Five in one

Here are four five pretty unrelated things that have been on my mind:

Entrepreneurs: sell vs befriend

I, like I am sure millions of other people, keep getting followed by all sorts of dealers who promise to “help small business” and lead to “explosive growth” on social media. Why do these people exist? How have they not been banned by everyone? Or will selling hope always be big business?

It would be nice to have a community of entrepreneurs. But what do entrepreneurs do? They sell and they compete. Trying to have a community of entrepreneurs is like trying to farm spiders. They will eat each other.

A community of this nature could only form based on prior friendship, where social bonds are stronger than the need to sell. But most of these communities offer to put you into a network for a small fee: this doesn’t exactly inspire warm and fuzzy feelings. The circular nature of their business is also worrying. Conferences, seminars, mindset trainings, honestly…

I have, on the other hand, made many friends online, who happen to be entrepreneurs, but never directly in connection with their entrepreneurship. (You know who you are. Perhaps, some of you would like to meet my recently acquired Buddhist friend.)

Nietzsche: is it all lies?

I am quite worried about how things are unfolding in the US.

Nietzsche keeps getting brought up. He has to be the most misunderstood philosopher. Did his relatives doctor his writings too much after he died? Or is he just forever contradicting himself?

Any Nietzsche scholars very welcome to comment on this article of Nietzsche and the alt-right.

Curate or censor?

In other news, Google recently stopped Gab, apparently a sort of Twitter for people who get banned from Twitter, from being able to be downloaded from their Playstore. Apple stopped them a little earlier this year. Also, Instagram’s Kevin Systrom wants to curate the Internet.

Taleb is in a new battle with the establishment.

Vaccinate or die

France is tightening vaccination requirements. I support vaccines, of course. As a society though, are we better off having people die from preventable diseases or limiting their freedoms?

Diabetes is a preventable disease, but I don’t see anyone being confined to a gym by law. Though the herd immunity argument makes vaccines different. In addition, the fact that it is children who are affected makes vaccines different, but then again we can’t stop some people overfeeding their children with junk. I’ve taken enough trips on routes that serve hospitals to know that you don’t have to be above one year of age to be served Coke in your bottle.

Control

There is a philosophy that suggests that taking responsibility for everything that happens to you is the best way to live (e.g. William James).

I think that the world is one giant furnace of entropy and within that we each have a small island we call the self, where we can affect things. I cannot force someone to ask me to come to their party, but there is a myriad of things I can do to try to gently weasel my way into it.

The single most damaging thing I do, my worst bad habit, is fretting about things I cannot control. In other words, I feel responsible for things that are beyond my reach. I sit there and feel like a failure if I am not invited to the metaphorical party.

The question is: does this fretting push me to look for solutions that I wouldn’t have found if I just rested within my boundaries? Or are parts of William James and his followers’ philosophy just soothingly empowering wishful thinking? Or am I even doing damage by fretting and preventing myself from seeing ways to get into the party? Please share your thoughts on this last thing.

P.S. I couldn’t find a picture of a weasel, so here is a nice chilled out otter. I must take some of my own pictures soon.

Can we have both equality and diversity?

About the infamous Google Memo… Here is a review of reactions to the controversial piece.

Facts:

  • A Google engineer, James Damore, wrote a memo entitled Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber. [Read original]
  • It went viral via internal communication means within Google.
  • He got fired because of it.
  • (A less relevant, but curious fact: Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks who is holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, offered him a job and accused Google of censorship.)

