This is not a weight loss blog…

…but it’s a theme that comes up from time to time.

It’s perhaps not surprising that it comes to the fore when I have occasion to be dealing with photos. Back in 2006 I joked about the “Flickr Diet“. (Remember Flickr? It still exists. No longer owned by Yahoo. Somehow I still have a “pro” account there.) In 2016 I hit the same feeling as I was trying to consolidate my various photo repositories. In 2018 I got our APS photos digitised (easy), and a couple of weeks ago I got Trigger in Amsterdam to scan 30 envelopes of 35mm negatives from the 80s and 90s. (These are not all our 35mm negatives — just some of the easy ones. We’ve still got a box of mixed prints and negatives. Back in the day, when you ordered reprints, it was very easy for the film strips to get separated from their origins.)

It would have been easy enough to just file away those old photos and not look at them again, if only I hadn’t bought myself a new iPad last month. The iPad I’d been using before was Abi’s old original iPad Air from 2013 or 2014, which was no longer getting software updates and had stopped being able to run certain apps. I got myself a new low-end “basic” iPad. That’s all I need, but of course it comes with all the new OS features like widgets. I put the Photos widget on my home screen, and now I find myself looking at old photos and “memories” slideshows almost every time I pick it up.

Here’s the problem: in those old photos, I look a) happier, b) younger, c) thinner.

Do I look happy here?

The happier element is, in part, an illusion. “Don’t compare your backstage to someone else’s on-stage” This applies to one’s self across time just as well. Past Martin is a different person, with different desires, needs and priorities than present Martin. And photos of him are snapshots in time, when he was putting on a smile for the camera regardless of what was going on in his life at the time. Like the Cheshire Cat, the smile sticks around long after the rest of its self has disappeared.

(Only in part, though. The last few years haven’t exactly been a wellspring of delight, but, you know, we’re working on it.)

The younger element is to be expected, I suppose. And the thinner part, well. I guess we’re back here again.

One recipe for successful goal achievement is to combine sufficient motivation with a sense of self-efficacy to make the project feel achievable. It’s a push-pull kind of thing. Even so, environment and circumstances play a significant part as well — not everything is within our control. (The classic “means, motive, opportunity” triangle.)

Last year I reflected on the fact that my weight has gone up and down in the past, and it will likely go up and down in the future. I feel comfortable with the idea that I’ve lost weight before, and I can do it again. However, I haven’t felt much motivation to do so recently, and the circumstances of the pandemic, as well as work and family factors, have had me prioritizing other aspects of my physical and mental health.

There have been other lifestyle/diet changes that I’ve been able to make successfully and (I think) easily make since 2018, specifically: eating a vegetarian diet and not drinking alcohol. I think that motivation and short-term feedback are the differences between these two changes, and losing weight. In giving up meat, I felt (and feel) a strong motivation to not have animals killed for my food. (Give me time to deal with eggs and cheese.) Giving up alcohol was motivated by the short-term feedback loop of feeling physically poisoned the next day after even a single glass of wine or whisky the previous evening.

In both cases, these changes felt like examples of “changing my relationship with food” in a qualitative sense rather than a quantitative sense. Past successful diets for me have mostly been calorie-counting affairs, which, perhaps, have mentally felt like things I would do for a while and then go back to some kind of normal, rather than permanent “I will never do this again” changes. The Atkins/low-carb diet was an interesting outlier: it was successful in terms of bringing about weight loss, but not successful as a long-term change because I have no intention of giving up bread for life.

Right now, spurred by confronting my younger, thinner self on a regular basis (he has a jawline rather than a jawsmudge, the bastard) I’m toying with the idea of trying a 5:2 or another intermittent fasting diet. Not because I think it holds a magical answer; Seimon et al.’s (2015) systematic review suggests that it works, but it’s not substantially more or less effective than other weight loss methods. However, psychologically, I might find it easier to follow an unambiguous “it’s Tuesday, I don’t eat on Tuesdays” schema than to persist with an “only so much but not more” pattern.

