It’s a fight for taxes

Municipalities seeking tax revenue is of course nothing new. But traditionally, the way to do that was to create jobs, which would both provide income to residents and attract talent.

Remote Work is changing that. Having a job in one place, and living in another is now possible, and something I myself practice. But in this new world, how do cities fight for taxes? Are they even entitled? The problem is already here.

Japan’s home tax

Every country with a “superstar” city has this problem: smaller towns are investing in family-friendly infrastructure and education, only to see its citizens move to the one superstar city and continue paying taxes there.

Japan has an interesting solution, called ふるさと納税 (Furusato Nouzei or, roughly, the Hometown Tax System). In an interesting quirk, a taxpayer can select a town at her discretion, and the towns started to compete on “gifts” they would send to incentivize choosing their municipality for the ‘donation.’ From Patrick Mckenzie:

The three farming communities we’re using all had a monthly subscription option for things produced locally, and they sound like e.g. “A rotating box of seasonal fruits produced in our town. Here’s the schedule: January, 500g of… February, a box of… The aesthetics of that are brilliant; fruit on our table will have come *from a place.* The economics are brilliant; probably half of the fruits are things we, like a typical Japanese family, wouldn’t generally choose to eat in a year.

For a while, cities even offered a “kickback” in the form of travel vouchers and other cach equivalents. Government had to put a stop to it in 2019. Read more in this essay and Tweetstorm for an incentive-exploration filled ride.

Furusato-tax.jp is a comparison site that lets you browse the best offers for the “thank you” tokens. Caviar? Wagyu beef? Sushi? They got you covered. This wouldn’t be possible without the Internet.

Specialized cities

Just as Japan’s towns are specializing in Wagyu-beef-for-tax-donation schemes, other cities are seeking to attract Nomads and professionals:

What will happen next?

Each of the revolutions outlined at the beginning of this post has shifted economic opportunities from incumbents to new countries:

  • The agrarian revolution has brought prosperity to those with fertile land and water access
  • The industrial revolution brought demand for steel, potassium, and eventually, oil, which meant prosperity for Germany and the USA
  • The Digital revolution will shift the production centers to places abundant in highly educated and motivated workers,

Two countries in particular are well positioned to benefit from this new world order:

  • China, which has a head start because the industry has already shifted here,
  • India, which I’m especially optimistic about, because of their proficiency in English. Programming languages are all modeled after English grammar and English is already lingua franca. For better or worse.

Since I like having skin in the game, I’m investing in the Indian stock exchange. I started this thread on Reddit, and people shared great pointers. One thing I took away from GameStop is that Reddit has sold financial advice.

While the world order will be reshuffled, cities will specialize in attracting a certain kind of worker, with unique preferences. The concentration of artists and professionals in cities like Florence has led to Renaissance, and I hope it will lead to something good this time as well.

And I also hope we’ll find a way to trickle down these benefits to gig workers too. Wars may be over, but revolutions can turn out bloody too.