We Are Very Special

October 22, 2020

“We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special.” – Stephen Hawking


Approximate And Exact Answers

October 17, 2020

Seen on the (data visualisation) Edward Tufte site:

You have already quoted a short version of John Tukey’s aphorism, but I prefer a slightly longer expression of the same idea that he wrote in 1962:

Far better an approximate answer to the right question, which is often vague, than an exact answer to the wrong question, which can always be made precise.

Somewhere he also wrote (but I’ve been unsuccessful in tracking down where or when I read it),

If a thing is not worth doing at all, it is not worth doing well!


Subscription Addiction

October 17, 2020

Subscriptions are becoming quite a trend with software developers. You can see both sides. Here’s a funny, balanced and informative video that goes through the key points in a general setting.

The reason I’m interested in this is that I’m considering taking out another software subscription, to the Ulysses (writing) app. I’m trialling it at present, it’s certainly slick and well-presented (only for macOS and iOS). At the moment I subscribe to the (notetaking) apps Agenda, Bear and Evernote (actually the latter is a bit of a hangover from earlier times and is under review).

Personally I prefer the model mentioned in the video where you own the software and get free updates for a year (such as with the Tinderbox app that I also use). This seems a fairer compromise to me.


The Challenge Of Reinventing Yourself

October 9, 2020

Helpful sketchnote from Tanmay Vora on career reinvention (see his site for many other related sketchnotes).

I’ve commented previously (see here) on how reinvention can be viewed as a sort of personal R&D.


Recent Chinese Achievements

October 2, 2020


I wasn’t aware of the tremendous scope of recent Chinese technical achievements and it was handy that someone had trawled the web to put this presentation together. Full article is here.

I can’t find an original reference for this presentation (it came through social media). Google searches didn’t produce anything immediately but the content is certainly thought provoking at the very least. Worth a look.

Two sample slides, above and below (68 in total)


The Maker, Manager and Consumer Roles

September 29, 2020

Interesting quote from David Sparks on thinking about how you spend your time:

“So with this in mind, I’ve been focusing my journaling lately not so much on what I had for lunch, but what I make, manage, and consume. Using tags, I can then see it on a daily, weekly, and even monthly basis. If I look at my week and realize I spent most of my time sharpening pencils and sorting tasks (manager) and not enough time producing content (maker), I know I need to make changes. You can get similar information by tracking your time, but I think there is something more concrete looking at a list of things you’ve made, managed, and consumed over a period of time.”


The Conflicting Emotions Of Writing

September 28, 2020

“E.L. Doctorow said once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.” – Anne Lamott

Quote taken from her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Highlighting a really great analogy and now I’ll read (or at least skim) it looking for some other insights that might resonate with me. Although mentioning novel writing, imo the quote also applies to carrying out activities like research and to a certain extent non-fiction writing.

From another angle, this quote from Tibor Fischer also appeals:

“The trouble with taking writing seriously is the more seriously you take it, the harder it is to write.” -Tibor Fischer, The Thought Gang

These terse and simplified insights sometimes help, motivating the real work and slog that still needs to be done 🙂


Aiming For A (Fairly) Fulfilled Life

September 19, 2020

Currently there is a lot of interest in ‘how to be happy/fulfilled/content’ both in work and in one’s personal life (browse any bookshop). It’s obviously a deep question that people have struggled with and thought about for thousands of years.

In this regard, Oliver Burkeman has been writing articles on ‘human happiness’ for the Guardian Weekend magazine for many years now. Each article has a theme and usually gives two or three viewpoints or approaches, sometimes referring to a variety of books published on the matter (he’s also published some himself). The general approach is to ‘life’, so encompasses both work and personal matters.

He’s now decided to end this phase of his career to move on to new activities. The final article he published recently gives a summary of the main ideas that cropped up again and again (so are maybe ‘principles’). I thought that some of the points were especially interesting as they were not the standard ones you can read in many books and articles.

Here are his eight ‘secrets’ plus some extracted explanatory comments:

So what did I learn? What follows isn’t intended as an exhaustive summary. But these are the principles that surfaced again and again…

1. There will always be too much to do – and this realisation is liberating
The only viable solution is to make a shift: from a life spent trying not to neglect anything, to one spent proactively and consciously choosing what to neglect, in favour of what matters most.

2. When stumped by a life choice, choose “enlargement” over happiness
We’re terrible at predicting what will make us happy: the question swiftly gets bogged down in our narrow preferences for security and control. But the enlargement question elicits a deeper, intuitive response.

3. The capacity to tolerate minor discomfort is a superpower
It’s shocking to realise how readily we set aside even our greatest ambitions in life, merely to avoid easily tolerable levels of unpleasantness…

4. The advice you don’t want to hear is usually the advice you need
The broader point here is that it isn’t fun to confront whatever emotional experiences you’re avoiding – if it were, you wouldn’t avoid them – so the advice that could really help is likely to make you uncomfortable.

5. The future will never provide the reassurance you seek from it
It’s freeing to grasp that no amount of fretting will ever alter this truth. It’s still useful to make plans. But do that with the awareness that a plan is only ever a present-moment statement of intent, not a lasso thrown around the future to bring it under control.

