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A LUCILIUS PARABLE: GEARBOX OF TIME

April 5th, 2020

 

 

Lucilius was a boy staring up at the sky.  He was lost in thought, wondering how the sky was sometimes deep and rich with blue, and then other times it seemed to have a thin, nearly invisible film laid over it, as though the faintest brush stroke of white paint had been swept from horizon to horizon.  The boy shook himself from the reverie, realizing he had no idea why it was this blue or that blue, and that there must be so much about it that remained invisible.  He looked once more, squinting, just to check if there were some clue he was missing.  He looked around.  He’d forgotten that he was walking home, and his heart sunk, remembering, knowing the day was coming to an end.  It had passed so quickly.  He’d done so much with friends, and now, already it was all over.

 

He continued walking home, slowly mourning the good day now come to a close.

 

After dinner, he laid in bed nervous and worried.  Now he stared at the popcorn ceiling, a dimly speckled firmament, the texture traced by the weak nightlight on the other side of the room.  The boy was choking up with a nervousness as he concentrated on the moment, feeling how fast it was moving, even there, in the bedroom, while doing nothing but waiting for sleep.

 

In a flash Lucilius could see his entire life, over in an instant, as though the whole thing had slipped past him without notice.  The boy grew terrified.  No matter how hard he concentrated, the moment kept falling away, crumbling, leaving a fresh new moment there to again die off like the rest.

 

He turned over to face the wall, as though he might somehow turn away from the thought, as if he might some how forget how quickly time was leaving his young life.  He squeezed his eyes shut tightly as though to bring on sleep and hopefully forget this terrible realization.

 

But when he opened his eyes to the morning sun streaming in through his window, the worry was there waiting for him.  And now, with sleep, hours and hours had slipped away.  Time was an enemy to him now.  One bent on taking his life from him.  He pushed back the covers and sat up on the edge of the bed.  He stared blankly at the carpet, wondering what he might do to reign in this awful streaming terror.

 

After a few fruitless moments he felt the habitual urge to get up, to go brush his teeth, but he stopped, and simply watched the moment.  If he went to brush his teeth, and then went for breakfast and then went to play with his friends, the day would slip past him again, just like it had before so many times.  The idea filled him with horror – that time would steal from him while he was distracted with fun, and then the idea came to him. 

 

Lucilius decided that he would not do anything.  He would not brush his teeth, he would not go to breakfast, and most importantly, he would not go have fun with his friends.  Like anyone else, he knew how time dragged slowly along when things are boring, and he realized that was the key.  It wasn’t a total victory, but it was a way to make things difficult for time.  To make that ethereal riddle work for it’s thievery.  If he could have the most boring life possible, then he would get as much time out of it as possible.

 

So for the entire day, he sat in his room, doing absolutely nothing, stubbornly watching time steal from him in drips instead of the usual giant gulps.  But when the sun was finally finishing it’s arc, and Lucilius refused also dinner, Lucilius looked back on the day and saw that it too had passed so quickly.  The moments, as he’d witnessed them seemed slow enough.  Certainly slower than if he’d been outside having fun with his friends, but still now the day was done.  Panic rose up in his throat as he again felt trapped, shackled to this torturing movement of the moment.

 

Again he laid in bed worrying, wondering what he might do.  And again when he opened his eyes to another fresh day, the worry was there again.  He sat on the edge of his bed, deep in thought.

 

Boredom was not enough.  But what was worse than boredom?  What could he use to stretch the time out further?  If fun was the thing that sped it up, and boredom was not enough, then perhaps he could use the opposite of fun.

 

But what was the opposite of fun?

 

The young boy Lucilius looked up, realizing the answer.

 

Pain, he said softly to himself.  Pain more than boredom makes time last even longer.  So Lucilius refused breakfast again and decided to sit against a wall without a chair, holding himself in the precarious position to light up pain in his legs.