Here are some interesting articles from both sides:

The Economist (sits on the fence)

“This isn’t a question of legality or policy. This is a question of virtue-signalling” [Read]

Bloomberg (argues it was wrong for Google to foreclose the debate so crudely)

“An employee trying to grapple with these problems — clumsily but earnestly — has now been shown the door, thanks mostly to performative online outrage.” [Read]

The Financial Times (denounces the author)

“Responding to the memo is somewhat challenging because it is almost pure drivel, offering up a mix of fallacies, mindless reductions of popular social science and hand-waving at ‘research.'” [Read]

The Atlantic (addressing the error-full coverage of the matter)

“To object to a means of achieving x is not to be anti-x.” [Read]

The Atlantic, again (agrees memo is discriminatory)

“The memo… seemed to dash hopes that much progress has been made in unraveling the systemic conditions that produce and perpetuate inequity in the technology industry. “[Read]

Slate (is pretty enraged)

“The manifesto suggests a culture that is inviting enough for someone who views some of his fellow employees as lesser to share his opinions and be cheered on” [Read]

Business Insider (highlights authors vulnerable legal position in the context of free speech)

The First Amendment to the US Constitution prevents the government from restricting your speech. It doesn’t restrict your employer from controlling your speech when you are at work, citing a Google manager: “freedom of speech is the right to freely express an opinion. It is most assuredly not the right to express an opinion with freedom from the consequences.”

Quillette (has four psychologists sustain points made my memo author)

“Psychological interchangeability makes diversity meaningless. But psychological differences make equal outcomes impossible. Equality or diversity. You can’t have both.” [Read]

Right-wing Twitter is rallying to support the author of the memo:

Google memo right wing twitter commentary

A Linked influencer, Adam Grant (argues that differences between men and women are exaggerated)

“Across 128 domains of the mind and behavior, “78% of gender differences are small or close to zero.” A recent addition to that list is leadership, where men feel more confident but women are rated as more competent.” [Read]

Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex (refutes Grant’s points)

“Suppose I wanted to convince you that men and women had physically identical bodies. I run studies on things like number of arms, number of kidneys, size of the pancreas, caliber of the aorta, whether the brain is in the head or the chest, et cetera. 90% of these come back identical – in fact, the only ones that don’t are a few outliers like “breast size” or “number of penises”. I conclude that men and women are mostly physically similar. I can even make a statistic like “men and women are physically the same in 78% of traits”.”

Something that occurred to me that I haven’t seen anywhere – and this neither disproves not confirms the memo author’s argument, but it’s something that I feel is important.

Assuming that average men and average women are different in their precise cognitive and emotional strengths, this bears very little significance when it comes to outliers. For its tech roles Google hires from the very top, i.e. from the extreme “end” of the right tail. Outlier men and outlier women don’t behave the same way as average men and women. In fact, outliers are virtually impossible to study with the same confidence that we study average people.

Very curious what you think.

And let’s keep the mood light 🙂

UPD: somebody invited me to Google image “white man and white woman” and “European people history”. What Google shows is below.

Screen Shot 2017-08-09 at 12.58.28Screen Shot 2017-08-09 at 12.58.46

One more point of information: Duck Duck Go search results are virtually the same. Make of it what you will.

UPD 2: Jordan Peterson, who himself was nearly kicked out of Google’s YouTube recently, interviews James Damore [Video]

Management consultants now selling neuroscience

The Financial Times published an interesting post today on how management consultants are looking at brain chemicals to help analyse leadership and workplace trust.

Deloitte is looking into brain chemistry – and how they can apply what they learnt in neuroscience to management. Some of the quotes from management consultants sound like they need a bit more time in the oven: “Neuroscience would be saying you need more neural pathways to make people think differently.”

management consulting psychology neuroscience

I think Thinking Fast and Slow should be read by every management consultant and leader. I wonder what these guys will have to add on top of this. Paul Zak, the neuroscientist that the FT quotes, talks about trust as an “economic lubricant”. Isn’t that Marketing 101? In fact, I doodled about it here. Ok, they mention a few chemicals that most management consulting folk and their clients probably haven’t heard of before like oxytocin. In management consulting, a new name usually means a new sales pitch, so I can see why they are excited. Another management consultant references the idea that we are more irrational when we are in fight or flight mode. I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised that in some boardroom some CEO of a gargantuan business is signing off on a contract with a management consultancy that just presented this – but really, it does sound like plain common sense.

There is one very interesting idea in the article: predictive hiring.

