How much coding do you *really* need?

There are some ideas where I feel more or less confident about being true, this is one where I am confident it is a thing, but I am not so confident I understand it.

How much should someone code? Is “=CORREL” enough? What about HTML? I use RSS and Markdown and emojis all the time but I don’t code any of those things. Yet, there’s a lot of talk about needing to code. You need to code to get ahead. You need to code to keep up. We need to code the code’s code! But coding is situational. Replace “code” with “cook” and its like, oh yeah, that’s pretty varied.

What we really mean when we say, “people should know how to code” is that people should be able to use tools to deliver value. Code is a tool that does a job. The appeal of code, says Richard Feynman, is that it’s so dumb it’s fast. Code can also be copied. Code is a tool that delivers value unrestricted to time or place.

There’s a lot of ways for code to be a tool, it depends on the level. Sometimes =CORREL in a spreadsheet cell is the right amount of code. A spreadsheet is code too. There’s a bunch of math behind =CORREL that someone doesn’t need to know. That function is a tool within a larger function, the spreadsheet. All these functions within functions are the User Interface (UI).

“Consciousness is more or less the UI for how your brain works. Much like a UI, it wouldn’t help if Microsoft Word made me code in the structure of a document. There are programs, like LaTeX, that allow you to do that, but they are a pain in the ass to deal with because you have to specify the underlying details. The whole point of a UI is that it is an abstraction that sits on top of all the stuff underneath. For the most part our conscious is the UI for what is happening in our minds.” – Kyle Thomas, Stoned Studies August 2021

This nesting-doll nature of code is to be expected according to Brian Arthur. Yes, he tells Jim Rutt, that it has gotten more difficult to repair the things we use but this is because, like code, we create sub-systems for convenience of use.

“One of the things that happens is that if some sub-system is used often, it might have say 54 parts to it. If it’s used again and again and again, over several models and years it becomes modularized, becomes its own thing and it’s separately manufactured and it may have a cover on it. It may not be accessible to amateur mechanics, and it may only be accessible if you’re trained by Mercedes or Audi or whoever it is. And you’re properly trained. You have the proper tools. So as the lesson here is that as inner parts are used again and again, in the same configuration, the tendency is that they become modules.” – Brian Arthur, The Jim Rutt Show, August 2021

What is code? What does it mean “to code”? It depends!

This is good news. Rather than “learn to code” we should focus on “learn to solve problems”. Many of those problems will require tools. Some of those tools will be code. It is these kinds of problems: needs repeating, needs scaling, fits-with-existing-modules where code will be the tool for the job. Sometimes that code will be deep in the nesting dolls. Sometimes that code will be a simple spreadsheet cell. How many layers of UI depends on the problem to solve, the job to be done.

Arthur is famous for his comments on the Increasing Returns Economy.

Also, this. It gets good around 7:00.

Search Tricks

One effect of all the great content creation is the long-tail effect. Most of what’s created, from business breakdowns to that seventies show, will only be consumed by a small number of people. The long-tail idea is also true for an individual. Any given day my consumption is family news, then local and regional, then a national service or two, my favorite feeds (related: The Three Ways to Spend Your Day) and then the long tail stuff.

I used to feel bad when good episodes appeared in my feed and I skipped them. That’s fine, it’s just a query away. Which brings us to today’s point: a few of my favorite internet tricks.

Twitter search is not great, but with a few search operators it gets better. Mostly this is from:@mikedariano “jobs”, which returns tweets mostly about jobs-to-be-done. This is especially helpful to do before tweeting at someone to see if it’s been addressed already.

Wikipedia. Google (IMO) has suffered due to the incentives. It’s not a big deal, but rather than having a higher trust threshold I now go right to Wikipedia for Wikipedia-style searches.

Reddit. In 1994 I was twelve and one of the best feelings was visiting a video rental store. There were super-interesting sections I could plumb all day, there were areas I had no interest (at that time), and a restricted section I did not investigate for fear of what was behind the beaded curtain and whether or not I could unsee what I saw. That’s Reddit. The best Reddit communities might be the best places on the internet.

Listen Notes. Nowhere is the long-tail evident more than Listen Notes, a podcast search engine. Recent deep dives into Sears, DTC, MTV, and behavioral science all yielded results I could not have Googled. After creating an account, add your query results to the Listen Later playlist and add that RSS to your podcast app. If that sounds complicated it was a bad explanation rather than a difficult process.

