Poor Man’s Bitcoin

The communism withdrew from Bulgaria in 1989 and when the political police became unemployed, all sort of weird new things popped up to fill the gap. Grocery stores and supermarkets. New TV channels. More than one kind of ice cream. Fortune tellers. Horoscopes. Insurance racket. Chainmail too – you rewrite this letter 5 times and put it in 5 mailboxes and you’ll live a long and happy life. You don’t and you’ll die in pain. Multiple testimonials included.

One kind of chain mail had a price tag and wasn’t supposed to work, but worked for a while. Let’s call it The Poor Man’s Bitcoin. Here is roughly how it worked, excuse my faint memories for any inaccuracies.

There’s a sheet of paper, cut from a notebook, handwritten by a person who we can call “The Seller”. That sheet of paper contains the rules of the chainmail and 6 home addresses or PO boxes. Rules are as follows:

  • You need to send 2 Leva to the last 5 people in the chain, and also 2 Leva to the person who invented it (the number varied)
  • The way you prepare new copies is by rewriting the sheet and filling your name at the bottom of the list of 5 people in the chain, removing the first one
  • It contains terrible curses that will reach you if you violate the rules, sell more or less than 5 sheets of paper, or don’t mail money to the people in the chain
  • In order to get your money back, you need to temporarily become “The Seller”.

If you follow the rules closely, you should quickly get your money back – just find 5 people to buy your sheet of paper and letters with money would start flowing. Does it sound familiar?

  • It inflated algorithmically
  • Its intrinsic value was zero
  • The only things that kept it living for some time were people’s feelings and beliefs, mostly greed and fear of missing out
  • Some people loved it and were willing to fight that they’ll become rich once they get back their thousands of letters
  • It worked because people didn’t really understand how it works and look past the first 5 or 25 people who would give them money
  • Each transaction benefitted the author of the scheme + the regular system that guaranteed money transfer (the post)
  • Everyone could start their own chain letter

Once most of us were exposed to it, the number of letters turned out to be disappointing, and most people realized that these curses that guarantee the distribution don’t work, it vanished to be replaced years later by lottery tickets. Same feelings but no need to be able to write.

I find it amusing that so many people consider Bitcoin a form of investment while it’s pretty much like the chainmail from the 90s. At least this is how I see things. I do not understand how it works.

If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.

Active Listening

A colleague is talking. Their case is important and the more they say, the more I’m eager to add to their point or present arguments against. At some point, they need to take a breath and I feel like it’s my turn with all these things I wanted to say. I shoot and feel like something is not right.

Listening is Hard

In our culture, the opposite of talking is more like waiting to interrupt.

Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion

There are many problems with the waiting to interrupt approach, for example:

  • People are not great at expressing themselves and often don’t say what they mean so replying to what they say is pointless because they don’t mean it.
  • Our brain stack is limited, we can barely remember last 2-3 things we wanted to say and if we don’t get the chance, we might feel frustration or other negative emotions. This is especially true if it’s a group discussion and 2-3 people are more vocal than others and better in interrupting.
  • We are biased when interrupting and don’t give equal chance to everyone to speak.

Verify What We Heard

The main takeaway from Verbal Judo is that we need to listen with the goal to understand the meaning first, not with the goal to say these 3 or 5 things that came to our minds. We need to verify the meaning and an easy way to do that is by paraphrasing and asking for confirmation or clarification. “So you say (paraphrase here)?”. Note that according to other sources, this will not lead to the best outcome if we expect a tip 🙂 In that case paraphrasing should be more like a direct repetition of what we heard.

My ex-boss 8 years ago loved to stop by my desk and start asking for immediate changes to the e-commerce website we were developing. He usually had a point for these changes but it was super critical to understand what result he wanted, not what change he wanted. What he said might be “move this text from here to here”, while what he meant would be “users don’t see this cool new feature, we need a way to promote it”. Knowing the service better I was often able to suggest other approaches to achieve that same result that worked better if I managed to decode the intent of the request.

Hangouts and Meetings

Radical Candor has an entire chapter dedicated to how we can survive hangouts with the best possible outcome, which would be that all ideas are heard, challenged, and discussed, and decisions are made. The main takeaway for me is:

Give the quiet ones a voice.

— Kim Scott, Radical Candor

Without that, we’ll only listen to those 3-4 loudest people over and over, not that they’re not good. But others might be better. I’ve experienced a situation in which the two loudest people reached a quick agreement for a decision for which other people had important information but had not expressed it. Challenging a decision instead of an idea can be taken personally and hard words started flying. That’s a failure in communication that could’ve been avoided early by listening.

If all goes well, we listen, we verify and clarify the meaning of what is said. It’s our turn now to talk.

Our Turn

Chris Voss thinks that we should push for our beliefs and I somewhat agree.

Remember, pushing hard for what you believe is not selfish. It is not bullying. It is not just helping you. Your amygdala, the part of the brain that processes fear, will try to convince you to give up, to flee, because the other guy is right, or you’re being cruel.

Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It.

I’ve seen so many times how a single person with a voice and a good idea can change, well, almost anything.

Earthsea

Some of the best thoughts on listening I’ve read come from Fantasy. The author is Ursula Le Guin and the quotes are said by her characters Ged and Ogion.

For a word to be spoken, there must be silence. Before, and after.

To hear, one must be silent.

Thanks for reading!

On Forgetting Books

There’s a common wisdom that partners only do their best until they get married. This might be true or not but I’ve noticed similar things in various areas – diets, sport, alcohol consumption. An injury, a stressful situation, or just a long series of small transgressions and we are back to our worse selves but less hopeful. I think some of that is happening to my efforts to learn about Psychology and Marketing.

Yesterday I finished a book, called “To Sell is Human” by Daniel Pink. It covered areas of which I expected to be knowledgeable – engaging in conversations, noticing communication failures, active listening. The book is citing many others I’ve already read and even a research I’ve been aware of. Many takeaways, however, felt new. I checked my notes from “Verbal Judo” and “Crucial Conversations”. It was eye-opening. It felt like I forgot much of the content without ever using it. Then I checked a couple of other related books I read 2-3 years ago – I had no notes whatsoever.

Dale Carnegie suggested somewhere [citation needed] that his “How to Win Friends and Influence People” needs to be re-read, and I think also in another book suggested a slow pace of reading (no more than 1 chapter per day). All of that is so that the information sticks. The goal of reading non-fiction, after all, is not filling my home with books but learning skills and becoming a better human. Re-reading sounds a bit too much for me but read and forget is not a good strategy either (well, maybe it is, for “A Song of Fire and Ice”).

Here is what I plan to do:

– Write notes and keep highlights when I read non-fiction and self-help
– Write resumes with key takeaways so that I can go back and remind myself what was it all about when I need it.

I hope this makes my new year in reading more productive.

The Sense of Purpose and Performance

Having purpose is the key to survival, according to Victor Frankl. When facing loss, grief, and hardship, it can be the slim difference between staying afloat and sinking to despair. Victor Frankl’s extraordinary work – Man’s Search of Meaning – had a big impact on my understanding of life, although it’s just a piece of a large puzzle (good summary here).

Today, I read there’s a correlation between having purpose and performance reviews, which amazed me. According to “The Power of Moments”, the top 20 percentile of highest performers in any organization are people who are both passionate and have a sense of purpose for what they do. Also, the sense of purpose beats passion to the dust.

What is Purpose

The purpose is the feeling that what we do gives back to the society, that it has meaning beyond being paid or making a profit. The book gives examples of radiologists, lifeguards, and janitors – how a simple motivational effort focused on the impact of their work highly increased their efforts. That’s not hard for lifeguards, they save lives. Radiologists were shown photos of the people whose scans they were reading and that increased their efforts. Chip Heath and Dan Heath managed to find a research on an overperforming hospital janitor who knew that the purpose of his work is to help people recover. He would not only keep the place clean but talk to patients who have no visitors.

What about building entirely for-profit systems like Google Adwords? How would something like that give back to society when it is clearly focused on making shareholders rich and in many ways makes the world a worse place? Or about a project that’s obviously pointless like the infamous “Ship Your Enemies Glitter”?

Cultivating the Sense of Purpose

The Power of Moments suggests that the sense of purpose can be cultivated. This throws the ball for work performance deep into the manager’s field. Books like “Managing Humans” advice to nurture productivity by positive feedback, noticing things, and treating people well. “Radical Candor” is a research in quality of feedback that I found nice. The difference between books like that and the sense of purpose idea is on what’s being communicated and how.

A person knowing the purpose of things can go above and beyond completing a task. A task for a developer is something like “Build a form to collect this and that information”. That developer can end the year thinking of themselves: “I had a good year. I built 23 forms that collect information.” Unfortunately, that point of view is highly unlikely. Building 23 forms is nobody’s dream. To reach a level where any of that makes sense they may need to complete the Five Whys and ask why until purpose is discovered, somewhere far away from the data collection. A software engineer knowing that these 23 forms make education better and help kids have a successful life could suggest a radical 233 forms approach that’s infinitely better 🙂

“The Power of Moments” provides tools in how to share that purpose so that it has an impact on people. For software engineers, it might be as simple as communicating the company’s goals in specially built moments. Think about Elon Musk, a giant hall full of ‘Ship your enemy glitter’ employees, a carefully crafted event for maximum impact on everyone. There’s electricity in the air.

In 2020 we ship glitter to Mars

— Elon Musk

That’s purpose.

Is Purpose Enough

Most certainly, no, neither is passion. The last quotation was not good enough so I found this, to counter everything I wrote above.

By any normal measure, our growth was great, but it quickly became clear it could be a lot better if we operated less like a soccer team of seven-year-olds: all of us chasing the ball, none of us in position.

