Hypernatural Monitoring

Hypernatural Monitoring: A Social Rehearsal Account of Smartphone Addiction is a research paper from two researchers at McGill University in Montreal. The authors outline how our social tendencies combine with smartphone technology to lead to excessive status monitoring.

The full paper is worth reading and is written in pretty clear language. What I find worthwhile is how, rather than place the blame solely on technology, the authors dig into how conditioned behavior and devices interrelate. The core of the authors’ argument boils down to this:

We suggest, rather, that it is the social expectations and rewards of connecting with other people and seeking to learn from others that induce and sustain addictive relationships with smartphones…We add that comparing ourselves to others and against cultural norms also enables us to derive meaning, motivation, purpose, and a sense of identity. With socially connected smartphones, this evolutionary process simply runs on overdrive.


Hamarikyu Gardens.

We spent 10 days on vacation last month in Tokyo and rather than try to sprint around Japan we decided to settle down in the center of the city and just relax for all 10 days. Turned out that was a great decision as we loved the slow pace staying in one place allowed for.

The highlight was really the sheer abundance of green spaces within the city. For such a densely packed metropolis it was refreshing to be able to also wander through so many gardens and parks. We also spent a good bit of time in various art museums. The very approachable Nezu was great, and includes an incredible garden down the hillside in back.

And as usual I brought half a suitcase of books with me. The list for this trip was Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning, Thomas Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude, William Irvine’s On Desire, Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, and Justin Vaïsse’s biography of Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Constant Adjustment

Living is the constant adjustment of thought to life and life to thought in such a way that we are always growing, always experiencing new things in the old and old things in the new.

Thomas Merton: Thoughts in Solitude.


View from La Pedrera.

Last month we took a break from the dreary, January weather in Portland and spent 9 days in Barcelona. While it was my second trip to the city, the first one was for work and I had a cold for much of the week. The weather turned out to be exactly what we’d hoped for: 50+ and mostly sunny.

One of the nice parts about visiting in mid-January is that it’s way off-season. A lot of places were empty and even crowded places were manageable. We had no problem just deciding day-of what we wanted to do most days.

One of the highlights was going hot air ballooning north of the city in Vic. It was a lot colder than we anticipated but the views and experience were fantastic. You can see the Pyrenees peaking out from just under the cloud line.

We also spent time in La Sagrada Família. The light was as amazing as I remember and we were fortunate that for much of the first hour there weren’t more than a few dozen people around.

Toward the end of the week we took the train out to the abbey at Montserrat. The abbey itself is interesting but what really makes the experience are the rock formations around. The path down to the hillside cave was deserted and we had the space to ourselves.

We took it at a pretty relaxed pace over the 9 days so we left ourselves with plenty to do on a return trip. Already looking forward to it!

2018 in books

Last year was the first year in which I kept a more organized list of what I read. I had a loose goal to read a book a week and ended the year having read 48 books. Given that a few of the books were significantly denser academic ones I consider that close enough.

The two best work books I read were Management Lessons from Mayo Clinic and Freedom from Command and Control.

Management Lessons from Mayo Clinic is an in-depth look at how Mayo Clinic works and the service mentality that’s embedded within their operations. I posted some high-level notes over here. If you work in any kind of service team it’s a worthwhile read. It captures in a more structured and easy-to-name way some aspects of effective service that you likely already intuit.

Freedom from Command and Control covers how to apply ideas from Toyota’s production system to service teams of all types. John Seddon is a consultant and covers a bunch of case studies and models for how to evaluate service team performance. Reading it got my mind working more than any service industry book in recent memory. As an aside, it’s $50 on Amazon so I’d generally recommend reading it only if you can find it at a local library. The first two-thirds of the book are fantastic. The last third is more of a rant by Seddon against certain standards bodies.

On the fiction side of things my favorite reads were when I branched out from the science fiction I typically read. Pachinko, Into the Distance, and The Sympathizer were three great ones.

I also refreshed my main reading list to start logging things as I go through 2019. I have a vacation coming up over the next week and a half so that list will grow quite a bit by the end of the month.

Thinking in bets

As a kid I’d occasionally watch World Series of Poker events on ESPN. During the broadcast they’d show the percentage likelihood each player had for winning the hand. I remember thinking, “How in the world do players remember all of this information…”

It certainly didn’t occur to me that some of the betting strategies players applied would also be effective in the business world. That’s part of why I found Annie Duke’s Thinking in Bets a worthwhile read. Duke is a professional poker player and her book is a guide to making decisions within uncertain environments.

