Saturday, 5 June 2010

Strange beasts (and big ones, too)

So which animal do you think is the biggest?

Some may say it's the elephant but I guess people that dumb are not likely to end up reading this. Most will agree it's the blue whale, which is a perfectly valid answer. However, the true geeks may instead reply with "what exactly does 'the biggest' mean? by what measure?". Which is, in this case, a very good point.

It turns out that if you take length into account, the title is disputed between two species, none of them being the said ocean-dwelling trip-loving mammal.

Most biologist agree that the longest animal is, guess what, a jellyfish! The lion's mane jellyfish's (Cyanea capillata) tentacles can get up to 35 meters long. It's diameter is mere 2.5 metres, rather slim, compared to the blue whale, but still a hell of a jellyfish - definitely not one that you'd like to encounter when swimming, unless you're in a later stage of scuba diving freakness. It's actually totally unlikely as the most formidable specimens live in the ocean depths far north. Thus, they are quite elusive but some remarkable ones have been photographed:

Although I hate close encounters with even modestly sized Black Sea jellyfishes, I will be thrilled to see one of these beauties... from a safe distance (although actually they are not deadly).

Some may wonder why the hell would a jellyfish, be it a 2.5 metres wide one, need shitloads of 30 metre long tentacles. In fact, they need them for feeding and these beasts sure need a lot of food as they grow to these formidable sizes in less than a year! Its life cycle is annual, much like peas and weed.

And if you think that this is weird, just wait and see who's the other contestant for the title "longest creature ever to walk/crawl/swim the earth/oceans". It is, in fact, a worm! A worm less than a centimetre thick! The bootlace worms (quite understandably called Lineus longissimus) have been measured to grow to 30 metres, and are believed to be able to get to 60. I'm pretty sure this thing has never seen most of it's own body!

After a storm in 1864, one of these creatures measuring 55m was washed ashore. However, their bodies are quite elastic and under extreme circumstances can stretch up to 5 times their original length, so it's a bit tricky to measure and thus the title is disputed.

On pictures the beast looks more disgusting rather than impressive, I hope that leaving them for the end won't ruin your fascination with the powers of mother nature:

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Politics - dirty business or science

The topic of politics never ceases to be current but around the British general elections it's getting even more attention than usual. Debates come and go, some people try to evaluate policies, others have firm voting decisions based on questionable foundation but most don't give a fuck. Until recently I was part of that group as well. However, as I see no point in being in a majority (there are enough people there already, right) I got interested in politics. The matter turned out to be interesting and quite complicated.

As we all know, democracy is not perfect but it's superior to all other systems we've tried by any reasonable comparison. And by reasonable I mean one that is based more on quality of life rather than military conquests. Despite their flaws, democratic societies never had to erect fences to keep their people in ;-)
And believe me, I have thought a lot about what kind of system would be better and I don't even know why I'm doing it as a lot of people much smarter than me have pondered about this problem for quite some time. Neither them nor I have come up with any solutions and we can only hope that one day we'll have a superior form of government, some system of power distribution that in hindsight will seem to be a simple and obvious solution and yet, much like inventing the wheel, it will take us ages to actually figure it out.

But I'm not suggesting we should just accept our imprefect system and wait for the next one to be invented - democracy in the way it's being applied currently is far less perfect that what it might be. One obvious problem with democracy is that government's need to be popular to get elected and stay in power. And I'm not even talking of the ridiculous amounts of money and energy that are spent on election campaigns - that's the inherent cost of maintaining a democractic system. Even governments that have the popular support to rise to power can't afford to establish policies that are efficient but unpopular. Unfortunately the masses don't understand macroeconomics and plenty of other issues so well so they often support policies that are actually not good for them in the long term. I'll give my humble support for democracy by being vocal about such unpopular opinions that could end up on politicians' agendas should they receive some more attention, but more on this later.

There are lots of examples how policies that make sense never get passed because they are unpopular, I'll just remind you about a few of them and maybe write in more detail about others in a later post. A classic example is the debate regarding Marijuana prohibition - it has been proven beyond any reasonable doubt that Cannabis is less harmful than alcohol, still most governments prefer to leave a multi-billion market (e.g. £3.5 bln a year in the UK - in the hands of the mafia, only to be re-invested into killings, teenage prostitutes and other much less tolerable activities.

