An Eclectic Human
A newsletter about design, community, and being a human

2.03 Affordances

This week I participated in a service project that involved replacing the carpet in a large room. Half the group had the option of painting bookshelves, and since I already know how to paint but I don’t know how to tear up or install carpet, I opted for the latter.

Removing the carpet was relatively simple:

  • Break the paint seal on baseboard molding
  • Pull off molding and discard
  • Cut carpet into manageable pieces
  • Carefully pull carpet off the floor
  • Roll up removed carpet sections and discard
  • Remove old glue from floor

The last step sounds deceptively simple. You just scrape it off, right?

The tool for this is not quite as long as your arm, with a plastic handle on one end and what looks like a squeegee on the other end. Only it’s not a squeegee, it’s a razor blade, and it’s a little off center.

So the guy in charge hands me one of these and I watch him use it for a minute before walking over to the other corner to get started.

The longer I used the tool, the more it taught me about itself. I learned it was easier to use if you lean over the tool on both knees and put some of your weight on the blade end. (Carpet installers always have knee pads, which gave me another clue about this posture.) It was easier to use if I made long strokes from left to right across my body, rather than up and down in front of me. The final brilliant realization I had was about the angle of the blade. As weird as it looked, the angle was perfect to allow you to make the back-and-forth motions for a while in one direction and then flip the tool over, switch your hands, and make the motions in the other direction. I finally understood why the tool was shaped this way.

One thing that was not so obvious was when the razor blade needed to be changed. When the scraping was becoming more and more difficult and the effective angle of the blade became steeper and steeper, I didn’t know whether it was because of a dull blade, fatigued muscles, or a more difficult part of the floor. Only when I remembered that replacement blades existed did I think to change it, and it made a vast difference. The tool doesn’t really have a way to measure the blade’s sharpness, so I suppose this would have to be learned by intuition and experience.

My everyday work involves writing enterprise software, which is not always intuitive or easy to use. Its design does not necessarily teach you how it works. The reasons for that and for why consumer software tends to be more self-explanatory are a subject for another day. But working with physical tools reminds me to notice their design and think about how those principles apply to digital tools I use and create as well.

• • •

What’s the best- or worst-designed tool you’ve ever used?


2.02 Difficult on purpose

We all want life to be easier. Sometimes the best way to do that is by making it harder.

In some aspects of my life, it comes naturally to me to avoid the “easy” way and do the harder thing. I don’t go out of my way to park close to the door. I walk or bike to work even if I could drive or get a ride. I take the stairs whenever possible (even when I worked on the ninth floor). Doing these harder things actually makes my life easier. I’m not averse to trekking across a parking lot. I’m not afraid to sweat a little before I get to the office. And the prospect of climbing to the top of a European clock tower or coping with a broken elevator does not daunt me.

Some other hard things in life don’t look as appealing. I dislike talking on the phone, so I avoid it when I can. It seems easier that way. In reality, my life would be better if I overcame my qualms with phone conversation and just became comfortable with it instead of fearing it.

David Cain writes in “Life is Easier When You Take the Stairs”,

“Better”, in the exercise-and-whole-grains sense, has always been on offer, but this better life often seems harder than the one we already have, and the last thing we want is to make life harder.

I think what most of us really want is an easier life, not necessarily a more wholesome one. We want less trouble and more enjoyment, probably more so than we want achievement and virtue. But what we often overlook is that embracing difficulty in certain places nets us a lot more ease than our usual “easy” ways. Putting in three hours a week at the gym is easier than being out of shape 24 hours a day. Studying is easier than sitting in an exam room not having studied. Doing a good job at work is easier than wondering when they’ll finally fire you.

This principle applies to health, personal relationships, finances, skill development, and many other areas. It’s much easier to live within your means, save, and invest than to buy things on credit now and have to deal with debt and interest working against you in the future. It’s easier to be able to mow your own lawn or fix your own car or cook your own food, because then you don’t have to pay someone else to do it if you suddenly can’t or don’t want to.

