Lacking Inspiration

I’ve been struggling to get started writing a new book. I find it all to easy for my time out of work to be nibbled away, seconds and minutes and hours, by genuinely intriguing articles, blog posts, videos, comments, TV shows, work, and games. Like a lot of people, I have the urge to complete tasks and fill up progress bars, but with the internet and media, the progress bar can never be filled. And so I never end up starting that book, even though I have plenty of notes and (I think) good ideas.

But maybe that’s not the real reason. I did write a book a few years ago, after all, and I don’t recall being any less busy or distracted back then. Perhaps it’s because the media environment has become even more distracting – who knows?

Coincidentally, I heard Elizabeth Gilbert talk about this very subject on the Longform podcast. I’ll first admit that I only knew one thing about Gilbert beforehand, which is that she wrote the highly successful Eat, Pray, Love; a book that turned into a movie starring Julia Roberts, which a lot of people whose opinions I trust found very shallow. So I was skeptical when I saw the episode’s guest, but not so skeptical that I deleted the episode out of hand; the Longform people have earned that much trust from me over the years.

Here are a couple of good bits from the episode, firstly on being multitalented:

…When it comes to deciding what you’re going to be, it helps if there’s only one thing you’re good at… I know a lot of multitalented people… but I do think it’s hard to them sometimes to know where to put their energy. And it’s easier if you’re not so great at a bunch of stuff.

I confess that I think of myself as multitalented. I like to think that, given sufficient effort, I could become pretty good at making videos or games or writing or whatever. I like learning new things. And for me, that makes it hard to decide whether my next big personal project should be a game or a book or something else.

Another good bit is about inspiration, and why it’s valuable to identify the things that you really care about when it comes to taking on a big personal project:

The calculus has to be, what’s the thing that makes me want to get up in the morning, what’s the thing that I’m psyched that I get to do this…. It’s about being very awake, about being very alert. The work is clearing your life of distractions enough so you are actually capable of feeling that excitement when it arrives. That you haven’t overbooked yourself in ten different directions so that you are so exhausted that you wouldn’t know inspiration if it punched you in the face. You can’t do that to yourself. It’s about being sober. It’s about being hopeful. It’s about a certain faith, it’s a way of being, which is about being ready.

And it’s about trusting your own curiosity enough to follow it, even if it doesn’t make sense. Even if the inspiration that you had doesn’t align with anything you’ve done before, even if it doesn’t seem like it would be marketable, even if it’s something that you can’t even believe you’re interested in, but you sort of have to have full faith that if you’re curious about something, it’s for a reason, that it’s a clue on the great scavenger hunt, and that you follow that clue and then the next and then next.

The tricky bit is that you have to start from a place of ‘this is what I’m most excited about, this is what I’m most curious about’, and then you have to recognise and know what will happen, which is that six months into it, it’s going to feel very boring and tedious because making things is often boring and tedious.

Another idea is going to come along very seductively, and do the dance of the seven veils in the corner of your studio, and say, I’m a much more interesting, much more exciting idea, why don’t you abandon this project that you’ve been working on for six months and come and run away with me to paradise. And you have to be smart enough to know not to do that, because six months from now that project will also be dull and boring and another idea will come and seduce you have to be able to stay through it thorugh the boring part to get to the end, so when those other seductive new ideas come along, you have to tell them to take a number, that we’re doing this now. And until this thing is finished, I’m not going to run away with you.

First it’s the excitement, then it’s the discipline… I have this theory that everything that’s interesting is mostly boring. So, life is filled with all these really interesting things and we chase the high and the buzz of the excitement of that thing, but 90% of that thing is boring.

None of this is new to me. In fact I’ve given similar advice to other people. But sometimes you need to someone else to tell you what you already know, and Gilbert did that pretty damn well in this podcast.

30 Kickstarters in 30 Days

On Ep 226 of the Core Intuition podcast, Manton Reece discussed his 30 Coffee Shops in 30 Days challenge, which he promptly followed up with a 30 Libraries in 30 Days challenge. They also jokingly talked about a ’30 Kickstarters in 30 Days’ challenge, which immediately made me wonder, as a Kickstarter veteran and aficionado, whether it could be done well.

Of course it could be done, given low enough pledge goals. But I wonder what the bounds of this idea are. Could one person really launch 30 satisfying projects in 30 days, and deliver them in a reasonable amount of time – say, two years? Would you need more than one person to do this? What counts as ‘satisfying’? If it was, say, writing 30 100-word stories or drawing 30 single-frame cartoons, that seems a little too easy. But 30 completely unique projects is probably too much to expect.

And how could you promote this? Practically speaking, most Kickstarters are powered by friends and family, and even then it’s hard enough to get them to back you a single time, let alone 30 times. Sure, you can make the standard pledge level $1 for each project, but they’d still need to remember to visit Kickstarter once a day.

Realistically, working in a team would make this much easier – it’d give you access to a much broader pool of backers. Or if you insisted on doing it as an individual, you’d need Batman-levels of preparation.

