All posts by Adri

The Input/Output Ratio

  • Are you reading several books a month, but somehow you “don’t have time” to write?
  • Do you read for inspiration, but avoid writing even when it strikes?

I read. A lot. If I’m into a good story, I can hardly stop. My wife will see me gravitating to my Kindle during every random time pocket, and she’ll tell our son “Oh, looks like we’ve lost papa to a book again!”

I also think of myself as a writer, though I have very little writing to back that claim. Why is that? I didn’t understand why I read so much, and wrote so little, until I read this quote:

“If you’re a perfectionist of the paralyzed sort, it’s almost guaranteed that you watch a lot of TV. Perfectionists and procrastinators love TV because nobody watches TV incorrectly. It is completely passive, which makes it an automatic, simple, rewarding, and mistake-free “win”.”
– Stephen Guise, How to be an Imperfectionist

Now, I read this book more than once (of course!) but the first few times I did, that quote just slid right over me and made no impression. We’ve never owned a TV. My wife and I watch shows on Netflix at her prompting, not mine. I do watch a lot of productivity videos on YouTube, though… but at least that’s “productive” (notice a pattern?).

It took another pass to finally see that those words were written for me… I just had to substitute “watching TV” with “reading” for it to apply.

Ouch. I might not be a couch potato, but I’m the literary equivalent. An armchair beet? A rocking chair parsnip? Never mind… humor isn’t my strong suit. Must be all serious, all productive, all the time.

Reading is worthwhile, it’s fun, and it does build perceptual exposure that can improve your writing. But the key is to focus on your production/consumption ratio.

Seeing things as either production or consumption left me no room to hide. Reading classics of my chosen genre: consumption. Reading a “how-to” book on writing: consumption. Watching YouTube videos on time management: consumption. Consumption is fine, but it needs to be balanced with the appropriate amount of production. What’s “appropriate”? Enough that you feel satisfied.

Since I started seeing things this way, I’ve started writing again after a hiatus of over a year.

The mechanics of this are simple: figure out how much time you spend in each category, and adjust it slowly until it feels right. But the key is simpler still:

Start the habit of asking yourself: “Am I producing, or consuming?”

Writer’s block? 6 things to try to get unstuck

If you’re struggling to start writing, or struggling to continue, here are a few things you can try to get unstuck.

  1. Expose yourself to bad work. Get some examples of terrible work in your genre, and read them. Here’s a video I made describing why this works.
  2. Be playful. If you’re stuck in the middle of a piece, save your draft, then try throwing out all the rules for a while. You can pretend that you’ve stumbled on someone else’s work, and want to be devious as you continue. Kill off darling characters, throw in a crazy twist… the point isn’t to find a path forward, but instead to loosen you up.
  3. Set your bar at “existence”. Do the words exist on the page? Success. Are they in the ether of your mind? Failure. We tend to get paralyzed when we compare our current state (nothing/blocked) with what we imagine (some perfect, or even “good enough” finished piece)… and the gap between now and then is overwhelming. But really, we should be comparing “non-existence”, which is the default state of everything, to “existence”, which isn’t too hard to achieve.
  4. Forget ordering. This is why writing in index cards, or software like Gingko is so effective. You can write without worrying too much about structure.
  5. Work at a different level. If you’re stuck with a scene or description, jump up to writing rough overviews of entire chunks of your book. If you’re stuck on the overall structure, zoom in to one part and write out all the details.
  6. Cut off all input. Being stuck comes from unrealistic expectations, which comes from repeated exposure to Quality. If exposing yourself to bad work (point 1.) isn’t enough, then cut off your exposure completely for a week or so. Don’t read, watch, or listen to anything related to what you’re hoping to write.

These strategies aren’t meant to help you find the correct path forward. The more you try to do that, the more stuck you’ll be. These techniques are meant to allow you to discover for yourself that there is no one true path.

As an example, take the art of sculpture. It’s good to have an idea of what you’re aiming for, but the process hasn’t started until you have clay in your hands, and are molding it into shape.

Writing in your head is like sculpting without clay. You need some words in front of you (any words), in order to start shaping the story you want to tell.

Still going strong

I received a couple emails in a row asking if Gingko was “still active”, despite putting out what (to me) is quite a lot of updates… I realized that they’re all over the place, but not here on the blog.

I’m most definitely still here, working hard and full-time on fixing bugs for current Gingko, and developing the next version (Desktop + web). Most updates for that take place on the community forums.