 

He sat there for minutes, feeling the lactic acid build up in the muscles.  He watched his hands tempt to place themselves on his knees to relieve the pressure, but pulled them back, and closed his eyes, trying to concentrate on the moment, to feel each tiny unit of time grind past slowly, so slow, he felt as though he might be able to some how reach out and grab it, and pull on it, as the past tried to swallow it.  The pain brought him back to the moment and he realized that he’d been busy thinking about time and that it had distracted him from the impossible task.  His muscles burned on until finally, the boy collapsed, slumping down against the wall, tears now streaming down his face, the pain in his legs throbbing.  But it was nothing compared to the pain he felt knowing that time would not stop for him, not heed his plea, even for a moment, but would pass him by as though pushing him forward, forcing him to leave something he felt he loved so much.

 

 

By the end of the day, Lucilius was exhausted, and sleep wove it’s way into his mind quickly and deeply.

 

When he awoke, he found dread waiting for him.  He thought back over the last two days.  Already they were over, gone, done and dead.  He’d done all he could to stretch out each and every little moment, but now looking back, the days seemed shorter than ever.  All the moments of each day were so much the same, that they seemed to collapse in his memory, making each day seem like just a moment unto themselves.

 

Then realization flooded him, and his eyes snapped up to the bright day streaming through the blinds.  He ran to the window and looked out.  He had to get out there.  He had to do as much as possible.  The trick, he realized, wasn’t to try and grab the moment and hold on to it, but to fill it, stuff it, and weigh it down so that when he looked back on it, each and every moment would be different.  None of them would be the same, and so they wouldn’t be able to collapse into each other.  It wasn’t so much catching and holding the moment, but doing everything he could to make sure that moment, and every moment, wasn’t like the rest, to keep them separated, to make the days literally full.

 

He ran into the bathroom, smiling, knowing what he had to do.  He squirted toothpaste onto the brush and after dousing it with water, he feverishly began brushing.  He had to have fun.  He had to have as much fun as possible.  This, he realized would fill the moments just right, making them stick around instead of disappearing into one another. 

 

Lucilius froze then, watching himself motionless in the mirror.  If he had to have as much fun as possible to outwit time, then it meant that each moment would pass by quicker, just as he’d realized in the beginning.  There was no way out.  If he made each moment drag on as long as possible, then the days seemed short afterwards, but if he had fun, and let each moment fly past, then the days seems full.

Lucilius contemplated this for a moment before looking at himself in the mirror again, as though to confirm the decision, the path he knew he had to take.

 

It was final, there was no way around it: life simply had to be an amazing adventure.

 


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Podcast Ep. 721: A Lucilius Parable: Gearbox of Time

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Tinkered Thinking


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SOCIETY OF ONE

April 4th, 2020

 

People generally squander their free time.  This isn’t due to some sort of intrinsic laziness, but more due to an unexercised muscle.  A physically weak person generally defers away from lifting the heavy object.  Likewise, a person who is used to having their schedule, routine and tasks dictated by someone or something else is unlikely to be well equipped to generate a structure for time when some of the free stuff comes around.  Free time for people who abide by schedules and tasks determined by others usually allocate all of their free time to relaxation and unwinding from those tasks and schedules.

 

Free time is, a little scary for most people.  It is the epitome of ambiguity, it is life staring you in the face asking: what are you going to do?  It’s your move.

 

We covet certainty, thinking there is safety in the predictable and so we eschew anything ambiguous.  Free time is stuffed with distraction in order to beat back the ambiguous challenge of free time.

 

When catastrophe strikes, a lot of structure vanishes, often overnight.  Modern society is a grand effort to tame ambiguity with routine, habit, and structure.  And when modern society takes a hit, we lose some of the comforting certainty of these routines, habits, and structures.

 

Individuals grow dependent on these operating systems, and flounder when they vanish.

 

The most important catastrophe skill is knowing how to handle ambiguity. 

 

A person can be a society of one, outfitted with their own operating system of structures and heuristics.  But like any skill, these need development and practice, which requires time and energy, two things that people enmeshed in the structures of society lack.  Free time is usually squandered not for a lack of responsibility but due to a lack of energy – that energy having already been spent on the tasks and schedules dictated by others.  With so much of our life devoted to the employment and designs of others, we are caught in a catch 22.  So few professions offer part time work in a manner that can sustain a decent life, let alone grow it. 

 

Catastrophe offers a difficult but huge opportunity, especially one like quarantine, which many of us are trying to navigate.  For those of us with far more free time than usual, we can begin to create a society of one.

