Recently: March 2021

March was intense and plenty in all the ways February wasn’t.

Mareas Vivas

Mercedes Peón singing Mareas Vivas‘ intro song.

Galician noir: how a rainy corner of Spain spawned a new TV genre. The major streaming platforms have released tv-shows produced in Galiza and by Galicians: O Sabor das Margaridas / Bitter Daisies (Netflix), Auga Seca / Dry Water (HBO), La Unidad / The Unit (Movistar), 3 Caminos (Amazon Prime). The Guardian mentions scenery, low-budget costs, and a pre-existing industry fueled by the TVG (TeleVision of Galiza) as the main factors for Galiza’s becoming a production hub.

How would you measure how much of the “pre-existing” industry can be attributed to the role of the TVG? How would you measure the impact of having a distribution and production center with the autonomy and money to spend on the local film-making industry? One thing that hints at this is the story of Mareas Vivas (The Spring Tides). Aired from 1999 to 2003, it was certainly a good product in terms of audience, awards, and the fact that it was sold and distributed to other platforms. However, and this is what I didn’t understand until recently, it was also a good platform to grow local talent. If we fast-forward 20 years, what’s now doing the people involved in the show? Luis Tosar, who played one of the main characters, is a renowned international film star; Mercedes Peón, the intro song composer, has a career in the world music scene; many others (producers, camera-people, etc.) founded or are working for the companies that are now selling products to Netflix, HBO, or Amazon.

This pattern resonates with something I read about the evolution of the Estonia startup ecosystem as well: there’s a product that reaches highly successful rates (Mareas Vivas in 1998-2003 and Skype in 2003-2009, respectively), and the released energy from that success (money, connections, expertise) is invested back into the next round of products. It’s so common a pattern that there’s a term for it: the X mafia, after the Paypal employees who used the money they got from selling PayPal to invest in and/or create YouTube, Linkedin, Tesla, SpaceX, or Kiva.

Read

How I cut GTA online loading times by 70%. This is the story of a GTA player who proposed a fix to reduce the app loading time from 6 to 1:50 minutes ― without having access to the source code. It boiled down to how GTA parsed and read data from a large JSON file (10Mb). It reminded me of one of the best talks about performance I’ve ever seen: Fast by default: algorithmic performance optimization in practice.

Compensation as a reflection of values. Oxide is a startup that pays everyone the same: $175k. They understand the different risk profiles and skin in the game that different people have in the company, and they embed that risk in the company’s equity: the sooner you joined, the larger stock you have.

A bottom-up approach to organize content with mind-maps, by Kent Beck.

Listened

Guadi Galego’s Cólico and Cláudia Pascoal’s Quase Dança received the ari[t]mar 2021 award as the best songs of Galiza and Portugal in 2020, respectively.

I agree with the internet that Cólico is a beautiful piece about an awful topic. I’ve also realized that I had been following Guadi Galego for a while, but I didn’t have a top-10 songs list. Here’s the fix to that, a 30-minutes list that would hopefully lighten your day:

WordPress 5.7 “Esperanza” was released this month. It’s named after Esperanza Spalding, a bassist, singer, and composer. In the past years, I’ve picked up the habit of listening to the jazz musician chosen to highlight the WordPress major release.

It’s been 30 years since REM’s Out of Time was released. An absolute masterpiece, I heard at home. I must confess REM grew slowly on me. Ironically, the sort of music I listened to at the time (grunge, shoe-gaze, brit-pop) was possible because REM had existed. Anyway, REM stands out to me as one of those groups with a unique characteristic: I can relate many of their songs to particular spatial-temporal moments of my life. When I hear one of these, I’m immediately transported to the past. These are three of them:

On the podcast front, I’m back at trying to ease my way into the medium: I re-listened Barbara Oakley‘s interview on the fs podcast, started Exército de Precários, and checked out a beautiful and very personal interview with Isaac González x2 in Sexto Grao.

Watched

Unorthodox. A 19-year-old woman flees from the ultra-orthodox Jew community she lives in. It’s a great story about those who need to run away from their environment to flourish and be their own selves.

