The Whippet #107: The fall of a grand thing

Hey friends!

This issue got long with the personal kanban stuff, so I won’t write too much up here, in case gmail decides to be a sook about it.

Non-Australians/Kiwis: sook rhymes with ‘book’ not ‘boot’ and means something like ‘crybaby, whiner’. You can also have a sook about something — I imagine it’s related to ‘sulk’.

I recently found out that whinge is also an Australianism (it means complaining in a petty way, about things that aren’t that important). You might call someone a whinger if they’re negative all the time, but you might also say it self-deprecatingly about yourself. “Ah don’t mind me, I’m just having a whinge.”

Anyway, I wonder what it means about a culture that we have a bunch of specific words for complaining that other English-speaking countries don’t have? Do we whinge more than other nationalities? Or are we less tolerant of whinging, such that we’ve found more ways to criticise it?

Cause the implication of whinge/sook (grouch, grumble, moan, carp on about something, bitch, grouse, man there are a LOT of synonyms for complain) is that they’re not really serious complaints; if you say “stop whinging about having cancer” you sound like a pyschopath.

It’s kind of a way to shut people down. Although also, it is super-annoying when someone complaints about minor things almost constantly.

It’s just always interesting when a culture has a tonne of synonyms for something.

(Please don’t bring up “50 words for snow” though, it’s a myth.)

Rad.


Nurse logs: The forest equivalent of whalefall, a thing I am obsessed with

‘Whalefall’ is when a whale dies and falls to the ocean floor. When something the size of a whale dies, it’s such mass influx of nutrients that it basically starts a new little ecosystem around it, attracting fish and sharks to the carcass, things that burrow into the bone, and then new predators who are attracted by the all the new animals hanging out in one place. I wrote about it in more detail here.

Cattlefall
A couple of weeks ago — and this is horrible, but also sort of awe-inducing, so I hope you won’t mind me sharing — but a livestock carrier ship was hit by a typhoon off the coast of Japan and sunk. It had 6,000 cattle on board. It’s… I mean, you don’t have to be vegetarian to feel like that’s tragic. But I kept thinking about whalefalls. I worked out (verrry roughly) that 6,000 cows is equivalent in mass to around 300 blue whales. Given what an event one whale’s death is to the ecosystem, just… so much must be coming to life on the seafloor right now.

Nurse logs
(Nurse as in nursery, where babies are grown).

Nurse logs are when a tree falls in the forest and suddenly creates room for a tonne of new life. Although other plants do clamber to get the nutrients from the trunk, the main thing a tree’s death provides is space on the forest floor (there is normally a huge plant-fight over access to groundspace) and access to light — again, trees’ canopies fight for access to the light, trying to outgrow each other and crowd each other out. Down below, plants struggle with each other to get as much of the light that filters through the canopy as possible.

And as with whalefall, it’s an opportunity at all levels, from mosses and funghi, to insects, mammals, larger plants, and things that eat insects, mammals or plants. And eventually whole trees can take root in the old trunk.

Sidenote for Pratchett fans
I was trying to think of how this idea could be turned into a fantasy or SF story and realised: that’s the plot of Hogfather. The religious equivalent of a whale or enormous redwood is removed, leaving space for hundreds of small gods to spring up and take advantage of the new influx of suddenly available belief.


Salt Labyrinth

By Japanese artist Motoi Yamamoto

He made this labyrinth (with just an absolutely inconceivable amount of patience) within the walls of a 13th century French castle in the town of Aigues-Mortes.

I wondered about the name, because “mort” means death, which is an odd word for a town. Turns out it means “dead water”, or “stagnant water” (aigues is like aqua, water) and is named for the surrounding marshed.

So that’s neat!

Yamamoto made a second salt piece within the castle walls: this one looks the swirling seafoam in a tidepool.


The chairman of Samsung is almost certainly dead

Unusually contemporary of me, but if, like me, you enjoy mystery and conspiracy and watching too many political thrillers until they permanently damage your brain you will find this story fascinating.

A thread by John Yoo. He’s far from the only person talking about it, but he sums it up really well.

Chairman of Samsung is probably dead but we are all pretending he is alive because if he dies, the country will probably go into an economic death-spiral.

Samsung usually accounts for 20% of the exports of the entire country of South Korea. As a single group, it’s a conglomerate with either large or controlling market share in tech, construction, finance & insurance, hospitality, security, travel, food, retail producing 12% of GDP.

Almost $1 in every $5 in the country brought in from abroad is by Samsung.

[McK paraphrase: a whole ecosystem of suppliers and purchases has built up around Samsung, and is completely reliant on it. These would fail within months if Samsung collapsed] [not a whalefall situation, apparently]

Enter Korean tax code. Korea has 50% inheritance tax on assets above $2.5m. When Lee Gunhee dies, his family will owe the government $7b.

