Be nice

It’s not always easy, being nice.

Especially when we’re feeling anything but nice.

But please, let’s do the right thing and put in a little bit of emotional labour to check ourselves.

Because if we don’t, we may not get a second chance.

(Had read too many badly written, caustic e-mails today. Though I wasn’t on the receiving end of them, I knew the people who were weren’t taking it very well, and I just wished the sender had thought about the consequences on people his words may have.)

Machine Learning and the New Racism

Scary stuff, but something I think we’re already deeply mired in: Physiognomy’s New Clothes (the new racism, courtesy of machine learning).

Reminds me of the book Weapons of Math Destruction, which also highlighted many important points about the problems with “runaway” algorithms, which not only face the danger of falling into a closed feedback loop (and thus feeding their native biases), but also where the builders of the algorithm are no longer around to ensure the algorithm’s still behaving according to theory and can no longer validate its results qualitatively.

What is more, having worked on many data science projects, I know how easy it is to build models that can be tweaked to say anything I want by just tweaking a couple of parameters.

And let’s just say that models that don’t quite agree with management’s decree don’t always see the light of day.

(Link to article above “Physiognomy’s New Clothes” via the wonderful Marginal Revolution blog, which also highlighted the fact that this was “neglected” — I personally am finding myself increasingly leaning toward the AI doomsayers. The more I know, the more I worry.)

Thinking About Life

Maybe it’s do with the weather of late – cool, dreary, wet; or maybe it’s to do  the long runs I’ve been doing – lonely, peaceful, contemplative.

Whatever it was, I’ve been thinking about life – about how it has been; about how it is now; and about how it is going to be.


I first came across this beautiful poem called Ithaca by C.P. Cavafy more than ten years ago. I was about 17 or 18 then, and I must admit that I didn’t fully appreciate it. I had, in fact, actually thought that it had to be mistaken: what is life but the destination?

Now I’m almost twice as old, and its reading has a profound new meaning to me, and reading it always calms my nerves when I start worrying about possible life-changing decisions (which, experience tells me, is truly life-changing in only 1% of the cases).

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

(An aside: I’d come across the poem in Robert Fulghum‘s Words I Wish I Wrote, a book I first loaned from the library and which I later procured second-hand through a charity event. It was perhaps the most influential book in my life, introducing me to some of my favourite pieces of literature and authors, including the book Catch-22, which made me realise I could actually like fiction; and Albert Camus, who introduced me into the rather dark world of existential philosophy.)


An added bonus here. I was just re-reading Words I Wish I Wrote and came across this gem from Franz Kafka, which is another magnificent calm-your-nerves piece:

If we knew we were on the right road, having to leave it would mean endless despair. But we are on a road that only leads to a second one and then to a third one and so forth. And the real highway will not be sighted for a long, long time, perhaps never. So we drift in doubt. But also in an unbelievable beautiful diversity. Thus the accomplishment of hopes remains an always unexpected miracle. But in compensation, the miracle remains forever possible.

life: larger than our plans

The net is set for the fish,
    But catches the swan in its mesh.
The praying mantis covets its prey,
    While the sparrow approaches from the rear.
Within one contrivance hides another;
Beyond one change, another is born.
Are wisdom and skill enough to put your hopes on?

From the book Master of the Three Ways, by Hung Ying-ming (1:148).

Just a reminder to myself that sometimes life is larger than our plans.

Perspective: Million vs. Billion

"How long is a million seconds? How many days do you think that is?" I asked.

"I don't know," she said, then started counting, realised it was pretty hard to do in your head, then stopped.

I gave her the answer: "approximately 11 days".

"Now," I continued, "how about a billion? How many days is a billion seconds?"

This time she was ready. The answer was intuitive now. A million and a billion – they're not too different. We talk about millionaires and billionaires in pretty much the same breath. A little rough arithmetic and we're done.

"A hundred days?" she guessed. "Maybe a little more?"

31 years.

 


I was reminded of this fact recently in a book on financial planning by Tony Robbins, where he was trying to push the point on how we often think we know what we want, but because never thought about it in greater detail are probably really wrong about that. He used the example of how we think the road to becoming a millionaire and the road to becoming a billionaire are pretty much the same.

They're different. Very different.

Another recent story came to mind, this time in the world of fitness: that of how a pro gambler won a $1 million dollar bet to go below 10% body fat. Reading the story, I was reminded how different it was to go from 25% to 15%, as compared to going from 15% to sub-10%. Seemingly similar goals, but in reality very different.

I wonder how many other things we take for granted to be similar but in reality are anything but.