Paul Mignard

Code and pizza and coffee and art.

Deep Work by Cal Newport

It took me longer than it should have to write this blog post. Actually, it took me longer than it should have to start this post. Every time I went to start the post and it got just a little bit hard I would jump over to facebook “real quick” or empty out my RSS feed “because it’s getting full” or clear out my email because “I wouldn’t want it to get too overwhelming.” In reality, writing takes patience and like any other art form, it requires a certain level of discomfort as I try to wrangle a thoughtful sentence or two out of the many thoughts swirling in my head. The problem isn’t that I can’t write or even that I don’t want to. The problem it turns out, are the tiny and instant dopamine hits I can get by checking out something more novel and intermittent. Being well read is great but doesn’t really move the needle forward in any of my goals. Staying up to date on Facebook or Instagram is fine but again, in light of doing real work, it doesn’t really contribute at all. The real work and real value is in doing the uncomfortable thing. In our knowledge economy, people who can do the things that are hard are the ones that are valuable. And to do things that are hard, I have to be able to do deep work. Cal Newport’s latest book, Deep Work, is an instruction manual into how a person like me is able to do that kind of deep work.

I took a lot of notes on this book. So much so, I had to italicize “a lot” in the last sentence. I’ve heard Seth mention fear and the lizard brain over and over again. I’ve read Art of War many times. For some reason, Deep Work, really struck me over those other books. Newport makes no bones that doing deep work is difficult and even boring. But the boring and the difficulty are what make it work that others don’t want to do. He doesn’t make the artist connection that other books make but there is an angle in there. For art to be valuable…

Ok, before I go on, I have to tell you I almost lost the blog post right there. I’ve been wrestling with that sentence for a couple of minutes and I almost peeled off, almost opened another tab, and almost delayed finishing this post until later. It so easy to quit. I know, it’s not quitting per se because I’ll intend to return to this post but that’s a lie right? I may never return to this post. It could lay around as a draft for another month, or a year, or it could get lost entirely. Pressfield calls this the resistance. It’s an external force that constantly wants me to do something other than what should be done. Could it be that my brain is already bored with this? Is it already getting uncomfortable?

Ok, back to my previous point (we’re going to jump around a bunch my dear ready, I apologize.) For work, for art to be valuable, it has to be difficult. If it’s not difficult, if it doesn’t require a period of deep, uncomfortable work, then it ‘s probably work that can be done by a lot of different people. This is illuminating. This is what would make me really learn to draw anatomy instead of resorting to drawing octopuses (yes, octopuses not octopi.) This is what would make me learn scales and music theory instead of just strumming the G,C, and D chord on my guitar whenever I pick it up. This is what would make me learn the hard aspects of web development that don’t rely on wiring frameworks together (I actually have a lot to say on this and I’ll cover in another uncomfortably written blog post.) It’s almost like Deep Work gave me a license to work deeply. It told me it’s ok to be bored and that the discomfort I feel when working on a hard task is a good feeling and should be nurtured. Hard things becomes easy. Discomfort becomes comfort. But these things happen in a progression and not an explosion. Working deeply means to face the discomfort on a routine and consistent basis. It means I’m not a weirdo when I plan out my day. In essence, it’s what I’ve known all along. Make a plan and execute. Except this time, when I hit discomfort, don’t blame it on a lack of passion. It’s a sign that the work being done has value and my brain is going to need to work a little harder to do it.

So the conclusion to this meandering post, is that Deep Work is a must read for the modern knowledge worker. You may not adopt all of the techniques mentioned within (I’m not dropping off of all social media anytime soon) but it did a wonderful job in reminding me that I’m in charge of my work life and I have a choice to do things that matter and provide value or to stick with things that are novel and easy.

Microsoft Cognitive Services

If it were up to me, all the services of the world would be available to us via REST API’s. In keeping with this grand vision, I stumbled across the Microsoft Cognitive Services – a series of REST API’s that let’s you identify the joy (or grief) in a persons face via an easy to use API. Wonderful!

For me, this is definitely an API in need of a problem to solve. I don’t have a specific use case but I can think of a few creepy things this would be great for:

  • A social network where you can only post and comment and respond with selfies.
  • Snapchat-like filter stuff on images and videos.
  • Profiling (yes, the public creepy kind.)
  • Customer Research (also the creepy kind.)
  • Any place where you need to count people (like a movie theater? Or a conference?)

I’ve only dug into the three Vision API’s (Computer Vision, Emotion, and Face) but they are super easy to use. Pass them an image and get some JSON back. I didn’t even realize until late into my experiments that if you scroll down to the bottom of the docs they even give you code examples in almost any modern language you can think of.

All that to say, I created a really quick demo to see what all the vision API’s can do! You upload an image and it submits it to the Computer Vision, Face and Emotion API’s. In return, I draw a white rectangle on all the faces returned and dump the JSON on the page to check out. At some point I’ll put this up on github but this is less “code that I’m proud of writing” and more “how quickly can I move code from stackoverflow to my sample page to get this thing working.”

A couple things I discovered:

  • Apparently I love unordered lists. I just discovered that right now when I started my second unordered list in a single post.
  • The results on the emotion API are really odd. I think surprise and contempt seem to rank really high in posts where I thought surprise or happiness would rank higher. Maybe the results are more poignant than I thought?
  • It does well with pictures but not so much with drawings. Sometimes the description on an illustrated portrait would read something crazy like “two giraffes in a fenced in area.” Also, any time it sees a computer it also adds “coffee” and “pizza” as tags.

Anyway, well done Microsoft. There is some really interesting stuff here and it’s always nice to work with a solid, well documents and consistent API.

 

Try the Cognitive Service Test here. 

 

(Note: If you visit the page on a phone you can take a picture to upload…)

(Another note: I don’t store any of the pictures that you upload anywhere but I do send that image over to Microsoft and I’m not sure what they do with it.)