Murder Your Shortcuts

I never really understood cooking properly until I learned about what the French call “mise en place”. It means literally, “putting in place”. It’s the process of gathering everything for cooking before the actual cooking happens.

With mise en place, the recipes to be made are reviewed, and ingredients are measured out. Vegetables, spices, and meats are washed and chopped, arranged to be used. The equipment to be used is heated, and the chef prepares for the process of cooking.

This process allows cooks to focus their minds on cooking once everything has been set. Everything comes out in logical steps, and cooking becomes merely the process of following the ingredients.

Curry Mise En Place

So why doesn’t mise en place happen with every meal cooked?

Because our minds think we’re smarter than that. They trick us into believing the process of preparing our ingredients and getting ready for proper work is a waste of energy. That we should instead just get on with the cooking, and forget about the ritual surrounding proper cooking.

These shortcut meals never end up working properly.  Inevitably, I’ve forgotten something in my process, and have an oh shit moment. Then I change things and realize the meal now needs saving. The process of trying to save the meal usually ends up ruining it.

Mise en place is really about something deeper, it’s about focusing on the process and slowing down. It’s a practical formula for introducing focus and quality in the preparation of food.

I’ve begun working towards a mise en place for my programming. A way to prepare myself for the process of producing code that functions, lasts, and does its job well. Work which stands with the absence of shortcuts. Work which just is quality.

Mise en Place for Programmers

The first change happens before I even sit down, or look at my computer. When I know I’m going to be coding, I put on my professional, coding outfit. This is khakis and a button down, with black socks and dress shoes.

It’s a signal to myself that serious work will be taking place shortly, and that my mind should begin to focus itself.

Next, I focus on my workspace. Before coding, I’ll completely clean off my coding area, until it’s immaculate, with just the things I’ll need for the coding session. Usually that’s a journal with a list of problems to tackle, a pen, and a mug of (decaf) coffee.

I’ll then go through my list, deciding which of the problems is most crucial for the goals I’ve set for the day. Once decided, I’m fully committed to finishing the problem before I get up again.

On my computer, an open Emacs window in fullscreen mode with org-mode in two windows to log my thought processes as I approach the problem. I enter the date into an org-mode window before I begin working, and then I open up a terminal and start up the virtualenv I’ll be working with. If I’m working with virtual machines, I boot them up.

I’ll also open up the documentation for what I’ll be working on.

When it’s time to work, the phone gets silenced, and I block off a chunk of time. The problem to be tackled must be done within the time frame, and running over time is not allowed.

As a reward for focused effort, I give myself time for a walk, and possibly a small snack.

In these patterns, I’m creating a ritual, a way for the process of coding and building something of quality to come through naturally. I want the world of my code surrounded in quality and focus.

If left alone, our minds begin to wander and look for shortcuts. We think we can get around the necessary work with just a little cheating. It can manifest as running a stop sign, leaving dirty dishes in the sink too long, or leaving an ugly hack in production code. Either way, the shortcuts end up biting us in the ass inevitably, and we wonder what we were thinking.

So make your bed and floss your teeth. Stop completely. Incorporate the process of quality into every aspect of your life. Your code will thank you.


Building The Human Brain API

By mass the human mind is overwhelmingly habits, lower emotional reactions, instructs and unconscious regulation. The part of our brain responsible for our logic, and what we associate as our “self” is small. Evolutionarily speaking, it’s very new, and as such is pretty weak compared to the rest of the brain that’s been around for a while.

As the world grows more complex, and information doubles every year, this little guy gets more and more overwhelmed. How can we make effective decisions when there’s a new flood of information to drown in every day?

And what about the exponential growth of data in the future?

How about an API that will give that little frontal cortex a leg up?

A bridge, a second brain we can offload information into, to remember and raw new insights from later. A way to make our frontal cortex bigger, better.

See, right now our little frontal cortexes are getting a real party, with the growth of Facebook, Twitter, and the rest of the smart phone innovations. Every few minutes we can check and see which part of our lives has been updated and required a new response.

But these are ego driven, empty brain treats.

What if instead we had the tools to interrupt our consciousness to make us happier, healthier human beings?

This isn’t some remote, absurd proposition. Human psychology and science are making rapid progress in figuring out what makes us humans feel happy.

The logical part of our brain tends to mostly spend its time justifying the emotional reaction of the animal self. So we’ll create excuses with logic for things which we feel immediately.

A tool which reminded us of this fact, and asked us questions about the very pieces of our selves that we take for granted could, in fact, build us into happier human beings.

In our pursuit of happiness, there are some universalities which are required:

  • Incremental Progress -> Get feedback that we are progressing towards something. Frequent reminders of progress make for the greatest happiness generators.
  • Goal Attainment -> Less important than a feedback loop of incremental progress, but still gives us short lived bursts of happiness. Reason goal accomplishment doesn’t make us happy for long is the adaptation principle
  • Adaptation Principle -> We quickly get used to anything. We need constant growth or progress, or we go back to our default state of happiness.
  • Feelings of  Control -> We need to feel as though we’re in control of our immediate reality.
  • Physical Appearance -> As long as we’re not ashamed of our physical appearance, we’re capable of feeling confident and secure.
  • Relationships with Others -> The strength and number of our social connections is one of the most powerful determinants of our level of happiness.
  • Attaining Flow States -> These are activities which happen with music or other people which engage you fully, draw on your strengths, and allow you to lose self consciousness. Crucial to maintaing long term happiness.
  • Kindness and Gratitude Activities -> According to studies, the people who do charity work end up with more psychological and physical benefits than the people who actually receive the charity.
Unfortunately, the large majority of our brains are primarily concerned with the most basic of needs. Beyond survival, the bigger brain cares more about prestige than happiness, more about shortcuts than what’s right, and more about avoiding pain than getting potential rewards. And if we don’t keep our minds in check, we default back to these standards.

There are tools to help us maintain this level of standards for ourselves, and we find these in times of self reflection. Our religious texts and our philosophers seek to remind us the importance of mental vigilance, to keep the basic brain from overriding the logical mind’s rule.

Can we build a computer system to do the same for us human beings? To help us make sure our lives are run more by the logical part that we identify with, more than the basic brain, which would rather we stay fat and lazy?

I’m beginning to think the information age is over, and the social age is reaching its peak. We’ll soon be going into the actionable age, where we learn how to better direct ourselves as human beings. We’ll get better tools to regulate and manage ourselves, and become more full, well rounded human beings.

I’m ready to start building the software that improves us as human beings. If you’re interested in helping, I encourage you to check out my kickstarter.

I’ve already made a few great contacts, and I look forward to meeting you.