You can follow me on Twitter, as it seems to be the platform I’m most active (though still, not that active). http://twitter.com/gingkoapp

I also started posting videos on YouTube, and will continue to do so, once our schedule returns to normal. For those who aren’t aware: my wife and I both work from home, and homeschool our 4.5 yr old son. He’s normally with us five days a week, and with the grandparents the other two… except for the last couple months when we’ve had him 6 or even 7 days a week.

So, that’s my mini update. I’m trying to be more visibly active, and I need to get over perfectionism in order to do so… working on that daily!

Gingko Desktop – Ready for Testing

gingko-alpha-linux

Gingko Desktop is now ready for testing.


Here are a few quick facts about it:

  • Runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux.
  • Is based on files, so all your data is stored locally.
    You can open, save, and sync (through services like Dropbox).
  • Persistent Undo/Redo
  • Export to JSON (so you can import into gingkoapp.com)
  • Export as text/Markdown
  • Visual changes, to increase the contrast, as well as other tweaks.

What it can’t do yet is:

  • Sync trees across devices.
  • Real-time collaboration.
  • Many other features missing as compared to gingkoapp.com (such as tags, search, focusing on one subtree, LaTeX etc.)

I need volunteers willing to test it on various platforms.
If you’re willing to try it out, please get in touch with me sign up at the form above.

I’ll be making wider announcements as I continue to iterate on this.

Thanks!
Adriano

Moving Forward : The Direct Path

I’ve decided not to pursue the Kickstarter Open Sourcing at this time. There are a number of reasons, but the most important is that it would mean a very long time before Gingko would start improving again for you, the user.

I had been working on the campaign for weeks, and still hadn’t completed the script for the video. After that I would have had to create the visuals to accompany my voiceover, edit it all, write all the campaign copy, write a newsletter. Then, once running, it would have been a month where my entire focus was on pushing the campaign, overriding both my ability to provide support, and the time I’d need to ship improvements. Assuming the campaign succeeded, it would then take significant work to make Gingko open source (I’d have to restructure the code, make it easier for others to install, document it fully, and much more). And in the end, it’s only a hypothesis that open sourcing would lead to a faster improvement cycle eventually… that’s something that depends heavily on random factors.

So, on the one hand, even assuming success (not guaranteed), it’s months of work, for very little actual return for you users. I still believe Open Source is a good direction to move towards. And I would like more collaboration. But it’s not time for this yet.

On the other hand, the work that went into the campaign isn’t a waste. I was reminded of the many exciting and powerful features that I had dreamed of implementing. And it’s made me rethink and clarify my priorities. What came out on top was this:

Make great software… everything else is a distraction.

For the last month, I’ve been working on a collection of features that combine both the most frequent request I’ve ever had (a true, download to your device(s), offline capable Gingko), with other changes that people haven’t asked for ever, but I believe will make Gingko far more powerful than it is now. It’s the greatest coding challenge I’ve ever undertaken, but it’s going well, and I’m making progress every day on it.

If you were excited about open source Gingko, I will mention that I am for it in principle. But I’m wary of big and irreversible change, in a direction I’m not experienced in, when it’s not clear that it will be for the better. Instead of open sourcing to everyone, all at once, I will instead be willing to take on “semi-open” collaborators as bandwidth permits. If you are yearning to hack Gingko (for the benefit of everyone and not just your own niche use-case), get in touch with me. If we’re a good fit, I will give you access to the code.

These days, I’m coding 100% of my working time (sometimes forgetting to eat lunch, which I don’t recommend). Customer support happens in pockets of time on my evenings and off days. And I’m loving it. I feel both relieved and excited about moving forward. An excitement I haven’t felt in years.

When I can, I will post specifics of my progress so far.

Later,
Adriano

PS: I added Copy/Paste to Gingko a few weeks ago. You can now hit Ctrl+C to copy a subtree, and Ctrl+V to paste it. It’s a little slow, but it works.

Gingko’s Path to Growth

Gingko is, and always has been, small, self-funded, and profitable. It continues to grow steadily, via word of mouth alone.

But I’ve reached the limit of what I can accomplish alone. For a long time, I believed I faced a tough choice:

  1. Take the path of selling Gingko off, and hope that my successor follows the spirit of the project and doesn’t let it die.
  2. Take the path of opening Gingko up completely in one shot, and risk irrevocably damaging the business. Thereby failing in my responsibility to my current users, and the family I help support.
  3. Devote all my energies to growth and profit, and stop making improvements until I achieve “scale”. Go big or go home.