Another example that might not be so classic but is a good one nevertheless, is the case with trade unions. This one gets me really agitated! For fuck's sake, people, trade unions were cool decades ago! They made sense during the industrial revolution, and in the communist states as well - but so did everything that takes even a miniscule amount of power away from the party. Nowadays, trade unions serve the sole purpose of generating ridiculous shitstorms when, for instance, big companies don't do well and need to lay off the least productive 10% of their staff. But no, the trade union won't let this happen! They threaten with strikes that might make the company go bust (or get bailed out) even sooner just so that same 10% of incompetent workers and outright lazy fuckers can get their salaries (on a minimum wage set by the union!) until their employer agonizes into bankruptcy.
And there is another important thing that the unions do - gain power. Little by littly they develop more and better tools to hold the employers hostage, until the whole thing scales way out of proportion, as in the case with British Airways cabin crew, represented by the Unite union, that happens to have 111 of it's members as Labour MPs! And while this travesty takes place no one seems to be seriously bothered, and people still percieve the worker unions as the good guys and the companies that pay their salaries as evil.

By contemplating these two examples we get to the next big issue in politics - the difference between the left and right. The first example deals with a leftist policies - liberal political formations, at least in theory, should be more likely to support legalization, while the latter one represents more of a rightist case. This leads us to the fundamental changes differences that the left and right are supposed to have - the left support personal freedom (i.e. gay rights, relaxed immigration laws, etc) but restrict financial freedom (licenses, import/export quotas) and the right are vice versa.

This is just in theory, however. In modern day politics the difference between left and right in terms of fundamental policies is kind of blurred, and sometimes even non existent. In the UK the mainstream parties' economic policies tend to gravitate around some form of neoliberalism. Tony Blair himself wrapped it up nicely - he declared that "we're all Thacherites now", even though he was a labour PM and Thatcher is a conservative pillar. When you take a look at the planned spending cuts ahead of the British general elections you can see a similar picture - Labour pledged to keep government spending more or less the same, Tories wanted to cut £20bln but finally settled on £6bln in the Lib-Tory coalition. Sounds a lot? Well, in fact it's less than a percent of the £2.674 trillion UK GDP, this could hardly count for a significant shift in policies. It's like subtracting £467.84 from the money I've earned in my whole life.

So why are we witnessing this trend of narrowing the gap between left and right? I can think of two possible reasons. For sure there is an optimal set of policies that ensure best outcome given the current circumstances, and maybe the scientific basis of political decision making is advanced enough so they can actually define this set reasonably well. Or maybe they just figured out what sells well to the voters. In any way it's a combination of both.

Even more bizarre is the case in Bulgaria - in 2008 the Socialist prime minister Sergey Stanishev introduced the 10% proportional tax - the lowest flat tax rate in the world! But how come, this is not "fair". I mean the socialist, take-from-the-rich-give-to-the-poor fair, not the everyone-gets-what-he-deserves fair - the meaning that comes much more naturally to me. It's funny how leftist campaigns abuse that word, it can imagine how appealing labour and lib dem pledges would be to this particular kind of old people in post communist countries that still support the regime, had they bothered to learn English.

Maybe it seems that I'm supporting some right-wing political organization, so maybe it's about time to present my political views. I am convinced that there is an approach to politics that combines the best of both worlds, or at least gets rid of the worst. If we combine the economic liberty of the right (accepted as the right way to go even by some leftist leaders) and the personal liberty of the left (accepted as the right way to go by everyone in his right mind) then we may actually end up with a decent system. This is call libertarianism and I'll write tons about it in the future (not too much to get you bored with it - just enough so I convince you that it actually makes sense).

I'm pretty sure that most people don't have a clear picture of what exactly libertarianism entails, and I guess that common gut associations label libertarianism as either radical or idealistic, such brands to exist. But the strain of libertarian society that I'm nurturing in my mind is rather pragmatic - it's about establishing policies backed by serious research, no matter the public opinion. I have delved into various fields as deep as I can, and if one could ever abstract from election campaigns and media shitstorms, and so far it appears that the liberal policies, in both personal and economic aspects, are actually the ones that make sense. Of course this claim needs the quotations and numbers to be credible and I definitely need to write a bit about it.

