Eugene Fedorenko is Writing, Reading, and Traveling

Reading (never enough)

Current books: The Making of a Manager: What to Do When Everyone Looks to You by  Julie Zhuo The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. Europe: A History by Norman Davies

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Darwin Was a Slacker and You Should Be Too

By Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

On Darwin's schedule:

After his morning walk and breakfast, Darwin was in his study by 8 and worked a steady hour and a half. At 9:30 he would read the morning mail and write letters. At 10:30, Darwin returned to more serious work, sometimes moving to his aviary, greenhouse, or one of several other buildings where he conducted his experiments. By noon, he would declare, “I’ve done a good day’s work,” and set out on a long walk on the Sandwalk, a path he had laid out not long after buying Down House. (Part of the Sandwalk ran through land leased to Darwin by the Lubbock family.) When he returned after an hour or more, Darwin had lunch and answered more letters. At 3 he would retire for a nap; an hour later he would arise, take another walk around the Sandwalk, then return to his study until 5:30, when he would join his wife, Emma, and their family for dinner.

On John Lubbock’s schedule, who was Darwin's neighbor and “one of the most accomplished of England’s amateur men of science, one of the most prolific and successful authors of his time, one of the most earnest of social reformers, and one of the most successful lawmakers in the recent history of Parliament”:

And Lubbock practiced what he preached. It could be hard to manage his time when Parliament was in session, as debates and votes could extend well after midnight, but at High Elms he was up at 6:30, and after prayers, a ride, and breakfast, he started work at 8:30. He divided his day into half-hour blocks, a habit he’d learned from his father. After long years of practice, he was able to switch his attention from “some intricate point of finance” with his partners or clients to “such a problem in biology as parthenogenesis” without skipping a beat. In the afternoons he would spend a couple more hours outdoors.

That summarizes similarities in their schedules pretty well:

Darwin and Lubbock, and many other creative and productive figures, weren’t accomplished despite their leisure; they were accomplished because of it.

I wonder if their approach with long walks, naps, and regular breaks is especially well-suited for scientist and deep thinkers. They weren’t talking on the phone or listening to audiobooks during their walks, but probably thinking about their work.

On Hardy’s schedule:

G.H. Hardy, one of Britain’s leading mathematicians in the first half of the 20th century, would start his day with a leisurely breakfast and close reading of the cricket scores, then from 9 to 1 would be immersed in mathematics. After lunch he would be out again, walking and playing tennis. “Four hours creative work a day is about the limit for a mathematician,” he told his friend and fellow Oxford professor C.P. Snow. Hardy’s longtime collaborator John Edensor Littlewood believed that the “close concentration” required to do serious work meant that a mathematician could work “four hours a day or at most five, with breaks about every hour (for walks perhaps).” Littlewood was famous for always taking Sundays off, claiming that it guaranteed he would have new ideas when he returned to work on Monday.

And some research results to back all of this up:

Scientists who spent 25 hours in the workplace were no more productive than those who spent five. Scientists working 35 hours a week were half as productive as their 20-hours-a-week colleagues. From there, the curve rose again, but more modestly. Researchers who buckled down and spent 50 hours per week in the lab were able to pull themselves out of the 35-hour valley: They became as productive as colleagues who spent five hours a week in the lab. Van Zelst and Kerr speculated that this 50-hour bump was concentrated in “physical research which requires continuous use of bulky equipment,” and that most of those 10-hour days were spent tending machines and occasionally taking measurements.

On Charles Dickens’ schedule:

After an early life burning the midnight oil, Dickens settled into a schedule as “methodical or orderly” as a “city clerk,” his son Charley said. Dickens shut himself in his study from 9 until 2, with a break for lunch. Most of his novels were serialized in magazines, and Dickens was rarely more than a chapter or two ahead of the illustrators and printer. Nonetheless, after five hours, Dickens was done for the day.

