Conspicuous Effort

conspicuous effort
Every now and then someone posts something of worth on Facebook; the comments on this image are worth checking out.

I have thought a lot over the last 3 years about the differences between ‘productive’ and ‘busy’. The two have become so synonymous in anglophone culture that it’s difficult to distinguish between the two. Apparently, Robin Hanson found a better way than I have in doing so in his book, ‘The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life‘.

If you read beyond the highlighted text, you’ll get to the phrase – the ‘conspicuous effort’. Where doing things is done for appearances, to demonstrate that things are being done – regardless of how useless or even damaging they are.

We’ve all seen this so many times; few of us seem to understand it. In the Navy, we talked about ‘busy work’ – never be idle when Master Chief is walking by because as squared away as you think you are, Master Chief will find something for you to do.  So we made a conspicuous effort. Better to be doing something than have Master Chief find something for you to do.

Later on in life, with a few decades of work experience behind me in the corporate world, I was focused on my productivity. To be productive as a software engineer, running through permutations in my mind of how something I was fixing or creating would be used and what could go wrong, I would go for walks. My manager at the time caught hell from the executives about seeing me walking around the parking lot, they thought I should be at my desk and hammering things out because that is how they measured productivity. By conspicuous effort.

Meanwhile, I was more interested in doing it right the first time, and with few exceptions, I typically did. Only one thing I wrote actually broke things at that company and it was such a reach that no one understood how my code could have broken anything (it was a compiler problem that I traced in assembly, but to explain it to them). Everything else was solid. The fact that I wasn’t the one getting mentioned all the time for writing buggy code was something that they didn’t notice; the walks in the parking lot were something they saw as being unproductive. If only they knew, or could understand.

I’m surrounded by people who are making conspicuous efforts even now – and some think I should be making a conspicuous effort. Someone will tell me that I need to do this or that with my land immediately, expending effort and resources to simply look like I’m doing things. They’ll look at the pickup covered in mud and dirt and think I should be washing it every day (when I know it will get dirty the next day).

We have a finite amount of time on the planet. We have a finite amount of energy in our bodies – when we’re young, we think otherwise. There’s only so much we can do.

Wasting it on useless conspicuous effort… is wasting it.  And it can do more harm than good.

Be productive. That keeps you busy enough. Trust me on this.

Temporal Progression.

Future Past + PresenceWe are surrounded by people who think time is their master when, really, it’s quite the other way around. We drive time, we push it forward with our every breath – and how we spend it is telling.

Back in 2006, I lived a year without a watch – on purpose. It changed me; I slept better, I ate better, I was in all actuality more productive once I stopped trying to be busy but instead productive.

This past year, I saw it quite a bit. I stayed with some people for a period, and while I did I would check in and do things like ask if they wanted pizza when I returned home. They never said no, and yet when I returned they would show up, grab a slice of pizza and leave – leaving me instead to stare at a box of pizza minus their slices. The idea of spending time together seems to be alien for people only a decade younger than myself. Maybe it’s just me.

These past holidays, I saw people I don’t often see, and while sitting there I found myself watching them stare at their phones. The last visit, I found myself not only staring at my phone but grabbing a book to occupy myself while they stared at their phones. On driving home, after repeatedly going out of my way to see them, I decided that I wouldn’t let that happen again. It’s a waste of…

We’re alive, drawing breath, chasing rainbows most of the time because people before us told us we should. We ignore what’s right in front of us; when the people in front of us are not relevant we’re in the wrong place. When the people in front of us don’t think we’re relevant, we’re not in the right place.

If we pay attention, we have more time than we think. For example, I have more time to write than I think – always – not measured in seconds, minutes, or hours, but instead in what I can write. When we as a society figure out how to transcend time, and be in the right place at the right time, the moments we spend will have value. Yet generations have grown up in front of flat screens, just as my generation grew up in front of televisions.

This, some think, is progress.


Some treess are allowed to grow straight -a tree might have stable light, stable water, stable ingredients with no tropisms that would cause them to twist. They are not safe; they are cut industriously to make other things by the toolmakers, to build things. This is so true that they are grown for that purpose, to be used for industry like so many other things. Their corpses are to be found straight and true somewhere, sometimes bent, hammered, screwed…

And then there are the survivors, those whose circumstances twist them, winds might break them, rivers may wash them away – their bones persist, washed into an ocean, their roughness worn away by the incessant massage of ocean currents and waves, their character revealed in the process.

People do not collect straight pieces of wood, they are not drawn to them – they are drawn to the gnarled and twisted driftwoods.

And yet society tries to cultivate people straight and narrow, repelled by that which is twisted until it’s character is revealed years later when it no longer lives.


Do You Want to Fall in Love She AskedA strange thing, time. It’s our way of explaining things, of looking at the past and the future. It connects us and disconnects us.

The concept of time varies by culture.

We don’t think enough about something that has such control over the way we deal with our lives – and how ‘time’ varies with people we interact with in a global community.

They say that time heals, but if time heals it’s by transporting us to somewhere else – sometime else – where things are different. It’s not time that changed, it’s our environment – internal and external – that changes, and we mark it in our own versions of time.

And if we remove time altogether, we flatten our lives into a summary of all the interactions we’ve had and how we’ve interacted with it.

The living call this death.

Without Time

We are creatures of time, of heartbeats, of solar rotations and lunar rotations all affected by things that, if we dedicate our human lives to it, we can only map partially. There are people who dedicate their lives to standing on the shoulders of previous giants, peering further into the murky depths of our reality. And then we have others, dedicating their lives to attempting to assure that we as a species survive, while we have others that allow us to grapple with the uncertainty of being human.

