A storm by any other name

I am down in Cornwall this weekend with Becca. We were down at the same time last year, and were blessed with unseasonal sunshine. This time we have been less fortunate, with our visit coinciding with the arrival of Storm Dennis.

I found myself wondering about how storms get their names, which it turns out was very far from an original thought. Regardless, I was interested to learn about the father of the practice, Clement Wragge. How it started in the 1950s, with hurricanes receiving women’s names, before moving to alternating men’s and women’s names in 1979.

UK storms meanwhile started receiving names as recently as 2015, the upshot of a campaign to raise awareness of severe weather. We also alternate men’s and women’s names in alphabetical order, all submitted by members of the public. After Dennis we have Ellen, then Francis and Gerda to look forward to. We have never yet gone past K (Kitty, if we are so unlucky).

I wonder whether there are any lasting effects of this naming, beyond a few namesake jokes. Whether, echoing a Princeton study of hurricanes, people’s response to a storm is influenced by its name. Whether more or fewer children will be called Dennis this year as a result.

It is pretty windy here tonight. I hope everyone is staying safe out there.

Surprising Detail

I read an excellent article off the back of an open question from Paul Graham on Twitter: Reality has a surprising amount of detail, by John Salvatier. It uses building stairs and boiling water to demonstrate that things are almost always more complicated than they seem:

Surprising detail is a near universal property of getting up close and personal with realityBefore you’ve noticed important details they are, of course, basically invisible. It’s hard to put your attention on them because you don’t even know what you’re looking for… This means it’s really easy to get stuck.

This was a good aperitif to Can Anyone Reshape the State? by Nicolas Colin, which looks at Dominic Cummings’ prospects for reshaping the British state, an undertaking full of hidden complexity if there ever was one. I appreciated his invocation of Gall’s Law, which I hadn’t heard of before:

“A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.”

Nicolas agrees that the state could do with a make-over, but expects that Cummings’ efforts will fail. If so, I am sure that surprising detail will have played a part.

Working backwards

It’s the start of a new year and a new decade, which means that the internet is awash with hopes, plans and resolutions. I don’t have anything specific to share here, but I have taken the opportunity to think about goals and achieving them. I was interested to come across two different approaches of the same name – Working Backwards.

The first is the more intuitive way to Work Backwards, which is to simply think about a large goal, and the time by which you would like to achieve it, then work backwards to identify interim goals and checkpoints along the way. To take a potentially lofty goal and translate it into more short-term actions.

The second way to Work Backwards is also known as Inversion, which I came across by way of Farnam Street (a generally excellent resource). A favourite of Charlie Munger, this involves thinking about the things that might stop you achieving your goal, or of achieving the opposite:

“Figure out what you don’t want and avoid it and you’ll get what you do want” — Charle Munger

Pithily described as “avoiding stupidity” (which is “easier than seeking brilliance”), this simple change in perspective can make a problem seem more addressable, and less effortful.

Neither way of Working Backwards is a silver bullet, of course. But as I start 2020, I am glad to have both.

Got rhythm

We are approaching the end of December, which (in the UK) means short days, cold weather and a ubiquitous festive season as the year comes to an end. While it seems in many ways a strange time to think about new beginnings (in the dead of winter, during the coldest, darkest days), a new year is often cause for resolution and reflection.

I once worked in a lab that was researching circadian rhythms, the twenty-four hour intrinsic cycles present in every one of our bodily cells, as the earth spins on its axis. I have thought quite a lot this year about the importance of rhythm for human beings, above and beyond that physiological clock. The power of daily habits, and the higher level weekly and monthly cadences required to really get things done. The magic of music, or the beautiful beat intrinsic to swimming, or running.

The turning of the seasons, and the passing of the years is the earth’s higher rhythm, and it feels just right. A year is short enough to grasp, but long enough to see change in yourself and in the world (whether you like it or not). As we hurtle around the sun, we dance to its cosmic beat.

Efficiency and legitimacy

Any political system is a compromise between efficiency and legitimacy, balancing a government’s ability to act against the certainty that its citizens support the government’s actions. So says Against Elections: The Case for Democracy*, a book I first read a few years ago but which I have been reminded of ahead of the UK elections on the 12th December.