Instead of relying upon CVs and interviews, they ask applicants to play 15 or 20 computer games designed with the aid of neuroscience — revealing a cognitive and emotional profile. The result is matched against the gaming profile of high-performers in the role to be filled. Combined with techniques such as machine-learning and trawling social media profiles, this approach opens the way to hiring based on capability. “Companies won’t worry where they went to school or what their grades are”…

I think that games that seeing how a person takes decisions is a great way to understand their personality. It is the basis of psychological tests. However, if, instead of trying to go into the reasons why a person is like this and what they can do about it, we could simply use this information for what it is, I think it would really help to match people with certain jobs. It’s like a decision making genome that you can then marry with a job description – of course only after you accumulate enough data.

using psychology neuroscience in management consulting

What the internet will look like in 10 years

Only about 40% of the world’s population have an internet connection today. The largest group are the Chinese with 0.72 bn users, but only 52% penetrance (i.e. only 52% of the Chinese population have access to the internet). With that, certain services are off-limits to ordinary Chinese people. The countries with the highest penetrance include rich European countries such as Iceland and Denmark (it’s cold and dark outside – so no wonder). Interestingly, the English speaking world – US, UK, Australia and so on – hover around 80-90%. This means, in Ireland for example, 1 in 5 people aren’t online. I find that hard to believe. [Source: Internet Live Stats]

As the internet becomes cheaper and more accessible, we are likely to see large influxes of users from India and China. With a population in India of nearly 1.4 bn the penetrance is only 35%. Indonesia, Brazil and Pakistan also have huge populations with relatively low penetrance.

While it would seem obvious that there is a huge part of the internet that I have never seen, I wonder what way the online world will change as more people join. Without any judgement on whether it is good or bad, the internet that I know is dominated by white English speaking people. I am also familiar with the Russian province of the web – it is much like the English one, only in Russian. They also lack certain services, such as eBay, etc. However, they replaced it with their own homegrown analogues.

The Economist recently said that for those who spend a lot of time in both China and the West, using online services from the West in like going back in time. WeChat is something else apparently. Musically is another Chinese creation and has taken the West by storm.

I wonder what the internet will be like in 10 years. I think there will be even more video – including through VR. My cousin recently came back from holidays and instead of showing me photos – showed me a bunch of 360 video clips. Video is taking over the world. In my own experience of Facebook advertising, the cost of a video ad versus a text ad is out by at least a factor of magnitude. I think that the West will lose some of it’s domination over the internet. If the next Facebook is from somewhere like Shanghai, it’ll be very interesting. It sounds silly, but the only thing that has really taken over the West that isn’t Western is Pokemon – at least in my echo chamber. The fact that it is so popular is a net gain for all of us. It carries with it a culture and a philosophy that’s a bit different. We’re a smaller population than India and China, so our network effect isn’t as strong. Having said that, there is not only freedom of speech – but freedom of what we choose to hear on the internet. A great example of this was seeing the reaction of those who though that Brexit and Trump were impossible. While the internet does result in what Taleb called a monoculture, it still allows for resonant echo chambers. Good or bad, they are a natural way to segment the internet. Probably though, more internet will mean more globalisation.

There will come a point when the internet will be replaced by something related, a bit like home phones and TVs were replaced by smartphones and social media. I wonder what way VR will come into our lives. Perhaps, I will be sitting in a set of slick glasses walking around a virtual Prado as my driverless car is going… Actually, I wonder where it will be going if I can get anywhere through VR and drones can deliver everything else to me.

what the internet will look like in 10 years

Time, Socrates and Taleb

N.N. Taleb has to be one of my favourite thinkers of our time. He has taken uncertainty – the root of all evil to so many people – and mathematically explained why it’s not such a bad things at all. In fact, in certain circumstances, we can benefit from uncertainty by being what he calls antifragile. WordPress just underlined this word in red, which is disappointing. It’s a concept that should spread widely.

He sometimes posts one liners on Facebook that then generate a lot of discussion. His most recent:

“The tragedy of our time is the monoculture of ideas: all ‘thinkers’ are forced to believe the same bullshit.”