It might work, I don’t know! It’s 16:00 so far and I’m feeling hungry, but I’ve managed to avoid making myself a sandwich or grabbing one of the rowies I bought in Stonehaven yesterday. We’ll see.

Long projects and mastery experiences

Marcin Wichary wrote a terrific article a couple of months ago about getting rid of Moiré patterns from scanned photographs (via Andy Baio). It’s a great visual exploration of the intersection between art and mathematics. But the point that Marcin gets to at the end of the article, and which has stuck with me, is about the nature of mastery experiences:

I’ve always had this theory that any long-term project requires two ingredients: things you’re good at, and things you want to learn. The first group gives you a feeling of accomplishment and mastery. The other one? It keeps things interesting.

When coming to a large project without some things you’ve already mastered, the entire endeavour can feel overwhelming. But without anything new to look forward to, it can become stale and repetitive.

Or here’s another lens: When you’re facing one of the many hard moments, something you’re good at can help you feel awesome. But when you’re bored, something new to learn can remind you how there’s more to life than feeling awesome all the time.

Marcin Wichary, “Moiré no more”

This ties directly to Albert Bandura’s concept of self-efficacy. Simply put, self-efficacy is the belief that you are able to take control of a situation or project, and achieve a certain goal. Perhaps you don’t have the skills to do it right now, but your past experiences, your emotional state, and the social support available to you lead to you think that you will be able to get there. Satisfying mastery experiences like the one Marcin describes here are essential to reinforcing your sense of self-efficacy. (And in the opposite case, a diminished sense of personal efficacy is a hallmark of multiple models of burnout.)

(Note that self-efficacy is not the same as self-confidence. One way to describe the difference is that self-efficacy is the belief in yourself, while self-confidence is the strength of that belief, and an indication of your ability to project that belief to yourself and others. Whether the belief and the projection are justified, and how they’re perceived, are different matters…)

This resonates with me a lot right now. As a manager, one of my responsibilities is to ensure that my team get the opportunities to gain mastery experiences, and to help them reflect on those experiences to increase their sense of self-efficacy.

But…as of a couple of weeks ago I’m not a manager any more. The engineer/manager pendulum has swung the other way for me. It’s been a couple of years since I spent full days embedded in code, and my skills are rusty. I’m bumping up against exactly what Marcin described in his article: things that I’ve done in the past (efficacy), and things I’d like to learn about for the future (motivation). My sense of efficacy feels reasonably solid; my motivation is…complicated, but I don’t think that’s unusual. On balance it feels like this is the right thing for me at this time. Which is just fine.

Leaky pipeline

One of my favourite quotes goes something like this:

“Gedacht heißt nicht immer gesagt, gesagt heißt nicht immer richtig gehört, gehört heißt nicht immer richtig verstanden, verstanden heißt nicht immer einverstanden, einverstanden heißt nicht immer angewendet, angewendet heißt noch lange nicht beibehalten.”

Which in English is roughly:

“What’s thought isn’t always said; what’s said isn’t always heard; what’s heard isn’t always understood; what’s understood isn’t always agreed; what’s agreed isn’t always carried out; what’s carried out is still far from being upheld over the long term.”

I don’t remember where I first came across it, and I’d always seen it attributed to Konrad Lorenz, but when I wanted to use it in a presentation recently I thought I’d better check that attribution. Conveniently, I found a German quote research site that had done a thorough investigation and found that it probably is not attributable to Lorenz. Most likely it goes back to the 1980s, possibly to author Heinz Goldmann.

Regardless of where the quote comes from, I still enjoy the wisdom it encapsulates. I use it to hammer on two points:

  • Sometimes you have to ask the same question over and over again.
  • Writing a piece of documentation doesn’t equate to knowledge transfer

Tracking as pollution

John Gruber, “Google’s Outsized Share of Advertising Money“:

A world where Google sees, say, 25 percent of the world’s ad spending sounds like an amazing business, in principle. Unless you’re comparing it to the world we’re in today, where they see 50 percent — then 25 percent looks like a collapse. Privacy-invasive user tracking is to Google and Facebook what carbon emissions are to fossil fuel companies — a form of highly profitable pollution that for a very long time few people in the mainstream cared about, but now, seemingly suddenly, very many care about quite a bit. 

