Breck's Blog - Life Posts


May 21, 2024

All tabular knowledge can be stored in a single long plain text file.

The only syntax characters needed are spaces and newlines.

This has many advantages over existing binary storage formats.

Using the method below, a very long scroll could be made containing all tabular scientific knowledge in a computable form.

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High Impact Thoughts

May 20, 2024

Leibniz thought of Binary Notation; Lovelace of Computers; Darwin of Evolution; Marconi of the Wireless Telegraph; Einstein of Relativity; Watson & Crick of the Double Helix; Tim Berners-Lee of the Web; Linus of Git.

Even more importantly to you and to me, at some point our mothers and fathers thought to have us.

And since we were born, many people throughout our lives have had thoughts that had high positive impact on us.

If you believe we live in a Power Law World, then it follows that there is nothing with higher expected value; nothing with more leverage; nothing with higher ROI; nothing with higher impact; than High Impact Thoughts (HITs).

HITs dominate both our professional and personal lives. Let's take a closer look.

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May 11, 2024 β€” That charts work at all is amazing.

Forty years.

One-billion heart beats.

Four-quadrillion cells.

Eight-hundred-eighty-octillion ATP molecules.

Compressed to two marks on a surface.

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The boy looked up at the tree that was ten times taller than the others.

Then he looked down and saw an old man sitting in a carved out stump next to the tree.

"Excuse me mister, why is that tree so tall?" the boy asked.

Gray Beard explained the tree.

"Do you understand?"

"Yes. I understand," said the boy.

The boy turned around and walked out of the forest back to the city.

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Bad models of the world can be dangerous.

We stood at the edge of the lake.

Everyone was in a wetsuit.

Except for me.

Wetsuits: hundreds of people.

Boardshorts: one person.

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I was walking in the woods and saw a path on my right. I had never seen this path before.

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The girl lost the race.

"I want to be fast", she said.

"You are fast", said the man.

"No. I want to be the fastest."

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March 8, 2024 β€” What is open-mindedness, from first principles? Here are some musings.

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February 24, 2024 β€” In the near future AI will be able to generate an extensive list and rating of all of the skills in someone's brain.

The ugly prototype I made at a hackathon in 2023 to explore this idea.

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February 11, 2024 β€” What does it mean to say a person believes X, where X is a series of words?

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January 12, 2024 β€” For decades I had a bet that worked in good times and bad: time you invest in word skills easily pays for itself via increased value you can provide to society. If the tide went out for me I'd pick up a book on a new programming language so that when the tide came back in I'd be better equipped to contribute more. I also thought that the more society invested in words, the better off society would be. New words and word techniques from scientific research helped us invent new technology and cure disease. Improvements in words led to better legal and commerce and diplomatic systems that led to more justice and prosperity for more people. My read on history is that it was words that led to the start of civilization, words were our present, and words were our future. Words were the safe bet.

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January 4, 2024 β€” You can easily imagine inventions that humans have never built before. How does one filter which of these inventions are practical?

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June 13, 2023 β€” I often write about the unreliability of narratives. It is even worse than I thought. Trying to write a narrative of one's own life in the traditional way is impossible. I am writing a narrative of my past year and realized while there is a single thread about where my body was and what I was doing there are multiple independent threads explaining the why.

Luckily I now know this is what the science predicts! Specifically, Marvin Minsky's Society of Mind model.

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May 9, 2023 β€” If you want to understand the mind, start with Marvin Minsky. There are many people that claim to be experts on the brain, but I've found nearly all of them are unfamiliar with Minsky and his work. This would be like a biologist being unfamiliar with Charles Darwin.

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A rough sketch of a semi-random selection of ideas stacked in order of importance. The biggest ideas, "upstream of everything", are at the bottom. The furthest upstream ideas we can never see. A better artist would have drawn this as an actual stream.

February 28, 2022 β€” There will always be truths upstream that we will never be able to see, that are far more important than anything we learn downstream. So devoting too much of your brain to rationality has diminishing returns, as at best your most scientific map of the universe will be perpetually vulnerable to irrelevance by a single missive from upstream.

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What if there is not just one part of your brain that can say "I", but many?


February 18, 2022 β€” Which is more accurate: "I think, therefore I am", or "We think, therefore we are"? The latter predicts that inside the brain is not one "I", but instead multiple Brain Pilots, semi-independent neural networks capable of consciousness that pass command.

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May 6, 2021 β€” I am aware of two dialects for advice. I will call them FortuneCookie and Wisdom. Below are two examples of advice written in FortuneCookie.

