My New Year’s Gift To You: A Mulligan

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If you’re not one of those people who gives yourself too much to do, this post may not be for you.

For the rest of us, with goals and dreams and drive, do you ever feel like you’ve got too much to do? I’m not talking about wanting more hours in the day, which we all do, but simply having too many things to do … period. That sense that, even if you had a magic genie willing to give you endless hours, you’d never get everything you wanted to do done.

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To keep track of stuff, I use a Hipster PDA, enterprise edition – 8.5×11 sheets of paper, folded on their long axis, with TODO items written on them and bills and such carried within the folder. Each todo has a little box next to it that I can check off, and periodically I copy items from a half-filled sheet to a new sheet, reprioritizing as I go.

But I’m a pack rat, so I keep a lot of my old TODO lists, organized in a file. Sometimes the TODO sheets get saved for other reasons – for example, the sheets are good headers for stacks of papers and notes related to a project. As projects get completed, I come across these old sheets, and have the opportunity to review what I once thought I had to do.

And you know what? Most of the things that you think you need to do are completely worthless. They’re ideas that have relevance at the time, that may seem pressing at the time, but are really cover-your-ass responses to possibilities that never came to pass. The situation loomed, came, and then passed you by … and should take your TODOs with it.

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I’m not saying you shouldn’t have things on your TODO list. I’m planning my 2013 right now. And I’m not saying you should give yourself a pass on obligations you’ve incurred to others. But I am saying you don’t need to maintain every commitments you’ve ever made to yourself, especially those that came in the form of a TODO list item or a personal challenge.

As an example, a thing I do is take pictures of food and post it to my Google+ stream. Originally I was doing this as preparation for doing restaurant reviews, but I found I actually like the images of food more than I wanted to spend time writing reviews, especially since I have so much more writing to do. But when I get busy, I’ll take more pictures than I post. I get a backlog.

So how much effort should I take going back to post the pictures? None is one good answer, but that begs the question to be asked: why are you taking the pictures in the first place? Periodically is another good answer, but it’s actually difficult to figure out what I’ve posted and what I haven’t. So hunting through my image feeds can become its own form of archaeology.

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But you know what? The world won’t come to an end if I don’t post every picture I’ve ever taken of one of my favorite dishes at my favorite restaurants. If you’re not obsessive-compulsive, you may not understand this, but the thought of something you said you were going to do that isn’t getting done is an awful torment to those of us who are.

That’s where a mulligan comes in. In the competitive collectible card game Magic: The Gathering, players compose decks of cards which they use in duels with other players – but no matter how well a player has prepared his or her deck of cards, success in depends a good initial hand of cards. The best deck in the world can be useless if you draw seven “lands” – or none.

So the game allows you to “mulligan” – to discard that initial hand and re-draw with one less card. That’s a slight disadvantage, but a hand with no “lands” is useless – you can’t do anything on the first round, and your opponent will clean your clock. Better to have a balanced hand of six cards than seven you can’t do anything with at all. Better to have at least a chance to win.

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So that’s my gift to you all this New Year’s Eve: declare yourself a mulligan. Maybe the turn of the seasons are just a notch on the clock, but use this passage as a point of inspiration. It’s a new year, a new day, the starting point of a new path. Remind yourself of your real goals, and throw away any out of date TODOs and collected personal obligations that are holding you back.

Hug your wife, pay your bills, feed your cats. Write the software that pays the bills, and the books that you plan to do.

But don’t let yourself get held back something you wrote a year ago on a piece of paper.

Not for one minute.

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If you let yourself, the sky is your limit.

-the Centaur

Why Bipartisanship is Dead

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Ever feel like bipartisanship is dead and the two parties can’t agree on anything? Well, there’s a reason for that: even if they agree, they can’t pass anything. The House of Representatives has a rule which says the only bills that can be brought to the House floor are ones approved of by the majority of the majority party:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/itsallpolitics/2012/12/30/168309508/fiscal-cliff-debate-why-the-very-few-rule-the-many-in-congress

But having enough votes is not enough. In fact, it is likely the package will not even be brought to the floor for debate and a vote. How can this be? Even if a majority of the whole House (Republicans and Democrats) were prepared to swallow the Senate deal, they won’t get a chance unless Speaker John Boehner brings it to the floor. And Boehner probably won’t. He has adopted a rule that no measure will be voted on unless it is supported by a majority of the majority party — that is, his party, the Republicans.

Now, I understand that there are many people, particularly on the right, who believe the job of politics is not to get good things done, but to prevent the government from doing bad things. So this kind of stalemate may seem appropriate. But for people on the left and right who just want to get to consensus, find a solution and move on, it seems crazy.