What unites them all is a deliberate practice:

First, the great students didn’t just practice more than the average, they practiced more deliberately. During deliberate practice, Ericsson explained, you’re “engaging with full concentration in a special activity to improve one’s performance.” […] Second, you need a reason to keep at it, day after day. Deliberate practice isn’t a lot of fun, and it’s not immediately profitable.
“Deliberate practice,” they observed, “is an effortful activity that can be sustained only for a limited time each day.” Practice too little and you never become world-class. Practice too much, though, and you increase the odds of being struck down by injury, draining yourself mentally, or burning out. To succeed, students must “avoid exhaustion” and “limit practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis.”

And finally, on sleep and napping:

The top performers actually slept about an hour a day more than the average performers. They didn’t sleep late. They got more sleep because they napped during the day. Of course there was lots of variability, but the best students generally followed a pattern of practicing hardest and longest in the morning, taking a nap in the afternoon, and then having a second practice in the late afternoon or evening.

I am a big fan of rebooting with an afternoon nap. Long naps knock me off for a while, so my go-to recipe is a 20 minute nap followed by an espresso. For me it works better than just a coffee break, a walk, or mental switch.

A Year of Google Maps & Apple Maps

By Justin O'Beirne

A very detailed in-depth look at progress that Google Maps and Apple Maps did in a year. It's fascinating to see how steadily Google rolls out one design update after another, and how over time they all click together to become a part of a single plan.

I want to like and use Apple Maps, but in reality Google Maps are just way more reliable and better designed. I try Apple Maps for a day or two after every major update, but never stick to it.

Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy

By Tim Urban

Lucy is part of Generation Y, the generation born between the late 1970s and the mid 1990s. She’s also part of a yuppie culture that makes up a large portion of Gen Y.
I have a term for yuppies in the Gen Y age group—I call them Gen Y Protagonists & Special Yuppies, or GYPSYs. A GYPSY is a unique brand of yuppie, one who thinks they are the main character of a very special story.
So Lucy’s enjoying her GYPSY life, and she’s very pleased to be Lucy. Only issue is this one thing:
Lucy’s kind of unhappy.

Another great post at Wait But Why.

A better way to care for the dying

By The Economist

On life expectancy and average lifespan:

Many aspects of death changed during the 20th century. One was when it happens. The average lifespan increased by more over the past four generations than over the previous 8,000. In 1900 global life expectancy at birth was about 32 years, little more than at the dawn of agriculture. It is now 71.8 years. In large part that is a result of lower infant and child mortality; a century ago about a third of children died before their fifth birthday. But it is also because adults live longer. Today a 50-year-old Englishman can expect to live for another 33 years, 13 more than in 1900.

On change in a perspective:

What healthy people think they will want when they are mortally ill may well change when that moment comes. “Life becomes mighty precious when there is not a lot left,” says Diane Meier, a geriatrician at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. It is common, for example, to hate the idea of a feeding tube but grudgingly accept one when the alternative is death.

On palliative care:

Doctors often neglect palliative care, which involves giving opioids for pain, treating breathlessness and counselling patients. (The name comes from the Latin palliare, as in “to cloak” pain.) A typical question is “What is important to you now?” It does not seek to cure. As a result, “it is seen as what you do when you give up on a patient,” sighs Dr Ikegami. It receives just 0.2% of the funding for cancer research in Britain and 1% in America. […] Since 2009 several randomised controlled trials have looked at what happens when patients with advanced cancer are given palliative care alongside standard treatment, such as chemotherapy. In each, the group receiving palliative care had lower rates of depression; and in all but one study, patients in that group were less likely to report pain.

In defense of “users”

By Dan Saffer

Every few weeks, some wannabe UX “thought leader” takes a “brave” stand against the word “user.” The only users in the world are drug users, they sneer. It’s dehumanizing. We should use the word “person” instead. It’s one of those debates that appears meaningful and principled, but is more noise than signal.
Words do matter, and word choice matters. But you’re not diminishing anyone or any group of people by using the term “user.” User is a perfectly fine, gender-neutral, activity-positive term for the person engaged with your product or service. Feel free to use it.

Can’t agree more.

Also, trends are funny — I still remember times when the same “thought leaders” wrote think pieces arguing to start calling them “user experience designers” or specifically “user interface designers”. Now the same crowd wants to replace “user” with the term “person”. “Person experience designer”, anyone?

