This is a photograph of Nahal Cziv, a stream in northern Israel, the location of our first venture out of the city for almost six months. There was almost no one around, the sun was out, the water was cool, it was sublime.
Instead of the usual few-hundred-word format, this month I have small amounts to say about a few topics.
In the fantastic graphic novel The Arab of the Future by Riad Sattouf, the author describes the tradition in Arabic culture to refer to a man as Abu (which means father of), followed by his eldest son’s name. He says that his own father had chosen his name many years before he was born based on how his father would like to be called for most of his life.
I was thinking this week about the intense reflective experience of having children, and began to understand this idea a little better. There are humbling moments as a parent where you watch your own child and can imagine yourself as a child, where you realise you aren’t doing such a bad job of this whole thing, and that your own parents didn’t do such a bad job either. It’s a very vivid reaffirmation of the self and of the whole messy and eternal cycle of humanity, and I can see the appeal of making it part of your name. (I am purposefully ignoring the other implications of the tradition in a very patriarchal society).
When things are difficult in life it’s common to feel a slightly stronger pull towards the easier options: for me that usually means low quality food, alcohol, less sleep, less exercise. I wonder if it’s possible to quantify and measure this pull. It’s clear that these things all compound each other: it’s harder to break a single bad habit than to just form a new one. It feels a bit to me like the second law of thermodynamics, that fighting against the accumulation of bad habits is like fighting entropy, trying to reverse the natural course of the universe. I think this very strange and uncertain year has pushed a lot of people further along this path than they’re used to and that they’re comfortable with.
I can say and have experienced that with the right combination of circumstances the same can happen in reverse. Good things can lead to more good things, that walk you do in the morning can lead to a healthier day and to another walk the following morning. But once the easier options have become the default it becomes harder and harder to reverse the inertia.
A brief thought: I haven’t written fiction of any sort for a long while now, and I have a few old ideas kicking around in my head that I would like to give some air, and (very) limited time to do anything. Maybe I could post the occasional short story to Mt. Solitary, once a year say, to make time for that as well. So November (the month of the NaNoWriMo novel-writing event, which I’ve tried and not succeeded to do twice) I think will be the Mt. Solitary fiction month, and next month I will post a short story here.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD) is common in northern hemisphere countries with very cold winters, during which the prevalence of depression and anxiety rise drastically as people spend significantly more time indoors and have far fewer hours of sunlight in a day. This disorder has a strong cultural resonance: cold has a persistent association with depression, lonliness, the feeling of waiting for it to be over so the warmth will return.
I have been living in a very hot place for the past five summers, and I’m starting to think maybe I have a similar experience with hot weather. Summers in Israel are relentless. They last around five months, have zero rainfall, and contain long periods with very high humidity and high temperatures. There are days when the sky fills with dust and visibility drops to a single kilometre. There are upsides of course, you can spend a lot more time at the beach, there is plenty of sunlight, it’s much easier to dress for hot weather than cold. But overall I find the experience of summer to be exhausting and count down the days until the weather starts to get cooler again (as of today I’m still waiting).
This is a photograph of the side of an old apartment building in Tel Aviv, the kind of concrete structures that are likely to crumble to a thousand pieces the second there’s an earthquake.
From a quick
wc -w * in the posts directory of this blog, I have written around 54,000 words here over the last two years. And from a quick check of my Google Analytics dashboard (I’ve been meaning to replace it with the open source and less evil GoatCounter but haven’t got around to it yet), in those two years the site has received just a little over five hundred page views across the thirty-three posts I’ve written. I don’t actively promote the site in any way other than the occasional post to HackerNews or Reddit, so I’m not sure how the few people other than the friends and family I’ve sent links to who are discovering it are doing so. But it’s certainly not a large audience, and it does feel a little strange creating something which is ostensibly so public but realistically almost entirely hidden.
I’ve been committing to this project a year at a time, more as a form of meditation and exercise in self-discipline, an anchor of the kind I wrote about in XXIII, forcing me to distill my thoughts, to focus them, to hone my ability to write about anything. An audience was the furthest thing from my mind: aside from a few dear friends whose opinion means a lot to me and whose tastes and interests are simlar to my own, I deliberately didn’t proselytise this blog because I wasn’t really sure it had value or meaning outside of the function it serves for me personally.
Now I can feel this weird and unprecedented year drawing to a close and so I’m beginning to ask myself the questions: do I want to stick with it? (My gut feeling is yes, but I need to weigh it up against the other things I’m not doing with my time and energy while I’m writing). Do I want to keep writing once a month, or go back to my fortnightly schedule? Is there value to writing if no one’s reading? And, if there is, maybe I’d like some people to read it anyway?
