Optimizing the unimportant stuff

I often describe myself as having an inclination to try and optimize things. I have observed in the past that I tend to bring this inclination to bear particularly on the unimportant stuff, which always seemed odd. But just this minute I have come to understand why: I do it this way to free up time to do the important stuff exactly the way I want, whether optimal or not.

Take reading, for example. There are all kinds of ways to optimize your reading—ways to read faster, ways to absorb more of what you read, ways to organize what you’re going to read, ways to keep track of what you have read, etc. I have no interest in any of those things, because reading is important. I want to do it exactly the way I want to do it.

Figuring out some trivial reordering of exactly how I put toothpaste on my toothbrush so that I can save 5 seconds a day is much more likely to be the sort of thing I’d do—because I don’t care. I have no interest in how I brush my teeth (as long as my teeth don’t fall out), but freeing up 5 seconds a day that I can spend doing what I want to do is motivating out of all proportion to the actual time savings.

(It’s actually not so disproportionate. It takes just 240 days saving 5 seconds per day to break even on spending 20 minutes figuring how how to save those seconds. Every 5 seconds after that is pure gravy.)

Anyway, since I mentioned recently that my optimization efforts tended not to have much payoff, in my post on getting better at life under late-stage capitalism, and having literally just now realized why that was, I though I should add that bit.

2019-07-01 15:28

I have lost actual physical paper books many times over the years—loaned and never returned, accidentally left somewhere, dropped in the tub, left on a windowsill and rained on, literally worn out from re-reading. Many were lost when my house fell down. One was confiscated by a teacher. I’ve not yet lost an ebook.

Hang out with healthy biomes

Everybody knows that you come to be like the people you hang out with, and most people understand that you can take advantage of this to improve your life. If you want to be more productive, hang out with productive people. If you want to be an intellectual, hang out with intellectuals. If you want to be healthy, hang out with healthy people.

I rather suspect this last is something hardwired in our brains, probably explaining part of the stigma faced by people who are disabled or disfigured. Probably strongly selected for in circumstances where infectious disease is a major cause of mortality.

I have always assumed that this is primarily mediated by lifestyle, with the shift largely produced by adopting pieces of the lifestyles of the people you hang out with. Hanging out with people who read a lot normalizes reading a lot. Hanging out with runners normalizes taking up running.

It should have been obvious—maybe it is obvious to everybody else—but it only recently occurred to me that a large part of this may well be mediated by microbiomes.

Your microbiome will shift to converge with the microbiome of people you hang out with. (Of course, theirs will also shift to converge with yours.) If you share meals with someone, your intestinal microbiome with shift toward theirs—probably more so and more quickly if you share a kitchen, utensils, or food prep tasks, and probably more so yet if you share a bathroom. If you share a touch with someone, your skin microbiome will shift—again, more so and more quickly if you share a bed with them.

Actually, an anecdote on this last: When I met Jackie she had a fungal infection of the skin that she’d picked up in India, and that had persisted for years. She treated it with tolnaftate, which worked adequately to knock it down when it became annoying, but had not cleared it up, either in India or after she came home. However, a few years after we got married I noticed that it seemed to be gone. With no evidence whatsoever, I’m inclined to take credit for this, figuring that my skin microbiome contributed useful organisms that her skin microbiome integrated in a way that eventually let it displace the fungal organisms.

So far, all the efforts to find an “optimal” microbiome have foundered, probably because the problem is intractably complex, being inextricably connected with the genes of the host, multi-generational epigenetic history, the immune system (and its lifetime history of chemical and biological insults), along with all the obvious factors—what organisms initially seeded the microbiome, history of antibiotic use, diet, etc.

Because of that, I’m much less interested now in interventions such as probiotics. More and more I’m inclined to prefer what used to be pretty obvious: Trust your immune system to cultivate a healthy microbiome (and hang out with healthy people to give it a little extra to work with).

Adulting my to-read pile

For some time now I’ve found myself in the middle of an unusually large number of books. Actually, that’s not quite true—I’ve forever gotten myself in the middle of multiple books; what’s different lately is that I’ve found it difficult to crank on through to the end of them.