 

 

 


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Podcast Ep. 720: Society of One

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THE ASYMMETRICAL WRITER

April 3rd, 2020

 

 

A writer, when faced with the blank page has the opportunity to compose any sentence.  The amount of potential upside for this situation is practically unlimited.  This makes writing asymmetrical, that is, there is usually a lot more potential upside than downside.  The only downside is potentially a bit of lost time, but considering what can be gained, even by composing the worst piece of writing, a writer almost certainly gains more than if that time had been wasted by watching another rerun.

 

The asymmetry of writing depends heavily on the initial incentive to sit down and write. A journalist who sits down to write something for work has far less potential upside than a random person sitting in a café looking at a blank sheet of paper.  The aim of the journalist is far more constrained, not just in terms of the task, but the perspective.  The writing of a journalist is automatically constrained, either consciously or unconsciously by the fact that a superior has to approve the piece of writing.  The writer is already warping their own attention to the task by the dictates of another.  And both the journalist and the boss are ultimately constrained by the financial incentives that bracket the entire endeavor.  The shift in journalism as clearly seen by the advent of click bait headlines demonstrates this shackle, which ultimately limits the upside of writing, and increases the downside, making the whole endeavor less asymmetrical.

 

On the other hand, the writer who composes words for no one in particular and perhaps no one at all grows the asymmetry.  Having no set audience means that the writing is not constrained by the need to cater to that audience.  It also means that the opportunity to generate an audience is also asymmetrical.  Anyone who doesn’t like the writing need not be a part of the audience and in the absence of incentives like financial leverage, a disagreeable reader has very little influence, and this leaves open the opportunity for an enthusiastic readership to form themselves into their own group.

 

This entire discussion of an audience, however, is ultimately irrelevant.  The business dictate that the customer is always right has somehow bled into the world of writing and reading in a way that is totally invalid. Remove the incentive-leverage mechanism of financials and this business dictate vanishes.  The writer is under no obligation to craft something that is agreeable, pleasing or in anyway oriented towards the reader. 

 

Readers might scoff at this, claiming that the writing is useless or ineffective, but such a reader does two things with this perspective.  At the very least they exclude themselves as part of the audience for that writer.  But more importantly, such a reader fails to see the original, and core upside of writing in the first place: exploration.

 

The writer ultimately sits down to explore their own mind.  This is the Arbitrage of Language.  There’s simply no telling what sort of useful idea or thought might crop up while we are recording with that old technology of the written word.  At the very least, a writer gets to know their own mind a little better, and how is that not also the greatest upside of this whole endeavor?  Understanding your own mind a little better, exploring how your own perspective navigates reality, this is in some sense what living is all about.  And the writer gets it for free.  Anything else that might occur, like when writing finds an enthusiastic audience, or wins some sort of award, or merely gets read by anyone else, these are all like icing on the cake.  The true value of writing occurs far before any readers get involved.

 

 

This episode references Episode 505: The Endless Arbitrage of Language.

 


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Podcast Ep. 719: The Asymmetrical Writer

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TIME DILATION

April 2nd, 2020

 

This episode is dedicated to Preethi Kasireddy who tweeted about how time flies in a life time.  You can connect with her on Twitter with the handle @iam_preethi or check out her website Preethi Kasireddy.

 

Sometimes time flies, and other times, time seems to drag.  When we think about time, we imagine this uniform linear constant that somehow moves forward, but our experience of it varies so much that we’ve pluralized this singular phenomenon.  There are different times, not just as a tool for events, like good times and bad times, but actually different kinds of time, or rather speeds.

 

The way time dilates forms a paradox depending on how much we zoom in or how much we zoom out.

 

On a large timeline the days and months and years can collapse to almost nothing, if we are doing the same thing day in and day out.  There’s no real demarcation, at least not one that is different and unique - there’s nothing in all that time that stands out.  But, change things up often, and suddenly a long life is tickered with all sorts of different phases and thresholds. 

 

We can imagine a very long wall, perhaps a hallway.  Imagine nothing on this wall, imagine it’s just a simple coat of paint.  You can see and understand the whole thing in barely a glance, and of course the small blemish three quarters of the way down stands out.

