Book Revew: Deep Work by Cal Newport

I’ve long been a reader of Cal Newport‘s blog, Study Hacks. Cal has been writing and blogging as he’s moved from college to graduate school to academic faculty, as he puts it, “decoding patterns of success.” His first books were not of great interest to me, focusing as they did on school, studying and early career, but I’ve read a few and recommended them over the years.

Now Cal is trying to figure out how to succeed as junior faculty in the Georgetown University Computer Science Department. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World is the first book length expression of what he’s learned.

Deep Work is a very academic view of the world – it focuses on gaining world class levels of technical expertise. Cal has to admit that some shallow workers are successful, but he makes the point well that, in general, success in our economy is based on technical expertise. Let’s say this book is aimed at that slice of the new cognitive elite, who read, study and write, not those who work primarily in a world of human relationships as opposed to knowledge. I’ll include myself in this group as an MD, PhD Neurologist who now makes his living providing guidance to companies and teams developing novel therapies in pain, neurological disease and psychiatry. It’s now purely my deep and wide knowledge across medicine, neurobiology and regulations that makes me valuable.

I could have used this book along the way, although most successful professionals figure it out on their own. Time have changed and doing the work is more and more of a challenge in our world of digital distraction. Cal spends about half the book explaining what deep work is and then spends the second half providing some rules of engagement with nice examples drawn from publically available stories and interviews he’s conducted. While useful, it’s important to remember that this is a small slice of the world and Cal is an academic in a certain discipline. But I recall how I too over identified highly successful individuals over the years and worked to reverse-engineer their methods of success.

In essence, the process of deep work is planning the time for uninterrupted periods of deep concentration at hard taks. I enjoy this kind of work and have tried to find jobs where I not only have an opportunity to do it but it’s also a major value driver to my employer.

But out in the world of work, the culture of responsiveness cruelly pulls one away, particularly if one’s surrounded by coworkers who don’t appreciate the value of deep work. They’re scheduling meetings and trying to look busy while you try to analyze data. It’s easier to spend all day farming the inbox and having meetings than to research an unfamilar technical area and synthesize a new business case. But in some companies, answering emails or sitting in meetings to coordinate and manage is the job, or at least most of it. Newport correctly identifies the problem in these coporate cultures, that when being busy is the measure of success then there must be no real work to do anyway. Can such a culture be successful for long?

My own call to “doing the work” is a simpler plea to focus on production. Learning is not productive in itself, real artists ship. Academics are actually scored based on number of publications and the impact ratings of the journals in which the papers appear. My H Score on Google scholar is 21. Not bad for 20 years out of academia. They’ve tried to make keeping score easy. But that’s not been the focus of my career, I’ve been on the business side where being uniquely qualified to help on a project is the goal.

History, Story Telling and Philosophy

A documentary pursues “reality” while fiction’s goal is the “truth” .
A documentary accumulates facts and let’s them tell the story,
While a work of fiction creates an imaginary world.
We filmmakers hide truths within these imaginary worlds.
– Shoichiro Sasaki, Film director: “What Is a Story?”

In Liberty of Conscience, Martha Nussbaum presents her view of the constitutional protection of religion based on the writings of Roger Williams, an early American theologian who left the Massachusetts colony and founded what would become Rhode Island. By tracing a thread from Williams through the drafting of the constitution and Supreme Court decisions, she presents a coherent view of separation of church and state.

I approach these questions as a scholar of constitutional law, but also, and more fundamentally, as a philosopher. Philosophical ideas were important to the Founding, and thinking about some of the philosophical texts that formed its backdrop helps to clarify the underlying issues. I take an independent interest in these philosophical ideas as good ideas to think with, not just ideas that had a certain historical and political influence. But I will also be arguing that the constitutional tradition is best read as embodying at least some of these ideas, in some form.
-Martha Nussbaum
Philosopher/Scholar of Constitutional Law
“Liberty of Conscience”

A Historical Approach to Philosophy?

This historical approach to philosophy uses story understand where we are now. We seek pattern and coherence in the world- it’s the way people are. You might think that history is fixed and unchangable. But if history is viewed as the story we tell to explain what we see now, it makes sense that history will change as the world now changes or as the motivations and knowledge of the storyteller changes.

While the founders didn’t explicitly follow the ideas of Roger Williams, they were familiar with them. As it turns out, it’s useful to see his idea of “Liberty of Conscience” providing the basis for the First Amendment’s two clauses, the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause. As I learned, it’s not “separation of church and state”; that’s a much more modern concept and one that probably reflects the fact that lack of religion has grown so much in recent decades. In Nussbaum’s view, the First Amendment is aimed at preventing any citizens from being favored, ensuring that all citizens could follow their own way in matters of conscience. And that might include any truth seeking endeavor, whether it involves the God, many gods, or no god at all.

