2020 Week 32: Ownership and Plots

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:

Taking Ownership

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.”

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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.

Photos from the Week:

2020 Week 28: Challenge

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.

Photos from the Week

2020 Week 25: Happily Overwhelmed

How am I doing this week? Overwhelmed, but happy. This is a good place to be, the stimulation is driving growth, but lower priority projects (like blogging) suffer. A few thoughts:

Studying Diagrams

This visualisation tool exploring the relationship between academic papers helps leverage our brains’ adaptations for visual pattern recognition to gain insight into unfamiliar fields of study.

Mindset Adopting

Angela Duckworth’s recent post highlights mastery behaviours and their association to the growth mindset.

Awareness Practising

Sometime I only notice a decision after I’ve made it. This is good if the automatic decision is beneficial (exercising first thing in the morning) but bad if the decision is harmful (procrastination). I am returning to practising mindfulness to gain more awareness of these choices.

Photo from the week

Wild strawberries in the garden.

2020 Week 24: New Normal

Tomorrow face coverings will become mandatory on public transport in England. The world is emerging from the shutdown caused by a pandemic. Harvard experimental scientists are returning to their labs. I feel remarkably unaffected: I commute by bicycle, my work continued through the pandemic, my hobbies occur at home or in nature. I have seen those around me grow more eager to return to normal, but for many that may never happen.

Hesitate less – the lesson I’m trying to implement now

I have not slept. Between the acting of a dreadful thing and the first motion, all the interim is like a phantasma or a hideous dream. The genius and the mortal instruments are then in council, and the state of man, like to a little kingdom, suffers then the nature of an insurrection.” (Julius Caesar 2.1.63-71)

I am noting when I hesitate, and attempting to hesitate less. Some decisions are better made after investing time to carefully consider the choice, particularly decisions where the costs are high, but many tasks are made more daunting by postponing them. Fear and doubt build, and the cost to act increases. To get more done, I ought to act with more urgency.

Some things to share:

Books and Blogs
How to choose what to read, or listen to, or discuss? What ideas ought I visit (and subsequently consider, and sometimes write about). It is impossible to read everything. Roughly as many books fit in a shipping container as there are days in 100 years, and content comes in many forms beyond text. In this time of ubiquitous technology and physically distanced communication, each interaction begins with a choice of what content to consume, who to connect with. In a moment I could reach out to someone new, or call a close friend, or read the words of an author long dead and buried. Dwelling too much on that choice might lead to choosing nothing at all (see hesitation above), but making the right choice seems so important.

Too often I choose randomly. Occasionally I come across an abandoned blog, such as “Where’s my backpack?” and I want to study it, fearing the hosting will expire and the content will be lost (though archives of the web exist). On one rare instance I came across a blog and found myself. Part of why I write this blog is to refine and condense my thoughts, but as I approach my 100th post it becomes difficult to recall which topics I have already visited and what I have said about them. Simply to read my own words (of varying quality) now takes significant time. If in this moment your choice was reading my words, thank you, and please share your thoughts with me (my email).

Coffee as a hobby
Manual espresso coffee making process: I don’t use a PID (proportional-integral-derivative) controller, but otherwise my process is pretty similar.

Photos from the Week:

2020 Week 22: Strava and Going to Space

You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” – wisdom attributed to hockey player Wayne Gretzky.

Starting a company and succeeding is a difficult shot to make, but success first requires an attempt. Starting a company that sends people into space, or to another planet, is a shot so difficult as to seem impossible. Yet, as I write this, the draft sits alongside a live stream of US astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken flying the Dragon spacecraft from SpaceX and NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Working at a start-up, and having read Ashlee Vance’s biography of Musk, the feat of carrying two people into space is made far more impressive by knowing how close to failure SpaceX has come. I was especially happy to see the first stage land safely on the drone ship; SpaceX’s compilation of failures has consoled me at the lab when work was not going to plan. In this time of global pandemic, there is something captivating and hopeful about developments in space technology. For more blog content from two people who are actually involved in space, I’d suggest checking out Christine and Casey

Strava: Thoughts on Start-ups, Running, Micro-blogging, and Numbers

I use Strava as a training log, social-media, and micro-blog platform.

Strava
Strava is many things. To me, it is first my logbook for exercise and training. It is also a social media channel. I can see the training logs of my friends, colleagues, and a few athletes who inspire me. We share photos, and sometimes brief notes, from sessions. As I train for the Edinburgh marathon, Strava is where I micro-blog about running.

