Wish, Try, Achieve. Why it is false, but good to believe, anyway.

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I can’t remember how many times people have joked with Paulo Coelio’s quote:

And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.

And I can’t also count how many people hold it high up in their belief system, even if they have never heard of Coelio at all.

Motivational speakers and startup mentors routinely attribute success to relentless effort. And effort to strong will. To an unbending spirit. To a fighter’s mentalityTo an internal locus of controlTo a growth mindset.

No wonder. This belief is so rooted in our culture that can be traced back to religion:

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. (Matthew 7.7)

Unfortunately, like many common beliefs, it is not true¹. It is not true because there is this menacing element in life, called luck, that gets in the way. Or, to put it more scientifically, one is bound to encounter variability, randomness and unpredictability, regardless of his intentions or efforts.

When counting for whatever quality we have, we fall somewhere on a bell curve that measures this particular quality for the human population. We might be above or below average. So, if, say one is endowed by mother nature with qualities that fall in the lower quartiles of the distribution, he is destined to achieve less than one falling on the higher quartiles, given the same amount of effort and all other thing being equal. Doesn’t sound fair, but not preposterous either.

But there is a more chilling statistic. Because chance gets in the way, those in the higher quartiles do not achieve what they were destined too. Counting for effort too, the disparity is greater. And there is a dynamic that helps those who start earlier and reap benefits earlier: they take a boost and leapfrog their equals and more. As a result, whenever we measure outcomes like success, riches, fame or power, we are confronted with an entirely “unjust” distribution, the Pareto distribution where the proverbial 10% has 90% of whatever is counted. Just look at all those articles complaining about how the 1% of the ultra-rich controls half of the worlds wealth.

As I was heading back home from work today, I was listening to an audio book: Robert Sapolsky’s “Why Zebra’s don’t get ulcers”.

I must admit is hard to grasp this kind of content in audio form, as the book has a lot of endocrinology and neurochemistry references that don’t come down easily without visual aids. Nevertheless, somewhere around chapter 17, I heard a piece of information that elucidated the subject of this post.

Sapolksy’s book is about stress and it’s effects. And it has a wealth of information about what stress can do to our bodies and minds (mostly bad things). In Chapter 17 though, there were some good news about how to cope with stress, or, better, what can make our reaction to stressful situations less pronounced or even non existent, at all.

One prominent such factor is being, or, at least, feeling, in control. Surprisingly, it doesn’t make a difference.

Life is stressful, modern life more so. Aiming higher than the average is even more stressful. And if you want to make it to the top, the stress is almost unbearable. So it is paramount to get any help you can on the way. And such a help is a deeply held belief that the outcome is depended only on your efforts. That you are in control of your life, of your happiness, of your destiny. Or, to put it more realistically, that you feel like you are in control. Down goes the stress.

With less stress, any effort has better chances of a more benevolent outcome. So if luck is blind to our efforts, we should get blind to its obstacles. We might not reach our destination, but we will get closer, and we will have a much more pleasant journey.


  1. It is also a, so called, metaphysical claim, a term the epistemologists use for sentences that cannot be proved wrong. Why it can’t be proved wrong? Simply, because if you try as hard as you can and come to no end, you do not disprove the proposition, as one can always tell you: “You didn’t try enough”.
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The five stages of GDPR

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1. Denial

It’s not about us. We do not have sensitive data. It will not be implemented. People won’t understand it or adopt it. We are too small to matter. Who will dig up our sh*t, anyway?

2. Anger

Those bastards in Brussels, what else they will come up with? F*ck them, we won’t do anything. Let them come. We will deliver trouble.

3. Bargaining

If we change our contracts to look compliant, will we avoid detection? If we move outside Europe? If we delegate to third parties? If we delay a few months past the May 25 deadline?

4. Depression

We will never make it. We don’t have the skills or the resources to comply. If we get sued, it’s game over.

5. Acceptance

Roll up sleeves. Get a quotation from this consultant. Arrange a meeting with that lawyer. Dig up this diagram with your processes. Dig in your data files. Get insurance coverage. And, God help us.

3 thoughts about what is coming

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We just changed to 2017 and writing about time looks fitting.

It is three years now that when I encounter an extraordinary event, I mentally play a game: I am trying to predict what its repercussions will be, both short and long term.

For example, after the Brexit vote, I tried to divine what will be the medium term reaction of the markets to the British pound.

I won’t boast that I have made any spectacular predictions so far. If there is anything that has turned up from this habit, is that I am now alert of the possible outcomes and won’t be but moderately surprised from what will eventually take place.

This mental game though, has led me gradually to longer term prediction attempts. Not really predictions of an outcome, but rather fathoming of the consequences of a possible outcome.

