what to do in a changing world

Back when I was a software engineer at Google, Vint Cerf came by our office to give a talk about the future of the internet. Before you ask me “who that?”, let me tell you. It is a safe bet that, unbeknownst to you, your life was significantly affected by this man. His invention of the TCP, a reliable protocol that defines how data is sent from one node to another on the internet, has undoubtedly changed the way you live. That is so because a reliable internet has changed the fabric of society and continues to do so.

Today, most people take for granted the existence of the internet and how well it works. But let us remind ourselves that the technology is very new. Just the fact that Cerf, or “The Father of the Internet”, is still alive is a reminder of the massive change that our world has gone through in a single generation. The internet is so new that I didn’t even know of its existence for the first ten years of my life, and I didn’t even consider to study about it when I was choosing my college major. At the time, I hadn’t yet realized that it was an important topic to be knowledgeable about. Heck the internet is so new that I haven’t installed internet in my home yet! But I’m told that I’m one of the last people to do so in this country. Despite its newness, the societal forces of my post-college years pushed me toward learning about it and working with it, and little did I know, I ended up making a career out of it.

I was thinking about this quickly-changing society the other day when my fiancĂ©e, a computer science researcher, was explaining to me the Lamport timestamp algorithm by Leslie Lamport. It is a fascinating algorithm to say the least, but what hit me more is the fact that he is still alive. It turns out that Lamport, like Cerf, is another person who has affected all of our lives even if we don’t know it.

The systems that lie at the heart of the internet services we use today are “distributed”, meaning that they are made up of many components that exist in different places (and often in different continents) that behave as one system, and such a system must somehow order the events happening at different places at different times within the system.

A distributed system is required because you simply cannot have one server taking all requests and one server storing all the data. A modern system handles an incredible amount of data (think about photos on Instagram or videos on YouTube you interact with daily, but multiplied by the number of global users) moving from one place to another, and it is simply impossible to store all that in a single database or to take in requests for the data from millions of users simultaneously with a single server. Even if there were a server big enough to do that, a single server represents a single point of failure and a failure is unacceptable considering that these systems hold most of our financial assets among other things.

Delving into the technical details of the inner-workings of specific services we use today is not the purpose of my post today, but just to touch the surface of the challenges of implementing a distributed system, consider that the laws of nature, or more specifically, the limitation in the speed of light, forbids the components of a distributed system from synchronizing their clocks. Still, for the system to work, it must somehow order the events occurring in various components. Lamport’s algorithm is the building block with which a system accomplishes this ordering.

The fact that Lamport is still alive reminded me of the pace of change in the world that we are seeing today. Such fast changes have never been experienced by past human societies. This is the fastest we have ever moved as a species, so let’s take a moment to appreciate that. The world in 2020 is significantly different from what it was in 2010, the year I finished college. The fact that I have worked for eight different employers since is a testament to that, and I’m not even including all the freelance jobs I do now in music and teaching. This pace is a miracle if seen from a historical perspective considering that the vast majority of human history went like this: “Be born, die a few decades later, and the way the world works has not changed at all from the day of your birth to the day of your death.” Only recently does such a story not hold true anymore. And nobody even knows what 2030 will be like.

When I told a student of mine, who had just entered high school, that there is a high chance that he will be working a job that doesn’t exist yet, he asked me, “what should I be studying?” My honest answer to him was, “it doesn’t matter”.

In all honesty, your field of study does not matter all that much. Whatever specific domain knowledge you gain for a career that exists today will be outdated in 10 years, other than the fundamentals like reading and mathematics (so yes, be strong in those at the very least).

More importantly, whatever you are doing now, do it extremely well. This applies to everybody. I don’t care if you are a student, a parent, a barista, a surgeon, or a chief economist of a central bank of a country. Do your job well. If you don’t want to and you absolutely cannot get yourself to put in the work, don’t be afraid to switch fields. Pick something that you are at least driven to be good, and actually become good. I mean this advice seriously, and I mean it to be applied even for hobbies and recreational activities. Whether you are gardening, making YouTube videos, or playing the guitar, do them well. Because to do anything well requires that you build up your foundation, and that foundation will undoubtedly spring forward you in your future endeavors, whatever those foundations and endeavors happen to be in. You may not see the connections now, but you sure will in the future, looking back. Also, by doing things well, you will develop the inherent confidence that you can accomplish things, because you will have gone through the process of self-improvement already.

This importance of having that kind of confidence cannot be emphasized enough. When life throws a curveball at you and you must adjust course, the first step is acknowledging that you can indeed do so. Many self-help books like to claim that you can develop confidence in a matter of hours, and claiming as such must be helping with their book sales, but that is a flawed and deceptive message. True confidence takes time. It only comes when you actually are good. So become good.