Diderot effect

The effect was first described in Diderot's essay "Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown". Here he tells how the gift of a beautiful scarlet dressing gown leads to unexpected results, eventually plunging him into debt. Initially pleased with the gift, Diderot came to rue his new garment. Compared to his elegant new dressing gown, the rest of his possessions began to seem tawdry and he became dissatisfied that they did not live up to the elegance and style of his new possession. He replaced his old straw chair, for example, with an armchair covered in Moroccan leather; his old desk was replaced with an expensive new writing table; his formerly beloved prints were replaced with more costly prints, and so on. "I was absolute master of my old dressing gown", Diderot writes, "but I have become a slave to my new one … Beware of the contamination of sudden wealth. The poor man may take his ease without thinking of appearances, but the rich man is always under a strain".

English has a traditional solution to gender-neutral pronouns

Copy editors are opinionated. Whether titles of books should be in italics or in inverted commas can divide them more decidedly than the Sharks and the Jets. So at a recent meeting of the American Copy Editors Society, the “Chicago Manual of Style” and the Associated Press (AP) stylebook, both widely followed, announced a change that sent waves through the audience. In AP’s wording, “They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and-or gender-neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy.”

It's great to see Chicago Manual of Style, Associated Press, and The Economist all agreeing on this one. I started using they/them/their as a singular in my writing not too long ago and it still feels a little awkward, but we really need a gender-neutral pronoun.

One alternative would be to make the referent plural: “Presidents choose their own cabinets.” This is usually the best thing to do. But there are times when a writer wants to conjure an individual, albeit a generic one. In such cases, the truly newfangled options have failed to gain widespread acceptance among editors and writers of quality. Singular, epicene they has not just modern gender equality but seven centuries of the finest literary tradition on its side. As usage disputes go, this should be an easy one.

Why I ignore the daily news and read The Economist instead (and how you can too)

By John Zeratsky

An old article by John Zeratsky — the co-author of book Sprint — on his approach to dealing with the daily news:

I don’t follow the daily news. I don’t read a paper, watch TV news, or follow any news outlets on Twitter.  Still, I want to know what’s happening in the world—both near to me and far away. But I find the daily news distracting. It steals my attention away from the important projects and people in my life. And it’s mostly unnecessary. […]  Truly important breaking news always finds me. For everything else, there’s The Economist.

I've been struggling with following news lately (and who haven't?) — too much drama, twisting facts, and events or quotes taken out of context on Twitter and Facebook. I want less news but with a better coverage and deeper analysis. Dave Pell's NextDraft was my daily hit for a while, but it can be hard to keep up with. I subscribed to The New Yorker a couple times but it never stuck — too US-centric, and while most stories are thought-provoking they aren’t important for getting a weekly summary. Most of their writing is non-urgent and almost timeless — I can pick up an unread issue from the last year and still enjoy it.

So I am giving The Economist a try for a next few months. Their articles do not show up in my Instapaper queue too often, but I like their global focus and a concise style. I also truly love a well-made print magazine. We should enjoy them while they are still a thing.

Patagonia’s philosopher-king

By Nick Paumgarten

On taking regular sabbaticals:

He’s less involved in the management of the company than he used to be, but since he got into the gear business, more than fifty years ago, he has frequently disappeared for months, sometimes for half the year, to climb, kayak, surf, ski, fish, and ramble around the planet’s wilder precincts, whose preservation he has dedicated the better part of his life to.

On Yvon Chouinard’s cabin in Jackson Hole near Grand Teton National Park:

He and some friends built the house in 1976, out of beetle-kill lodgepole pine. It was one of the first log houses in the valley, on six acres he’d bought for fifteen thousand dollars an acre. It’s simple and small, a relic of a different idea of mountain living. (“Now everyone builds these huge trophy log houses,” he said.) The house was strewn outside with gear and inside with bric-a-brac: nature books, binoculars, the sheet music to “Don’t Fence Me In,” which the family sings at weddings.