Even if John Boehner, Speaker of the House, came to agreement with President Barack Obama about the latest crisis, even if a overwhelming majority of the House and the Senate agreed with him, a minority of House representatives could prevent a deal from being reached. The Senate is in the same state: if a single senator filibusters a bill, it takes a supermajority of senators to break it – essentially, again blocking the country’s progress based on a minority.

I strongly believe in the rights of the minority. I used to say “the majority is always wrong”. But I’ve come to understand partisans, who put allegiance to their party over the good of the country, are almost always more wrong than the majority. Three procedural rules make partisans a grave danger to our republic: closed political primaries (so only partisans can be nominated by their parties), the House majority of the majority rule, and Senate filibusters.

Time to end all three of these, so we can move forward on things a majority of the country can agree on.

-the Centaur

A Really Good Question

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Recently I was driving to work and thinking about an essay by a statistician on “dropping the stick.” The metaphor was about a game of pick-up hockey, where an inattentive player would be asked to “drop the stick” and skate for a while until they got their head in the game. In the statistical context, this became the action of stopping people who were asking for help with a specific statistical task and asking what problem they wanted to solve, because often solving the actual problem may be actually very different from fixing their technical issue and may require completely different approaches. That gets annoying sometimes when you ask a question to a mailing list and someone asks you what you’re trying to solve rather than addressing the issue you’ve raised, but it’s a good reflex to have: first ask, “What’s the problem?”

Then I realized something even more important about projects that succeeded or failed in my life – successes at radical off the wall projects like the emotional robot pet project or the cell phone robots with personalities project or the 3d object visualization project, and failures at seemingly simpler problems like a tweak to a planner at Carnegie Mellon or a test domain for my thesis project or the failed search improvement I worked on during my third year at the Search Engine that Starts with a G. One of the things I noticed about the successes is that before I got started I did a hard core intensive research effort to understand the problem space before I tackled the problem proper, then I chose a method of approach, and then I planned out a solution. Paraphrasing Eisenhower, even though the plan often had to change once we started execution, the planning was indispensable. The day-to-day immersion in the problem that you need for planning provides the mental context you need to make the right decisions as the situation inevitably changes.

In failed projects, I found one or more things – the hard core research or the planning – wasn’t present, but that wasn’t all that was missing. In the failure cases, I often didn’t know what a solution would look like. I recently saw this from the outside when I conducted a job interview, and found that the interviewee clearly didn’t understand what would constitute an answer to my question. He had knowledge, and he was trying, but his suggested moves were only analogically correct – they sounded like elements of a solution, but didn’t connect to the actual features of the problem. Thinking back, a case that leapt to mind from my own experience was a project all the way back in grade school, where I we had an urban planning exercise to create an ideal city. My job was to create the map of the city, and I took the problem very literally, starting with a topographical map of the city’s center, river and hills. Now, it’s true that the geography of a city is important – for an ideal city, you’d want a source of water, easy transport, a relatively flat area for many buildings, and at least one high point for scenic vistas. But there was one big problem with my city plan: there were no buildings, neighborhoods, or districts on it! No buildings or people! It was just the land!

Ok, so I was in grade school, and this was one of my first projects, so perhaps I could be excused for not knowing what I was doing. But the educators who set up this project knew what they were doing, and they brought on board an actual city planner to talk to us about our project. When he saw my maps, he pointed out this wasn’t a city plan and sat down with all of us to brainstorm what we’d actually want in a city – neighborhoods, power plants, a city center, museums, libraries, hospitals, food distribution and industrial regions. At the time, I was saddened that my hard work was abandoned, and now in hindsight I’m saddened that the city planner didn’t take a minute or two to talk about how geography affects cities before beginning his brainstorming exercise. But what struck me most about this in hindsight is that I really didn’t know what constituted an answer to the problem.

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So, I asked myself, “What counts as a solution to this problem?” – and that, I realized, is a very good question.

-the Centaur

Pictured: an overhead shot of a diorama of the control room of the ENIAC computer as seen at the Computer History Museum, and of course our friend Clarence having his sudden moment of clarity.

On John Scalzi On Writing for Free

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John Scalzi recently complained about people asking him to write for free. His article’s funny and reveals a lot about the writing industry many people who aren’t in the industry don’t know. Then I realized:

If someone asks you to write for free, that means they think writing is worth nothing.

(Well, maybe they’re broke, or ignorant, or something similar. But generally that’s clear from context.)

Today’s moment of clarity was brought to you by Whatever.

-the Centaur

Pictured: “Sudden Clarity Clarence,” a young man who’s just realized he’s spawned an internet meme.