The Mental Pivot Newsletter: No.17

In this issue: The calm down chart, a quartet of systems design problems, and a cornucopia of curated links.

I received a wonderful Christmas gift from my 9-year-old son last week. He’s my youngest and still at that innocent age where he isn’t self-conscious when it comes to gift-giving. He enthusiastically makes all his gifts by hand and insists on doing it on his own in absolute secrecy. The results are wonderfully earnest. For instance, he made a Harry Potter wand for his best friend out of paper mâché, crafting glue, and acrylic paint. It took several tries, but the final version was pretty good (he let me examine his results). It was convincing enough that I was compelled to cast a couple of “Wingardium Leviosa” spells with it before he gift-wrapped it.

For my gift, he wrote a short, but very thoughtful letter. Since it resonated with my annual theme of thoughtfulness (see Issue No. 15), I wanted to share it on the newsletter. Here it is:

Merry Christmas Dad, sometimes you get angry at someone and get super mad. I want to help you, so I made you a chart. I hope you use it.

The calm down chart:

  • Take deep breaths

  • Take a short nap

  • Take a walk

  • Read a book

  • Think of something that makes you happy

  • Positive self talk

  • Positive thinking

  • Sit on the couch

  • Take some space

  • Use the bathroom

  • Take some quiet time

I hope you like my chart. Use it every once in a while.

The chart is both appreciated and much needed. I plan to make ample use of it in the coming year.

Also, note to self: consider hiring the kid for a guest post in the future (assuming his compensation rate isn’t excessive).

Happy New Year to everyone reading. Now onto the updates...

This Week’s Pick

Systems Design Explains the World: Avery Pennarun writes about four important but frequently overlooked or poorly considered systems phenomena: 

  • Centralization vs. decentralization

  • Chicken vs. egg problems

  • The second-system effect

  • The innovator’s dilemma 

Systems thinking involves the abstraction of common patterns applicable to many fields and activities (e.g. computer programming, business, government, economics, etc.). Systems design is the implementation and optimization of said patterns. While Pennarun’s piece approaches systems design from the standpoint of computer programming, the universality of system design ideas makes them well worth contemplating for people from all walks of life.

For those who want to delve deeper into the systems thinking rabbit hole, Issue No. 7 has some reading recommendations.

Articles to Read:

  • 100 Tips for a Better Life: Conor Barnes offers a solid compendium of wisdom covering a broad swath of topics (cooking, relationships, success, and more).

  • APIs All the Way Down: APIs (application programming interfaces) drive and accelerate development in the software and information economy. If you are unfamiliar with their importance, Packy McCormick’s write-up offers a solid primer on the topic.

  • The Family with No Fingerprints: In a world where fingerprints are a key biometric identifier (e.g. passports and driver’s licenses), what does one do when a rare genetic mutation leaves you without the requisite marker?

  • How Americans Came to Distrust Science: “In the 1950s and early 1960s, a remarkably broad array of mainline Protestants, humanities scholars, conservative political commentators, and even establishment liberals joined theological conservatives in arguing that science represented a moral, and even existential threat to civilization.”

  • To Make a Building Healthier, Stop Sanitizing Everything: In developed countries, many people spend more than 90% of their time indoors. With buildings posing a significant vector for disease, experts are looking at ways to foster beneficial indoor microbiomes.

  • What If You Could Do It All Over?: New Yorker piece on contemplating the roads untaken. Per Clifford Geertz (anthropologist): “One of the most significant facts about us may finally be that we all begin with the natural equipment to live a thousand kinds of life but end in the end having lived only one.”

  • Writing Without Hedging: Short reminder to omit generalizations and write from personal experience and omit those safety words like “it seems,” “perhaps,” and “I think.” (I know I use these phrases more than I should!)

Odds & Ends:

Technology & Innovation:

  • MuZero: The AI that mastered Go, chess, shogi, and Atari video games without being told the rules. The geniuses at DeepMind keep pushing the state-of-the-art in machine learning forward with their latest learning and planning algorithm. 

  • Japan is developing wooden satellites. The satellite housing would be made of wood with standard electronics on the inside. Possible benefits: (a) wood does not interfere with electromagnetic waves, so the satellite antennae need not be external and (b) the wooden satellite should burn up more reliably upon reentering the atmosphere when de-orbiting. Mostly it’s just cool to imagine wooden boxes spinning around the Earth.

  • Are vertical farms the future? An agricultural-tech startup’s climate-controlled 2-acre indoor farm that uses LED lights and AI to manage environmental conditions is yielding 400 times more food per acre than a conventional outdoor farm. Here’s a video of the farm in action.

Books & Reading:

  • This website has compared all the Goodreads alternatives. If you’re frustrated with Goodreads, the site recommends checking out LibraryThing.

  • If the above link doesn’t provide you with enough Goodreads alternatives, Tom MacWright’s article “The New Reading Stack” offers a few others like Italic Type for virtual bookclubs, and BookMarks for aggregated reviews (the latter earns an immediate browser bookmark from me).

  • NPR’s Book Concierge serves up the “best books of the year” by genre and category for the past 8 years (including those from 2020). I always appreciate recommendation and discovery tools.

  • I had no idea that Zoom backdrops with curated book collections were a thing until I read this article from Politico. There’s a company called Books by the Foot that can help you fill out a bookshelf in a variety of ways. Looking for “distressed earth tones”? It’ll cost you $69.99/foot. Blue books are for the budget-conscious and can be had for a mere $19.99/foot.


  • ProPublica ran a story on the growing beach erosion problem in Hawaii. The crux of the matter are the private seawalls erected to protect million-dollar beachfront properties. While the seawalls might keep property owners’ lot intact, they interfere with beach erosion patterns and result in the destruction of public access beachfront. The article’s visualizations, interactive map, and aerial footage effectively illustrate the issue (a good example of multimedia content done right).

Thank you for subscribing to the Mental Pivot Newsletter. If you enjoy the newsletter, be sure to share it with your friends and spread the word.

I want to be able to deliver a top-notch newsletter to all of you. To that end, I’d love to hear your thoughts on what’s working, what doesn’t, and things you’d like to see more of. You can reach me by replying directly to this email or by adding a comment below

If this newsletter was forwarded to you, visit this link to subscribe.

Alternatively, you can also read the full archive of posts, book notes and link roundups on my blog: