Queue as Rorschach Test

The longest line I ever stood in took six hours, and it was to watch the tennis tournament at Wimbledon. It’s a long queue, but not an uncomfortable one. There’s plenty of space and people are nice – the crowd’s energy only grew as we got closer to the gates.

Tickets for the three other Grand Slam tennis tournaments can get pretty expensive, but Wimbledon organizers decided that everyone should pay the same fair price. The downside: if you want a ticket, you need to wake up early. The upside: you don’t need money to watch the games the games in London; you just need to be a committed enough tennis fan to brave the queue.

The weirdest queue I know is at Berlin’s infamous nightclub, the Berghain. Potential guests can’t be sure whether their hour-long wait will pay off until the very last minute. That’s because the club tries to establish a “good mix of people” each night to provide the best possible experience. So the bouncers are hyper-selective about who they let in, and it will be a function of the other people in the queue. Sometimes you’ll get in, and other times you’ll be turned down.

Whether a queue is the best system to organize resources, and whether it’s fair or not – most of that is our own perception. But what we think of the system says as much about us as it does about the queue itself.

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The Third Wave

My issue with lockdowns is that they are solving the wrong problem. Yes, I understand that we need to keep the R number low to help hospitals fight the virus.

But we just wasted half a year doing nothing. Maybe nothing is an overstatement and we did a lot of hoping that there won’t be a second wave, I don’t know. From where I’m sitting it’s nothing.

From where I’m sitting, this is an optimization problem.

  1. We have X number of people who will catch this thing.
  2. Those people need the best chance to fight it off, for which they need hospitals, nurses, drugs and what not.
  3. Let’s get all of those things.

Closing shops, restaurants, schools, offices and what not, and then sending people on furlough is all fine — if we do it for a reason. If we do this to win time, and then waste all of that time? I’d really love to opt out please. Put your lockdown up yours.

Yes, close down an airport — but then build a makeshift hospital there. Yes, send hospitality workers home for half a year — and hire them to support nurses, hospitals or the elderly.

Governments, your job is not only to optimize.

Your job is to optimize for the right thing.

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Thinking Way Outside the Box

To push the limits of a computer system, you first need to gain deep knowledge about it. This is often hard for hackers, as administrators keep all documentation locked up. Security engineers therefore find themselves facing unknown systems.

The only way for them to learn more is the hard way: using creative thinking skills and imagining what the system can possibly be doing. Hackers might attack the problem from multiple directions:

  1. Look for other systems that might be similar to this one. To build mental models, a good first step is to find an example that can give insight about the current system. Leveraging previous knowledge is a professional’s best tool.
  2. Collaborate with others. No hacker works in a vacuum; there’s a dynamic community out there that includes journals, conferences and forums. A great way to evaluate a strategy or decision is through debating with other experts.
  3. Interact with the system in any way possible to build and improve their mental picture. Hackers want to find a “feedback machine” early on: change something in the inputs, and observe what happens afterwards.
  4. Visualize the architecture, and construct topological models. What components may be in there, how do they behave, and what are the relationships between them?
  5. Look for anomalies. Anything that looks odd or out of place can give a hint about the system. All those warrant further investigation.

Whatever the hacker’s goal is, their first step is building their knowledge base. Knowing more about the system helps engineers deduce potential consequences, even before touching a computer.

As Albert Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

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How old is the captain, really?

Do you remember the question about the captain’s age? In one study, 97 elementary students were asked a version of it that read: “There are 26 sheep and 10 goats on a ship. How old is the captain?”

You might be surprised to learn that 76 of them attempted to give an actual solution to the problem. 

In a classroom setting, pupils often learn word problems as merely arithmetic tasks. But we now know that many linguistic components impact a problem’s difficulty.

Standard word problems, the ones that have one clear solution, are the easiest ones to solve. Unfortunately for us, the problems we encounter in the real world aren’t usually standard word problems. Our world includes contradictions and often gives us problems with multiple solutions, or puzzles with no solution at all.

Approach them accordingly.

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Make Your Money And Get Out

Rapid changes in technology make programming one of the fastest-moving careers. Avoiding burnout is the only way to have a long and sustainable career in tech.

Veteran software developers often recommend to:

  1. Work at a place where you can grow. Constantly learning new things is a requirement in tech, but it’s only sustainable if you can do it as part of the job.
  2. Build transferable skills. Many developers find it interesting to invest in learning leadership skills and explore technical management roles — those don’t change as often as programming languages do.
  3. Have creative outlets and create a space to focus on yourself, to switch off and relax. Make sure you move enough, eat well, and spend quality time with friends and family.

Of course, there’s always the nuclear option: make your money and get out.

It’s often hard to take a step back and observe the situation when we’re in it, but the first step to recovery is always to recognize the problem. A good rule of thumb is that people need autonomy, competence and relatedness for happiness at the workplace. Programmers are no different.

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Building the Machine

We have a newborn at home, will be moving to a bigger apartment next week, and my projects are all going strong.

Moving places is a good reminder to automate and delegate everything we can, making time for the unpredictable.

Bridgewater founder Ray Dalio wrote that when you’re running a company, you’re essentially building a machine that creates a product.