There are three things, that currently look remote, but which I deem not so, and which, regardless of the time span, I think will have unprecedented consequences. Not for my/our/current view/life/perspective, but for the humankind as a whole.

Here they are, ordered by their future proximity.

The end of work.

This is the first thing that I see coming. And it cannot come easily. If you skim the news these days, you can’t miss either announcements of factory job replacements by robots or white collars turned obsolete by a certain AI.

The truth is that technology has reached a point where it can substitute any kind of human labor.

There is a line of thought that goes like this: a lot of jobs will be lost, but new ones will be created.

Numbers are always missing in such claims, because they are hard to come up with, in the first place, but, primarily, because they are very inconvenient. If there is going to be a shift in the type of labor on demand, it will be but an insignificant fraction of the type turned obsolete.

A more realistic approach is the discussion about a Universal Minimum Income for all. UMI, or basic income, the theory goes, will be given unconditionally and without exchange. And regardless if the recipient is employed or not. Actually, it is even presented as a job stimulant, in certain cases. And there are already a few countries (CanadaFinlandScotland) experimenting with the concept while the EU MP’s have started a discussion for a Pan-European roll out.

This makes more sense. There are huge unanswered questions about what a life without employment will be like, what will it mean to our psychology, curiosity, drive, creative powers, relationships etc. But at least, UMI will prevent us from one very violent thing: a massive revolt that will bring an unprecedented global bloodshed without solving the problem.

Why a revolt wouldn’t solve the problem?

Time and again, we have seen that once a technology is introduced, it cannot be taken back. It can only become obsolete by another technology. Regardless of how many people will lose their lives in such a luddite but truly justifiable uprising, robots and AI are here to stay. And we better be prepared.

Leaving scepticism aside for a moment, let’s try to imagine what UMI implies.

All the economies of the world today combine capital with labor to make products and services. This is what Adam Smith and Karl Marx have taught us.

Robots and AI are a sort of capital. They are owned by individuals or firms, and, if they become the sole production factor, the capital owners are entitled to all the gains from production. No salaries are due or required, no income for the average person is generated. Everything goes to the capitalist.

There are big question marks here. Those with an economic background will raise a flag: “Supply creates its own demand” they will say, echoing John Maynard Keynes and his reformulation of the Say’s law. With one apparent difference: labor was the factor mediating between supply and demand. As supply increases, wages are paid that become income that becomes demand, it turn. But what happens if the need to pay wages does not exist anymore?

Longevity.

The life expectancy kept increasing in the previous century, going from ~40 to ~80. It has, effectively, doubled in a century. And this trend will continue. There is a biological limit which we have approached very closely. But it is questionable whether this limit is meaningful any more, since biotechnology and genetics are making inroads into reverse-engineering human biology something that can increase artificially the human lifespan (there are already companies founded with this sole purpose).

By how much?

Who knows? Maybe indefinitely. If you can break down a mechanism to its parts and then can replace the faulty ones and reassemble it, you can make it work almost indefinitely.

But here is the double problem: All the more people will become jobless but will potentially be able to live longer because, to a certain extent, the breakthroughs in the human engineering will drip down to anyone. Restless ness will be on the rise.

But, say, a key part of bioengineering is very expensive. Like, rejuvenating a brain. What if this can give people a 50% increase in their life expectancy? And what if it is marketed so as to be affordable only by the very few? Historically, death was the great equalizer. It is what religions have always preached: we are all equal in front of death. This teaching has been some consolation for the poor, and, at times, a form of justice. The only one they were left with.

But if this final limit becomes a luxury product, then the poor will feel shattered, ultimately cheated, deprived of the last drop of worth and dignity. And they will revolt. Much more fiercely than they would because of wealth differences. And then what? Resolution or dystopia?

The great leap forward.

In a jobless world with longer lifespans and re-engineered bodies, space travel will not be that unthinkable anymore. Even with the current spacecraft speeds, going to the nearest star and back will be within the span of a lifetime.

But why go to space, in the first place?

If Elon Musk’s argument (being an interplanetary species gives us more chances of survival) is not convincing you, then the quest for raw materials will make more sense. The asteroid belt is full of them and technology is always hungry for more.

I am not talking about fossil fuel, of course. There aren’t any elsewhere in the solar system, and, with the progress in renewable technologies soon we won’t be needing them anyway.

I am talking about metals, rare metals, too expensive to find on an earth already overexploited. Far fetched? Well, Luxemburg is already drafting laws about asteroid exploitation. And, at least two (Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries) companies have announced relevant plans.

But the economic aspect, while compelling, it is not the most thrilling one. The most thrilling aspect is the possibility of a first attempt to an interstellar manned travel.