Each had its attractions, but none are ideal. But, towards the end of the 5 month journey I took with my wife and son, I realized another option: “sell” Gingko to the world. Open-source Gingko, but raise a buffer to support both my current users, and my family in the transition. Bring Gingko, and its vision, to a wider audience.

So, here’s what’s in store:

Gingko Kickstarter OS
I’m creating a Kickstarter campaign to accomplish several things at once: Continue reading Gingko’s Path to Growth

Settling Down Again

6 months ago, myself, my wife, and our then-2-year-old son, sold many of our possessions, packed what was left into a 5′ x 5′ storage unit, and set off for Spain, Kuwait, and Sri Lanka.

We have stayed in 21 different places over this time, ranging from a luxury hotel in the center of Madrid (on deep discount, of course), to a night “sleeping” on the floor on the grounds of a church in Sri Lanka. All told, the trip cost us little more than rent & utilities would have, had we stayed.

As you might imagine, we are very happy to be back in Canada. We’re settling next week into a nice 2 bedroom apartment we’ve found to rent in the suburbs of Ottawa-Gatineau.

There were times during the trip where I let some things slide, mostly email and this blog. For that, I’m sorry. But at no point was I out of reach for anything major. Gingko as of right now has been up continuously for 3,361 hours, and only had 4 minutes of downtime in 2016.

Most importantly, for readers and Gingko users: I’ve had a lot of time to think during this trip. And more than time, I’ve gained some perspective on what matters. This perspective has given me a way forward for Gingko that I’m very excited about. While I can’t reveal much yet, watch this space for announcements.

The Cascade of Costs

I’ve been considering raising Gingko’s prices.

However, I realized that I can achieve the same effect by dropping Intercom and replacing it with something free or much cheaper. Intercom is an incredibly powerful tool, but I am just using it as a second inbox for support.

Why did I jump to “raise prices”?
I believe this is a perfect example of a “Cascade of Costs”.

Intercom has raised $66 million over 5 rounds of funding, and so it needs to do more than cover its costs, pay to continue developing the product, and have enough of a buffer to survive hard times. It is forced to grow rapidly, and forced to charge more, to make a profit for those investors.

Because Intercom is a tool for businesses, that means that every single business that uses it also needs to charge their customers a little (or a lot) more to cover their expenses and make their own profit. If those businesses serve other businesses, the cascade of higher costs/higher prices continues down to all their customers.

Don’t get me wrong: I love Intercom, and I believe they’re making the best choices out of the ones they have. It’s just that the pattern of “move to San Francisco, get funded, get big, raise prices” is so ingrained into the tech world that it’s not questioned half as often as it should be.

I just got back from a trip to San Francisco. It’s a nice city. But frankly, I was very underwhelmed. The single most striking thing I noticed is the absolutely out-of-control cost of rent and living.

Which means that every body on Earth pays more for software (with money or attention), because of the cost-of-living in Silicon Valley.

Also, fewer kinds of software are developed, because the focus needs to be on the few that can make a vast profit for a corporation, not the many that can make a decent living for individuals.

I don’t question the logic of this, only it’s seeming inevitability.

For myself, I might still raise Gingko’s prices. After all, it’s evolved a good deal since launch. But because I’m free of investor pressure, and mobile, I am not tied to just that option.

For instance, to better support ourselves, we might move somewhere cheaper. Right now I’m travelling Spain with my wife and son, to escape both the (relatively) high costs and (insanely) low temperatures of Montreal.

Got my work done in the pre-sunrise hours, so I could spend the day roaming Madrid with my family. By the way, everything I now own (except books) fits in that backpack I'm wearing.
Got my work done before sunrise, so I could spend the day roaming Madrid with my family. By the way, everything I now own (except books) fits in that backpack I’m wearing.

Who knows, we might fall in love with some white-washed small town on the Spanish coast, and make our base here instead!

Freedom and profit don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
But if they were, I’d choose freedom any damn day!

How do you start writing your thesis?

How many times a week do you think “I should be writing”?

For some reason, even when reaching the end of their PhD, most people have trouble actually starting to write the thesis.

  • “Just a little more data.”
  • “There’s just one more source I have to cite.”
  • Or the seemingly rational “but I don’t have my key results yet!”

The truth is, we procrastinate on starting because we don’t know where or how to start. We imagine The Thesis as a complete whole, as a monolithic slab of pages; and we cringe and avert our inner eye. If you’re at the beginning of the PhD, you also feel it’s probably pointless to start, because you don’t have results or even a firm topic.

Sorry, but these are all excuses. When should you start?
Whether you’ve just chosen a supervisor, or you’re ABD and a year away from having your funding cut off, the answer is the same: Start today.

