The Madness of Rice (Revisited)

Exactly a month ago, I ended up writing a post called The Madness of Rice.

Not what I’d usually write about, I mentioned that I’d been told about a piece of internet folklore that alleged that you could take two jars of cooked rice and treat them differently for a month – giving one nothing but compliments and the other only abuse.

It sounds like nonsense. It’s miles from being a scientific experiment in any way. And what’s more it sounds crazy. But I realised that my default with such things is to immediately go off and research the truthfulness of any such stories on the internet. Whereas, in this case, I could simply test the frankly unbelievable idea out for myself.

So after committing to do so, and to report back, here’s the photo:-

You’ll just have to take my word for it. But the rice that got abuse for a month? Ended up in a pretty bad shape. Whilst the other was almost the same as the day it went into the container.

It’s a long way from proving anything much. Maybe all it shows is that one container will grow mould faster than another and you’ve therefore got a 50/50 chance of the ‘experiment’ ending up with the results that are promised.

But it did prove one thing, perhaps more important. That’s the fact that it’s worth investigating things yourself. No matter how flawed. We rely on simply headlines and online simplifications for so much of modern life. From now on, the next time I fall myself falling into the track of blindly accepting something, I’ll be thinking of two words instead: Stupid Rice.

Fake Faces

Back in 2014, the following faces were created by AI:-Then in 2018, AI has improved just a little:-

You can read about all the details in this paper if you’re interested.

I think you’d agree that it’s stunning how realistic these are. I doubt anyone would be able to work out that many of these people are artificially generated simply by examining a photograph. Of course, there’s still a long way to go before man can fully leap that uncanny valley and accurately recreate these individuals in real 3D life. But it’s coming. And given the progress over the last four years, I wouldn’t bet against it happening much sooner than we think.

Oh, and good luck for all those professional models out there. If I’m designing advertising copy or fashion, then I suspect I’ll be picking the artificial model that’s designed to have the characteristics that are most appealing to my target audience. Why settle for relying on simple, expensive humans, with their imperfect bodies, irregular eye placement and all the rest…

And if nothing else, just think how good those computer games that must be coming down the line very soon are going to be…


The Bitcoin Standard

One of my favourite books of 2018 without doubt was Saifedean Ammous’ ‘The Bitcoin Standard’.

Probably my favourite release about Bitcoin during the last five years or so as well, it doesn’t even mention Bitcoin itself until you’re near something like page 180 of 280 pages. But if you’re even vaguely interested in economics and cryptocurrency, I’d mark it down as a must-read.

Now I’ve been intending to write an in-depth post about it for a while. And I may well still do that. But in the meantime, thanks to the wonders of Twitter, I came across a incredible tweetstorm by Yorick de Mombynes which pretty much summarises the entire book in 135 tweets!

You can read the full thing here or even better, do it directly on Twitter:

A Beginner’s Mind Beats The Expert

“In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities.

But in the expert’s, there are few.”

The Beginner’s Mind concept is a Buddhist concept (Shoshin) that was made famous by Shunryu Suzuki, a monk and teacher who helped to bring the teachings of Zen to the United States.

I’ve been reading quite a bit about the process of learning recently. That’s come from a few experiments I’ve been carrying out into spaced repetition, some has been as a result of reflecting on talks given by people such as Adam Robinson who studied the SAT exam system in the US a couple of decades ago and worked out the process for how to pass the exams (with the result that the exam system had to be fundamentally overhauled).

Much of learning (school, music, athletic pursuits etc.) comes down to one simple fact: if you want to get good at something, you really need to practice it – it being the specific thing that you wish to do. So if you want to get better at interviews, sit down with people you don’t know asking you random questions beforehand. For music, get great at playing one piece – before you get averagely bad at ten. And when it comes to exams in general, practice by reading the sample questions at the end of a textbook chapter before you’ve even read the chapter. It sounds counterintuitive but the value is exceptionally high for two reasons:

1/ You’re now primed to read the chapter with the correct focus in your mind; and

2/ (Even more importantly) you’re actually practicing how to respond to questions where you don’t know what the answer is.