Crudely the future of work will be some dichotomy of I give computers instructions or Computers give me instructions. During the Sears research (via Listen Notes) I found out that their first mail-order system was terribly bad. One customer wrote to Sears asking for the sewing machine she’d ordered, she’d received four wrong ones. It was only when Sears centralized their operation in Chicago that the mail order businesses succeeded. In 2021 there are companies like Locus Robotics.

In the future Cal-Newport-Style-Work will be doing things computers don’t do. Computers solve predefined problems really well.

But computers aren’t creative. Computers can’t handle a bunch of conditionals. Computers can’t frame things. Computers don’t in Bob Pittman’s words, understand when this is another one of those. Using the internet well is using computers to do non-computer work.

There is a 70’s show, The Long Seventies Podcast, that’s pretty darn good. I listened to the oil crisis and MPAA episodes.

Second Order Parenting

“Perhaps the most important thing is supporting a kid’s sense of autonomy.” – William Stixrud

Peter Attia wants to be an Olympian. When he’s 100. When Attia first explained the idea, he worked backward. What should someone do now if they want to do something else later? If you want to be able to go to Disney World with your grandkids you better be able to walk eight miles now. Or some such thing.

Working backwards is a nice tool for solving problems. I want to get to n so first I need to get to n-1.

A similar approach is advocated in the book, The Self Driven Child. In that book William Stixrud and Neil Johnson ask parents to consider their future eighteen-year-old. Then, like Attia, work backwards and consider what a child needs to do at twelve so they are successful later.

Stixrud’s and Johnson’s ideas come down to four pieces of advice for parents:

  1. Offer help, not force 
  2. Offer advice, it’s their choice  
  3. Encourage children to make their own decisions
  4. Have kids solve their own problems, as much as possible 

It’s not so much about ice-cream for dinner, but it’s about setting some (wide, but safe) boundaries for children to operate within.

This has been hard because parenting is a bit of a wicked problem. There’s a lot of showy things a parent can do but might not necessarily be that helpful. Once a child is mentally and physically safe, what’s the next clear thing?

In the ERE book, Jacob Fisker shares a reverse fishbone diagram to show ‘net’ effects. The aim is to end up above the horizontal line. Eating a candy is a positive first order effect, it tastes good. But a negative second order effect (low nutrients, high sugar), and maybe even more (bad habits).

Early Retirement Extreme --- A philosophical and practical guide to  financial independence -- Contents

Easy decisions, hard life. Hard decisions, easy life.

There are many things with negative first order effects (difficult conversations, certain exercises, working late/early) but which have positive n+1 effects and so they are worth doing. Personal finance follows this diagram for example. Parenting according to Stixrud and Johnson follows it too. It might not feel easy and it might violate the actions=progress maxim, but it’s difficult non-actions that help kids the most.

One personal instance is schoolwork. We’ve been distance learning and I’ve played a large role from checking work to answering questions. And, sometimes just telling my daughters the answers. Like junk food it’s easy at first but it violates both the fishbone approach and the self-driven child advice.

How much to change, I don’t know. But this isn’t baking. Like over-price or over-rated or over-indexed, the direction for gains is clear: my kids have to learn to live their own lives and it’s my job to support them.

Gaming Work or Working Games?

“We have every reason to believe,” said Jane McGonigal, “the future of work will be more like Fortnite than the kinds of office jobs that we have today.”

2020 results

I would wager that future response balances will have a COVID-19 influence to them. School for example, seems to be tilting more digital as both administration wants to appear technological, tools become cheaper to implement students, and external forces require it.

Jobs with Rules

Education has been top of mind lately around our house (thanks Covid). We’ve considered college admissions, advantages of online learning, and whether reading is different than listening to a book (spoiler: both are good).

There’s some big picture ideas too: curriculums, college, and careers. My daughters (12, 10) aren’t near that yet, but it’s hard not to think about as we see careers adapt to remote work. My wife can work online, somewhat. Teachers can teach online, somewhat. Aside from some manual labor, for the last decade all my income has been earned online.

In Shop Class as Soulcraft Mathew Crawford notes that you can’t hammer a nail over the internet. Or, are things rule based or not? Rules mean code, code means computers and as Feynman explains, computers are fast at following rules.

TikTok’s design is simple rules. On, off. Yes, no. Open, closed. Watched, not. Shared, not.

Circa 2013 self-driving trucks were the topic du jour. However, driving a truck isn’t that binary, it’s not that rules based.

