On Problem Solving

I caught myself today acting a bit strange. [Ed: you finally noticed?]

Ok ok I mean stranger than usual. [Ed: how could you tell?]

Conversations with imaginary editors [Ed: oi] aside, I found myself sitting in my car, having returned from a busy day at work, playing a game I found yesterday called Really Bad Chess. It’s an interesting little game where, in order to level the playing field for people who kinda know enough to play chess but are – frankly – really bad at it, the playing pieces are mixed up. You still play by the same rules, but instead of having an AI that plays dumb – because a grandmaster-beating AI is easily available in your pocket these days – you get different proportions of pieces to make the game interesting.

It’s a fascinating game, and especially so for me, because I’m… pretty bad at chess. I tend to think far too reactively or tactically, or I recklessly lose patience and try to slam home an advantage that usually quickly evaporates.

So here I was, on my way home, a hundred little things to do, and instead I’m sitting in my car, trying to solve this particular iteration of the game. I’m solving this game dammit before I go home.

And that’s when it hit me: I spent the whole day solving problems at work, and then during my zone-out time on the train home, I chose to spend my time solving a problem – a virtual one, entirely of my own making and inconsequential as I chose to make it – because I’m addicted to the hit of solving an intellectual problem.

It’s not just this particular game – I’ve done it with games like Threes or Alto’s Oddessey recently. These are defined problem spaces where I can largely figure out the rules and get to the solution in a reasonable amount of time, and it fascinates me and holds my attention way longer than you’d expect.

I wonder if there’s more productive ways to spend my time than getting dopamine hits from solving games. Anyone else experience the same?

Sonder through public meditation

If you’ve not experienced sonder 1 before, or not done so in a while, here’s a neat public meditation exercise that you can do that’ll open up new worlds:

Pick any person sitting, or standing, across from you. Someone you can stare at without seeming creepy. Focus on that person and get a good feel for their energy and who they are.

Shift to a soft focus on that person and picture them in their happiest moments — Hugging a friend, picking up their kids from school, reuniting with someone they love, celebrating after some good news.

Now, picture them in their saddest moments and imagine what they would look like when feeling low. Feel their sadness and despair with them.

Channel your most loving energy, and thoughts, and put it on that person. Make them feel the love and happiness you’re projecting onto them. Imagine their remaining life feeling fulfilled, whole, and finding peace within themselves.

Ok maybe the “make them feel the love and happiness you’re projecting” bit might go over the creepy-random-stranger line. But y’know, boundaries. (via)

  1. “The profound feeling of realizing that everyone, including strangers passed in the street, has a life as complex as one’s own, which they are constantly living despite one’s personal lack of awareness of it.” (wiktionary)

Ceteris Paribus

Change one thing at a time, and hold all others equal – ceteris paribus.

It’s a core of science – to do an experiment, you look at cause and effect by making a cause happen and observing for effect.

Except, just about anything that happens in the real world is not easily explained by a single cause, and so we work backwards from effect to try to puzzle out the causes, because that’s the way that gives you the most truth – the effect is observable and known, but the cause isn’t always clear, not until you repeat and retry and figure out how many strings you need to be tugging on at any one time to get the puppet to dance.

So why do we still believe in the idea of Ceteris Paribus? Why is it useful? Is it because our monkey brains are yet to evolve to the point where we can keep track of explanations that need more parameters, and we figure from there that it’s the best way to do it?

I think I’m asking why humans can’t do multiple regression in our head, except there’s times when we do, we just can’t explicitly explain the steps along the way. Maybe that’s why the people who do best at this stuff get paid the proverbial big bucks to be data scientists, when 10 years ago those people were doing the finance thing, and 10 years before that the internet thing, and 10 years before that the greed-is-good finance thing, and 10 years before that the moonshot thing.

Getting to the moon certainly wasn’t ceteris paribus, in the end. Maybe that’s the lesson to take from all of this – that as much as the idea is useful, reality is more complicated.

p.s. how is it that we’re some 1700 or so years down the line from the peak of the Roman Empire and their language is still the best most succinct way to explain something? Will we see 1700 years hence some quote of the milkshake duck meme will still be the best way to point to a person and go “this dude is problematic”? That’d be mind-blowing.

Jury Duty: As It Happened

Back in April this year, I got a letter in the mail from the Office of the Sheriff for NSW. For a minute there I thought this had to be a fake, but who fakes a letter in the year 2017? For that matter in the year 2017, how do we have a sheriff? Isn’t that one of those anachronisms that disappeared somewhere in the 19th century? But no, here was a real letter…

Opening it up, I discovered I’d been put on the shortlist for jury duty this year.


I’m reasonably civic minded, and jury duty has certainly been something I’d previously been keen to see how it worked. Seeing the inner workings of the justice system was always something of interest, and I’d have been happy to do so under any ordinary circumstances… but the 12 month period to come was looking like a busy one, and I’m not sure I would be able to juggle everything. At that point it was just a notification, so it would be fine.

Three days later I got another letter, informing me I had been selected, and would be required at the Supreme Court shortly. So much for that theory.