 

But now imagine the same wall covered in pictures.  Imagine polaroids, imagine drawings, imagine paintings of all sizes and shapes, imagine the wall rebuilt, being brick over here, and log cabin down further with trinkets and souvenirs hung on nails.  Imagine part of the wall is a dry-erase board with equations and questions.  Imagine chalkboard paint splashed along another section, and a dazzlingly mural in chalk.  Imagine another section where the wall itself was clay, that had been molded and sculpted into scenes of trial and triumph.

 

Now if you turned a corner, and looked at this magnificent collage, would you be able to take it all in with just a glance or does it slow you down?  Would you walk slowly, taking in each and every little detail and change?

 

Simply put, life feels longer, the more we switch things up.

 

But if we zoom in, right into the moment, the rule inverts:

 

We can slow down time, by paying attention to the moment, and we can speed it up by paying attention to the task.

 

The task, whatever it is we are doing, is a lot like that interesting collaged wall.  Even if the task is something we’ve done many times before, it inevitably involves our attention to switch between details and track them against one another, whether that be deleting the last few letters to fix a typo while keeping in mind the rest of this sentence, or filing taxes, or building a log cabin, or coding an app. 

 

But if we pull back and simply try to pay attention to the moment, everything slows down.  That is, if our wandering thoughts don’t get the best of us.  The moment, as it’s own thing, is unchanging, regardless of what’s happening in that moment.  We can recognize this ethereal quality of the present, and this recognition is a big part of the focus for a practice like mindfulness meditation.  It’s the art of the Thoughtful Pause.  It allows us to take in time slower, and potentially come to realizations that are never on hand in the busy task.

 

By practice, or by luck, it’s possible to pull your head out the hurried task and realize that all the tasks you’ve been busy with are all much the same, and that life is beginning to look uniform, the years are beginning to collapse into a single day that’s merely repeated.

 

That realization on offer during a slow moment can spark an idea for something new, and ultimately send our life careening into a new and exciting direction.

 

 

This episode references Episode 23: Pause, and Episode 472: What Meditation Does

 


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Podcast Ep. 718: Time Dilation

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WHO'S LOOKING?

April 1st, 2020

 

 

This Episode is dedicated to Jack Butcher.  He is the mind behind Visualize Value.  You can connect with him on Twitter with the handle @jackbutcher or better yet, checkout Visualize Value with the handle @visualizevalue.

 

Today’s post is a little late, and it’s fortuitous, because today was a genuine surprise.  Today Tinkered Thinking played a little prank on social media.  It is April Fool’s day, after all.

 

This morning, Tinkered Thinking posted to Twitter that it was abandoning social media and anyone who wanted to stay in touch should subscribe on the website.  The turnout, as it happens has been a genuine surprise.  The mailing list increased by a full 50%, which is incredible.

 

For those who fell for the trick, including friends, family, loved ones, and panicked fans who hurriedly sent in DM’s:  genuine apologies to stress you out, but even in such trying and stressful times, a good joke, a good prank, an excuse to laugh, simply cannot be passed up. 

 

The more serious things are, the more necessary it is to indulge in a good joke.  Laughter and humor does not insult the tragic, because the tragic is almost always an insult to living, and genuine, heartfelt laughter is a celebration of life.

 

It must be admitted that the idea arose during an exhausted morning stupor and was casually executed.

 

The inspiration came from something Jack Butcher did recently on Twitter.  He created what might be called a “scarcity campaign” where he offered a product for a limited time at a certain low price and then ratcheted the price up at designated time intervals.  He did this with a good deal of genuine transparency to show the effect.  The same concept worked for Tinkered Thinking today as fans who saw the April Fool’s post rushed to subscribe.

 

Granted Tinkered Thinking was far less methodical, and certainly didn’t anticipate the fact that so many would fail to suspect that it was an April Fool’s joke.

 

Nonetheless, the support, interest and genuine concern is humbling, appreciated, and most important: very motivating.

 

Tinkered Thinking seeks to treat your attention as an incredible gift and an amazing resource.  And in honor of that, a lot of things are in the pipeline just for subscribers, so if you weren’t on Twitter today, make sure to subscribe now.

 

 


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Podcast Ep. 717: Who's Looking?

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Appreciation can be more than a feeling. Toss something in the jar if you find your thinking delightfully tinkered.