The UK selects its Parliamentary representatives through a First Past The Post electoral system which errs on the side of efficiency (it reliably produces governmental majorities, recent history excepted), but perhaps with a loss of legitimacy (there hasn’t been a party winning more than 50% of overall votes since 1935).

Meanwhile a key factor in the election is the Brexit referendum. We can all agree that referendums aren’t an efficient way to govern a country, but the legitimacy of the Brexit referendum is in the eye of the beholder. Some argue that it is the UK’s most legitimate political result in living memory, voted for by 17.4 million people (more than have ever voted for a single political party in a General Election). While others question its legitimacy on grounds of misinformation (based on what we know now) or technicality (it’s not legally binding). One thing which is clear is that our Parliamentary system is not designed to deliver on the outcome of referendums if there is ambiguity involved, and I don’t know if this election will change that.

Regardless, according to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, we are currently living in a rarefied period of time:

“The people of England regards itself as free; but it is grossly mistaken; it is free only during the election of members of parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing.” ― Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract

That seems a little drastic to me. But either way please remember to vote on December 12th.

* More broadly the book talks about the mistaken conflation of elections and democracy, proposing a deliberative democracy alternative, but that’s not for now.

Dog days of summer

A lot is made of the Like button, of the societal impact of the dopamine-inducing blue thumbs-up. But as a generally reserved social-media poster, and only sporadic “liker”, I am relatively indifferent.

Far more sinister, in my mind, is the infinite scroll, and its auto-play video cousin – on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and friends.

Not because of the clear connection with the culprits’ business models – where eyeballs and time spent drive ad impressions, which drive revenue. That much is understandable – these are publicly listed companies.

I think the problem I have is that it is playing on a particularly human vulnerability, evolving as we did in a world of scarcity, rather than abundance. Where evolutionary pressures favoured repetitive behaviours, as in general things would run out. Make hay while the sun shines, because at some point autumn will come.

But on the endless tracts of social media the sun is always shining, without respite. And instead of introducing patches of shade, where travellers might rest, or step away from their smartphones, our social media overlords have built a desert, where users stagger towards an imagined oasis that never comes.

Meanwhile the new demi-gods of TikTok have learned their predecessors’ worst habits, as video after snack-size video plays off into the distance.

We are in the dog days of the digital summer. The onus is on us as users to find shelter, or to escape the desert altogether.

Elephants

In February this year I read an article about Elephants. Not about the large mammals, but about a system of the same name, concocted by four friends ten years ago or so, and articulated by one of them in a blog post in 2013. It’s a collective system for planning, reviewing and improving one’s life. It piqued my interest, I shared it with a couple of friends, and we actually got round to giving it a try.

After struggling initially to find time to do the required kick-off (The Start), we are now three months in, and so I have had a bit of room for reflection.

The Start, where you spend quite a concentrated period of time with your fellow Elephants talking about your strengths and weaknesses, and hopes for the future, is worth doing regardless of whether you are interested in the long haul process. We spent a couple of days together, during which we were much more candid, vulnerable and open than we had been in the ten or more years we have known one another. And it has been a one-way door – we have been more open and honest ever since. It is funny that it took some random blog post on the internet to let us make that step. But whatever works.

The Start also includes a process of goal-setting, over quite hard to imagine timeframes (up to ten years!) Planning on that timescale isn’t something that I do naturally, so I found it quite difficult. But it was useful to see what I eventually came up with, and to highlight things I should maybe think a little more about.

With our (iterative) goals in hand, we are now in business-as-usual Elephants.

The Weekly Reporting was something which we didn’t necessarily commit to, but which I have managed to keep up. It is now part of my weekly ritual, and I am happy for it. It gives me an opportunity to check in with myself, to reflect back on the week that was, and how I felt about it. I am not sure it always makes interesting reading for my fellow Elephants, but it is always interesting writing for me.

And we have also had our first Quarterly Review, which first and foremost was a great excuse to see my friends after a busy summer. It also highlighted how long ago The Start felt, how much can happen in three months of time. Which is helpful as we look ahead to the next three months or so, as we continue with our Elephants into 2020. We’re not necessarily following the system to the letter, but we have made it work for us so far, and I am glad we are doing it.