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

Why do you have so many bots?

If I died today, I don’t think my friends would notice for a while.

My digital ghost would keep responding to some emails, pay my bills, and send birthday cards. He would read my text messages, forward important ones to my virtual assistant, or respond.

This spooky afterlife is not the goal. I have been automating bits and pieces of my daily responsibilities for the opposite purpose – to save more time for the things that truly matter in life. My ghost is here to help me now.

Ikiryō (生霊, lit. “living ghost”), in Japanese popular belief and fiction, refers to a spirit that leaves the body of a living person and subsequently haunts other people or places, sometimes across great distances.

Examples include:

  • Reading the invoices I get over email to pay specific ones and file them for my accountant,
  • Answering, recording and transcribing the calls I get from all unknown numbers,
  • Putting all the newsletters that I choose to receive in my pocket app, where I consume all articles,
  • Monitoring my communication and reminding me to contact friends I haven’t reached out to for a while,
  • Many many more, including sending birthday cards to my friends.

And this list does not even include automations that run this blog!

You see, I don’t automate to save a minute here or there. Writing, testing, and ensuring nothing goes awry is labor-intensive. I automate to forget about things. My digital ghost worries about A LOT, so I don’t have to.

My goals of automation

Photo by Nghia Le on Unsplash

Do you know that glut of “stuff” sitting in your stomach? The nagging notion that you have SO MUCH to do? Or maybe you are familiar with the guilt that you are so far behind in errands?

Transfers have to go out, invitations to whatever event sent, expenses reported. How can you find time this weekend to do something fun when you have amassed all this?

It certainly was a feeling for me!

That stressful notion of overwhelm is called the “Cognitive Load.” Think of it as a tax for remembering to do stuff. It does not even include doing the actual task – it’s just an overhead and my first goal of automation is to cut it as much as possible.

My second goal is to make sure things are done. Since both me and my wife work remotely, we travel a fair bit. After work, we have been exploring the cenotes of Yukatan, safaris of South Africa, and depths of underwater Thailand. But when you have to put in 8 hours of solid work and then rush to catch a diving boat, doing bank transfers, taxes, and calls is a real inconvenience. It’s really hard to do taxes underwater (although the feeling is the same).

We would postpone those things, and then, after the trip is finished, we would be hit by a freight train of obligations. Taxes on Jetlag are not much fun either.

As Stephen Wolfram summarized in his fantastic post “Notes on my personal infrastructure”, my bots consist of “the technology and other things that help me live and work better, feel less busy, and be more productive every day.”

Building a personal infrastructure has freed my time, mental energy and capacity to focus on more inspiring tasks. Instead of treading the water copying cells from one excel spreadsheet to another, I can spend time with my wife or promote Remote Work in an effort to help curb climate change.

And I want you to free your potential too, so you can focus on a higher calling.

Everyone can Automate 

This Barista has fully embraced automation

Automation is no longer only for programmers like me and theoretical physicists, like Steven Wolfram. It often does not require a single line of code.

Eric Dietrich has a fantastic post, “Don’t learn to program, learn to automate” where he describes his process of automation. Here are the steps required to write your first bot:

1 – You have to get very clear on what you are trying to achieve.

2 – You have to think about your process of achieving that.

If you are familiar with the GTD methodology, you might have noticed that these steps are the surefire way to Get Stuff Done. In the majority of cases, I would stop here. Focusing on goals and optimizing the “algorithm” of a manual task pays off before automating, and it’s sometimes enough.

But If you want to get the thing totally out of your mind:

3 – Implement the process. I know this sounds daunting, but have a look at a service called Zapier (or the free alternative – IFTTT). With a few clicks, I have created automations that will:

  • Save messages I starred in slack to my TODO list, 
  • Tweet 3 and 10 days after I have published a blog post
  • Remind me what my mom needs help with whenever I’m close to her place
  • Keep the tweets and pocket articles I starred in a spreadsheet
  • Many, many more.

I would often need to change my manual process because Zapier would not let me implement a specific flow, so don’t be surprised if you’ll have to go back to the previous point.

4 – Bonus points: maintenance

Stuff breaks, services change their offerings, and your automations will work unreliably. Just like a manager ensuring his team is getting the intended results, you’ll have to budget an hour per month to make sure everything works as expected.

With your own bots (or Ikiryo if you prefer) handling the overhead, you could have more time for what you want from life.

But I have to warn you: busywork is sometimes enjoyable. It gives you a quick dopamine boost and satisfaction from a well-accomplished task. Having the stuff to do has a way of making us feeling essential and special.

The more you automate, the more deliberate you have to be with your life.

For me, that’s the third goal of automation.

For the love of Kindle – the ultimate nomad library

When I pictured my dream house, it always had a lot of books. Maybe even a dedicated „library” room, with walls invisible under shelves of volumes, all neatly stacked.

Of course, one of the bookstands would hide a secret passageway. There has to be a secret passageway in a dream house, duh!