Strava is also a company, and for 180 people in the US and UK, it is where they go to work. Strava is a late stage start-up, and as they recently announced, Strava is currently not profitable. That announcement, alongside changes to features free and paid users have access too, is covered in depth by DCRainmaker, perhaps the definitive fitness-tech blogger.

Startups, expectations, and the internet
People expect stuff online to be free, especially if it was free in the past. Tweets at Strava about the changes show a user base upset by a company moving free features behind a paywall, despite providing most of their service (tracking exercise) for free. Google and Facebook, with users in the billions, use advertising to keep their services free for users, but this creates a gap between the desires of the consumers and the paying customers of the platform. That gap can have significant harms, such as political polarisation and the subsequent shift by major parties to policy extremes (suggested reading: Facebook did an internal study on this and decided not to act on it).

Rather than appeal to advertisers or users to pay, many startups simply subsidise their services with investors’ money in order to grow their total number of users. Uber and Lyft lose money on rides in the hope of gaining a profitable monopoly. When delivery services subsidise the cost of food, it creates interesting arbitrage opportunities.

Returning to “Going to Space” Paypal (alongside fin-tech start ups today established financial firms alike) literally pays users to sign up for a free service, and that strategy led Elon Musk from sleeping in his office with one computer to controlling multi-billion-dollar aerospace and automotive companies (and still sleeping in his office).

Finishing time distribution of marathon races from marastats.com

Numbers
Things we can quantify are motivating. People think a lot about their weight, because it is a number that is perceived as a proxy for health or attractiveness. Marathon finishing times tend to cluster at just under “round number” finishing times as people push to get in below their goal time. Today I planned my run to achieve 2000 m of climbing in May, and would have been upset (or probably gone for an extra run) if I had come in to see only 1998 m. Financial numbers (personal savings, or the valuation of a home, or personal income, or the value of a company) are often felt as proxies for success, or safety.

I’ve recently noticed that if I keep my step count visible on my watch, I am actually motivated to take extra walks, despite regularly exercising beyond the need to walk further in a day. The lesson to me is to be careful about which numbers I make more visible, and therefore tend to optimise for. It’s not just counting the shots you take and the shots you make, it’s also choosing carefully which game to play.

Photos from the Week: Shotover Mornings

2020 Week 20: Professional Interactions

It has been a week filled with conversations. I spend a lot of time in my new role talking to people, some of whom I have worked with for years now and others who I am meeting for the first time. I have relished the opportunity to learn so much from so many, and I hope I am able to offer some insight in return.

Don’t lie to your dentist

People lie about flossing to the dentists providing them a service, and that bug of human behaviour is important to understand generally, and overcome personally. Rational adults, when asked by their own health care professionals about their behaviour, will provide inaccurate information. That information is intended to guide a decision that will affect the patient, so the incentive is for the patient to provide accurate information to receive the best possible care. Yet the desire to provide the answer they feel is “correct” overcomes their own interests. I would imagine similarly people tend to underestimate their drinking and smoking, and overestimate their exercise habits, when visiting their doctors.

Deception is a complex topic. All acting is based on the ability to assume an identity that is not ones own. The Economist lauds the benefits of teaching your children how to bluff. But deception, particularly financial or sexual, can destroy relationships. In this specific instance though, the harm of the dishonesty accrues directly to the person being dishonest, and yet the self-harm occurs. My guess would be that the combination of guilt, the desire to please, and a misunderstanding of the underlying reason for the question, combine to create a sense that providing the “socially acceptable” answer is more important than the truth. The frequency of instances of such behaviour suggests that those motivating factors are common.

Office Emotions

In the (thankfully distant) past, I have suppressed negative emotions in an attempt to overcome them, and while there were some short term benefits, the overall effect was detrimental as the deeper causal issues were ignored. Generally places of work expect employees to “act professional”, i.e. without consideration or expression of individual emotion. This is flawed on several counts, it is difficult to do, it constrains identities, and it diminishes the ability to build trust between colleagues that can be so vital for well functioning teams. There is of course a dichotomy, too much unconstrained emotion can lead to disruption of a team’s work, and places difficult burdens on others. Something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is where the optimal position is on this, an environment that has positive relationships and provides emotional support, without spreading the (inevitable) negative experiences of an individual throughout the organisation.