— Kim Scott. Radical Candor

How to Drive Traffic to my Blog: Productive Emotions

In the olden days of the Internet, I used to blog and then watch for my stats. I’d be happy if I had at least 1 comment and 300-400 views on the article I wrote. I didn’t understand why some posts create a big splash on the web with discussions lasting years while others, more often than not, didn’t provoke any response at all.

My colleague Filippo wrote a post with his observations on the subject, focusing on marketing acquisition channels. Pick these and these terms and you’ll appear in Google Search (that’s SEO), pay Facebook for an extra reach (that’s SEM), and you’ll succeed. I absolutely agree with this approach but I feel I have something to add.

You can drive as much traffic as you can but if the content is no good your expensive visitors will switch their attention to something else immediately and leave no trace of their presence other than a number in your Analytics. So while the acquisition is important, content is critical. There will be no chicken without an egg.

Productive Emotions and Biased Algorithms

Certain things make people click and want to say what they can, share your stuff on Facebook, return to see updates, new comments, and responses to their opinion. We kind of want that as bloggers. But what are those things? Ryan Holiday in his book Trust me, I’m lying gives an answer that’s provocative an worth sharing. What engages people, according to him, is productive emotions. Fear. Outrage. Greed. Guilt. No emotion in the text means no social sharing, a dead post. Depressive emotions have the same effect – people wouldn’t share depressive thoughts. So the content that engages needs to be emotionally charged and productive.

Air pollution in the air (Sofia is having smog this week)? That’s hideous, why are those people driving diesel cars? (Fear, Outrage). Bitcoin hits $15000 (Greed, fear, what am I missing?).

Articles written this way have an unexpected ally – the newsfeed algorithms. The algorithms know what makes people click more and are biased towards negative emotions. If a post is “productive”, algorithms for selecting best content would likely give it a preference. Sara Wachter-Boettcher wrote a book on the subject called “Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech” that dives into the subject. Despite her focus being on apps being non-inclusive, the book is a good start for learning more about this. Biased algorithms are a very well exploited traffic source these days. Social networks promote false, controversial, or propaganda content because it works.

“The most powerful predictor of what spreads online is anger”

— Holiday, Ryan. “Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator.”

Each time I see an article regarding the famous Google Memo, I wonder which emotion should I feel. Should I admire the media manipulation creativity of the author? Should I feel offended or empathetic or what? It’s brilliant in a very sad way to create division between people, to generalize in a way that makes literally everyone feel outraged. Men vs women. East vs West. South vs North. Rich vs Poor. Conservatives vs Liberals. Separatists vs Unionists. Our brains seem to seek this kind of information and make us spend time on it despite our best interest. Compare a negative controversial post to an article about Tesla Model 3 – how many people actually care about electric cars? And how many users would ever be interested in CSS optimisation tricks? “I discovered the Marquee tag. You are not going to believe what happened next.”

Ryan Holiday’s book is bragging about outrage but is exploiting it to the maximum, and that’s one of the reasons why I think about it and share it in this blog post.

Controversy has Price

The problem with controversy is that by writing such things you become one of them. The small number of controversial articles I had on my former blog had lots of comments and page views but I also got threats and started feeling uncomfortable blogging. I feel uncomfortable blogging now that I write this post too. The author of the Google Memo got plenty of reactions but also lost not only his job but his future chances of employment unless he changes his name or something. Using controversy is like selling your soul to the devil of traffic. It bites back.

Positive Emotionally Charged Posts

I believe that it is still possible to create an emotionally charged post without resorting to negativity and controversy. Social networks like Quora, LinkedIn, and Twitter provide us with some good examples of how to do that.

– Curiosity and self-improvement is my favorite, although it might be linked to Greed.
– Life stories – I find these very attractive, however, I can’t tell what exactly is the root emotion. It must be something yellow or media like Sun wouldn’t be full of celebrity gossip.
– Dreams for the future – who doesn’t want to have an electric self-driving car? Or an electric sheep 🙂
– Events and Places – beach photos and beautiful meals are incredible. And let’s not forget recipes.

Productive emotions, in my opinion, are the salt that makes people click. It’s also the poison that transforms Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and other big media to be dangerously toxic. Should be used in moderation.

Jack Reacher & Temperance Brennan

These two names don’t quite fit together, don’t they? Well, on 6th of June, Lee Child will introduce us to the unusual combo in his new short story “Faking a Murderer”. Looking forward to reading about two of my favorite characters working together to solve a crime.

!Dropbox

I decided to stop using Dropbox.

It was this cool thing in the past that does magic but after several years, the cool things wore off. It’s no longer capable of syncing an iPhone while preventing the mac from doing that by itself (a recurring bug). It does some nasty things to Finder. It captures the screenshots and attempts to make you share a dropbox link instead of use the screenshot by itself. These features are creating more problems than they are solving and I’d rather try something else.

Vienna

I’m having very serious trouble finding accommodation for WordCamp Vienna. It turns out that the WordCamp is the same weekend as the marathon and we should’ve booked months ago. I wish I’d known that earlier.

Edit: I managed to book a new listing (no reviews) after contacting 14 hosts. Got 12 rejections.