Burnout from Creeping Commitments
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Burnout from Creeping Commitments

A couple of months ago I transitioned into the role of data science lead. Suddenly instead of just having to think about how to deliver new solutions, improve operational processes and review contributions I had to also mentor a new team member, develop new team processes and rituals, coordinate and project manage, shape OKRs, and contribute to developing presentations to executives to approve what we were delivering. For a few weeks it was like I was working two jobs; in the day I would either be in meetings or working on planning and communication, and at night I would be modelling or writing code to make sure we could deliver the right solution on time.

Rod Crewther: 23/09/1945 - 17/12/2020
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Rod Crewther: 23/09/1945 - 17/12/2020

Today I learned that Dr Rodney James Crewther, known affectionately by colleagues and students as Rod, died last week. I only knew Rod through my education at the University of Adelaide in the late noughties, where he was a senior lecturer in the Physics department specialising in particle physics, but he had a huge impact on me. My thoughts are with those close to him in this difficult time. Rod truly cared about educating students.

Moral Justification
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Moral Justification

Once a problem becomes moral, the acceptable solution space collapses. I'm reading Sylvia Nasar's book Grand Pursuit, and she talks about how Malthus' An Essay on the Principal of Population made the argument that as the poor classes gained more money they would always reproduce in greater numbers until they reached their previous state of poverty. This and other contemporary works of political economy posed these kinds of arguments as natural laws.

Life Optimisation
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Life Optimisation

When all you've got is the hammer of mathematics, everything looks like an optimisation problem, you just need to choose the right objective function. So what should the objective function be for life? People today in general have much more means and much more freedom (i.e. fewer constraints in the solution space) than many of their ancestors, so what should we optimise? A study from Daniel Kahneman and the economist Angus Deaton says High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well being.

Checking With Calculation
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Checking With Calculation

I recently convinced myself that I was right and a published paper was wrong. I did all the calculus by hand and decided they must have missed something. I resolved it by calculation. I played some very basic examples in my head and thought I was right, but I couldn't be sure. So I quickly implemented a concrete example case in Python using numpy. This helped me resolve pretty quickly that I was wrong; some searching produced a counterexample.

AlphaFold: Predicting protein shape from its composition
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AlphaFold: Predicting protein shape from its composition

The Critical Assessment of protein Structure Prediction (CASP) runs every two years to predict the shape of a protein, the building blocks of life, from its sequence of amino acids. We know the shape of a bunch (around 170,000) of proteins from techniques like X-ray crystallography and Magnetic Resonance Imaging, but it's a big experimental job to actually measure this. However we know the sequence of millions of proteins due to cheap DNA sequencing and the DNA to protein translation.

Truly Independent Thinkers
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Truly Independent Thinkers

I was reading [Paul Graham's How to Think For Yourself] where he talks about independent-mindedness. His examples are scientists, investors, startup founders and essayists as professions where you can't do well without thinking differently from your peers. While there's some useful commentary in the article about how to broaden your worldview, I don't think a really independent minded person would do well in those professions. To succeed in science you need to study something people are interested in.

Myth of the Hawthorne Effect
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Myth of the Hawthorne Effect

The Hawthorne effect is where when measuring the effect of lighting changes on worker output in an electrical factory any change increased output, even back to the original lighting conditions. I've heard this explained as running the experiment caused the employees to be observed more closely which led them to work harder, and used as a rationale for observing employees more. Except the Hawthorne effect is a myth. The economists Steven D.

Can I? Must I? Should I?
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Can I? Must I? Should I?

Whenever someone gets an idea in their head they start filtering out evidence that contradicts that idea. This idea is called confirmation bias, people start looking for evidence that confirms their current idea and neglecting evidence that challenges it. There's no way to completely beat a bias, but something that helps me is re-framing the question. The first question that comes is normally "Can". Can it be? This leads to looking for evidence that confirms the idea.

Endurance Counting
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Endurance Counting

Counting is a strangely powerful tool for enduring through something. Standard advice when you're angry is to count to ten. When stretching counting to a target number helps sustain the stretch longer. A good counting based technique for endurance is box breathing. It involves repeatedly inhaling to a count of 4, holding to a count of 4, exhaling to a count of 4 and holding to a count of 4. This is a technique used by Navy SEALs to induce calm and focus.

Redundancy on Phone Power Button
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Redundancy on Phone Power Button

My 5 year old OnePlus One's power button has finally worn out, to the point where I can't press it. I panicked when the battery ran out - I was afraid I wouldn't be able to power it back on. However I found a video demonstrating how to turn it on with a power cable and the volume button. Pressing the volume down button when you attach the power cable to a computer puts it into recovery mode and you can boot it from there.

Tidy Time
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Tidy Time

I love having a clean desk and empty inbox. But I hate spending the time cleaning my desk and processing emails. It feels like wasted time where I could do something better. However having "tidy time" to maintain things is important. A while ago I read David Allen's Getting Things Done. When I tried to implement it I got stuck on the notion of a weekly review. Setting aside some time every week to see how you're progressing on tasks and to process any new tasks.

