On the night of 4th May 2016, I was departing on the night train from Athens to Thessaloniki at 11:55PM.
The night train was divided into “cabins” that most likely were originally designed to be sleeper cars, but had been converted to more “bus-like” seating designed to fit six people facing each other.
The seats were in close together, three facing forwards in the train’s direction, three people directly across from them facing backwards. It was a narrow space; an adult man’s knees would be almost touching the knees of the man in front of him in the space.
I was seated facing “backwards” – away from the train’s direction – by the window. Directly across from me was an Athenian student-scientist – doing the Greek equivalent of a Masters degree in chemistry and materials science at Thessaloniki’s main university.
Joining the two of us in the six-person cabin were six Afghan refugees: a mother, a father, their two sons – aged five and three – and two nephew, perhaps 12 and 10 years old.
The eight of us spent the night together on the train from Midnight until our (slightly late) arrival around 7AM.
The Greek scientist was the last to board, and I had gotten a small chance to know the Afghanis and talk a little before the train departed.
The 12-year-old nephew spoke the best English, and was a little pleasantly shocked when I said, “As-salamu alaykum” – “peace be with you,” a traditional Arabic/Islamic greeting. He replied, “Wa’alaykumu salam” – “and with you” and was a little surprised.
The 12-year-old had a really cool haircut; he would have blended in perfectly in Los Angeles; the bottom of his head was shaved and he had this fashionable spiky layered thing happening on the top of his head, looking like a professional soccer player, or perhaps a cyber-punk type character out of the Final Fantasy games.
The mother was serene. She had a blue colored scarf tied loosely around her hair, and went about giving snacks to the children and soothing them when they cried.
The father was a full of anxiety, sometimes pacing, sometimes yelling at one of the children for being fussy, sometimes holding one of his children tight and kissing them on the head – ostensibly to reassure the child, but certainly just as much to reassure himself.
He was, to me, very strong – real strength, not movie-strength. Here he is in Europe with his young family – speaking no Greek, speaking no English, presumably having no job in this region, afraid for his young family, having already gone through god-knows-what trials to get here.
We were getting along well enough, I complimented the father on his children – “you have a beautiful family, very strong – I think your children will grow to be very tall and strong” – I held my hand high in the air to signify “growing very tall”; the 12-year-old and wife both translated some and he nodded a little, a mix of pride and worry about him.
They asked where I was from, and after saying “American” there was a strange sort of reaction. Am I the first American they met? There was a mix of skepticism on the father’s part and – well, hostility is too strong of a word; it wasn’t hostile at all – but it wasn’t friendly.
The young children oscillated between curiosity and general nervousness and fussiness – the 5-year-old stared curiously at me for a while, and the 12-year-old nephew took the opportunity to try to get an impromptu language lesson.
I said, “Hi” and waved to the five-year old boy. The 12-year-old said something in their native language – Pashto? – and instructed the younger one to say, slowly, “Hel-lo.”
The young boy concentrated deeply, trying to form the syllables, then blurted: “Hel-lo!” and giggled a little.
“Hello!” I said, and the 12-year-old, the mother, and the 5-year-old were all pleased.
“How are you?” I asked.
The 12-year-old and I were trying to help the little one get through some basic dialog of, “How are you? – Good, how are you? – Good” and not quite managing successfully when the Greek student joined us in our cabin, and then a cacophony broke out as the train conductor joined us.
Some other Afghanis were in the narrow train hallway now with the conductor, getting a mix of tickets together, the train conductor trying to make sense of it all.
The Greek train conductor was very animated, speaking loudly and gesturing around about something.
I leaned forwards and looked at the newly joined Greek student with a ‘what’s going on here?’ look.
He thinks a moment, says: “One of the men doesn’t have a ticket, the rest do. They’re trying to figure it out, saying they can pay him [the conductor] onboard for the last ticket if there’s enough space.”
“It sounds dramatic.”
“Everything in Greek sounds dramatic.”
The train cabin was poorly sealed, and the night was extremely cold. Noise and clatter broke out among the train repeatedly; there would not be much sleep.
The Afghani mother and father started alternating places, one of them out in the hallway, one of them laying down with one of the young children to sleep across two seats, and leaving another of the two seats open for one of the older children.
The Greek student and I seemed to realize we wouldn’t be sleeping much, and talked deep into the night about science, immigration, Greek history, and the Greek economy.
Eventually, maybe around 2:30AM, the student and I were spent and attempted to sleep, wrapping ourselves in sweatshirts and half-leaning against the window. Periodically, one of the young children would get startled and wake in an alarm, crying or flailing a little and hitting the student or I.
The family had already disbursed at the second-to-last station before Thessaloniki and were gone when we arrived at the station. I said goodbye to the student and stepped into the cold morning air of Macedonia.
I had a small piece of bread and a Greek spinach pastry as I walked, and settled down to my work at with a bowl of yogurt and a glass of water at the cost of 2 euro.
I opened up my translation of Longinus and Wittgenstein’s war diaries, eating slowly and attempting to get into a rhythm despite the high fatigue from a sleepless night, trying to complete the last issue for the Uncommon Virtues series on TSR.
Grappling with lions of thought is always something humbling for a writer. You become aware not just of the sentiment of what you’re trying to express, but also the mechanics and technique. From a distance, a painting is a marvelous scene – up very close, it is brushstrokes of paint on canvas. I'm in the cafe, wrestling with these past titans of thought, and my time on the night train keeps coming back to me.
Calling him “a student” doesn’t really do the young Athenian justice. He was very centered, very composed – very intellectual, but also very masculine. If forced to guess, I would have guessed him older than me.