I recently figured out why, which led to me telling Jackie, “I used to be able to just sit down for four or six hours and finish a book or two or three, but I don’t seem to be able to do that any more.”

Jackie of course immediately spotted the issue, which was why I put it that way. “With your new focus on movement,” she said, “you’re much less willing to just sit down for four or six hours to do anything.”

I actually have data showing this. My new Oura ring has a feature to alert me if I spend 50 minutes sitting (or standing) still, but that nagging function is going virtually unused—I’ve gotten exactly one ding for a “long period of inactivity” in the past month. I just don’t sit still for as long as fifty minutes any more.

Getting in plenty of movement is great, and I certainly feel better for doing it, but until recently has had an unfortunate side-effect: I’ve found it very easy to waste those less-than-fifty-minute blocks of time.

In fifty minutes I can check my email, scroll through my twitter feed and my facebook feed, read a couple of articles people have shared links to, and check my RSS feeds. And then after going for a walk or a workout (or just making a cup of coffee), I can waste another fifty minutes.

But fifty minutes is plenty of time to get something useful done, such as reading a chunk of a book. Just lately, finally, I’ve been using those blocks of time that way. (Like a grownup!)

By applying myself to reading books, I am making good progress. I just finished Eliot Peper’s Borderless, which was excellent, and I’m more than halfway through Mathew Walker’s Why We Sleep, which is absolutely fascinating. I hesitate to start Sean B. Carroll’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful until I finish the sleep book. But, having made some progress, I feel like . . . . Well, not like I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. More like I figured out how to go spelunking in the book-reading caverns without bonking my head, scraping my knees, and getting a crick in my back.

It’s not like the old days, when I could curl up in a chair (or sprawl out on the floor) and read for hours. But it’s probably better.

The opposite of dyslexia

I had some initial difficulty in learning to read. My mom tried to teach me with some instructional material from a newspaper supplement, with no success whatsoever. I was a motivated learner, but the whole premise of the instructional material—which was based on phonics—made no sense to me at all.

I learned to read more or less all at once on the first day of first grade, when the teacher flipped through some big cards with words on them, together with pictures that were supposed to help indicate each word’s meaning. (I remember that “ball” was one of them, and that “go” was another.) I was stunned to realize that many of my classmates were ahead of me—they could read these words, and I could not.

But immediately, after just four or five cards, I grasped that the fundamental unit of reading was not the letter (which is what all that phonics-based stuff had implied). It was the word.

I was instantly off and running. I generally only had to be exposed to a printed word a single time to learn it. There were still a few (sufficiently frustrating to be memorable 50-plus years later) instances where adults refused to just tell me what a word was, trying to coach me through the process of “sounding it out”—something that I was never able to do—but within a day or two I was reading well above grade level and never looked back.

Even now phonics is only something I understand backwards. The spelling of English words is interesting in how it freezes in time a brief period in the midst of vast shifts in pronunciation, but I still find preposterous the idea that it’s easier to memorize sixty or eighty common spellings of the 40-odd phonemes that make up English, to learn dozens of common exceptions, and then to use that knowledge to “sound out” a word, than it is to just learn all the words.

In my experience, just learning all the words was trivially easy, while sounding a word out was virtually impossible.

I am given to understand that dyslexia is roughly the opposite of this. People with dyslexia are unable to make the jump to what is called “whole-word” reading, and are basically forced to stick with “sounding out” every word.

This is mostly important only in that I think it illustrates why it’s stupid to standardize on one way of teaching reading just because most people will learn to read just fine either way. Some people—me on the one hand, dyslexics on the other—will only be able to learn to read one way, and it’s not the same way.

Although it’s not important, I do have a recent illustrative anecdote to relate.

One side-effect of the way I perceive words is that I have no idea how they are spelled. It wasn’t until I was in college (and realized that I simply had to learn how to spell) that I bit the bullet and learned how to spell the only way that works for me: I need to memorize the list of letters that makes up a word. To this day, if I have not needed to write a word, I do not know how to spell it. For example, I did not know how to spell “Los Angeles” until after I moved there—and even then I didn’t learn it for several weeks until I had to write it down for some reason.