As an aside: apparently the data from an unpublished study that Adam Robinson carried out shows that male students do better than female students on tests where questions crop up on the day which the test taker doesn’t know how to answer. This is because girls at school (generally) work harder and/or are  more prepared for exams than boys. So when a question crops up that has an unknown answer, girls are often more put off by it (‘why’s this happened when I’ve done all this hard work preparing for the exam?’) compared to boys (‘well, I know I didn’t actually work as hard as I could have coming into this exam so I’ll just muddle my way through the areas I don’t know’).

Back to the original point: a beginner views each piece of learning with wonder, open to the myriad of unknown possibilities that may exist. It comes from Buddhist literature. Whereas the expert looks at everything through the lens of whether or not it conforms to a pre-existing view of the world. As I’ve written before, there are many reasons why experts (self-professed or otherwise) can in fact be damaging (see here, here and here).

So think carefully before you spend your life striving to be the expert that society tells you delivers the greatest personal rewards. At least, if you view learning as a journey for life, and not simply a route to a title.

Oumuamua and the Paradigm Shifts

I read a bit of sci-fi (not enough) and one of my favourites is Arthur C. Clarke’s classic ‘Rendezvous With Rama‘. So when I first heard about the appearance of Oumuamua last year, I was fascinated. The parallels between this emergence of this first ever visitor from outside our solar system and the mysterious cylindrical alien starship were notable for anyone with an ounce of imagination.

So I really enjoyed listening to the ‘After On’ podcast that I’ve discovered recently (tagline: unhurried conversations with thinkers, founders and scientists). This episode revolves around a conversation between Rob Reid and Avi Loeb from the end of November last year. If you were following the story, you’ll know that Loeb is the Chair of the Harvard Astronomy Department who published a paper last year (one of over 700 so far in his career) in which he stated that there was a possibility that the object passing through our solar system might well be the product of an alien intelligence.

So you can probably imagine why the media suddenly went crazy around the story.

What’s really interesting here is the extent of the backlash against his paper. The comments were met with serious criticism – and it appears to be that this is because the ‘A’ word was mentioned. Much like Voldemort, using the word ‘alien’ is a trigger, perhaps one of only a few within the scientific community over the use of which careers can be destroyed in an instant. Whereas Loeb’s approach is very different: as he says in the podcast, he’s simply looking for the truth. He is agnostic as to what that is – but to simply shut down and refuse to engage in such debate is not an environment that is conducive to enabling truly great discoveries to be made.

For example, Einstein worked in a patent office. It’s not simply about research at the top universities – genius can increasingly be found everywhere (partly because increasing amounts of scientific data is being opened up for public access). But one of the most vitriolic rebuttals of Loeb’s theory came from an individual on a blog whose thoughts were then picked up by the mainstream media. Perhaps an example of the huge power that you can wield as an expert (real or otherwise) when news outlets simply need a pithy summary to fit into the daily news diet.

Regardless of the outcome here (interestingly, we may have the answer relatively quickly when the existing telescopes that initially identified the visitor – the Pan-STARRS telescopes in Hawaii – are replaced by a far more powerful system within the next three years), it’s interesting to see how Loeb’s theory was received.

When it comes to the stars, we still know so little. And sometimes things that are ‘certain’ do change. Einstein made mistakes for example. And what about the Copernican Revolution where mankind’s entire view of the solar system changed entirely? Previously, the Ptolemaic Model (with a stationary earth at the centre of the universe) was accepted scientific wisdom.

Then Nicolaus Copernicus came along and argued that everything here was wrong. That instead, the Sun was at the centre of the Solar System and it was the Earth and other planets revolve around it (the Heliocentric System). Didn’t exactly go down too well with many people, at least initially.

Who knows what the real answer is. It’s possible that we’ll never know in the case of Oumuamua. But as a general tip regardless of the subject, it feels that it’s probably important to remind ourselves to keep our minds open wherever possible. Because at some point, when accepted wisdom becomes factually incorrect, you probably don’t want to be the Luddite on the other side.

Employee Fitness & Surveillance

So, here’s a bad idea – employers microchipping employees to monitor their activities.

It sounds futuristic and somewhat unlikely. And yet it’s already happening. Research has shown that many employees are keen for their employers to take an active role in their health and wellbeing (61% in this report). This has translated in some cases to large companies (including Barclays, BP) providing wearable fitness trackers to employees to encourage healthy activities.

