Sam Gentle.com

Feedback loops

Feedback loops

Something that I've really started to appreciate the importance of recently is feedback loops. Any time I'm doing a project there's a loop between my actions and their results. I come up with an idea, I start figuring out how to implement it, make a couple passes at it, get something I'm happy with, release it and then show it to people. If they like it, or don't, that's good information and goes back into the next cycle of the process.

But I've been beginning to realise that my feedback loops are often way too long. I have projects and ideas that sit on my hard drive for months or years without seeing the light of day. Part of that is not wanting to release something crappy that will get me bad feedback, but another more significant factor is that my projects aren't structured the right way. It's easy to make something that's useless until it's finished, but much harder to make something that is useful and can gather feedback as early as possible.

This isn't new, in fact it's a central tenet of agile development, which I've found useful in a business context, but I'm beginning to realise that I haven't really appreciated the value of thinking this way in general. The feedback loop is critical because it's a fundamental part of any optimisation process. Any time you're solving a dynamic problem you'll be limited by how quickly you can see if your solution's working.

My recent realisation is that short feedback loops are more useful for creative projects, not less. When you have an opportunity to go deep into the woods and make something really interesting is when it's most important not to get lost and forget the grounding your ideas have in reality. More creative projects are also more resistant to traditional analysis techniques; they're less cerebral and more intuitive. You won't be able to solve the whole thing at once, and making steady progress is going to be impossible without feedback.

Perhaps most importantly, a short feedback loop is very motivating. I've had many projects stall out because they've been languishing in a half-done state for too long and I just lose the energy to keep caring about them. But every bit of feedback and every minor reinforcement propels me forward and makes me want to see the next iteration. Even without the other benefits, that alone is worth it.

Rebuilding

I had a fun idea a while back for a kind of extreme real world game: get a bunch of people together with a fixed amount of time and try to recreate civilisation from nothing out in the wilderness. I call it rebuilding.

The difficulty of the game mainly depends on how you define civilisation and how you define nothing. I think it would be reasonable for beginners to start with a knife and comfortable clothes, but if you're hardcore you could start with nothing but a loincloth. It would be tempting to cheat by starting with specific things that are impractical to make, like steel or a microscope, but I think that defeats the point.

Instead, the right place to cheat is by careful definition of the word civilisation. For a first attempt I think you would pass by just setting up some kind of functional dwelling + basic agriculture. Then you could move on to more advanced goals like building a non-human-powered vehicle, launching something 100 metres into the air, or isolating penicillin.

A good goal would have a lot of creative ways to approach it. The vehicle doesn't have to use a traditional engine, maybe it could be wind powered or run off firewood. There are a few differnt mechanical and chemical ways to make something go high up in the air. Penicillin... yeah, that one's pretty tough. You would also want to set up lots of intermdiate goals as waypoints, partly to give you something to focus on on the way to the major goal, and partly so you have a string of other successes to look back on when you don't reach your chosen definition of civilisation. The game's meant to be hard, and I think it's fair if it takes a few attempts.

A big part of it would be very careful preparation. Having a plan, or even several plans, and having practiced some crucial skills early on would go a long way to making the task achievable. Picking the right location for the goal (or the right goal for the location, if there aren't many choices) would also be crucial. If something happens such that you need real-world tools or medical attention, that would qualify as "dying" in the game. Obviously you wouldn't want to have phones and cars around, so you'd need to have a plan for how to get someone out if something goes wrong.

Ultimately I think it's a game that's appealing as an exercise in realising how far we've come and getting in touch with some of the technological developments that we take for granted now. Being able to go back and, in some small way, relive the experience of being on the front line of civilisation would be an amazing thing to experience.

Chia Groot

Chia Groot

Today I did a fun little DIY project as a gift for a friend. I bought a baby Groot bobble head, cut its head open and filled it with dirt and chia seeds. The ultimate outcome should be a Groot chia pet, but I'll have to wait a couple weeks to see if it turns out.

I also put up step-by-step instructions in case anyone else wants to make one.

Timetabling

Screenshot of a timetable

One technique I've found pretty useful for keeping my days on track is using a timetable. That is, dividing my entire day up into calendar entries describing what I should be doing at any given moment. I haven't really seen much of the humble timetable since I left university, but I think there are a few qualities that make it useful for creative work.

A timetable might sound overbearing, but it's important to remember that, like any measurement or management tool, it's only as draconian as its consequences. In my use, I don't find much benefit in getting upset when something happens and throws the timetable out. Rather, I adjust the timetable so that it makes sense for the rest of the day and use it as an opportunity to think about whether that adjustment was a good thing.

In fact, I'd say that's the main benefit of having a timetable. Without one, your day can slip arbitrarily and you don't even notice. Someone calls and you lose fifteen minutes. You get sidetracked by some interesting website and half an hour's gone. Suddenly the day's over and you're surprised to discover you've done half as much as you expected. With one, you not only notice the slippage, you can correct it by making changes to the rest of the day.

The other main benefit is that it forces you to put a bit more effort into planning your day. My default plan looks roughly like "do things until I'm done", which has the benefit of simplicity but not much else. Explicitly blocking it out makes it obvious when there aren't enough hours to do everything you were planning, particularly on days where other commitments intrude. It also makes it much clear when you're not leaving yourself enough time for breaks, exercise or fun.

Basically the only downside is having to remember to put aside time to do it, which is the kind of problem you can solve with the judicious application of even more timetabling.

Random survey app

Sketch of a random survey app

I was at a Less Wrong meetup the other day and the conversation got around to self-measurement, as it often does. It reminded me of this app idea I've had floating around for a while.

I've tried a few different methods for self measurement, but none of them have suited me particularly well. I mainly use spreadsheets, which are great and very flexible but hard to stay on top of. If I'm particularly busy I tend to forget about them, which is sadly the exact time when I'd most like to have good information.

I've also dabbled with automatic window tracking software like RescueTime and Time Sink but it's never really stuck. Time Sink is basically unmaintained now and didn't give me very useful information. RescueTime was great but I find the idea of every activity on my computer being stored in one NSA-friendly database supremely creepy.

One third way I've heard about is random sampling. Instead of having to actively manage your measurements or build them into a monitoring system, you just get a prompt at random times asking you quick questions. Over time, your responses will form a complete picture of what you want to know.

Unfortunately, there don't seem to be any good solutions for this at the moment. Most of what's out there seems to focus specifically on one type of question, either mood or "what are you doing now?", but I'd like to ask custom questions. There an iOS app called Reporter that seems pretty nice, but I'd really like something for Android. In particular, something that integrates with Android Wear would be super cool.

In my ideal world, someone else would build that for me, but I suspect I might end up doing it myself. Unfortunately, it'll still be pretty tricky to track my time while doing it.