Can we live forever? My current favorite documentary series, Explained, produced a 20-minute episode on the latest of the health industry: investigations about how to tap into our own biological mechanisms to make our body delay/prevent the sort of diseases related to aging (cancer, Alzheimer, strokes, cardiovascular diseases, etc.). It’s so packed that I had to watch it twice. As pre-material, I suggest the talk Experiments that hint of longer lives:

Obsidian for writing. I continue to be thinking about how I take & organize notes. I like Obsidian so much that I became a supporter. I’m stupidly excited about the mobile app as well. There’s a huge community using it and sharing their setups, like this one:

Inside

For the first time since more than a year ago, I spent a bunch of time inside a building that wasn’t my home, my family’s, or a supermarket: I went to see Pharaoh: King of Egypt, an exhibition with material from The British Museum.

Although we went at the least crowded hours we could, it was still weird and uncomfortable at times. The exhibition itself was very well organized and produced; it renewed my interest in ancient civilizations. I already wrote about Rome in January. Something both have in common is that some marvelous things they invented and built were forgotten and lost for centuries after they collapsed ― some still are.

Not a surprising thought that I had lately was: is our civilization collapsing as well? Pandemic-aside, it’s certainly difficult sometimes to be stoked about its current status when it fails to provide basic needs for so many, and a lot of the underlying infrastructure it runs on is broken or heavily damaged. As anecdata, some people who had provided me futuristic thoughts in the past suggest it’s showing signs of stagnation: Neal Stephenson asks what we’ve built since the 70s, and Jonathan Blow thinks along those lines when it comes to the programming industry. A quite strong counter-point is The best stats you’ve ever seen by Hans Rosling.

Outside

In March, I dusted-off my Fitbit, grabbed some fresh air, and took some photos as well.

Monte Pindo's surroundings.
A Abrela.

Cooked

Besides getting out of hibernation and increasing my physical activity, I’m in one of those “let’s learn about food and nutrition” phases. Sometimes, I cook inspired by what I learned.

Recently: January 2021

Inspired by Tom MacWright, I’m starting a “recently” series, where I’m going to branch out a bit from the usual topics of this site ― which weren’t very focused anyway. Aims to be monthly.

Streamers

The past year I’ve started to follow some streamers. It’s a lot of fun if you find someone that resonates with your interests and style.

Recently, I ran into a doctor who streams content about keyboards, memory techniques, and other things that I like. I was shocked by learning that he earns more money from his passive income (courses, ads on YouTube) than from his profession (being a doctor):

While these cases exist, he makes a pretty clear point that is quite unusual and difficult to get there. Your ability to earn anything is bounded by the markets you appeal to. Example: US viewers (high income) + tech/productivity topics (things people spend actual money in) can make you something if you become popular. Galician viewers + medieval literature is not that appealing from the perspective of the YouTube ads market.

A different model is Twitch (Amazon-owned), in which viewers can pay for the content, and half of it goes to the creator. One of the most popular streamers from Spain has grown from 600 to 6 000 paying subscribers since March 2020. Given that the minimum subscriber package is 5€, he’s making at least 15k€ monthly only from viewers. While he’s at the top (his end of year stream had more viewers than many Spanish TV specials), beginners can also make some money in Twitch. If you have 40 paying subscribers you can buy a new webcam, which is unthinkable with the same viewers on YouTube.

Who would have thought that a business model based on consumers paying for content is a lot more friendly to niche markets than mass advertising?

Note taking

I’ve been taking digital notes since 2009. It’s all markdown files stored locally and I still have all of them. +10 years worth of unused bytes sitting in my disk drives.

While I tried a few different approaches, I’ve settled for taking two types of notes since a few years ago:

  1. Library notes about things I read or watch.
  2. Journal notes about work and life.

They are named and stored chronologically, although with a few tweaks to make them searchable, especially on mobile. When I need to look up something, I search for it using VSCode, the editor I currently use for programming. It’s been ok so far.

The first card in Luhmann’s Zettelkästen.

I recently discovered another method of taking and storing notes popularized by the term “second brain”. Though the original author coined it “second memory” and that name makes more sense to me. The difference is that, while a journal is chronological and has a short lifespan, the way you organize your second memory aims to accompany you for decades and its goal is to help you connect ideas and develop new ones.