The risk here is that employees don’t realise how much sensitive information they are sharing – about their location, rest breaks and hours that they’ve worked. The cost of each chip is between £70 and £260 per person so it’s not hard to see how companies that do pay that expense might be seeking some form of financial benefit that justifies the investment.

It’s not an idea that’s entirely new. Henry Ford had a Sociological Department which would monitor workers. After making unscheduled calls on employees, the rewards for any that failed to meet the standards came in the form of lower wages.

So it’s not hard to see that story being repeated just over a century later. As The Economist points out:-

“It seems reasonable for companies to expect some level of economic return on any wellness programme that they provide. But the trade-off should not be too blatant. Making employees fitter so you can work them a lot harder seems rather like drilling your infantry on an assault course before sending them to face the machine guns. A better impact on morale (and thus productivity) might occur if workers felt that their managers had a genuine interest in their welfare.”

Something to think about before you start giving the log-in details to your Fitbit account to your HR Department.

If You’re Reading This, You’re WEIRD…

As the world gets bigger, we’re starting to understand just how complex life is. Unless we seek atrophy by feeding it a consistent junk food of disposable television, our brains should become increasingly better with experience at making connections between seemingly unrelated topics.

Take assessing human behaviour for example. Look long enough and you’ll start to understand how others will react to events. Or how they’ll misjudge situations for any number of reasons. Some people call it wisdom. Or experience. But whatever it is, there’s no doubt it’s easier to identify in others – we recognise patterns taking shape once they become prominent because we noticed them in the first place (the red car, or Baader-Meinhoff, phenomenon).

Of course, you’re likely to suffer from similar flaws yourself. It’s just that we all have terrible eyesight when it comes to identifying our own behavioural prejudices, making them much easier to identify in others.

Someone (Einstein? if not, perhaps Mark Twain – since most internet quotations tend to get attributed to him by default if there’s any doubt as to its provenance…) once said:

“The more I learn, the less I understand”

Things are complex. As Tyler Cowen is fond of saying, he’s not hugely enthusiastic about space exploration – because there’s so much vast untapped potential still to explore here on earth that could bring more immediate benefits for humanity (initially in the oceans which to this day remain undiscovered territory).

But as we start to travel more freely (and quickly) and communicate near-instantly around our global village, one thing that’s becoming clear is that so much of the research that we’ve been carrying out into what makes humans tick is fundamentally flawed – because we keep using a very small group of humans in our scientific research. To put it another way, most of those test individuals are WEIRD – Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic. And most of the people in the world are not like that:

“more than 90 percent of studies recently published in psychological science’s flagship journal come from countries representing less than 15 percent of the world’s population.”

For example, in carrying out a simple pattern recognition test on children in Zambia, it turned out that they scored way below those in the West on identifying the missing item in a row of simple two-dimensional shapes (squares, triangles etc). Yet in a repeat test using more familiar three-dimensional shapes (stones, toothpicks etc), those figures changed significantly for the better.

The research was flawed because the context was wrong.

In other words, there seem to be some fairly significant misplaced presumptions about what constitutes ‘normal’ when it comes to human behaviour. We’re only now starting to realise that this is the case – so I think it’s safe to assume that there are going to be some pretty different and surprising test results that arise in experiments around human behaviour over the next few decades as the net gets cast far more widely and we expand the focus of our research considerably.

We’re all humans. And maybe we’re all very similar. But if it turns out that we’re not and you’re reading this blog today, it’s good to remember – you’re probably one of the weird ones.


Happy Tenth Birthday Bitcoin

I’ve written before about Bitcoin reaching a milestone birthday – three years ago on its sixth birthday and then for its (first!) tenth birthday back in November 2018. You see this sovereign, just like the Queen, has two birthdays – the date of the publication of the original White Paper and the date of the very first block that was mined (the Genesis Block).

You’ve got to admire the chutzpah of BitMex placing an advert on the front page of the very newspaper whose headline was embedded in the very first Bitcoin block that was ever mined.

On top of that, it’s worth taking note of the # proofofkeys campaign that’s being pushed across social media today as well. Fronted by well-known Bitcoin evangelist Trace Mayer, the Proof of Keys campaign aims to remind the many newcomers to the cryptocurrency scene that if you don’t have control of your private keys, you don’t have control of your money. Or to use their slogan:

“Not your keys; Not your bitcoin”

The reason that I, amongst many others, support this campaign is because it is a reminder to everyone not to lose sight of the reasons why Bitcoin is so powerful. It’s the hardest money that the world has ever seen. There is absolutely no way to inflate the monetary supply – and it has an existing money supply that can be publicly verified by anyone at any point in time. That’s a huge advantage over the previous hardest money the world had ever seen (i.e. gold). And that’s before you even start to build into that equation the values of divisibility, portability etc.