As a conclusion, I'd like to present my guru Ross Kelley - the guy who opened my eyes about libertarianism, a geek rockstar and a party member himself. This guy is formidable - he's written tons of amazing essays on all topics you can imagine (and some more that you've never thought of), e.g. religion, history, feminism, Einstein's relativity, philosophy, politics. And the best of all -his writing style is witty,eloquent and easy going, won't scare you away with technobabble but ultimately will takes you to the hardcore concepts. Most of his work is published on a website run by him - The proceedings of the Friesian school,
The website is not well organized, most of the time you can find what you need by clicking around but I suspect some of the gems can only be found through links within other articles on the site. This guy is so mind-bogglingly intelligent and well-informed and still he hasn't been elected. Still it's not so bad in the states - I don't think that either Bulgaria or the UK have a credible libertarian party. Maybe establishing one is my altruistic reason for existence but still it would be easier if someone else does it for me - when this day comes I'll switch my mind to a newer voting algorithm - "vote for the one you like most" instead of "vote for the one you dislike the least".

Monday, 26 April 2010

Time management is no joke

I'm pretty sure the notion of time management is somehow vaguely defined for a lot of people, at least it used to be so for me. When I was first year in university not only the concept of systematic, results-driven time management was alien to me but not a single trace of time management was to be found in my activities.

It's not just that I wasn't a natural talent in time management - I was, in fact, a disaster. Now that I think of it, I wasn't doing anything sensible all day and I had this mindset that I don't have enough time to get things done while actually I had all the time in the world; I was just wasting it.

Somehow my life evolved dramatically over the next several years and now I'm entangled in a sophisticated web of projects and various activities, and somehow I handle it reasonably well. But now is not the time to brag about achievements as the post is not about me but the nature and benefits of time management. I'm just starting with a case study I know quite well ;-)

Bear with me just a bit, I need to rant about what exactly time management is for some more and then I'll give you some practical advices. First and foremost, there is this misconception that systematic time management is for the kind of achievement freaks that try to either win billions, become heads of states or lead revolutions, people that harness enormous amounts of passion and energy to pursue overly ambitious goals. This is simply not the case. If you are the type of person that would rather prefer to work two hours a day and get stoned the rest of the time - good time management is the only thing that can allow you to lead this lifestyle sustainably. You know, kind of like the do-work-first-get-stoned-next thing but taken to the next level.

Actually most time management gurus don't advocate zealous commitment to achievements but would rather advise to work reasonable hours and spend enough time with family, friends and the pointless activities you like doing. One of the giants on who's shoulders we stand is Randy Pausch, who has two remarkable lectures on YouTube:

The first one is a talk he did when he was diagnosed with cancer and told he's got no more than 6 months to live and is called, as you might expect, The Last Lecture (74 minutes):
The idea may seem depressing but this is one of the most positive and motivating things you can find on the internet.

The other one is about time management. Although it doesn't cover the subject extensively it's very well presented and practically-oriented (76 minutes):

I don't expect anyone seeing the two right now :-D but bookmark them for sure! If you don't use bookmarks - now's the time to start (or just write it on a sheet of paper, spray-paint it on the wall or whatever you do to store URLs)

A classic example of the difference time management makes is in the "case study" supporting the Parkinson's Law (which states that Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion). Parkinson presents the following interesting case:
Consider the routine of an old lady that wants to send a postcard to her daughter.
She makes herself some tea, carefully unfolds the newspaper on a table, checks the forecasts and ponders on the decision whether to take an umbrella or not for some time. Half an hour is gone already. Then she spends some more time getting ready to go out, does her hair and in just ten more minutes she knows which coat she'll be wearing.
She then goes to the post office and discusses several options that she considers suitable for the occasion with the sales assistant, forcing the girl to carefully hide her boredom behind the iron mask of politeness. On the way back the old lady buys some crackers because she'll need them for her next task - writing the wishes! It will take here at least an hour and she could never endure it without some more tea and crackers.