It is a fact that Chairman Lee Gunhee suffered a heart attack in 2014 and was hospitalized. Nobody but close family members have reported seeing him. People who claimed he was dead have either disappeared or been arrested.

When his death was reported in 2014, the entire country flipped and the story was deleted because the news site said that the whistleblower disappeared.

It’s been five years and nobody can tell us his condition with certainty. Nobody has seem him.

I cut some tweets out so recommend reading the whole thing, it’s wild and totally plausible.

Further thing I keep thinking about

This type of company — a massive multinational conglomerate run by a South Korean family — is called a chaebol. (Hyundai and LG are two others.) Think of all the pressure high-status families put on their kids, and all the pressure bosses at fast-paced tech companies put on their employees, combine that pressure together because your bosses are family and then make that a company that’s deeply entwined with government and the entire economy rests on. It’d be like being born into the mafia.

NYTimes explainer on chaebol.

Unsolicited Advice: How I use a Personal Kanban

Even if you’re not interested in post-it based systems, I think you’ll still get something out of this — the underlying principles apply to any other way you might choose to get things done.

This is a kanban at its most basic

Jeff Lasovski. Modified by Opensource.com. CC BY-SA 3.0.

They’re usually used for teams, and they give everyone quick visibility over what’s already been done, what someone else is already working on, and so on.

A personal kanban is just for you, but it’s for communication between past-you and future-you, so you should use clear instructions and labels and keep the post-its tidy as though you were communicating with a team. (I don’t like the way those post-its are stuck on top of each other, for example. That’s not soothing to me.)

Crucial Principle 1: ‘Done’ column | Stand-alone, finishable tasks

Teams need a Done column so everyone can see what’s already done, and so they can hold a Reflect session where they think about what went well and what they should do differently next time.

You don’t need a literal visual Done column if you don’t want to do reflection. But you need to act as though you have a Done column, even if that’s the wastepaper basket.

You need to write tasks that could plausibly be moved to Done. It should be immediately obvious what ‘Done’ would like for any task.

‘Write intro for Whippet #107’ is a task that can be finished and moved to Done.

‘Work on Whippet’ is not. It has no clear Done point, so you’re setting yourself up for failure, because you’ve given yourself an unfinishable task.

Crucial Principle 2: ‘Doing’ column | One thing at a time

The Doing column in a personal kanban only ever has one thing in it. That’s because you can only do one thing at a time. That’s not me telling you a principle of productivity (“only work on one thing at a time”) it’s telling you a basic law of reality.

You can flip back and forth rapidly between a few tasks, but you literally can’t do them at the same time (unless you have “listen to podcast” as a To Do).

The problem is that when I know I have 6 things to do in a day, I do flip between them, especially if some of them are irritating. The Doing column forces you to choose one and work on it deliberately. If you do switch tasks, you have to get up and put the post-it back and move a new post-it to the Doing column. So you’re forced to only task switch intentionally.

Also, since you know all the other To Dos are there and clear and visible and not being forgotten, it’s easier to focus on the One Task.

This was the key reason I started using a personal kanban — to force my brain to acknowledge the reality that I can only do one task at a time.

As with the Done column, I don’t have a physical visual Doing column. Instead, I take the post-it I’m working on and stick it to the side of my laptop screen.

Regardless of where you put your Doing post-it, you have to treat this column utterly seriously. There’s only ever one.

Crucial Principle 3: ‘To Do’ column | A system your brain trusts 100%

The point of any To Do system is that it captures everything and is completely reliable. Humans live in social groups, and our brains have evolved to trust others to be the keepers of certain memories, freeing up our mental capacity.

Old married couples will often remember different parts of their lives, because they know at an unconscious level “the other person’s got this”. There’s been research that we now treat google the way we treat tribe members — we’ve stopped remembering some things because our brain trusts google to keep the memory and recall it when needed. (This is called “distributed cognition” if you want to google it.)

So you need to get to the point where your brain trusts your external memory-keeper enough to stop holding on to it.

That makes it easier to focus on your One Task.

To trust a system, you have to capture everything. Every task you need to do, every idea for a side project you could start, every thing that your brain would otherwise try to hold on to. That doesn’t all have to be on the kanban. You could keep all your side-project ideas in a notebook. Most people use a calendar to remember events.

But it should be limited, clear and reliable. Like a calendar, a notebook and a kanban wall, and you know exactly where all three are and what each is for.

Any time you’re like “I know I wrote that down somewhere…” your brain says “okay, I can’t trust this external memory-keeper, I need to put energy into keeping track of everything myself.”

Options: Ways of organising your To Do column

You can kinda go wild here!

This is mine — this is all To Do (since ‘Doing’ is the side of my laptop and ‘Done’ is the bin).

Horizontal organisation

  • Green = House/Admin

  • Blue = Whippet and related (podcasts, workshops, re-doing my website)

  • Pink = Paid client work (I’m a copywriter/editor)

  • Orange = Fiction

Vertical organisation

  • Most time-sensitive stuff or highest-priority at the top, lower priority at the bottom. They aren’t precisely ranked, it’s just a general feel.