Though intrigued, I was unimpressed with what I read about this method by modern practitioners. So I went to the source: Niklas Luhmann, a german sociologist who famously used it to publish his papers and books from the 60s to the 00s. He called it the Zettelkästen, note boxes. The only paper he published about it, Communicating with Slip Boxes, is the best high-level intro I’ve found. If you are curious about the specifics after reading it, I also enjoyed this paper by the researcher in charge of digitalizing Luhmann’s state. The intro to his online archive is quite detailed as well.

Life

The year started with some snow, then rain, and always fog:

It’s not surprising that I spent a good bunch of my time at home, given the weather and the pandemic. Can report that I’ve watched a documentary series about Roman Engineering (in Spanish) that I liked. It was fascinating to learn about the techniques and knowledge they applied to a lot of things: where to settle, how to organize cities, how to build aqueducts, or how to squeeze as much mineral from nature as possible. The series is very well produced. It makes excellent use of space reconstruction with 3D techniques and the script has a good balance between the high and low-level details. The presenter is a knowledgeable engineer and historian. The only thing I found weird is that they dubbed him ― people from home and the internet agree with me.

Some food I’ve cooked and eaten:

Since I started a Portuguese course a few months ago, I’ve been introducing more Portuguese input in my life (series, music, etc). It’s the kind of thing I usually do when learning new languages.

Enjoyed 3%, a Brazilian TV show produced by Netflix. The story has a lot in common with The Hunger Games. It also borrows some themes from Christianism and Capitalism, such as only the worthy will have a place in the world of the good people.

I’ve discovered a generation of indie musicians based in continental Portugal: Miguel Araújo, Márcia, J.P. Simões, Luisa Sobral, Salvador Sobral, etc. There’s a lot more to music in the lusofonia than alfacinhas and tripeiros, though, and I expect to share more in the coming months. Anyway, it seems duets are a thing among this generation so I created a list with three I liked:

Grupo de lectura de Scórpio

Comparto unha nota que me enviaron para difundir esta iniciativa.

A Asociación Carballo Vivo de Friol organiza un grupo de lectura virtual de Scórpio, novela de Ricardo Carvalho Calero, autor homenaxeado nas Letras Galegas 2020. Continúa así coa iniciativa Desconfinamos a obra de Carvalho na que tamén participa Modelo Burela.

O prazo de inscripción estará aberto até o 30 de Agosto. Para incribirse é preciso enviar un whatsapp aos números de teléfono que aparecen na nota de prensa. Eu xa o fixen!

Catan

Catan, formerly known as The Settlers of Catan, is a game designed by Klaus Teuber and released in 1995. This year marks its 25th anniversary, a good time to resume playing. It’s one of the classic Eurogames and has become a franchise with many extensions and related games. At the time of writing, it sits within the top 100 games in the family category at BGG (so do Azul and SushiGo). There are only 6 other games published before 2000 that are in the top 100, which speaks to the importance of the game as a classic.

Starting board for the local tournament semifinal that I won.

I had only played once or twice before. It didn’t make an impression on me at the time, it was just fine. However, since I joined the board game club I’ve had renewed enthusiasm to try new games or old ones with an open mind. When I learned that the people at the club decided to organize a local Catan tournament I was delighted. I didn’t know such things existed. Sure, there are tournaments for e-sports that host hundreds of thousands of people, but, for board games? I thought that was something of a family thing, a private entertainment. It turns out I was quite wrong, there is a fair excitement about Catan through the world with national, European, American, and world championships. You can even watch finals on YouTube. Let that sink in for a moment: watch other people playing board games on YouTube. Yes. I know. It’s a lot of fun!

Now that I’ve played it more, I came to appreciate its characteristics:

  • Theme. You’re one of the new settlers of an island that produces materials and your goal is to become the patron of the island.
  • How you win. By getting 10 points. This requires creating new settlements, cities, or roads, for which you need materials in different quantities: wood, grain, brick, sheep, stone.
  • How materials are distributed. By rolling dice. The board is made of hexagonal tiles that represent the materials. Each round, the rolled number indicates which tiles produce. All participants whose properties touch the producing tiles get new materials.