Solving Solved Problems
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Solving Solved Problems

A good technique for deeply understanding something is to try to solve it yourself first. Sometimes this can even lead to better methods or new discoveries. I heard an interesting technique from Jeremy Howard in one of the fast.ai courses about how to read a paper. First read the abstract and introduction. Then spend a couple of days trying to implement what you think they're talking about. Then go back and read the rest of the paper and see how it compares to what you did.

Time Budgeting
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Time Budgeting

It's worthwhile spending some time thinking about how you spend your time. Time and energy are among your most valuable resources. A regular investment of time can build into substantial assets, but if you don't budget time it's easily misspent. I don't believe that you should allocate away all of your time, but setting some time constraints is important. If you don't put the big rocks of things that are important to you first in the jar first, all the sand and water of mundane things will fill it up.

Exceed Expectations
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Exceed Expectations

Today I saw a picture in someone's windows "Always Exceed Everyone's Expectations". My initial reaction was that was a quick way to burnout - trying to always exceed expectations sounds like running on a treadmill that gets faster and faster. But another way to look at it is to set lower expectations and only commit when you can confidently deliver. In another expression "under-promise and over-deliver". Consistently delivering what you promise to customers is the way to build trust and loyalty.

Being Patient with People
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Being Patient with People

I'm sitting in a meeting listening to an update. They've missed the point, and they're focusing on the wrong thing. I start to get frustrated; why are they so far off track? Why haven't they taken the time to understand the problem? This isn't a helpful reaction; getting short tempered won't help resolve the problem. I haven't taken the time to understand the speaker and their perspective. Why do they think this is the right thing to focus on?

Targeting my brand
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Targeting my brand

My friend has four different magnets for plumbers on his fridge. Three of them are generic rectangular magnets that have generic information and contact details. One of them was in the shape of a dripping tap, mentioning they were experts in leaks and drips. If they had a leaking faucet it's pretty easy to guess which plumber they would call; the specialists in dripping taps. On the other hand if they had a clogged toilet it's down to chance which of the plumbers they would call, although they're less likely to call the dripping tap specialist they're also more likely to forget to look at the fridge and just search for a plumber online.

Embrace, Extend and Extinguish
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Embrace, Extend and Extinguish

In the 90s Microsoft famously used a strategy of embracing other protocols, then adding extensions to their implementation until it's no longer compatible and utilising their market leverage to extinguish competing implementations. While "EEE" is normally associated with Microsoft many of the software titans use it as an effective strategy to further their existing dominance into new markets. Embracing a technology with an existing market is an effective way to quickly gain adoption.

Mace-Bearer
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Mace-Bearer

The University of Adelaide, being a sandstone Group of Eight University, has the archaic ceremony of a mace-bearer leading the processing carrying a heavy piece of expensive metal. When I graduated with my Bachelor of Science I was fortunate enough to be that mace-bearer. Unfortunately I wasn't really prepared for the formality. The ceremony was on a typical Adelaide summer's day, hot and dry. I was going out to lunch with my parents afterwards, so I wanted to make sure I was comfortable.

Directions of Delegation
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Directions of Delegation

For any actionable item there are four ways to handle it: do it, defer it, delegate it or delete it. Delegation is an often overlooked powerful option to handle things. It's not just for high powered executives to delegate down to their personal assistants; even if you don't have any reports it's possible to delegate. You can delegate in three directions: down, sideways and up. Downwards delegation is the classic kind that comes to most people's minds.

Diverge then Converge
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Diverge then Converge

It's very useful to diverge on ideas before converging on a solution. Trying to do both at the same time tends to stifle creativity and lead to less innovative solutions. I find the creative process of brainstorming is more effective if I do it separately to refining ideas. Taking the time to brainstorm leads to better solutions, whether thinking about what to work on, planning out a presentation or designing a technical solution.

Mail merge to PDF Files
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Mail merge to PDF Files

A friend needed to generate a hundred contracts and their HR information system wasn't working properly. I helped them implement a workaround solution by using mail merge to generate a PDF for every contract, which saved them a lot of time filling in the details of each contract. I couldn't automatically generate the PDF despite some efforts, but using mail merge was much quicker and more reliable than filling in all the contract details manually into the template.

Market for Highschool Maths Textbooks
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Market for Highschool Maths Textbooks

My first professional job was for Haese mathematics which is a small family-owned South Australian business that writes and publishes mathematics textbooks. Working for a small company was a really interesting experience, I learned software development for their applications both for students and teachers, made animations, edited audio and did layout and graphic design of the books. Unfortunately I didn't make the effort to learn much about the business itself, which makes me wonder how big the market is for mathematics textbooks.

Pain gain matrix for discussing approaches
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Pain gain matrix for discussing approaches

Placing options on a scatterplot of costs versus benefits is a common practice for prioritising opportunities and solutions. The primary benefit of this approach is it can spark discussions. When people see the options on the canvas they it can help uncover unseen issues and opportunities. Getting a group of people involved in putting it together can help get them on the same page. The primary risk of this approach is getting too precise about it.

Project Estimation
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Project Estimation

Estimating projects is notoriously difficult, and the larger the project the harder to estimate. But even small pieces of work for a single person are easy to underestimate. When you make an estimate base it on actual elapsed times of similar projects, always try to overestimate the time, and reduce the scope before promising more than you can deliver. Everyone knows that construction jobs are typically going to take longer and cost more than quoted, from home renovations to major construction projects.