It just happened to be that the summons date was when I was going to be out of town on a mini-holiday – and I’d only booked it literally the day that I had received the summons, so I went online and applied to be excused on that basis with some mixed feelings. I thought maybe that was that for the year, that I’d be put back in the process and who knew if I would get chosen again.

Of course, just when you most don’t want it, the universe conspires against you. It’s like getting randomly selected at the airport, the days when you just most don’t need the delay are the days that you get chosen and look most uncomfortable.

So come July, I received another notice. And… it happened to clash with a day that I was going to be out of the state again (thank you NSW for the August bank holiday), and I was once more excused prior to the day.

You know what’s coming next right?

Continue reading Jury Duty: As It Happened

Back online

So my site was offline with a bad plugin for just over 2 weeks, and I had no idea.

I used to check this shit daily.

Goddamn WordPress plugins are so. fucking. frustrating. Fantastic in theory, easy bit of functionality to extend the system, but the biggest source of vulnerabilities in the software, so you feel like you have to turn on automatic updates. Except now, turns out, I’m vulnerable to a plugin updating that goes bad, and fucks up the whole fucking site. Like, what kind of fucking design is that? Oh right, PHP, where the browser is the error console. GAH.

I really need to sort out where I’m at with this place, and what I’m doing with it

The Super-aggregators

Ben Thompson of Stratechery writes of Facebook & to a lesser extent Google’s model here:

What makes Facebook and Google unique is that not only do they have zero transaction costs when it comes to serving end users, they also have zero transaction costs when it comes to both suppliers and advertisers.

An interesting way to think about it; Facebook’s suppliers are its users, since they produce the content; this attracts and retains other “suppliers” – you and me, the friends of those on Facebook, and in turn that gives Facebook its “product” that it sells to its market, the advertisers.

Facebook doesn’t really do much work in between – sure, yes, they host the site, and make it possible to share thousands of photos and videos and whatnot – but they don’t need to make that happen on a personally-involved scale; they don’t call you to post on your profile to pull in other people who are also simultaneously shown ads.

Facebook and Google seem to be unique in this position – other networks don’t seem to have scaled in that same way, which is what makes Facebook & Google the “super aggregators”, and chances are their combined power wil eventually swamp the other also-rans that didn’t make it to that level of power.

(Note also: Facebook et al make the best attempt to steal the sole resource you have that is non-renewble, your time.)

Winter’s over

Winter’s over before it got cold. I mean, like, really properly cold. I think went out of my way this year to get exposed to something resembling the winter of old – biting cold that makes you happy to be inside. I went to Melbourne and to the mountains and to the valleys outside Sydney because it felt like autumn never ended at home, like a cold snap was just around the corner, like I’d need to take out my blanket next week, but now the calendar tells me winter is over for another year.

If I were to describe in detail the way things have been busy, I’d be here until summer, I suspect. This month, I travelled away for the weekend twice, both pleasant occasions, and spent the other two weekends up to my ears in attempting to be a junior economist, creating two papers I’d actually be proud of. Turns out that I really, really like studying economics, and even if I get an average mark, I’ll be pleased to have been exposed to it, and I could spend hours debating it and the implications.

Unfortunately, between that and work, I ended up with such free time as I attempted to fill with a show that told me winter was coming, and with a series of books that enthralled me like few have in years. The Expanse is a universe I’m struggling not to devour, knowing my pace of consumption far outweighs the scope of the content produced to date. Reading for pleasure was an itch I’ve been trying to scratch for well over a year since I ploughed through The Dresden Files, and finally something stuck, and now I’m almost afraid to finish it for fear of having nothing to go on to.

I also during this month discovered Apple’s Reading List feature – and I guess I mean discovered in the Captain Cook sense, in that there were a bunch of people who have been using this for years – and I marvel at the way things are so easy now, bookmarks magically synchronised across devices at a wonderous speed. I’ve been stacking up things to read and things to share there for some time, and it looks like this weekend may be it, with little else to do in all honesty, so the chance to unwind mentally and unpack the things I thought worth squirrelling away for future will come out with the end of winter as the hibernation ends.

(I say that, but it sure doesn’t look like things will ease up at all in the coming months – it’ll be Feburary before I can well and truly relax.)

(oh and I’ve realised I’m planning to head to the US again at the end of the year, against perhaps some better judgement considering the political scene, so I’ll be getting all the dose of winter I could ever ask for over there.)

(for a post that started with mentioning how winter’s done, I sure did end up focusing on it a lot huh.)

Here’s to unwinding with the longer days, and cracking open this year’s supply of antihistamines.

Then it was Ma- Jun- July. 