I quite like these kinds of creative constraints (see Perplex City, A History of the Future in 100 Objects, etc.) but perhaps this is a bridge too far.

Port Standard

There are about 20 plug socket types being used around the world today, but only one really matters for modern devices: USB-A. And USB is truly a worldwide standard. Practically all the devices I might carry around – phone, tablet, watch, camera — can be powered directly via USB cable. My next laptop will be powered by USB. Even my Philips electric toothbrush can plug into a USB socket.

It’ll be several years until we can expect to see USB-A and USB-C sockets in the same places that we see plug sockets, which means I’ll still have to carry around charger bricks and plug adaptors when I travel abroad, but if you’ve flown on a plane or stayed in a modern(ish) hotel in the last couple of years, you’ll have spotted USB sockets.

This is a wonderful thing, the peace dividend of the smartphone wars. If I was staying in a hotel or friend’s house in practically any country, I could be sure of borrowing a charger cable or adaptor. Just think of all the waste and pointless peripherals avoided. Other dividends include the widespread usage of 4G/LTE and wifi standards, and soon enough we’ll be able to add wireless charging.

I’m curious to see if and when USB-C replaces USB-A as the socket type of choice. There’s a lot to like about USB-C in terms of reversibility (no getting the plug upside-down), increased power output, and size. But given the typical cycles of replacing infrastructure in hotels, airports, cars, planes, etc., I imagine it’ll be another decade before that really happens.

Ingrateful Expectations

This week, I bought a new iPad Pro 9.7″ to replace my iPad Mini 2. I use my iPad at home for at least two hours every day, mostly for web browsing and reading magazines, so it didn’t feel like a stretch to spend the not-inconsiderable £619 to get an upgrade. I was particularly interested in the iPad Pro’s new screen (40% lower reflectance than the Air 2, maybe 70+% over the Mini 2; laminated display; etc.), the Apple Pencil support, and most importantly, a 3x speed increase compared to what I have now.

Has my Mini 2 gotten slower since I bought it two and a half years ago? It feels like it, but according to benchmarks, iOS 9 actually increased the speed of the Mini 2 for my most common activity, web browsing. Perhaps the benchmarks are wrong, but it’s also likely that I just expect much more from my devices every year – not just because web pages and apps are becoming more complex, but due to the ratcheting-up of performance on my other devices. When I first got my iPad Mini 2, I’m sure it made my iPhone 5 feel slow in comparison, but my iPhone 6 now makes the Mini 2 feel slow.

And now the iPad Pro makes my iPhone 6 feel slow(ish). That’s to be expected, but more surprisingly, in my tests it loads webpages just as fast as my 27″ iMac from late 2012, which has 24GB of RAM; the iPad Pro has ‘only’ 2GB. Last night I used FaceTime while browsing the web and scrolling in Twitter, and there was nary a hiccup. I’m sure I could make it slow down with, say, a dozen Safari tabs and Grand Theft Auto, but that’s not a common use-case for me.

The display is just as good. Yes, it has lower reflectance, which makes for a more pleasant reading experience (no getting distracted by subtle reflections in front of the text); yes, it can go brighter. But the real MVP is the True Tone feature, which basically white-balances the display by sensing the colour temperature of your surroundings. It’s not headline-grabbing but as soon as you turn it off, you realise just how blue the display would be without it. The ultimate effect is less eye strain because it makes the iPad feel more like a piece of paper rather than some artificial glowing rectangle. I wouldn’t be surprised if True Tone was introduced to all new Apple displays in the next couple of years.

Naturally, the world wouldn’t complete without Apple fanatics who are deeply, personally offended by the iPad Pro not having, say, USB 3 support or 4GB of RAM or a faster Touch ID sensor. Without them, it’s apparently not a sufficiently impressive upgrade over the iPad Air 2 from 18 months ago. I think that’s arguable, but what’s more interesting to me is that there are people who really want to upgrade a 1.5 year old tablet.

Now, we all know people who upgrade their phones every year, and while I don’t care enough to do that, I can understand the impulse because it still feels like there’s a rapid pace of improvements in smartphones. But I don’t know anyone who upgrades their computer every year. In fact, it wouldn’t even be possible to do such a thing on many Macs, because they don’t get updated that often – and in any case, the upgrades would get you a scant 10-20% speed increase.

Tablets occupy a middle ground. Since they share the same core processors as phones, they share the tremendous speed improvements. But their other features are changing less rapidly; people just don’t care as much about the camera or touch sensor on tablets as they do on their phones, because they use their tablets less frequently and for a narrower range of tasks. So I find it baffling that anyone would even want to upgrade their iPad every release.

I suppose people are upset because it’s called the iPad Pro and that Apple are marketing it as a replacement for your computer. If so, that’s unfortunate. ‘Pro’ is a marketing term; the iPad Pro is no more meant for ‘professionals’ than the Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro laptop is meant for professionals. The iPad will never be a true replacement for a traditional computer until it’s much more flexible and runs a windowed operating system… but… who cares? Many people don’t need a traditional computer any more, and most people are using traditional computers far less – I know I am. For the rest of the time, I’m happy using my tablet.