Nussbaum writes further:

People aren’t always content to live with others on terms of mutual respect. So the story of the tradition is also a story of the attacks upon it, as different groups jockey for superiority. What has kept the tradition alive and healthy is continual vigilance against these attacks, which in each new era take a different concrete form.

If deciding better depends primarily on improving the brain’s mapping of the world, then we need the freedom to study and act according to religion and more broadly conscience, philosophy.

Reading the News, Deeply

I remember a time when there was a just a few sources for news. When I was growing up there was the local newspaper, three television networks and magazines like Time (read in waiting rooms). Even after we got cable while I was in High School, CNN was nothing more than expanded, 24 hour a day news channel much like the news on regular TV or from the newspaper. Journalists tried to provide information that was at least confirmed and had been filtered through the prevailing notions of the time. Even if the reporting wasn’t always completely accurate and even it was somewhat biased by political or financial considerations, it was a received truth that created a common world view for citizens. If ther was a single point of view at least it was everyone’s.

In their book Blur: How to Know What’s True in the Age of Information Overload, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel present the case that individuals now have to take on that role for themselves. With more and more primary information available, understanding an issue now involves searching out multiple sources on the net, synthesizing a personal view. This may be as simple as avoiding the trap of one sided presentation of a situation and searching out other reports to verify or perhaps present a more nuanced picture.

The presidential campaigns have raised fundamental questions about the US, its role in the world and its future. I’m finding much of the conversation to be unconvincing from all sides. Some of the changes to tax policy, trade pacts and immigration are quite radical with potentially far-reaching unintended consequences. Of course, in line with the ideas described in Blur, I’ve been reading multiple sources, opinion across the spectrum and fact checking if possible.

Some of the questions I have are pushing me towards reading some political science, economics and history a bit more in depth order to understand context. For example, I just finished Martha Nussbaum’s Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality. Why is political economy relevant to Deciding Better? It’s an example of a complex system. The constitution provides a framework and set of rules. The actor within create an ecology of ideas that govern real events. Even constitutional rights are fluid and changeable. These ideas of tolerance and free exercise have changed over time with fear being a major driver of minority rights being infringed.

Why Film in 2016?

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Besides my work with the (M Monochrome)[], I’ve shot and developed 10 rolls of film this year. I’ll probably get one or two more developed before the end of the calendar year.

It’s fair to ask why I chose to shoot film side by side with digital. I think if you look through my (Flickr Photostream)[] you’d be hard pressed to pick out film from digital in the images. I treat them as equivalent except for the incredible low light sensitivity you can now get with digital capture that ASA 400 Tri-X can’t match. Once film is scanned, I treat it similarly in the workflow, so film just has a few extra steps compared to digital. Price is not a consideration when buying bricks of Tri-X and doing the developing and scanning at home.

So why film? Authenticity in the photographic process, I think. At this point, once an image is in the digital realm, the tools we have to alter the image are so powerful that the digital file is a starting point, not the object itself. With the techniques I’ve learned over the years, I can infuse light into a flat image, creating a subjective reality for the viewer that is only suggested by the original scene.

Film provides me with an opportunity to let the chemical photographic process do that manipulation of light to image in its time honored way, providing a starting point that is much closer to the end product. My relationship to a scanned film image is different. I adjust brightness and contrast, sharpen the image back up to what its lost in the scanning process and present it more or less as I found it.

The image above was captured on a gray winter day. I scheduled myself to spend a few hours capturing images on film and came home with two rolls exposed, unimpressed by what I had seen. Shooting film, I lacked the feedback provided by the camera LCD, so its a matter of looking, composing and capturing. This image reminds me how much a scene is transformed by its capture to film. This for me is the authentic experience of the photographic process and its linked to the magic of the chemical emulsion and wonders that D-76 works on Tri-X.

Book Review: Team of Teams by Stanley McChrystal

Recognize that we don’t live in a clockwork universe. The future cannot be known based on the current state of the system. Uncertainty is fundemental.

