This week I started a project to change my habits over the last one hundred days of 2020. Most of these habits are tangible activities, but in my personal development I also need to shift some mental frameworks. My thinking tends to be overly binary, or too focused on questions that are difficult to answer but ultimately unimportant. Thoughts to expand on another time.
How does one procrastinate on holiday? I took this week off work, with the weekends either side giving a total of 9 days for rest and recuperation. Somehow I don’t feel particularly rested or recuperated as I write this. I was aware at the start that I would need to deliberately focus on taking time off, else the fascination with my work would keep me flitting into and out of tasks yet undone. That awareness was not followed with action: I managed to simultaneously not disengage enough to benefit, but also not to be productive enough to return tomorrow with an empty in box and a clear to-do list. Some habits are hard to break.
Two Thoughts on Time
There are 102 days left in 2020. This coming Wednesday 23rd September marks the first of the final 100 days of the year, and in a year featuring a US presidential election, the significance of 100 days is prominent. Locally, it feels alarmingly short, yet long enough to attempt some ambitious goals. I hope to follow this post up with some promises by Tuesday evening.
I feel my intuition for currency is clearer and more comparative than my intuition for time. Asking if an activity or pursuit is “worth it”, or for someone to “prove their worth”, or even if something is “worth their time”, all conflates time with some type of quantifiable value. Perhaps an alternative way to consider individuals and their time is the extent to which they support or are supported in hours. Fiat currency can be created, and the amount of currency is substantially less than the value of things in the world. People, and thus people-hours, are not so easy to create. Every day, every person has the same 24 hour span to use. Some give more hours to society, by supporting others, while others who are supported consume. This is an idea I would like to explore further.
This week I finished Leading by Alex Ferguson and Michael Moritz. Among detailed lessons in achieving football dominance, what stands out is Ferguson’s discipline and obsession. The discipline to outwork his staff and his competition, fuelled by an obsessive passion for football. Paul Graham describes the necessity of obsession in his Bus Ticket Theory of Genius, and I am growing to believe it is a necessity of becoming truly world-class in any pursuit. Of course, there are many people who follow football fanatically, so if this is a truly necessary requirement for success, it is not the only one.
Working with people in a scientific context, I’ve noticed a disparity between the precision offered by language and the concepts it communicates. Physical parameters such as heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure, oxygen saturation, and white blood cell count can all be measure and conveyed, which will give an indication of someone’s physical health. Scientific concepts such as the Brillouin zone may not be commonly discussed, but when communicated there is a precise understanding being shared. Concepts such as love, stress, and pain, are much more frequently discussed, but it difficult to ensure what is being expressed by the speaker is also being understood by the listeners. In some conversations, it is easy to remove ambiguity through numbers: “it was a heavy bag” becomes “it was a 30 kg bag” or “the car was driving fast” becomes “the car was driving 100 km/h”. In contrast, I am yet to learn how to make “the cut hurt” or “they love her” more precise.
Starting something new is hard. Elon Musk describes founding a startup as “like eating glass and staring into the abyss“. In trying to better understand stress I found this NASA technical report describing the effect of stress on human cognition. It begins with the difficulty of defining what “stress” actually is, and the document as a whole serves as an example of the difficulty of bringing scientific precision to a commonly understood concept.
Energy and power are more accurately described than emotional states. This paper titled Human power (HP) as a viable electricity portfolio option below 20 W/Capita includes a numerical description of the amount of power (i.e energy per unit time) that a human can exert. Novice runners often start out too fast, and thus feel they “cannot run for more than 10 minutes”. The chart below explains this: the power output that is comfortable for around 1 minute (e.g. rushing for a bus) is unsustainable for a longer effort.
Creating copy, companies, or cultures, produces imperfect products. I am grateful to have autonomy in the creative environment of a startup, but so much of what I produce is so very flawed. I seek to balance a necessary awareness of my failures with motivation to carry on in spite of them.
Quote I’m Pondering:
It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by the dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions and spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.
The quote celebrates action, commitment to an attempt. It places failure above inaction, where cynically one could argue that to have tried and failed has the same outcome as not having tried at all. It is encouraging, it inspires action and the continuation of action in spite of criticism.
