The French Onion Soup Test for Futurism.

I appear to have started blogging again. This is for my own self, really, and so I cannot claim it will make sense to anyone else. Still: onwards. 

Like a tribe lost to civilization, I’ve worked for myself for so long I’ve developed my own language, and it’s mostly gibberish to everyone else. Then I lose track of which vocab is which, and end up confusing everyone. For all the poor souls who have heard me talk about The French Onion Soup Test recently, I apologize. Turns out that’s only a thing in my head.

But it might be useful for you, so here we are. The French Onion Soup Test started as a test for cookbooks. Should you find yourself leafing through a cookbook, thinking of buying it, turn to the recipe for French Onion Soup, and see how long it quotes for the caramelizing of the onions. As Tom Scocca wrote in Slate back in 2012, seeding this in my mind,  most cookbooks are total bullshitters when it comes to this. They’ll quote ten minutes, when it’s actually more than an hour. 

One cannot help suspect that the French Onion Soup test means that the recipe either hasn’t been tried by the author, or that they feel the need to sell it to the reader in some curious way. Which is weird, because you realize just how wrong the recipe is the first time you cook it. (French Onion Soup done right, by the way, takes all damn day. It is worth it, but…yeah…)

Anyway this, it turns out, is a really useful test for technology, and especially for thought-stopping jargon-nouns. Substitute “cook the onions for five minutes until they’re brown and softened” with “by using the Blockchain” or “utilizing the power of deep learning”, or whatever other Futurist product you find yourself examining, and you can possibly see the technique in action. Ask yourself, is this scenario passing the French Onion Soup Test or not? If not, maybe the whole cookbook is wrong.

For the record, Thomas Keller’s recipe is tremendous.


French Onion Soup

Augmentation Complex Systems Wearables

Right Effort, Right Interface

So here’s irony. If I stare straight ahead right now, all I can see are screens. My new desk, with my new monitor setup, takes up almost all of my field of view, and yet, as luxurious as this is, it’s lead me to hours at a time away from screens altogether.

Here’s the thing: while for some types of work, two (or, swoon, three) big monitors and some associated ergonomically enhancing desk set up would seem to be the thing, (see Multiple Screens and Devices in an Information-rich Environment, for example), I’m profoundly loathe to sit at a desk all day. I live in Southern California, and there’s sunshine I don’t want to miss out on.

Moreover the years of following a GTD practice have lead me to realize the power of breaking my work up into chunks of, so to say, right-thing, right-place, right time. Being able to escape one form of computing, and with it, the form of thinking that is implied and enforced by those tools, is a powerful technique.

At the same time, as a student of Zen Buddhism, I’m trying to pay attention, in a very active sense, to what I do as a daily practice in all parts of my life. Right now, it’s the Spring Practice Period at the San Francisco Zen Center, (I’m attending online from down here in LA), and the theme this season is Wise Effort. The associated meditations have me thinking on this anew, and from there, in part, on how much time I spend on my phone.

Every morning, for example, I take my daughter to school, and we stop off for coffee/steamed milk on the way. Too often have I caught myself engaging with Twitter rather than with her during those brief minutes, and that doesn’t require exquisite Zen training to uncover as not-ideal for either of us.

So for the past few weeks, I’ve been wrapping my phone up in a cloth, furoshiki-style, and putting it into my bag. The added friction of getting it out, unwrapping it, turning it back on, et-connecting-cetera, takes away the quick hit of checking notifications, and the inevitable in-suck from there. It works well.

So far, so digital-detox middle-aged-angst. But it has lead to something new.

I need to work on my 風呂敷 technique.

I need to work on my 風呂敷 technique.

Leaving my phone wrapped up is anxiety-driving, because while I know my own work schedule well enough, there’s always an ego-driven part of the brain that thinks I’m an air-traffic controller with a part-time heart surgery practice. Those neurons want me to check my inbox on a regular basis, just to make sure I’m not being called into action for something that has to happen right now now now. By, you know, something on Twitter.  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

This is bollocks, obviously, but it’s nonetheless an itch that needs to be scratched. Combine it with my podcast-listening habit, and you have two major drives pulling on me to unwrap the thing, so to pull it out every few minutes.

But I don’t. I’ve defaulted to my watch as my primary mobile platform. Podcasts I can get, after installing Outcast for Apple Watch, and the rest of my super urgent messages and pushes can be relied on to come through just fine. (Which is to say, never, as I’m not a coastguard).

Thus becalmed, my brain can get on with other stuff. And here’s the new thing. As I mentioned on Twitter yesterday as part of a thread started by the splendid @hondanhon by defaulting to a new, tiny, platform, I’m forced to use its features more deeply. Turns out, they’re really good: 

Many of my work tasks, it seems, are much better suited by combining the pens and paper of my choice with Siri-based interaction with my watch via AirPods. While my desktop machine has a whole monitor dedicated to my inboxes, Omnifocus, and calendar, and my weekly review is for sure a multiscreen activity, if I’m planning a talk, for example, I just need to send quick messages and drop reminders to myself. I can do that, and even some pretty nice long-form dictation into Evernote, from Siri. I’m both connected to my IT-ecosystem, and pleasingly untethered from it.

Is it the perfect platform for the entire day? No. But it does speak to an interesting trend. As my phone gets ever more powerful, there’s sometimes a feeling that it’s too powerful to be brought out without proper psychological preparation. It’s too moreish a device to just have in my pocket, and most of the time I have no operational need for it to be quick-draw holstered there either.

And also, voice interfaces are pretty good – the household menagerie of smart speakers speak to that already – and offer a new way of interacting that doesn’t require eyes or fingers. In the kitchen, or the bedroom, a quiet work to an Alexa is almost always cognitively appropriate to the computational task at hand.

That’s what I suppose I’m searching for here: matching an appropriateness of interface to the task, rather than matching my tasks to the interface I have in front of me: deciding what to do based on priorities other than what technology I am sat with. This could involve breaking habits I didn’t know I had. Or, at least, having to become aware of how much my available toolset shapes my thinking. Let’s see. Onwards.