As I reflect on the last week of Managed Isolation and Quarantine, I realise that I have once again overestimated my free time in a period without formal work obligations. Despite repeatedly over committing to weekend activities and holiday to-do lists, I have not managed to learn to be conservative about my expectations of time off. When times are busy, side projects and nice-to-dos are easy to set aside, drifting lightly on their low import into amorphous blocks of time like these two weeks of hotel confinement. Having arrived here, the actual number of tasks I’d like to accomplish is overwhelming, and without clear hierarchy. Friends are kindly advising me that after an intense 3 years at ONI, a little seemingly unproductive rest is actually the most productive thing I could be doing, but those sensible comments pale compared with the guilt at not accomplishing what I set out to do. Perhaps next time I will remember this reality, having written about it in place of the topics I would have liked to explore given more time.
Today I’m writing from the tarmac in Singapore, surrounded by people making the journey from Heathrow to Auckland. We are unable to leave the aircraft, isolating to protect the locals from possible transmission of the UK strain. It is strangely familiar to be flying after more than a year; the same Android based entertainment systems, the same tray portioned food, the same cacophony of mewling infants to make sleep a little more difficult. The masks are new, as are the temperature checks, but overall it’s not that different to flights past.
It’s been a particularly strange transition. In some ways, it’s a very sudden change. Yesterday I was in Oxford, tomorrow I’ll be in Auckland, almost opposite sides of the world. The UK has suffered thousands of deaths and is under tight restrictions of movement, life in New Zealand is largely as normal with virtually no cases. Despite the geographic and social change, having worked from home and living out of a suitcase the past few weeks, the coming two weeks in quarantine is likely to feel much the same as my last two weeks in lockdown.
I will deeply miss the community I shared at ONI. In my last few days I was left feeling so deeply appreciated by my friends (who happen to be colleagues) that the words that feel most true are to say I feel loved. Perhaps it has revealed an over investment, emotionally and socially, in my work. I prefer to think of it as having had the privilege to belong in a community of people who shared principles, who inspired me to be better, and who were reliably kind in the face of immense challenge.
I am excited for the adventure to come. Moving is an opportunity to set new goals, find new friends, and attempt to amplify strengths and leave weaknesses behind. It is likely changing countries in the midst of a global pandemic will be the most significant part of this year for me, but I hope that it is just the beginning of something even more meaningful.
It snowed in Oxford this week, and the photo sphere linked below shares a scene of the tow path under fresh snow. As I finish up my work at ONI, I’m taking my first steps into seeking out a new community to work with in New Zealand, and am fortunate to have been included in Batko OS Spotlight 12.
Photos from the Week
I am thankful to enjoy working with really talented people. Musically gifted physicists, roboticist poets, athlete immunologists, and project managing dancers. One significant benefit of spending time with inspiring people is being close enough to see them fail. At a distance, from where we see our heroes and legends, the bar can seem impossibly high. This saps motivation: why attempt the unachievable? Seeing the daily struggle of what it takes to be great, makes it possible. Great people do not only raise the bar, they also set it within reach.
Quote I’m Pondering
“Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other days that ever come can depend on what you do today.”Barack Obama’s Eulogy for John McCain
In captivity, John learned, in ways that few of us ever will, the meaning of those words – how each moment, each day, each choice is a test. And John McCain passed that test – again and again and again. And that’s why, when John spoke of virtues like service, and duty, it didn’t ring hollow. They weren’t just words to him. It was a truth that he had lived, and for which he was prepared to die. It forced even the most cynical to consider what were we doing for our country, what might we risk everything for.
As the Trump coup slowly and painfully fades from the news cycle, Obama’s eulogy for John McCain is a reminder of what leadership can look like, from both sides of politics. This quote is a reminder that from positions of immense power, and crippling powerlessness, not to forget the significance of the immediate decision that is before us.
Photos from the Week
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.Citizenship in a Republic (1910) by Theodore Roosevelt
Delivered at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910.
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.Citizenship in a Republic (1910) by Theodore Roosevelt
Delivered at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910.
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.What does it mean to hold someone accountable? by Jamie Dimon
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.
Photos from the Week
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.
YC Startup Library
A problem I have written about is that the amount of content I can access vastly exceeds my capacity to consume it. The YC Startup Library offers curated resources on startups, and a more efficient way to learn about entrepreneurship than the YouTube suggestion algorithm.
Photo from the Week
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?
Photos of the week
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.
