2020 Week 47: Ego

This weekend I’ve been thinking and reflecting on problems of ego. I have an intuitive but imprecise understanding of the concept, and doing some reading (and YouTube watching) to better understand ego has left me with muddled thoughts. Humility is not the opposite of ego, but arrogance and ego are intertwined. Insecurity, the need for external validation, and overconfidence all seem to be connected to problems with ego. The way to overcome ego seems to be detachment from the individual, focus on upholding principles, and adherence to logic and reason. Sharing some resources:

Freud: Id, Ego, Superego

Jocko: Dichotomy of Ego

2020 Week 46: Wendover Woods

This week I have been thinking about opportunity cost, integrity, and metrics for performance. The opportunity came up to run 20 miles over the beautiful and steep terrain of Wendover Woods, and so having enjoyed fresh air and soft earth, I have not written cohesive thoughts about the intended topics.

Things I particularly enjoyed about trail running:
The technical challenge of judging each foot placement to stay upright.
Great conversation both on the trails and during the rest stops.
Using different muscles compared with the repetitive motion of road running.
Beautiful foliage and clean air.

Photo from the Week

Soft trails of Wendover Woods

2020 Week 45: Dystopia

The world can change so much in a week. The UK went back into lock down. Joe Biden was elected president along with Kamala Harris as the first woman of colour, to become vice president. Drug reform was a unifying force across US elections, while the comparatively progressive New Zealand legalised euthanasia but not marijuana.

I read a book and watched a movie, both set in (different) dystopias.

Dystopian Science Fiction

…as with most of the future worlds in science fiction you’re not talking about the future you’re talking about the present.

Alan Moore – author of comic books Watchmen and V for Vendetta

Brave New World

For a novel that is 88 years old, the future imagined by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World feels remarkably relevant. Soma feels prescient in a world with ever increasing prescriptions of anti-depressants and an opioid epidemic. It poses a question that I have yet to resolve: how to choose if it is better to live a happy and comfortable life, or to suffer in the name of a good cause?

V for Vendetta

On the 5th of November, the start of the UK’s second lockdown, I watched the film adaptation of Alan Moore’s comic series V for Vendetta. Some plot elements felt eerily familiar in the context of a US Presidential election during a global pandemic. As a “Bush-era parable” (see quote below), I found the undertones of the 9/11 Truth movement unpalatable, whilst the reminder of the threat of fascism felt necessary given a US president with a fondness for white supremacists. Valerie’s letter made me cry (for the third time).

[The movie] has been “turned into a Bush-era parable by people too timid to set a political satire in their own country. … It’s a thwarted and frustrated and largely impotent American liberal fantasy of someone with American liberal values standing up against a state run by neoconservatives – which is not what the comic V for Vendetta was about. It was about fascism, it was about anarchy, it was about England.

Alan Moore on the film adaptation of his comic book V for Vendetta

Photo from the Week

2020 Week 44: This is America

Political news is loud this week, as we approach a presidential election in the United States of America, and locally England enters a month long lock down. On Tuesday the US will likely elect Joe Biden to replace Donald Trump as president of the United States. This will make President Biden the oldest person at the start of their presidency, a record currently held by Trump. As the leader of the free world ages, and the polarisation of America’s politics grows more divisive, the ever less inspiring presidential debate becomes ever less relevant. It is in reading about the last four years under President Trump that I realise, uncomfortably, that my future no longer leads to a life in the United States. In this post I explore this idea.

The American Dream

For most of my life, the United States looked to be the leading country in the world. It was an American flag that flew on the moon, Hollywood told stories from the American perspective, American soldiers protected the weak from tyranny, and American universities were home to the world’s leading researchers. I was a high school student when the election of Barack Obama on a platform of hope looked to be a rejection of a racist past. The promise to fix a broken health care system and an acknowledgement of the burden of climate change made me feel optimistic in a world of cynicism following the Iraq War and the financial crisis. I first visited the US in 2012, and was enthralled at the sense of opportunity as I lived on the energising chaos of Silicon Valley Hackerspaces. I think fondly of my time in New York and Boston in 2014, every new relationship a wonderful opportunity to learn. The mix of cultures, of passions, and the uniting desire to do something made me feel that this ought be home.

Hard Work and Sacrifice

Americans work hard. Compared with Europeans and Australasians they take fewer holidays, they work more hours. They set ambitious goals. The technological prowess of the United States is most famously demonstrated by the space program. NASA continues to be science’s most recognisable and captivating brand.

R&D Spending as a proportion of discretionary spending has fallen since the height of the space race.