I know for certain that I enjoy very much reading the type of writing that comprises this blog. A bunch of small, disconnected thoughts on various interesting subjects from different disciplines that (hopefully) over time coaslesce into a coherent mosaic of a person’s worldview. I’m talking about the feeling you get when you read the same journalist once a week every week and start feeling as if you anticipate what their opinions will be on other issues they haven’t written about yet. Writing creates a well-preserved and timeless image of the writer, one that is very interesting and intimate to observe.
So I hope that other people find it interesting too, and that if you happen on this particular issue of the blog one day after reading many future entries, or maybe past entries, you’ll feel like you have a slightly clearer picture of who I am and what I think about the world.
It’s not over yet but I’m fairly sure when I look back on 2020 it will be as one of the most historically significant years of my life so far (mainly surpassed only by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, but I was only one year old then so not sure if I can really count that). And of course we happen to be experiencing all these tremendously consequential and unprecedented events (I’m thinking specifically about the US election and the news from October 2 that US President Donald Trump has tested positive for COVID-19) in an age where information is immediately available, where news is constantly manufactured and consumed at a pace that can become overwhelming and at times even feel sickening.
The obsessive desire to be constantly up-to-date is at times very strong for me. There is a persistent feeling of urgency: I need to know what’s going on, it’s important, imperative. And when things are changing so fast, the sense of urgency is compounded by the feeling that if I don’t stay up-to-date now, when the next thing happens I won’t understand it because I wasn’t keeping track of the situation.
I often think about how humanity stayed informed and aware of what was happening in the world before the internet. Newspapers, the main way people consumed news until ten years ago or so, provide a very different experience than the constant stream of updates on today’s internet. News accumulates over a day, informed and professional people write about it, and then it is collected into a single publication with a defined start and end (the pages of the paper), ready to be consumed. With online news, this is impossible: all parts of the above recipe are missing. News accumulates every minute, live blogs are constantly refreshed by writers who are presumably not the finest the publication has to offer. And there is no way of knowing where all today’s news can be found. Articles are changed, headlines are edited to receive more clicks, everything is designed to look like it’s in the “most current” state every time you look at it, meaning you need to keep coming back to remain up-to-date.
I personally fall victim to this constantly, and it’s only when I take a step back and think about how different things used to be that I realise how sick it all is and how badly it affects my ability to concentrate and stay focussed on other parts of my life. I’m thinking a lot about this specific period, where I’m spending probably three times the normal amount of time in my home, not going anywhere. Craig Mod put it as eloquently as he usually does in his recent Ridgeline newsletter, constantly checking the news numbs the skill of observation and dulls one’s sense of presence in the landscape and in the moment. I find the distracted mindset that the constant checking creates permeates into other parts of my life. Already struggling with deciding what of the many different things I like to concentrate my time on, that time when it comes around is hard to devote singularly to the single chosen task.
There’s a bunch of applications and tools to help with this problem (Freedom, Apple Screen Time, RescueTime etc), their existence an indictment of the problem and an indication of how prevalent it is. I’m thinking about going a week with a very different consumption regimen and although my first thought is to try and use one of these existing tools, I think I’m going to try and go “cold turkey”. I’d add “be in charge of how he spends his time and attention” to Heinlein’s list of things a human being should be able to do. Reclaiming control of our time and attention is not something I should need help with.
What I do need help with is the “digesting”. I want to reclaim my attention and check the news fewer times throughout the day, but I don’t (yet anyway) want to completely disconnect from what’s happening, particularly at this extremely critical time in the history of the world. So my current goal is to find the best way (RSS feeds? Email newsletters?) to get the news I want digested daily and delivered to me without me having to look for it.
This is a photograph of a building being demolished in Tel Aviv, with the Azrieli towers in the background, that I saw on my first day back to the office after many months of lockdown.
I’ve been reading a bit about physics in my spare time recently, as a way of trying to wean myself off the news / Twitter doomscrolling cycle. My favourite physics discipline has always been astronomy and astrophysics, and in particular I enjoy trying to understand how we know the things we do: what are the methods and important experimental techniques in physics that allow us to know the things we know about the universe? As Einstein wrote in 1936,
The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility. The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle.
The distances involved in astronomy are incomprehensibly huge, but they are still real, physical distances that can be measured and compared. One would think that the usual methods of measuring distances on Earth are irrelevant for measuring interstellar or intergalactic distances, but in fact the simplest and earliest method used to measure the distance from Earth to distant stars was by a similar approach that had for centuries allowed humans to measure the height of mountain peaks: trigonometry.