For a board game to stay relevant after so many years, it has to have something that creates a different experience each time you play. For Catan this is the board positioning. The tiles of the board are placed randomly and so are the numbers on top of them: participants have to adapt to different scenarios. Granted, there are a few well-known tips&tricks you can learn but your chances of winning greatly depend on your starting position — if your properties are adjacent to an uneven set of resources or to low-probability tiles, your development is going to be much slower than other player’s. You don’t want that.

So, essentially, this game is about racing to build properties that enable you to get more materials you use to create more properties so you can acquire even more materials to build properties. And it’s not a level playing field: your starting position greatly influences your chances of winning. There’s no denying it’s got an expansive capitalist kind of mentality. It shouldn’t come as a surprise what some people say:

Catan is the board game of entrepreneurship.

Reid Hoffman, of Linkedin fame.

Who am I to disagree with a $2 billion net worth entrepreneur, right? So I thought I’d give the tournament a try. So far, I was lucky enough to classify for the final. Not a bad beginning!

Azul

Azul is the 2018 Spiel des Jahres winner, among a long list of many other prizes. It sits second in the BGG family games ranking after only two years since the release.

The artwork doesn’t dissapoint. The board materials are very well designed and look durable — nice touch: it includes a linen bag for the tiles that goes well with the Moorish aesthetics.

I tend to think that card games are more newbies-friendly than board games due to lower setup time, simpler rules and quicker turns. However, Azul has that same feeling, perhaps infused by the lack of a central board -everyone has their own- and the fact that most of your time/energy is focused on completing your own geometrical figures, rather than strategizing to block your opponents.

I’ve only played once so far, in a group of four (kids and adults). I’ve found the mechanics abstract and was surprised how the kids managed to beat the grown-ups — it was them who asked to play! I’ve got the feeling that this is the kind of game that I’d enjoy having in my collection.

CuBirds

I stumbled upon CuBirds while I was looking for something light and fun for two people to play. It was the beautiful artwork that picked my interest first, the cubic art is so cute!

It was created by Stefan Alexander, an electrical engineer working on wearables for whom board games design is a side gig. The rules are simple, but the emergent complexity makes each game different. It consists on creating your bird collection, and you win when you’ve got either birds from 7 different species or two species with 3 specimen each.

I wouldn’t say it has the same rhythm than Sushi Go! although it shares some characteristics: there are few and simple rules so it’s easily approachable to newbies, the theme and artwork engages people from different backgrounds, all the information you need is contained in the cards, and you win by keeping track of cards and probabilities (something most people are familiar with).

Highly recommended filler for after-dinner infusions.

Sushi Go!

I’m starting a new section on this blog to talk about games. The first entry is for the card game that was more present in my family during this past holidays: Sushi Go! by Phil Walker-Harding.

Sushi Go! is the prototype of a party game for everyone: easy to learn, prone to quick turns with almost no time to think, and a theme that pleases most people (who doesn’t like food?).

It’s a game that takes the core mechanics to the essentials, making it accessible to everyone. The artwork conveys playfulness while also communicating the score system — nice touch, look at how many items have the tempura and sashimi cards and compare to the score. The packaging is easy to travel with: it’s compact, with no spare parts once you open it, and it fits on anyone’s bag. Last, but not least, it has some parallels with real-life: the pick & pass rhythm mimics the sushi trains, and desserts are eaten at the end.

I’d say this is a game that shines with 4 people, although it’s playable by 2 to 5. It goes well with any age, and I’ve tried it with people ranging from 8 to 60 years old.

SushiGo! is my current recommendation as a filler game for dinners with friends & family that are newbies to board games.

How I learned the NATO Phonetic Alphabet

Did it ever happen to you that during a phone call you had to spell something? An airline code, an email, an invoice number, etc. At those situations, I always regretted not having learned the NATO phonetic alphabet.

NATO Phonetic Alphabet

Flash forward to September 2019: I found myself in a talk about learning and memory techniques during the Automattic Grand Meetup. It picked my interest so I decided to investigate a bit and signed up for the Learning how to Learn MOOC.