So... you get the idea, it takes her a whole day to send the damn postcard. Now imagine the city banker doing the same thing in a 15-minute lunch break. The savings from efficiency are just fascinating, and the power of procrastination even more so but more on this later.

So how does time management help to get more things done? Basically, the battle with your time is led on two main fronts - organizational and motivational.

I'll start with the less interesting one - the organizational front. It's about the how you schedule and prioritize your tasks and how efficiently you do each of them. Unfortunately there is no silver bullet in this aspect of time management (there is one for the motivational aspect so bear with me some more). You just need to analyse your activities and spot opportunities for improvement. Once you develop this mindset and attention to the efficiency of what you're doing these start to emerge. Some common examples include:
- Using two monitors if you work extensively on a computer, quite often while you're doing something you need to take a look at something else and the time lost in all the alt-tabs is just the start
- Getting a handsfree - while not do some routine tasks while on the phone with mum

The list expands quite naturally if you foster a results-driven approach, which is not some fancy buzzword as it may sound but is actually a rather simple technique:
- define goals
- make plans how to attain them
- follow the plan firmly, update if necessary
- win or fail
- draw conclusions

The last step is the the most often overlooked but it's very important. No matter if you win or lose, always look back and consider what you did wrong and what you did right.

However, the first step is arguably even more important and getting it right ventures into the psychological aspect of time management. Altering your mindset is your strongest tool in achieving more and it's surprisingly easy to do it!

Everything you do is committed, directly or indirectly, to some goal. Everyone has desires that keep them moving and guide their activities. Indeed, sometime iyou may feel that you're living day by day, but even then you're pursuing some goal, be it getting high all day, chasing girls around, frenzied dedication to gaming or even all at once. There is something that makes you feel fulfilled and you want to do it more and more. But sometimes it's way out of reach. Quite often, you need to go through hell to get it - do a boring job for years until you master it, behaving like society requires you, gradually turning from a rebel to a conformist or something even more frightening.

So, if you need to crawl trough five football fields of shit (bonus points if you get film reference) there's only one way to do it and preserve your sanity in the same time - to have a clear vision of your elevating goal all the time and exactly how each activity contributes to it.
You need to know how every single piece of shit you crawl through helps you get the things you desire. This will not only empower you to break crawling-on-shit speed records but will make you feel much better and more motivated.

Keeping the relevancy of your current task to your overall goal has one nice side effect - if no matter how hard you try you still fail to see how this particular task contributes to achieving your dreams, maybe it's just not worth doing? Sometimes it's hard, like cleaning you room and all this stuff you know you'll never need but somehow you feel attached to and don't want to throw away. But some of it has to go - that's an important part of time management, not only doing things right but doing the right things as well! I'm not talking about the things you really enjoy doing/having - just those that don't really matter but you normally won't bother to throw them out of your life.

The best part is that once you get this goal-oriented thinking it settles firmly in your mind and it's a self-reinforcing loop - the more steps you take towards your goal, the more conclusions you make from your experience, the more motivated you become to advance even further.

For a conclusion I think it's a good idea to mention the holy grail of time management - the todo list. It is somewhere between the psychological and organizational aspects because it not only helps make planning and execution more efficient but also reinforces the results-driven mindset.

There are lots of approaches to keeping a todo list and which one is most suitable is highly individual but there is one golden rule about your todo list - you must have it, and you must keep it easily accessible all the time. Apart from the obvious benefit that it keeps you from forgetting things it makes it easier to arrange and prioritize tasks and most importantly - it enables you to keep track of progress. If you fail to accomplish your plan for the day - it makes it it easier to analyse why. If you did everything reasonably well, then you know about how much you can handle and will be able to do more realistic plans in the future.

There is no best way to do a todo list - there are dedicated software applications, with reminders, tasks dependencies, etc. but something as simple as a text file or excel table can do the job equally well. Hell, even a sheet of paper can be used as a todo list; or if you fancy outdated data storage media so much you can even try carving your tasks in stone ;-)

OK, enough for today... after all this post is not directly related to my primary goals. As a matter of fact, I'm using it as a tool. I like writing and I'm quite enthusiastic about establishing this blog but I have other, much more pressing things on my hands. But both this time and the last, I had a number of things to finish before I post. Having this immediate reward for being productive really makes a difference :-D if there wasn't this incentive I guess I would still be lingering halfway here in terms of progress.