Using two measurements of the angle between two distinct observation points and the top of a mountain, one can use simple facts about triangles to compute the mountain’s height without going through the rigmorole of actually climbing it (and even then, how to compute its height once you’re up there is another question altogether). This method has been used for millenia; it was known to the ancient Greeks and Chinese, and was used in the 1850s to deduce the height of Mt. Everest to within 8m of what we know as its height today.
Essentially the same approach can be used to compute the distance to stars. We measure the angle from a fixed reference point on Earth to a star, and then measure it again six months later, when the Earth is as far as possible from the original point in its orbit (in astronomy terms: 2AU or astronomical unit, the (average) radius of Earth’s orbit). We then use the same principles of trigonometry to compute the distance to the star, and the angle that we measure between the two observation points is called the parallax angle of the star.
The limitation of this method becomes immediately apparent when you consider the scales involved. The closest star to the Sun, Proxima Centauri, is around 4.22 light years away, or around 266,000 times longer than the radius of the Earth’s orbit. Imagine the miniscule angle you would have to create to draw a right-angled triangle where one side is 266,000cm (2.66km) and the other is 1cm; this is the parallax angle we need to measure to determine the distance to Proxima Centauri.
Although it allows for precise measurements to many hundreds of stars, and many more when space-based telescopes, whose measurements are not affected by the Earth’s atmosphere, are used, this method stops working entirely once the distances involved get very large, since at some point no instrument will be accurate enough to measure the miniscule parallax angle. This method becomes infeasible at distances beyond a thousand or so light years. Since the observable Universe contains objects more than ten billion light years away, it’s clear that this method doesn’t get us very far outside of our neighbourhood.
In order to determine distances to even more distant objects, astronomers use certain classes of stars known as standard candles. In order to understand standard candles we need to first understand the notion of brightness in astronomy. You can imagine measuring how bright things are and being able to compare between them by setting up some instrument with a sensor that has a certain known surface area and is sensitive to light; the amount of light that “flows” through the sensor in a given time interval is the brightness of the object being measured: more light flows through if an object is brighter and manages to “send more light per unit time”.
The absolute magnitude of a star’s brightness is its magnitude measured from some defined fixed distance. So if you imagine the obviously impossible task of lining up all the stars in the universe so they are equally distant from your measuring device, you will be able to measure each star’s absolute brightness. But of course we are confined to Earth and must be satisfied with only measuring the relative magnitude of a star’s brightness: the brightness of the star as we percieve it from where we are.
It turns out there are certain special classes of stars whose absolute brightness is known to depend only on other quantities which can be measured directly; the classic example is Cepheid variable stars, a type of star which emits pulses of light and whose absolute brightness is a function of the time between its pulsations. So astronomers are able to develop a formula for the distance to a Cepheid variable based purely on observations of its pulses, and since there are Cepheid variable stars close enough to have a measurable parallax angle, they can check their formula on these “more real” measurements. This reliance on “lower” measurement methods to calibrate “higher” methods gives rise to a whole spectrum of cosmological measurement methods known as the cosmic distance ladder.
From here however the methods get much more involved and complicated. Scientists need to use clever techniques like analyzing the spectrum of radiation from a star and using it to deduce various properties, including its brightness and consequently its distance. Many very distant objects are not detected using visible light at all; radio telescopes are used to detect other forms of electromagnetic radiation. There’s really no end to the curiosity and ingenuity of people who dedicate their lives to studying and understanding the universe.
This is a photograph of Mt. Solitary, in the Blue Mountains of Australia, after which this website was named. In this strange and uncertain time in the history of the world it’s hard to live far from home, I am often grateful that I’m the kind of person who takes lots of photographs.
I recently finished reading Lost Connections by Johann Hari, a book which tries to unravel the reasons behind the alarming prevalence of anxiety and depression in the modern West. The book really resonated with me and I wanted to share the main things I took away from it, as someone who thinks about these things a lot, and certainly has skin in this particular game.
In the book, Hari, who suffered from depression for many years starting from age eighteen, contends that the idea that depression and anxiety are largely due to chemical imbalances in the brain and should be treated with drugs is wrong. The “lost connections” of the title are what Hari believes to be the true causes: depression and anxiety are sicknesses caused by the relentless and unnatural pace and style of modern life in the West, where human beings are living in conditions further away from their natural evolutionary habitat than ever before in our history. This loss of connection, with meaningful work, meaningful relationships with others, nature, and more, creates a powerful sense that something is not right, a longing that cannot be met by continuing to live the way we live. These connections are so intrinsic to the human condition, so essential for our contentment as animals, that without them we flounder and become lost.