Maciej Cegłowski, “Haunted By Data” (2015):

Don’t collect it!

If you can get away with it, just don’t collect it! Just like you don’t worry about getting mugged if you don’t have any money, your problems with data disappear if you stop collecting it.

Switch from the hoarder’s mentality of ‘keep everything in case it comes in handy’ to a minimalist approach of collecting only what you need.

Your marketing team will love you. They can go tell your users you care about privacy!

I Am The Beat

We have a weekly collaborative Spotify playlist at work. In the olden days, we’d contribute to it during the week, and then set it running on the sound system in the kitchen on Friday. There’s a different theme each week, and this week the setters have outdone themselves. The theme is “Q and A”: add pairs of songs, where the first one is a question, and the second one is an answer.

There are some great and funny pairings, e.g. “Where is the Love?” followed by “Up on the Roof” and “Why Does it Always Rain on Me?” before “Cruel Summer”. It’s not unusual for me to go deep on the 80s for these playlists, and I fell down another YouTube rabbit hole again this evening. My treasure of the week is this gem from The Look:

It answers the question, “Who Do You Think You Are?”.

(In passing, “Twilight Café”, “Sign of the Times”, “Heartache Avenue”, “Reward”… I’ll come up for air eventually.)

Bitcoin mining

I subscribe to Matt Levine’s “Money Stuff” newsletter from Bloomberg. I’m not a big investor, and much of what he talks about goes over my head; but finance is a big part of what drives global change, and he writes about it very entertainingly.

In Friday’s newsletter he highlighted a story about a man in Wales who mistakenly threw out a hard drive containing a bitcoin wallet that — by current valuation — is worth about £200 million. The dude has got financial backing from a hedge fund to gain access to the landfill where he thinks it’s buried to try and recover it. Levine writes:

Financial backing from a hedge fund! Imagine those pitch meetings, wandering around Mayfair trying to get hedge funds to agree to sift through acres of garbage to find some Bitcoins. “You’ll want our special situations team.” If anyone has a copy of his pitch deck for this trade, I need it desperately. I assume it would lay out the plan for digging up the garbage, and the sources and uses of funds. There’d be a financial model showing that, even accounting for paying off the local council and discounting for the possibility that the hard drive has rotted away, you’ll make at least a 30% expected return on your investment. There’d be a page on the capital structure and payment waterfall. You’d need a deep dive into the landfill’s record-keeping system, with aerial maps showing the grid and schematic diagrams of the cross-section. Then a technical section on how you put a rusted garbage-covered hard drive into a computer to get the Bitcoins off of it. At the back of the deck you’d have a page on “The Team,” with little pictures and bios of the guys who are going to dig up the garbage. If no one sends me this pitch book I might have to make it myself. It should be taught in business schools. If you took a class on “Blockchain and Crypto for Finance” and there was no case study on digging up landfills for hard drives, you should demand your tuition back.

I bought some cryptocurrency back in 2017 to see what was up, to try out wallets, and have a bit of skin in the game to help me understand it better. I made a little profit, sold it all, paid the appropriate taxes, and came to the conclusion that it’s all a bit bonkers.

Expecting everyone to be responsible enough to manage their own wallet security or else lose all their money is bananas, so people will delegate it to larger organizations, and the middle-men get rich again. With SEPA and the prevalence of modern mobile banking products, crypto offers nothing extra in the way of convenience, and the promise of anonymity breaks down as soon as you try to convert crypto into real-world currency and vice versa. But then every few years prices go up by factor of 10 in the space of a few months, and everyone gets excited again. It’s still bonkers.