I thought about the long conversations about the state of Greece and his uncertainty – no money here, scratching to get by. Planning and musing over what country he’ll depart to after his masters to get a PhD and go into industry. He says, there’s no work in Greece – it’s a mix of frowning and resigned acceptance when he says it.
“Greece is a mess.”
I’m in Thessaloniki. In front of me on the wooden table are my computer with its translations and historical documents, my notebooks where I sketch out potential paths through the writing, four colors of pens, nicotine gum, and a bowl of yogurt.
The long conversations with the Greek scientist-student and the short time with the Afghani family, they stayed with me – they’re still with me – I think about them.
I don’t really have any problems.
Before we get started, a couple announcements --
The first Ultraworking Work Weekend was a huge success.
We're having another one on 14 May and 15 May.
You can read more about the concept here. Starts at Noon Eastern Time on Saturday and Sunday 14/15 May. $140 to join if you're not currently a member at Ultraworking. Includes two 1-on-1 consulting calls and a 3 month membership to the Adherence League. You can sign up at this link.
If you're curious about Ultraworking, we've also fleshed out the concept of what we're trying to do more -- you can see it at the Ultraworking website.
Oh my goodness, I'm so excited to finally announce this publicly.
My good friend and oft-collaborator Kai Zau started building a new company, Ultraworking, back in December of last year.
With Ultraworking, we're looking to fill a gap in the lives of people who are highly driven, highly analytical, achievement-oriented.
We're making technology, community, and content for our type of people.
This is perhaps the most challenging balancing act when you're looking to do more.
Let's say you're tracking your productivity on important stuff, you're doing your weekly review, and you realize that when you're in a loud environment, you get less work done.
So you realize that. Maybe you never realized it before, but now you realize it's true.
And you notice it keeps holding true, even when you try to concentrate through it.
This puts you at a very tricky crossroads.
Want a fun, profitable, healthy experiment to run for a month?
Try drinking only water.
I've switched onto "Water Only" a few times in my life. I'm running it right now. It's terrific.
The merits of the policy:
-- No liquid calories and all the downsides that come with those: unless you're playing sports or doing heavy manual labor, liquid cals basically come in two forms: bad and worse. Merely bad liquid calories are things like juice that have some other micronutrients. Why are they bad, then? Because you're missing out on all the fiber and satiety that comes from eating that apple instead of drinking apple juice, and -- again if you're not getting lots of fitness -- the spike in blood sugar, followed by insulin, leads to a crash. And that's juice, which isn't all that bad. The "worse" is Coca-Cola and similar stuff that really ought not to be put in the human body if you're aiming for mental and physical performance.
Two months ago, I offered a streamlined test consulting service called "Get Your Next Project On Rails" -- and I got to see some tremendous results and growth from people who participated.
One of the women who participated has been very gracious in allowing me to publish her experience as a case study. She said I could share her experience in full, as long as her name and location are omitted. So we'll call her "Alice" for this case study; she can chime in if she wants to take credit for her achievements.
In this post, there's some nice actionable and universal lessons on behavior change and I'm grateful that Alice is letting us share this.
Time is really important — perhaps the only completely non-renewable resource for an individual.
Kai Zau and I are running a group training improving this over the next 4.5 weeks.
The Basic Idea
We all have 24 hours per day. We all spend some of those hours in ways we are greatly happy we spend them, and we waste and feel dumb about how we spend some of those hours.
We want to improve on that. We’ll do two things —
Have you ever gone into your email to search for something, saw a new important email, and forgot entirely what you were searching for?
Computer usage in general seems to be conducive to doing that. You go to Wikipedia to look up some fact, and suddenly it's two hours later. Ok, you're much more knowledgeable about the Cold War or Ancient Mesopotamia or something, but was that really how you wanted to spend the last two hours?
I've found this to just be something about computers in general: they're such marvelous multi-purpose machines that it's easy to get sucked off one's current objective into something else.
I'm always exploring better ways to work, and a couple years I had an idea of doing "tally marks" as I worked: I would mark down every single action I did. If I was lost or stuck, I would cut down to the simplest possible action, rapidly marking down tallies.
At first I did this on the computer, but eventually I came to a way of working with a notebook and pens right next to me that's been an absolute godsend and marvelous boost.
I just emptied my firstname.lastname@example.org email address for the first time in a while; I got so much mail after the final issues of Upstream Effects series (#7/8/9), I wasn't able to get to all of it processed until now.
What's interesting is, about 30 minutes into to a "I'm finally going to get this empty" session, I wanted to get up and do something else. It's like, some little tiny pressure in the back of my head is telling me to go do something more novel.
It felt like the email would never end.
This is a good problem to have, I admit. Getting to read feedback from people who send notes saying that an issue made them re-think their week, helped them set huge plans, helped them get a project successful, or that they shared the writing with their kids -- this is amazing.
And I want to write back and not let all those emails go stale. And yet, there it is, when I finally have some time, my mind tells me to go do something else.
The Case for Dennis Rodman is one of the finest things on the entire internet.
If you hate statistics, you'll hate it.
If you can merely muddle through statistics -- you don't have to like them -- it's a set of essays where bombshell after bombshell of epiphany and mental models break through.
It looks at bias, naive and advanced statistics, hubris, winning, contributions to team efforts, resource usage, utilization, media, narratives, historical eras and change... it's sometimes meandering, sometimes laser-focused, highly aware of itself and its own potential flaws... it's a masterpiece.
You should probably read it, but that's not the point of this post.