News: Garmin hit by Evil Corp’s WastedLocker
Garmin, maker of a wide variety of GPS related products, has experienced a significant outage this week, which is ongoing at the time of writing. Bleeping Computer reports this is due to a criminal attack holding Garmin’s data to ransom for $10 million. Given Strava recently has been taking criticism from users due to pushing people towards paid subscriptions, Garmin’s trouble here is likely to benefit Strava. It also serves as a reminder to all of us to maintain good back ups of valuable data, and to be wary of single points of failure when there are malicious actors in the world (as well equally damaging benevolent incompetence). Meanwhile I’m going back to manual uploads.
Photos from the Week – Holiday Activities
I’m taking some holiday at the end of this week, and the change in routine is a moment for reflection. I have been thinking about the past years, the progress I’ve made and the things I still need to work on. A goal of this blog is to create posts that are interesting and useful to others, but also to maintain a routine of writing regularly. Moving forward I’ll (try again to) keep these weekly posts brief, and put more time into longer, higher quality posts.
Things that keep me happy
I am happy with my life, and part of that is having developed habits that cultivate happiness.
Regular physical exercise. Days that start with sustained high-heart-rate exertion go better than days that do not.
Meditation and Mindfulness
I’m learning to be more present, more focused, and more aware of my own thoughts. Practising meditation develops these skills.
Knowing what actually happened in the past through written reflection helps me get a better perspective on my own life. I can keep myself accountable, and see a bigger picture to better plan and act.
Taking time to appreciate
When things go well, or are pleasant, taking a little extra time to appreciate having those things in my life makes my usual focus on problems less of an emotional burden.
I am most appreciative to be able to call so many good people my friends.
Things to Share
Zwift runs a virtual Tour de France
The virtual cycling platform that is increasingly filling my strava feed bridges e-sports and traditional sport.
COVID-19 Vaccine News
Initial trial results from the mRNA vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 from NIAID and Moderna.
PhD Students in Australia are suffering:
A survey of students at the University of Sydney shows that already precariously placed PhD students have been pushed off the financial edge by the pandemic.
Photo from the Week:
This week has been challenging, but that is a good thing. I am still overwhelmed, and still happily so. While I struggle and fail at some of my tasks at ONI, in others I am bringing the company closer to achieving its mission. I am reconnecting with friends and family, and helping them where I can, while they help me see my flaws and weaknesses. In physical fitness, I miss the mark in many sessions, but the overall trend is improvement. My discipline is too weak too often, but it is getting stronger.
Does success come at the cost of happiness?
Some incomplete thoughts I would still like to share, with two motivations. 1. By sharing the fears I am uncomfortable with, I become more comfortable and less afraid. Those insecurities become less powerful. 2. I hope that others who suffer the same fears might find my example useful.
A couple years ago I caught up with a friend here in Oxford, who I had worked with in Australia. He asked me about a theory I shared when we worked together in 2014: To succeed you need to be unhappy. I had suggested that contentedness leads to complacency, if you are happy there would be little motivation to work hard. I believed that to truly excel one had to be pushed by some sufficiently powerful force to suffer and sacrifice in pursuit of excellence. The pressure driving me in 2014 was an unpleasant insecurity, and I extrapolated that others’ driving forces would be emotionally negative. Working for several days with little to no sleep hurts. Studying personal failures in detail is unpleasant, but necessary to overcome them. Satisfaction would mean that what was achieved was sufficient, and therefore prevent further progress. To be great, one needed to feel deeply unhappy. At that time I felt that “being clever” something I thought I understood then but now struggle to define, was all important, and I was driven by insecurities around my own intelligence to demonstrate just how clever I was. Taking too many university courses at once, obsessing over intellectually competitive extra-curriculars, and plotting my path towards the meccas of academia.
Nearly 6 years have passed since I espoused those ideas. Only in the past year have I really felt those insecurities melt away. It hurts much less to think about the various failures of the past, in part because the passing of time makes them seem less significant, but much more because the things I value have shifted. I care less about some abstract conception of intelligence, and much more about my actions and processes. Rather than attempting to placate my ego by proving to myself and others that I am clever, I am more detached from how my abilities are seen and more focused on working towards a “good”.
As I stand here, a little excited that this will be my 101st post, I feel happy and content, but also anxious and driven. Life is more pleasurable when time is taken to appreciate the moments of happiness and peace, however or whenever they occur. More than this simple hedonism, these positive emotions help relieve the burden of the pain that comes from growing and struggling to make our world better. I am often distracted, and I view distraction as hesitation or aversion from facing pain. Writing is hard when there is a gap between the initial and desired output; I must face the weakness of my ideas and words. Too much pain is paralysing, but to avoid pain totally gives in to the easy path of complacency.
In short, I still feel that to excel, to grow, to build, requires suffering. That suffering need not be constant, and the desire to suffer can be driven by happiness, and by love, and these positive drivers make the burden of growth all the easier to bear.