Speculation, Inquiry, and a Quest for Purpose

Diary 03


When I worked in retail customer service, I was taught to “under-promise and over-deliver,” meaning I should always quote slightly longer turnaround times for repairs than they were likely to actually take so it came as a pleasant surprise for my customers to find out when it was done. My goal of updating this weblog once a week has been the opposite—I’ve been over-promising and under-delivering.

I can chalk a lot of the delay up to the holidays and my inadequate preparation for them. We had family visiting, which reduces the kind of free time I normally allocate to writing, and I have a four-year-old, which adds time and energy to every holiday task like picking a tree, decorating it, making cookies, and all that. It was a nice visit and a great way to end the year, but it prevented me from putting words on the page.

In the new year, I’ve been working to winterize our 1914 Craftsman-style home, which has necessitated numerous hardware store visits and lengthy troubleshooting sessions trying to figure out (for instance) how to properly measure the depth to install metal interlocking weatherstripping around the doorframe and coordinating with a local window installer about getting outfitted for storm windows. This was in advance of the actual inclement weather we experienced this past week that kept my wife home from work and our son home from school, following a week where my time was spent helping my wife recuperate from a sudden illness.

When it comes to prioritization, I’m rigidly hierarchical. Family always comes first, and that means writing must sometimes take a backseat. Reading is much easier to do when balancing those responsibilities, and that’s the other thing I’ve been doing this past month.

In December, I was reading Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics by Richard Thaler. Since the theme of 2023 appears to have been “everything you thought was common sense is not,” I thought I’d dip my toe into Thaler’s historical introduction to behavioral economics, the radical idea that human beings are not always perfectly rational actors with fixed preferences when making decisions. It’s not such a radical idea anymore, but (as the book will explain,) there was a good long stretch of the 20th Century when Rational Choice Theory gave rise to the expected utility hypothesis as the reigning explanation for how people made decisions, and the established authorities in economics did not take too kindly to the notion that the model was fundamentally flawed.

This reading was motivated initially by a YouTube video (of all things) titled “5 Ways People Are Dumb With Money,” but a lot of its insights also surfaced in Poverty, By America by Matthew Desmond. I’ll be writing about both books on this weblog at a later date, after I finish putting my thoughts together about Everything is Obvious.

After Misbehaving, I turned my attention to another form of misbehavior with Elizabeth Pantley’s The No-Cry Discipline Solution: Gentle Ways to Encourage Good Behavior Without Whining, Tantrums, and Tears. I don’t know if there’s enough interest to do a writeup here (I have yet to receive my first real comment on this weblog,) but I wanted to explore more ways to get along with my four-year-old. He’s great, and I’m really proud of him, but no relationship is perfect. Using this book and the others in my childrearing collection, (The No-Cry Sleep Solution, How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen, The Whole-Brain Child,) I have created a simple interactive troubleshooting guide for resolving common issues to share with my wife. So that took some time.

Finally, I’ve continued my socioeconomics studies with Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir. This book was cited in Poverty, By America when Desmond brought up the “bandwidth tax” to explain how poverty—the experience of economic scarcity—reduces an individual’s cognitive capacity more than going a full night without sleep. What a fascinating claim! Without going into too much detail (you can expect a writeup or two on Scarcity sometime in the coming year,) the authors administered a series of Raven’s Progressive Matrices tests to people classified as “rich” or “poor” and compared their outcomes to another experiment that administered the same tests to people who were either well-rested or deliberately sleep-deprived.

Scarcity goes on to evaluate the impact of reduced bandwidth on all aspects of life, including perpetuating the conditions of scarcity, but I’m only ¾ of the way through, so please hold your questions until the end. My reading process is slow and tedious, but very worthwhile, and I’ve been working on some refinements that should increase my speed over the past week or so.

One thing I’ve learned from Scarcity applies immediately to my context of trying to be more consistent writing for this weblog: internal, arbitrary deadlines are too easy to disregard. Like trying to tickle yourself, it’s very difficult to make a deadline meaningful when there are no external consequences whatsoever. Moreover, most deadlines farther than a week out fail to register in the mind of someone experiencing time scarcity, so trying to make sweeping pronouncements about monthly or weekly posting schedules is going to be ineffective.

Therefore, effective immediately, I am committing to posting here on this weblog at least once per week, even if just to write a short diary entry updating readers on the status of my other writing projects. Thanks for your patience while I sort out the particulars, and please share any advice you may have for committing to a regular posting schedule despite the myriad unpredictable vicissitudes of life.

About the author

Ian Hayes

Former technical support and customer service professional, now freelance writer and entrepreneur writing Horror, Narrative Nonfiction, and Literary/Speculative Fiction.

Also backpacker, rock climber, casual biker, woodworker and armchair philosopher.

Currently living in Portland, Oregon, but also from New York, Alabama, New Mexico, Virginia, Georgia, Connecticut and Tennessee.

By Ian Hayes
Speculation, Inquiry, and a Quest for Purpose