The first half of the book, in which Hari describes in detail what he believes to be the seven different types of connection we have lost, was compelling. There’s plenty of studies to back up what he’s saying and he presents the material in an easy-to-understand and logical way, peppered with personal anecdotes and descriptions of experimental milestones in the study of depression in the life sciences. His description of the DSM definition of depression, which contained all sorts of illogical exceptions in certain cases (for example that depression is not considered a mental disorder if the person is grieving a loved one, so long as that loved one was sufficiently “close” and so long as “not too much” time has passed), demonstrates the absurdity of treating it as a purely neurological disease. There is a solid and undeniable accumulations of experimental evidence and experiential anecdotes to convince the reader that there’s probably another reason why people (including in all likelihood the person reading the book) are depressed.
Many of the things Hari claims we have lost connection with I can certainly identify with, or have felt the lack of many of them in my life, or can see the effects writ large in the structure and essence of the society I live in. But I also felt that his attempt to offer a solution comes up short, since it is probably only possible to implement if you are lucky enough to have wealth, health, education and privilege on your side.
For example, in order to reconnect with meaningful work one needs to have the ability to change jobs to something one finds more meaningful. Hari gives the example of an acquaintance who works a painfully unfulfilling job in a paint shop and dreams of teaching people how to fish. Anyone who has suffered from depression can recognise the subtle redesign of the age-old “cheer up” quick fix here. The fact is that most of the reasons we have lost connection with the things Hari mentions in his book is because society has been deliberately structured that way by vested interests (Hari does mention this often in his book to his credit). This is a societal problem that requires a societal solution: a rejection of neoliberal capitalism and a full embrace of an empathetic and comprehensive welfare state. A few tech bros reading a self-help book and moving to the country to “reconnect with nature” is not going to reverse the depression pandemic.
I guess I’d like to see more people with influence and audience like Hari go a little further in pressing for the deep and structural societal change that the world so desparately needs to cure itself of the sickness of inequality and division. People have become too afraid of spruiking socialism and the only way to get around that is to spruik it hard enough and often enough that it doesn’t scare people anymore. Possibly things are too far gone in the United States but I think there’s hope in other parts of the West. This is the connection we all truly need to rekindle: the connection with each other: throwing away the hideous Thatcherite doctrine that “there’s no such thing as society” and deciding to actively make things better by lifting everyone up.
I’m very interested in using predictive modelling to forecast elections and elections don’t get any bigger than the US presidential election. And of course the 2020 election is a once-in-a-lifetime election, the choice between four more years of Donald Trump, about whom enough has been written that I don’t need to dignify him with another word, or whichever sentient human being has been chosen as his alternative, which turned out to be Joe Biden.
Most people without a passing understanding of Bayesian statistics and the nature of uncertainty, and the fact that it can be quantified, brush off the notion of forecasting the upcoming election, usually saying things like “you can’t trust polls anymore after Trump and Brexit” (polling averages in both of those events were well within the margin of error), or making blanket statements like “I think he’ll be re-elected” without offering any sort of evidence to back it up (the more self-centered will remind you they predicted a Trump victory in 2016).
Broadly speaking there are two camps of people forecasting US elections: those who rely on “fundamentals” models, like Allan Lichtman, which use broad indicators like GDP, the existence of civil unrest, and incumbency to predict whether or not there will be a change of party holding the presidency; and those who rely on poll-based regression models, like Nate Silver from FiveThirtyEight.
There’s value in both approaches but the powerful thing about sophisticated models like Silver’s is that they are able to express the amount of uncertainty in the race. This is especially important this year, where the election will take place during an unprecedented pandemic. I personally think this makes “fundamentals” models much less useful this year, as instead of using “is GDP healthy?” as the predictor they should be really using “is GDP healthy for a pandemic”, which of course has very few historical data points.
Of course, uncertainty is an unnatural, scary and unintuitive thing and it’s a lot easier for people to say “but FiveThirtyEight said Hillary was going to win in 2016, they were wrong” rather than “FiveThirtyEight forecasted a 65% chance of Clinton winning and a 35% chance of Trump winning”. Part of this is human nature: it’s a binary contest with a single outcome and post facto that 65% looks a lot bigger than that 35% so it’s tempting to go for the first interpretation. But I hope that this year people appreciate what is at stake: the integrity and function of the most important democracy in the world, and take a little more care in interpreting uncertainty when they see it in forecasts.
This is a photograph of spring in Tel Aviv, into which I emerged from the coronavirus lockdown a little bleary-eyed and with a newfound addiction to chocolate krantz yeast cakes.
The unexamined life is not worth living.
