Thoughts On Lists

I have been thinking a lot lately about lists. Partially because I have been getting into functional programming languages (like Clojure, Common Lisp and Racket), and partially because I have been thinking about thinking and learning (metacognition). I think that lists can be a form of mental discipline and a tool in understanding the world.

I am also trying to figure out how to use them properly. As Funakoshi said, the art must serve the man, not the other way around.

Sometimes I make to-do lists, especially on weekends or while at work. I don’t always accomplish every task on the list. But it does help me get started and stop wasting time (like surfing the net all day). I also try to keep a list of things I need from the grocery store. Many times I would tell myself that I need something in particlar, then go to the grocery store and NOT buy what I had been telling myself I need, only to remember it when I got back.

James Altucher talks about making a list of ten ideas every day to work his idea muscle. (I admit I have already fallen off that wagon.)

Recently, I found an article by Paul Graham on lists. He attacks articles in magazines that are just lists. His one example is “Seven ways to please your man” in Cosmo. He instead praises the essay, because it allows for exploration and is more sophisticated.

I don’t agree with all of it. He seems to be committing a couple of logical fallacies here: Fallacy of composition, and straw man.

“The greatest weakness of the list of n things is that there’s so little room for new thought. The main point of essay writing, when done right, is the new ideas you have while doing it. A real essay, as the name implies, is dynamic: you don’t know what you’re going to write when you start. It will be about whatever you discover in the course of writing it.”

You could discover new things while making a list. Maybe he knows more people who work at magazines than I do, but he seems to have a bizarre idea that he always knows how people think about things.

Maybe, as he says, Cosmo has an article about “7 Things He Won’t Tell You about Sex.” How does he know that they decided from the start to come up with seven? Maybe there were ten, and they felt that some were not very good. Or they cut some out for space. Or they started out thinking the article would be a list of 5, and came up with two more.

And this from a guy who pushes a language whose name derives from “list processing”

“This can only happen in a very limited way in a list of n things. You make the title first, and that’s what it’s going to be about. You can’t have more new ideas in the writing than will fit in the watertight compartments you set up initially. And your brain seems to know this: because you don’t have room for new ideas, you don’t have them.”

He seems to be assuming that when you make a list, you ALWAYS decide ahead of time how many items your list will have, and you ALWAYS come up with that number, and you NEVER delete any items.

“An essay can go anywhere the writer wants.”

But I as the reader have a right to decide what to do with my time. If you are going to meander, I will do something else. You want to dilly-dally, do it on someone else’s time.

“A real essay, as the name implies, is dynamic: you don’t know what you’re going to write when you start.”

A list can also be dynamic. You can change it as you make it, and as your understanding of a topic changes. I know Paul Graham tells me otherwise, but I know it’s true. I have done it, and I have seen others do it. Maybe that is what happens when Paul Graham makes lists. If so, that’s his problem.

“Because the main points are unconnected, the list of n things is random access. There’s no thread of reasoning you have to follow. You could read the list in any order.”

Not necessarily. Isn’t a mathematical proof a form of list? You could break a narrative story into a list. An outline is really a nested list. When you get a set of directions it is usually in the form of a list. Try boiling an egg in any order sometime. I have read lists where just beforehand the author stated there was an increasing or decreasing order of some sort (such as importance, probability or preference).

But, Paul Graham writes essays, and he can’t tell you that essays are better if he doesn’t make you think that all lists are bad.

He also has an “essay” that is a list: Six Principles for Making New Things

Maybe there is a mathematical definition of list that he is using.

Aren’t sets, stacks and queues types of lists? Aren’t maps and trees?

“You make the title first, and that’s what it’s going to be about. You can’t have more new ideas in the writing than will fit in the watertight compartments you set up initially. And your brain seems to know this: because you don’t have room for new ideas, you don’t have them.”

What makes you think that is the way that everybody makes lists? He seems to think he knows what is going through everybody’s head all the time and that he understands how other people think better than they do.

Lists can be used as a tool of exploration as well.

The military uses a style of writing called “bottom line up front”. I wonder how they would react to Paul Graham telling them that writing should be about exploring. Give someone the conclusion first, then let the reader decide if they want to drill into the details. What he calls exploring, some might call self-indulgence.

He praises essays because the essay is more “sophisticated” than a list.