While I have heard “the man in the arena” quoted in several places, I found the preceding passage of the Bull Moose’s speech interesting:
Let the man of learning, the man of lettered leisure, beware of that queer and cheap temptation to pose to himself and to others as a cynic, as the man who has outgrown emotions and beliefs, the man to whom good and evil are as one. The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer. There are many men who feel a kind of twisted pride in cynicism; there are many who confine themselves to criticism of the way others do what they themselves dare not even attempt.
Over the last few years I have been striving to better respect and understand my emotions, and to hold myself true to worthy beliefs. This quote resonated with me as a criticism of my earlier self, with much less respect for emotion and a much more nihilistic view of belief. It is tempting in today’s political media landscape to take on that cynical view. Perhaps, philosophically, all systems of value are equally justifiable. Perhaps emotions can leave one vulnerable to irrationality and pain. One could maybe live a more comfortable life by facing it with a sneer of indifference. I would rather be marred by dust, sweat and blood, and to have dared in service of a worthy cause.
Don’t Shave the Truth
If you want to be known as honest, then not telling lies is not sufficient… don’t even shave the truth.
In a speech on accountability, it is a useful reminder that to be honest takes more than just saying true things, it is considering how a message is received, it is working to ensure that truths are not told so as to imply a lie.
This week I’m sharing a quote, a tweet, and a library.
Quote I’m Pondering
“The faintest ink is more powerful than the strongest memory.“
Human memory is fallible, where written notes do not forget. The quote encourages note taking, but implementing that lesson is not trivial. As the exercise of observing a candle can demonstrate, a common occurrence can give rise to tens of distinct observations. Time is finite, and so is the detail in which notes can be taken. I tend to take comprehensive notes inconsistently, which suggests that I attempt an unsustainable level of detail. Ultimately the value of memory or note taking to a situation that has not yet occurred is unknown.
Problems in Science
Science can seem apolitical from the outside, it is often perceived as a rational and collaborative exercise in furthering understanding of the natural world. In reality humans, their endeavours, and the systems they build to achieve them, are all flawed. The incentives of academic research prioritise production of highly cited research papers, creating races to publish ideas first, which ultimately stifles collaboration and sharing. This tweet shares the story of an observation stolen by a visiting professor. The subsequent conversation between scientists in the thread reveals a nasty and paranoid reality of scientific research.
I’ve been doing some 30 Year Thinking, and after some difficult conversations I condensed one aspect of my personality: I enjoy asking difficult questions. I like to poke and prod at an idea, sometimes callously, in a relentless search for truth. I want to understand why. That energises me, where it might drain others.
Over the last few weeks I’ve been focusing on process, rather than outcome. Optimising my routine and input to work, especially when the output of that work is inherently probabilistic, avoids the emotional rush and crash of success and failure.
In order to optimise, I like to collect data. I measure how long it takes me to perform tasks throughout the day, which approaches succeed more often, which channels and sources are more fruitful. That optimisation, though generally useful, can become a distraction. When I become more upset at a failure to collect data than a failure to deliver an outcome, it is a sign I have lost focus.
In noticing this, while keeping track and optimising are important, that cannot replace awareness of the actual desired outcome. Do not let excitement about tools and processes distract from the simple question: am I getting closer to my goal?
I’m thankful that my physical and mental health are good. Time spent around writing leads me to explore interesting ideas, but the actual output (this post) is relatively unsatisfying. Maintaining the habit of posting weekly feels important though, so as usual, some partially refined ideas:
I was reminded to take ownership of certain projects this week. It is advice I am primed to hear, but even having accepted it, the actions needed are not trivial. It requires overcoming ego, as Jocko describes in an early chapter of Extreme Ownership. The idea, also presented in the quote below, implies a certain arrogance, but I feel it can be accomplished with humility.
“There is only one means of salvation, then take yourself and make yourself responsible for all men’s sins, that is the truth, you know, friends, for as soon as you sincerely make yourself responsible for everything and for all men, you will see at once that it is really so, and that you are to blame for every one and for all things.”
On the topic of ego; this heartwarming 51 second video from Clay Tall Stories also points out how ego can be dangerous. I hope that content like this can defeat the stigma of talking about mental health that exists in so many parts of the world.
