Will You Take $100 Now or $200 in a Month?

Last month, Professor Andrei Linde, who’s said to be the father of the theory of cosmic inflation, was surprised by his assistant with the ‘smoking gun’ evidence of the origins of the universe. After having waited over 30 years, the new proof (of gravitational waves from the Big Bang) supports his idea that the universe expanded extremely quickly after it was born.

Celebrating the breakthrough, Professor Linde made an interesting remark:

If this is true, this is a moment of understanding of nature, of such a magnitude that it just overwhelms, and let’s see, let just hope that is not a trick. I always live with this feeling, what if I’m tricked. What if I believe into this just because it is beautiful. It is helpful to have events like that. It’s really really helpful.

His comment resonates with me more due to my continuing thought about the importance of ‘measuring before perceiving‘. How will a theory ever become a discovery if we don’t measure the cause and effect? Without measuring, it will all be a hypothesis, an assumption.

For most people, it’s easy to fall into the trap of justifying their ideas, beliefs and decisions if they’re based on external influences (viz. mostly Herd mentality), or even instinct. While gut instincts may work at times, they don’t always entail the complete picture, or even the real picture, mostly because our brain is playing tricks and blinding us with cognitive biases more often than we realize.

If we don’t measure the past performance and current state, we can’t ascertain a baseline for comparison (which is an important motivational benchmark), and we can’t gather enough heuristics to make an informed decision about the future actions for improvement.

Most people want to make more money, but how often do they start that process by measuring their spending?

People who are busy (or think they are) want to save time and be more productive, but do they first assess their daily activities?

Everyone wants to lose weight, but do we regularly evaluate our body (weight, waist, BMI etc.), monitor exercise intensity or maintain a food diary?

This form of measurement, also known as personal analytics or self-tracking, is the first and most important step in understanding the reasons behind most pitfalls, whether they are personal, interpersonal, professional or even social. It may sound prophetic, even illuminating with a slight spiritual connotation, but data can talk and help see the bigger picture, only if we’re prepared to tune-in and observe the ordinarily hidden sentiments.

A recurring phenomenon I’ve noticed, common to most desires of change (be it in terms of wealth, time management, weight loss or something else), that adversely affects our ability to improve, is the concept of instant gratification. In simple terms, it’s the tendency for people to want an immediate pay-off rather than a larger gain later on. Most people would rather take $100 now than $200 in a month. Likewise, most people would rather buy something fancy and expensive now than something affordable on a special occasion, or, eat a chocolate cake now than on the weekend after a week of exercise and healthy diet. A general argument against it is that life is short, we work hard and we should enjoy the ‘small things’ now than wait; but growing levels of debt, obesity and lost productivity in today’s world indicates otherwise. The fact is that urban societies are becoming growingly and impulsively self-indulgent, without completely considering the long-term ramifications. ‘High life’ is becoming the new Pied Piper for many.

In his counter-intuitive and insightful book, ‘Wait: The Art and Science of Delay’, author Frank Partnoy weaves together findings from hundreds of scientific studies and interviews with wide-ranging experts to craft a picture of effective decision-making that runs counter to our brutally fast-paced and complex world.

Even as technology exerts new pressures to speed up our lives, it turns out that the choices we make –– unconsciously and consciously, in time frames varying from milliseconds to years –– benefit profoundly from delay. Taking control of time and slowing down our responses yields better results in almost every arena of life … even when time seems to be of the essence.

Having said that, if we constantly delay a pleasure, we miss the entire point of delayed gratification.

Footnote: During the past few months, I’ve been self-tracking various aspects of my life and work. It may be too early to call it a breakthrough, but it has resulted in better understanding, resultant changes and some clear signs of improvement. I’ve started using a few unobtrusive, yet insightful, analytical tools in areas like time tracking (with RescueTime), personal finance (with Pocketbook) and cash flow/financial forecasting (with an Excel spreadsheet based on ZetaBee Cash Flow). I’ve also been looking for a simple and intuitive daily goals & mood tracker mobile app (something like Habit List or Strides, but for Android, so drop a message if you know one. Updated 24 August: using Trackthisforme and also found Habit Domino).

The Negative Power of Positive Thinking

Lately, I’ve been focusing on attaining more discipline in my professional life as a startup founder. It had become apparent to me that I needed to step up and make it happen. Striving for it has raised an interesting question in my mind — could positive thinking be delusional at times, and consequently counter-productive?

Glass is half empty or half full, or always fullYou see, a positive mindset can often lead to a mirage, a state of daydreaming that fools us into believing that we are self-aware and in complete control. Most people have to confront sloth, as I did too, due to the comfort zone nested by immoderate hopefulness.

For centuries cognition has tricked on humans into believing their actions are completely thought-out and preplanned. Modern psychology says otherwise. Much of human behaviour is still rooted and influenced by our “old brain,” the part of our mind controlling the survival instincts that kept our ancestors alive. This subconscious stimulus (optimism bias, updated 9 Oct) keeps us going, but the downside is that hopefulness can very easily make us less determined. Laziness can give way to lack of focus and procrastination, and before we realize it our positive thoughts would silently slide plans into dormancy.

A recent opinion piece in the New York Times also reflected on this phenomenon:

What if all this positivity is part of the problem? What if we’re trying too hard to think positive and might do better to reconsider our relationship to “negative” emotions and situations?

..visualizing a successful outcome, under certain conditions, can make people less likely to achieve it.