Photo from the Week

Cows crossing Port Meadow

2020 Week 19: Wasting Time

In my new role as a People Growth Engineer, I am decoupled from the schedule of experimental science. Any loss of productive time is now on me, and it has been revealing. The single biggest reason I waste time is because I feel negative emotions, and want something to distract from that. The negative emotions I most feel are variations on fear: fear that I am not good enough (insecurities) fear of failure, fear of losing the respect of my peers (embarrassment). It is easy to set aside my emotions briefly, but I also have behaviours that reveal the underlying feelings; being too abrasive in my answers to questions, eating when I am not hungry, looking for validation in my training statistics. In order to truly not waste time, I have to feel confident enough to enjoy what I am doing, but not so confident that I blindly make mistakes. For now, I can focus on the idea that simply by being less afraid, I can waste less time, I can improve, and so I will have less to fear.

The Price of Oil

On 20 April 2020 a futures contract for crude oil traded at -$40.32 a barrel (a negative value). That is not an intuitive event, and some explanation can be found in this article. One note that stood out is that Andy Hall, a “legendary oil trader” says of the oil prices “I do still watch it every day”. It resonates with some of what I have been reading about how necessary obsessive habits are for world-class performance.

Advice

In my feed this week was 68-bits-of-unsolicited-advice from Kevin Kelly on his 68th birthday. They vary from trifling “Don’t trust all-purpose glue” to historic “Never get involved in a land war in Asia.” to more profound ideas like “Anything real begins with the fiction of what could be. Imagination is therefore the most potent force in the universe, and a skill you can get better at. It’s the one skill in life that benefits from ignoring what everyone else knows.”. I found it a useful list to consider, and hope that should I see my 68th birthday, I will have useful ideas to share.

Stakhanovite

When the Editor-in-Chief of The Economist described her illustrator as “Stakhanovite”, I learnt a new word for “an exceptionally hard working or productive person”. This BBC article summarises the story of Alexei Stakhanov.

Photo from the Week – Daisies

I’ve been shifting my routine earlier in the day, which is treating me well. Among more significant advantages, a small bonus was discovering that daisies unfurl in the morning to greet the sun, and later learning that they move to track it through the sky.

Daises on the lawn. Daisies exhibit heliotropism – the flowers track the position of the sun throughout the day.

2020 Week 18: Autonomy

This week I have had more autonomy in how I allocate my time at work. While I enjoyed the freedom, it also created expectations to perform. I might aspire to a stoic determination around ideas of “never complain, never give excuses”, but having actual excuses be removed increases the pressure I feel to deliver.

More Thoughts:

Caterpillars in Shotover

On the recommendation of a friend I ran in Shotover Country Park this weekend (see Photos from the Week below). The trails are well kept and soft under foot. There is a good variety of long steady climbs, short punchy climbs, and beautiful flat sections, great for all manner of training. There were also thousands of small (1 cm or so) caterpillars hanging from trees which I was inevitably coated in. Curious, I turned to the scientific literature and found a comprehensive description of this behaviour in the appropriately named journal Animal Behaviour. As it turns out, this is a defence mechanism to avoid predators (stink bugs and wasps). When the caterpillars detect the vibrations their predators make when hunting nearby, they dangle themselves from silk threads to escape being eaten. Interestingly they can differentiate the vibrations of wasps and stink bugs (two predators), and dangle further (30 cm) for wasps than the less adept stink bugs (only 10 cm of dangling). Not only did the study record and artificially replicate the vibrations caused by the predators to confirm this, they also measured that the extra dangling significantly increased survival in response to the wasps, but was not needed for the stink bugs. Science is awesome. Unfortunately for these caterpillars, the extra dangling also made them much more likely to become unwilling passengers on my run. Good pictures of them in this tweet.

Short Observations on Social Pressure

I remember being taught about peer pressure at school. Usually the intention was that if children are aware of what is motivating them to do something the teacher or parent thinks is negative, that they will be less likely to behave in that way. I would like to think that I’ve become more aware since I was a child, and yet peer pressure still nudges me to make bad choices. I was tagged in a run by a friend as part of a “5k for the NHS challenge”. He ran under 20 minutes and, being competitive, I wanted to beat that time. It is something that I feels possible, but would require a more intense change of pace than what seems reasonable given my current training. I really felt pressure, for about 10 days, to go out and try and run a sub 20 5k, which would have been a mistake. With other more significant pressures in my life at the moment, it is interesting to note that such a trivial (and well meaning) nudge to perform can cause such an emotional burden.