Think of it: the Earth will be full, people will not worry about subsistence, lives will be longer and healthier. Certainly some people will think, even out of sheer boredom, to make the big leap and try to explore the Cosmos. The Martial colonisation already has attracted volunteers even without the conditions mentioned before. How many more will come then, when the prerequisites materialise?

Given the advances in medical technologies and AI, and for the needs of such a travel, we can imagine various enhancements of the human biology and cognition. Enhancements that might frighten us now but that will be fundamental for the survival in outer space.

And if we arrive to this, shall we be humans anymore? The nuances of what is human, transhuman and posthuman will be all too real and pretty much blurred.

One thing is certain: the future will not be boring.

Updates:

Here I will list all things that corroborate the views expressed above.

The AI Threat Isn’t Skynet. It’s the End of the Middle Class.

As Goldman Embraces Automation, Even the Masters of the Universe Are Threatened

What It Would Take to Reach the Stars

UAE Announces Plans to Have a Human Colony on Mars by 2117

.Net Core on a Mac

It’s been ages since I blogged anything. More, anything technical. Since I am in the process of experimenting with ASP .NET Core on my Mac, I thought to take the opportunity and log this journey here.

So far I have done three things:

This isn’t as straightforward as just installing Visual Studio Code. To have scaffolding one  needs to rely on CLI tools, and to do some client side development on the usual suspects: bower, jQuery, bootstrap etc. Which means you need to spend a lot of time  with the Terminal.

  • Set up a development database

While one can experiment with SQLite or MySQL, I wanted the real Microsoft thing, SQL Server, and since this isn’t available for Mac I used Virtual Box with a Windows 10 LTSB guest, where I installed SQL Server Express.

To connect to the database from the host, the VirtualBox has to be on bridged networking and SQL Server should be accepting TCP connections.

  • Found a relatively simple project that entails the most common workflows.

Our company’s website  is multilingual and it is WordPress based (no wonder). While the blog  parts serve their purpose nicely, the pages are bloated (HTML-wise) and have a lot of javascript code running (for a reason) which could benefit from a slimming diet.

So, I thought, why not try to migrate the WordPress pages (not the posts) to an MVC site based on Asp .Net Core. To make things more interesting, I want to add some dynamic content too, pulled from our app’s database (why should I be bothering with SQL Server if I didn’t?).

And here I am. So far, I have made some progress which I will relate in subsequent posts. This post is only an introduction to the theme. If you have interest in such experiments, stay tuned.

Why people stick to their views despite evidence to the contrary?

Why people stick to their views despite evidence to the contrary?

More, why do they stick to their views fanatically especially when there is evidence to the contrary?

From the little I have read on the subject, the explanation seems to lie in our perception of “self”. Our views are an essential part of what we perceive as our “self” and an attack on the views is considered as an attack on the “self”. Therefore, we counterattack.

To reinforce the sense of “self” we stick to like minded people, read and watch only what confirms our prejudices and revel on the trashing of the “opponents”.

This must be a “bug” of our mental apparatus. Because, in the course of time, we change views anyway. Only never when we are told so. So we change “self” and disprove the importance of having this specific view or the other.

But in the short term we consider our views as “eternal” because this serves well the “selfishness” of this plastic thing called “ the self”. Maybe this is what led Buddha to proclaim that the “self” is an illusion.

How do we fix this “bug”? This is an open question. My personal experience leads me to believe that it happens more easily in non-confrontational situations. More likely when you are reading a book, or watching a documentary, than when you are discussing with another person.

Which shifts the problem to “how one picks the right book/documentary/experience etc” that would help him to fix his views?

In essence, we never “pick”. Like the social media maxim goes, the “news” find us. And it is precisely into this modern space, the social media space, that it gets easier to pick up new views provided that they just “flow” around you and not directed at you. At least, I think so.

The productivity of illness

There Is A Light That Never Goes Out
It has happened to me a few times but it wash’t until today, the third day of being confined at home because of my flu, that I began to see the pattern.

Being sick is a great chance to think! 

“Oh, man, this is … sick”, you might say. Maybe, but it is true nevertheless. And there is a very good reason for this: you don’t have many alternatives.

What I mean is that if you are really sick, you probably are in bed, cannot do a lot of work, cannot see or talk to many people, watch tv, read books or surf the net. If you are really sick. Or you can do all of the above but for a limited amount of time. And the rest of the day you lie on your bed suffering and waiting.

But there is an organ  that is not too much affected by the condition of the rest of the body: the brain.

Yes, you might be sleepy or feel that your thought is misty, yet, in the absence of external preoccupations, and with plenty of idle time,  all your latent thoughts, worries, forgotten tasks, fears, hopes and desires will find a way to sneak into your consciousness. And here lies your moment of opportunity: you can play it like tv, i.e. watch and forget, or you can try to make some sense out of this mental jumble, discover things, short out other and finally, find inspiration and motivation to change your way onwards.