A draft starts in April, and then it was May. And despite the fact that May feels like the longest month ever – did you realise it’s 31 days? Does anything actually happen in May after May Day? A day so boring they couldn’t even come up with a more interesting name for it? Is it even a month that counts given the uncertainty expressed in its name? – it ended up being a rather wholly busy month, and so it was June, and you know what June is like. Honestly, May should trade its 31st day to June so we can have a chance to get some things done before the middle of the year arrives all in a huff. It shouldn’t be surprising when 30th June shows up and all of a sudden you’re in the back half of Twenty bloody Seventeen and 2018 is just around the corner. Remember when it was still 2016 and you thought “how can this year get any shittier?” and then 2017 arrived and the conclusion was “oh, yes, this is how,”? Well, we’re now further away than ever from the utopia that was 2016, and it’s now under six months to go until 2018. If you conceived a child today, it wouldn’t be born until March 2018. The end of March 2018. That’s where we are now. Or will be in 9 months time, you get my point.

Phew. A breather.

How the hell is it July already?

Oh that’s right, I’ve decided I didn’t really need free time after all, and am now completely occppied in entirely planned and unplanned ways. I opened a book yesterday for the first time in about 4 months because I finally found myself with a half hour of time I hadn’t allocated out or somehow spent on productive and unproductive activities that choose to occupy my brain. While that moment felt good, it was also tinged with “but I should be doing x, y or d instead…”

Let me tell you now, doing an MBA while working full time on an intensive project and also trying to keep a long distance relationship going is a… challenging idea. Any one of the above by itself would’ve been enough to keep the ordinary person occupied, which is what I had last year, but I’ve somehow stumbled into all three at the same time and it’s been an adventure in time management. I had the value of being bored and pursuing interests in new areas gets sacrificed, and at times I’m quite willing to skip out on social events entirely just to give myself a couple of hours to catch up on everything that’s been going on.

When it comes to events of the year, it has been relentless, and with each day that passes I’m more convinced that I need to be more politically engaged. Some of that comes from the frustration of seeing the government navel gazing; some of that comes from the sheer absurdity that is the USA right now. I know a large driving factor is seeing my local representative completely failing to represent me as he happens to be an arch conservative that carries the flag for everything that is wrong with the conservative side of politics in this country (like, every single bone-headed policy. He cheers for Trump completely unnecessarily!). And then I remember everything I’ve already got on my plate, and I wonder what I could realistically do without sacrificing something.

That kind of feeling and motivation seems to tie in with an increased self-awareness and maturity that I didn’t consciously come to, but rather has welled up with time and experience – it is something along the age lines that really starts to become obvious. Where the twenties were about my personal growth and – frankly – somewhat selfish in many measures, it appears the thirty mark being passed does make a difference in how the world feels like it’s impacting my life. A sense of agency appears – that I can, and should, need to do something to make a change, make the place a better one.

And now I suspect I’m rambling. It’s useful to use this platform to explore thoughts and process, but I do occasionally need an editor to go “right mate, wrap it up, you’re wandering in a way that someone outside your head can’t follow.” And so I will.

Though! One more thing before I go, a media endorsement: go watch The Expanse. That’s some damn good scifi, and I’ve been only to happy to escape to that universe for 40 minutes or so at a time.

Globalisation and Inequality

This thinkpiece is opinion with some small basis in researched reality, but please don’t take this as definitive. All my own views.

The argument being made in the US post-Trump and in the UK post-Brexit is that the forces of globalisation and free trade have led to increasing inequality, and that’s what the working class of these countries is getting upset about – their increasing distance from the “elite” that are perceived to benefit from the globalisation at the cost of the working class.

Except what’s happening here – to put it in Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat terms – is that the playing field is flattening, at least at the lower end of the income distribution. This means more than just bringing the developing countries up to the standard of the developed countries – it’s also causing the developed countries to drop down a little, or more rather a reversion to the mean.

The way the working class in developed nations are feeling the pain is an inevitable consequence of this globalisation – the advantages they had were only ever relative, because for all that there’s said about equality, it was never the case that developed economies were “equal” – it was entirely in their average lying well above the global average.

But now… it’s not so much. The working class in developed economies is being levelled with the working class in other economies. The working class of developing economies are coming closer to equal footing as borders come down in the pursuit of the dollar. Immigration makes this even more so, where those willing to work for a low wage by developed economy standards are comparatively better off by their personal standards because it’s a high wage by their own standards; this only starts to break down when the wages in their home countries lift enough that the differential isn’t worth it.

Inequality has always been there; inequality, globally, has gotten lower. However, where it was also unequally spread – where some countries had less internal inequality – it’s now being more equally distributed around the world as a global population is included and free trade and movement of labour makes the production of goods anywhere the same.

Continue reading Globalisation and Inequality

A Love Letter to Australia

First Dog on the Moon writes a love letter to Australia:

Hello Australia, I have always loved you.

There isn’t space here to list everything as Australia takes up a lot of space.

I love standing still in the bush when it is pushing 40 degrees…

I love watching Test cricket. With the sound on the TV off and the ABC radio on…

Geez we can be funny buggers though. I love that. And the way we talk, I reckon if the science could work out a way to weaponise an accent, Australian voices could blast a hole in the moon. Yeah nah

I love the fact that everyone’s taken to be equal, how we talk about our leaders as Bob and Paul and Johnny and Kevin and Julia and Tony and Mal, none of this formality nonsense.

I love how “She’ll be right,” is a legitimate attitude to just about everything.

Love this peice.