πŸ₯  Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.
πŸ₯  Talking to users is the most important thing a startup can do.

Here are two similar pieces of advice written in Wisdom:

πŸ”¬ In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn't read all the time – none, zero. Charlie Munger
πŸ”¬ I don't know of a single case of a startup that felt they spent too much time talking to users. Jessica Livingston
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January 16, 2020 β€” I often rail against narratives. I think stories always oversimplify things, have hindsight bias, and often mislead. I spend a lot of time trying to invent tools for making data derived thinking as effortless as narrative thinking (so far, mostly in vain). And yet, as much as I rail on stories, I have to admit stories work.

I read an article that put it more succinctly:

Why storytelling? Simple: nothing else works.
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July 18, 2019 β€” In 2013 I sent a brief email to 25 programmers whose programs I admired.

"Would you be willing to share the # of hours you have spent practicing programming? Back of the envelope numbers are fine!"

Some emails bounced back.

Some went unanswered.

But five coders wrote back.

This turned out to be a tiny study, but given the great code these folks have written, I think the results are interesting--and a testament to practice!

Name GitHubId Hours YearOfEstimate BornIn
Donald Knuth 56000 2013 1938
Rob Pike robpike 30000 2013 1956
Peter Norvig norvig 30000 2013 1956
Stephen Wolfram 50000 2013 1959
Lars Bak larsbak 30000 2013 1965
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Two people in the same forest,

have the same amount of water and food,

Are near each other, but may be out of sight,

The paths behind each are equally long.

The paths ahead, may vary.

One's path is easy and clear.

The other's is overgrown and treacherous.

Their paths through the forest,

in the past, in the present, and ahead

are equal.

Their journeys can be very different.

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The crux of the matter, is that people don't understand the true nature of money. It is meant to circulate, not be wrapped up in a stocking @ Guglielmo Marconi

March 30, 2013 β€” I love Marconi's simple and clear view of money. Money came in and he put it to good use. Quickly. He poured money into the development of new wireless technology which had an unequal impact on the world.

This quote, by the way, is from "My Father, Marconi", a biography of the famous inventor and entrepreneur written by his daughter, Degna. Marconi's story is absolutely fascinating. If you like technology and entrepreneurship, I highly recommend the book.

P.S. This quote also applies well to most man made things. Cars, houses, bikes, et cetera, are more valuable circulating than idling. It seemed briefly we were on a trajectory toward overabundance, but the sharing economy is bringing circulation back.

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March 30, 2013 β€” Why does it take 10,000 hours to become a master of something, and not 1,000 hours or 100,000 hours?

The answer is simple. Once you've spent 10,000 hours practicing something, no one can crush you like a bug.

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February 16, 2013 β€” Some purchasing decisions are drastically better than others. You might spend $20 on a ticket to a conference where you meet your next employer and earn 1,000x "return" on your purchase. Or you might spend $20 on a fancy meal and have a nice night out.

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February 12, 2013 β€” You shouldn't plan for the future. You should plan for one of many futures.

The world goes down many paths. We only get to observe one, but they all happen.

In the movie "Back to the Future II", the main character Marty, after traveling decades into the future, buys a sports alamanac so he can go back in time and make easy money betting on games. Marty's mistake was thought he had the guide to the future. He thought there was only one version of the future. In fact, there are many versions of the future. He only had the guide to one version.

Marty was like the kid who stole the answer key to an SAT but still failed. There are many versions of the test.

There are infinite futures. Prepare for them all!

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December 29, 2012 β€” I love that phrase.

I want to learn how to program. Prove it.

I value honesty. Prove it.

I want to start my own company. Prove it.

It works with "we" too.

We're the best team in the league. Prove it.

We love open source. Prove it.

We're going to improve the transportation industry. Prove it.

Words don't prove anything about you. How you spend your time proves everything.

The only way to accurately describe yourself or your group is to look at how you've spent your time in the past. Anytime someone says something about what they will do or be like in the future, your response should be simple: prove it.

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December 22, 2012 β€” Entrepreneurship is taking responsibility for a problem you did not create.

It was not Google's fault that the web was a massive set of unorganized pages that were hard to search, but they claimed responsibility for the problem and solved it with their engine.

It was not Dropbox's fault that data loss was common and sharing files was a pain, but they claimed responsibility for the problem and solved it with their software.

It is not Tesla's fault that hundreds of millions of cars are burning gasoline and polluting our atmosphere, but they have claimed responsibility for the problem and are attempting to solve it with their electric cars.

