Consumer Anxiety

Since college ended, I’ve felt this anxiety that I’m not watching enough TV shows, or playing enough games, or reading enough books, and whenever I start one, I feel obligated to finish it, even if I start to lose interest. This is especially true for classic anime for some reason: Cowboy Bebop and Neon Genesis Evangelion hang eerily over my head like clouds, both of which I’ve seen the first few episodes of, and I think if I didn’t treat them like canon that I was required to watch, as items begrudgingly on my todo list, I’d probably enjoy them much more.

The same thing has been happening to me with my pocket queue, in which I have approximately 4,000 articles at the moment.

I’m still working on how to free myself from this weird narrative I’ve generated where I feel beholden to large amounts of content like this. I’ll update here when I have more information or a better idea of what’s driving this behavior or how to remedy it.

Blog Design Opinions

Readability

There’s a difference between “readable” and “interesting”. I think too often, there’s the idea that “readable” means “simple, boring design and layout”, whereas in reality, the designs that tout readability (I’m looking at you, Medium) are so monotonous that they feel like a carbon-copy of everything else. Readability doesn’t just mean that the text is easy on the eyes, it means that the text grabs and holds your attention.

Images

Don’t use stock images. Not ever. Make sure the image is actually a picture of the thing you’re talking about, not just a reaction image or something in the same general milieu. Make the images personal. Alice Maz uses images wonderfully in her essay on Minecraft economies – it helps that she took all the pictures herself, and that the chosen images augment the text and increase understanding. Just be careful when you add an image — make sure that it’s relevant and facilitates communication. A bad image is worse than neutral: it cheapens your words.

When to Write

Write when you want to record your thoughts and refine them, get feedback, or share them with the world because they seem like they could be useful. Apart from that, I don’t think there needs to be any guidelines around the content of a blog, especially a personal one. Just follow your heart. Your blog will develop concentrations as you publish more.

On Leaderboards

The Problem

Global leaderboards are populated by people you’ll never measure up to unless you devote a large portion of your time to a single game. Very rarely will you ever be in the top 1k, or even 10k. local/friend-only leaderboards are generally too sparse

Leaderboards should promote friendly competition, feelings of pride, and feelings of wanting to work harder (within reason). They should inspire people to play your game and talk about it. Global leaderboards with the most insane, far-fetched scores being most visible do the opposite.

Possible Solutions

Tiered Leaderboards

e.g. “I’m ranked #17 in my global bracket/league of 100”

Possible problem with tiered leaderboards: You’ll probably jump between different brackets way too much for it to be usable, given a game with more than a few thousand active players.

Possible fixes: a “most improved recently” leaderboard; you’re assigned a new cohort/bracket every month or so based on prev performance, & you stay in that bracket for the rest of the month.

Geographically Scoped Leaderboards

e.g. “I’m ranked #27 in Charlottesville, Virginia, and I’m ranked #516 state-wide, and #21,592 nationally”

Link Aggregate

  • A bot that livetweets the names of deleted Wikipedia articles
  • Wikipedia has a formalized, easy-to-use system for creating and tracking edit-a-thons, and how much progress is made during them.
  • The best burger recipe / methodology I’ve ever encountered. I feel comfortable saying I’m very good at making burgers now, which was not the case before.
  • dev.to is a software-developer-oriented social network with an extremely cute and cool maximalist design, and a ton of good content. It seems like a very pure corner of the internet. I made an account and I’m loving it so far.
  • I recently learned about dotfiles, which is basically a specialized term for all the .*rc, .config, etc. files in your home directory, accompanied by the philosophy that they should be persisted in a github repo so you can carry over your preferred configurations to future machines relatively painlessly.
  • It’s cheaper than I thought to order your own high-quality stickers!
  • Kelsey Piper (theunitofcaring on tumblr) appeared on the podcast Rationally Speaking, and it was a fantastic episode. This was my first exposure to Rationally Speaking in general, and I’ve fallen for it. Julia Galef is a great host.

Write While It’s Still Fresh

There’s a tendency to only start writing about a topic once you feel a level of mastery over it, and I think this hurts the process of learning. The “Toolsday” podcast mentions this, how it’s easy to forget what the actual hurdles of starting up a new project were and instead focus on, as someone more distant from the learning process now, what you imagine the hurdles would be for new people.

