May 22, 2017

Learn Better – book notes

Posted in Behaviour at 05:25 by graham

Learn Better, by Ulrich Bosner is an interesting, valuable book, that is too long. The information would fit comfortably into 50 pages, but you can’t sell a book that short. Amazon is fixing this, but I have a strong preference for paper books over e-books. Anyway, here are my notes.

The core ideas

There are two big ideas in Learn Better:

I. Learning is a skill which you can improve at

Carol Dweck’s Mindset claims that individuals who believe this (versus thinking the ability to learn is fixed and innate) live “a more successful life”. If you picked up a book called “Learn Better”, I’m guessing you already think you can learn better, so hey, you’re half way there already.

In noticed the same viewpoint in a large study of high-school valedictorians: “The top students readily identified themselves as ‘school smart’. Academic talent, to them, meant the ability to excel at academic learning and school tasks such as note taking, memorization, and testing. Many of them clearly attributed their success primarily to effort rather than ability.”

II. Learning is a generative activity

You don’t learn by loading information from somewhere into your brain. You have to create it. To learn, you must do.

Tangent: I found this interesting because of the similarities with memory. We often think of memory as a video camera, yet recalling a memory is a creative activity. I’d highly recommend Elizabeth Loftus’s The myth of repressed memory which explains this very well.

What does “generative” mean here? What kind of activities must you do to learn?

  • Take notes in your own words as you read (I’m doing it now!).
  • Summarize.
  • Tell other people what you learned (even imaginary other people); this is what we do in programming with the rubber duck.
  • Take practice quizzes.

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June 18, 2015

How I read job postings

Posted in Behaviour at 00:40 by graham

In the interests of illustrating the complicated programmer psyche for the benefit of anyone involved in recruitment, here’s the two things I look at in a job advert:

  • Is it using a programming language / technology that I know and enjoy?

    If I don’t enjoy the tools, the days are really going to drag. If I don’t already know the language, you’re probably not going to hire me.

  • Is it fully remote, or near my house?

    I have to live somewhere, and right now I live here. I’m sure your office is lovely.

Those are the gatekeeper questions. If the answer to either of those is no, there’s no point reading on, it’s not going to work. You won’t want me, or I won’t enjoy the work, or I’ll have a nasty commute / relocation. If the answer to both of those is yes, then I can get excited, it’s a real opportunity.

Job ads too often focus on what matters to the person writing them, not what matters to the person reading.

December 8, 2013

My setup: Hardware

Posted in Behaviour at 00:46 by graham

Here’s my current setup, and the hardware I got, in case you were curious. And because I know I’ll be curious in a few years.

  • Aeron chair: Are the any other type of office chairs? I don’t think so. At least there shouldn’t be. You can usually get one cheap from a failing startup in your area.

  • INGO Ikea sitting desk: A plenty big enough desk, of solid wood, and cheap. It’s marketed as a kitchen table. I’ve owned three of these so far.

  • BJORKUDDEN Ikea standing desk: A little bit too short for me, so I have some phone books on top. Getting a standing desk the right height is tricky, because your legs don’t adjust, unlike a chair, so it has to be perfect. This as close as I could find without spending a fortune. I stand about 50% of the time when I’m programming, but not 50% of the day. Some days I mostly stand, others I mostly sit. Standing after lunch helps a lot in overcoming the post-lunch coma. The Bjorkudden is marketed as a bar table.


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September 2, 2013

What if everyone worked remotely?

Posted in Behaviour at 16:49 by graham

What would happen if everyone had the freedom to work remotely? How would things change?

Many companies such as Lincoln Loop, Mozilla, Automattic, and MySQL AB are already distributed organizations. Central to that philosophy is that only what you do matters, not where or when. Obviously some work, like fishing and truck driving, can’t be done remotely, but in modern economies, a large number of people spend the bulk of their day sitting at a desk. What if they all felt free to work remotely? It’s a fun though experiment, so here goes – what changes might we see?

Less commuting. Commuting, for most people, is a reliable and persistent source of unhappiness (because it reduces the control you have over your own life). Less commuting also means less car miles driven, which means less death on the road. Less commuting means less pollution and lower demand for oil, with attendant geo-political consequences.