A personal finance blogger with the nom de plume Mr. Money Mustache talks a lot about these topics, and this is what he says about biking in the winter:

I will admit that all of these steps, when taken together, do take an initial round of using your brain and putting in some effort. And I’ll even admit that while you’re figuring out the whole system, you might even experience brief periods of discomfort because you might be too cold or too warm and need to make clothing adjustments. But guess what? You don’t score yourself a happier life by running from all forms of discomfort. It’s just the opposite—you get happier by ramming yourself right up against obstacles like this one and then smashing through them.

So I’ll keep looking for ways to make my life difficult on purpose, because a lot of those things will make me happier in the end.

• • •

When have you done a hard thing that’s actually made your life easier?


2.01 A new volume

I only planned to take a few weeks off when the baby was born, and it ended up being three months instead. But here we are again, so let’s start Volume 2 of An Eclectic Human!

• • •

To get started, here are some interesting things I’ve been reading over the past few months. Some of these you may already have seen from the Twitter account and others are new.

“Be Kind”, by Aaron Bosworth, talks about why being smart and working hard should not come at the expense of kindness:

Being kind is fundamentally about taking responsibility for your impact on the people around you. It requires you be mindful of their feelings and considerate of the way your presence affects them.

“Default to Polite”, by Nick Disabato, who writes a great newsletter about running a design business:

I’ve never regretted being polite, but I’ve always regretted any lapses in judgment where I act impolitely. So I default to polite.

Here are a couple short poems about love, friendship, and being enough:

And finally, because I enjoy wordplay and the occasional terrible pun, here’s a huge collection of Tom Swifties that alternately elicit knee slaps, groans, and unimpressed golf claps. Some examples:

“We’re currently thinking about a figure somewhere between 7 and 9”, said Tom considerately.

“I refuse to obey that French ‘No Smoking’ sign”, fumed Tom defensively.

“I used to command a battalion of German ants”, said Tom exuberantly.

“Nay!” said Tom hoarsely.

Have a great week!

• • •

As before, we’ll end each letter with a prompt. Write back whenever you have something to say, and I will often (with your permission) include your responses in the following week’s letter.

What’s something great you’ve read in the last few months (book, article, poem, monument inscription, bottled note, ancient scroll, cryptic treatise)?


1.24 Distributed self

Since last week’s ideas about how we use mental models to understand others, I’ve done some more reading into the subject. I came across an interesting essay (also on Ribbonfarm) called “The Essence of Peopling”. There, Sarah Perry discusses a way of viewing the self that is different from traditional modern Western views. Rather than being a single self-contained entity residing in the mind of one person, it is distributed among a society.

Each person’s self is spread out among many people, simulated in all their brains at varying levels of granularity. And each person has a different “self” for each one of the people he knows, and a different self for every social context. A teenager has a very different way of behaving, speaking and thinking around his friends from the way he behaves, speaks, and thinks around his grandparents. The self at work is different from the self at home with close friends, or in bed with a spouse. And none of these are the “true self”—rather, the self exists in all these, and in the transitions between them.

That is, your “self” is the collection of all your mental models of others’ mental models of you, a recursive compilation of what you perceive that others perceive of you. And the fact that you act differently around different people does not make you insincere. Rather, those different facets are integral to this distributed concept of self.

The reason this idea intrigues me is because of the next step Sarah takes in describing “peopling” and the effect that community ritual can have on sense of self:

Ritual allows for the communication of information that language can’t convey—hard-to-fake costly signals of commitment, dependability, harmoniousness, and cooperative intent. Most pre-modern human environments would have provided a constant flow of social information in the form of ritual as well as language. If humans are somehow calibrated to expect a constant flow of social information, then the sparseness of ritual and social participation in modern environments might trigger a cascade of rumination. On the other hand, experiencing a great deal of positive (even if quite mundane) social information might be protective against some of the modern forms of social pain that torture the meaning-heavy modern self.

Modern social and architectural traditions often discourage this type of ritual and in turn may have adverse effects on identity. For example,

Perhaps many of us who identify as introverts are just especially sensitive to the ugliness and awkwardness of modern built and social environments. We might be very happy with a quiet, pleasant, constant flow of positive social information (especially if plenty of privacy were still available).