I have a sense that science no longer occupies the pedestal it once held in the US. Disinformation in the name of free speech, and scepticism without rational thinking, are symptomatic of a failing education system. Whilst migrants are common amongst the top scientific researchers in the US, the Trump administration has made it harder to employ skilled migrants.

Some of the hardest work to be done in the US is mending a racially and politically fractured society. Consider the following:

Racial harmony is not going to come by us holding hands and singing Kumbaya. That understanding has to be earned, it has to be worked for, and there are sacrifices involved and I think that breaking isolation requires work and sacrifice.

Barack Obama speaking at the Cambridge Public Library. 20 September 1995

Obama’s opponent in the 2008 presidential race was John McCain, who sought to quell fears rather than stoke them during his time on the campaign trail.

I have to tell you, he [Obama] is a decent person, and a person that you do not have to be scared of as president of the United States.

Senator John McCain at a rally 10th October 2008

Trump has vindictively and cynically stoked the same racial tensions, and appealed to the worst aspects of the Republican base.

More thoughts to come later.

Photo from the Week

2020 Week 43: Uncertainty

In an exciting week, I’m reminded that science is less about knowing things with certainty, and much more about knowing how to deal with uncertainty. A growing debate amongst scientists regarding the best policies to fight the second wave of the pandemic draws attention to this.

Some things to share:

A scientific debate is in progress about how to deal with COVID-19: The Great Barrington Declaration (proposing less restriction on movement and meeting, particularly among the young and healthy) vs. John Snow Memorandum (favouring tighter lockdowns). A good starting point is this summary from The Economist.

The IKEA effect describes how we like things more when we have a hand in making them. (via Angela Duckworth).

Photo from the Week

A little sunshine over still waters of Oxford’s tow path.

2020 Week 42: Success part 2

Last week I was reflecting (incoherently) on success, and I continue this week with some more examples of what I think success could look like as I try and understand what it should mean for me.

Zanny Minton Beddoes

Editor in chief of The Economist since February 2015, Beddoes is an established economist and one of the most influential voices in financial journalism. In the video above Beddoes describes that at The Economist she leads “some of the smartest people in the world who could almost all be either more famous or a lot richer if they work somewhere else, but yet they choose to work at The Economist.”. Success for me includes a workplace with such a “collegiate spirt” and getting “to think about the most important issues at the moment.”

Angela Merkel

Diagram from Merkel’s Doctoral Thesis on the Quantum Chemistry of Decay Reactions depicting energies of intramolecular conversion for unimolecular reactions.

As Chancellor of Germany for the last 15 years, leading Europe’s largest economy has occasionally made Merkel the de facto leader of the European Union. Along with her political success, Merkel is also a published scientist, receiving a doctorate for work on quantum chemistry.

Catherine Hamlin

File:Dr Catherine Hamlin at the Hamlin Fistula Hospital, Ethiopia 2009. Photo- Lucy Horodny, AusAID (10693376835).jpg
Dr Catherine Hamlin at the Hamlin Fistula Hospital, Ethiopia 2009. Photo- Lucy Horodny, AusAID

Hamlin’s hometown newspaper the Sydney Morning Herald provides an insight into her incredible life of service. Her death was covered by The Lancet, but reading her obituary in The Economist is the last time I remember crying.

Sabrina Gonzalez Pasterski

SGP is a pilot and physicist with an incredible list of achievements, including that her first book is on the moon.

Cathy Freeman

Australia is a sport loving nation with a dark history of abusing its indigenous people. Cathy Freeman not only won an Olympic gold medal, but helped change the way Australians saw the traditional custodians of the land.

Some other things to share

Ryan Caldbeck with some radical transparency on his transition stepping down as CEO of CircleUp. It covers mental health, physical health, board politics, and generally the stress of founding and running a startup.

Yesterday I attended GDG UK and Ireland DevParty, and listened to some great talks on cloud engineering and web development.

Francesca Panetta and Halsey Burgund created an award winning deepfake based on the alternative speech prepared by Nixon in the event of moon disaster.

Startmate celebrated its 10th birthday and first Demo Day featuring a New Zealand cohort.

Photos from the Week

2020 Week 41: Success

I realised I don’t have a clear vision of what success means for me. Reflecting on Leading by Alex Ferguson last week, his career as a football manager was a success, but it is not a type of success I am pursuing. I am fortunate to regularly meet people who impress me; by what they have achieved, by their conviction in their beliefs, by the clarity of their vision, or simply by the goodness of their actions. This was one such week, and it gave me pause to reflect on what my definition of success is.