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There's a man in the world who is never turned down, wherever he chances to stray; he gets the glad hand in the populous town, or out where the farmers make hay; he's greeted with pleasure on deserts of sand, and deep in the aisles of the woods; wherever he goes there's the welcoming hand--he's The Man Who Delivers the Goods. The failures of life sit around and complain; the gods haven't treated them white; they've lost their umbrellas whenever there's rain, and they haven't their lanterns at night; men tire of the failures who fill with their sighs the air of their own neighborhoods; there's one who is greeted with love-lighted eyes--he's The Man Who Delivers the Goods. One fellow is lazy, and watches the clock, and waits for the whistle to blow; and one has a hammer, with which he will knock, and one tells a story of woe; and one, if requested to travel a mile, will measure the perches and roods; but one does his stunt with a whistle or smile--he's The Man Who Delivers the Goods. One man is afraid that he'll labor too hard--the world isn't yearning for such; and one man is always alert, on his guard, lest he put in a minute too much; and one has a grouch or a temper that's bad, and one is a creature of moods; so it's hey for the joyous and rollicking lad--for the One Who Delivers the Goods! Walt Mason, his book (1916)
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December 18, 2012 β€” One of Nassim Taleb's big recommendations for how to live in an uncertain world is to follow a barbell strategy: be extremely conservative about most decisions, but make some decisions that open you up to uncapped upside.

In other words, put 90% of your time into safe, conservative things but take some risks with the other 10%.

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December 18, 2012 β€” My whole life I've been trying to understand how the world works. How do planes fly? How do computers compute? How does the economy coordinate?

Over time I realized that these questions are all different ways of asking the same thing: how do complex systems work?

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December 16, 2012 β€” When I was a kid I loved reading the Family Circus. My favorite strips were the "dotted lines" ones, which showed Billy's movements over time:

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December 16, 2012 β€” Concise but not cryptic. e=mcΒ² is precise and not too cryptic. Shell commands, such as chmod -R 755 some_dir are concise but very cryptic.

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March 30, 2011 β€” Railay is a tiny little beach town in Southern Thailand famous for its rock climbing. I've been in Railay for two weeks. When the weather is good, I'm outside rock climbing. When the weather is bad, I'm inside programming. So naturally I've found myself comparing the two. Specifically I've been thinking about what I can take away from my rock climbing experience and apply to my programming education.

Here's what I've come up with.

1. You should always be pushing yourself. Each day spent climbing I've made it to a slightly higher level than the previous day. The lazy part of me has then wanted to just spend one day enjoying this new level without pushing myself further. Luckily I've had a great climbing partner who's refused that and has forced me to reach for the next level each day. In both rock climbing and programming you should always be reaching for that new level. It's not easy, you have to risk a fall to reach a new height, but it's necessary if you want to become good. In programming, just like in climbing, you should be tagging along with the climbers at levels above you. That's how you get great. Of course, don't forget to enjoy the moment too.

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March 4, 2011 β€” I haven't written in a long while because i'm currently on a long trip around the world. at the moment, we're in indonesia. one thing that really surprised me was that despite our best efforts to do as little planning as possible, we were in fact almost overprepared. i've realized you can do an around the world trip with literally zero planning and be perfectly fine. you can literally hop on a plane with nothing more than a passport, license, credit card, and the clothes on your back and worry about the rest later. i think a lot of people don't make a journey like this because they're intimidated not by the trip itself, but by the planning for the trip. i'm here to say you don't need to plan at all to travel the world (alas, would be a lot harder if you were not born in a first world country, unfortunately). here's my guide for anyone that might want to attempt to do so. every step is highlighted in bold. adjust accordingly for your specific needs and desires.

The plan (see below for bullet points)

Set a savings goal. you'll need money to travel around the world, and the more money you have, the easier, longer, and more fun your journey will be.

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August 25, 2010 β€” Warren Buffet claims to follow an investment strategy of staying within his "circle of competence". That's why he doesn't invest in high tech--it's outside his circle.

I think this is good advice. The tricky part is to figure out where to draw the circle.

Here are my initial thoughts:

  1. Start with a small circle. Be conservative about where you draw the circle.
  2. Do what you're good at as opposed to what you want to do. Our economy rewards specialization. You want to work on interesting problems, but it pays better to work on things you've done before. Use that money to explore the things you want to do.
  3. Be a big fish in a small circle.
  4. Spend time outside your circle, but expand it slowly. Definitely work hard to improve your skill set but don't overreach. It's better to have a solid core and build momentum from that than to be marginal in a lot of areas.
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August 25, 2010 β€” I have a feeling critical thinking gets the least amount of brain's resources. The trick is to critically think about things, come to conclusions, and turn those conclusions into habits. The subconcious, habitual mind is much more powerful than the tiny little conscious, critically thinking mind.

