When running, I am prone to making the opposite mistakes of either missing a beautiful view because I’m so focused on not tripping up, or twisting my ankle because I am staring into the distance.
This difficulty holds true beyond my gentle jogs, to anyone trying to do two things at once. Individuals and families preparing for the future, while trying to enjoy the present. Businesses contemplating their quarterly growth targets alongside their future business sustainability. Governments trying to address long-term policy goals while they handle the latest crisis, or balance loss of life against economic damage.
Three paths present themselves:
To do both separately at once (alluring, but can be very hard to do)
To do one, and then the other (often what practically happens, but less often as a stated choice)
To find the common thread between both objectives, so both can be pursued by one course of action (not always possible, but the most blessed of the three)
Different horses for different courses, with the winner often only obvious in retrospect. These days I try to pause occasionally, while running, to take in the view.
This does my Strava statistics no favours, of course – in real life there are almost always more than two objectives… This post was inspired by my new ankle supports & Dan Wang’s excellent 2020 letter, which covered China’s long-term goals and their handling of Covid-19.
About a year ago, I thought about making some predictions for the year ahead, though I never got round to writing much down. That is just as well, as 2020 took a turn that I certainly would not have predicted – it has been a very unusual year.
I’m not sure how useful it is to focus on this specific butterfly effect, when countless viruses are transferred between species without causing worldwide pandemonium. Except as a reminder that in a world of billions, one in a million chances are actually reasonable odds. We have always lived in an exceptional world; perhaps, in 2021, we shouldn’t be so surprised.
We have been doing some thinking at work about the tools we use to get work done – specifically the software tools. We rely on some tools to do things that their creators probably didn’t envisage, where we could instead use something specifically designed for that purpose.
It’s not quite as stark as Maslow’s famous hammer (I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail). A lot of the tools in question were designed to be generalists – Excel, Miro, Notion – so a more apt comparison might be a Swiss army knife. But if you’ve ever tried to use a Swiss army knife as a knife, you’ll know that it doesn’t do the job as well as… an actual knife.
That’s not to say there is no place for generalists – every new tool introduces friction, requires behavioural change, and may turn out to only be marginally better after all. But it’s worth having the discussion, and maybe trying something new. Even though you know that when the next unexpected use-case emerges – the generalists will strike back to fill the gap.
What makes this challenge interesting is that the underlying amino acid sequence is known, the difficulty is in translating that into the correct 1 out of a possible 10^300 3D confirmations possible for a typical protein. Alphafold provides a solution to that problem (pending publication and peer review), though like most a lot of AI systems, it doesn’t show its workings (outside some confidence intervals). We get an answer, without a reason why.
This is not a novel situation – for most of human history we got along just fine without knowing how things worked, just that they did. What is unusual in this case is that the thing in question is entirely man-made. Richard Feynman wrote that “what I cannot create, I do not understand”. When it comes to understanding, even creation is no guarantee.
I haven’t written much recently. Initially I was struck dumb by the pandemic, but as that has gone from story to setting, my creative energy outside work has been directed elsewhere, towards a few softwareprojects. I have enjoyed renovating some old skills, and learning some new ones. I have experienced moments of monumental frustration. In other words – I have been writing code.
I have read a few books in lockdown, which I am sure will always remind me of this time. Two stand out as reminders of that other crisis we must not forget about – with this week’s CO2 readings the highest on record:
Drawdown lays out available solutions for global warming. The most uplifting thing I have read on the topic, full of the things we can do to reverse the buildup of atmospheric carbon.
Let my people go surfing, about the life of Yvon Chouinard, and the philosophy of the environmentally-minded business he built (Patagonia).
Both highly recommended, if you’re looking for something to read in isolation, or anywhere else.
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 veryfarfroman 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 is a near universal property of getting up close and personal with reality… Before 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.
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.