Of course the other side of this is that I was motivated to give £5 to the NHS. I have often been cynical about runners raising money for charity: the run seems so unnecessary, even costly, as the event costs could also go to the charitable cause. Fun runs do align with some causes, as exercise reduces susceptibility to cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, but in general it seems contrived to me. I must concede though, that had I not been nudged to donate via Strava, I would not have donated that £5. From this single point of data, it has been effective.

Stuff I’m reading at the moment

Measure What Matters by John Doerr, and Leading by Alex Ferguson and Michael Moritz. I am hoping to get some summarised thoughts out soon.

Photo from the Week

2020 Week 17: Brief Thoughts

It has been a tough week, with little time to explore ideas outside of work in any depth. A few short thoughts and two photos from head clearing exercise.

Thoughts:

On Fear

Courage is not experiencing an absence of fear, but rather acting in spite of it. If you are oblivious to danger, it is not a demonstration of courage to face it.

On Solutions

The prevalence of multiple solutions may indicate the absence of a good one. However there is a latency between consensus and improvements from innovation. The most popular isn’t necessarily the best, but it is optimal in some way, even if that is only being seen or known.

On Rhetoric

Nearly all events can be described in a more positive or negative light. This pandemic can be seen as a terrible loss of life, or a success of modern medicine and governments to save millions of lives. Every “failed” experiment teaches you something about the world. The Guardian produced a related video on perspective.

On Excess

I’ve been thinking about what I feel is “good” and “bad” in a universal sense, but almost everything I think of is context dependent. Too much of a good thing is not a good thing. Physical exercise is good for you, but too much leads to injury. Healthy foods are good for you, but too much still makes you obese. Learning is good for you, but too much leaves no time to act on what has been learned (never mind the topic). Even drinking too much water can kill you. This of course is not a new idea.

Photos from the Week

2020 Week 16: Decision Fatigue

Priorities become clear in a crisis. The pandemic continues to dominate life, news, and my research. I continue to cope well despite long hours most days, largely (as I’ve discussed in the last couple weeks) due to a community of supportive people around me along with a good diet and regular exercise. Another reason I’ve noticed is “crisis mode” narrows my focus onto a few specific tasks, removing choices, and thus I avoid decision fatigue. I am lucky that there are so many possibilities in my regular life, but invariably I end up feeling torn between possible commitments. In lock-down I can only be at home or in the lab, so I am not choosing between interesting lectures in Oxford, or potential hiking trips, or social events. There is much less fear of missing out, when there is less to miss out on.

Other thoughts from the week:

Will ending lock-down lead to a sudden increase in injuries?

I suspect when lock-down ends and gyms reopen, some proportion of people returning to their workouts after several weeks off will injure themselves. There have been several unexpected effects of the pandemic, such as a decline in accident and emergency admissions (perhaps because increases in hand-washing have led to fewer incidents of food poisoning, or perhaps because people are afraid of contracting COVID-19 by going to hospital). Gyms are closed to prevent transmission of the disease, and so people are not training and their strength and technique are diminishing. Though I hope everyone will return to training accounting for the break when gyms eventually reopen, I suspect there will be a measurable minority who attempt to resume at their pre-lock-down fitness and overexert themselves, resulting in injury and increased demand on rehabilitation services.

Things that seem special may not be

SARS-CoV-2 likely originated in animals (probably bats), making it a zoonotic disease. Bats have been known to carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans including marburg, the previous SARS, and Ebola. Naturally this raises questions about some special attribute of bats that make them more likely to spawn pandemic generating viruses. This paper from the University of Glasgow suggests that the only thing “special” about bats is their diversity. Together with the commonly disease associated Rodentia (rodents), Chiroptera (bats) account for 3938 species, or 60% of all mammal species. If viruses are randomly distributed amongst mammals, and the ability of those viruses to then infect humans is similarly random, then the observed frequency of diseases like COVID-19 coming from bats is explained without any special attribute of bats themselves.

This is a good reminder of a general principle, that because what we observe is so small relative to totality of existence, we are much more likely to attribute “special” meaning to general phenomena. I think this is most useful to remember when it comes to relationship and personal problems, as we assume our uniqueness implies a uniqueness of our problems. An example from this TED talk on depression describes a couple who are both hiding their prescription for antidepressants from each other because they both feel the other could not possibly understand.

Photos from the Week