I’ve always been drawn to this quote, usually attributed to Socrates. The original meaning of the quote is to emphasise the need for a personal philosophy, a way of thinking about yourself, that uses reflection to build a better future self through reference to and critique of the past self. Today, the quote brings to my mind the quantified self movement, a group of people who are devoted to the idea of collecting information about themselves, reviewing it and drawing insights from it to improve, or at the very least understand, their lives.
I’m not sure what Socrates would have to say about this modern “data-driven” philosophy, but I have become more and more drawn to the idea over the past couple of years. I thought it might be interesting to share some of the things I’ve noticed over the last five hundred days about myself, in the hope that this might inspire others to consider paying closer attention to their lives. There’s another reason for sharing too: I think there is a certain aesthetic value inherent in the topology of life one can see writ in the charts, the moving of a line along the page tracing some weird average of the thousands of variables that make up a day in anyone’s life that nonetheless contains some sort of signal.
The older I become the more convinced I am that sleep is one of the most important, perhaps the single most important, factor in remaining balanced, peaceful and energetic throughout the day. The chart below shows the hours I slept every night, together with a moving 7-day average, over the last five hundred days. I don’t use any fancy sleep trackers, I just write down in a spreadsheet every morning how many hours I slept the previous night.
There are several periods of my life which are clearly visible on this graph. The most striking is the birth of my son, in February this year, following which there were understandably a few weeks of very little sleep. There are periods of greatly increased variation around holidays I took. And at the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown I used the time I saved not commuting to and from work every day to catch up on some of that sleep I lost in February.
The quantified self movement is convinced that sleep, alcohol, other drugs and caffeine (in that order usually) have the biggest overall impact on mood and general contentment in life. I track all of these metrics, and when I looked at the plots I generated I wondered whether I really wanted to share the graph below, in which a black bar represents a day on which I consumed alcohol over the last five hundred days.
It’s pretty clear from the graph above that I drink too frequently (I thought about colouring the bars by the number of drinks, which I also track but ultimately went for the simpler version). I also notice the correlation between consecutive drinking days (usually a beer or two or a glass of wine in the evening) and stressful periods in my life.
While I was writing XXVII and XXVIII I was looking for a metric that shows a visible effect of the COVID-19 lockdown and the best one I could find is of my daily working hours (these are the hours between the time I count myself as starting work and the time I count myself as finishing, so they include time like lunchbreaks, coffee and chatting in the office when I wasn’t strictly-speaking “working”. I use Rescuetime to track actual bum-in-seat computer time at work but I think that’s a less interesting chart).
I like the healthy amounts of vacation time, and on second thoughts I think the effect visible from February (after my return from a too-short paternity leave) is probably more to do with being a first-time parent than the lockdown per se.
The holy grail of self-tracking, of the reflective data scientist, is an answer to the question “am I happy” based on actual data from your life. For me the answer to the question “am I happy” on a day-to-day basis can be approximated with the answer to the question “how anxious am I feeling today”, and to that end I tried my best to track my general mood and feeling of contentment (10) or anxiety (0) at three points throughout the last five hundred days.
Notwithstanding the concerns about the accuracy of the data the way I collected it (upon reflection the morning after, all three data points for the previous day at the same time, and with vague definitions of the cutoffs between the three sections of the day) this is a really interesting graph to look at over a timescale like this. My favourite feature of the graph is the easily visible section in June 2019 where my evening mood is vastly better than my day and morning mood; this is because I was on holiday with my friends and in the days recovering from the hangovers caused by the evenings. There’s also the rise to almost universal happiness around the birth of my son and the accompanying few weeks of time at home, before the uncertainty and panic around COVID-19 in mid-March put an end to that.
I noticed that there was something interesting about this graph when I looked at it during an “end-of-year review” process at the end of 2019, so I decided to start tracking a few more metrics related to anxiety. The most interesting, and most striking I think, is the “state of my fingernails”. It’s a simple 0-10 scale.
I’m not very proud of it, but I’ve been biting my fingernails for as long as I can remember. It’s absolutely a manifestation of anxiety and tension and I’m very aware that during difficult or stressful periods of my life I bite my fingernails more. It’s a habit that I would very much like to be rid of and I hope that understanding it is the first step to being free of it.
Of course, none of this means anything if you don’t have the ability and the drive to actually act on the things you observe. That’s the next step for me, to try and improve the metrics in these graphs over time, to use my synthesised understanding of my past to influence the topology of these graphs in the future. Maybe that’s just a long-winded way of saying “examining yourself”: looking at yourself critically and trying to do better, or at the very least understand when you could do better and why you didn’t. I hope this post will go some way to making me accountable to myself, and hope to revisit these metrics and whichever new ones I start collecting throughout my life once a year to see how things are going.