And for the most patient readers that are still with me - here's the other golden rule of time management - do the most unpleasant first! Once you eat the shit everything is sooo much easier.
And for the ones that read just the beginning and the end - I know you're cheating ;-) but don't worry, everyone does it. But seriously though, bookmark me and check it out some time ;-)

Monday, 19 April 2010

The MADness of nuclear disarmament

It's kind of natural to get agitated about the issue of nuclear arms. And I felt naturally inspired to write about it by a compelling set of circumstances. With an ambition to start a controversial geeky blog I could hardly pick a first topic better than a threat that could wipe out the whole world, or at least as we know it.
And the moment is ripe to bring this issue to attention. Russia and the US finally signed another nuclear arms reduction treaty -
At the same time, the evil genius Zach Weiner from SMBC also addressed the the problem, albeit in a humorous way:

At first sight, it may seem that the author has entertained the idea just for it's comic value but this has a much deeper meaning as will be revealed shortly.

My fascination with the prospect of nuclear war actually started earlier. It was thanks to this girl that I had the delight to spend some time with, that not only was gorgeous but also fell asleep during Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb for three consecutive nights, so guess what I did - watched it three times :-D it's not a film that you can stop and go asleep, no matter what. And it takes about three times to get both the bigger picture and all the little things.
As I understood later, Kubrick read 50 books about nuclear war to fully grasp the concept. I definitely haven't gone so far but still I got really excited about the issue and more importantly, I arrived at some conclusions that may now seam totally obvious but can be counter-intuitive at first.

The most important one is pretty simple. Nuclear disarmament is dangerous. Here is why:

At first one may wonder why do the US and Russia need so much nuclear weapons a make so much of a fuss about reducing it to 1500 warheads. After all this is enough to destroy the world many times over.
However, the nuclear peace worldwide during the cold war, and to a much lesser degree even now, was/is supported by the so called MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) strategy. The major nuclear powers (US and Russia) have nuclear arsenals advanced enough so that if one of the powers attacks first the other one has the capability to destroy the other entirely, this way discouraging the other to attack in the first place.

It's quite clear that the drama about the signing of the recent treaty is more of a diplomatic dance rather than serious strategic negotiations. But at some point one of the sides passes a critical point and longer possesses the coveted second strike capability. Some even think this has happened already, e.g. Keir Lieber and Daryl Press ("The Rise of U.S. Nuclear Primacy," Foreign Affairs, March/April 2006) stated that "the United States could carry out a nuclear first strike on Russia and would have a good chance of destroying every Russian bomber base, submarine, and ICBM." Not everyone agrees but one of the sides will pass the tipping point sooner or later, and I'm convinced that the Russian side is more likely to do so first, knowing the chronic mismanagement that plagues the state-sponsored soviet-turned-Russian enterprises.

Who passes the critical point first is not relevant - the big issue is the fragility of the balance should global tensions arise considerably to levels close to the ones from the cold war. And another big issue is that this strategy works only if in control of nuclear weapons are states with rational governments i.e. ones that are totally unlikely to undertake steps that will wipe their whole nations out.

And some more controversy for the ending - what should we do if a nation or organization that does not qualify as "rational" is about to acquire nuclear weapons? I'd rather say that we need to stop them at any cost; being convinced pacifist, I would support a conventional military strike, given that it's practical for preventing such an outcome and there are not other options.
There are so many things that can go wrong with a non-democratic state with nuclear capabilities. Corrupt governments may fail to prevent terrorists from obtaining a bomb; hastily developed nuclear programs can be error prone - after all in 1983 the world was this close to a nuclear war because of a false alarm from the Russian early warning system that leads to an automated response. The colonel that deviated and stopped the attack - Stanislav Petrov, is widely regarded as preventing a war.
And this was a well-funded system developed by a team of leading scientists. Now imagine what the dodgy North Korean nuclear technologies are capable of!