Here is the origin of word sophisticated from

1350-1400; Middle English (adj. and v.) < Medieval Latin sophisticātus (past participle of sophisticāre to tamper with, disguise, trick with words), equivalent to Latin sophistic (us) (see sophistic ) + -ātus -ate1

Plus, sometimes people feel that working within constraints can make them more creative (see James Altucher’s site for some thoughts on this).

I think this is more of Paul Graham telling himself he’s a special snowflake. “Smarter programmers use Lisp! And I use Lisp! What a coincidence. Startups are better than big corporations, and I deal with startups. How cool is that? People who write essays are smarter than people who write lists. I write essays and don’t like lists. Isn’t that amazing?”

I think Paul Graham is a smart guy. Judging from his essays, I don’t think he is as smart as he thinks he is.

I think people should use lists more. I get field tickets for a very large, complex web app used by a state government in the US. Sometimes parsing what people are asking can be difficult. Writing out what they did when they encountered the problem in the form of a numbered list would make my life easier.

And a lot of stuff about this app is not written down. Or how to use some of the tools to support the app (like source control). Having all this written down in list format would make my life easier.

Image by Pierre Bonnard, from The Barnes Foundation, assumed allowed under Fair Use.

Idea Lists and Idea Machines

I have read James Altucher’s blog for a while. It is pretty interesting.

I have been trying to put his Daily Practice into place. I admit I am not always successful. One thing I am trying to do is building up my idea muscle by listing out ten ideas a day.

Some of his posts are pretty repetitive. He tells his life story over and over again. He had a few jobs, ran a few funds, and repeated the cycle of making and losing money a few times. He had a drinking problem. At one point his first wife called the police, and they convinced him to spend the night in a hotel. He says he hit rock bottom, and the Daily Practice saved him. He tries every day to do something for himself emotionally, spiritually, physically and mentally.

His main mental practice is to come up with ten ideas every day. They could be about anything. New businesses. Books he could write. Topics he would like to read books on. Features a web site should add. Reasons people should not own a home, or go to college. How to implement ideas from a previous day’s list.

The point is to work your idea muscle, and strain your brain. He says that sometimes he gets more than ten ideas, but he always tries to get at least ten. He says the first five or six are usually pretty easy. Then it gets pretty hard. Sometimes the ideas are pretty bad. Nobody could come up with 3,650 good ideas for a business in a year, and then do that again the next year. The point is to build your idea muscle.

He tries to make lists of ten, because the goal is to get himself to think about things, see things differently and make connections. Frequently he will find the first five ideas easy, and the next five difficult. This is what builds his “idea muscle”. And he does not say that all of these ideas are good or that they will go anywhere.

There have been a few other people who have posted about this (see this page,  this pagethis page and  this page). They say that it has changed how they think. They can react more quickly to situations. That sounds like a good thing to me.

So far I wind up skipping a day a lot, and sometimes have to do two lists a day. He says it takes six months to become an idea machine. He says when that happens, your life will change every six months. I would like to be rich. Who wouldn’t? I don’t expect to be a billionaire in six months. But I do not like my job, and I do not know enough about the technologies that interest me to get a job in them. Not yet. But maybe being an idea machine will help.

His wife wrote a book called How To Become An Idea Machine. I might buy it, since sometimes I don’t know what to use for a list topic.

Hopefully I will stay consistent, and have a better life in six months.

Some posts from James Altucher about different types of lists:


Note: I also discuss idea machines in a later post.

Image from Museu de Montserrat, assumed allowed under Fair Use.

Thoughts On Embracing Failure

I think I realized part of the reason I don’t get too much stuff done during the weekends. I think I am afraid of failure.

I try to learn new software skills on my free time (because I frankly hate my job). Everybody says practice makes perfect. But when I get a lot of stack traces and error messages it is hard to believe that I am making progress.

Especially when I realize I am making a mistake that I should not have made. Today I tried to use a closure to iterate through a map in Groovy, but instead of typing “mymap.each” before the closure, I typed “mymap”, and for several minutes I could not figure out why it was not working.

I know we should all be open to learning, but my employer does not pay me to learn. They pay me to get stuff done, and frankly that frequently takes me longer than it should.

Image from Wikipedia, assumed allowed under Fair Use.

Thoughts on Star Trek and What Happened To My Life

I am now in the sixth season of watching Star Trek: The Next Generation. I have come across a few episodes that I have not seen. But mostly I have seen them. Sometimes I can remember where I was when I watched them.