If you're constantly using the critical thinking part of your mind, you're not using the bulk of your mind. You're probably accomplishing a lot less than you could be.

Come to conclusions and build good habits. Let your auto pilot take over. Then occasionally come back and revisit your conclusions.

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August 25, 2010 β€” Maybe I'm getting old, but I'm starting to think the best way to "change the world" isn't to bust your ass building companies, inventing new machines, running for office, promoting ideas, etc., but to simply raise good kids. Even if you are a genius and can invent amazing things, by raising a few good kids their output combined can easily top yours. Nerdy version: you are a single core cpu and can't match the output of a multicore machine.

I'm not saying I want to have kids anytime soon. I'm just realizing after spending time with my family over on Cape Cod, that even my dad, who is a harder worker than anyone I've ever met and has made a profound impact with his work, can't compete with the output of 4 people (and their potential offspring), even if they each work only 1/3 as hard, which is probably around what we each do. It's simple math.

So the trick to making a difference is to sometimes slow down, spend time raising good kids, and delegate some of the world saving to them.

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August 25, 2010 β€” Genetics, aka nature, plays the dominant role in predicting most aspects of your life, in my estimation.

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August 25, 2010 β€” I've been very surprised to discover how unpredictable the future is. As you try to predict farther out, your error margins grow exponentially bigger until you're "predicting" nothing specific at all.

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August 6, 2010 β€” Three unexpected things have happened to me during my two years of entrepreneurial pursuits in California.

First, I have not gotten rich.

Second, I have met many people who have gotten rich. I've even had the pleasure to witness some of my friends get rich.

Third, I've yet to meet someone much happier than me.

I've met a large amount of people who are 6, 7, even 8 orders of magnitude richer than me and yet not a single one of them was even close to an order of magnitude happier than me.

The explanation, I finally realized, is simple.

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August 6, 2010 β€” In February I celebrated my 26th Orbit. I am 26 orbits old. How many orbits are you?

I think we should use the word "orbit" instead of year. It's less abstract. The earth's 584 million mile journey around the sun is an amazing phenomena, and calling it merely "another year" doesn't do it justice.

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August 6, 2010 β€” Figuring out what you want in life is very hard. No one tells you exactly what you want. You have to figure it out on your own.

When you're young, it doesn't really matter what you want because your parents choose what you do. This is a good thing, otherwise kids would grow up uneducated and malnourished from ice cream breakfasts. But when you grow up, you get to call the shots.

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June 17, 2010 β€” Doing a startup is surprisingly simple. You have to start by creating a product that people must have, then you scale it from there.

What percent of your customers or "users" would be disappointed if your product disappeared tomorrow? If it's less than 40%, you haven't built a must have yet.

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June 16, 2010 β€” Every Sunday night in college my fraternity would gather in the commons room for a "brother meeting". (Yes, I was in a fraternity, and yes I do regret that icing hadn't been invented yet). These meetings weren't really "productive", but we at least made a few decisions each week. The debates leading up to these decisions were quite fascinating. The questions would be retarded, like whether or not our next party should be "Pirate" themed or "Prisoner" themed(our fraternity was called Pike, so naturally(?) we were limited to themes that started with the letter P so we could call the party "Pike's of the Caribbean" or something). No matter what the issue, we would always have members make really passionate arguments for both sides.

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June 14, 2010 β€” Have you heard of the Emperor Penguins? It's a species of penguins that journeys 30-75 miles across the frigid Antarctic to breed. Each year these penguins endure 8 months of brutally cold winters far from food. If you aren't familiar with them, check out either of the documentaries March of the Penguins or Planet Earth.

I think the culture of the emperor penguins is fascinating and clearly reveals some general traits from all cultures:

Culture is a set of habits that living things repeat because that's what they experienced in the past, and the past was favorable to them. Cultures have a mutually dependent relationship with their adherents.
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Or..We Think we have Free Will because we only Observe One Path.

March 24, 2010 β€” "Dad, I finished my homework. Why?"

The father thinks for a moment. He realizes the answer involves explaining the state of the world prior to the child doing the homework. It involves explaining the complex probabilities that combined would calculate the odds the child was going to do the homework. And it likely involved explaining quantum mechanics.

The father shrugs and says "Because you have free will, and chose to do it."