A related side-effect is that certain words that have similar shapes get conflated in my brain. Especially if they have somewhat congruent meanings, I will simply not realize that they are not the same word.

I mention all this now because a specific instances of it came up yesterday. Jackie had put calamine lotion on the shopping list, so I was picking up a bottle of the stuff. I read the label to see if the generic would be just as good as some brand-name version, and was surprised to see that “calamine lotion” is a specific thing: calamine topical suspension USP.

Reading the label so carefully made me realize for the first time that calamine is something different from chamomile. To my brain the words look an awful lot alike, and they’re both key ingredients in traditional remedies, so I had just slotted them in as the same thing.

Two asides here.

First, it was only while drafting this post that I realized that chamomile has that h as the second letter. As I said, if I haven’t written a word, I have no idea how it is spelled. This always made the suggestion that I should “look it up in the dictionary” to find the spelling especially frustrating. I remember attempting to follow that instruction once and then coming back to my dad some ten or twenty minutes later and saying that I had looked at every word in the dictionary that started with the letters “ax-” and yet had been unable to find “accelerate.”

Second, the brand-name stuff, because it doesn’t follow the USP formulary, isn’t even calamine lotion; it’s just some skin protectant lotion with a similar color that happens to have calamine in it. Who would want that?

A short dialog

“I have finished my book,” I said, closing my library book.

“I have finished my book,” Jackie said, closing her library book at the exact same moment I closed mine.

“How syncronisical,” I said.

“Yes,” Jackie said. “Syncronisical is exactly what it was.”

“It’s a good word,” I said.

“Yes,” Jackie agreed. “It doesn’t get used often enough.”

Livin’ TV-free

For reasons too tedious to go into, Jackie and I never upgraded to a digital TV. We had an old cathode ray tube Sony, and were still watching TV on that.

One reason that we hadn’t upgraded was that our old TV was heavy. The two of us together just barely got it up the stairs and into our apartment. I was literally afraid to try to carry it back out, even with two of us. We’d about resigned ourselves to buying a new TV from some local store that would do delivery and setup, because those stores will generally haul away your old TV as part of the deal. (Around here you can’t just put a TV into a dumpster; you have to recycle it in some way.)

As part of moving, though, we donated a bunch of stuff to the Habitat for Humanity ReStore, which will accept old TVs and other electronics, and for $10 will send a truck to pick up your donations. We jumped at the chance.

The TV went about two weeks before we moved into the summer place, but we’re still TV-free, because the summer place doesn’t have a TV either.

Since we were getting rid of the TV and packing up the DVD player, we went ahead and turned off our disk subscription with NetFlix. We kept our streaming subscription, and have actually watched one thing since moving, mainly as test that it would work.

Aside from that, though, we’ve been livin’ TV-free.

In the short term, it’s great. We could watch stuff on the big desktop screen (although there’s no good place for a second person to sit in front of the computer), or on the laptop screen (although it’s kinda small for two people to watch, unless they sit right together and put the laptop right in front of them), but we don’t.

Instead, we’re reading books. I’ve read more fiction in the last three or four weeks than I’d read in the previous three or four months. (Oh, and once we went to the theater! The local Art Theater had a late showing of Serenity. What a great movie to watch with an audience!)

I don’t expect we’ll stick with our TV-free lifestyle once we have our own place. We’ll probably get a bigish flat-screen TV. Maybe a blueray player. Probably turn our NetFlix disk subscription back on. We enjoy watching the BBC and the Nightly Business Report and the PBS Newshour and various TV series. We enjoy watching movies on disk and episodes of old TV series on streaming.

But in the meantime, we’re enjoying livin’ TV-Free.

Hey! I wrote a novel!

It kind of snuck up on me. I hadn’t realized how close I was to being done with an entire draft.