Similarly, in his book Pragmatic Thinking and Learning, Andy Hunt talks about how Experts in a topic are often much worse at teaching than people who are experienced beginners or newly proficient in that topic because they rely much more heavily on intuition (intuition which relies on having context) than standardized rulesets that can stand on their own. Being able to write from a context-less perspective, something that’s much easier for newbies (as they are relatively context-less).

So write about an idea while it’s still fresh. You can always edit for clarity and simplicity, but it’s much harder to capture the sharp, poky bits of a topic when you’ve learned to intuitively account for them, and your audience, which is presumably using your post or article to learn something they’re still novices at, will need to know about those sharp, poky bits to be able to stay enthusiastic and feel like they’re not insane for encountering them and having trouble with them.

A Review of the Data: Trader Joe’s

I recently finished the “Trader Joe’s (inside)” podcast and was blown away. It sounded too good to be true. Giving back millions of dollars to local communities, a job people actually enjoy, utilizing people as people instead of people as machines, high-powered executives regularly bagging groceries. So I did some digging, and found (1) a handful of anecdotes about employees being treated harshly (e.g. fired for not greeting customers genuinely) and (2) a lot of people complaining about the ways in which TJ’s products are sourced. I’ll be tackling these two issues individually.

Editorialized TL;DR: Shop here! It’s far and away the most ethical option when it comes to chain grocery stores. Trader Joe’s receives higher (anonymous) ratings from its employees than any other chain grocery store I could find. And while people say that their product-sourcing isn’t transparent enough, it’s still just as, if not more, transparent than every other large grocery chain out there.

Employees

There are a lot of think-pieces about Trader Joe’s employee culture and how its store managers have pushed its employees hard or been bothered by employees’ attitudes, but that can be said about almost literally any service industry business. Scott Alexander expertly explains the problem with this kind of example-based reasoning. To put it briefly, when you have enough people in a system, you’ll always have enough bad people to generate sensationalist news. I also believe TJ attracts more of this attention because of how it frames itself as an employee-friendly business and everyone loves a subversive narrative. Nobody would read a story about how someone quit Walmart because of working conditions (since this is obviously common), so stories like that don’t get reported.

All this being said, the best usable data we have is from glassdoor, which aggregates thousands of anonymous rankings from individual employees across many different criteria:

grocery storerating out of 5 from employees% that would recommend to a friend# of reviewsHourly Wage
Trader Joe’s4.184%2.2k$14/hr
Wegmans4.181%1.8k$10/hr
Whole Foods3.565%6.1k$11.5/hr
Walmart3.255%35k$9/hr
Harris Teeter3.149%1.8k$9/hr
Kroger3.149%7.7k$8/hr

The only store that compares in terms of employee satisfaction (our best heuristic for how well employees are treated) is Wegmans, which has the same 4.1/5 star rating from employees as Trader Joe’s. TJ also offers ~40% better hourly wages than Wegmans ($14 vs $10). TJ has better benefits for employees as well, provides far more vacation days (from 10 up to 24 for a full-time TJ employee versus 5 for Wegmans) (see footnote 1), and offers near-full-coverage for mental health. Also, TJ provides benefits for anyone working equal to or more than 30 hours a week, covering a large portion of its part timers.

I like my job but I would have a hard time rating it above a 4. It can be boring, it’s not perfect, et cetera. To me, a 5 is a dream job, like travelling the world as a food critic or running a massively successful business that you started from the ground up built around your passion in life. Obviously this isn’t everyone’s criteria, but the fact that over a third of the people who work at Trader Joe’s rated their experience as 5 stars (and another >1/3 gave it 4 stars) speaks highly of the company and culture.

Note: it’s possible that TJ’s has as high a rating as it does because it only hires optimistic people who see the best in their work environment. However, even if that’s the case, I imagine this alone can generate a more positive and uplifting work environment.

Products

TJ’s store-brand is partially filled with re-branded but otherwise identical versions of other products (link) sold at a cheaper price. For example, TJ-brand pita chips are made by the same people who make Stacy’s pita chips, the ones you see in every supermarket. If this is the kind of thing that bothers you, you unfortunately don’t have many alternatives – this happens all the time, everywhere. The only places it doesn’t happen are local farmer’s markets (and even they sometimes rebrand other people’s produce/products). Trader Joe’s could absolutely do better in terms of transparency, but they’re still far better at it than their peers.

