I hope you learned something from that

Start of Valdresflye

At the beginning of 2016, I was hoping for a more “creative 2016” and had internalized a few secret New Year Resolutions: Write a blog post at least once per month, release a music track every two months, learn to draw, read more books, make weekly programming projects, and a few others that I cannot remember.

Not surprisingly, none of this happened. With so many goals, most of them unclear, I was bound to disappoint myself.

Part of the reason is that my creativity is limited, and most of it is spent on work-related endeavors. For example, I would not have learned the Go language if I had not used it for work-related projects. Fortunately, I have a job that allows me to grow, but unfortunately, it also means that I often do not have enough extra creative energy to pursue some hobbies outside work.

For example, regarding music, I only managed to release a single track. This feels like a failure compared to my secret goal of releasing something every two months. In fact, it was already a major letdown half-way through the year when I had produced nothing.

And let’s not talk about all the other things I wanted to do…

I have been struggling a lot with creative willpower throughout 2016. I often felt like I was “wasting my time” watching tv or playing a video game, but without having the will or capacity to actually do something about it. For certain activities, it is so easy to say “just start it”, but much harder to actually do it. I still believe that forming habits is a good first step to get stuff done, but I think what I learned is that I have limited resources to do so.

In the end — and with the help of my wife — I have concluded that it is OK to not always do everything at once and to be happy with things in life that do not require as much creative or mental energy as learning something new or improving an existing skill.

This is one of my top learning experiences of 2016: It is not possible to do everything, and that is OK. So here is my only New Year Resolution for 2017: Accept what I do, not what I want to do, and let the year be what it becomes.

Post-Truth

Day 15 #Truth
Day 15 #Truth by mishey_mouse (CC-BY-NC)

Word Of The Year is without a doubt “Post-Truth”1. In my interpretation, it perfectly captures two observations about the current world:

  1. Truth largely does not matter anymore. We have moved beyond truth, we are post truth.
  2. Truth can be created after (post) a statement is made — it does not have to be true originally.

Post-truth has come up a lot lately. It is often mentioned in association with Brexit and Donald Trump’s election as president, but I do not have anything significant to add to these specific debates on this blog.

But I will say this: Post-truth is dangerous… It is dangerous, because it deceives. It is dangerous, because it is used to incite hatred and create injustice. It is dangerous, because it challenges the fundamentals of civil discourse: Honesty, respect and integrity.

This year, we have mostly seen post-truth in public politics. However, I fear that it is not a temporary phenomenon, but a symptom of a larger disease, slowly infecting our society. On a large scale, the alt-right movement is gaining traction, fueled by fake news and hatred. On a smaller scale, it has become trendy to not be politically correct.

The result of post-truth is quite dark: Thumbs up for telling lies, they will become true eventually. Thumbs up for ignoring real facts, they can be created.

I am not sure that we can reverse the rising trend of post-truth. That ship has sailed, and we have to get used to the era of post-truth. However, I do think that being aware of the problem enables us to do something as individuals, even on a small scale.

On my part, I will try to be more critical towards my news sources and politicians, I will try to be respectful and honest in my discourse, and I will be politically correct to counter-balance those that are not. This is the best I can do, and I know that I am not alone. That is a comforting thought.


  1. Actually, it seems that Oxford Dictionaries named post-truth word of the year 2016 back in November. I honestly did not know that before I started writing this blog post. Here is how post-truth is defined in the dictionary:

    Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief Oxford English Dictionary online

     

It starts with a dot

* <-- this is a dot

We don’t know what the dot is yet, but it’s an exciting beginning.

Later, we get two more dots. We now have three dots:

* * *

The dots are still just asterisks in a blog post. But did you know that “asterisk” comes from Latin and means “little star”?

Stars look pretty:

★ ★ ★

Perhaps we can look at the stars from a different angle and rearrange them slightly:

★
 ★
  ★

Considering that we started with just one dot, this is an interesting result. Although we had to add two more dots before we saw the stars, in the end they turned out to look very nice on a diagonal.

This is data science.

Basic Income Is Coming

Basic Income
Basic Income by Christopher Andrews (CC-BY-NC)

Basic income is an unconditional income given equally to all people of a country just for being alive. Lately it seems that the idea is being talked about more and more, and perhaps this is a sign that basic income is becoming mainstream and more widely recognized. The most recent big example was when Y Combinator created some buzz because they announced that they would sponsor a five-year study on basic income. This is quite unprecedented for a company that traditionally funds early-stage startups.

It is not only companies and bloggers that are showing interest for basic income. Some countries are warming up to the idea as well. In Finland, the majority of the public seem to support basic income and the current government has committed to investigating the feasibility of introducing it to the country. A few cities in The Netherlands will run a pilot program to test basic income. Switzerland is going as far as having a public vote on June 6 regarding whether to introduce basic income (press release in German) and the public opinion seems to also favor Basic Income here.1

I cannot remember when I first heard about basic income, but I do remember that I was almost immediately convinced that it was a good idea. To me, basic income combines both traditional left- and rightwing ideals, for example having the personal freedom to not work and ensuring as a society that all people are equal in terms of the basic means to survive and avoid poverty. I do not want to get too much into the philosophical, political and economical arguments for and against basic income here though, and to be honest, one of the main reasons I support basic income is that it just feels right.

