Random Notes

The public notebook of writer and essayist Scott Nesbitt

At the start of 2021, I told myself no new gadgets or electronics for the next 12 months. So far, I've managed to stick to that.

A few weeks later, I decided to extend that to include books — whether new or used, printed or electronic. Instead, I'm taking 2021 to do something I don't do enough of: rereading books that I haven't cracked open in 10, 20, or even 30 years.

Why? To reacquaint myself with works that I've enjoyed or which helped shape my thinking. To see if those books have held up after all this time. To again expose my brain to the ideas in those books. To find out how my thinking and perception have changed. To uncover ideas I might have missed the last time I read those books.

I might find myself asking Why did I get into this book? I might find myself wondering why I didn't reread a book earlier. Or I might have another reaction.

I'm looking forward to finding out what happens.

It's a waste of time

I've heard those words uttered so often in my life. Sometimes about what I wanted to do or was doing. Sometimes about what others wanted to do or were doing. And, to be honest, I'm sure I've said that more than a few times.

And they could be talking about anything. A hobby. A pursuit. A dream. Something you're reading or watching.

Think about the people say that. They most likely are people who don't understand the appeal of what you're doing. They're probably people who have fallen into the idle hands mindset (as in the devil makes work for ...). They're probably people who believe that everything you do, everything you pursue needs to be practical.

Guess what? They're wrong. Wrong about you. Wrong about what you're doing. And they're wrong to point it out.

Why? Because it's your time. What you do with it is no one's concern but your own. You can do with it what you will. If you enjoy doing something frivolous, if you're enriched by something, then it's not a waste of time.

Here's an example: on and off for the last few months, I've been picking up my daughter's acoustic guitar and learning some basic chords. I can strum maybe half a dozen of them. I definitely can't quickly shift between them, and I know I'll never be able to play a tune.

Some people have said I'm wasting my time. Why do that if you're not going to learn to play the guitar properly? they've asked. The point is that I'm having fun. I'm using my brain and body in a slightly different way than I normally do, and the 15 minutes I take to pick up that guitar offer a nice break during the day.

Don't jump on to the assembly line of productivity just for the sake of productivity. Don't believe that everything you do needs to be practical or useful or serious. Don't feel the need to get more done.

Instead, waste your time, as long as it doesn't affect other aspects of your life. You may not be more productive, but your life will be a little more well rounded and a lot more fun.

Some interesting posts I've discovered in these parts over the last while:

Sometimes, you run into an article or essay that strikes a chord with you. Sometimes, you run into one that leaves you shaking your head.

In the latter category is an article published in August of 2014 about a man who quantified all of the communications he had during 2013. Yes, all of them. Email, SMS, postal mail. And his in-person conversations. He:

pulled out his phone and tracked the occurrence, measuring the conversation's length, where it occurred, and, most bogglingly, all the subjects discussed.

Like what? How about:

  • 4,572 salutations and 2,833 pleasantries used
  • 3,108 conversations with non-verbal components
  • 1,670 conversations
  • 126,550 unique words recorded

But I really have to ask What was the point?

By analyzing all of the data that he collected, will he have better or more efficient and effective conversations in the future? Will he grow closer to others? Will he focus more on one channel of communication? Will he deepen his in-person conversations? Will he pull out pithy nuggets that he can use again, in some other form?

I can't see any of that happening.

What do those numbers that he derived mean in practical terms? I don't think the data that he collected and recorded can quantify the quality of the interactions that he had. I've had long conversations with people, conversations that led to nothing. But those conversations were enjoyable because I was communicating with interesting people who I liked and with whom I was at ease. I didn't come to any profound conclusion about the ethical structure of the universe, but I felt better after having had those conversations.

In practical terms, was all the time and effort that he spent collecting and collating and analyzing and visualizing that data worth it? Or could that time and effort have been channelled into something else that could potentially be more worthwhile?

Data can be useful. But it's not the be all, end all. So much lies beneath data that even best analysis and mining tools can't come close to touching it. What lies beneath is the human factor.

Do you want to live a better life? Then focus on your life. Do things. Make changes. Live. Don't become a slave to data. Don't expect the data to provide you with some truth or path. That lies within you.

Not being a foodie (though someone who likes good ice cream), I never thought that I'd be interested in the history of ice cream in New Zealand. But I'll be darned if it isn't a fascinating, intriguing story.

And that there's a group that, since 1927, has kept meticulous records as well as publishing journals and magazines about that subject is equally fascinating.

If it wasn't so lazy, I'd dash to the local dairy or supermarket to get myself an ice cream. Maybe tomorrow on the way home from The Day JobTM ...

We all know people who seem to live on their screens. People who spend an inordinate amount of time swiping and tapping, pointing and clicking, twiddling and twerning. At email. At social media. At instant messages. At whatever their screens throw at them.