6. The solution to imposter syndrome is to see that you are one
Remember: the reason you can’t hear other people’s inner monologues of self-doubt isn’t that they don’t have them. It’s that you only have access to your own mind.

7. Selflessness is overrated
We respectable types, although women especially, are raised to think a life well spent means helping others – and plenty of self-help gurus stand ready to affirm that kindness, generosity and volunteering are the route to happiness. There’s truth here, but it generally gets tangled up with deep-seated issues of guilt and self-esteem…

And the irony is that you don’t actually serve anyone else by suppressing your true passions anyway. More often than not, by doing your thing – as opposed to what you think you ought to be doing – you kindle a fire that helps keep the rest of us warm.

8. Know when to move on
And then, finally, there’s the one about knowing when something that’s meant a great deal to you has reached its natural endpoint, and that the most creative choice would be to turn to what’s next.

A few assorted personal comments. These aren’t based on research, just recollections from my own experiences. One general aspect is that some of these points are inter-related, so changing one may automatically affect the others.

Too much to do and focusing on what matters – this is of course a perennial problem for most people. Focusing on what matters is not always easy though as ‘what matters’ can have many contexts and these may also be dynamic. It may even be easier for others to see what may be important to you rather than you yourself (wood for the trees). It’s also related to the skill in saying ‘no’ (see here).

Enlargement versus happiness – I thought this was an especially interesting one and also a lot more implementable than guessing what may make you happy (imo a pretty vague concept at the best of times).

Tolerating minor discomfort – helpful to know this before you start something and keep it in mind as you pursue it as it might make the situation more bearable.

The advice you don’t want to hear – I’ve written before (Iceberg Illusion) on some of the difficulties in appreciating thoughtful or creative advice and I hope to come back to this topic in a future post.

Reassurance and planning for the future – it can be helpful to have goals and aims so you actually complete things but at the same time you have to accept that things can change in unforeseeable ways (eg planning to write a book on topic X to find that other subjects are now in vogue).

Knowing when to move on – in my case such moves were sometimes forced and erratic. Certainly preparing for them and researching them beforehand would have been valuable. Also being aware of and getting used to the uncomfortable emotional aspects of change is likely to be a useful activity.

In one’s career, as well as personal life, it’s often useful to take a step back and reflect on things. It’s something that sounds very easy and sensible to do but is often ignored in practice. An opportunity to contemplate and appreciate successes as well as (hopefully learning from) failures. The principles above may be a useful complement to assess progress and to set new or modified directions.


Eltham Palace and Gardens

September 5, 2020

In August, I visited Eltham Palace and Gardens, an English Heritage site. Here’s some photos and a few explanatory remarks.

The building is located in the Royal Borough of Greenwich, in the south-east of London and a 15 minute walk from a train station. Some parts of the Palace and Gardens are currently closed off due to restrictions of covid but at least it’s open.

It has a long history, starting out as a medieval palace, then became a royal residence and, in 1933 after a period of neglect, was bought by Stephen and Virginia Courtauld (millionaire heirs to the textile empire). They transformed it into an Art Deco mansion infused with the latest technology of the time. They used it to entertain a diverse social circle including Stravinsky, Gracie Fields, band leader Lew Stone plus film producers and politicians.

The imposing entrance hall

Skylight in the entrance hall giving a lot of natural light

The elaborate stairs to the first floor

A view of the side panels in the main entrance hall

Partial view of the gardens from the first floor

Bedroom of Stephen Courtauld connected through a ‘secret door’ to that of his wife’s bedroom (see below)

Virginia Courtauld’s luxurious golden bathroom which contains a statue of the goddess Psyche

The millionaire couple were fairly eccentric and had a pet lemur that roamed around and occasionally bit guests. The lemur, named Mah-Jongg, was so pampered it had centrally heated sleeping quarters. The lemur was bought from Harrods, this store had an Animal Department which sold exotic pets to wealthy customers (closing in 2014).

The interesting ‘map room’ where they planned their worldwide travels.

The very spacious dining room with elaborate door (see below).

In somewhat stark contrast, here’s the imposing medieval Great Hall (which you can now apparently hire for events).

You can read about the history of Eltham Palace more fully here.

There’s also a nice visual presentation of the Palace under Google Arts and Culture.

Finally some background on the millionaire pair here.


MIT Course On COVID And The Pandemic

September 4, 2020

I’ve been interested to take a (free) online course for a while now and was waiting for a subject that really engaged me. This one from MIT on a key topic of the day, COVID and the Pandemic, looks really good. The first lecture is up on the site with more to follow (the second one is advertised above). You can watch live if time zones allow (see below).

I’m interested partly due to the content but also to see how complex science material is presented these days (communication and engagement).

From the MIT course site:

“Course description: Lectures by leading experts on the fundamentals of coronavirus and host cell biology, immunology, epidemiology, clinical disease, and vaccine and therapeutic development. This is an exploratory subject, open to undergraduate and graduate students…

The class is open to all MIT students, as well as any eligible cross-registered students. The live stream will be available to the public, but only registered students may ask questions during the Q&A.To view the live stream, click on this link and type in the password: mit-covid. Miss a class? You’ll be able to view a video of the lecture on this page. Please note: It will take a few days to caption and post each lecture video after the livestream has ended.”