And yet. So many people these days rely on exchanges to store their funds – and the vast majority don’t realise that by doing so, they’ve given these third parties control of their funds. They no longer have any control whatsoever. It’s an incredibly worrying trend and, in some ways, far worse than simply relying on the current banking system – because so many have tasted monetary sovereignty only to sacrifice it once again at the altar of convenience.

So the Proof Of Funds campaign encourages everyone to withdraw their crypto holdings from exchanges today. For minimal transaction fees, the campaign urges you transfer any funds to an address that you control (i.e,. you physically hold the private key to that address). At that stage, you no longer have to trust that someone holds your bitcoin – because you have the mathematical means to do whatever you like with your funds.

The other major benefit of this (if done at scale) is that it stress-tests the exchanges. There’s no doubt that exchanges provide security and comfort for many around the world – but if this is your choice then you have to accept that you are inherently trusting a third party to be telling you the truth when it says that it holds the actual bitcoin behind the ledger entry on your account.

What’s to say that one (or more) of these exchanges have actually spent your bitcoin and are just giving you IOU’s that it hopes its customers will never redeem en masse?

Let’s see if any exchanges go down today. For those that didn’t live through Mt. Gox back in 2014, you’ll have to take the word of those that did at face value. It wasn’t a good time.

Let’s not do it again.

Using Fiction to Simulate Decision-Making

One of the things that I wrestle with when it comes to choosing reading material is the balance between fiction and non-fiction. Over the past couple of years in particular, my focus has been almost exclusively on non-fiction. And whilst that has brought a huge number of benefits, that practice (enjoyable as it is) has meant that picking up fiction isn’t as relaxing as it could be. It feels as if there’s often a subconscious battle between ‘learning’ (expanding knowledge via non-fiction) and ‘consuming’ engaging stories.

For example, I’m currently reading what is generally accepted to be one of the finest novels of the twentieth century – but feel conflicted as I look at the vast piles of unread non-fiction that populate the room, each one representing an area that I’m fascinated to learn more about. After all, why buy a physical copy of any book unless it’s one that you believe you’ll likely want to revisit again in the future?

But listening to an old 2017 North Star podcast interview with Shane Parrish on a run today, it feels like as good a time as any to reconsider that distinction in my head. Shane runs Farnam Street, a blog I’ve been reading for a number of years now (highly recommended – if nothing else, check out this post on mental models).

When talking about fiction, a couple of things jumped out at me:-

1/ Reading fiction is the closest that you can come to seeing simulated decision-making in alternative worlds. 

You might not be choosing the circumstances or actions, but for the most part, you get to live through the outcomes vicariously – and the most powerful novels will often mirror the realities of the human condition, thus informing what might happen in a parallel (real) world.

2/ Acting like your heroes can help you to improve your own behaviour and outcomes.

This one is a little bit more fuzzy – but a concept that I’ve heard a number of people discuss recently is that when they’re facing a difficult decision or situation, they make a conscious decision to pick someone that they admire and ask themselves “What would [X] do in this situation?”. Interestingly, this can often put you into a more balanced frame of mind when taking action. Somewhat counterintuitively, it also goes part of the way to explain why ‘fake it til you make it’ actually does work at times.

On a related note, I’ve written recently in this blog about the need to read things that contradict your world views. As Shane puts it:

“A lot of people stop reading if they don’t agree with something. I think part of being an adult is being able to read something that you don’t agree with and being able to put yourself in different perspectives that allow you to see the problem from different angles.”

The reason is simple: the more angles you can view any problem from, the less chance you’ll have of suffering from blind spots. And blind spots are where bad decisions come from.

Whilst I’ve always understood the value of good stories, I need to work on reframing reading fiction as simply another form of learning. The evidence is clear that science fiction can not only predict but also inform the development of the future and there are many other benefits to having a healthy fiction habit (developing empathy for a start).

Feels like another good target for 2019.