The conclusion writes itself – Trader Joe’s is one of the more ethical national grocery store chains that exists. With better prices than most competitors, a lack of temptation to buy namebrand items, and a work environment that employees seem to genuinely enjoy, you can feel safe in knowing that their cheaper prices aren’t a reflection of how the employees are treated or of the quality of the food, both of which earn high marks. If you aren’t shopping or can’t shop at a local grocer or farmer’s market, shopping at TJ’s will almost certainly be an improvement over your current grocery store, ethically speaking, while being far cheaper than stores with similar cultures/atmospheres/quality/ideals and equally as tasty.

Further Reading:
* http://ecosalon.com/behind-the-label-trader-joes-secretive-sourcing-practices/
* https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/04/business/at-trader-joes-good-cheer-may-hide-complaints.html
* https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/08/teach-us-trader-joe-demanding-socially-responsible-food/260786/
* https://www.thrillist.com/eat/nation/working-at-trader-joe-s-trader-joe-s-employees-dish-the-dirt-on-their-secretive-employer
* http://gottesman.pressible.org/roderick/is-it-a-myth-trader-joes-as-an-ethical-company
* https://www.glassdoor.com/Overview/Working-at-Trader-Joe-s-EI_IE5631.11,23.htm

Note 1: Employees seem torn on whether or not they like the Accrued Reserves system, where employees earn PTO as a percentage of each paycheck, and can cash in accrued AR at any time. Read more about this on glassdoor.

In Defense of the Five-Paragraph Essay

Nobody likes how they wrote in high school, but that doesn’t mean we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. This is my defense of the five-paragraph essay. It’s a great way to lend structure to an idea that proves difficult to pin down, it follows modern pedagogical standards, and I think the only reason we don’t use it is out of some sense of shame attached to our past selves, and that when we were forced to use it, most of us were more interested in self-expression than communicating our ideas clearly and concisely, but as we grow older we realize that these are often the same thing.

I’ve talked to countless people about this and have experienced it over and over myself – it’s hard to decide on the right scope for your blog post. A post on the specifics of a single topic tends to transform into unwieldy claims about the universe or else escapes too quickly into interdisciplinarity. None of this is inherently bad, but a single post should attempt to do a single thing. The beauty of the 5-paragraph essay is you only have room to make 3 points. If you, a novice blogger (like myself), can’t provide evidence for your thesis in 3 points, it might be worth choosing a smaller thesis. You can always link back to your current post as a single point in a new post, and in that way become more general in your arguments.

It’s also vital that your writing sticks with your audience. Presenters at conferences know this especially well – in a medium where the persuasion is almost only performed live, it’s important to be able to make your argument in a way that sticks with the audience well after they leave the room. It seems intuitively right that this is also a good idea for written authors – indeed, how many times will someone go back and reference your article during a conversation instead of just changing the topic? Very few, I imagine. So follow the old Aristotelian adage – “tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.” Introductory paragraph about the 3 detail paragraphs, 3 detail paragraphs, conclusive paragraph bout the 3 detail paragraphs. The 5 paragraph essay.

So why don’t people use such a succinct, helpful format, even as a jumping-off point? Why is it universally met with eye rolls and groans? My suspicion is that people associate the format with being told to use it without understanding why. They associate it with their high school, sophomoric writing style. They associate it with having to write essays on topics they’re not interested in, or topics that feel too broad to be useful. But none of these are the fault of the framework, they’re the fault of the system that draconically forces you use it without explaining why.

It seems a worthwhile task to divorce the 5-paragraph essay from our embarrassment over your grade-school selves. It provides a clean and concise template for establishing a persuasive viewpoint using a reasonable amount of both ideas and words. It pushes the ideas into the reader’s mind repeatedly so it can be easily remembered (it would be up to the writer to make sure that the repetition is not too obvious or boring). And our distaste for it seems to come only from contrarians trying to sell us something (usually a book about writing or public speaking) and how we associate these kinds of essays with the dreary concrete rooms of high schools and the SATs. Give it a shot. See how it goes.

If you have any thoughts, ideas, questions, or disagreements, please let me know in the comments!