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February 19, 2010 β€” All the time I overhear people saying things like "I will start excercising everyday" or "We will ship this software by the end of the month" or "I will read that book" or "I will win this race." I'm guilty of talking like this too.

The problem is that often, you say you will do something and you don't end up doing it. Saying "I will do", might even be a synonym for "I won't do".

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February 17, 2010 β€” If a book is worth reading, it's worth buying too.

If you're reading a book primarily to gain value from it(as opposed to reading it for pleasure) you should always buy it unless it's a bad book.

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February 2, 2010 β€” My room was always messy. Usually because clothes were strewn everywhere On the floor, on the couch, anywhere there was a surface there was a pile of clothes. Dirty, clean, or mostly-clean scattered about.

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January 29, 2010 β€” Good communication is overcommunication. Very few people overcommmunicate. Undercommunication is much more common. Undercommunication is also the cause of countless problems in business.

Instead of striving for some subjective "good communication", simply strive to overcommunicate. It's very unlikely you'll hit a point where people say "he communicates too much". It's much more likely you'll come up a bit short, in which case you'll be left with good communication.

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January 15, 2010 β€” In computer programming, one of the most oft-repeated mottos is DRY: "Don't Repeat Yourself."

The downside of DRY's popularity is that programmers might start applying the principle to conversations with other humans.

This fails because computers and people are polar opposites.

With computers, you get zero benefit if you repeat yourself. With people, you get zero benefit if you don't repeat yourself!

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January 14, 2010 β€” When a problem you are working on forces you to wait, do you wait or switch tasks?

For example, if you are uploading a bunch of new web pages and it's taking a minute, do you almost instinctively open a new website or instant message?

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January 12, 2010 β€” Whether you're an entrepreneur, a venture capitalist, a casual investor or just a shopper looking for a deal, you should know how to buy low and sell high. Buying low and selling high is not easy. It's not easy because it requires too things humans are notoriously bad at: long term planning and emotional control. But if done over a long period of time, buying low and selling high is a surefire way to get rich.

Warren Buffett is perhaps the king of buying low and selling high. These tips are largely regurgitated from his speeches and biographies which I've been reading over the past two years.

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December 23, 2009 β€” It is better to set small, meaningful goals than to set wild, audacious goals.

Here's one way to set goals:

Make them good. Make them small.
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December 13, 2009 β€” Do you "flip the bozo bit" on people?

If you don't know what that means, you probably do it unknowingly!

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December 10, 2009 β€” Employees and students receive deadlines, due dates, goals, guidelines, instructions and milestones from their bosses and teachers. I call these "arbitrary constraints".

Does it really matter if you learn about the American Revolution by Friday? No. Is there a good reason why you must increase your sales this month by 10%, versus say 5% or 15%? No. Does it really matter if you get a 4.0 GPA? No.

But these constraints are valuable, despite the fact that they are arbitrary. They help you get things done.

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December 6, 2009 β€” Imagine you are eating dinner with 9 friends and you all agree to play Credit Card Roulette. Credit Card Roulette is a game where everyone puts their credit card in a pile and the server randomly chooses one and charges the whole meal to it.

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Experience is what you get when you don't get what you want.

December 2, 2009 β€” How many times have you struggled towards a goal only to come up short? How many times have bad things happened to you that you wish hadn't happened? If you're like me, the answer to both of those is: a lot.

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May 6, 2009 β€” There’s a discussion on a mailing list I belong to about piracy and the iPhone. One of the responders I thought was really insightful. The basic premise is β€œwhat you focus on, increases”–at least in your mind–so it’s better not to focus on negative things. In this example, by focusing on the small problem of pirated iPhone apps, bigger opportunities are missed. I’ve reprinted the part below:

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July 28, 2008 β€” The hiccups have been cured. Want to know what the secret is?

It’s simple, whenever you get the hiccups, all you have to do is think to yourself β€œI am not a fish. I am not a fish. I am not a fish…”

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July 27, 2008 β€” Decided to try out one of these book social networks to see if I can find some important books I should be reading. The idea is you enter the books you’ve read and rate them, as well as the books you want to read. Then the site will show you people who like similar books and you can hopefully stumble upon some books that they’ve read that you will like.

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July 9, 2008 β€” It’s nice to know that more than 50% of the people alive today have been around for longer than I have(at least for a few more years).

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August 24, 2007 β€” For a few years, GoDaddy kept alerting me that was available and I should buy fast before someone else does! Lucky for me, all the other Breck Yunits’ out there weren’t getting the same alerts. Enjoy, suckers!!!

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