Category Archives: Books

Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor your Wetware

Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor your Wetware, by Andy Hunt was published in 2008, and for whatever reason has been sitting on my bookshelf for several years. I probably bought it based on a comment I read or an online review; I don’t remember, but apparently never made the time to read it – until now.

The premise of the book is to teach one how to — think. And learn. It’s targeted primarily towards software developers, but anyone wanting tips / tricks / advice / insight on how to think critically, and problem solve more effectively would benefit from Andy’s work. There are several metaphors likening the brain to hardware and software that programmers would be familiar with, but the book is really about cognitive science.

Some of my take aways:

  • Software is created in your head, not your IDE. This makes it appropriate in my view to schedule time to do nothing but think. “Thinking walks” are encouraged, or even kicking your feet up on your desk. This may look like goofing off to non-programmers, and even programmers that are of the mindset that “work means your hands are on the keyboard,” but thinking is an important part of the craft.
  • A corollary to that is, it’s important to invest in your skills. It should be OK to incorporate that into your work schedule – in moderation of course. Do you expect a doctor to keep up with important advances in medicine? Would you expect him to do that after hours ? What about a lawyer? The same holds true for any knowledge worker. There is an unnecessary stigma around reading / learning at work. We need to keep the sword sharp to be effective in the long term. The book points out the need to be deliberate about your learning. It doesn’t happen by accident, and if you relegate it to “when I have time” you never will. Create a plan and a schedule.
  • R-mode thinking (traditionally called “right brain”) is the more creative side of our brains, and where intuition comes from. It is often underutilized. You can’t force it, but you can foster it. To me, this is a good reason to play chess! Chess exercises both sides of the brain – L-mode (left brain) for analysis / calculation, and R-mode (right brain) for pattern matching and intuition. I’m going to try 10-15 minutes of puzzle solving each morning as I drink my coffee to get the juices flowing.
  • Mind maps! I admit I rarely ever use them, but the book makes a strong case for using them as a tool to organize your thoughts. Apparently kids in Europe are taught this at a young age.
  • Often times, the real value in documentation isn’t the documentation itself, it’s the act of documenting. This is similar to an observation I’ve already made when preparing to give a lesson, sermon, or a talk. I almost always prepare notes, but often times don’t reference them very much.
  • There is no substitute for experience. Don’t be afraid to jump in and try things. Make it safe to fail. Sometimes it’s better to play first and RTM later, once you’ve gained some context.
  • Pressure kills creativity. I’ve always hated deadlines – particularly artificial ones (ones created internally). I think they are usually counter productive. The book validates my thoughts on this. Pressure (such as deadline pressure) encourages shortcuts and errors. It forces you to get something done, at all cost. The pressure also has negative long term effects on your health. Avoid deadlines as much as possible. Sometimes it’s a trust issue.
  • So many people sit in a chair for eight hours a day (or more), but that doesn’t mean they are productive the entire time (and likely are not). This is assembly line thinking. When it comes to our work time, we need to emphasize quality over quantity. For knowledge workers, it’s important to have blocks of uninterrupted time to get into a flow. Personally, I’m best in the morning after having that first cup of coffee. Don’t sit like a rat looking for a pellet in front of your email – it is about the most unproductive thing you can possibly do. Shut down the email client, turn off notifications, and just get into a flow. Email, conversations with co-workers, and especially meetings are expensive. That’s not to say they aren’t important (well, sometimes), but they can almost always wait. In other words — schedule your interruptions so you can be more productive.

One of the things that really struck a chord with me was the notion of a Pragmatic Investment Plan. Andy introduces the notion of a “knowledge portfolio,” and likens it to a financial portfolio. It’s important to have a goal, with short term and long term objectives to reach that goal. The plan may change, and that’s OK, but always have a plan. Diversify your investment – it’s important to not put all your eggs in one basket. And, invest actively. That is, stop and reevaluate your portfolio from time to time to see if your objectives need to change. I have recently set a goal of becoming more proficient in the area of Machine Learning. This is an area I did some work in during my grad school days but not a lot since, so there is a considerable learning curve in front of me. Andy’s work has convinced me of how important it is to be purposeful about creating objectives towards that goal.

All in all, a great read, and I’ve gotten a lot of practical…. err, pragmatic tips from it. I’m glad I finally got around to it.

Walden

A few weeks ago I finished reading Walden by Henry David Thoreau. I’m not at all sure how I made it through high school and college without ever reading this book; I think it should be required reading! Thoreau has a unique and interesting writing style. I knew he was a naturalist, but what I didn’t realize is that he was also a philosopher. I found the book to be extremely thought provoking, and it challenged me to examine my priorities and to put things into perspective. Truly, Walden is a manifesto. Thoreau describes in great detail his “experiment” of living apart from society in the area of Concord Massachusetts. He discusses the building of his cabin, and how much it costs, and tells all about his beans, and the wildlife in and around the pond, and about rare interactions with visitors. But, what the book is really all about is freedom.
Thoreau lived a minimalist lifestyle. Many would look at that as a lesser existence, but to Thoreau it meant that he was unencumbered. Instead of toiling away as a slave to get the next dollar, or thing, he was free to explore, to read, to contemplate.
I’m not going to give a full critique of the book. That’s been done countless times by people far more scholarly than me. I will, however, list some quotes I jotted down. In my humble opinion these quotes capture the essence of the book.

  • For the improvements of ages have had but little influence on the essential laws of man’s existence; as our skeletons, probably, are not to be distinguished from those of our ancestors.
  • … and the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.
  • We are a race of tit-men, and soar but little higher in our intellectual flights than the columns of the daily paper.
  • I have never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers. A man thinking of working is always alone, let him be where he will.
  • We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other. We meet at meals three times a day, and give each other a new taste of that old musty cheese that we are. We have had to agree on a certain set of rules, called etiquette and politeness, to make this frequent meeting tolerable and that we need not come to war.
  • I respect not his labors, his farm where everything has its price, who would carry the landscape, who would carry his God, to market, if he could get anything for him; who goes to market for his god as it is; on whose farm nothing grows free, whose fields bear no crops, whose meadows no flowers, who trees no fruits, but dollars; who loves not the beauty of his fruits, whose fruits are not ripe for him till they are turned to dollars. Give me the poverty that enjoys true wealth.
  • Our whole life is startingly moral. There is never an instant’s truce between virtue and vice. Goodness is the only investment that never fails.
  • A voice said to him- Why do you stay here and live this mean moiling life, when a glorious existence is possible for you? Those same stars twinkle over other fields than these. –But how to come out of this condition and actually migrate thither? All that he could think of was to practise some new austerity, to let his mind descend into his body and redeem it, and treat himself with ever increasing respect.
  • A single gentle rain makes the grass many shades greener. So our prospects brighten on the influx of better thoughts. We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it; and did not spend our time in atoning for the neglect of past opportunities, which we call doing our duty.
  • Nay, be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought.
  • In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.
  • Why level downward to our dullest perception always, and praise that as common sense? The commonest sense is the sense of men asleep, which they express by snoring. Sometimes we are inclined to class those who are once-and-a-half-witted with the half-witted, because we appreciate only a third part of their wit.
  • Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.
  • It is life near the bone where it is sweetest. You are defended from being a trifler. No man loses ever on a lower level by magnanimity on a higher. Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessity of the soul.
  • The opportunities of living are diminished in proportion as what are called the “means” are increased. The best thing a man can do for his culture when he is rich is to endeavor to carry out those schemes which he entertained when he was poor.