Friday Quotes

Five favourite Friday quotes – and today, all of them are from women:

Maya Angelou

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Anais Nin

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”

Helen Keller

“When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.”

Judy Garland

“Always be a first-rate version of yourself instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.”

Eleanor Roosevelt

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

I think of this last quote frequently, perhaps twice a week. To me, it’s encapsulates that Stoic ideal perfectly.

Hiring Giants

Advice on hiring team members from the legendary advertising man and agency founder David Ogilvy:

“If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.”

A clear reminder that it’s sensible to park your ego at the door and hire people that are better than you are in all cases.

Silicon Valley Whistleblowers

My pile of books and articles tackling the dangers and challenges we collectively face from the tech industry seems to be growing far more quickly than I can ever consume it.

Whether the focus is ono the insidious growth of surveillance capitalism, the overreach of governments growing fat on the glut of data they can now gorge upon or simply the explosion in slick products that provide convenience with one hand whilst also stripping an individual’s privacy, the world is moving fast.

There’s no doubt that awareness is growing. The question is whether or not it will be both fast and good enough.

A group of activists have taken their thoughts to one of the key annual tech conference meccas – the SXSW Festival in Austen, Texas – this year to launch a campaign (‘You Are Not Alone’) to encourage whistleblowers who become aware of malfeasance within Big Tech companies, specifically in Silicon Valley, to step forward and take action.

They urge everyone to ask the following questions:-

– Is your company living up to its values?

– When you raise concerns about the things you’re building, are they addressed?

– Does this product have features that could put people in harm’s way?

– If anything unintended happened with a feature or if data were leaked, who could get hurt?

– Is building this tech the right thing to do or are we just doing it because other companies are doing it?

A campaign that, I hope, everyone can get behind.

Why Philosophy?

Philosophy is a subject that keeps drawing me in. The trouble is that I, like some others, find it hard. And inevitably after getting deep into the weeds, it’s all too easy to start questioning whether it’s the most productive thing I could be reading (or even just doing) with my day.

The attraction of the subject for me comes from a couple of (related) angles: first, that all-too-human desire to understand what the point of it all is, coupled with the constant search for a possible major upgrade of your own operating system as a human being.

I finished listening to ‘Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction’ by Edward Craig today on a run. In the conclusion, he set out a more expansive explanation of why many feel driven to explore philosophy:

“In the hope of learning to control nature, or of learning to control themselves, to get to heaven, to avoid going to hell; to enable us to bear life as it is, to make life bearable by changing it; to shore up institutions political, moral, or intellectual, or to tear them down; to promote the writer’s interests, to promote other people’s interests (yes, that happens too), even to promote everybody’s interests; because they can’t stand certain other philosophers; because their job demands it. Perhaps just occasionally out of pure curiosity.”

My philosophical bookshelf expands with every passing year. And although it grows at a rate that rapidly outpaces my actual rate of consumption, I’ve heard a number of people recount a very similar story after reading one set of ideas in particular, those of David Hume, the hugely influential Scottish philosopher who lived not too far from where I write this blog post this evening.

You may not find simple answers in such books. But they do contain ideas so powerful that they have the power to shake the foundations upon which you build your life.

So the best time to read such texts may be in your mid- to late teens. That gives such ideas the longest possible time to inform and influence your thinking as you journey through life. But of course, perhaps such things weren’t at the top of your list of most fascinating pursuits in those heady teenage years. In which case, the second best time? Right now.

Hard Work Means Different Things

I love this cartoon so much. It says so many different things at the same time.

About how invisible the real work that lies behind ‘genius’ usually is. About how different the views can be when held by two humans with ostensibly the same goals. About why it’s so important to love the path you travel – because you need to have that passion to keep driving forwards when others have packed up for the day.

And even more simply: why hard work pays off.

World Book Day 2019

As anyone who noticed a steady stream of kids making their way into school today dressed as Potters and Gruffalos, today was World Book Day once again. I’m all in favour of anything that gets people reading more so, feeling guilty that I still haven’t got round to posting my ‘Best Books Read in 2018’ post (I’m only just over two months late, so not too bad by my standards), I thought I’d jump in with a few thoughts on Twitter.

Click on the Tweet below and you’ll be able to see the full thread of suggestions (sorry, for some reason WordPress embeds and Twitter threads still don’t play nicely together):-

But of course, it’s also very much a day for learning about new books. And without doubt, the favourite one I came across today is the lesser-known classic: ‘Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality‘.

That’s  right. Fan fiction that uses the world of Harry Potter to illustrate the scientific method and rational thinking.

Beat that for a World Book Day 2019 recommendation!

Optimism and The Base Rate Fallacy

Some people get a reputation for optimism. Others are labelled as pessimists. And it’s often confused me because I’ve had both seemingly contradictory criticisms directed at me.

Whether the vast body of research into the subject agrees with me or not, it seems that the specific label that you apply to another can only be subjective. Whether you view someone as optimistic or pessimistic depends on a huge range of factors. What specific area of their life are you commenting on? Are you comparing their attitude to a cohort who are living similar lives – or are you simply comparing them to you?