I first saw TNG when I was at WIU. It had been going for a couple of years at that point. My friends there knew about it. I had watched the movies with TOS cast, but TNG was not on my radar at all. I really only paid attention to shows on the big 3 networks. I remember Saturday Night Live would have sketches making fun of the bad shows on Fox (look for “The Cop and The Prositute”). I think I started watching in the third season. I remember having a conversation that Riker looked like a little kid without the beard. The phrase “growing the beard” was coined, but it has not quite caught on as much as “jumping the shark”. (Side note: He shaved the beard for the third TNG movie. There were only four TNG movies.  The cast from TOS was in six movies. Coincidence? I think not.) So I guess some station in Western Illinois was already broadcasting reruns even then. Sometimes we would imitate the previews: “On the next…exciting episode of Staaaaaar Trek, thenextgeneration”.

I remember my friends at WIU being glad that Dr Crusher was back in season 3.

I remember finding Wesley really irritating.

I kept watching TNG when I transferred to UIUC. I did not see every single episode since I have never owned a TV. But usually I could find someone who let me join in. I lived in the Illinois Street Residence hall, and when the latest episode of TNG was on, there would be several rooms on the floor full of guys watching TNG. In one episode, “Riker falls in love with Soren, a member of an androgynous race known as the J’naii, who dares to be female.” (This was a metaphor for homosexuality, a pretty daring thing to do even in the early 1990s.) At one point, she says to him, “Commander, tell me about your sexual organs.” Someone down the hall yelled, “They’re huge, baby!”

I remember writing a letter by hand summarizing Redemption.

I remember Picard and Dathon…at El-Adrel.

I can remember one guy translating the French in “Time’s Arrow” for a few of us. After I left UIUC the first time, he starting dating a woman no one else on the floor liked, and I don’t remember what happened to him after that.

I remember that I was living in an apartment when “Timescape” aired (although I have not quite gotten that far yet in my current TNG binge).

But like Scotty in “Relics“, sometimes it makes me feel old.

I remember watching “Samaritan Snare“. Wesley asks Picard if he ever thought about having children or getting married, if he ever gets lonely. I do remember when Wesley asks Picard if he was always so disciplined. I remember thinking at the age of 19 or so that I was going to be as disciplined as Picard, and I would reach that point long before I got to Picard’s age. Now, I realize that Patrick Stewart is about ten years younger than I thought, and I still don’t feel like I have as much self-control as I wish I had, or as much as my 19 year old self thought I would have by this point.

There were times when I felt I was getting some control. How to get that discipline back?

“Samaritan Snare” image from Memory Alpha, copyright owned by CBS, assumed allowed under Fair Use.

Darmok campaign image presumed public domain, copyright and originator undetermined, assumed allowed under Fair Use.

“Relics” image from Star Trek site, copyright owned by CBS, assumed allowed under Fair Use.

More Notes From My Planner

Here are some more notes and lists from a planner by At-A-Glance.

Time Management Tips:
1. Set Goals.
Write down your goals (it’s only a wish until you write it down)
Goals must be useful, mesureable, and attainable
Prioritize your goals using the “A, B, C” method: A = High, B = Medium, C = Low
Evaluate your goals daily
Visualize your goals – imagine how you will achieve your goals and “do it”

2. Avoid Procrastination
Procrastination is the one time waster of which you have control
How to keep procrastination under control:
a. slice the task into more manageable pieces and start on the easiest one
b. get a clear picture of the task by discussing and rationalizing with others
c. designate interim completion points
d. chart your progress
e. set a deadline for completing the project

3. Minimize interruptions
The average employee is interrupted every 9 minutes. This equals 48 interruptions per day.
How to handle interruptions:
a. if it’s necessary, handle immediately
b. if it’s unnecessary, stop it or avoid it
c. if it’s untimely, reschedule it

That sounds like Getting Things Done

4. Manage your telephone time
The telephone is both a terrific time saver and an insidious thief. Unfortunately, phones are a primary source of interruptions. In fact, 40% of managers spend more than two hours per day on the phone.
How to manage your phone calls:
a. screen your calls through an assistant or answering machine
b. if the person you’re calling isn’t available, leave a precise message – you’re more likely to get an answer back without having to call again
c. use automatic dialing to save valuable time
d. return calls before lunch or the end of the day – people get to the point faster when lunch or quitting time draws near
e. keep a phone log in your planner to record decisions and discussions