I truly hope that basic income is introduced universally in my lifetime. The big question is: Will it work in the long run? With increased automation and technological advances, I believe that it will. But there might also be unforeseen consequences of a basic income that will reduce the feasibility in the short term. No matter what, it will be exciting to follow the progress of the various ongoing projects and see what they lead to.

More information

Basic Income Earth Network aggregates news and articles about basic income and is a good starting point for further information about arguments for basic income and the feasibility thereof.


  1. The article is slightly biased but my German is rusty so I cannot fact check the original survey :-)  

A Learning Plateau

Ancient Atlantis
Ancient Atlantis by European Space Agency (CC-BY-SA)

Anyone can play guitar and they won’t be a nothing anymore Radiohead

So you want to learn how to play guitar? Awesome!

Step one, get yourself a guitar. Great, you took the first step!

Step two, start playing any pop song ever. Great, now you know chords!

Step three, check out some cool and/or classic guitar riffs. Great, now you can read tabs!

Step four, learn a bit of music theory and realize that the pentatonic scale always sounds good. Great, now you can improvise!

Congratulations, you can now play guitar. This is your progress so far in ASCII art:

      |
      |    /
      |   /
skill |  /
      | /
      |/
      +----------------------------
                 time

Finally, we have step five: Practice and hone your skills. Oh shoot, the progress now feels like this:

      |     ___________________
      |    /
      |   /
skill |  /
      | /
      |/
      +----------------------------
                 time

I call this the learning plateau, and it seems that when trying to learn new skills, arriving at the learning plateau is an inevitable part of the process.

It goes like this: In the beginning, the learning curve is linearly increasing, but at some point, it starts feeling like the curve is flattening out and the improvements become smaller and smaller. While this is not inherently a bad thing, it gets frustrating when you know that you can improve, but there is no clear indication of progress.

When it comes to playing the guitar, knowing all the scales, chords and music theory there is to know will not help with the speed of the guitar play, or the coolness of the guitar riff improvisations. Improving this particular subset of skills takes exponentially longer than learning a new chord. At this point, it is easy to start making excuses for practicing less or even giving up entirely. I kind of did that…

Bend the curve

So how does one deal with being “stuck” on the learning plateau for a particular skill? To be honest, I don’t really know, but here are some thoughts:

Decide whether it is actually an important priority to improve the skill.

For example, is it really important for me that I improve my guitar play? Will I see any long-term benefits from putting in that effort or am I content with the current skill-set that I have obtained?

It seems silly to continue pushing forward if it does not feel “important” to do so. However, in my own experience, lost interest can sometimes be the consequence of facing big difficulties rather than an actual loss of interest and that is a bad excuse for quitting :-) This actually leads to:

Realize that it is always possible to improve.

Shake off that fixed mindset and start nurturing your growth mindset. For example, learn to play that guitar riff at 120 beats per minute rather than 110 — not a huge improvement, but it is an improvement. And playing the guitar just a bit faster sometimes opens up for playing different genres of music or making improvisation more interesting. Small improvements add up.

Form productive habits.

It is no secret that the people that get very good at their trade (whether it is art, business, entrepreneurship, etc.) put in a lot of deliberate practice, directly or indirectly. The overnight business success is a huge myth and even the most talented musician has to practice several hours per day. I recently stumbled upon an inspiring quote from Andrew Ng, a prolific and well-known figure in the Machine Learning field:

When I talk to researchers, when I talk to people wanting to engage in entrepreneurship, I tell them that if you read research papers consistently, if you seriously study half a dozen papers a week and you do that for two years, after those two years you will have learned a lot. This is a fantastic investment in your own long term development.

But that sort of investment, if you spend a whole Saturday studying rather than watching TV, there’s no one there to pat you on the back or tell you you did a good job. Chances are what you learned studying all Saturday won’t make you that much better at your job the following Monday. There are very few, almost no short-term rewards for these things. But it’s a fantastic long-term investment. This is really how you become a great researcher, you have to read a lot.

People that count on willpower to do these things, it almost never works because willpower peters out. Instead I think people that are into creating habits — you know, studying every week, working hard every week — those are the most important. Those are the people most likely to succeed. Andrew Ng

The question is: How the hell do successful people get motivated and how do they stay consistent? Andrew Ng seems to suggest that forming habits is important and this is a topic that I have only recently started researching in more detail. I read a blog post recently about forming identity-based habits and that was a good starting point for me at least.

Take the first step.

It sounds almost cliche, but taking the first, small steps towards a specific goal is important. It is also a good place to end this post. It is my first step into a hopefully more creative 2016. Happy New Year and thank you for reading :-)