Our truck driver, Finny Murphy writes more about the problems solving involved. Keep the truck between the lines. Pick up this cargo, take it there. Then go here. Unload, schedule workers, back down this long driveway. Get stuck. Negotiate with owner to use his chainsaw, trim a limb. Murphy’s job would have been better with more computer help as he’d spend less time ‘bob-catting’ (driving without a trailer) if there were a network that listed jobs.

Contrast truck driver with financial planner, the latter has years of college. They’re licensed. They’re a charter holder or a master of business. Even more likely is that they have a podcast. The financial planner helps people with money, a very important thing. They wear suits! They have offices!

Which is more rule based?

One sign to spot rule based conditions is when we stop calling something the ‘internet something’. Internet banking, internet dating, and ‘I read it online’ are all things of the past. It’s just banking, dating, and reading now. Did you know, that internet bill pay used to be an add-on, banks *charged* for that service.

Which is more like TikTok, financial planning or truck driving? Finances is already rule based with target date and index funds.

Okay, so what direction should education head?

In Average is Over, Tyler Cowen writes that three things are scarce: quality land and natural resources, intellectual property or good ideas that should be produced, and quality labor with unique skills. I’ll read ‘good ideas’, ‘quality labor’, and ‘unique skills’ as antonyms for ‘rules based’.

Note: About 7% of truck drivers have bachelor degrees compared to 35% of the population. Both figures lower than I’d guessed. Also, rules can be especially helpful when they make you ‘color blind‘ to unhelpful information.

The pool of tears

A lesson from distance learning.

To keep up with my kids I’ve been taking Khan Academy classes and in one, founder Sal Khan noted that when Abraham Lincoln was in law school he used Euclid’s geometric proofs as a test for understanding. Recounted:

“In the course of my law-reading I constantly came upon the word demonstrate,” Lincoln said. “I thought, at first, that I understood its meaning, but soon became satisfied that I did not.” Resolving to understand it better, he went to his father’s house and “staid there till I could give any propositions in the six books of Euclid at sight.”

That’s ambitious, and demonstrates how much of learning is not linear.

In this way online learning excels. If we need time we take time. If we’re done early we make things. We act like Lincoln. Like Naval.

This is hard to do in school, scheduled to the year, week, day, hour, and even minute. Compounding and confounding is that we are relative creatures. I don’t get it compared to the kids that do. In the same way we are spending by neighbors but not saving, we see those who excel and calculateaccordingtothat.

Online learning isn’t great but it’s not all bad either and we’ve shed a few fewertears.

An easy way to change your mind.

This idea is related to Tyler Cowen’s idea of ‘meta-rationality’ which you read about in this pay-what-you want pdf.

Perhaps there’s no better time to see, sort, and participate in over reactions than week one of the NFL. Though I only watch a full game or two a year, there are a lot of lessons from the likes of Mike Lombardi, Bill Belichick, and questions like, should running backs run the forty-yard-dash? (Narrators: meh).

So, after week one of the NFL, how much should someone change their mind?

There were two comments from Wharton Moneyball related this this exact question.

First, the hosts wondered why the small but powerful vitamin D study wasn’t getting more attention. Their guess was a combination of things including excessive dosing, strong priors, sample size, and general application (the participants were already hospitalized but went to the ICU at a much lower rate with treatment).

While people may have strong beliefs about the efficacy of vitamin D it doesn’t hurt to go for more walks, while the weather holds at least. Whether or not someone believes in vitamin D, walking can’t hurt.

Late in the episode, Cade Massey and Josh Hermsmeyer noted the impressive week one play of Gardner Minshew. While both are rooting for his success, there’s no ‘go-for-a-walk’ equivalent for updating beliefs. Base rates suggest we stay closer to home until Mr. Minshew racks up some road wins.

Lastly is this study about teacher expectations. “(U)nbiased (i.e., accurate) beliefs can be counterproductive if there are positive returns to optimism or if there are socio-demographic gaps in the degree of teachers’ over-optimism, both of which we find evidence of.” Want better results from students? Have higher expectations than the data suggests.

The easiest way to change your mind is to make changing your mind inexpensive.

The hardest way to change your mind is to attach ideas to yourself. Jason Zweig calls this thinking “identity protective cognition,” and said, “If you are not judging the validity of ideas by long-term, objective, peer-reviewed evidence then you are just protecting your own identity and it’s foolish.” 