And are the two entirely unrelated in any event? Just think of the advice: “Hope for the best but prepare for the worst”. Or read any biography of a successful repeat entrepreneur: the story’s usually pretty clear, a tale of someone who takes chances, sometimes huge, but at the same time works consistently on minimising any downside risk. Or the best investment advice: think of a Buffett/Munger warning against anything that doing anything that could potentially totally wipe you out.

When it comes to the question of why people provide me with different assessments of my character, I often wonder how much my legal training plays a role. I might not have been the best lawyer in the world (to say the least) – but I did spend close to two decades (combining law school, training and practice) being paid to think of the risks. Whether that was a good use of my time is another post altogether…

All of which leads me to a tangental point: how often are pessimists simply people who hold more information? It’s nothing to do with intelligence. Or even conscientiousness. It’s just a question of ‘being realistic’.

Daniel Kahneman speaks of something called the ‘Base Rate Fallacy‘ in his amazing book ‘Thinking Fast, and Slow’. It’s another of those inbuilt, unconscious biases that we all, to a greater or lesser extent, fall prey to. There’s a great post on Albert Wenger’s Continuations blog that explains the issue:-

“The classic example… is guessing which job someone has based on a description of their characteristics: “Steven wears glasses and has a meek demeanour. Is Steven more likely to be a librarian or a truck driver?”

“Our story telling brain wants to jump to the conclusion that Steven seems to fit our stereotype of a librarian much more than that of a truck driver. But in the US there are 3.5 million truck drivers and only 170 thousand librarians. So the base rate is that Steven is 20x as likely to be a truck driver than a librarian! It is therefore quite unlikely that the information about glasses and his demeanour is enough to suggest that Steven is actually more likely to be a librarian.”

The fallacy is responsible for launching thousands of misleading – or just plain wrong – news headlines every year.

Could it be the case that sometimes the so-called optimist is simply blundering ahead blindly with wildly incorrect assumptions (i.e. believing Steven is a librarian)? Whereas the so-called pessimist has a stronger understanding of the reality (i.e. how many lorry drivers there actually are)? That would certainly seem to tie in with evidence shown repeatedly by Nassim Nicholas Taleb that the vast majority of people simply don’t understand the way that statistics work.

So provided it doesn’t prevent you from taking action in the first place, perhaps a healthy dose of pessimism is actually just what the doctor ordered after all.

Excuses

A quote I’m pondering today:

““Ninety-nine percent of the failures come from people who have the habit of making excuses” — George Washington Carver

Often excuses start out as well-intentioned statements of fact – ‘most people doing X end up experiencing Y’. But the problem is that you are very rarely ‘most people’.

No one else has your experiences or talents. No one else has walked in your shoes. And if you’re motivated to do something (think: gun to the head), given a the right timescale, it’s hard to prevent someone achieving a result.

Everybody has a choice: you either get good at excuses – or you get good at getting things done.

It’s one or the other. Not both.

Different Crypto Camps

I think this tweet sums up the current state of Crypto very well.

As is common in the early days of any significant development in society or culture, a shiny new trend can represent many things to new people. Sometimes that shimmer comes from a lack of substance. Composed of hype, the excitement rapidly fades after you start to scratch properly beneath the surface.

But then, far less often, we discover a rich new technology seam that promises huge things. And it turns out that the potential can be backed up in practice (albeit often in ways that often weren’t envisaged at the outset).

To me, crypto is almost the archetypal example of such a paradigm shift. A new technology, that means so many different things to so many people. Confusingly, many of them use the same words to talk about different concepts; most of them have different goals that they’re striving towards; and, with monetary value built into the foundations of the system, people are often incentivised to disparage alternative views. Cue plenty of conflicting discussions, Twitter polemic and basic misunderstandings. But the forwards trend is now, I believe, undeniable.

I enjoyed this article by @caseykcaruso which points out the different camps that are evolving with the scene we loving call ‘Crypto’ (incorrectly, in most cases). You can argue with the definitions of the camps, and even about which projects make up each one – but overall, it’s a great starting point for someone who wonders what all the fuss is about!

1. The Sound Money Camp
Achieving financial self-sovereignty for the people of the world (e.g. Bitcoin)

2. The Payments Camp
Destroying those expensive middlemen like Visa who charge for services that could be provided digitally with micropayments and stable coins (e.g. Bitcoin Cash, Stellar, ZuckBucks)

3. The Open Finance Camp
Building open, accessible financial infrastructure that can compete directly with the traditional financial institutions (e.g. ICO fundraising – good and worse)

4. The Web3 Camp
Decentralising the institutions who control the internet and user’s data (e.g. SAFE Network, IPFS etc).

5. The Decentralised Ledger Tech Camp
Using the functions of transparency and immutability from blockchain tech in order to improve supply chains and backend efficiency in general – a technological, rather than philosophical, revolution (e.g. Corda, Hyperledger).

So, to sum it up: the distinctions are important because behind each one stands a broad church of people, many of whom have different motivations. So if you ever wonder why the scene seems to be moving so quickly (in terms of discussion, even if not in actual practical application), it’s worth remembering that you’re probably reading things by all manner of different people. And most of them are disagreeing.

And, what’s more, that’s a good thing.