I have yet to consider all the ramifications, but this seems reasonable to me. Being introverted is less about the quantity of social interaction and more about the type of interaction that energizes or depletes me.

Sarah goes into a lot more depth in her essay than I can cover here. Go for the Bedknobs and Broomsticks reference (who else loves that movie?) and stay for the great ideas.

• • •

What’s a social ritual you wish we would all adopt?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts!


1.23 Non sequiturs and inadvertent mistakes

Some of the most unexpected but useful things I’ve learned while in the process of creating something have come from inadvertent mistakes. I pronounce or spell a word incorrectly and suddenly notice something about its etymology, or I recognize a related word whose relevance I’d never considered.

Sometimes I do this on purpose, such as saying “oneth” instead of “first”. My wife and I have yet to agree on whether this will be educational or thoroughly confusing for our children by the time I inevitably start doing it to them.

Often when preparing a piece on piano or organ, I’ll play a note wrong and it will suggest a new chord progression or harmony I’d never thought of. A recent example is when I was working on a hymn called “O Lord of Hosts”. Moving one note on the second stanza by a half step made the chord sound like the memorable opening dissonance of Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms”. Discovering that led me to play around with its chords a little more and finally come to understand the structure of Bernstein’s piece that I had merely thought was strange and “modern” when I sang it in college.

When I was learning to speak Dutch, especially because I studied it with other English-speaking beginners while also living among native speakers, my developing understanding was full of such epiphanies and new connections crucial to forming my mental framework. Whether the mistakes were my own or overheard in others’ conversation, they were always mind-opening and enlightening.

These kinds of events can be useful for exposing holes in our mental models. Recently I’ve begun pondering their mind-enlarging powers in relation to what Venkatesh Rao of Ribbonfarm calls “non sequiturs”. He explicates this idea in a lengthy and detailed essay called “Don’t Surround Yourself With Smarter People”. A lot of the intermediate explanation still goes over my head, but the crux of his argument makes a lot of sense to me.

Each of us is, in a sense, playing this game of life, and we have mental models for nearly everything we encounter. This is especially true of the people commonly around us in everyday life. Once we know enough about someone to create a model of them in our heads, we can start to predict how they will act in certain situations. We may expect them to act like we do, or very unlike we do, but the fact is that we believe we can predict certain things about them.

At this point, we still (as always) don’t have any view into the actual state of their minds or emotions. (If we did, our mental model would be perfect.) So when they do something that surprises us, it usually means that our expectations about them are incorrect. Our model does not match up with their actual state.

Occurrences like this are especially valuable when we encounter non sequiturs. If you react to something in a way that implies you find it unremarkable, a non sequitur, an irrelevant piece of information, I now have to examine my model of the world and see whether that thing is as valuable as I previously thought. I may find this thing noteworthy and unusual when you find it normal and unremarkable.

Here’s how Venkat puts it:

But it is the parts that don’t overlap that matter. There are things that have a defined worth in their lives that are non sequiturs in yours, and vice versa. When you see through the eyes of a differently free person, you expect to see a landscape of presumptively valued things. A landscape based on your predictions of how they value things. When the other person appears to value something that doesn’t even register with you, for a moment, that thing turns into a non sequitur, a candidate parrot. It lingers just a little bit longer in your own mind than it would if you yourself saw it. Long enough that you do a double take and notice it consciously.

I think there’s something qualitatively similar between these revelations that come because of a non sequitur in someone else’s life and the ones that come because of inadvertent mistakes we or others make, and both seem to have some value in the learning process.

Venkat’s thesis is that you should surround yourself not necessarily with people who are smarter than you, but with people who operate on different mental models. Perhaps this is one reason why diversity in the workplace, the community, and religion is such an important thing. It’s not just important for human rights and dignity, but also because it makes all of us better. We understand the world better by learning from the things others do that at first don’t make sense to us.

• • •

What’s something surprising or valuable you’ve learned recently that was a non sequitur to the person who pointed it out?


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