Complexity . . . occurs when the number of interactions between components increases dramatically . . . The density of interactions means that even a relatively small number of elements can quickly defy prediction.
Stanley McChrystal, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World

On one of the Sunday morning news shows, Hugh Hewitt proclaimed that Team of Teams was “transformative”. Hewitt interviewed McChrystal about the book and how fighting a new type of enemy in Iraq, one that was decentralized and adaptable, caused him to question traditional military thinking. It turns out that McChrystal has been deeply influenced by systems thinking and complexity theory, just as I have over the years. He uses Emergence by Steven Johnson as reference point which was one my introductions to the field. I’d recommend Steven Strogatz’ Sync: How Order Emerges From Chaos In the Universe, Nature, and Daily Life as another good way to get into the ideas of how higher order structure can be created by independent working parts.

I agree with Hewitt that Team of Teams is a great introdruction to chaos and complexity theory. Written by a man of some accomplishment, it provides a real view as to why complexity matters in the world and how to deal with uncertainty in getting the work done.

The book outlines the shift in McChrystal’s thinking and management style from top down command structure to distributed team work. One might argue that this merely mirrors broad shifts in how we work across many industries. In drug development, as in software development, small focused teams have become the norm. The value in Team of Teams is the somewhat scholarly background into history and theory, from Taylor to Lorenz to Kahneman.

Time To Do The Work

In my review of 168 Hours I focused on the idea of taking stock of how one spends the weekly gift of 168 new hours. But how do you choose how to spend those hours once time like sleep and work are budgeted? If that time is going to as rewarding as possible, somehow you must find your passion and distinguish between activities that bring fulfillment and those that are of no value.

All decisions are emotional. Deciding how to spend time is no less personal and subjective. What is a joy for one person is a bore for another. Even within the same sphere of activity, the same work might be trivial for the experienced practitioner but impossible for the novice.

As a guide to “what”, Vanderkam suggests looking backward as to what activities had that magnetic attraction over the years. What do you find draws you back over and over? In fact, according to Vanderkam, we usually start in childhood. The child who loved to perform may find joy in an audience as an adult, whether it’s in community theater or in front of a class teaching. The childhood mud pie maker will be happiest with dirty hands their whole life whether as an artist, knitter or programmer deep in code.

I love the idea of adults as grownup versions of the children we once were, seeking the same basic satisfaction throughout life. It’s consonant with my observation that over the years people don’t change at their core. Over many years we are at our happiest engaged in the work of our souls.

Me? I’m a student. Mentally, I never graduated. After a BA it was an MD and PhD. Then Neurology training followed by another 10 years on a medical school faculty: still in school, learning more than I ever produced as a researcher. Even now after almost 20 years of working for a living as a drug developer, I’m in it for what I can learn. My writing here? Just another mode of learning for me.

One of my discoveries this year was Coursera as a resource for learning. During the year, I completed the full Data Science Specialization which was created by faculty at Hopkin’s own Bloomberg School of Public Health. Coursera does it right. These are courses with quizzes, projects, and deadlines. Once a course started, I had to be committed, sometimes spending many, many hours on a course project. The result? I’m now reasonably proficient in the statistical programming language R, many of its add on packages and the IDE, R Studio.

Understanding how to manipulate, display and analyze data is a useful skill set for me, of course. That’s why I’m learning about data science, not physics. But the joy for me is in the learning, the mastery of a body of knowledge. I’m continuing to look at my 168 hours each week and budget a nice chunk to exploring data analysis and statistics in a curriculum I’m designing myself.

It’s worthwhile to step, see where the time goes and try to set some of it aside for doing what you truly love.

The M Monochrome

Side of the Dumpster

My photography has taken a major turn back toward black and white. Like others of my generation, I started with film in the 1980’s, developing and printing in the darkroom of the lab where I did my PhD. At some point in the digital Photoshop-enabled era, my images became saturated color depictions of the suburban landscape. I’ve gone back to embrace my roots in formal, somewhat abstract black and white images. Still of course depicting light with the techniques I learned from Vincent Versace in his Welcome to Oz books.

While my earliest art photography influence was Ansel Adams, my earliest love of images was the macro photographs in My Weekly Reader. The transformation of objects by the process of photography has stuck with me. I’m now exploring just how far I can go with the idea.

Black and white photography provides maximum abstraction. I’d been meaning to shoot black and white film for a long time. I finally bought a tank and chemicals, loading the film at night in a closet with the room lights off. Once again I was greeted with the magic of light transformed to physical image. I’m trading off between film and digital, but mostly staying with a 50mm lens which I find helps isolate and abstract scenes.

Book Review: 168 Hours

Get it here: 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think

Laura Vanderkam has written a great book encouraging us to think deeply about how we spend our time. As Vanderkam points out, everyone gets the same 168 hours in their week. We’re gifted with a new week 52 times a year, each with the same number of hours. Looking at the week as a bucket with a fixed number of hours, each hour, its value, is brought into sharp focus. In general, 56 hours are spent sleeping, leaving a full 112 hours available. When I was working at an office, I had 40 hours committed office time plus about 5 hours of commuting. This leaves a full 67 hours for family, fitness, spiritual, artistic and intellectual pursuits. But you can spend those 67 on valued activities only if you refrain from squandering those riches.