She views a bet as, essentially, a decision about an uncertain future. To make effective bets we have to learn how to separate outcome quality from decision quality. The quality of our decisions is all we’re able to control. Yet we tend to evaluate our decisions by their outcomes; if the outcome is good then we made a good decision. The problem is it doesn’t work that way. A bad outcome can stem from a logically sound and effective decision.

Duke doesn’t advocate that we try to change this cognitive tendency through willpower alone. She holds that our capacity for deliberative decision-making is already maxed out. Instead she frames it this way:

The challenge is not to change the way our brains operate but to figure out how to work within the limitations of the brains we already have. 1

A path toward better decisions is to leverage our competitive drive to change our routines. We can change the features by which we compare ourselves (e.g. work to be the best credit giver rather than work to receive the most credit).

If we approach the decisions we make as bets then we can explore alternative reasons for why a given outcome came to pass. If we dismiss another’s good outcome as simply luck then we close down opportunities to learn from their expertise and skill. And it’s those lessons that we can apply to our own decisions.

A big part of what helped Duke in her career was having a decision group to deconstruct and debug situations with. It’s the Mertonian values of such a group that matter most. As she writes:

As a rule of thumb, if we have an urge to leave out a detail because it makes us uncomfortable or requires even more clarification to explain away, those are exactly the details we must share. The mere fact of our hesitation and discomfort is a signal that such information may be critical to providing a complete and balanced account.2

  1. Thinking in Bets, pg. 14.
  2. Ibid, pg. 154.

Support Operations Webinar

At Automattic we recently started building a support operations team. We’re wrapping up hiring for a Director-level position and will add a handful of roles within the team after that. Formalizing this work will help us strengthen many of the behind-the-scenes processes that power our support. It’s been a great learning process to go through as well.

Later this week I’m joining the fine folks at Help Scout along with pros from SmugMug and FreshBooks to chat about how we’ve built our various operations teams. We’ll cover how we structure our teams, why we started building them, and more. It should be a great conversation!

You can find all the details for the webinar on Help Scout’s site. It’ll also be recorded, so if you can’t make it live they’ll send you the recording if you sign up.

New Hampshire

Last month Leah and I spent a week in Plymouth, New Hampshire. It was more of a work trip than a vacation. But we did take advantage of some perfect fall weather to hike the Welch and Dickey Loop Trail. A great trail with some views over the surrounding valleys.

Stressful customers

In support we often write to confused and frustrated people. After all, they likely got in touch with us because they’re confused and frustrated with our products. That’s okay, we’re expert communicators. We can help them get set up.

One thing we can do as part of that is not presume a customer is “abusive” or “rude” or “unreasonable” at the first mention of profanity and frustration. We want to resist our first impulse, which can often be to admonish the customer on their tone. This will more often than not aggravate their frustration.

Instead, when confronted with a profanity-laden message, our first instinct should be to give the customer the benefit of the doubt.

We must treat their frustration as a signal that we should invest more in our understanding of their situation. We need to pause, step back, and focus on the issue at hand. That means fully understanding the history of their interactions with us and their issues with our product.

It also means keeping the conversation focused on resolving their issue. We can recognize their emotion without condemning it nor playing into it. Every person we interact with is, well, a person. We all have moments when our frustration gets the better of us and we’re harsher than we mean to be with a company.

I believe our role in support is to help people be successful. And to see every conversation as an opportunity to change someone’s impression about our business and our product. Even the angry, profane, and ALL CAPS people deserve our help. After all, it’s typically our product or our missteps which have pushed them to frustration. That’s alright, our world-class communication can turn things around.

Replacing Instapaper with Pinboard

After Instapaper’s odd GDPR-related decision to (temporarily) block EU access I decided to re-evaluate what tool I use for my reading list. I’ve used Instapaper every day for the better part of a decade but something about their recent decision didn’t sit right with me.

I’ve had a Pinboard account since 2009 and decided to try it as a read-later tool. So far so good. If you’re interested you can see what I’ve recently read here.

The import process to Pinboard was a bit of a pain. It’s supposed to be automatic but for some reason my export files weren’t importing. I didn’t have that many articles in my backlog, so I ended up migrating these manually.

On the settings side Pinboard has a bookmarklet you can add to your browser for one-click article saving. I also set it up to mark everything as private by default. That gives me a private to-read list and a public already-read list.

iOS is where Pinboard is the least competitive with Instapaper. What’s worked well enough for me is the Pinner app (on both iPhone and iPad). That makes it easy to read articles through Safari’s reader mode. Plus it’s then much easier to turn articles into bookmarks. The main downside is that there’s no offline storage, though I rarely used that with Instapaper.

The bonus feature is that Pinboard has, for a fee, built-in archiving. For $25/year it will crawl every bookmark you add and save a cached version for as long as you have an active, paid account. It’s a nice protection against link rot.