On priorities and work-life balance:

Chouinard had always encouraged his employees to cut work and go surfing when the swell came in.

On company growth:

The company laid off twenty per cent of its workforce, which no longer consisted mainly of friends and friends of friends. “It was hard,” Chouinard said. “I realized we were just growing for the sake of growing, which is bullshit.” […] The company, he worried, was straying from its hard-core origins. “I was faced with the prospect of owning a billion-dollar company, with thousands of employees making ‘outdoorlike’ clothing for posers,” he said early in 1991, in a speech to the employees, in which he outlined his misgivings and his new resolutions.

On philanthropic responsibilities:

The Chouinards undertook an environmental audit of their products and operations. For a few years, they’d been tithing ten per cent of their profit to grassroots environmental organizations. Now they enshrined a self-imposed “earth tax” of one per cent of their sales: a bigger number. “The capitalist ideal is you grow a company and focus on making it as profitable as possible. Then, when you cash out, you become a philanthropist,” Chouinard said. “We believe a company has a responsibility to do that all along—for the sake of the employees, for the sake of the planet.”

On defining your audience:

One catalogue, in the nineties, had a little chart of what Patagonia was versus what it was not: Fly fishing, not bass fishing. Long-haul trucking, not delivery-men. Surfing, not waterskiing. Upland bird hunting, not deer hunting. Gardeners, not survivalists. 

On popularity of wilderness and ecological consciousness:

He has made it more comfortable, and more glamorous, to be outside, in harsh conditions. His influence is way out of proportion to his revenue footprint. He has mixed feelings about all this—some apprehension about the world he has made. He celebrates the spread of an ecological consciousness but laments the disappearance of danger and novelty, and the way that the wilderness has become a hobby, or even a vocation. He disdains ski areas (“They’re golf courses”), the idea of professional climbing (“I just don’t like the whole paid-climber thing”), and the proliferation of extreme sports as programming and marketing (“Red Bull’s in the snuff-film business”).

On a hidden connection between Patagonia and North Face:

As sales of such soft goods began to outpace those of the hard, it was determined that the concern needed a name of its own. Chouinard suggested Patagonia. It sounded exotic, and it name-checked a place that had become dear to him since his Fun Hogs trip in 1968 with Doug Tompkins, an East Coast prep-school dropout who’d headed west to ski and climb. In the sixties, Tompkins and his then wife, Susie, started the North Face, an outdoor-gear retailer, as well as the clothing company Esprit, which Chouinard looked to as a model for his fledgling business.

On Patagonia's first fleece jackets:

For example, fleece, the hydrophobic washable insulating material that the Chouinards later branded Synchilla. It took them a while to get it right. Their first pile jackets were of fabric that had been intended for toilet-seat covers.

On “management by absence” and learning from nature:

I asked him how much power he had. “Power? I don’t have any power. If I complain about something, I often get a passive-aggressive response. I put up with it, because the alternative is to micromanage. I’m just the owner.” He called his executive style “management by absence.” He used to read business books and study various executive styles and corporate structures, here and abroad, but he prefers to take his lessons from nature—from ant colonies, for example. “There’s no management,” he said. “Every ant just does his job. They communicate and figure it out. It’s like a Navy Seal team. The whole team has to agree on what the mission is.” It’s also true, however, that Chouinard’s occasionally whimsical notions send the ants scurrying. Absent or not, he’s still the big ant.

On living an unpretentious life:

Over the years, the Chouinards had taken very little money out of the business. “Until the last couple of years, it was just houses,” Chouinard told me. In addition to Ventura and Jackson, they have a small place up the coast at the Hollister Ranch, a famous surfing spot that is off-limits to the public. He’s probably worth hundreds of millions, but he’s one of those could-be high rollers who fly coach. Every now and then, he still sleeps in his car. (McGuane told me, “He lives an unpretentious life, but does it on a lot of expensive real estate.”)

11 simple npm tricks that will knock your wombat socks off

By Tierney Cyren

Lists of tricks are not my favorite genre, but this one is surprisingly good. npm outdated replaced node-check-updates for me, and npm prune is really useful during a cleanup.