As society gets more complex, the number of ways in which a person can live a productive life has increased as well. It is a natural byproduct of a trade-based economy in which we trade our skills for everything else we need in life, those other things being produced by other people with skills that you don’t have. Today, there are as many ways to live a fulfilling life as there are people on the planet.

For me, when I look back at my life so far, the foundational knowledge I have built up in mathematics and physics has been helpful. Because knowledge is most efficiently built up like a pyramid from the bottom up, shifting gears to a diverse array of possibilities is easier with a stronger foundation. For example, some of my recent pursuits in fields such as economics and artificial neural networks have been significantly accelerated because I had studied calculus extensively in the past. I would have never imagined this when I was doing calculus. Even though I applied calculus for years to the field of Newtonian mechanics, I had no idea that it could be applied to so many other things. I doubt that Newton, the inventor of calculus, knew either.

Another skill that does not get talked about often is the “confidence to learn difficult things.” Maybe that doesn’t really count as a skill, but it sure matters. So many people, when faced with a challenge, give up because they feel that they do not have what it takes to learn, and settle for what is, even when they know that they are not satisfied in their current situations. That’s really too bad, because we actually all have the power to change ourselves and our situations if it weren’t for our self-limiting beliefs. Sure it may take you more work than another person because of factors like your lack of experiences or innate abilities, but the words “hard” and “impossible” are not to be confused. They do not overlap.

It is certain that the world will continue to change, and you may need to adjust by learning new things. It it hasn’t hit you yet, expect that it will soon. A natural question is then, how do you develop the confidence that you can learn? Again, there is no one right answer here. For me, much of my confidence comes from music, the one constant in my life. Music’s purpose is in its beauty, but there are also positive side effects of having devoted my life to music that I didn’t even imagine while putting in the hours of practice day in and day out. I simply wanted to make good music, but music has taught me much more than how to make music. The side effects are too many to mention here, but they basically boil down to the fact that music is extremely difficult to do well. As such, any other challenge that come up in my life all just seem so easy to me in comparison. I don’t even think twice about whether or not I will be able to overcome it.

If you find yourself asking “Can I do this?”, that’s a silly question. It’s not even worth discussing. Of course you can.

Celebrating Humanity

I am not one to pay too close attention to the news. Some of my academically-inclined friends accuse me of not trying hard enough to stay informed about the world, and while they certainly have a point, I also think that for an average guy like me, paying too much attention to the news gives me a very false view of the world because of the biases that exist in the news industry.

But I have been noticing an interesting trend about the recent Ebola outbreak in Congo which was declared over this week.

In a nutshell, the trend is this:

  1. Humans have dealt with this recent outbreak so-freaking-amazingly well compared to the previous Ebola outbreak (2014-2016) in West Africa.
  2. News coverage of the topic was way down compared to the 2014 outbreak.

That’s not surprising given that news tend to have a negative bias, but can we all take a moment to celebrate the human progress?

The death toll of the previous outbreak was over 11,000 people. This time it was less than 30. Stuff like that don’t happen by chance or luck. Our progress is a result of collaboration between societies and organizations. We have dealt with ebola because we have the knowledge and technology to do so, and we have made it a priority to do so, from governments funding and expediting the ebola vaccine research and clinical trials, to reacting quickly to visit even the most remote of villages to administer the virus on first sign of an outbreak.

Of course, fighting the ebola virus isn’t the only area in which we have made a significant improvement.

Extreme poverty in the world (measured by income adjusted for inflation) has diminished to a half of what it was 20 years ago. It’s hard to notice this for those of us who live in the United States, because $2/day and $4/day both seem like extreme poverty to us, but this is a significant improvement in the quality of lives of people all over the world.

Casualties from war and battles have declined dramatically. During the World War II, the death toll was over 200 per every 100,000 people. That number is just 1 today, a whopping 99.5% decline.

Less children are working. Crime is decreasing. More girls are getting educated. Less people are enslaved. Nuclear weapons are getting disarmed. Deaths from natural disaster is declining. Planes are crashing less. We are harvesting more food per area of farmland. Share of people living in an elected democracy is increasing. More kids are getting immunized. Literacy rate is as high as it ever was.

Does that mean that we’ve solved every problem? No. But are we on the right track? Absolutely. I cringe when my pastor would make a commentary on something he saw on the news and say something like “in times like these, we need the love of Jesus more than ever.”

Precisely what does he mean when he says “in times like these?” The data is overwhelming. Now is the best time we have ever lived in, and it will be even better tomorrow. Humans collectively have realized the power to solve problems that were impossible to solve in the past. With that same power also comes the power to destruct just the same, but that is not the direction we have decided to move in. Data does not lie. Together, we’ve chosen to improve the world. That gives me hope.