And this is precisely the pattern I realised today: it has happened to me each time I was in bed for more than one day. And each time I got away with something good. Not always significant or lasting, but, at least temporarily, beneficial.

As a matter of fact, this is how I came up with the Discoveroom idea. It was two years ago when I was in bed for about a month because of my waist. As a matter of fact, lots of ideas came to me then. I even had  a moleskine by me to note them down quickly. I also started learning ruby and embarked in a pet project utilising codeigniter. But the one thing that got stuck was Discoveroom (not by this name, or any name, in the beginning) and now that I am again in bed, this is the one I find myself deliberating about.

So, what’s the moral here? Get ill to get things done? Of course not. The moral is that there is no idle time. Only idle people. You choose what you are.

 

 

Mac et al. annoyances

The last few days I am under a spell of bad luck: a near the elbow left-arm fracture, an old spine hernia that came back with a vengeance, confining me to bed the past two days, and, today, a Macbook Air that refuses make a  sound  while it won’t let me end a dialog.

Since the health of the body is less important than the health of the mind Mac, I will skip the first and focus on the second 🙂

I have a 4,5 year Mac book Air (first generation), with an 80Gb disk. I have managed to keep upgrading up to Snow Leopard and then stopped. I have decided that my next upgrade will be a new Mac book, not a new OSX for the current one.

In the short (or long, depending on the perspective) life of this machine I have experienced two serious problems, both taken care by Apple Support.

Before turning to apple support for this one too, I want to describe it here, hoping that someone might stumble on it and offer a solution that I haven’t already found (i.e.  tried, and rejected) googling for an answer.

Sound

The sound problem looks like  a hardware one. At least, this was my first impression since input and output devices ceased to show up in the Sound Settings in System Preferences.

The first search though, revealed that this is an all too common Mac problem, highly correlated to Air’s and Lions. So with an Air and no Lion I have a  50% chance of a software problem.

The known remedies to the missing sound problem, nicely summed up here, offered me no consolance. Neither the PRAM trick. So, I am afraid that it really is a hardware problem.

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Dialogs

The program I use most frequently (next to Chrome) is Coda, since I am doing most of my professional and personal work with it. But today it let me down too, although I don’t think it is strictly a Coda issue, as I noticed the same behavior with a couple of other programs too, namely Mail and SourceTree, but since I do not use them often I did not pay attention.

So what is this problem? Every time I attempt to open Coda I get stuck with the dialog below. I cannot close it, press a button, or make it progress. It stays there eternally.

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What the dialog says is true. I indeed got stuck saving a remote file, that forced to quit coda,  and since then…

My thought was that if I cleaned the local copies the dialog would disappear.

I tried to clear the cache but had problem finding it.

I deleted the Cache.db file in ~/Library/Caches/com.panic.Coda and all the entries in ~/Library/Coda/ (which look unrelated, but did it nevertheless). Then I looked at ~/Library/Application Support/Coda/Logs but the folder was empty.

In short, I did not find the cached remote files.

As a last resort, I also attempted to reinstall Coda. I got exactly the same result.

The funny thing is that if I click on a document that normally opens with Coda, the document opens nicely but then the accursed dialog kicks in.

So here I stand, or, rather, I lie, with no other solution left only than to beg you, kind reader, for one, before I make apple support richer.

Update 1: 

I managed to get rid of the annoying dialog by cleaning some cache files in /Library/Caches.  More specifically, after cleaning blindly all the cache files and folders that had a date close to yesterday, I opened Coda, saw the dialog again but this time clicking on cancel actually worked. Then, it asked me for a key, as I had reinstalled it and after putting the original purchase key, the confirmation dialog got stuck again. This time I knew where to look and it appeared that the only newly created cache file was /Library/Caches/com.apple.DiagnosticReporting.Networks.plist. I deleted it again, reopened Coda, repeated the above steps but this time, after entering the license key, the confirmation dialog worked. Of course all my setting were gone with the cache cleaning and reinstallation which is already a loss. But, at least I have Coda working.

Now, the property list file mentioned above, did not appear to have anything special inside. As a matter of fact, the one I initially deleted and the new one generated were identical. So, I cannot tell why it helped.

Update 2:

It took me sometime to make the connection: the two issues are related. In a very simple and stupid way: the dialogs get stuck as they attempt to play a sound. And since the sound system is dead, the dialog hangs up waiting. So, what I did, was disable the interface sound effects and, voila, dialogs started behaving.


Update 3 (7/12/2012)
Sigh! I was wrong. The dialogs problem is still there. And not only in Coda…

Xeni