The key for automation lies in this differentiation between machine and product. Whenever a problem comes up, it’s easy to remedy the immediate issue — the product –, but that doesn’t do anything for future-proofing the machine. You’d end up fixing the same problem over and over again.

Instead, improve the machine in a way it creates a better product, forever.

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Wishy-Washy Science

Part of the appeal of science is that it’s rigorous and methodical. We can assume that studies are generally right about what they claim. But, most studies focus on a narrow scope in order to control all input variables, and therefore the details matter a huge deal.

News, on the other hand, has to report an exaggerated version of reality because of its business model. Journalists are literally paid for capturing people’s attention, which is always easier with a bold claim. The bolder the claim, the more eyeballs the article will attract.

The problem with science is that it sounds wishy-washy. If you need to convince someone, “That thing MAY kill you” will beat “There’s evidence to support the opposite, but it can’t be ruled out that that thing kills you,” every time.

And then we have real life, which is complicated. It has variables that can never be controlled, and the topics that the public is interested in are way too broad for a single study. What’s left out from a study will be just as interesting as what it states.

Media actively exploits this phenomenon: advertisements and news outlets routinely cite scientists, studies and experiments to sound more credible. But if the decision-making part of our brain is switched off, who will fact check whether “4 out of 5 dentists” do in fact recommend a product?

To be a better reader of science journals, the solution is simple. Just keep your decision-making brain switched on.

Next time you read a study, keep asking questions such as:

  1. Does it apply? Cars get their safety ratings through crash tests — a relatively small set of controlled “accidents” that manufacturers can design cars around. How much does a crash test score tell us about a real-life crash? As you might have guessed, most models don’t do well in accidents they weren’t optimized for.
  2. How does it fit the bigger picture? We might be interested in the spread of a pandemic. This will encompass findings from all sorts of fields, from virology to network analysis to social sciences. A perfectly credible expert might tell us about whether a single virus can escape a face mask’s thin fabric without an issue — but we’d still need to know how many virus molecules are needed for an infection, or the size of the saliva droplets that virus molecules travel on.
  3. A mathematical model is just an opinion with a spreadsheet. Whenever life gets too complicated, we use models to estimate different outcomes. A city’s mayor might ask, “If we improve our roads and lower bus prices, how many people move into the suburbs?” — and the computer will give its best answer.

    Prediction models are an amazing tool to discuss different options, but they’re more a visualization tool than a proven fact: they leave a lot to human judgment. Only believe the model as much as you believe the human presenting it.

Remember that experts can be wrong, science often changes its mind, and rational thinking is still the best we can all do. Being more critical about what you read will eventually help science journalism improve too.

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Things I’ve learned under quarantine

  1. A “model” is just an opinion with a spreadsheet
  2. Freedom isn’t free
  3. Learned to spell the word “quarantine” correctly
  4. Discovered the website layoffs.fyi
  5. Other people call my regular life “The Quarantine”
  6. Drinks with friends through FaceTime is awesome, because it takes zero seconds to get home afterwards
  7. There’s no need to “pop down to the shop” every day
  8. Eating potatoes works five days in a row, but not a day longer
  9. It’s worth paying extra for better location
  10. I need to move somewhere with a garden

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Kung fu

What sports do you guys do at home? I was looking for something that provides a good workout, and can be done in a flat without annoying the neighbors.

So jumprope is a big no-no, but yoga works.

It’s really hard to get your heart rate over 180 with yoga though. And I’d want to do something I’ve never done before.

I wanted to learn kung fu ever since I’ve seen my first Bruce Lee movie, and kung fu indeed seems to check all boxes.

Starting with a new sport without a class or a coach is hard of course, but there’s nothing that Mamazon or the Internet couldn’t give you. There’s a Youtube video for everything, and here’s a beginner’s kung fu video series:

So I started to copy the kung fu stances and I was like hell yeah, this is awesome, I’m gonna learn kung fu by the time the virus scare is over.

…and then video number two gets wild. It still looks kind of alright, but there’s literally nothing I can do from the exercises. Feels like they’ve skipped a hundred lessons in between, and a decade worth of practice.

Which kind of fits everything I know about kung fu.

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Hopscotch scotch hop

Big changes are underway as we speak, Germany for one had to invent the word Einkaufswagenzwang. They use it to express the following:

“You must use the larger wheeled cart in this shop, in order to make sure you keep enough distance from the next person, that way keeping yourself and your peers safe from passing on the virus.”

In London, they’ve introduced Einkaufswagenzwang in our local Marks & Spencer. They’ve introduced many more forms of entertainment in fact, and it all starts right at the door. First you’ll notice big blue arrows painted on the ground, two meters apart, which looks real inviting to play hopscotch.

It also (1) keeps you at a safe distance from other people in the queue, while (2) providing a topic for chitchat while you’re waiting for your turn to shop. We need to wait for others to leave the shop, before being let in you know.

There’s something very charming about living under quarantine and lockdown. When I was in M&S, I’ve seen these two elderly ladies doing their weekly shopping, catching up on life — at a safe distance, keeping the carts in between. They left about the same time when I finished, so I overheard them say goodbye to each other.

  • ‘See you next week darling’
  • ‘See you next week, I’m really looking forward!’

End scene.

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