What we do in time is interact. We interact with each other. We interact with our environment, be it moving stones or working collectively to visit the Moon. The harsh word here, the pat on the back there, the clearing of a drain or the tossing of refuse  in it – we all interconnect, and all of these things happen over time. How we grow. How we change. How we do these things as individuals, and how we do these things as societies, and how we do these things as a species.

We measure ourselves by time, but when we die time no longer exists for us and we become summarized by the universe in the actions we took and didn’t take. A life well intended is not always well spent, where we might think we’re doing something good when, generations later, we find that it was wrong. We make the best decisions we can with the information we have and, if we are intelligent, we know we don’t have all the information – that we’re just winging it. And if that bothers us, we look to comfort rather than answers. Fragile, we’re so fragile.

Remove time; that we are living or dead only matters to us – no one else, nothing else, we are the ants under the child’s magnifying glass at most and the ant you don’t see while walking around. We are affected by things that we do not understand and we affect things that we do not understand.

Without time, we simply used energy to use energy.

Without time, we are nothing, and with time, we become nothing. We are agents of change on the things around us.

We are as real as the wind; alone we are nothing, together we are a passing breeze on the universe, a force of nature. Temporary permutations of particles looking for meaning in a universe that has already defined us.

A Stitch In Time Saves Mind.

A Heart Sewn Back TogetherWe are bits and pieces, sewn together across time all the while unraveling. Life is a calculus, a rate of change where we are sewn together faster than we unravel.

It’s odd that we pull our own threads just as we pick at scabs. We know not to do it, but it’s as if we want to see what’s inside. We’re uncomfortable with healing, the fresh stitches itch.

Maybe we worry about infection, and in doing so sometimes we cause it.

However it ends up, we’re constantly fixing ourselves as we unravel. Time always wins, in the backs of our minds we know this. No amount of new medical advances take that away, and can we possibly live longer than we’re supposed to? But, we’ll say, we can’t possibly live longer than we’re supposed to – a circular logic. An attempt at perpetual motion with logic.

I’m stitched together across time. Across geography. Across worlds that people isolate themselves in with their groups, their cultures, and I watch those worlds and wonder how long they can exist – and when I think that these worlds will converge. There is leakage here and there, but the bubbled worlds remain – their surface tension defying everything.

“Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquiring of knowledge, and that much happier than man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.”  – Mary Shelly, Frankenstein (1918).

And these worlds, stitched together, form my world, which, stitched to other worlds… and at some point, the calculus of Life will unravel them too.

And there are days when I’m not sure whether I should pull on a thread or man the needle.

Today has been such a day.

Beneath The Wheel

The Old Town Astronomical ClockWe are all beneath the wheel, the crush of time, the prolapse of our minds and souls as things change around us.

A Snapshot

The teenager man-boy, a quotient of a fractured home, tries to find his way to manhood in an alien environment where someone who cared enough gave him a roof with conditions, walls with rules, and a freedom to be responsible where before he had none.

He works in the yard under the mock disdain of an elderly gentleman who did not invite the project, but who in his own way wants the best for the young man, suffering the indifference of the teenager to his words.

I am a visitor in this realm, as with most other realms, and I’m supposed to have some purpose here – which, of course, is to find my purpose there, as it is anywhere.

Time is not on the side of anyone.

The elderly man, who we’ll call grandfather, thinks of his downhill slope to the grave. It sits behind his eyes as he looks over the world in front of him – as if it were a story he has seen before, worn, lucid, tired.

The boy – let’s call him the nephew – does not understand that when I look at him, I think of this quotation and ponder:

When a tree is polled, it will sprout new shoots nearer it’s roots. A soul that is ruined in the bud will frequently return to the springtime of it’s beginnings and it’s promise-filled childhood, as though it could discover new hopes and retie the broken threads of life. The shoots grow rapidly and eagerly, but it is only a sham life that will never be a genuine tree. – Hermann Hesse, Beneath The Wheel

He is young and yet he has catching up to do, having missed the starting gun that society fires too often too early for the children it creates.

He is a child in puberty, not yet a young man in mind or spirit. His childhood has not been misplaced, it has been stunted and his misfortune is that given his abilities, he must cast away the slivers of childhood he was left with all the while reshaping into a man before his time. While society creates the children like him, it does not tolerate adults like him.

He feels the crush of the pressure and, being stubborn, pushes back or not at all. He is like a plant that atrophies at the sunlight it needs.

At some point he will bend or he will break, it is the way of the world – a way that is not couched in the anthropomorphized visions  of well intentioned people, but rather the way that is couched in the grand bureaucracies and cultures we use to govern our kind. The same grand bureaucracies and cultures that creates children like him.

And then there I am, an observer and not – an Uncle of sorts, new to his world, young to the older man, trying to have a positive effect all the while considering, thinking about how difficult he was at that age, and how everything that was tried on me didn’t work – and through my own muddlings, I found my answers that became questions of answers, to questions of those, to stand there and not have answers and simply more questions. I see the time short for both, the grandfather and the nephew, and in the reflections of their clocks I see a parallax of my own.

I have no great wisdom to cross the voids, only the knowledge to avoid the cliched mistakes. For self-preservation, I wear the visage of the observer and say things that I hope might make it through in time for the nephew, for he has little time before he too is beneath the crush of the wheel that will only bend him if he learns, but will break him if he does not.

The crush of the world as time ticks onward, and it does not care if you slouch or stand straight. It has no care for what bends or breaks, no empathy, no sympathy. It is the machine, the product of millenia of human generations, an antique as easily found in the basement of humanity as on a museum walls of academia and governance.