Easier said than done? Not really.

After all, a thesis is nothing more than a big document. Whether you’re writing in Word or LaTeX, it’s just a file of text, like any other.

phd040809s

But if we imagine that we have to write a coherent argument over 200 pages, and we’re starting at page 1, it’s no wonder we’re overwhelmed! That’s like saying “You have no idea where you want to go in these woods, but you have to take the first step right now. Here’s a backpack with a few supplies. Go on, get moving!”

If a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, you wonder “What if I step in the wrong direction? I could end up 2000 miles from where I’m supposed to be!”

The problem here is linear thinking. Because our documents are linear, we start to think linearly, and so anything big instantly becomes overwhelming. By thinking “non-linearly” I don’t mean to jump around, and write things out of order. I mean that you need to think holistically, and in slowly increasing detail.

Plant Your Seed, Watch It Grow

The solution is simple.

Write a mini-thesis.
Then grow it, daily.

Imagine the following:

What if your thesis only needed to be 100 words long?
Oh, and quality doesn’t matter, because you’ll have regular feedback and hundreds of revisions. Also, you don’t have to worry too much about “making a unique contribution”… even a semi-coherent plan to get results is enough.

Could you do it? Absolutely!
Once you’ve done that, all you have to do is expand and elaborate on your mini-thesis!

Here’s how it works.

  1. Write your title.
  2. Write your seed: the “100 word thesis”.
  3. In a separate document (or, if you’re using Gingko, right there next to the seed), write a slightly more detailed version of each section you mentioned in the seed.
  4. Repeat, each time expanding and refining what you have, rearranging as necessary.

Of course, Gingko is ideal for this (after all, I designed it while struggling with my own PhD in physics). But you can use any other word processor as well (my competitor Scrivener is a good alternative). Simply create a new view/document/column, so you can have your current iteration to the left, and the version one you’re expanding on to the right.

In fiction, this is sometimes called the “Snowflake Method” . But the principle is far deeper, and can be found in all kinds of different fields. For instance, artists often make small sketches, which expand to bigger studies, before tackling the full-sized canvas. Digital Images are often compressed so that no matter how small a chunk of the file you get, you still have the whole picture (albeit at lower-resolution). For the physicists and mathematicians among you, all we’re doing is taking the writing process from linear space, to Fourier space. I call this process “Sketching with Words“, but I digress…

Growing your thesis has a number of advantages over other methods.

  1. Instantly kills overwhelm; it’s easy to start small.
  2. You always see the question you’re trying to answer, making it less likely your thesis will turn into a “project” instead. A “project” thesis is much harder to work on, trust me.
  3. You always have a sense of the whole, lending coherence to your argument.
  4. You can get early feedback and expose major flaws, before you’ve written walls of text. This makes it easier to get feedback (less to read), and to make changes (less to change, and you’re less attached to your ideas).
  5. At each pass, you know exactly where you’re going, because you’ve already written that section before (though not in as much detail).

So, now you have no excuse. If you can write a shoddy 100 words, you can start your thesis today. Just remember the steps:

  1. Start with a small seed.
    If you’re using Gingko, select the “Organic Thesis” template.
  2. Sprinkle words on it every day.
    Start a “Mini-Habit” of writing daily.
  3. Expose it to sunlight (feedback) regularly.
    Hint: you can share a read-only private link to get feedback.
  4. Watch your thesis grow, organically.

 


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Lessons Learned from Public Introspection

I’ve been giving this blog a great deal of my mental space over the last couple months, and it’s been extraordinarily valuable. Here are a few of the lessons I learned:

  1. On Wealth: To have more doesn’t mean other must have less. Wealth is neutral: it can arise out of competition or out of creation. Creating wealth is a worthy goal.
  2. On Time Scarcity: Whatever we feel we lack captures our thought processes and forces us to blindness. Just as people get into negative spirals of debt and low income, I was in a negative spiral of time debt and “never enough time”. Time investments are immensely powerful.
  3. On the Fixed Mindset: perfectionism, procrastination, blaming others, and fear of making mistakes, all have the same root cause: the belief that our intelligence/strength/personality are fixed and cannot be changed. Whether we think highly of our abilities, or feel inadequate, doesn’t matter. Whether we think we can change those abilities or not makes all the difference.

Investing in Focused Time

A few posts ago, I also made a commitment to action. In order to fully do this however, I needed to address the two largest recurring time commitments I had:

Continue reading Lessons Learned from Public Introspection