  • Pink and green both have a mini block that’s a line below the rest. These are tasks where I’m waiting on something. Like I have to edit a document, but the writer hasn’t written it yet.

  • I actually have about 15 green post-its in ‘waiting’ but they’re all hidden underneath one labelled ‘Post Lockdown’. It’s all stuff I can’t do right now like “get contact lenses” and “travel more than 5 km from my official place of residence”. To keep the ‘trusted system’ principle, I needed to write them all down, but I’ve hidden them all behind a post-it because I just don’t need to think about them right now.

  • I also have a bunch of post-its hidden under one marked Low Priority. If I ever burn through everything else on the wall, I can redistribute them, but until then, I know they’re there but they’re not a distraction.

Colours = context cues

Especially at the moment, we’re kind of doing all of our types of work in basically the one location. I don’t have a separate office space, I work at my dining table.

Location cues train your brain to know what to expect. So if you read the news in bed in the morning, you’ll sleep worse at night, because your brain sees your bed and is like “ah, the place where we encounter threats and have to remain alert!”

Since we are not rich, we have to do our best to maintain context cues. You can do stuff like always play the same piece of music before you start work, or move your laptop to the couch if you’re going to check twitter.

I find the colour cues help too, because these are kind of the 4 ‘modes’ I’m in. So when I’m writing fiction, I’m less likely to worry about stuff related to client work, because I’m like, “I’m in Orange mode. The Pink tasks are in their own section and I don’t need to think about them right now.”

Additional columns

A good additional column might be your day’s or week’s tasks. So you can plan, okay, I need to get these 5 tasks done today, and you move them across. (For me, I pull them out and stick them up above the kanban.) But you’re still only doing one task at any given time.

Depending on the type of work you do, you might have a natural column division. Like if I have to write and edit something, I will just make two post-its, two tasks. But I could also have an ‘edit’ column, and move “Article” from Writing > Editing > Done.

A ‘waiting on someone/something else’ is a good column too. But you don’t want more than 6 columns max I reckon.

Steps:

  1. Write down literally every single task you can think of in a notebook / word doc

  2. Think about different ways you could organise them.

    You’re always going to have outliers FYI, so just put them wherever they feel best. Like I have a few fun tasks like “listen to friend’s art-radio project” and I put that in with fiction writing, even though it’s totally different, because they’re both fun things I want to make time for, not obligations or paid work I’ve committed to.

    One way to think about it might be “what are the big priority areas in my life, what do I want to make sure I’m giving a decent chunk of time to?”

    And/or “which types of tasks do I want to keep fairly separate in my brain?”

  3. Buy post-its. Make a rough guess as to how many post-its you’ll need for the next three months, then buy at least twice as many. Otherwise you get hoarding mentality and you get tempted not to write down every task, to “save” post-its, and you lose your trust in the system.

    Bonus tip for Australians, don’t buy those gd J.Burrows Officeworks brand ones, they lose their stick almost instantly. Buy the official post-it brand ones.

  4. Transfer tasks to post-its. Arrange them in a way that is calm and pleasing to you.

  5. If you have a tonne of project ideas, choose the 1-3 you want to focus on for the next month or so, and hide all the others under an Ideas post-it. Then break the focus projects down into actionable tasks, which each get their own post-it.

  6. Write down every new task and idea you think of. If you’re not at home with your post-its, send yourself a text so you don’t forget.

    A bonus is that sometimes you’ll be like “ugh I can’t be bothered writing that down, I’m just gonna do it.” But that’s just a happy bonus if it happens.

  7. At some point you’ll probably realise you’ve written a post-it in a way that can’t properly be actioned - just rewrite it, or rewrite it as two new ones, it’s fine.

  8. Warning: If you ever find yourself avoiding looking at your wall because it makes you feel bad and ashamed, take down the kanban wall. It’s supposed to help you, if it makes you feel bad instead of in control, it’s a bad system for you and it should go. You can’t live too-ashamed to look at your own walls!

There are a lot of options for how to arrange things, so long you stick to the principles — separate, completable tasks, one thing at a time, capture everything in a trusted system.

Lastly, please send me a photo if you make a kanban wall!

They’re just really satisfying to look at in my opinion. You can email me at mckinleyvalentine [at] gmail.com, or reply to any Whippet issue, and I will be SO delighted.

If there’s something I haven’t explained properly, please leave a comment and I’ll try to answer.

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Solicited Advice: Please ask me!

I’m going to be bringing back Solicited Advice — I stopped requesting it because I knew I didn’t have time. But I have time again! Look how well-organised my post-its are!

So if you have a question/problem/situation you’d like me to give some thought to, please reply to this email or send a message to mckinleyvalentine [at] gmail.com

(But The Whippet only comes out every 2 weeks, so if it’s an emergency, I’m probably not the best person to seek help from.)

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