Writing this post sent me spiralling into several topics, from classical philosophy to hip hop, from pure mathematics to politics, and from the very personal to the pragmatically populist. Below are some of the more coherent strands to share as a starting point.

Exercises to try

I think a conception of personal success is intimately connected with values. Angela Duckworth is successful, and shares these three tips on reflecting on your values.

Start with the basics

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Whilst acknowledged by Maslow himself to have little scientific basis, this simple model (pictured above) for the needs of any person are a valuable reminder of the privileges I enjoy. For most of the existence of homo-sapiens, “success” was simply meeting basic physiological needs. I enjoy that my basic and psychological needs are almost always met, and can define my version of success at that final stage of achieving potential and creating.

Hard work (Obsession)

I do not give up” – this is the thought I come back to when I feel the desire to quit, usually while exercising hard. Living this identity is part of how I imagine success.

There are two related elements here. I think Alex Ferguson had the obsession for football that matches Paul Graham’s Bus Ticket Theory of Genius. Obsession can look very similar to hard work, but there is a separate satisfaction that I have found easiest to learn in physical exercise. To me, success looks like being the hardest worker in the room:

Being an Interesting Person

A close friend shared an insight several years ago, “Nick, you don’t want to be generally liked, you want the respect of people you respect”. It is valuable when people you trust can share an external perspective. Some common markers of success are easily quantified: dollars in the bank, gold medals, or even social media followers. How interesting one is, or how well respected, is difficult to quantify. Perhaps this is why those other, shallower, metrics are more often compared and pursued. This weekend while running I happened to meet someone I respect, who expressed happiness to see me. For now, being able to bring joy to my friends is a way I feel successful.

Prizes

This week the Nobel Prizes were awarded, and I suspect winning one is a dream most scientists have dreamt. The criteria for the Rhodes Scholarship have inspired some of my pursuits, particularly attempting to become a “renaissance man“. I will never achieve either accolade, but they are not ends in and of themselves, rather ways of recognising a certain conception of success that I can still work towards.

Masculinity

Barack Obama and Steph Curry answer a question of how to change the narrative around what it means to be a man. Achieving self confidence is part of my vision for success, as is using strength to lift others up and not put them down. Expression of sexuality through healthy sexual relationships is also an important part of what a successful life means to me, and Barack and Michelle Obama demonstrate that, albeit heteronormatively.

Things I don’t want

Running a bank on Wall Street is not my conception of success, but I do aspire to build something useful and strong enough to outlive me. I would be proud to have The Economist consider my succession worthy of a significant briefing (The house that Jamie built – Is Dimon’s work done at JPMorgan Chase?).

I value both the utility and aesthetic of mathematics, and solving one of the Millennium Problems would absolutely meet my definition of success, but I would not be willing to pay the cost of living a reclusive life like Grigori Perelman.

Similarly Bobby Fischer achieved incredible success in chess, but suffered from a range of personal problems and health issues that ultimately leave his life as a whole undesirable to me.

Steve Jobs’ vision defined the way the world interacts with technology today, but his death (caused by a treatable pancreatic cancer) was hastened by pursuing alternative medicine.

Rapper Eminem and runner David Goggins have both overcome difficult childhoods to succeed, and to achieve success without privilege is admirable. I do not desire celebrity, nor to court controversy and exist in a social media spotlight.

Photos from the Week

2020 Week 40: Fourth Quarter

Turning the corner into October and the final quarter of 2020 this week, with generally a positive outlook both personally and professionally. ONI launched a new website and hiring is beginning to accelerate out of the uncertainty created by the pandemic.

Football Leadership

I shared some notes about Leading by Alex Ferguson. I’ve largely been an outsider to football culture, and so this book has been my most significant exposure to The Beautiful Game. Reading about legends Ronaldo and Rooney from their manager’s perspective reminded me of the following ad (directed by Guy Ritchie).

Habit Update

12 days have passed since I started the Last Hundred Days habit project. I’m measuring an 88% success rate at present. The failures are causing embarrassment, but the overall direction is positive, with my behaviour generally improving.

2020 Week 39: Changes to Make

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.

Some things to share:

TEA Framework

I stumbled upon a blog post from Asian Efficiency that segments productivity into 3 elements; Time, Energy, and Attention. I had not really considered the components of productive time before, and this is a compelling segmentation.

Strava Metro

Strava Metro uses data from human powered commuters to help urban planners and advocacy groups design for healthier, more sustainable cities.

Photos from the Week

2020 Week 38: I’m Bad at Holidays

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

100 Days

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.

Time Ratios

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.

Obsession

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.

Photos from the Week