More community. Instead of just sleeping in our homes, we now live there, and become part of the community, indeed we create that community. You can pick up your kids from school at 4pm. You can attend the town hall meeting. You’re supporting the businesses near you. You actually meet and talk to your neighbours. You move somewhere where you like your neighbours :-)

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May 27, 2013

Co-located teams are a business risk

Posted in Behaviour at 23:53 by graham

Early in my career, I worked for a company run by two ex-military officers. When they attended a distant meeting, they would take separate flights, because surely the company would not survive if they were both hurt in a crash. They never got injured in a plane, but they did get sick at the same time (the company survived). Shared offices turned out more dangerous than shared aeroplanes.

There’s a risk to placing your most valuable people within sneezing distance of each other.

You probably know and talk of your team’s “bus number”, but sickness strikes far more often than buses. We’ve all seen co-located teams drop one by one, and you’ve probably wished a sick colleague had stayed home rather than share his germs with you.

The biggest risk to humanity in the next 50 years is an influenza outbreak, according to Vaclav Smil in Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next Fifty Years. Influenza doesn’t spread through IRC.

If we’re to build resilient companies, we need to think about what actually takes us away from our work, and structure our environment to mitigate that.

How many people can you afford to lose to sickness? For how long?

October 23, 2012

Tools for Change, Social Change Conference 1995 notes

Posted in Behaviour at 05:31 by graham

In these months of American politicians trying to influence you, I thought it interesting to look at ways of using the same tools for positive change.

In May 1995, Canadian academic, broadcaster and environmental activist David Suzuki invited marketers, scientists, media educators, and activists to Vancouver for a Social Change Conference. The goal was for social change organisations to learn about effective marketing and behaviour change from professionals and each other.

The proceedings were published in Tools for Change, which is available at the Vancouver Pubic Library, and AFAIK basically nowhere else. Here’s what I found interesting:

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David Suzuki on television

Posted in Behaviour at 02:11 by graham

David Suzuki tells of making television science programs. He thought people would turn on TV to watch his program, then turn it off and discuss.

Of course people don’t watch television that way at all. They come home, they turn it on, and it’s there. And they tune in and out, assaulted by a barrage of images. By the time they go to bed at night, their brains are mush. They retain bits and pieces with no idea where it came from.

(From the highlights of Social Change Conference, 1995).

When confronted with the negative effects of television, people often claim “I only watch the Discovery / History / Nature channel”. Your brain still turns to mush. Put the TV in a cupboard.

June 15, 2012

Optimize for motivation: Post on Lincoln Loop’s blog

Posted in Behaviour at 17:15 by graham

Excited to have my first post on Lincoln Loop’s blog, about intrinsic motivation, flow, and why you don’t find cats in offices:

When your client is hundreds of miles away, but your bed only three feet, it helps to understand motivation.

The first thing to understand about motivation is that it’s not something you do to someone. That’s called coercion. With enough power you can make anyone do almost anything, but you can’t make them want to; and typically …

Read the rest at Lincoln Loop

September 26, 2011

DjangoCon 2011: Psychology for your webapp

Posted in Behaviour at 17:32 by graham

I got to do a 5min lightning talk at DjangoCon 2011 in Portland. The full slides are in the BarCamp post.

I’m presenting a model for applying insights from psychology to your webapp users.

Psychology for your Webapp on blip.tvscroll to 15:45 for start of my talk.

September 18, 2011

Hostage Negotiation 101

Posted in Behaviour, Society, Strategy at 21:24 by graham

I recently finished Gary Noesner’s Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator, by the F.B.I.‘s former head of and founder of their hostage negotiation unit. The book is a great read (and I suspect heavily ghost-written). Here’s what I learnt:

Your goal as a negotiator is to get the target(s) (the person or people you are trying to arrest) to surrender peacefully to law enforcement.

Sometimes there are hostages, and then your priority is securing their release, but usually there are not. By getting them to put down their weapons and come out you are usually saving their lives, and also protecting your colleagues.

The last resort is an armed assault by the SWAT team. Prior to negotiation being taken seriously by law enforcement, this was the only option.

Make exclusive contact

First and foremost, you need to get in contact with them. Usually they are keen to talk, and most often you can use the phone line. Sometimes you have to get the SWAT team to bring them a field telephone. Sometimes you stand outside the window or at the foot of the stairs, and shout. And occasionally, as in the Beltway sniper case you have to ask the media to say things and hope the target hears.

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