Not that I am trying to meta-prove him wrong, but I disagree. It’s not the tragedy of our time. It has almost certainly always been that way. Ever since I first heard Socrates talking about youth, I’ve been highly sceptical of any remarks that proclaim that our time is somehow unique. Arguably one of the most powerful minds of all times said:

“The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.”

It’s quite fascinating really. You’d swear he was talking about the kids now – with their latest iPads. However, he said this sometime during 5th century BC.

It would be too sweeping a statement to say that nothing ever changes, but it’s fair to say that human nature remains fairly constant – which is what Taleb’s comment is addressing. I don’t think that that’s a pedantic reason to disagree with him. I think we’re so prone to see ourselves as unique and special that we forget to learn from history.

UPDATE: So I left a brief comment to this effect on Taleb’s post; my first time to do so. And then – he replied! He replied to only 2 comments of over a hundred (the other one exposed him as a Russian spy), so I feel a bit like the sensei at the top of the mountain talked back. His comment was: Globalisation. That’s an interesting take on it. On top of globalisation, there is also the internet – so the monoculture gets even stronger. I guess there is an interesting point arising out of this discussion: our propensity for herd mentality is made even worse by the internet. 

It’s difficult to meaningfully stand out when the way to get heard is through the network effect.

human nature doesn't change

The dangers of laser-like focus

Passion and focus are spoken about all the time. “You have to be passionate about what you’re doing, or it’s not right for you.” All the heroes of our time – mostly in tech – are known for their relentless focus on their passion. It probably culminates in the now near-mythological figure that is Steve Jobs.

the dangers of focus

I am highly distractible, but when it came to something I consider important – I’ve always been the kind of person who locks on – and that’s it. A certain degree of fanaticism was involved in many of the projects I pursued. When I was a medical student, the rest of the world didn’t exist outside of medicine. When I did HIIT, I really did it – stars in my eyes and all. Even this – I said I would blog every day.

In my experience, it’s a double edged sword. Focus is always avoiding the completeness of the present moment. We trade awareness for a hope of a better future. It’s still puzzling to me how one can be purely mindful and make plans, but our culture certainly tells us to make lots of them – and don’t forget the assorted to-do lists to go with it.

Even forgetting about mindfulness, focus is dangerous: focus on the wrong thing – and it’s a real problem. I’ve obsessed about the things that most girls obsess about: boys, weight, nice things. I am in my 20s, so it’s quite forgivable. Still, having the kind of personality that locks onto things, it’s tough to get out of a focus-rut once you are in it. It’s not OCD, but the word tormenting seems appropriate. My only medicine for this has been mindfulness – or a rude awakening from the real world. I much prefer the former.

For those of us who are super-focused, or those reading all of this advice to be laser-focused and wishing that they could be like that, remember that it comes at a price.

being really focused

The importance of self-awareness

I often think of The Great Gatsby. While everything in it has been said before, it seems like a particularly easy-to-understand piece on human nature – not least because it seems to be reflective of what our society looks like almost 100 years on. Gatsby was great because he was motivated by love and incredibly focused and resourceful in his quest. There were also many reasons why he wasn’t great: he lied about his origin, he lied about his name, he was a criminal, he had no problem seducing a married woman with a child… Most of all he got carried away from reality. He didn’t see Daisy for who she really was even though it should have been obvious. He suffered from infatuation, limerence and obsession.