Now I do have a house and I am sorry to report that there is no library room and its fine. I did not give up on my childhood dream nor gave up reading. In fact, I do read significantly more.

But I did quit physical books.

There are no bookshelves, stacks of first editions nor walls covered by volumes.

Almost all my reading happens on a Kindle, precisely because it does not have to happen in a library. And replacing the whole room for this device has several benefits.

Weight

I bought my first Kindle when I started traveling a lot. The books I read tend to be on the thick side, and they were taking too much damn space inside the carry-on. Kindle Paperwhite weighs 205 grams. Hardcover version of „Song of Ice and Fire” volume 1 is 970. That means that the first part weights as much as five kindle readers.

You don’t have to decide

Or take books „Just in case.” What if you finish that first part? Seven volumes of George R.R. Martin’s finest work weigh as much as 14 kindles.

Any book in the world at your fingertips

Let’s imagine you are traveling through Africa and you just heard about a fantastic book that would complement your understanding of the culture. Chances, that you can stumble upon that title in a country that uses a different language are very slim.

But Kindle can instantly turn into ( almost ) any book in Amazon’s offering. You can buy a book on a whim and start reading it 2. MINUTES. LATER.

In fact, in our house books are the biggest „impulse spend.” We had to delete a Credit Card from the Amazon account since we used to buy any book recommended to us.

Some of the books on my reading list I have not bought yet

Books are not like cars (in many aspects). It mostly does not matter what you drive. It will still get you there. On the other hand, the difference between the best book on the topic and the 5th best is sometimes immense.

The friction of paper books means that sometimes you read what is available – and not what is the best reading choice.

Of course, chance encounters of hidden literary gems that serendipity put in our laps should be cherished. But being stuck with a terrible book and the responsibility of finishing it is a waste of time life What you read matters. Much more than How Much.

Amazon has the best selection and arguably the best electronic reading device. That is why I don’t bother with any other brands. They may be technically better or cheaper, but removing the hassle from procuring a book works out to my advantage.

The highlights, OH MY GOD – the highlights

I believe that concrete takeaways are more important than reading more books. Recollection or even reflection upon the concepts, thoughts or mental models can further my understanding of the world. My reading list contains a lot of non-fiction, sometimes called „self – help.” This is a dubious term because they usually are about the workings of the world. Topics like psychology, randomness, organizational design, business or innovation are sometimes dense, but biographies or history books are an excellent example of non-fiction that can teach you a lot about reality.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

This is a topic for a whole another blog post, but in essence – taking lessons from books is the single most valuable activity I can imagine.

Inspired by the amazing Derek Sivers, I started a practice of summarising every book that I read. While I’m reading, I do highlight a lot, sometimes even make notes on the kindle touch keyboard (clumsy but doable). After finishing the book, I will fashion some posts about the book.

Having it in public forces me to be more verbose and explicit in my notes. All the posts are written only for the audience of 1 – future me. The external accountability motivates me to put a little more effort into my writing. And future me is grateful for that.

Before Kindle, I was very reluctant to highlight stuff in the book itself. I grew up in a family that was not rich by any means and we cherished books. Highlighting anything feels to me like destroying something valuable. Even if I hesitate only a bit before marking a passage – that has an impact on the lessons I can remember.

But on the Kindle, I can highlight very generously. What’s more, I can also find these highlights with minimal effort. These two aspects of Kindle highlights fundamentally changed how I read.

Here is what I do after finishing a non-fiction book:

  1. Copy my-clippings.txt file from my Kindle to my laptop
  2. Run a simple script to generate bullet points with highlights from a particular book
  3. Use that as a stub to write a book summary post
  4. Publish that, enjoy a wild success on the Internets, be famous, profit from my fame, start attracting the wrong crowd and have paparazzi publish my shameful deeds.
  5. In the meantime, review my posts periodically to refresh the takeaways.

Currently, I am experimenting with Twitter threads (like 1, 2, 3 ) WHILE I am reading a book. Join me!

My fiancee uses the service called Readwise that will send her emails with the highlights.

While automation is particularly appealing to me, I like the responsibility of having to summarise the takeaways myself. It makes me more focused during the reading.

Kindle Paperwhite backlight.

The paperwhite model features an ambient backlight. There are diodes on the sides that make the entire screen reflect a bit of light. It works differently from your smartphone – the light is reflected and does not interfere with your sleep.

But it means that you don’t need a reading light, which is a GAMECHANGER.

It opens an entire world of bedroom entertainment with your partner.

Particularly a sleeping partner you don’t want to wake up.

But the…

Photo by ?? Janko Ferlič – @specialdaddy on Unsplash

Yes, smell, feel… All that is nice. It’s nice to have something to put on your shelf as well. I know. The passageway…

In the world that turns everything into digital ephemera, having a hard copy of a book is lovely, grounding and tactile.

But in the end, it’s about reading. And if I did not have my Kindle, I would do significantly less of that.

And I will never give up on that secret passageway. Just watch me.