Ancient philosophers and spiritual teachers understood the need to balance the positive with the negative, optimism with pessimism, a striving for success and security with an openness to failure and uncertainty. The Stoics recommended “the premeditation of evils,” or deliberately visualizing the worst-case scenario. This tends to reduce anxiety about the future: when you soberly picture how badly things could go in reality, you usually conclude that you could cope. Besides, they noted, imagining that you might lose the relationships and possessions you currently enjoy increases your gratitude for having them now. Positive thinking, by contrast, always leans into the future, ignoring present pleasures.

Positive affirmation should be more like an expression of joy and less like a stressful effort to stamp out any trace of negativity, the article expresses rightfully. It’s a valid measure, which should apply to our work (workplaces) as much as it applies to our lives. Many businesses, particularly the bigger ones, ruthlessly reinforce optimism with beliefs like “stay upbeat at all times” or “quick wins for big growth”, more so at times of a slow-down or recession. The prevailing financial crisis in many ways is an outcome of such over-optimism, as one other article speculates:

No one was psychologically prepared for hard times when they hit, because, according to the tenets of positive thinking, even to think of trouble is to bring it on.

A common pitfall occurs when people automatically connect positive thinking with happiness, writes a people-management thinker:

And so it is in the workplace, where positive employees are lauded and the negative are derided. Positive employees are seen as team players but negative workers are condemned as outcasts. The consequence is that realistic and rational people, usually the negative thinkers, remain unheard.

You see this happening in the way Human Resources departments reframe language to make it sound more positive. ‘Negative feedback’ has become ‘areas for improvement’. A ‘demotion’ has become ‘a new opportunity’. ‘Problems’ have become ‘challenges’.

So if optimism is as myopic and hazardous for us as pessimism and if neither is superior, then what could be a more effective mindset?

Maybe realism is one such alternative — the ability to be prepared for the worst, but still believe for the best to occur. Just like many successful businesses, people can rationally get it right by setting practically high goals, putting contingency plans in place and having gratitude for everything that creates (a sense of) abundance in their life & work.

Even my 4 year old daughter is wise to learn that “you get what you get, you don’t get upset.” As for her wishful thinking to feast on dessert each night, she is learning to be thankful for having that privilege and also to stay prepared for not receiving it each night.

How Can Hackers Help In The Fight Against Cancer?

When 1 in 3 humans are affected by a disease, it needs attention and help from all corners. There are many types of cancers, so it’s hard to say if we’ll ever be able to completely cure cancer. But prevention, early detection and proper care are crucial in cancer diagnosis and its treatment.

As David Agus, a cancer doctor, would like to say:

In health care today, we spend most of the dollars — in terms of treating disease — in the last two years of a person’s life.

I pondered on it one evening and thought I’d find out about some “programmable” possibilities related to cancer research for hackers from the non-scientific community, besides the obvious means of help like donations (both charity and research), awareness drives and volunteering.

I got in touch with Jon Kiddy, a software engineer who works at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. Jon kindly shared his views and pointed out that the current state of cancer research can be summed up in one of Daniel Markham’s excellent posts. After having read the book on the subject called “The Emperor of All Maladies”, Daniel went on to state the general problem with cancer research is that the US healthcare isn’t setup to support individualized care and treatment, which is currently undergoing the most intensive scrutiny. A commentor on Hacker News responded to Daniel’s post with this inspiring message:

You want to fix cancer, don’t wait for the scientists. They are hobbled by regulation. Be an engineer: get out there and make one of the viable solutions work, and make it work outside the US.

What started as modest self-education, has led me to several impactful ways in helping with cancer research:

1. Distributed Computing Projects – In 2003, with grid computing, in less than three months scientists identified 44 potential treatments to fight the deadly smallpox disease. Without the grid, the work would have taken more than one year to complete. Participating in a distributed computing project is the easiest way to get involved with cancer research.

You can donate your unused computer resources to research projects like Help Conquer Cancer, Help Fight Childhood Cancer, Rosetta@home, Folding@home.

Grid computing works by splitting complex computations into small pieces that can be processed simultaneously on individual public nodes, there-by reducing research time and making the technology infrastructure cost-effective.

2. Build on “Big Data” – Massive amounts of raw data is available for analysis in cancer research. As Jon wrote back to me:

The problem comes when there is such a large amount of data to process in a field where each individual’s treatment is usually uniquely suited only to them. Hadoop/Hbase is in use by The Cancer Genome Atlas to make some of this process more bearable. Their datasets are invaluable.

The combination of Apache Hadoop (for distributed computing), HBase (distributed database), MapReduce (for distributed computing on large datasets on clusters of computers), R Project (for statistical computing), and Gephi (for visualization and exploration) changes the way we think about analysis of Big Data.

Data analysis, data visualization and even Web crawler technology are all important in cancer research, for processing highly distributable problems across huge datasets using a large number of computers.

Last year, the Cloudera Data Science Team wrote about some of their work with Hadoop:

Instead of focusing on a handful of outcomes, we can process all of the events in the data set at the same time. We can try out hundreds of different strategies for cleaning records, stratifying observations into clusters, and scoring drug-reaction tuples, run everything in parallel, and analyze the data at a fraction of the cost of a traditional supercomputer. We can render the results of our analyses using visualization tools that can be used by domain experts to explore relationships within our data that they might never have thought to look for. By dramatically reducing the costs of exploration and experimentation, we foster an environment that enables innovation and discovery.

3. Apps and Tools – Personal profiling and monitoring could be another area of focus for developers interested in cancer research or general health-related diagnosis.

There are lots of possibilities for personal solutions that aid in collective science.

“In lieu of spending a decade in training to become an oncologist, I have been able to put my skills to practical use.”, Jon says about the impact he’s making.

I really wish for many more technology enthusiasts to devote their time, skills and efforts in the fight against cancer. In what other ways can we help? Do share your comments and views.