5. Conquer Paperwork
You should handle paperwork only once. Try the TRAF system (citation to Stephanie Wilson, “Getting Organized” and “The Organized Executive”)
Here are some tips on how to TRAF:
Toss It: if you have an assistant, delegate the sorting, screening and tossing of mail.
Refer It: keep a folder handy for each person you deal with on a regular basis – when that person comes to see you, open the folder and take care of all the items at once
Act On It: start an action folder or action page in your planner
File It: with a discard date on papers that will outlive their usefulness and clutter your files

6. Plan Shorter and More Effective Meetings
Meetings can be a big time waster. Before you set up a meeting, evaluate your agenda and determine if the information could be shared more efficiently by distributing it with a routing slip.
If it’s necessary to schedule a meeting:
a. Don’t allow more time for meetings than necessary – many times all the tasks can be completed in less time than originally scheduled
b. distribute the meeting agenda at least one day in advance and don’t overload the agenda
c. start meetings on time, even if everyone is not present
d. don’t schedule a meeting for more than 2 hours; beyond that, concentration suffers
e. issue minutes promptly
f. attend meetings only if necessary

Twelve Valuable Tips For Getting Things Done
– Use lists
– Maintain a time management system. Use your planner
– Set goals and priorities
– Build strong working relationships with others
– Do the worst first
– Identify time-wasters and eliminate them
– Take control of your time
– Organize your home and office
– Use the right equipment
– Learn to say “No”
– Delegate
– Just do it

Image from Wikipedia, assumed allowed under Fair Use

Thoughts on To-Do Lists

There was an article a while back on Business Insider about the problems with to-do lists. It originally appeared on a site called I Done This which has some interesting productivity artcles.

They seem to subscribe to Marc Andreessen’s idea of listing tasks after you have done them.

I will stick with to-do lists for the time being. I don’t always get all the tasks done. Sometimes I don’t get to any of them. But I like to make one every day if I can. If I do not make one, then I never get anything done. I surf the web, or I pace in my apartment and worry about things. I do not regard not completing every task as a failure. I do regard getting absolutely nothing done a failure.

Maybe at some point I will try making “Done” lists, but for now I will stick with to-do lists. They are not great, but for me they are better than nothing.

Sidenote: It is starting to look like Marc Andreessen is the source of a lot of the issues HP is having. Will this affect his reputation?

Notes From My Planner

I got a few planners made by At-A-Glance. They have some interesting notes and lists in them. I liked them, so I will put them here.

Highly Motivated People:

  • Have extraordinary purpose
  • Are willing to take risks
  • Participate fully in life
  • Are energetic
  • Are humble
  • Are committed to life-long learning
  • Possess an attitude of success
  • Are persistent – with options
  • Strive for health in all aspects of their lives
  • Rise above adversity

Note-taking Principles:

  • Record only worthwhile facts
  • User your words or speaker’s words – whichever is easiest
  • Write in phrases, as short as possible
  • Listen for introductory remarks
  • Listen for pointer-words, especially numbers
  • Skip examples unless needed to understand idea
  • Use every possible abbreviation
  • Leave blank space if you miss something; ask later
  • Write down formulas, dates, graphs, drawings
  • Put your comments in brackets


Posts On Improving Work Ethic

A few days ago I decided to google “How to improve your work ethic.” Here are some of the results:

The one from the consulting firm is okay.

I am also starting to meditate on a regular basis. I seem to need less sleep when I meditate, and in general have more focus.

Later I will summarize these posts.


The Procrastination Equation

A book that I went through recently is The Procrastination Equation by Piers Steel.

I am not going to give the actual equation. You can find it as his site. About half the book goes over the causes and the costs of procrastination. The basic thrust is that procrastination is caused by people paying more attention to the urges and messages from the limbic system (which deals with appetites and short-term needs) than the pre-frontal cortex (the part that deals with logic, reason, self-control and long-term thinking and planning). He states that even educated people have these issues. He is upfront about procrastination in his own life.

He has a couple of interesting posts on his blog here, here, here and here. There are reviews of it here, here and here.

He does not give advice and strategies until chapter 7. I will list them here.