In this post I’m sharing how I’ve applied my new gained knowledge to learn something useful that I had put off for a long time. I also hope to interest you in the topic of learning how to learn.

1 – Deal with procrastination

The main reason I had postponed learning the NATO Phonetic Alphabet is that I thought I had a bad memory and it’ll be a lot of work — I procrastinated. Procrastination is a mechanism our brain uses to cope with challenging feelings induced by certain tasks: perhaps we believe we can’t do something, maybe it’s boring, makes us feel anxious, etc. Essentially, procrastination is not about time-management, but about emotion-management.

To deal with procrastination means to deal with and rewire our emotions about the task. Doesn’t sound easy, right? The good thing is that there are a few practical things we can do:

  • Time-box short periods of focus, break and reward. Time 20 minutes during which you’ll exclusively focus on the task at hand and do whatever you can: no pressure in the output, just focus on doing anything. Then, give yourself a break and a reward — exercise a little, eat some chocolate, surf the web, whatever works for you. Do not forget about the reward! It’s a crucial part of rewiring your feelings about the task. Finally, repeat the process a couple of times more.
  • Focus on the process, not the product. Planning and have small wins/rewards is an important part of dealing with procrastination. Things like writing down the next tasks you’ll work on at the end of your day or cross-off the ones you’ve done help you focus on the steps. By focusing on the process, not the final goal, it’s easy to control our feelings of discomfort.

For me, the first focused session was about familiarizing myself with the NATO Phonetic Alphabet: essentially, I surfed the web and read about it. Then, I stopped and gave myself a reward. My second session was about how would one go about memorizing all the 26 symbols (see next tip). Break and reward. I spent the third session developing the system I had researched. Again, break and reward. By the fourth session, I was ready to start memorizing.

2 – Tap the visual and spatial memory

Through many thousands of years, our brain has evolved to be amazingly good at remembering places, visual things, as well as anything that involves the senses. When dealing with abstract concepts it’s useful to encode them into memory leveraging those abilities. For someone who hadn’t consciously done this before and feels that has an average memory, this is easier said than done.

If we look around us, though, there are multiple real-life examples we can draw inspiration from:

I hadn’t done it before, so I spent my second focused session thinking about how would I put in practice the things I had learned. I also reviewed what others did for inspiration: the NATO publishes a guide that links images to the words, some people create a song, etc. Of all the things that I found, the approach suggested by Nelson Dellis -4th time winner of the USA memory championship- was the most appealing to me: he creates an image by merging the letter and the word associated with it.

For example, for the pair A-Alpha he pictures sprouts of Alfalfa coming out of the A letter; for the pair P-papa he pictures a cartoon of his dad with the shape of the P; for the pair U-uniform he pictures the U being a basket where you’d store uniforms; and so on. I highly recommend the video if you’re interested in the mechanics of this.

After I knew the system I wanted to use, I decided it was time for a break (and a reward!). After a while I came back energized to create my own — actually, my unconscious brain already had already suggested some ideas (see next tip). Being my first time ever doing this kind of thing, it took around an hour to come up with my own memorable images for each one of the 26 letter-word pairs.

3 – Focus, rest, and recall

Now that I had a system in place, the next step was memorizing. I went through the phonetic list stopping a few seconds in each of the images I had created. After a few rounds, I stoped and did other things. Then I tried recalling them from memory: I didn’t get all of them but I did get many. I repeated the pattern (focus, rest, and recall) a couple of times during the day. The days after I mostly did recall using the Anki app where I had stored the pairs previously.

It turns out this strategy works a lot better than just going through the list over and over until you are exhausted. There are a number of things at play here:

  • Switching between focus and rest states helps your brain digest the information, so to speak. In the focus mode, you’re able to direct your thoughts to a problem. Although you can’t command your diffuse unconscious brain to work on the things you want, you can prime it to do it — aka make suggestions. How? For example, by taking a break after a focused session (go for a little walk, take a one-second nap like Dali or Einstein, do the home chores, etc.).
  • Space the repetition. Once you reach the point of almost no errors, repeating has diminishing returns — it’s just not effective and creates illusions of competence. To store something in long-term memory, you have to modify the forgetting curve instead. How? Spaced repetition. Instead of cramming a 2h session repeating the same material over and over, do smaller sessions spaced through several days. Useful ways to be deliberate about practicing is scheduling your review and study sessions in a calendar, use flashcards to keep track of progress, etc.
  • Recall from memory. Long-term memory is a storage mechanism that prioritizes which memories are consolidated and which ones aren’t that important. By recalling the information, we’re strenghthening the path to retrieve it later. In many ways the mechanism is very similar to paving a cowpath: a memory is strong when it was used a lot during different intervals. Recalling and testing yourself are the most effective techniques you can use to reinforce what you want to learn. Also teaching it to someone else, which is a good technique to uncover the holes in your understanding.

Coda

Although the tips I suggested here are universal, how do you apply them to a specific situation varies from problem to problem.

Take memorization techniques, for example: PAO, Major System, Mnemonics, Memory Palace, etc. Some are useful to convert concepts into images, others to link or inter-connect different ideas. It takes time to know which technique is more adequate to a specific problem. That intuition is only built with practice.

Other essential functions of learning that I didn’t use in this process were understanding and chunking. I had a list of 26 symbols that matched a letter in the alphabet and they didn’t have any other meaning; I also didn’t have any pre-requisite knowledge, so to speak. If I was trying to understand a mathematical formula or how a web-browser works, chunking would have been essential. The process is similar to putting together a puzzle and involves compressing the information, learning to deconstruct the concept you’re trying to understand, reason by analogy, transform the concept to a different mode/language (from a formula to a graph, from graph to simple words), etc. It’s a messy process.

The topic of Learning How to Learn is fascinating. There is so many practical things you can do to improve and some of them are so counterintuitive. It’s also a fun way to challenge the pre-conceptions about yourself and indulging a bit of goofyness while you work hard to grok something.

If this post picked your interest, I recommend checking the Learning How to Learn MOOC and/or the book is based from, A mind for numbers. They are comprehensive and contain extensive documentation and research, while keeping things actionable.

The magician’s assistant

This book was the Reading Club assignment for January 2019.

The magician’s assistant, by Ann Patchett, is a family story under odd circumstances. Set around the same time it was published (1997), it touches topics that were part of the life of many, although not part of the mainstream news at the time: violence in the family, how life differs in small and big places, homosexuality, and AIDS.

It’s told from the perspective of Sabine, the best friend, assistant, and wife of Parsifal, a homosexual man that lives with Phan, his partner. Sabine and Parsifal marry when Phan and Parsifal are diagnosed AIDS so Sabine can inherit their state. She is in love with Parsifal.

Upon Parsifal death, Sabine is shocked to learn that his family is alive, despite what he had told her. They are from Alliance, a small place in Nebraska, and want to visit Los Angeles, where Parsifal lived, to get a sense of how life was for him. Sabine agrees and tours them for a few days, in the hope of discovering why he hadn’t told her the truth. Through this tour, you are acquainted with the main characters. It’s like a warm-up before the real match.

Parsifal’s family turns out to be fine people, and the tragic event that made Parsifal break with them is revealed to Sabine. Fast-forward: she’s invited to a wedding in Nebraska, which she agrees to attend as an opportunity to connect with Parsifal’s childhood and find some rest. So we now have Sabine embedded in an environment so different to hers: a small town with little to do and few opportunities to reinvent yourself, a conservative society, and a family that had struggled (and still is) with domestic violence. This is the real match. We have now a vessel (Sabine) to cross the river of understanding: in one shore, a liberal society where you can be whatever you want; in the other, a conservative community that pressures you to be like the others.

The story ends with the liberal Sabine realizing that the only way that conservative family can break the vicious loop they find themselves in is by providing them an escape hatch. Perhaps this is also the message Ann Pratchett wants to convey: let’s be less judgmental and more empathetic.

This book is beautifully written. The rhythm is slow but steady, with enough details to fill your imagination but not too many to get in the way of the story. The use of magic as a second thread and the dreams to feed us information was great. It is a straight story, doesn’t have many layers to it. To a modern reader, it may feel perhaps a bit dated and certainly stereotypical in some ways (Nebraska, anyone?), but if you consider the time it was published (1997) I think it was actually a very brave book to publish.