If vitamin doesn’t affect covid health, it still doesn’t hurt. If high expectations don’t affect student results, it still doesn’t hurt. If extrapolation from week one of the NFL doesn’t predict season success it does hurt.

Related: Make small poker bets.

Button Skills


My daughter made this.

The button popped off my pants. Not due to quarantine snacking so much as use. These shorts are so old that the faded parts are a different hue from the non-faded portions.

I found the button separated from the shorts in the bottom of our washing machine. I put both aside for a day and when I came back with needle and thread the button was gone. Now the button lives on as art.

We have a button jar and I found a grey one, instead of blue, and sewed it on the shorts. I’m not great at sewing, and my stitching is uneven, but it’s functional. Attaching the button took the shorts from waste to my waist. The small act of attaching the button made them useful.

A lot of life is probably like this.

There is some range of easy-to-acquire skills that are like sewing a button. Being able to save the function, if not the form, is helpful.

No code. Being able to build small recipes for scripts using a service like IFTTT.

Productivity. Setting up folders, filters, and canned responses in emails.

Cooking. Knowing how to make a few healthy, inexpensive, sustainable meals.

Home repair. Access to a basic set of tools and the understanding of how to use them

Personal health. Maintaining a body type that matches a lifestyle.

Personal wealth. Spending, saving, investing.

Interviewing. Listen to people and hear what they say.

When my daughters were little kids, the most common advice was to read to them. This was binary advice. Or, Just Do It. We did a lot of that. Just reading is probably a button skill too.

Though I learned to sew face masks, I can’t imagine learning to sew clothes. But knowing a little bit can certainly go a long way.

Thanks for reading, and don’t tell my wife these shorts were saved—again.

The POV40IQ email list has been restarted. If you’d like a short email each weekday you can sign up and read them. The idea is that a change in point-of-view is worth more than forty-IQ when solving a problem.

Quarantine Education

Shane Parrish asked, “What are some of the second and subsequent order consequences of covid-19 that you foresee with 80 percent confidence?”, how things would be different from the quarantine for CoVid19. It’s a good question to ask, if students participate in home school what else will change. A running list.

  • Better chronotype matching. Morning people get to do school in the morning, night owls at night. My oldest daughter gets two extra hours of sleep and goes to math class in her pajamas.
  • Better resources. We’ve taken drawing class from Mo Willems and learned about animals from the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden staff. My kids had great teachers but online they have access to the best ones.
  • Teaching young people. Though I haven’t seen much of this yet, it’s coming. Many instructors comment that they didn’t really understand something until they taught it. This can be true for kids at home too.
  • Learning technology tools. My younger daughter dictates her homework rather than typing it which she could do whereas in school she would use a pencil. If tools shape our thinking she’s thinking in new ways.
  • Plato’s cave and school. That same younger daughter needed help with answering why we have a leap day. That led to a talk about why we have the Georgian Calendar and not one that uses a leap week. Which also applies to why we do school-school and not home-school.
  • Asynchronous communications. If the future of work requires some asynchronous skill then this quarantine has been good practice.
  • Intrinsic motivations. My kids follow a program put forth by their school but this is mostly finished before lunch and they can move onto more enjoyable things. My guess is that a long-term homeschool arrangement would break the link between learning and school and create a hub where learning is connected to school, but many other things as well.

One week down and we are doing well.

“Dad, can I listen to an audiobook instead?”

My twelve-year-old daughter asked that question. I said ‘Yes’. Then I thought, does it matter?

Most of the popular press pieces frame reading and listening as a difference of effort. The thinking goes that reading is harder so reading is better for you. If the brain is a muscle then a book is like a treadmill. Harder is better.

Is it?

I started looking. When college graduates in NYC read or listened to Unbroken, there was no difference in comprehension scores. When scientists used an fMRI, the same brain regions lit up for reading or listening. However, there are some things that do differ from form to form. Sequence for example, is easier to recall in a print book.

What might be most important is if reading is pleasing. If it sounds like writing, rewrite it. No one enjoys boring media. There’s only bad content, not bad formats.

Part-of-the-reason the results seem to be a wash is because of the opportunity cost. Both reading and listening to a book are great options. Reading offers encoding and a visual boost. Listening offers prosody, the rhythm of a voice. It’s like soup or salad for dinner, both are healthy choices.

This research was like mortgage choices. Is a fifteen year mortgage better than a thrity year where someone can invest the difference the lower payments bring? It’s a wash. For reading, make choices you watch.

Holy smokes, my kid is twelve!