No matter what time of day or night, one of their devices is always on. It's always within easy reach. Those folks are always connected in one way or another.

I don't see the point of being constantly connected. I don't see it as a great way to live. In fact, I'd argue that being constantly connected isn't living at all.

Being constantly connected is a distraction from your life.

But there are far too many people who can't separate themselves from their phones or tablets or laptops. Why? It could be fear of missing out. It could be they're enjoying that little hit of dopamine they get when they check something. It could be the idea that being constantly plugged into the online world is an essential part of living in the 21st century.

By being constantly connected, you're trading depth for quick hits of what amounts to little or nothing. Alerts and notifications, constant check ins or tweeting or posting to Instagram break up the flow of what you're doing. They break up the flow of your life.

Think about why you feel the need to be constantly connected. Then remember that constantly lifelogging doesn't make an experience better or more memorable. Remember that constantly jumping whenever you get a notification doesn't enrich or improve your life. Remember that constantly scanning social media, RSS feeds, news, and email doesn't necessarily make you better informed or smarter.

The time and attention you spend on all of that could be better spent on other, more important matters. Matters that that have more substance, more depth, and more meaning to you and to your life.

You could better spend that time with your friends and family — focusing on them, on the conversations and interactions you're having, on your shared joy, on the moment. You could better expend that effort learning something or reading in depth. You could use that time to relax and reflect.

You can survive, you can thrive by cutting your connection for even a few hours a day. You only need to give it a try.

Back in 2015, I briefly chatted with John O'Nolan, one of the founders of a blogging platform called Ghost. You're probably wondering why the web needs another blogging platform, when WordPress powers millions of blogs and websites.

O'Nolan used to work for Automattic (the company behind WordPress). But he found that WordPress had:

too much stuff everywhere, too much clutter, too many (so many) options getting in the way of what I really want to do: publish content

Instead, O'Nolan wanted to take blogging back to basics. And Ghost was born.

During our chat, O'Nolan mentioned that he didn't intend for Ghost to reach feature parity with WordPress. Ever. That's not the niche the Ghost inhabits.

I wholeheartedly agree with O'Nolan. Not everyone has the same needs. Not everyone is a power user, regardless of what many software developers seem to think.

But the feature parity argument persists. I generally hear it from people who are thinking of switching to something that doesn't pack all of the features found in the tool or application they usually use. Regardless of whether they use those features or not. And it's usually not.

I find the feature parity argument comes from two distinct directions. First, from people who use it as a crutch. A crutch that gives them an excuse not to try something new or to make a change, even if that something new or that change will simplify and streamline their digital lives.

Second, from people who whine about missing features and only do so because they can. They aren't the application's the target audience. Even if the tool did have the features they want (or think they need), I doubt they'd use it. I doubt the tool would be suited to their needs.

If feel you can't adopt a tool because it lacks feature x or feature y, or because it can't perform a certain task, ask yourself these three questions:

  • How often do I use feature x or feature y?
  • If I do use those features, will I actually miss them?
  • Is that task the tool can't perform one that's important to me?

From my experience as a technology coach, I've found that many people rarely (if ever) use the features that are supposedly deal breakers. They just need to take a little time to adapt and adjust.

Feature parity isn't something that's important to everyone. More features, especially if you don't use them, aren't always better. It's too easy to fall into the contingency mindset when it comes to features — thinking that maybe one day you'll need feature x, even though that day rarely comes.

Don't buy into the hype of feature parity. Instead of thinking in terms of features, think about what you need to do. Not at some point in the distant future, but right now. Then, think of what you need to do it. Chances are, you'll discover that you don't need something big and powerful to get your work done. You probably just need something simple, light, and streamlined.

Over the 2020 holidays, I stumbled across this very interesting post by someone who's:

noticed a few things over the years and, for whatever they are worth, pass them along to anyone who is interested in starting a blog.

To be honest, I see these as being more guidelines than rules. But pay attention, and take to heart, numbers 1, 4, 9, 10, 11, 15, and 18.

People say and write that a lot. But those words often leave peoples' mouths or get tapped out on a keyboard especially when discussing a tool, an app, or a service. They'll say you should use something else (usually a personal favourite) because It's better that what's being discussed.

But in what way is the other option better? Because it has more features and flash? Because all the cool kids use it? Because that's what the person speaking is used to?

None of that necessarily makes something better. At least not for everyone.

As I've been saying for years, different people use tools differently. Take, for example, Simplenote. It doesn't pack the features of note taking tools like Evernote, but that doesn't make Simplenote a worse choice. Why? Not everyone needs the features that are found in Evernote. Simplenote is enough. For the people who choose to embrace it, Simplenote is better.

Don't fall into the trap of thinking everyone uses hardware, software, tools, apps, and services in the same way that you do. They don't. What's better for you isn't necessarily better for someone else. Besides, the idea of better can be subjective. Very subjective. Remember that before you say something like It's better.

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