After a couple of awkward starts, things had been going along pretty well until about spring. That’s when I started drawing more directly from the text of the short story that had been the basis of the novel, pulling the scenes from the short story and slotting them into the right spot in the climax of the novel. Except that process went very badly. They didn’t fit well. The tone was wrong. The characters had drifted. I kept finding small off-hand remarks to set up some thing or another, and realizing that in a novel there should instead be a whole earlier chapter to set that thing up. I kept finding that once I’d written those scenes, there was nothing left of this scene. It was such a struggle, I became discouraged. Progress ground almost to a halt.

A couple of times I got back to it, grabbed a scene, and reworked it—deleted the one-line remark and added the earlier chapter, reworked the interactions so that the characters were true to how they’d developed in the novel up to there, added full-blown scenes where the short story version had just had a brief reference that the hero had done something. But I found all that work hard and not much fun, so I kept not doing it.

Since moving to the summer place, I’ve been trying to reestablish a habit of daily writing, figuring that it should be as easy right now as it will ever be.

Today is my birthday, which I took advantage of by choosing to set my schedule exactly as I wanted—I got up, did a little social media stuff, had breakfast, read a little, then sat down to do some writing. I spent a good long while on one scene, because it had a lot of compressed action that needed to be more fully worked out in a novel-length work. Then the next scene went very quickly, because it was short, and then the next scene went quickly, because it was just about right in terms of tone and character. And then I realized that it was the last scene! I had finished my novel!

There’s a whole lot left to do, of course.

Although I tried to get the set-up stuff inserted as I went along, a lot of it is missing, or only present in vestigial form. I have to fix all that.

Probably a bigger deal, there were many little clever bits that might have set up something neat, but didn’t, and many short turns down side roads that seemed cool, but that didn’t end up leading anywhere. I need to locate each of those and think about whether it does lead somewhere—and then make sure that the “somewhere” it leads to is actually in the text and not just in my imagination. The others, of course, need to be ruthless pared away.

Most important, in the writing of the book I’ve finally figured out what it’s about. That too needs to end up in the text, and not just in my head. In particular, there’s a lot of economic and political stuff that kept showing up in my brain to be stuffed in the book, but didn’t all show up at the right points, so ended up getting stuffed willy-nilly into whatever corner happened to have a bit of space in it at the moment. Those bits need to be pulled out and carefully tucked into the right corner, now that I can see the whole thing and can figure out where they really go.

So, a lot of work to do—but it will be a lot of work on a novel! A novel that exists! A novel that I have written!

Great writers versus great posts

I do most of my on-line reading via a feed reader. For years I used Google Reader, without even really worrying about the risks. After Google ruined it, I experimented with several alternatives. I’m happy enough with a couple of the options, so I’m not so unhappy with how things have turned out (with Google having announced that it is canceling Reader). But the surge in interest has prompted me to think about how reading feeds is different from reading things via social media. Social media helps you find great posts. Feed readers are for when you’ve found a great writer.

I notice this whenever someone shares one of my pages (either here or on Wise Bread). I’ll get a surge of traffic to one post. Some of those people will read another post, or even a few. Only a few seem to become regular readers of my work—and fewer now than before.

Back in the old days—let’s say, five or six years ago—there was more of the latter, and I think it was because more people used feed readers. It was wonderful to find a great post, but it was much better to find a great writer. Then you could add their feed to your feed reader and read everything they wrote.

I still do that. Every time I find a great post via Facebook or Twitter (or whatever), I look at other stuff the guy has written, with an eye toward adding the feed to my feed reader.

I’m puzzled that more people don’t seem to do the same. Finding a great writer is way better than finding a great post.

Replacing Google Reader

In my ongoing search for a replacement for the sorely missed old Google Reader, I happened upon The Old Reader, which is pretty good. Good enough that I’ve moved my own reading and sharing activities over there, and updated the “Interesting stuff” item in my sidebar to point to the stuff I share out of the things I read via RSS.

It was the loss of an RSS feed of the stuff that I share that made me leave Google Reader, which was otherwise excellent. For a while I’d been using Tiny Tiny RSS, which was okay, but which put too much of a load on the server that my brother and I share. The Old Reader, although it’s not as quick about finding new items as they are posted, seems stable and functional.

If you’re interested in the stuff I share, feel free to follow that feed.