why self awareness is important

There’s an interesting dichotomy that arises from obsession. On the one hand, it is a way to get motivated like nothing else. I was recently listening to an interview with Travis Kalanick, the CEO and co-founder of Uber, who talked about how he chose his idea. He said he was in love with the idea of Uber. He also said that after you fall in love with your idea the hard part is to adjust it to the world so that it is exactly the best it can be. It seemed that all great entrepreneurs develop their businesses for some kind of personal reason. Mark Zuckerberg said that Facebook was something he would have wanted to use for himself. He seems fascinated with how people have huge areas of the cortex dedicated to deciphering the meaning of facial expressions, seemingly minor detail. The kind of motivation that’s required to spend every waking hour you’re not doing coursework in one of the top universities working on social websites means intense interest. Whether it is obsession or not, it’s close to it. Our culture seems to value obsession. In fact, the word has connotations of real dedication and martyrdom. There are gyms called Crossfit Obsession. A “normal” person couldn’t have the level of dedication that these entrepreneurs have, or a particular variety within the men and women of Crossfit – we’ve all met them. A healthcare professional would surely class them as having traits of OCPD, or find a way in which their activity is a form of escapism.

However, all great entrepreneurs are sufficiently in touch with reality so as to know how to adapt. This brings me to the second part – obsession needs to be balanced with reality. For anyone who knows the feeling, they know that this is much easier said than done. When one tries to reflect on reality, it is easy to slip into denial. Alternatively, it can be easy to see the flaws, decide that you obsession is silly and give up on it. It is much harder to see the flaws and incorporate this information meaningfully into your quest.

This idea of either idealising or damning your quest first came to me when I was dealing with patients who had emotionally unstable personality disorder as a doctor. People with EUPD tend to undergo something called splitting: something/someone is either perfect, or they aren’t worth thinking about at all. In fact, this is characteristic of many personality disorders. For example, people with narcissistic traits are very quick to decide that someone’s opinion is worthless if they don’t like something about this person.

self-awareness-is-the-key-to-success

How is it that some people are able to benefit from the momentum of obsession, but not dragged down by the unhelpful ignoring or reality or give up on their idea at the first sign of imperfection?

Are these great entrepreneurs necessarily all free from toxic personality traits? Not at all. It must be possible, however, to be sufficiently self-aware so as to let those parts of your personality that you need the most at a given moment to fully express themselves. After all, all these personality traits that we regard as vulnerable – and put them down as traits of personality disorders – evolved for a reason. They made sense in a context. They are only called abnormal because they stopped being adaptive when the environment changed, but the person who developed them lacks the self-awareness required to acknowledge that they are using legacy software – never mind adjust again. So it’s not like there’s just one personality type, not one strategy that will carry you through, but like Darwin said – it is the most adaptable that makes it through. Adaptability is completely a function of self-awareness.

So, how could we hook up with some of that self-awareness? My hypothesis is, as always, by paying attention to it. It is surprising how commonly people are unable to describe how they feel. How do you feel right now? Is it easy for you to answer? In normal life – and in psychiatry – I’ve met pretty high functioning people who are unable to answer that question. Really and truly, they look at you like you are an alien, look away and after about 10 seconds they say, I don’t really know. It’s obviously a spectrum and it’s not uncommon. Some of these people will try and assess how they should feel, making cognitive judgements about their circumstances. It’s called alexithymia. I think this is the first step. Ask the question – how does it feel? Putting words on it is a good place to start. Tackling physical sensations first could be an even better idea. When you notice that you are hungry – how does it feel? Is there a pain in your abdomen? Where? What kind of pain? Is it a cramp or a dull ache? Is there some nausea that comes with it? Does your abdomen feel warm or cold? Essentially, it is a form of mindfulness. With some practice it will be easier to put words on your feelings, or your inner state. It’s not a case of needing to soul-search. It’s not cognitive, it’s all about feelings. Whether we like it or not, emotions play a decisive role in our behaviour – they give rise to our behaviour, that’s what the word means. I think that mindfulness has the potential to increase self-awareness like no other instrument at our disposal. Mindfulness is known to increase empathy. Self-awareness is no less important. People who lack empathy are probably lacking insight into their own feelings to begin with. It may even make sense to think of self-awareness as a form of inner empathy.

If there was one thing that I think would advance someone’s personal development by leaps and bounds – it would be self-awareness. It doesn’t matter that you aren’t the strongest, the tallest, the smartest – or whatever, but if you able to be sufficiently self-aware so as to surround yourself with the right people – you can compensate for those weaknesses – and focus on your strengths.