Chapter seven strategies:
Action points for success spirals:
– volunteer for more responsibility
– travel to some new place you thought you would never go
– try an adventure activity like skydiving, mountain climbing, white-water rafting
– learn a new skill (cooking, music). As you advance, give yourself some credit
– Challenge yourself pushing an old hobby to new limits
– break down initimidating tasks to smaller tasks, track progress and count successes
Action points for vicarious victory
– Watch inspirational movies
– read inspirational biographies and autobiographies
– listen to inspirational speakers
– join a community, service or professional organization
– start your own support group
Action points for wish fulfillment
– sit down in a quiet place and clear your mind, think about the life you want
– focus on one aspect of this life
– elaborate on all the things about this mental picture that are attractive to you
– mentally contrast this ideal future with your life now
– if you are still optimistic, you will find more motivation
Action points for plan for the worst, hope for the best
– distract what could go wrong to distract you on the way to your goal
– make a list of ways you procrastinate, and post it where you work
– avoid these risky pre-defined situations
– develop a disaster recovery plan ahead of time
– if you get derailed, use your recovery plan
Action points for accepting that you are addicted to delay
– take a moment to reflect on how many times you have talked yourself out of your plans and into trouble. Start a log to track procrastination habits
– acknowledge your biggest worry is your weak will
– accept that the first delay allows you to justify subsequent delays

Chapter 8 strategies
action points for games and goals
– avoid boredom by making tasks more challenging. Gamify stuff
– connect tasks to your long-term goals, to what you find intrinsically motivating
– frame your goals in terms of what you want, not in terms of what you are trying to avoid
action points for energy crisis
– reserve your morning and mid-day peak performance hours for the hard stuff
– don’t let yourself get hungry
– exercise a few times a few times a week
– get on a regular sleep schedule
– respect your limitations
action points for you should see the task I am avoiding
– identify a large task you should be doing right now but are not
– identify tangent tasks that should be done, that you might be putting off right now, and are more enjoyable than the target task
– accept the trade-off of avoiding the target task by tackling the tangent tasks, putting you in a better position to do target task
action points for double of nothing
– make a list of rewards you can give yourself
– promise yourself these rewards upon task completion
– consider ways to make tasks more enjoyable
– make sure what makes the work more enjoyable does not override the work itself
action points for let your passion be your vocation
– look at careers involving activities you like doing
– filter out occupations for which you do not have needed skills
– ranks what remains by economic demand
– look for career advice (he recommends Career Vision)
– start job hunting

Chapter 9 Strategies
action points for commit to bondage, satiation and poison
– bondage: put temptations out of reach or far away. remove batter from PDA
– satiation: satisfy your needs before they get too intense
– poison: add disincentives to your temptations
action points for making attention pay
– sully tempting alternatives by using covert sensitization
– when confronted with distracting temptations, focus on their abstract aspects. Chocolate cheesecake is in the categories of fat and sugar
– eliminate cues that remind you of distracting alternatives
– replace them with meaningful pictures, like a picture of your family to remind you why you are working
– foster work cues by compartmentalizing work and play
action points for scoring goals
– frame your goals in specific terms. Instead of “do expense report”, say “Gather receipts and itemize them”
– break down long-term goals into short-term objectives
– organize goals into routines that occur regularly at same time and place

Thoughts on ‘Willpower’

Here are a few thoughts on Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. (You can find reviews here, here and here.)

They talk a lot about the physical inputs of willpower. Being hungry can affect your decisions and self-control.

Roy F. Baumeister came up with the discovery that willpower is like a muscle: You can deplete it throughout the day.

There is not a lot of advice, until the last chapter.

They say you should make gradual changes, and to try to change one thing at a time. Trying to stop smoking while also trying to start exercising at the same time will be less successful than trying one or the other one at a time.

I will try to summarize some of the advice they give to increase willpower and self-control at the end of the book.

Since your supply of willpower is limited, you should

When your willpower becomes depleted, you will become more frustrated, and impulses will be harder to resist.

Make small changes over time instead of big changes right away.

Make a to-do list. It can relieve you from worrying about those decisions. But be aware that things make take longer than you plan.

You will be better off if you keep your life in order. If you expend less energy thinking about food, sleep, etc, you have more energy to do what you really want. I think I read that Einstein never changed the type of music he listened to, or the type of food he ate, so he could expend more energy for physics.

Look at the Nothing Alternative. An author profiled in the book would set time for writing. He did not have to write, but if he did not he could not do anything else productive.

They recommend monitoring your progress toward your goals. They also talk about the power of community to keep you on track to meet your goals.

A lot of the reviews were not too positive. I was not able to summarize it as well as I hoped to. I have to get it back to the library. It’s overdue. I reserved it a while back, and it came in right before I went to Austin. So I was not able to get to it (and a couple of other books) for about a week.

Update 2012-08-31_18.07.55: There was an article about this book on Business Insider on September 18, 2011.