Thoughts Better Expressed as Charts
A joy of studying and thinking mathematically is that functions (easily visualised as plots or charts) express relationships. By identifying functions that approximate (model) real world experiences, an optimal outcome can be predicted. I describe two examples that came up this week.
Discontinuity: Sudden Drop Offs
One of the most familiar relationships is the straight line, linearity. If we travel at a fixed speed (e.g. our walking speed) going twice as far takes twice as long, and three times as far takes us three times as long. If we are moving bricks, the more time we spend moving them the more bricks we shift. Sometimes though, there is a discontinuity, a sudden change in output.
Examples (Be wary of the discontinuities in life): 1. If we consider the example of moving bricks, the more bricks we carry per trip, the faster we move them, until the load becomes too heavy to move and we are stuck. 2. I can read so many articles per day, but after a certain point I no longer am able to remember what I am reading. 3. I can physically train so many hours, but after a certain point over-training leads to injury and I would have been better not doing any at all.
Linear Expectations Meet Logarithmic Reality
Because linearity is common and familiar, it can become an expectation, but in fact often each additional amount of effort or cost spent may offer less and less. Notably in the plot above, if linearity is the expectation, and the actual relationship is logarithmic, the difference (expectation – reality = disappointment) increases approximately linearly.
Example: The first book I read on a topic gives me a lot of information, but each additional book has more and more overlap with content I have already consumed. This means that even though the trend is to know an area of knowledge better, I learn less and less with each subsequent hour spent reading. If I expect to continue learning as rapidly as in those initial hours, days, or months as in the subsequent ones, I will be disappointed.
Predictions on Remote Working in 2001 from 1976
I am trying to better apply hypothesis testing to my own life, so it is amusing to see the predictions made 44 years ago around remote work and computing knowing how there has been a rapid acceleration in 2020 due to the pandemic.
It is joyful that, having run thousands of kilometres in Oxford, I continue to discover new routes that are fun, beautiful, challenging, and sometimes all three. This week was the first time I ran through Lye Valley Nature Reserve and Mesopotamia, Oxford.
Adrenaline is not the friend of efficient work. I had some exciting events occur this week, but as thrilling as they were, they cost a lot in disrupting and distracting from the routine.
Things take longer to read when you have less familiarity with them. I was surprised how long it took me to read a friends manuscript this week. I suspect that there is a parabolic curve on the [amount learned] vs. [time spent] graph. There is an optimal level of novelty where ideas are able to be grasped but not already understood, and the further away from that point the faster the intellectual returns diminish.
Living in a different timezone
A friend is working in a drastically different timezone to where they are living during the pandemic. An untested suggestion I made, inspired by the excessive Casey Neistat monitor set-up, is to loop a 24-hour video of a landscape set to be in the timezone of work (and hence sleep). I suspect that the subtle cues of being able to sense the time of day from a landscape help with shifting and living on a different timezone. More trivially, if you have to do this, shift your meals, exercise, caffeine, etc. onto the desired timezone, and black-out windows to prevent being woken by the local time-zone. This is something I’ve only ever had to do for short periods to pre-acclimatise before long distance flights.
I watched Howl’s Moving Castle on the weekend, finding myself repeatedly muttering under my breath “that’s beautiful” at the imagery. One piece of magic featured in the film is a door which, at the turn of a dial, opens onto four different locations. A discussion of the film that followed asked “if you could have a magic door connecting you to four places, where would you choose?”. A cynical answer would be to place doors in two cities with significant air traffic and charge for the teleportation service, e.g. near instant transport from London to Los Angeles. People have gamed real systems in this way. Perhaps the question is really asking “what are your four most important places”, e.g. a family home, your best friends house, your favourite holiday spot, and your place of work. Assuming the freedom to choose where to live, the playful question can have a very serious implication; where is the best place for someone to be?
Friendly reminder: is your data backed up? Maybe you want to check on that.
This week I had the satisfying experience of automating a tedious task and saving myself time by generating reports via Google’s Apps Script. As I am more reliant on cloud services like Google Docs, OneDrive, and Strava, the news this week that Garmin was hit by a ransomware attack is a good reminder to maintain local backups.