In January of this year I returned to work with a Contract Research Organization on the service side of drug development after a two year stint as Chief Medical Officer at a biotech. Personally, this meant going back to a home office where I manage my own activities most of the time. There’s a wider variety of projects now and much more unstructured time outside of a more formal office setting. That flexibility has allowed me to pursue some projects biostatistics and neuroscience in addition to regular work responsibility.

Without feedback, there is no learning. I’m an pragmatist and the world is a data source, life an ongoing experiment. I’ve used many systems over the years, trying to refine the tracking process to suit current activities. Sometimes tracking needs to be granular, other times it’s the timely progress to big events like completing a clinical trial. I think it always comes down to choosing a unit of time and looking both back over what did and did not happen and forward to what can be done in the next unit of time. I generally operate at the level of quarters (3 months), weeks, and days. This book really helped me up my game in the area of time commitment.

168 Hours is a book with a big idea, lots of illustrations, examples, and anecdotes, but also an action plan. Just like a food diary is the best way to loose weight and a budget is the best way to save money, time tracking is the best way to gain control of how those hours are spent. I’ve refined my time tracking, but more with an eye toward focusing on the work that inspires.

Highly Recommended

Concepts as Handles

“Eras are conveniences, particularly for those who never experiencd them. We carve hisory from totalities beond our grasp. Bolt labels on the result. Handles. Then speak of the handles as though they were things in themselves.”
– Lowbeer

The Peripheral by William Gibson

What a nice statement of how we condense complex reality down to simple ideas. A few words provide a tool to manipulate ideas with the same ease as real objects. But often we forget that there is a reality behind the handle. In Gibson’s latest book, reviewed here, hackers from the future manipulate the past, creating alternate versions of history. Because the manipulation of their past make these worlds causally disconnected from those doing the manipulation, they become like fictional worlds, not at all real, and without consequences.

If we forget that our words are handles and not reality, we risk making mistakes by neglecting the consequences that come from action on complex systems. These interactions are not eliminated by using words; the map is not the terrain.

The reverse is true as well. In order to understand “totalities beyond our grasp”, we must reduce them to handles and map out the concepts. Doing the work and writing it down is the best aid to comprehension I know. I’m pleased to share the process here on ODB.

Book Review: The Peripheral by William Gibson

The Peripheral gives us a William Gibson that I’ve missed since The Diamond Age. As in earlier work, Gibson conflates the real and virtual worlds, allowing characters to move between physical reality and computer constructed virtual reality. When he did this in the 90’s, at the birth of the internet it was prophetic. I hope the The Peripheral isn’t as accurate a prediction of how reality might be controlled from the virtual world.

Here, Gibson uses virtualization to show how an entire world, economy and government in particular, might become a target of hackers with the right data and technology. The hackers happen to be 70 years in the future, using a mysterious Chinese server that provides a data connection into the past. Using a multiverse solution to time travel logical contradictions, the past becomes a stub. Thus the future doing the manipulation is necessarily different than the future of the manipulated world. It’s someone else’s future, and so without causal connection to those making the changes. Entire worlds can become virutual instances of reality with no consequences to the hacking. With his disarming, breezy, and venacular writing, Gibson provides a good story and enough philosophical contemplation of the information age to be worth the read.

Gibson moves a bit too far toward mind transfer, which I think is an impossibility. He allows devices that paralyze the user and transmit intention to peripheral devices. A band across the forehead allows sensation and intention to be transmitted. Gibson then goes beyond simple body control to allow new motor programs with novel ability to somehow also be remote.

In a theory of embodied mind, thought can’t be separated from the physicality of brain, from the sensorium and motor activity. Virtualization and remote action is clearly possible by transmitting sensory input and motor output back an forth. But thoughts and intent would have to found, transmitted and translated to allow remote thought control of a peripheral. It’s the kind of creeping dualism that’s allowed by theories of mind that separate thought from brain, but our current understanding of neuroscience appears to make this impossible. There’s no independent reality to thought; the activity leading to thought is not encoded, it just is the activity. One would have to transmit the brain itself which of course defeats the purpose of transmitting thought without the brain present. Fortunately, I enjoy science fiction stories about uploading minds or thought control of devices enough that I suspend disbelief and act as reader, not neuroscientist.